Record-Breaking Terra Cotta Warriors Exhibit Goes On Display

April 15, 2009

The discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors made the city of Xi’an a must-see destination for visitors to China. It is now estimated that more than two million people a year travel to the city to view the thousands of life-size warriors and war horses unearthed in recent decades during on-going excavations, and dating to around 200 BC.


Beginning May 22, The Houston Museum of Natural Science will present a selection of artifacts from this site, including 14 warriors—generals, infantrymen, officers, and servants—as well as a cavalry horse, chariot and driver in a special exhibition, Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor. The exhibition features 100 sets of objects, including 20 “Level I” artifacts (the highest possible ranking in terms of rarity and importance)—the most artifacts of that level to ever travel abroad for a single exhibition.


“Since their discovery, the Terra Cotta Warriors have captured the world’s imagination because they give us a fascinating glimpse into the life of China’s first emperor, a man who created multiple historical marvels that endure to the present day,” says Joel A. Bartsch, president of The Houston Museum of Natural Science. “We’re eager to present the magnificent achievements of this ancient Chinese culture when this unprecedented exhibition comes to Houston.”


Time Magazine recently declared Terra Cotta Warriors one of the top five “must see” museum exhibitions in the country. The exhibit set attendance records when it was shown at the British Museum in London in 2007-08, and has already stopped at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif. After its stint at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the exhibit will make its final stop at the National Geographic Society Museum in Washington, D.C.


Co-organized by the Bowers Museum, Houston Museum of Natural Science, and National Geographic Society Museum, and Guest Curator Dr. Albert E. Dien, professor emeritus, Stanford University, Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor features the iconic terra cotta warriors alongside newly excavated sculptures of court officials, acrobats, generals and bronze birds. The objects were drawn from 11 different collections in and near Xi’an, China, including the Museum of the First Emperor’s Terracotta Army and Horses, Shaanxi Provincial Institute for Archaeological Research, the Zhouzhi Museum, Baoji Museum, Xianyang Museum, Lintong Museum, Fengxiang Museum, Chencang Museum, Xi’an Institute for Archaeological Research and Protection, Baoji Archaeological Excavation Team and Xianyang Institute for Archaeological Research.


Exhibition highlights include: nine warriors from the terracotta army; a court official, discovered with writing tools hanging from his belts; a bare-chested strongman; musicians; a kneeling stable boy; a terra cotta chariot horse; and bronze water birds discovered beside the complex’s underground river. In addition to these sculptures, visitors will see artifacts such as bronze weapons, including arrowheads, lances, swords and knives; stone armor; coins and coin molds; weights and measures inscribed with the emperor’s decree for their standardization; a restraining iron indicating the use of forced labor in the construction of the tomb complex; and more.


Historical Background


In 1974, a small group of farmers digging a well near the town of Lintong made the startling discovery of a terra cotta head. When archaeologists began excavating the area, they uncovered an immense subterranean vault containing long columns of life-size terra cotta warriors with armor, chariots and horses standing in battle formation. The discovery subsequently led to scientific excavations that unearthed more than 1,000 life-size figures in three underground pits. It is estimated that up to 7,000 additional figures may be found in the future.


Construction of the First Emperor’s tomb took 38 years and began soon after he became King of the state of Qin. Although the tomb mound was visible aboveground, the terra cotta figures were a surprise when discovered because they had not been previously documented. The terra cotta army was created as an elite unit to guard the emperor in his afterlife. It is estimated that over 1,000 people were divided into 87 teams to produce the army. Each warrior was made by hand in an assembly-line process, and they are all unique.


Human figures of soldiers, servants, musicians, acrobats and animals were intended to create a familiar atmosphere for the emperor and meet his every need in the afterlife. Each figure has a different facial expression and serves a unique purpose. For example, the Kneeling Archer is portrayed in full battle regalia and looks straight ahead with a firm gaze. Entertainers, such as acrobats, were recently unearthed in 1999. These figures are more expressive than the warriors and are depicted in active poses with short kilts. In 2002, several life-size bronze birds were excavated and reveal the same delicacy as the human figures. A bronze Crane exemplifies this bird’s beauty as it stands with an s-shaped neck, looking downward to catch a small fish.


About the First Emperor


Born in 259 B.C., the First Emperor was one of the most important political leaders to rule China over the past 2,000 years. At 13 years old, he became the King of Qin (pronounced ‘chin’), one of China’s Warring States, and went on to conquer the rival territories within the land. By 221 B.C., he unified the country and declared himself First Emperor. It is thought that the western name for China is derived from Qin, which became the name of the entire country during his rule.


To follow his military success, he began instituting a series of new policies that represented huge steps toward developing China as a nation. He centralized the government and established a standard law code, currency system, form of writing and system of weights and measures. The First Emperor also implemented various grand-scale architectural projects that entailed a huge labor force. He harnessed all the human and physical resources in the country to complete more than 200 palaces, including the gigantic Afang Palace, the initial construction of the Great Wall of China and the Lin Canal, a major waterway.


After surviving a series of assassination attempts, the First Emperor became obsessed with his own immortality, and launched a lavish naval expedition to find mythical islands and the elixir of life. Alchemists of his court attempted to extend his life by mixing various potions, but they failed, and he died at the age of forty-nine in 210 B.C.


National funding for Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor is provided by UPS. Local funding is provided by Weatherford International, Inc; JP Morgan Chase & Co.; the Harriet and Truett Latimer Endowment Fund; and METRO.


Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor runs from May 22 through Oct. 18. Tickets are $25 for adults, $18 for children and seniors and $12 for museum members. Tickets may be purchased online, which is recommended due to the popularity of this exhibit. Audio guides are available for $8 members and $9 non-members.  For more information, visit or the museum’s web site at

InstantNewsWestu Staff

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