Marching Orders

The first emperor of China’s terracotta army makes a stop in Richmond.

Director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Alex Nyerges says that during each of the dozens of times he has traveled to the Shaanxi province of China and stood before the pits containing approximately 8,000 life-size terracotta sculptures of warriors created 2,200 years ago during the Qin dynasty, he has expected not to be overwhelmed. 

But every time, “I am awed to the point not only am I speechless,” he says, “it literally takes my breath away. It is the most impressive archeological discovery I have ever laid my eyes on. … There is something about the eternal nature of Emperor Qin’s burial site that is grander and more amazing than anything that’s been done in the history of humankind.”

Ten larger-than-life figures from the tomb of Qin Shihuang, each unique and weighing more than 400 pounds, along with more than 130 works of art drawn from the collections of 14 art museums and archeological institutes across the Shaanxi province will be on display until March 11 in a new exhibition, Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China.

In development for two years, the exhibition was curated by Li Jian, VMFA’s S. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Curator of East Asian Art. It was created in partnership with the Cincinnati Art Museum, where it will travel next, and with multiple cultural organizations in Shaanxi. Among the arms and armor, ritual bronze vessels, jade ornaments, ceramics and more that were excavated from the mausoleum, more than 40 objects are traveling to the U.S. for the first time. 

The self-declared emperor Qin unified China during his reign (221-206 BC), and established among other things, a universal writing system, national currency, interstate roadways and the Great Wall of China. Construction on Qin’s mausoleum complex was begun not long after he ascended the throne and continued for 38 years. It was first discovered in 1974.

Li Jian notes that accompanying the exhibition is special programming, including an archeologyforum as well as an interactive exhibit for children and families to learn more about the field of archeology. VMFA.org

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