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For more than 2,000 years an army lay dormant under China’s soil until a farmer stumbled upon a clay head while digging a well in 1974. The head belonged to one of an estimated 7,000 terracotta soldiers stationed to protect the tomb of the country’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi. It was one of the most important archeological finds of the century.
In 221 B.C., Qin Shihuangdi, the king of an area called Qin (pronounced Chin), conquered the region’s other six warring states, uniting them to form what is now China. He standardized currency, writing, measurement, built a Great Wall (not the one we know today), organized a vast army and gave birth to a nation. He wanted those accomplishments replicated and preserved for his tomb outside the city of Xian.
Today, after more than 30 years of excavation, an area of twenty-three square miles has been uncovered, revealing offices, parks and what appears to be a river bank populated by statues of birds and musicians. The emperor’s final resting place has yet to be unearthed. The legions of sculpted soldiers stand watch over it all, and a number of them are now on view in the United States.
[Listen to David Brenneman of the High Museum of Art talk about the terracotta army in this narrated slide show.
Creating the terracotta army took more than 1,000 men in an assembly line, yet not one soldier is alike. Basic shapes were mass produced using a handful of different molds, but the heads were worked individually by hand, creating distinct facial features and hairstyles that captured the various ranks of the soldiers and the ethnic diversity of the infant empire. Each soldier stands over six feet.
Now on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, visitors get a chance to see the craftsmanship that went into the enormous tomb complex. The exhibit features more than 100 works, including nine soldiers, a court official, a chariot horse, strongman and the recently discovered birds and musicians.
After leaving Atlanta on April 19, the soldiers can be seen at the Houston Museum of Natural Science from May 18 to Sept. 25 and then at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., starting Nov. 19.
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