Demystifying Iconography #2 | Terracotta Warriors

Demystifying Iconography #2 | Terracotta Warriors


By Ria Sarkar

Welcome back to Demystifying Iconography! In the previous article, you became acquainted with iconography as a discipline and learnt how to identify Shiva Nataraja and his look, attire, ornaments and accompaniments. Today we'll shift our focus across the border to our northern neighbours - China!

What is a terracotta warrior and how do we identify one?

terracotta warrior iconography

A terracotta warrior is part of The Terracotta Army found in Xi'an, Shaanxi province where it was first discovered. It is a collection of terracotta sculptures housed in an underground funerary pit, that are life size representations of the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. In many cultures around the world, notably the Egyptians, funerary rituals included burying the dead with their possessions, protective figures or gold acquired during their lifetime. This was an art form only affordable by members of royal families and noblemen as a huge number of labourers were required to construct a project of this magnitude. The terracotta figures from Qin's army were buried along with the emperor in 210-209 BC and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. The tomb complex has four pits (see image below) that have been partially excavated in which three are filled with the terracotta warriors, horse-drawn chariots, and weapons. The fourth pit is empty suggesting that the work was unfinished and could not be completed before Qin's death.

Facts & Figures
Created: 210 B.C.
Discovered: 29 March 1974
Who found them: Farmers digging a water well nearby
Total figures: 8000 (estimated)
Area: Tomb complex spread over 20 square miles

terracotta army

The process

These warrior figures were painstakingly made piece by piece with the help of thousands of artisans. First the workers extracted clay in rough blocks from Lishan Hill which were kneaded with water, quartz sand, mica and feldspar. Starting with the feet, artisans moulded each section separately and compiled them one after the other ending with the head. Once the basic model was completed, skilled artisans would add the detailing on the armour, facial features and rest of the body before it was sent for kilning. A few holes were made on the torso or arms to provide ventilation and avoid breakage during the kilning process. After this the figures were left to dry in the shade for 12-24 hours.

What's interesting to note is that post kilning, these figures were covered with coats of lacquer and painted using pigments from minerals and bones. Unfortunately, with time the paint has almost completely vanished leaving only the base form in clay.

To understand the iconography of a terracotta warrior, first we need to know about the different types of warriors in Qin's army.

Warrior types
(from lowest to highest ranking)

Left WarriorLeft Warrior

Charioteer - They are shown sporting a simple armour made of 197 plates (without armour for the shoulder called 'pauldrons'). His posture and hands suggest he held leather reins that have eroded away over time.

Left Warrior - Accompanying the charioteer, each chariot had a warrior holding a crossbow, spears or Chinese dagger-axes called 'Ge'. Attire is similar to a charioteer with the addition of real weapons.

Standing archer - With hair tied neatly into buns, standing archers are in a pose that shows them looking alert and ready to shoot.They sport light robes instead of heavy armour to provide higher mobility.

Kneeling archer - Similar in attire to the standing archer, these figures were shown to be kneeling as it allows the warrior better aim and agility. They are also more difficult to spot by enemies.

Kneeling ArcherKneeling Archer
Standing ArcherStanding Archer

High ranking officers - These figures have many variations in terms of expressions, adornments and placement of the hands. Their armour is decorated with geometric patterns accompanied by pauldrons in some of them. The beard, moustache and headgear help one identify their hierarchy. The more exquisite the headgear and beard, higher is the possibility of such a figure being a general. The generals are also 9 inches taller than the rest of the warriors.

Here is an example of what a General looks like below, along with its iconography.

Terracotta Warrior 210 B.C.

Therefore, with the help of iconography, now you can confidently identify a terracotta warrior and distinguish between an archer and a general, or an archer and a charioteer; and also understand the context of their origin.

Keep following Demystifying Iconography to learn about many more icons and break down their characteristics!

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