In D.C., Chinese history finds new 'Terra' firma

National Geographic to exhibit 2,000-year-old figures through March

The National Geographic Museum prepares for its exhibition of the famed Terra Cotta Warriors, the ancient sculptures of a cavalrymen who once protected the tomb of China's first Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi.
By Jacqueline Trescott
Friday, November 6, 2009

Thursday, 10 a.m.: A hefty blue cargo crate is wheeled into a brand-new gallery at the National Geographic Museum. Seven sets of hands carefully guide the crate into position in the exhibition area.

The whir of screwdrivers is the only sound for a few minutes before Ben Gage, a rigger, orders the lid removed. Gage peers into the crate and whips out a tape measure. The team, comprising Chinese and National Geographic workers, cautiously lifts the crate off two dollies. They loosen a set of wrapped wooden rods. Then, with a quick, precise count, seven people tip the crate to a standing position. More screws are removed. The team slowly moves its cargo out of the crate and settles it on the floor.

And there he is -- an ancient sculpture of a cavalryman who once protected the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi. There he is, more than 2,000 years old, dug up from the Chinese countryside in 1977 and now standing in downtown Washington. He is one of the famed Terra Cotta Warriors, sculpted before the days of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, almost ready for his Washington audience.

Anticipation, not nervousness, fills the closed gallery, with everyone moving quickly under the watchful eye of Richard McWalters, National Geographic's director of exhibits, and Gage, a local artist and art handler. But every now and then, you can detect a trace of anxiety on their faces. It is the bane of every museum professional: No one knows what might happen. Watching from the edge of the gallery is Susan Norton, the museum's director, and she admits to some jitters. "I do feel very nervous when they are being opened up. You know everything is secure because they are packed by the most professional of packers. But they are terra cotta," Norton says.

By now the warrior has been gingerly extracted from the crate, his head protected by packing materials, green straps holding other cushioning around his shoulders and the hem of his robe. He looks about 5 feet 8, arms resting at his side, open palms pointing down.

As it happens, this particular warrior is the first one the public will encounter beginning Nov. 19, when the National Geographic show "Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor" opens. Beside him will be a 750-pound horse, also made of terra cotta. This day, the horse is still behind the scenes, but a huge rig is at the fringe of the gallery, ready for the same delicate treatment, an installation that could take up to a day.

The warriors are a magnetic attraction, both because of their legendary history and the way they, along with 7,000 other sculptures, were discovered: accidentally. The Washington exhibition offers the public the rare chance to examine these lifelike figures up close, each sculpted by hand, no two faces alike. The 15 warriors -- each arriving in his own crate -- that will be on exhibit at National Geographic are the largest group of them to tour the United States.

When the statues traveled to London in 2007 and 2008, the British Museum was forced to turn people away -- even though the museum kept its doors open until midnight four days a week. The Houston Museum of Natural Science, where the warriors stopped before venturing to Washington, kept the museum open 24 hours on the final weekend. For now, National Geographic is keeping its regular hours, which include extended hours on Wednesday nights, but you can bet that the museum will monitor attendance closely. (When National Geographic announced in January that the show was coming, it also announced it would charge admission for the first time. Prices range from $12 for adults to $6 for children, ages 2 to 12. To date, Geographic officials say, 70,000 tickets have been sold.)

The Terra Cotta Warriors show contains almost 100 other objects, including two bronze replicas of chariots that were buried in the tomb complex in China. In addition to the warriors, there are terra cotta animals, musicians, a stable attendant and a court official. The objects arrived Oct. 28 in two 18-wheel tractor-trailers.

The discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors sent thrills through the archaeology community and the complex where they were found is a World Heritage Site, protected forever.

It was in 1974 that a group of farmers, digging a well outside the town of Xi'an in central China, discovered the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi, who ruled the country from 221 to 210 B.C. It had been underground for more than 2,000 years. As they excavated, Chinese archaeologists discovered a vault with thousands of figures, including 2,000 soldiers, 100 chariots, 400 horses and 300 cavalry horses. It is estimated that 700,000 workers participated in building the underground complex, an effort that lasted more than 36 years. The warrior sculptures were lined up in formation, arranged to protect the emperor in the afterlife.

To accommodate the size of the artifacts and provide enough room for visitors to move around the statues, National Geographic has renovated its first-floor space. It doubled the gallery space and will retain the new configuration after the show closes on March 31.

Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor

Nov. 19 to March 31 at National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW. Call 202-857-7700 or visit

© 2009 The Washington Post Company