Terra Cotta Warriors: An army frozen in time

August 28, 2008

All eyes have been on China for the last few weeks as Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and many other Olympians have been shattering world records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Media coverage was intense – but this particular video on the Terra Cotta Warriors caught our eye, because we’re eagerly anticipating May 18, 2009 – opening day for Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardian’s of China’s First Emperor at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Here, Dirk gives us more context on these extraordinary treasures.
Dateline: 240 BC
Mighty Celtic tribes, far from being barbarians, rule over most of what is Western Europe today. Engaged in long distance trade with the Mediterranean, they will soon fall under the sway of an upstart from that region: Rome. Across the water on the northern shores of Africa another mighty empire blossoms: Carthage. It too will eventually fall under the sway of Rome. Further east, Egypt had long faded from its glory days and is ruled by descendants of a Macedonian general who served under Alexander the Great. The famous library in Alexandria is either in the planning stages or has just opened. Meanwhile, more than 7600 miles away, on a windswept hill in Oaxaca, traders from the city of Monte Alban set off to visit the big metropolis further north, Teotihuacan, to strengthen trade ties between these two cities.
China - Great Wall
Creative Commons License photo credit: mckaysavage

All of these cultures and all of these nascent empires are small fry, however, compared with what is happening in the Far East. There, in China, In 240 B.C. Ying Zheng, ruler of the Qin Kingdom, rose to power. He proclaimed himself First Emperor of the Qin, or Qin Shihuangdi.

Under Qin Shihuangdi’s rule, Chinese script was standardized, as were its currency and system of measurements. The territory was expanded into Vietnam. A huge central bureaucracy directed military and civil officials throughout the empire. This system of government remained virtually unchanged until the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911.
Qin Shihuangdi was obsessed with longevity. He sent emissaries to find an elixir of youth to ensure that he would live forever. Unfortunately, death caught up with him in 210 BC while he was traveling far away from the capital. His mortal remains were brought to his tombs, a trip which required his entourage to engage in a number of subterfuges to mask the smell of death in the convoy. It is said that a cart of rotting fish was pulled right behind the imperial sedan chair, to mask the decaying remains of the emperor.
In death, as in life, the emperor remains an imposing figure, leaving us with an incredible and imposing legacy. His tomb (for this link, hit cancel to start the video) has been located, but not yet excavated. According to historical sources, the emperor’s tomb was laid out in such a way to represent the entire empire, with huge pools of mercury representing rivers, lakes and seas. Gemstones set in the tomb’s ceiling represent the night sky. As was becoming a man of his rank, he was accompanied in his tomb by an army of servants and soldiers.
Creative Commons License photo credit:

In 1974, the same year in which Lucy was discovered, a peasant working the fields in the shadow of the imperial tomb, found fragments of a terracotta statue. This chance discovery led to one of the most magnificent archaeological discoveries of the 20th century; the army of terracotta soldiers. Approximately 8000 terracotta statues have been uncovered thus far. All of these require restoration and preservation, with some of these requiring up to one year’s worth of work before they can be displayed.

Until May 17, 2009, you will have to travel 8300 miles from Houston to go see these famous terracotta warriors in their Xi’an museum. However, starting May 18, there will be 20 statues in your own backyard. The Houston Museum of Natural Science will be hosting them until October 16, 2009. More information can be found here.
Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

8 responses to “Terra Cotta Warriors: An army frozen in time”

  1. Dave says:


    Great article, and I am of course very excited that these amazing pieces of artwork/artifacts are coming to HMNS.

    I also wanted to know if the Museum has anymore Egyptian artifacts in its collection outside of what is currently in the permanent exhibit in the corner on the LL. Thanks.

  2. Sharon says:

    I am so excited to have the Terra Cota Warriors coming to HMNS. I appreciate your putting the warriors in the context of what is also happening in the rest of the world. It’s important for everyone to understand that the residents of the America’s were building huge cities of stone at the same time. Those builders do not often get the credit they deserve.

  3. laanba says:

    I am really looking forward to this exhibit.

  4. Dirk says:

    Dave, thanks for your email. The museum has a small collection of Egyptian artifacts. Most of what we have, however, is on display. Some of the items that are not, such as as mummy mask, will require conservation before we can show them off. Regards, Dirk Van Tuerenhout

  5. Astrid Leriche says:

    Very interesting article. But then you ARE a very interesting uncle.
    And thank you for the smelly insight into the emperor’s ehm…. afterlife =P

    Please bring me one of those teracotta horsies when you come over =D


  6. Dirk Van Tuerenhout says:

    Dag Astrid,

    Thank you for your comment. I might be able to bring a small terracotta replica over next time I visit. I am pretty sure that we will have to return the original ones back to the museum in China. In the meantime, enjoy riding real horses back home.

    Nonkel Dirk

  7. Barbara Wolf says:

    I am a past school teacher and a retired travel agent and have wanted to see The Terracota Soldiers for years and it just never seem to be right time or affordable. I am just estactic to read that they will be coming to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I think these soldiers are truly amazing artwork wonders of this world. Thank you for bringing them to Houston.

    Barbara Wolf

  8. Donna says:

    I enjoyed the exhibit as did my son and my mother. I was more excited about it than I really knew until I got there. I wish some personal pectures could have been taken. I understand the copyrights. But still, how will my son at just now six ever really prove he got that close to the warriors when we as a human race knew so little and yet so much more about them. It was great.

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