October 20, 2021 7 min read
The terracotta army near the city of Xi'an in China's Shaanxi province might not be what you exactly think it is. Sure, it is collection of neatly sculpted Terracotta soldiers. But did you know that it is a type of funerary art? It was buried with the emperor Qin Shi Huang in the years 210–209 BCE with the intention of safeguarding him in the afterlife.
Among the sculpted figures are life-sized warriors, chariots, and horses. The army is spread over three pits, estimated to hold about 8,000 men, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses. The figures vary in height according to their roles, the tallest being the generals. Officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians were among the terracotta sculptures discovered in other pits.
In 1974, a group of farmers constructing a well at Mount Li (Lishanx) unearthed some parts of the Terracotta Army. This discovery prompted Chinese archaeologists, including Zhao Kangmin, to investigate, revealing the largest terracotta figurine group ever found. The location has since been transformed into a museum complex, with the main pit covered by a roofed structure.
Over the course of excavation and intense research, it is found that the terracotta army figures were made by government workers and local craftspeople in workshops using local resources. Heads, limbs, legs, and torsos were all sculpted separately and then put together using luting. Molds were utilized to make the faces, and at least ten different face casts may have been used. After that, clay was applied to offer individual facial features to make each figure appear unique. When assembled, they were arranged in a precise military formation based on rank and duty.
Most of the figures were armed with actual weapons, which would have added to their authenticity. Over 40,000 bronze weaponry objects have been discovered. Swords, daggers, spears, lances, battle-axes, scimitars, shields, crossbows, and crossbow triggers are among the weapons excavated. The majority of these weapons were looted or rusted away soon after the army was formed. Before burial, certain weapons were coated with a 10 - 15 millimeter layer of chromium dioxide, which was initially thought to have safeguarded them from degradation for the past 2200 years. According to research published in 2019, the chromium was contamination from adjacent lacquer, not a technique of safeguarding the weaponry.
So how did these weapons last the test of time? They were most likely preserved by the burial soil's slightly alkaline pH and microscopic particle size. The weapons were made from an alloy of copper, tin, and other elements like nickel, magnesium, and cobalt. Some have inscriptions dating their creation to between 245 and 228 BCE, showing that they were used prior to burial. Under a scanning electron microscope, grinding and polishing marks reveal the earliest industrial usage of lathes for polishing.
Powder diffraction experiments combined with energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy and micro-X-ray fluorescence analysis revealed in 2007 that the process of producing terracotta figures coloured with Chinese purple dye made of barium copper silicate was derived from the knowledge gained by the Taoist alchemists.
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