In 1974, a group of Chinese peasants digging a well in Shaanxi Province made a stunning discovery: a life-size clay statue of an ancient soldier. They notified authorities, who dispatched a group of archaeologists to investigate.
The archaeologists didn’t find just one soldier. They found thousands, meant to be an army serving Emperor Qin Shi Huang in his afterlife. (Read more about Qin and his army here from National Geographic, and here, from Smithsonian Magazine.)
They found more than eight thousand terracotta (baked clay) figures, mostly soldiers but also court officials, horses, acrobats, dancers, musicians, and servants. The kicker? Each one was unique. Some groups might all be wearing similar armor or clothing, but each face is different.
Among the photos of the seven similarly-accoutered generals (distinguished by the tassels on their armor, their elaborate hats, and their pointing index fingers), for example, I see that one has a narrow face and tilted eyes, one has full cheeks and sideburns, one has flat broad cheekbones and worry lines on his forehead.
This aspect fascinates me most. Did each person of Emperor Qin’s army pose for the clay-figure artisans? Or were the artisans given free reign to portray various personalities as they liked, representing different ethnic or cultural groups in the Emperor’s army? Or were only the figures of high rank actual portraits, while those showing lowly foot soldiers or archers just representational? I don’t think we’ll ever know for certain, though some research indicates that the figures are truly individual portraits.
Qin’s legacy includes a group of former principalities unified into one country, the standardization of monetary units, weights and measures, vastly increased infrastructure and commerce, and the first version of the Great Wall. (Dude was busy.) However, his legacy has been somewhat tarnished by the recognition that he only managed to do all this with forced slave labor. Then, too, his heir survived only three years past Qin’s death due to assassination, and dynastic rule passed to another family.
However, the incredible tomb complex — which has not been fully excavated — is amazing. Read more about recent discoveries here.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond is currently hosting an exhibit of several of these figures, as well as other artifacts from this time period. See here for more details about the exhibit itself. If you’re within driving distance, please do yourself a favor and go.
The CEO took some wonderful pictures at the exhibit (flash is prohibited, by the way). These photos belong to him, so please don’t steal them. If you’d like to use one, just email me and I’m sure we can work something out.
I have not included here photos of the small stableboy figure, the court official, the full-size charioteer, or the quarter-size statue of a chariot drawn by four horses and manned by a charioteer under a bronze sunshade. I’ve also not included several interesting photos of decorated roof tiles and drain pipes, or some really lovely pottery ware from the period, also on exhibit. There was just too much to highlight it all.
It was interesting to me that my family members had different favorites, of the figures on exhibit. Bookworm liked Kneeling Archer best, for his clever, narrow face and his battle-ready position. Taz preferred the horse and rider for their similar expressions. Gaze was most impressed with the General’s stalwart, assured stance. The CEO and I both chose the Standing Archer. The CEO favored his dynamic pose, and I liked his calm, alert face.
The VMFA gift shop had several sizes of reproduction figurines for sale, the smaller ones quite reasonably priced and all beautifully made. Unfortunately there are none of my standing archer, and the general figurine has a different face than the one on display, so I didn’t buy one. I hope I won’t regret that. (Though there’s always eBay, should I change my mind later.)
I’ve been fascinated by the Terracotta Army since I was young and National Geographic did a story on the recently-found figures. It was so gratifying to finally see them and to recognize that they were even better than I’d imagined them.