22 April 2018

Research: Strong Men, Food Animals and Terracotta Warriors

Fiction writers have a tendency to spend long hours creating, often to the detriment of replenishing their creative well. I particularly enjoy going off-topic. It gives pause for a little perspective on the work-in-progress and I never know what interesting snippets of info might spark an idea.

The reason I was in Chester to view its Roman artefacts (see posts one and two) was to visit nearby Liverpool to take in an exhibition at the city’s World Museum: “China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors”.

Terracotta general
Facsimile showing original colouring
Back in the mists of time, or 475-221 BC, the seven major states/kingdoms of China participated in hostilities on such a scale that the period is known as the Warring States Era. Born into one of these, the Qin state, was Zhao Zheng who, at thirteen years of age, ascended to its throne. Twenty-five years and many battles later, he was announced as Qin Shi Huang – First Emperor of Qin – and of a united China which he set about extending.

His reign oversaw bureaucratic standardisation on a massive scale: currency, weights & measures, the Chinese script to aid written communication, axle lengths to aid the transport system;  new roads and canals were built, and various western boundaries were amalgamated into what is now known as the Great Wall of China.
Modern replica of excavated half-size chariot to accompany the Emperor

He also looked to the future, and like many who come to believe their own hype, was determined to either discover the elixir of life and thus live and rule forever or, as the next best thing, set himself up for resurrection in similar style. The elixir seemed to involve jade and mercury, which probably helped end his life aged 49. As to his resurrection, there were texts written after his death, rumours about the siting of his tomb, broken terracotta artefacts dismissed as being from close generations. Then in 1974, farmers digging a well… So began proper archaeological excavations, the uncovering of the first Terracotta Warriors and a reassessing of archaeological expectations.

In the same way the circles of raised stones at Britain’s Stonehenge is only a small part of its ritual landscape, so the located tomb of Qin Shi Huang is only a small part (about the size of a football pitch) of the necropolis designed to continue his luxurious life after death, believed to cover 38 square miles.

Detail of bronze cauldron (212kg) used by strongmen in acrobatic feats

Stable boy
As well as the army of over 8,000, plus chariots and cavalry, there is stabling and stable boys – all in terracotta, most life-size. There are bureaucrats, service workers, musicians, acrobats and strongmen, animals intended to feed them all, and animals for pleasure gardens, all in beautifully crafted and painted terracotta.

Alas, as soon as excavations began, problems arose. Within minutes of being exposed to the air, painted surfaces began to curl and flake, which is why the artefacts are plain, or bear only faint glimpses of original bright colours.

However, it has also stayed the hand of over-exuberant archaeologists for fear of destroying as much as is revealed. The tomb of Qin Shi Huang remains intact, though probes have revealed chemical readings for mercury off the scale. Perhaps later written texts were not so far from the mark.
A selection of animals for the pot

The exhibition in Liverpool displays eight excavated warriors, two replica half-size chariots  in bronze (the originals inlaid with silver), and 160 other artefacts, which I found the most fascinating. Who would have thought such a big thing would have been made of heating wine? Or the fine detail of a bronze cauldron weighing 212kg (467lbs) used by strongmen in an acrobatic performance? Or that one man’s megalomania would provide such insight into the craftsmanship and organisational skills of ordinary people 200+ years before our own current calendar began?

This is the sort of stuff writers get out from off-topic research. It certainly replenishes the creative well.

The exhibition “China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors” continues at the World Museum, Liverpool, until 28 October 2018. The museum’s own collections are well worth a visit, too, as are all the museums and galleries close by.

Click images to resize.

All images are the author’s own, (c) Linda Acaster.


  1. Linda - with these excellent side-trips you're probably bubbling with ideas.

    1. Well, you have to take them when you can, Sharon. It's not often something of this stature comes to the north of England. Or north of Britain, for that matter. Just pleased to be able to share a little of them. There will be more as the year progresses!