A half-scale reproduction of a 2,200-year-old chariot is part of the “Terra Cotta Warriors” exhibit at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. (Children's Museum of Indianapolis)

A small army has invaded Indianapolis. Several Chinese soldiers traveled by land and air all the way from Xian, in the province of Shaanxi, and have gathered at the Children’s Museum in the capital of Indiana.

But don’t worry: No one is in danger, because the warriors are made of clay.

The clay, or terra cotta, army is part of a blockbuster exhibit that opened at the museum this past weekend. It marks the first time in the 40 years since their discovery that China’s famed Terra Cotta Warriors have gone on display in a children’s museum.

The emperor’s painted army

In 1974, in a village near Xian, China, a group of farmers dug up a clay head. It came from the massive tomb complex of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi (pronounced “Chin She-hwahng-dee”). Later, archaeologists discovered thousands of life-size terra cotta warriors buried in earthen pits near Emperor Qin’s 2,200-year-old tomb.

Each figure had been handcrafted and painted in bold colors. Today, most of the warriors appear brown or gray. That’s because seconds after archaeologists expose the paint to the air, it begins to crack and disintegrate. But new techniques are finally allowing scientists to preserve the ancient paint. So tucked inside one of the crates sent from China was a painted warrior head.

You be the scientist

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is located in a brightly colored building in the heart of the city. Contained within its walls are more than 120,000 objects from around the world. But the museum is not designed only for kids. It is a world-class institution that specializes in family learning.

“We necessarily create spaces where adults and children can learn together, manipulate things together, talk together and enjoy the exhibit together,” says the museum’s president, Jeffrey Patchen.

The museum’s newest gallery, called “Take Me There: China,” immerses visitors in Chinese culture. Kids can practice calligraphy, learn about kung fu and explore modern Beijing. To kick off the new gallery, which opened on Saturday, museum curators brought in “Terra Cotta Warriors: The Emperor’s Painted Army.”

“In the exhibit, you get a little background on the emperor. You get to see an extraordinarily well-preserved head with a good amount of paint on it that the scientists have been able to preserve, and then leap right into a lab environment,” explains Charity Counts, the museum’s associate vice president of exhibits.

The lab is like a giant playground for kids and adults. Visitors can mold their own miniature terra cotta warriors or sculpt a life-size warrior face, just as the craftsmen did more than 2,000 years ago. Computer interactives reveal the secrets behind the paint that the workers applied to the clay figures and allow guests to digitally paint their own archer or general. Kids also can take on the role of archaeologist and piece together a life-size, 3-D puzzle of a kneeling archer.

This unique experience is the only opportunity to see the Terra Cotta Warriors up close in 2014 in the United States. The army is set to march back to China in November.

— Ashlee Brown Blewett

If you go

Where: The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, 3000 North Meridian Street, Indianapolis, Indiana.

When: “Terra Cotta Warriors: The Emperor’s Painted Army” runs through November 2; “Take Me There: China” will be on display for three to four years. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

How old: All ages.

How much: “Take Me There: China” is included in the cost of general admission ($14.50 for ages 2 to 17, $19.50 for ages 18 to 59, $18.50 for age 60 and older).
“Terra Cotta Warriors: The Emperor’s Painted Army” requires an additional fee ($5 for kids,
$10 for adults, $7.50 for seniors).

More information: Have a parent call 317-334-4000 or go to www.childrensmuseum.org.