Terra Cotta Warriors myths…busted!

Middle Ranking Officer
Creative Commons License photo credit: Richard.Fisher

As you may have noticed from the anticipation, excitement, and general hullabaloo…we recently opened an exhibition chock full of Terra Cotta Warriors. And while museum people tend to find every exhibit that comes through our doors fascinating (part of the reason we take the leap from avid exhibition attendees to employees of said institutions) there are some things – King Tut, T. rex, and the Terra Cotta Warriors among them – that seem simply to have universal appeal.

Other exhibitions do well with particular demographics (history buffs loved Benjamin Franklin, engineers and art lovers packed in to see Leonardo da Vinci, kids couldn’t get enough of the Dino Mummy) but some topics fascinate across the board. Whether from historical importance, sheer size or the stunning nature of a discovery – some artifacts from our collective past stand out, almost demanding that we come and experience them for ourselves.

Due to this, Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperorhas created a lot of conversation – both in our exhibition halls and online – and so we thought we’d address some of the common questions here – and do a little mythbusting of our own.

The Terra Cotta Warriors on display at HMNS are fake. FALSE.

The exhibition contains 17 authentic Terra Cotta figures, including 11 warrior figures – but also court officials, acrobats, musicians, servants and more. Its fascinating to see the incredible detail crafted into each individual warrior – as well as the ways in which various stations in society were represented in clay. The warriors are imposing, the generals are enormous – but the kneeling servant is child-size.

All of the artifacts on display were excavated from the necropolis of Qin Shi Huang, China’s First Emperor. They were brought to Houston as part of an agreement with the Museum of the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shi Huang, Peoples Republic of China.

The exhibition does contain a few replica figures, however these are labeled as such. The replicas were included to represent horses and carriages that have recently been excavated, and are too fragile to travel.

Some confusion may also have arisen due to the existence of the Forbidden Gardens, in Katy. This display recreates the Emperor’s entire necropolis, in one-third size replica figures.

This exhibit has been to Houston before. FALSE…and TRUE.

We’ve heard this several times, but no one seemed to know where the rumor came from. The exhibition itself is newly created and has certainly never been to Houston before it opened here May 22. However, the misconception seems to have arisen from another exhibition that came though Houston, with Terra Cotta Warriors. Thank you to Laurie, one of our intrepid volunteer docents; Donna; one of our fabulous Museum bloggers; and David, a collections registrar from MFAH, for helping us track down the answer!

In 2000, the Museum of Fine Arts hosted The Golden Age of Chinese Archeology; Celebrated Discoveries from the People’s Republic of China, an exhibition of Chinese art that did contain several authentic figures from the terra cotta army. Organized by the National Gallery of Art, the exhibition covered a large span of time – from the prehistoric era to the late 10th century A.D. – and surveyed a broad range of highlights of Chinese archaeology.

Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor, currently on display at HMNS, is a totally new exhibition that contains the most Terra Cotta Warriors and other “Level One” artifacts ever allowed to travel outside of China at once – there are 11 warriors alone, alongside many other kinds of tomb figures, such as acrobats and musicians. It’s also a much more specific look at the time in which the warriors were created – around the end of the 2nd century B.C. – the first time the lands today known as China were unified. A visit to this exhibition is the very best look at these marvels you could possibly get outside of Xi’an, China where the Warriors were discovered.

All of the Terra Cotta Warriors have been found and excavated. FALSE.

aerial-view-terra-cotta-warriorsIt is estimated that 7,000 or more warriors were created to accompany the Emperor to the afterlife – but only 1,000 have been fully excavated. Just recently, two decades after initial excavations ceased, Chinese authorities began new excavations in Xi’an, utilizing new technology that will preserve the warriors’ original colors.

Though excavations continue in the necropolis, the actual tomb of Qin Shi Huang remains intact, due to the high levels of mercury found in the surrounding soil – suggesting that the “rivers of mercury” said to have flowed through the tomb were actually left there and likely stil make the area to toxic to excavate.

Have you heard a Terra Cotta myth that needs debunking? Leave it in the comments and we’ll do our best to get to the bottom of it!

The quest for immortality

 © Photo credit: taylorandayumi

The First Emperor of China, it is said, became pre-occupied with longevity toward the end of his life. He traveled his empire in search of “medicine” which would help him achieve this goal. Unfortunately for the Emperor, his medical advisors steered him the wrong way, suggesting he ingest heavy metals (like mercury) in order to live long and prosper.

And so the Emperor died at the age of 50. As is typical of absolute rulers, in life he commanded absolute loyalty, ordering the construction of a massive pyramid-shaped burial monument. Because of the sheer size of this structure, it was never lost. According to descriptions left about a century after the death of the emperor, the core of the pyramid hides a massive burial chamber, housing the emperor’s tomb and a reconstruction of his empire. All of this was executed in great detail, so it is said, down to the representation of rivers, lakes, oceans (filled with mercury) and faceted gemstones in the ceiling to represent the stars at night. The whole thing was illuminated with oil lamps said to be engineered to burn forever.

The emperor’s dynasty did not survive his demise, as it went down in the general uprising and turmoil that followed his death. His successor, the Second Emperor, only lasted a few years. Whether or not the tomb really exists, and still holds the remains of the emperor, is unknown. China’s archaeologists are awaiting the development of new technology and ways to deal with high levels of mercury in the area before tackling what promises to be a daunting task. Recent reports of engaging the services of robots in tomb investigations in the Xi’an area may portent some movements toward finally tackling the emperor’s tomb.

It is hard to predict what they will find; we could be in for quite a surprise if another Chinese “mummy” barely one century younger than the First Emperor is anything to go by. Known as Lady Dai, her remains were found in extraordinary state of preservation.

In 1971, a Han Dynasty tomb was found during the construction of an air raid shelter in the city of Changsha. Aside from over a thousand perfectly preserved objects, workers also encountered what is claimed to be one of the world’s best preserved corpses. Meet Xin Zhui, wife of the ruler of the Han imperial fiefdom of Dai.

 © Photo credit: drs2biz

She died between 178 and 145 BC, about 50 years after the death of the First Emperor. The high quality of the artifacts that surrounded her reflected her wealth and importance in society.  Her body is so well preserved that she can be autopsied. A prominent physical expert, Dr. John Verano of Tulane University, expressed how horrified he initially was when he observed Chinese specialists bending her limbs. You did read this right:  they could still bend the limbs of a 2100-year old “mummy.” 

This preservation allowed an autopsy to be performed with the following results:

All her organs were perfectly preserved; her brain had shrunk to half size, but had remained intact. She had a fused disc in her spine. Undoubtedly she was in pain toward the end of her life. Moreover, a gallstone stuck in her bile duct may have caused her heart to give out.  Her skin was still soft to the touch. Scientists even found blood in her veins. She had type A.

Today Lady Daiis on display at the Hunan Museum in Changsha. As mummies go, hers is incredibly well preserved. Remember, the First Emperor lived in the same time period, preceding Lady Dai by perhaps one or two generations. Given what resources may have been available to the First Emperor, I wonder what his tomb will reveal when it is finally investigated.

Time Magazine recently declared Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor one of the top 5 “must-see” museum exhibitions. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is proud to present this extraordinary archaeological find, deemed the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World, opening today! You can purchase tickets online by clicking here.