An Army of Terracotta


I find the pottery sections of history museums incredibly frustrating. As much as I strive to be “cultured,” the drone of staring at one red pot after another creates a kind of tedium in me that knows no limits. This plus a healthy dose of guilt at my inability to truly appreciate the importance of these gems from the earliest stages of humanity leaves me always wanting to pass through quickly and move on. But, of course, my quest for knowledge and appreciation leads me to return to these museums again and again, though often to no new result.

Though I had specifically included a visit to Xi’an to see the famed Terracotta Warriors in China, my expectations for my appreciation for them were pretty low. As I read further about the warriors before my visit, I tried to fully grasp their importance.

Discovered by farmers in the 1970s, the Terracotta Warriors are a massive collection of life-sized pottery soldiers found buried around the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, dating from around 210 BC. The soldiers were thought to protect him even after his death. The true significance of the warriors comes not just from the fact that there a ridiculously huge amount of them (more than 8,000!), but that each warrior has his own set of distinct facial features, clothing and identity, all painstakingly detailed, down to the ridges on the bottom of their shoes. Additionally, hundreds of other sculptures, including acrobats and musicians, were found within the tomb, as well as horses, dogs, pigs, cows and other animals, presumably to provide entertainment and food for the emperor in the afterlife.

Knowing this information, I still didn’t have high expectations. In fact, more than being impressed with the warriors, I figured I’d also have an extra-large helping of guilt for not enjoying them all that much. I really did not expect to be COMPLETELY BLOWN AWAY.

I made the trip with my two new Iowan friends (and train travel buddies), Kaleb and Wade, who I’d met in Beijing. The three of us hired a guide and followed the masses to Excavation Site 1, the first and largest of three sites open to the public. I gotta say, there’s something about seeing these pottery soldiers close-up, buried in the original ground they were discovered in that no museum can hold a candle to.

The largest and most impressive of the sites, there were more than 6,000 terracotta figures found in Excavation Site 1 alone! It was only when I actually saw the sheer number of clay soldiers standing attentive, staring back at me did I truly grasp their significance. All I can say is wow.

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Though smaller, Excavation Sites 2 and 3 were also nice, and featured more individually displayed warriors and details about the tomb. Site 2 featured four specific types of warriors, including soldier, general, army chief and a kneeling archer. It also showcased some of the warriors’ finer details, like the groves in their boots. Site 3, the army line closest to the emperor’s actual tomb, contained the highest rank of soldiers, situated differently than the other two sites.

What’s fascinating is that the excavation work is far from finished. In fact, the tomb of the emperor himself has yet to be touched and is supposed to contain the “real” treasure. The tomb, however, is apparently protected by a moat of lethal gases which would take years of planning and advanced technology to unearth safely.

Perhaps when that happens, I’ll have to make another trip to China :).

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