An Afternoon With The Terracotta Warriors

The Terracotta Warriors logo - Pacific Science Center, Seattle 2017.

The Terracotta Warriors logo – Pacific Science Center, Seattle 2017.

Yang Zhifa looked out across his fields and saw yet another dust storm in the distance. Scanning along the horizon, all he saw was bone-dry earth that stretched on for miles. The location is China, and the year is 1974.  For more than a year the situation had only gotten worse, and the area Zhifa lived in faced a full-blown drought.  The previous year brought a poor harvest. Zhifa knew that his peasant family may not survive without water for a good crop.  Water for drinking was not a problem, as they had a well.  For the crops, they relied on rain. It was the third week of March, and, traditionally, the rains should have started by now, but they had not.

Armored Officer, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

Armored Officer, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

The Yang family had lived in Lintong county for generations, about 50 miles east of the city of Xi’an.  Forty-one year old Yang Zhifa’s home was just outside the small village of Xiyang. He and his five brothers – Wenhai, Yanxin, Quanyi, Peiyan, and Xinam – discussed their shared plight with their neighbor Wang Puzhi.  Something must be done, they agreed, to ensure that this years harvest would be strong. Each the seven men brought a life-time of knowledge about the land, and quickly agreed on a spot where they could dig a well that would allow each family to water their crop.

General, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

General, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

On March 23rd, the group gathered and began to dig. After four days, their well was nearly 45 feet into the ground, but without any sign of water. In fact, the ground was turning from hard dirt to a very dense and dry clay. The men took this as a bad sign, as if there was water just under the clay, it would absorb some and become softer than what they were dealing with. Feeling dejected, they agreed to meet the next day to continue digging. They did not have much choice.

Standing Archer and Kneeling Crossbower, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

Standing Archer and Kneeling Crossbower, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

After midday on March 28th, they had dug through the layer of clay and were surprised to find what felt like a looser layer of dirt. Fifty feet into the earth, several of the brothers were digging in the dark. Zhifa, working on the surface, pulled up yet another bucket of dirt. Digging was his lot yesterday, and working in the sunshine was far preferred. Even still, the work was backbreaking. After dumping out his bucket, Zhifa stretched and let out an exhausted groan. Looking down at the pile, he was shocked to see a head looking at him.

Ancient Chinese weapons and bell, circa 221-206 BCE.

Ancient Chinese weapons and bell, circa 221-206 BCE.

Calling out to his companions, Zhifa kneeled down and he could see among his most recent bucket deposits there were fragments that looked like pottery.  But this pottery was not jugs or bowls, rather it seemed to be pieces of a statue. A near complete head, some fingers, a foot and more all glinting in the sun But it was a bronze arrowhead that grabbed Zhifa’s attention. As his brothers and neighbor puzzled through their find, no one was sure what to do. Eventually setting the pieces aside, the men decided that, however interesting their find was, what they really needed was water. Resolving to continue their work, the men retired for the evening.

Saddled War Horse and Calvaryman, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

Saddled War Horse and Calvaryman, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

As people who live in small towns can probably attest, word of the discovery quickly spread throughout the village and into the surrounding countryside. During breaks from digging, the men would examine and discuss the objects they continued to find. In addition to the pieces of broken terra-cotta statues were pottery and a scattering of weapons. After working through the layer of debris, the group was shocked to find a brick floor. After pulling up the bricks, the men found a rocky, almost cement, layer. As curious villagers began to make off with bricks and other discoveries, Zhifa decided enough was enough, and gathered up the arrowheads to try to sell to the district cultural center.

Musician, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

Musician, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

If digging the well was a bust, then perhaps these trinkets could help feed his family.

Armored Infantryman, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

Armored Infantryman, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

As it turns out, nearly 2200 years before Yang Zhifa looked out on his parched fields, Qin She Huang, the first Emperor of China, gazed across the same landscape. In Qin’s time, wilderness, rather than farmland. Located a few hours ride from the new capital of the unified empire, Emperor Qin decided the area was perfect for his delivery into the afterlife. And, for 38 years, hundreds of thousands of people worked to build a massive tomb for him, designed to mirror the Imperial capital city of Xianyang.  Nothing less would do for the unifier of China.

Charioteer, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

Charioteer, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

What Yang Zhifa and his friends discovered was one of the greatest archeological finds of all time – the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. Amazingly, the Emperor’s tomb itself lies over a mile from the well Zhifa was trying to dig.  The entire mausoleum itself is divided, as was Xianyang at the time, into an inner and outer city, with a circumference of just under 4 miles!  The portion our seven heroes found was evidence of thousands upon thousands of life-sized terracotta statues, designed in represent the Emperor’s army in exacting detail – the Terracotta Army. And for his trouble, Yang Zhifa was given $1.56US (2017) for a few cart-loads of artifacts, and all the men were kicked off their lands after the Chinese government seized it.

Imperial Official, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

Imperial Official, Terracotta Army, circa 221-206 BCE.

When the statues were created, each was covered in brilliant paints. Sadly, upon discovery the paints were exposed to the air, and rapid oxidized and flaked off. Exploration of the entire mausoleum has been limited. Wisely, the Chinese government has elected to wait until technology is discovered which can protect the finds from oxidation and decay. Until that time, we are still treated with amazing works of art which are currently on tour in the United States. This Terracotta Warriors exhibit features at least one example of most of the various figures, from generals down to the foot-soldiers.

A replica of the Emperor's armored chariot. The original is made of bronze, and weighs several tons.

A replica of the Emperor’s armored chariot. The original is made of bronze, and weighs several tons.

Running through September 2017, the Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor exhibit at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center is incredible. Each statue is out for visitors to fully walk around and experience. None are encased in glass, so you can get very close – responsibly so, of course – and marvel at the detailed work that went into each.  If you have the opportunity, now or in the future, to see the Terracotta Warriors1, I highly recommend that you to do so.

References   [ + ]

1. Amazon Referral Link

Mike Knotts

Mike Knotts was born in 1968 in a small town in southern Indiana. Even when very young, Mike showed a love for all-things technical and sci-fi. Moving with his family to California in the early 80's, he eventually graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in History. Rather than put that to good use, Mike continued to pursue his passion for technology by working for early, regional ISP's in the mid 1990's. He currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, where he works as a project manager for an Internet startup. Mike is a co-founder of Geekometry.

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