This summer we in Seattle have been fortunate to see the touring exhibit of the Terra-cotta Warriors of China’s first emperor. Archeologists are still excavating the site in Xi’an, China, where thousands more are still buried. So far approximately 2,000 of these clay soldiers have been discovered and reassembled. There could be 8,000 more plus life-size horses, chariots, and weapons.
They were produced more than 2,000 years ago to ensure the protection and power of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di in the afterlife. This emperor had the power and wealth to furnish his tomb with whatever he desired for the next life. It’s a testament to human ingenuity and craftsmanship. The exhibit at the Pacific Science Center displays only a fraction of the unearthed artifacts. One display features an assembly line of laborers forming the clay, using molds for various parts of the body, attaching the pieces, individualizing the heads, then carrying the finished product to the fire pit.
The numbers are impressive, not just the quantity of these soldiers and generals produced, but their individual faces and the immaculate detail of their armor, hair, and headgear that mirror the military dress requirements of those times. I wonder whose faces they replicated. Did they use their own and their fellow laborers? Their family members? We will probably never know.
Archeologists have confirmed that these warriors once were painted in brilliant colors, which have since disintegrated. Finding this army was astounding enough, but then the discovery of the rich details provided for each soldier confirms that no expense was spared to meet the emperor’s requirements.
Indeed, how many laborers would it have taken to construct this memorial site, dig the pits for the army to stand in, produce the materials for these warriors and other bronze artifacts, craft everything, and house and feed everyone? The untouched tomb itself probably holds incredible riches. Experts estimate it took ten years and over 700,000 laborers to complete.
As a writer, I want the untold stories of these laborers, presumably slaves. However, these likely would not be happy stories. Just as it’s not likely there were any records kept that might have survived or that any of these laborers might have been literate and kept some kind of diary. Was there great suffering? Did the laborers experience moments of pride, even awe, in being involved in such a grand project, something never done before? Did the laborers even know this project was for the emperor?
What we know is that after years of hard labor, everyone working on the site was killed to safeguard the location and all that it contained. They were exterminated and buried in mass graves.
The exhibit was worth seeing. However, lurking below the magnificence and wonder of it all, we find once again the very real human cost of grandiose achievements. The best and worst of humanity is on display with China’s Terracotta Warriors.