The Terracotta Warriors – Artefacts in Context?

The Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum in Xi’an China, known popularly for its Terracotta Warriors, is an archaeological marvel. But what does the site actually consist of, how has the museum managed to display a set of artefacts on such a colossal, breath-taking scale. In a new series on MuseumCraft, we take a look at Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum in Xi’an China, known popularly for its Terracotta Warriors. #ComissionsEarned this post includes Amazon Affiliate links – as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Terracotta Warriors represent an interesting contrast for Western Euro-centric audiences. As a general concept, they’re quite rightly famous the world over as one of the most identifiable archaeological sites on the planet. If you can name one archaeological site in China, it’s probably the Terracotta Warriors.However, most people outside China have no knowledge of Chinese history itself or the context of the finds – I count myself firmly in that camp. Over my three years of undergraduate study, I spent a single week writing just one essay on any Chinese history (on Tang dynasty politics and the essay was an absolute dumpster fire).

Chinese History

The Terracotta Warriors are part of the burial architecture of the First Qin Emperor of China (259-210 BC), widely credited with unifying the country. As funerary archaeology goes, it’s pretty damn impressive – lines of terracotta warriors (and musicians, performers, generals etc.) marching through the landscape. They likely represent an attempt to provide for the afterlife, and the Emperor himself seems to have had a focus on immortality.

The warriors were originally painted, but exposing them to heat and sunlight after excavation appears to cause fading and peeling of the paint at a rate impossible to halt. In this respect, an interesting comparison might be drawn with Classical Roman statues, which were also once painted (quite shockingly, in fact, as you can see below). It’s a valuable reminder that the way that peoples of the past experienced certain artefacts – their shapes, sizes and colours – is not always the same as how we experience the remains of their civilization. You can see a little bit more about this process here.

However, it’s important to remember that the Warriors are not actually themselves the main focus of the area. The tomb of the Emperor himself remains unexcavated, and is supposedly filled with an array of defensive traps and rivers of mercury that would make Indiana Jones jealous. For anyone interested in reading some more of the background information on the period (and I’d highly recommend it) John Man’s book is an accessible and enjoyable read for people like me who started with no prior knowledge at all, and is available on Amazon here. If you fancy a slightly more in-depth look through primary sources, Sima Qian’s The First Emperor is a great place to start, and is available on Amazon here.

The Museum

Located in Xi’an, the Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum is genuinely the best museum I have ever been to in my life. No contest. The English language webpage for the museum can be found here (

What is remarkable primarily is the sheer scale of the site – entering into the main hall is genuinely breath-taking. We’re used to seeing items in museums decontextualised in glass cases, and very limited in numbers. When the British Museum put on their exhibition for the Terracotta Warriors in 2007, just 12 examples were brought over – this was impressive enough. The original site in China, however, contains over 8,000… Take a look at the 3D video below – it can never do justice to the sense of scale in person, but it’s a good start.

That lack of de-contextualisation is taken to the extreme here. Although later halls are in a more traditional museum format, with explanation boards and display cases, the first hall is simply a raised walkway around a colossal set of Warriors. You get the feeling you are very much in an archaeological site that has just had a quick roof thrown over, not least because the hall has a repair station at the far end where archaeologists can be seen analysing finds.

This is fascinatingly unique and it lends a pretty novel approach to museum-craft. For one, the Warriors can be explored in a much more 3D approach than those locked away in cabinets – a walkway around the hall allows you to see them from all angles. Instead of the eery lighting and distance of most museums, you’re begin to see these items – their materiality and form – more genuinely. But perhaps more significantly, it allows us to begin to understand the context in which these finds were found, in which they were laid out by their original makers – in huge, awe-inspiring lines of marching soldiers.

Proximity-wise this is clearly a big ask forWestern audiences but if you ever find yourself in China it’s well worth traveling over to Xi’an (itself an extremely impressive historic town) just to see the Warriors.

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