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The 1974 discovery of buried vaults at Xi'an filled with thousands of terra cotta warriors stunned the world. (O. Louis Mazzatenta / NGS Image Collection)

Terra Cotta Soldiers on the March

A traveling exhibition of China's terra cotta warriors sheds new light on the ruler whose tomb they guarded

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In March 1974, a group of peasants digging a well in drought-parched Shaanxi province in northwest China unearthed fragments of a clay figure—the first evidence of what would turn out to be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of modern times. Near the unexcavated tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi—who had proclaimed himself first emperor of China in 221 B.C.—lay an extraordinary underground treasure: an entire army of life-size terra cotta soldiers and horses, interred for more than 2,000 years.

The site, where Qin Shi Huangdi's ancient capital of Xianyang once stood, lies a half-hour drive from traffic-clogged Xi'an (pop. 8.5 million). It is a dry, scrubby land planted in persimmon and pomegranate—bitterly cold in winter and scorching hot in summer—marked by dun-colored hills pocked with caves. But hotels and a roadside souvenir emporium selling five-foot-tall pottery figures suggest that something other than fruit cultivation is going on here.

Over the past 35 years, archaeologists have located some 600 pits, a complex of underground vaults as yet largely unexcavated, across a 22-square-mile area. Some are hard to get to, but three major pits are easily accessible, enclosed inside the four-acre Museum of the Terracotta Army, constructed around the discovery site and opened in 1979. In one pit, long columns of warriors, reassembled from broken pieces, stand in formation.With their topknots or caps, their tunics or armored vests, their goatees or close-cropped beards, the soldiers exhibit an astonishing individuality. A second pit inside the museum demonstrates how they appeared when they were found: some stand upright, buried to their shoulders in soil, while others lie toppled on their backs, alongside fallen and cracked clay horses. The site ranks with the Great Wall and Beijing's Forbidden City as one of the premier tourist attractions within China.

For those unable to make the journey to Xi'an, some of the choicest specimens unearthed there form the centerpiece of two successive traveling exhibitions that survey the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi (221 B.C.-210 B.C.). "The First Emperor," organized by the British Museum, debuted in London before moving to the High Museum in Atlanta. A second show, "Terra Cotta Warriors," then opened at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. It is now at the Houston Museum of Natural Science through October 18, and then moves to the National Geographic Society Museum in Washington, D.C. for display from November 19 to March 31, 2010.

In addition to showcasing recent finds, the exhibitions feature the largest collection of terra cotta figures ever to leave China. The statuary includes nine soldiers arranged in battle formation (armored officers, infantrymen, and standing and kneeling archers), as well as a terra cotta horse. Another highlight is a pair of intricately detailed, ten-foot-long bronze chariots, each drawn by four bronze horses. (Too fragile to be transported, the chariots are represented by replicas.) The artifacts offer a glimpse of the treasures that attract visitors from around the world to the Xi'an museum site, where 1,900 of an estimated 7,000 warriors have been disinterred so far.

The stupendous find at first seemed to reinforce conventional thinking—that the first emperor had been a relentless warmonger who cared only for military might. As archaeologists have learned during the past decade, however, that assessment was incomplete. Qin Shi Huangdi may have conquered China with his army, but he held it together with a civil administration system that endured for centuries. Among other accomplishments, the emperor standardized weights and measures and introduced a uniform writing script.

Recent digs have revealed that in addition to the clay soldiers, Qin Shi Huangdi's underground realm, presumably a facsimile of the court that surrounded him during his lifetime, is also populated by delightfully realistic waterfowl, crafted from bronze and serenaded by terra cotta musicians. The emperor's clay retinue includes terra cotta officials and even troupes of acrobats, slightly smaller than the soldiers but created with the same methods. "We find the underground pits are an imitation of the real organization in the Qin dynasty," says Duan Qingbo, head of the excavation team at the Shaanxi Provincial Research Institute for Archaeology. "People thought when the emperor died, he took just a lot of pottery army soldiers with him. Now they realize he took a whole political system with him."

Qin Shi Huangdi decreed a mass-production approach; artisans turned out figures almost like cars on an assembly line. Clay, unlike bronze, lends itself to quick and cheap fabrication. Workers built bodies, then customized them with heads, hats, shoes, mustaches, ears and so on, made in small molds. Some of the figures appear so strikingly individual they seem modeled on real people, though that is unlikely. "These probably weren't portraits in the Western sense," says Hiromi Kinoshita, who helped curate the exhibition at the British Museum. Instead, they may have been aggregate portraits: the ceramicists, says Kinoshita, "could have been told that you need to represent all the different types of people who come from different regions of China."

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