Terracotta Warriors: Field Notes From China
In honor of Chinese New Year, known to Chinese around the world as “chunjie” or Spring Festival, we bring you field notes from China and an update on Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor, a one-of-a-kind exhibition that premieres at Pacific Science Center April 8, 2017.
Imagine digging a well in a persimmon orchard near Xi’an, China and stumbling upon one of the greatest archaeological treasures in the world: An ancient clay army of life-size horses, chariots and an estimated 8,000 warriors—each with a unique human face. For more than 2,200 years, they silently guarded the burial complex of the brilliant and brutal emperor who united China’s warring kingdoms in the third century BCE. Emperor Qin Shihuang’s monumental mausoleum is not just the largest or most elaborate of its kind – it’s the only one quite like it.
“When you are looking at these figures, it’s startling because they’re all different and it feels like you’re looking at real people. They have a real presence,” says Diana Johns, Pacific Science Center’s vice president of exhibits and facilities. Johns recently visited Xi’an, China to research the storyline for Terracotta Warriors, an exhibition Pacific Science Center will create and present in partnership with the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia.
In Xi’an, Johns visited Pit One, an active dig the length of three football fields where archaeologists have uncovered more than a thousand warriors so far. The vast space is organized into neat trench-like channels where scientists carefully work, and in some areas, walk atop sandbags that help preserve the site.
Johns could see parts of broken warriors being examined and catalogued. Some pieces were re-buried to preserve the color on the warriors until they could be treated. “It was awesome,” she says. “There’s this sense of discovery–discovery every single day. For some of these people, I imagine this will be their whole life’s work. There’s much more stuff there they just haven’t gotten to. There’s so much! It’s a good place to be an archaeologist.”
Or a chemist, engineer or physicist. “This very ancient thing had a level of science and technology that’s weirdly echoed right now,” Johns says. To create the warriors, “they needed a lot of engineering and understanding of chemical reactions . . . And now, science and technology is being used to figure out how that happened. It goes far beyond archaeology. It’s chemical analysis and particle physics. It’s video holographic microscopy . . . It’s everything!”
Johns was especially struck by the ancient technology, engineering and sophisticated mass production techniques used more than two thousand years ago.
Qin Dynasty craftspeople adapted production techniques they’d originally developed to make roofing tiles and other utilitarian pieces. They knew how the clay would perform, and once the process was established, they were able to relatively quickly make thousands of figures using surprisingly few artisans.
Certain body parts were mass produced while individual heads were custom created. Each team had a foreman, and each figure bore the foreman’s “chop” (signature stamp) and the worker’s mark, so if there was a flaw, the source could be traced and problem corrected—a highly sophisticated level of quality control.
“Everybody has heard about the Chinese inventing spaghetti and fireworks,” Johns said. “I wish the world knew even more about all China has contributed . . . things we’d internalized as our own from the western perspective that had actually been around a long time before being ‘discovered’.”
Throughout the kingdom, Emperor Qin Shihuang instituted innovations that had enormous ramifications. Crossbows, redesigned to be simple to use, were mass-produced; money and measurements were standardized; all axles had to be the same length which simplified transportation and road building.
STEM innovation during the Qin Dynasty was remarkable, Johns says. “The chemistry of the colors on warriors, the understanding of the clay, the metallurgy. Bronze work was state of the art; some of the weapons still carry a sharp blade 2,000 years later. Some of the things they did to create this tomb, we’re not sure how they did it . . . ..”
Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb itself will remain sealed until technology is developed to better insure its preservation. “The fact that China is being so careful about that tomb,” Johns says. “They’re being wise.”
Terracotta Warriors will be on exhibition at Pacific Science Center April 8 – Sept. 4, 2017, West Coast Premiere. This exhibition is made possible through the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotions Center.