Back in 221 B.C., China's first emperor wanted to make sure he was well-protected in the afterlife. So he created an army to accompany him to his tomb. An army of 7,000 warriors –- made completely of terra cotta.
It's a monument to a man who clearly considered himself worth the effort. In his lifetime, Emperor Qin Shihuangdi conquered all of the warring states and united the region into what we now know as China. He standardized written script, currency and measurements, and built a network of roads.
Fifteen of his soldiers, life-sized and ready for battle, are part of the largest exhibition of the terra cotta figures ever to tour the U.S. There are also weapons, animals, coins and other items from the emperor's burial site.
Curator Al Dien remembers the moment he saw his first terra cotta warrior, in China in 1977. "As we rounded a corner, there was, on display, the kneeling archer," he says. "I was so excited that the people accompanying us insisted I sit down. They thought I was going to have some sort of heart attack."
"There are over 7,000 figures," Dien says. Before the discovery of the army, the only burial figures that had been found were small and rather crude. "This kind of life-size, realistic portrayals, down to the fingernails — even the strands of hair on the head are depicted — where did that come from?"
"It was a creation out of nothing like it before," Dien continues. "There was no line of development — say, as you had in Greece, with sculpture over centuries before the great statues were made. Here, it was something that was done almost on the spot."
The tour's last stop in the U.S. is the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. Museum director Susan Norton marvels at the extraordinary effort it took to build the army. "I don't really think we can imagine having 700,000 people work on a project." That's how many workers it took to build the tomb, experts believe.