A trip to see the Terracotta Warriors

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to travel all the way to China to see these guys, but luckily, for the first time in 10 years the Terracotta Army came back to the UK for an exhibition at the World Museum in Liverpool. I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of this museum until I came across this exhibition being advertised, but couldn’t wait to visit!

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You’ll learn so much from this exhibition, it is so interesting!

The story starts about 600 years before the Qin people became a powerful Empire, when they occupied a small region on the north-west border of China and served the Zhou kings by breeding and training horses. When the Zhou royal family sets up a new capital in the East, in around 771 BC, establishing the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, the Qin are left behind to guard the western border against nomadic tribes.

The Qin state gradually grows in power and prosperity through political alliances, social changes and economic and technological advances. One of the most radical changes was the forming of a new government based on a clearly defined set of laws and a strict philosophy. People were rewarded for good behaviour and punished for wrong doing, officials were promoted for their achievements and not just because they came from noble families. This was known as the Legalist philosophy.

With a strong economy and a stable government, the rulers of the Qin state are able to expand their territory.

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Ying Zheng was only 13 years old when he became king of the Qin state in 246 BC. With the Prime Minister and his mothers support, the young king administers the state from his capital at Xianyang close to modern Xi’an in north-west China. At the age of 22, he takes full control of the government and over the next decade, with massive armies, he conquers the neighbouring six kingdoms and becomes the first ruler to unify China in 221 BC.

As he proclaims himself First Emperor of China, Ying Zheng invents a new title for himself, becoming Qin Shi Huang, the Great August First Emperor of Qin. He also claims the “Mandate of Heaven”. According to this ancient concept there can be only one supreme ruler whose authority comes from the gods.

To reinforce his divine nature, the Emperor travels around his Empire. He erects monuments on sacred mountains to proclaim his achievements, declaring himself ruler of the entire universe. His reputation as a cruel and ruthless tyrant may explain why there were several assassination attempts on his life. During his lifetime, the Emperor gathers many concubines and has numerous children, one of whom succeeds him when he dies unexpectedly at the age of 49.

Influenced by the Legalist philosophy of his ancestors, Qin Shi Huang believes in the absolute rule of law. This means that everything in his new Empire is strictly controlled. People who behave well are richly rewarded but those who behave badly receive severe punishments. The Emperor puts in place a new centralised system of government. He removes regional rulers and divides his newly conquered territories into 36 provinces, each managed by a governor,  military commander and a superintendent. He also orders 120,000 noble families to move from the states that he has conquered to his capital at Xianyang to ensure their loyalty. He creates a standard system of weights, measures and coinage, introduces an official script and imposes heavy taxation. This means that the same political and economic system is used across the Empire, improving communication, administration and trade. Even the wheel axle of chariots and carts is standardised so that travellers can use any road.

As the Emperor grows in power, he is obsessed with the desire to become immortal. He orders his alchemists to make potions to extend his life, some of which contain mercury. During his life, he organises expeditions to the East China Sea in search of the mythical “Islands of the Immortals”. It is here that the Emperor hopes to find herbs and plants which will bring him immortality. There is a story that the Emperor sends his most trusted magician Xu Fu on an expedition with 3,000 boys and girls, but sadly they never return. Despite his attempts to live forever, the Emperor dies unexpectedly in 210 BC, most likely from mercury poisoning, strangely enough!

The building of Ying Zheng’s tomb commences in 246 BC soon after he comes king of Qin at just 13 years of age. The burial site lies 35 kilometres east of Xi’an, the modern capital of Shaanxi Province. It faces south with mountains behind and the Wei River to the front, and was already the burial site of the Qin kings.

More than 700,000 men are brought from all corners of the Empire to work on the project. The scale of the tomb complex expands massively when Ying Zheng becomes First Emperor of China in 221 BC. The construction lasts nearly 40 years and continues even after his death.

The burial site is designed like a city for the afterlife, with the Emperor’s mausoleum in the centre surrounded by palaces, living quarters, offices, ritual buildings and stables, all enclosed within defensive walls, watch towers and gates. Apart from the mausoleum, very little is now visible above ground.

People believed that a life similar to that on earth awaited them in death, so the deceased were buried with the things they needed for the next world. Servants, warriors, concubines and even horses followed their lord to the grave. Rulers were buried with all the luxuries of life. Their tombs were monumental and designed to recreate the world they had lived in.

Following his death in 210 BC at the age of 49, the Emperor is buried in his mausoleum. By decree of his son, the Emperor’s childless concubines are killed and buried with him. Historical documents record that “thousands of officials were killed and thousands of craftsmen were buried alive… to keep the tomb a secret”.

Believe it or not, these amazing figures went undiscovered until 29th March 1974 and are one of the most extraordinary finds ever made! They were discovered by local farmers in Lintong District, Xi’an when they were digging a water well approximately 1.5km east of the emperors tomb. The discovery resulted in Chinese archaeologists being brought in to investigate and the finding of the largest pottery figurine group ever found in China. A museum complex has now been constructed over the area.

Over the last 40 years, archeological investigations have revealed three underground pits covering an area of 22,000 square metres housing an estimated 8,000 life-size warriors and horses. Each pit originally covered with wooden planks, bamboo mats and earth which over time have collapsed onto the warriors. Found in hundreds of fragments, the sculptures have to be painstakingly pieced together.

It is remarkable that these figures were not mentioned by the first Chinese historian Sima Qian when he described the Emperor’s burial site over 100 years later. The figures are a great unsolved mystery but it is believed they are guarding the Emperor in the afterlife. They are one of the most extraordinary archaeological discoveries of all time. Warrior figures from other Chinese burials have been found, but nothing compares to the scale and realism of the First Emperor’s terracotta army.

The figures are life sized and vary in height, uniform and hairstyle depending on what their roles in the army were (the tallest sculptures are the generals). Although the face of each warrior looks different, it is believed that 10 basic face shapes have been used and then clay added afterwards to provide individual facial features. The figures are of armoured warriors, unarmored infantrymen, cavalrymen (wearing a pillbox hat), helmeted drivers of chariots with armour protection, spear-carrying charioteers, armoured kneeling archers, unarmored standing archers, generals and other lower-ranking officers.

With regards to their uniform, some wear shin pads, they may have either long or short trousers on some of which are padded, and the body armours vary dependant on rank, function, and position in formation. There’re also terracotta horses placed among the warrior figures.

Most of the figures originally held real weapons such as spears, swords or crossbows. Unfortunately, most of the original weapons were looted shortly after the creation of the army, or have rotted away over time. Still, some weapons such as swords, spears, lances, battle-axes, shields and crossbows have been found in the pits.  Over 40,000 bronze items of weaponry have been recovered, most of them arrowheads which were usually found in bundles of 100. Some of the swords carry inscriptions of their date of manufacture between 245 and 228 BCE which suggests they were used as weapons before they were buried with the army.

The figures were originally painted with bright colours – pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white and lilac – which added to the impression that each figure was individual. When the army were excavated, their painted surface began to fade and peel off due to their exposure to the sunlight, air and moisture. The lacquer which covers the paint curls and flakes off within about 15 seconds of being exposed to dry air, so think how much damage could be done if they were left exposed for several hours!

The Emperor’s mausoleum and the terracotta warrior pits are part of a much larger burial site covering an area of 56 square kilometres. This makes it the biggest burial site on earth. It is nearly 200 times bigger than the valley of the Kings in Egypt. In 1987 the First Emperor’s mausoleum was given UNESCO World Heritage status.

It was estimated that the three pits which contained the army held more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses. The majority of these remain buried in the pits near to Qin Shi Huang mausoleum.

Here are some of the incredible warriors you can see as part of the exhibition;

Horse Keeper

This horse keeper was excavated in 1995 and is one of 11 terracotta horse keepers discovered near the First Emperor’s Mausoleum. The pit in which the figures were found was thought to represent the royal stables. The horse keepers were buried with 12 real horses which were found in coffins.

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Cavalry Horse

No animal has shaped the history of China like the horse. The horse was first domesticated around 6,500 years ago in the grasslands of Central Europe and Asia and it became a symbol of power, wealth and status for the Chinese. Horses were so precious to the great rulers of China that they were buried with them for the afterlife. The Qin Kings grew in influence and wealth by breeding and training horses for the rulers of the Zhou Dynasty from around 1000BC. Later, during the Warring States Period, the power of each state was determined by the number of horses and chariots that they possessed. The Qin people were able to achieve military supremacy with horse-drawn chariots and increasing numbers of cavalrymen and mounted archers in battle.

Cavalry was an important military force of the Qin Dynasty. It was lighter, faster and more efficient than horse drawn chariots in battle. The First Emperor’s terracotta army is composed of a large cavalry unit made up of horses and armed cavalry men. The horses have saddles decorated with studs and tassels and their tails are plaited. They were originally dress with bridles and reins made of bronze.

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Bronze chariots of the First Emperor

These are modern replicas of the two bronze chariots which were discovered west of the First Emperor’s Mausoleum in 1980. They were cast in bronze and then embellished in gold and silver. They are thought to represent the chariots in which the First Emperor travelled across his newly unified empire. These models were buried when he died so he could carry on touring his empire in the afterlife.

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Armoured Guard – Excavated in 1976 from terracotta warrior pit 1.

Generals are the highest ranking warriors excavated from the pits. Armoured generals can be identified by their long double-layered robe covered with scaled armour which extends down the front in the shape of a “V”. Their armour is decorated with ribbons tied into bows. The design of the plaques suggests that generals wore iron armour. They wore a distinctive headdress in the shape of a double-tailed bird called he guan, meaning “peasant cap”, a symbol of bravery and skill on the battlefield.

A hole under the left arm of this general indicates that he probably held a scabbard to carry a sword. The terracotta generals were found near command chariots where the remains of bells and drums were also discovered. On the battlefield, generals rode in chariots equipped with bells, drums and flags to direct the troops. The chariots were usually drawn by four horses and generals were accompanied by two lower ranking officers.

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Heavy Infantryman – Excavated in 1992 from terracotta warrior pit 1.

Armoured infantry soldiers were part of the main battalion buried in the largest of the pits. They were positioned behind light infantry units and war chariots, and were originally armed with weapons such as swords, halberds and crossbows. This infantry soldier wears heavy armour covering his upper body and a long tunic underneath. He has short trousers as well as gaiters and short boots decorated with ribbons tied into bows. His hair is tied in a bun on the right side of his head and remains of red paint are still visible on the laces of his armour plates and legs as well as on the ribbon in his hair.

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Light infantryman – Excavated in 1980 from terracotta warrior pit 1.

Light infantry warriors were positioned at the front of the main battalion comprising heavy infantrymen, war chariots and officers. In the Qin Dynasty, the majority of infantry forces were made up of conscripted peasants. On the battlefield, light infantry were first deployed as shock troops followed by heavy infantry. Light infantrymen moved more swiftly because they didn’t wear armour.

This soldier wears a long tunic over short trousers, gaiters and short boots. His hair is plaited around the back of his head and tied in a bun with a ribbon on the top. His facial features and thick beard suggest he may represent one of the people from the region around around the north-west border of China. The position of his right hand indicates that he originally held a crossbow.

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Military Officer – Excavated in 1979 from terracotta warrior pit 1.

This unarmored warrior comes from the main part of the army which was buried in the largest of the pits. his flat headdress called chang guan and his moustache identify him as a middle ranking officer. He wears a long tunic, a belt around the waist, short trousers, gaiters, and a pair of shoes. The position of his right arm and hand suggests that he once held a long weapon such as a spear.

Charioteer – Excavated in 1977 from terracotta warrior pit 2.

Charioteers were found in all three pits of the Emperor’s terracotta army. They were originally buried with real wooden chariots each drawn by four terracotta horses. There are different types of charioteers – this one is the driver responsible for commanding the chariot. Holding the reins with his clasped hands, he stood in the middle and was accompanied by two armed charioteers on either side. His flat headdress called chang guan identifies him as a middle ranking officer. His hair is plaited around the back of his head. He wears a long tunic, trousers and boots. His  torso, abdomen and back are protected with armour. In the Qin Dynasty, the driver of a war chariot was called yu shou, a highly honourable title.

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Kneeling Archer – Excavated in 1989 from terracotta warrior pit 2.

Kneeling archers were positioned in rows of two across four trenches and were surrounded by standing archers. This one wears a long tunic and heavy armour with overlapping plaques. Remains of pigment around the abdomen show that the laces tying the armour plates together were originally painted red. The archer also wears short trousers and two shin pads for protection. The position of his hands suggests that he originally held a crossbow. Qin Dynasty crossbows were slower to load than normal bows but required less skill and strength to use. Archers who used crossbows could shoot heavy bolts over long distances with great force and power.

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Standing Archer – Excavated in 1992 from terracotta warrior pit 2.

Archers were positioned at the front of a battalion of cavalry and chariots in pit 2. Standing archers were arranged in a square battle formation surrounding rows of kneeling archers. This soldier wears a long tunic, a belt around the waist, short trousers and a pair of boots. His hair is plaited and tied in a bun with a ribbon. The position of his hands suggests that he originally held a bow, ready to shoot the enemy. Unlike the kneeling archers, standing archers are all unarmored. In real life this would allow them to move more freely and swiftly on the battlefield.

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Archaeologists have uncovered around 2,000 life size terracotta warriors and horses with over 130 wooden war chariots, but it is estimated there are 8,000 figures in total, most of which are still to be excavated. The warriors were buried to the east of the mausoleum, possibly to protect the Emperor in the afterlife against the armies of the states he had defeated.

The life-size clay figures were originally arranged in battle formation within three separate pits. The two two largest pits contained the bulk of the army. The third and smallest of the pits contained warriors with ceremonial weapons representing the command post for the army.

The warriors were originally painted with bright colours which have since faded. Each soldier was given unique facial features to represent a real army. The different hairstyles, headdresses, armour and weapons of the soldiers reflected their rank and function. There are infantrymen, cavalrymen, charioteers, archers as well as generals, officers and guards of honour. In other pits there are life-size officials, eunuchs and horse keepers.

Spectacular finds continued to be discovered after the initial find in 1974. Later on in the 1970’s, a new pit was found south-west of the mausoleum containing terracotta warriors with over 20 horse skeletons thought to represent the royal stables. More stable pits containing remains of horses and kneeling stable boys were identified outside the outer walls, south-east of the mausoleum.

In 1980, west of the Emperor’s mausoleum, archaeologists found two exquisite half-size painted bronze chariots each drawn by four bronze horses (the pictures above show the modern replicas).

In 1998, in the south-east of the mausoleum, thousands of stone fragments from 87 suits of armour and 43 helmets were unearthed, as well as armour for a horse.

Since 1999, close to the stone armour pit, terracotta acrobats and strongmen have been discovered together with two large bronze cauldrons.

In 2000, north-east of the mausoleum, another pit containing 15 terracotta musicians and 46 bronze water birds was discovered.

A large amount of human remains have been discovered across the Emperor’s burial site. In the 1980’s, about one kilometre south-west of the Emperor’s mausoleum, 42 mass graves were discovered. They contained the remains over 100 workers who may have been killed during the construction of the tomb complex. South-east of the mausoleum, archaeologists also identified over 20 tombs of princes and princesses sacrificed to follow the Emperor in the afterlife. In 2009, within the inner walls of the Emperor’s mausoleum, 99 tombs of sacrificed concubines were found. Nineteen of these tombs have been excavated so far.

Owing to the number of objects that have been found and their fragility, the process of excavation, conservation and research will continue for decades. However the secrets of the Emperor’s tomb remain hidden, buried under a huge pyramid of earth. Our only clue about what lies inside the mausoleum comes from historical records written more than 100 years after the Emperor died. Until conservation techniques and non-invasive technologies improve, there are no plans to open up his tomb.

And if all of this isn’t enough information to absorb, the exhibition also goes on to cover the history of the Han dynasty and the amazing finds from Han Gaozu’s Tomb as well!

The exhibition is on at the World Museum until 28th October 2018, and after this date who knows when the UK will have another exhibition of these fascinating sculptures. The World Museum is well worth a visit for all of its regular exhibitions, which are spread over four floors and include World Cultures, Ancient Egypt, Dinosaurs and Space!

I’d highly recommend paying a visit and booking your tickets online in advance as you need to book a timed session and some of the more popular times sell out very quickly! Adult tickets are £14.50 each and concessions are £13.00 each and you can buy your tickets here.

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