Armoured infantryman, terracotta

One of the big events in the city right now is the Terracotta Army display at the British Museum. Requiring more than a year of negotiation and as much prep, this display has been set up in the Reading Room with much ado. The BBC filmed a documentary on the entire event. which is quite fascinating.

The museum is very different than the Natural History Museum as it is dedicated primarily to the evolution of civilization. From their site:

The British Museum holds in trust for the nation and the world a collection of art and antiquities from ancient and living cultures.

Housed in one of Britain’s architectural landmarks, the collection is one of the finest in existence, spanning two million years of human history. Access to the collection is free.

The Museum was based on the practical principle that the collection should be put to public use and be freely accessible. It was also grounded in the Enlightenment idea that human cultures can, despite their differences, understand one another through mutual engagement. The Museum was to be a place where this kind of humane cross-cultural investigation could happen. It still is.

On a personal note, I would not consider it the most exciting museum for children but one of great interest for adults. One of the most interesting items is the Rosetta Stone, a tablet that provides a guide that helped researchers decipher hieroglyphics:

The Rosetta Stone is one of the most important objects in the British Museum as it holds the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs – a script made up of small pictures that was used originally in ancient Egypt for religious texts. Hieroglyphic writing died out in Egypt in the fourth century AD. Over time the knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs was lost, until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 and its subsequent decipherment.

Everywhere you walk you see ancient text and walls that have been moved to the museum, like the one below which is the architrave of Ptahshepses, Fifth Dynasty, recording his birth, marriage and career under 4 kings of the Fifth Dynasty:

2007 Jan Terracotta Army Brit Museum  (10)

One hall was dedicated to King Ashurbanipal (635-645 BC) and stone engravings from Nineveh, his North Palace in Assyria.The panels were entitled ‘Royal Lion Hunt’. The ‘royal’ hunt went something like this, lions were released while the king flew around the stadium on either a horse or a chariot. He would shoot the lions with a bow while attendants guarded him if a lion got to close. I found myself staring at the walls and feeling very sad as so many of the pictures showed the poor, noble beasts being slaughtered by a cowardly king, hiding behind his attendants. There is nothing noble in killing an animal for sport. Below are the photos of the walls, you will see what I mean.


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This one was particularly poignant. You can almost see the pain.

2007 Jan Terracotta Army Brit Museum  (15)


2007 Jan Terracotta Army Brit Museum  (18)

You can view more here and here. Interesting insight from their site:

Struck by one of the king’s arrows, blood gushes from the lion’s mouth. Veins stand out on its face. From a modern viewpoint, it is tempting to think that the artist sympathized with the dying animal. However, lions were regarded as symbolizing everything that was hostile to urban civilization and it is more probable that the viewer was meant to laugh, not cry.

There was a very long tradition of royal lion hunts in Mesopotamia, with similar scenes known from the late fourth millennium BC. The connection between kingship and lions was probably brought to western Europe as a result of the crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries AD, when lions begin to decorate royal coats of arms.


The finale was the Terracotta Army, brought to life by Qin Shihuangdi, the first founding emperor of China. His story is fascinating as he took what was one of the smaller feudal kingdoms and quickly conquered the kingdoms around him (It took 9 years).

During his reign, he also introduced a host of innovations that would spur the growth of China:

  • Farmers, no longer enslaved servants, were allowed to own their land, and production increased.
  • He reoganized the feudal kingdoms into 26 jun (provinces) that were ruled by appointed officials. Military and administrative appointments, which had previously been determined by noble birth, were now decided by merit.
  • He introduced a standard coin, standard written language and a weight and measure system to facilitate trade. He also built roads, canals and started construction of the Great Wall of China.

He also built the Terracotta Army which is estimated to have taken 36 years and 700,000 workers to build:

The Terracotta Army (traditional Chinese: 兵馬俑; simplified Chinese: 兵马俑; pinyin: bīngmǎ yǒng; literally "soldier and horse funerary statues") or Terracotta Warriors and Horses is a collection of 8,099 larger than life Chinese terra cotta figures of warriors and horses located near the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (Chinese: 秦始皇陵; pinyin: Qín Shǐhuáng líng). The figures vary in height according to their rank; the tallest being the Generals. The heights range is 184-197cm (6ft – 6ft 5in), or more than a full foot taller than the average soldier of the period. The figures were discovered in 1974 near Xi’an, Shaanxi province, China by a local farmer.

The Terracotta Army was buried with the Emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huangdi) in 210209 BC (his reign over Qin was from 247 BC to 221 BC and unified China from 221 BC to the end of his life in 210 BC). Their purpose was to help rule another empire with Shi Huangdi in the afterlife. Consequently, they are also sometimes referred to as "Qin’s Armies".

Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed and in the end my son was left with the following comment:

‘Is that it? There are supposed to be 7,000 of them – not 30?’

Image:Xian museum.jpg

A cool trip.


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  1. Pingback: TERRACOTTA ARMY, XI’AN – Michael Weening: via Tokyo

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