Presenting….ta da!....the famous Terracotta Army of Xi’an, China. We were thrilled to be able to visit China in March 2016 and see the entire Terracotta Army in one place. We had known about it for years, of course, and had attended museum exhibitions with several of the actual warriors in Southern California, but they tended to have no more than a dozen statues and some artifacts. So this was the opportunity of a lifetime.
The City of Xi’an has been inhabited for over 3,000 years, and the Terracotta Army was fabricated as funerary art upon the death of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, in 210 BC. The army was intended to protect him in the afterlife. The find was discovered in March 1974 by farmers digging a well for water. People in the area had found pieces of terracotta and roofing tiles from the emperor’s grave for centuries, but nobody knew that these fabulous statues were waiting to be discovered under 16 feet of soil, two millennia later. The majority of the figures consist of soldiers of different heights depending on their ranks; horses; and chariots. Since the entire area is not yet fully excavated, it is estimated that the three largest pits contain approximately 8,000 warriors, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses. There are also statues of officials, strongmen, acrobats, and musicians.
The museum structure, as seen in several photos, was constructed around the pits. It was found that the pits had been plundered several times over 2,000 years. The first archaeologist on the scene became the army’s protector, and he took home fragments to begin to reassemble some of the soldiers. Some pieces were as small as a fingernail.
Keep in mind as you look at the photos that out of the hundreds of soldiers and horses that you see, only one was found intact. Yes, that’s right, all of those you see in the pits were reassembled out of tiny pieces over the last 46 years. If you look at the eighth photo you will see more clearly what they had to work with: smashed pieces of statues, only partially intact. After that photo, however, are some specimens in plexiglass cases so visitors can view them a little closer. The detail is simply amazing, and originally they were painted in gorgeous, vibrant colors, but that had all chipped off, of course, when exposed to Xi’an’s dry air. It took only four minutes to do so!
The archaeologists discovered that the heads of the warriors were made from 10 different molds, with clay used to customize their features so that each appears unique. The figures are life-sized and held actual weapons, increasing their realism. However, their weapons were either stolen soon after burial, or have rotted away over the centuries. Despite this, over 40,000 bronze items of weaponry were found, including swords, scimitars, spears, lances, shields, and crossbows. Most of the recovered items are arrowheads, found in bundles of 100, and the alkaline soil protected them from any form of decay over 2,200 years.
You can see in the photos that the soldiers were buried in battle formation in the pits, which were originally constructed to resemble palace hallways. Looking at the closeups in the cases, it is hard to tell that they were reconstructed from hundreds of fragments, isn’t it? If you look closely at the warriors’ hands, you will notice that each is meant to be holding a weapon, as they are poised to wrap their hands around an object. And can you guess which of them was the only one of 8,000 to be found intact? It is the figure in the next-to-last photo. The last photo is the entrance to the museum, a fountain with galloping horses to greet visitors. Virtually any tour of China includes a visit to Xi’an, and we highly recommend seeing these treasures in their original setting. Breathtaking.