When the word Terracotta is said it conjures images of a rich burnt orange colour. That is shortly followed by thoughts of the terracotta warriors at the funerary tomb of Qin Shi Huang, which are not the orange of plant pots, but a darker grey-brown. I’d like to think that the vast majority of people would recognise the Chinese terracotta warriors, even if they didn’t realise it was Qin Shi Huang’s tomb that they guard. Most people will have seen photographs of the row upon row of terracotta statues, standing to attention, looking similar but all slightly different. In these glossy magazine images they look pretty impressive.
The funerary complex that includes the pits of terracotta warriors dates from the late 3rd century BCE and was rediscovered in 1974 while local farmers dug for a well. It is believed that these figures would assist the Emperor in the afterlife. He didn’t just need soldiers, it seems, he also took chariots, acrobats, strong men, musicians and horses.
Each pit is under cover to protect the archaeology from the elements. When you enter through the main gates of the museum site you are face with vast concrete buildings. I would recommend visiting the pits in reverse order, thus leaving the most impressive pit 1, until last. There are very few interpretation panels, but a number of them do give good diagrams as to how many warriors are still left to excavate. If you want to learn about the site there are tour guides available at the entrance. There is also the option of renting an audio guide, but this does not have raving reviews. Personally, I read about the warriors before my visit and went to witness the spectacle rather than learn vast amounts of information.
When entering Pit 3 the first things that is striking is that the ground level that the warriors are stood on is considerably lower than modern day, you are looking down onto the tops of their heads not into their eyes. By Pit 2 you are suddenly aware of how many soldiers are there, you also realise there are more to be uncovered and reassembled. Pit 1 is pretty much an airport hangar. It is vast and you look down onto 11 corridors, most around 3 meters wide and full of soldiers and more than the occasional horse. This hall gets crowded, especially in the summer. At the back of Pit 1 you get the opportunity to see the work that still goes on reconstructing and recording the terracotta warriors as they are excavated.
To the left of the main entrance there is a building known as The Bronze Chariots and Horse Exhibition Hall, a mouthful but an accurate description of what it is. There is an increase of text in this building, but also of crowds who want to see the famous bronze chariot. It’s impressive, but I have to be honest I was expecting it to be full sized like those made of terracotta, saying that it is by no means miniature and is far more superior in fine details.
I’d say ‘pretty impressive’ is an understatement for walking into the building housing Pit 1. You really do not get an idea of the scale of this army until you see it ‘in the flesh’, as it were. What looks ‘cool’ in a photograph, turns out to be immense. As you look down at the vast hoards and they look back you realise it’s a life-sized army of thousands, standing as a silent guard to the soul of China’s first unifying Emperor for over 2 millennia. I cannot emphasise the spine tingling realisation and awe that this causes.
However impressive the corridors of warriors are today, this is but a shadow of their former glory. Not only would each soldier have been colourfully painted, but they would have been fully armed to go to battle too, should Qin Shi Huang need them to fight for him in the afterlife.