You Gotta Terra Cotta

The husband and I spent this last weekend up in the greater Seattle area.  Saturday evening we went to Chateau St. Michelle for our annual summer concert.  This year? Lyle Lovett.  Always a good show.  On Sunday we headed over the lake to the Pacific Science Center to experience the Terra cotta Warrior exhibit.  I’m so very glad we did.

The exhibit is made up figures from the Terra cotta Army as well as artifacts from the First Imperial Dynasty of China.

Note:  you’ll notice the hands in all of the photos are posed.  When they were first put into the pits it’s likely that they held weapons reflecting their role (archer, infantry, cavalry, etc).


In 1974 a well was being dug outside the city of Xi’an, China.  The diggers unearthed part of a clay soldier.  They reported the finding to the authorities and archaeologists were brought in to investigate.  It was an unbelievable find.  Thousands of clay soldiers, the army Qin Shi Huang Di had built to accompany him in the afterlife.

Emperor Qin has an impressive history.  He is credited with unifying China and served as its first emperor from 221-207 BC.  Under his hand, China experienced great advances in politics, economy and culture, including the introduction of a standard written script, a system of canals and roads, advances in metallurgy, standardized weights and measures and large-scale public works projects like the early Great Wall.


Shortly after becoming Emperor, Qin began work on the massive mausoleum complex, much of which remains buried to this day.  In fact, Qin’s actual tomb remains buried under a massive pyramid mound.  Why hasn’t it been excavated?  Well, we were told it was for a couple of reasons:  first, the Chinese government is hesitant to take on such a massive undertaking without assurances that the technology exists to preserve all of the contents.  Second, soil of the mount has been tested and contains high level of mercury. It’s rumored that Qin actually ingested mercury, thinking that it may make him immortal.  There have also been stories that rivers of mercury were built within the tomb.  No matter the source, as we all know, high levels of mercury aren’t healthy for anyone.  So, it remains undisturbed.

So far, archaeologists have uncovered a 20-square-mile compound, including some 8,000 terra cotta soldiers, along with numerous horses and chariots, remains of a palace, offices, store houses and stables. In addition to the large pit containing the 6,000 soldiers, a second pit was found with cavalry and infantry units and a third containing high-ranking officers and chariots.


Though photos of the warriors show the massive tomb structure filled with standing warriors, the reality is that none of them were intact when initially unearthed.  Time, earthquake, flood..all had taken their toll.  Meticulous preservation has brought them close to their previous glory, though at the time they were buried they were vividly painted.

The warriors were actually created using molds and an early assembly-line-type construction. Though only eight molds were used to shape their heads, distinctive surface features were added with clay after assembly. As a result, each terra cotta soldier appears to be unique in its facial features, revealing a high level of craftsmanship and artistry.

During excavation of the pits containing the Terra Cotta Warriors, archaeologists have found some 40,000 bronze weapons, including battle axes, crossbows, arrowheads and spears.

Oh, and did I mention that the burial complex wasn’t even finished?  The emperor died before that could happen.  One of the four pits that have been excavated was actually empty, a testament to unfinished business.


Laborers used to build the complex and their contents lived on site.  Some burial plots have been unearthed, as well as items used for everyday living by these workers.  They lived hard, extraordinarily labor-intensive lives.  Some of the bones that have been found have also shown evidence of abuse and/or torture.  Those that built the inter-sanctum for the Emperor were reported to have been murdered upon it’s completion so that they could not share about the richness within.

Here are a few final facts, displayed on banners at the end of the exhibit.  If you’re semi-local and have an opportunity to see the exhibit before it leaves, I highly recommend that you do so.  It’s impressive and hugely educational.  The exhibit will move from Seattle to Philadelphia this fall, and from there it will return to China.

At least 8000 figures discovered in the pits.

Almost 2000 figures excavated to date.

2.4 millions pounds of clay used to create the figures.

More than 40,000 weapons made of bronze.

600 pits uncovered in the burial complex.

22 square mile burial site.

Buried more than 2200 years underground.

40 years of excavation and discovery.

Figures weigh 300 pounds on average.

Over 700,000 laborers to build the site.



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