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China's Terracotta Warriors

Secrets of the Dead Video Review

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Secrets of the Dead - China's Terracotta Warriors

Secrets of the Dead - China's Terracotta Warriors

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Secrets of the Dead: China's Terracotta Warriors. 2011. Natural History New Zealand LTD for Channel Thirteen, WNET and National Geographic. Produced and written by Steven R. Talley. Featuring international researchers in many different fields, including Jin Hongwei, Zhang Zhongli, Guo Xingwen, Yuan Zhongyi, Glen Cameron, Zhang Binruo, Han Pingzhe, Yan Fuxing, Liu Zhangcheng, Mao Sanxue, Zhou Tie, Catherina Blaensdorf, Zhi Liu, Apurva Mehta, Nobumichi Tamura, Eric Palm, Suchitra Sebastian, and Neil Harrison. Narrated by Liev Schreiber. 54 minutes, DVD and Blu-Ray, English subtitles for Chinese dialogue.

The 2011 video from the Public Broadcasting Service's Secrets of the Dead series called China's Terracotta Warriors is crammed, simply crammed full of information about the studies which have been undertaken on this fascinating bit of ancient history. And eevn so, the video only scratches the surface of the complex investigations. Archaeology, history, anthropology, sculpture, experimental replication, conservation issues, even physics: all of these topics have a role, even if only fleeting, in this terrific video.

Terracotta Warriors

The Terracotta Warriors of the title refers to an army of statues made of fired clay pottery, 8,000 of them, each 6.5 foot tall and weighing 650 pounds, each individually carved, painted and lacquered, and buried near the tomb of the Qin dynasty leader Shi Huangdi. Shi Huangdi is recognized as the man who united China for the first time, after some pretty bloody battles, about 220 BC. The statues were built and buried, along with a scale replica of the emperor's palace and grounds including a lake and river of mercury, when Emperor Qin died, in 210 BC. There they were hidden from living eyes until 1974, when workmen discovered them near the modern (and ancient) town of Xi'an.

In the 35 years since the rediscovery of the statues, much has been learned about them: not the least the cultural shifts in Chinese history that the sculptures represent. Archaeologists have been known to characterize the terracotta soldiers as an extremely expensive display of power, costly to both the emperor and the communities in which he ruled. But, as the video points out, the sculptures are a symbolic replacement for an even more costly display: the sacrifice of a ruler's entire court, hundreds of people killed at the funeral of the ruler to accompany him into the after world. That was typical of the Zhou dynasty burial customs just a few hundred years before the Qin emperor's tomb was built. The cost of human sacrifice is far more expensive than the labor of some 1,000 workers for a dozen years.

Building a 650 Pound Figurine

China's Terracotta Warriors

China's Terracotta Warriors - still from the Video

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The sculptures themselves, however, also have things to tell us: the logistics of creating eight thousand, individually-stylized 650-pound statues have been the subject of numerous studies, the results of some of which are presented here. For example, a company which builds replicas for tourists has been making terracotta soldiers for a couple of decades, and they can make a statue in 10 days to 2 weeks: but that's only if they use molds and modern heating facilities.

The Qin dynasty workmen did use molds on hands and feet, but the body and heads were all individually built. Experts at mass production for bronze arrow points and pottery vessels, the Qin dynasty craftsmen clearly were required to build each statue one at a time, using a modified coiled method.

When the modern team tried making the statues in the Qin way, the process lengthened to a month. And that does not figure in the requirements that the ambient temperature for drying the clay must stay some 20 degrees centrigrade (68 degrees fahrenheit): in the Xi'an region, that's only true for six months out of the year. We know how many workmen there were: researchers have discovered 87 different signatures on the soldiers, surely representing 87 different teams of potters who assembled these amazing statues. Fascinating stuff!

Most remarkable, although I admit I'm having a hard time figuring out what truly is the most remarkable thing about these statues, is what scholars have learned about the painting and lacquering processes undertaken by Qin's craftsmen. Each of the statues was colorfully painted and completely covered with lacquer to preserve the paint, including the mysterious Chinese Purple. Unfortunately, when the statues were unearthed in the 1970s, within minutes, the exposure to the air made the lacquer coating dry up and flake off taking the colors with it. We've all seen images of the grey to brown terracotta statues: in China's Terracotta Warriors, we finally get a glimpse of what the painted and complete statues might have looked like when they were completed and shown to the emperor himself. See the Painted Soldiers list below to get an idea yourself.

Bottom Line

Secrets of the Dead: China's Terracotta Warriors is a fascinating snack of an anthropology-focused video, with so many discovered tidbits that you'll probably be like me: hungry for more.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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