There are many places and things in the world that leave you awe inspired and humbled in their presence, and I think Emperor Qin Shin Huangdi’s Terracotta Army is one of them.
The Terracotta Army was buried with the Emperor of Qin around 209-210 BC. They were constructed to help Qin rule his empire in the afterlife. Consequently, they are also sometimes referred to as “Qin’s Armies”. People also believe that the army was built to help protect the tomb of emperor Qin from looters and robbers.
The Terracotta Army itself was discovered in March 1974 by local farmers drilling a water well to the east of Mount Li. Mount Li was also where the material to make the terracotta warriors originated from, and in addition to the warriors, an entire man-made necropolis for the emperor has also found at the site and excavated.
According to the historian Sima Qian construction of this mausoleum began in 246 BC and involved 700,000 workers. Sima Qian, wrote an account almost a century after its completion, saying that the First Emperor was buried with palaces, scenic towers, officials, valuable utensils and ‘wonderful objects’, wtih 100 rivers fashioned in mercury and above this heavenly bodies. The site has actually been shown to contain high levels of mercury in the soil of Mount Lishan, appearing to add truth to the belief that this wondrous tomb is in fact as Sima Qian describes.
The tomb itself of Qin Shi Huangdi is near an earthen pyramid 76 meters tall and nearly 350 square meters. However until modern archeology can reach the point where no damage can come to possibly one of the most important historical sites in the world, the tomb remains unopened, with hopes that it remains intact.
Although only part of the site’s been currently is excavated, it points to how Qin Shi Huangdi’s necropolis complex was constructed to serve as an imperial compound or palace. It comprises several offices, halls and other structures and is surrounded by a wall with gateway entrances. The craftsmen that worked on the soldiers and items found inside are believed to have ben buried alive in the underground complex, as many human remains have so far been found, it is believed they were sealed inside alive to keep them from divulging any secrets about its riches or entrances.
I have always wanted to see the complete Terracotta Army in China, so when it was announced some of the artifacts would be coming to the UK to the British Museum, I was quite excited. Obtaining tickets however proved to be very hard work. We eventually decided to become members of the british museum (which cost £60 in all for the year for both of us), this meant that no only did we support the museum, we also gained free entry into any exhibition at the museum for one year, including the First Emperor. As an added advantage, members are allowed out of hours visits to the museum galleries and exhibitions, so our tour started at 9:15pm last night, ironically after a lovely Chinese meal in China Town.
It was quite eerie and in some ways romantic heading into the museum in the dark and rain, most visitors were heading out, the last few lingering tourists heading home. The museum was quiet compared to the day, and the Museums Reading room lay straight ahead. The Reading Room, where the exhibition is held, like the rest of the museum is a Grade 1 listed building. This meant that nothing in the Reading Room could be disturbed or moved, which does beg the question, Where do you put a bunch of Terracotta Solders?
They certainly couldn’t wander around the reading desks. The solution was to build a special raised exhibition space above the desks and floor of the normal room, whilst maintaining the required temperature for the exhibition space, and allowing air to flow to the desks below. Like Qin’s soldiers before, the desks lay silent and dark almost 1.8 metres below you as you explore the exhibition above.
As you enter the exhibition you walk up into the circular Reading Room through a dark tunnel which you follow round to steps up to the start of the exhibition. There are no atmospheric sounds, and no noise, and although the exhibition is clearly documented through display case notes, I’d wholly recommend paying the £3.50 for the audio guide. The exhibition is also very dark to preserve the exhibits, it fitted in well given the time of night for us, but I’d say that it wasn’t as well presented visually as the Tutankhamun exhibition at the O2.
There is a large video screen near the start that explains about the First Emperor’s life, as well as projections later in the exhibition that show the pits in China and why the tomb at the heart of the complex that hasn’t been excavated, again there is no sound on these projections, only subtitles, which I found a little off putting. At the very start of the exhibition you’ll come face to face with the archer figure shown here. The attention to detail on the figure is amazing, each section of the armor painstakingly over lapped on the one beneath, his hair, and even hobnail boots almost perfect in detail.
Other artifacts from the site are also shown, large Bo bells, cast iron religious ceremonial bells that are again detailed perfectly, weaponry and even the original cross bow releases found with the terracotta archers. The exhibitions winds around the raised floor of the reading room until you come to the main space that houses the larger collection of terracotta soldiers. In this section bronze chariots show just how detailed and how much work was put into Qin’s frozen army. However he was not only accompanied by warriors, the 12 army members and 3 horses are accompanied by acrobats and musicians to entertain in the afterlife, civil officers needed in the afterlife as palace administrators, and even bronze birds who were found feeding on fish from the rivers that were diverted to flow through the underground complex. One nice thing about this space is that the carriages, standing solders, archers, clerical staff and acrobats are all standing open, and not behind glass. There does seem to be very high security around them, with motion wire and proximity alarms, as well as the four very large security staff that patrol no mans land between you and the soldiers.
It is also not widely known to most that the figures were originally all coated and painted (the process of plating invented by the Americans, was actually invented by Qin’s workers thousands of years before), some of the figure heads in the exhibition can be seen to see have some colour on them, as well as there being a reconstruction of what it is believed the archers would have looked like in full-color.
The Reading Room was actually quite hot, and a little crowded, even for this time of night, and we found ourselves double backing on ourselves to see parts we some how missed, again unlike the Tutankhamun one, the exhibition lacked a little in the directional aspects that flowed through it. However it was a privilege to be able to see some of the army in person, and they are unlike anything you could ever imagine seeing. Possibly only by going to China itself, this is probably the best experience of the Terracotta Army, Qin’s rise to power and the creation of modern China that you will find. I would very much advise you to try and get down to The British Museum and see it before it closes on the 6th April 2008. Tickets are available on each day, however you need to be in line and lucky as only 500 are released each morning, or, think about joining the Museum.
In answer to a question that I was wondering about, there is no photography allowed in the exhibition.
Photo credit: Dan Morelle (to whom I’m glad you ignored the no photography signs.. great photo!)
, Qin Sin Huangdi
, Terracotta Army
, The British Museum