GUY RAZ, Host:
The site is located near the city of Xian. And as President Obama visits China today, some of those terra cotta warriors are visiting Washington, D.C.
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RAZ: Unidentified Men: (Foreign language spoken)
RAZ: Stanford Professor Al Dien curated this exhibition. He's an emeritus professor of Chinese history. And back in 1977, he traveled to the city of Xian to see them just a few years after local farmers discovered the site.
AL DIEN: And as we rounded a corner, there was on display the kneeling archer, and I was so excited that the people accompanying us took me over to the side and insisted I sit down. They thought I was going to have some kind of a heart attack.
RAZ: Thankfully, he didn't, and over the years, he's seen hundreds more.
DIEN: What is most amazing is that previous to the creation of this army, the only figures that we had were small, rather crude figures that were put into tombs to accompany the deceased in the other world, and 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. There was no line of development, let's 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. I mean, you think about life-size horses being put into kilns of that size, of that weight, just really incredible.
RAZ: Back at the National Geographic Museum, the director, Susan Norton, takes us to see the warriors.
SUSAN NORTON: And of course, every one is different. The faces are different, the headpieces are different. As you can see, the clothing or - the detail and the extraordinary effort to do this was huge. I mean, I don't even think we can really imagine having 700,000 people work on a project.
RAZ: Seven hundred thousand. That's the number of workers archeologists believe helped build the terra cotta army and the burial site for the emperor Qin Shi Huang Di.
NORTON: So he did not sit around twiddling his thumbs.
RAZ: No, he didn't, and neither did those 700,000 people who built this tomb.
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NORTON: That's true.
RAZ: Incredible. All right. So what do we have over here? I see - this is a chariot?
NORTON: This is a chariot with horses.
RAZ: And over here, we have a warrior or an archer.
NORTON: The kneeling archer, and you'll see on the kneeling archer some of the pigmentation. These were actually - the warriors were painted in primary colors, and over the years, that paint has gone away. This particular piece still has some reddish tones, and the face is pink. That's actually what they did look like.
RAZ: What they look like. And every face is different.
RAZ: And the expressions are different, and the features - and I wonder if, I mean, it would be impossible to know, but presumably, some of the people working on these statues modeled them on themselves.
NORTON: Well, and that, of course, is the big mystery because if there are 7,000, which there are believed to be, and of the thousand that they have found, all are different, it is believed that these were modeled after someone, whether the people building them themselves or, you know, whether they had models who were actually part of the emperor's entourage.
RAZ: You can see pictures of that entourage of warriors Susan Norton was describing at our Web site, npr.org. And if you're coming to Washington, D.C., between now and the end of March, you can see them in person at the National Geographic Museum.
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