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How the mind-boggling terracotta warriors were discovered

Left: An armoured general from the Qin dynasty, 221-206 BCE, part of the Terracotta Warriors exhibition at Te Papa (photographed by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy Shaanxi History Museum). Right: Curator Rebecca Rice describes the collection as “truly majestic pieces”.

Never intended to be seen by the living, China’s ancient terracotta warriors were an army for the afterlife.

It was March 1974 and northwest China was gripped by a severe drought. Farmer Yang Zhifa figured the only thing to do was dig a well to irrigate his persimmon and pomegranate trees. And it was all going to plan until his spade struck a piece of terracotta.

Thinking he’d uncovered a former kiln, Zhifa kept digging and discovered a statue. It turned out to be one of the most staggering archaeological finds of the 20th century: a terracotta army of 8000-plus figures, crafted 2300 years earlier to defend China’s first emperor in the afterlife.

Complete with horses and chariots, the statues were hidden underground in the ancient capital of Xi’an and never meant to be seen by the living. But this summer, New Zealanders will get a chance to do just that, at the Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality exhibition at Te Papa in Wellington (15 December-22 April 2019).

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Dr Rebecca Rice, the curator responsible for bringing the $2.6 million spectacle to New Zealand, says this is one of the largest international terracotta warrior exhibitions to date. “We’re lucky to have such a good relationship with our colleagues in Xi’an, who have worked with nearly 20 museums throughout Shaanxi Province to contribute pieces,” says Rice. “They’ve been extremely generous with these ancient treasures.” That includes eight two-metre-high terracotta warriors and two horses from the emperor’s mausoleum, the maximum number allowed to be released for any international showing.  

“They are truly majestic pieces,” says Rice. “The technical beauty and sophistication of these objects, which were handmade more than 2000 years ago, is mind-boggling. They also provide a unique window onto this particular time and place and help us better understand China, its people and the way its past has shaped the nation it is today.”  

The exhibition also includes more than 150 works of ancient Chinese art crafted from gold, jade, bronze and ceramics, which date from the Western Zhou through to the Qin and Han dynasties, and were found in imperial tombs near Xi’an. Rice says these pieces help give context to the famous terracotta figures. Included are tureens, vases and pendants, as well as a solid bronze goose discovered in the early 2000s in a pit not far from the first emperor’s mausoleum.

This is the third time the terracotta warriors have visited these shores, but Rice says this is by far the largest contingent to make the journey. The showing was first proposed five years ago. In 2017, Rice visited China to help select the pieces. It will be the first major international exhibition to take place in Toi Art, Te Papa’s new art gallery, and digital effects have been created to help bring the artefacts to life, including projecting detailed images of the terracotta warriors onto eight-metre-high walls.

“We want to bring the exhibits alive for people, so they can better appreciate the individuality of each piece and the incredible creativity and sophistication that went into building this remarkable army,” says Rice.

This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of North & South.

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