Secrets of the Dead: China’s Terracotta Warriors

An amazing archaeological find, the terracotta warriors date back more than two thousand years. This clay army of 8,000 including infantry, archers, generals. and cavalry was discovered by archaeologists in 1974 after farmers digging a well near the Chinese city of Xian unearthed pieces of clay sculpted in human form. But what was the purpose of this army of clay soldiers? Who ordered its construction? How were they created? Secrets of the Dead investigates the story behind China’s Terracotta Warriors and documents their return to former glory for the first time.
Year Released
Series Title
Secrets of the Dead
Date Released
May 2011
PBS (Public Broadcasting System)
Average: 4.8 (5 votes)


Please login to review this resource

Secrets of the Dead China's Terracotta Warriors

Field of Interest/Specialty: Digital Technology - Language Arts
Posted On: 01/06/2020

PBS did an excellent job in this documentary on the Terracotta Warriors. I would recommend it to all students fourth grade and higher. Parts of it would be interesting for lower grades but the length and depth would cause them to loose interest.

Review: China's Terracotta Warriors

Field of Interest/Specialty: Art
Posted On: 11/29/2017

My name is Julie Yankovich. I teach art to grades seven through twelve at Geibel Catholic Junior-Senior High School in Connellsville, Pa. I watched the film China’s Terracotta Warriors. This film is part of a series called Secrets of the Dead from PBS. They create films that capture real-life events along with a detective aspect.
This film would be appropriate for the high school level in grades ten through twelve. It may not capture the interest of students that are younger. The material discussed in certain sections might also be too vicious for a younger audience, as they briefly discuss the possible mass killings and suicides among people in the Qin court. Leaders in china were often buried with their close ones while they were alive. Such as Qin Jing Gong, who was buried with 186 living people. All tombs were numbered ahead of time and each person in the court had their own number. Human sacrifice was inhumane even in ancient times but it was something that people would do to honor their leader. They felt that if they followed their leader in this life then they could follow their leader into the next life.
They do discuss that human life became more important to China’s seven Kingdoms. Human sacrifices were no longer performed after having 250 years of war among the Kingdoms. The film shows us that pottery, and more importantly, small figurines were being buried with significant people instead of entire courts of corpses. The first Emperor to unify the seven Kingdoms in China was a fierce warrior, Qin Shihuangdi. He had the Terracotta Army commissioned to protect him in the afterlife.
There are many questions concerning the Terracotta Warriors that film examines. They look into how they created thousands in a short amount of time, such as the variety of faces, mold use, clay types, and paint and lacquer. The creators of the film spent about 10 days to two weeks creating whole warriors using molds. The problem with creating an entire warrior out of a mold is that it would collapse in its own weight. It could also heat up on the inside and explode in the kiln. They discuss the warriors being built with molds but a broken one showed a different story. The majority of them were created using coils and some parts were created with molds to expedite the process. They created them this way so they would all be different.
One more major challenge in the creation of the Terracotta Warriors were their paint colors. Once uncovered, the paint on the warriors flaked off. They were covered with a sticky resin called lacquer. This substance was difficult to obtain as it is sap from a tree. It was like a plastic from the ancient world. The people in the film were working to figure out a solution to save the paint when things are discovered.
I would introduce this film to students with basic knowledge of hand-building techniques in clay. In groups, have students brainstorm about how they think the Terracotta Warriors were created. After the film is viewed, have students compare their ideas. Were they correct on their assumptions? Students can then create their own smaller hollow warrior in clay. After the warriors have been fired in the kiln, they can glaze them using bright colors.

Review of Secrets of the Dead: China's Terracotta Warriors

Field of Interest/Specialty: Art and Art History
Posted On: 01/08/2016

Over 2000 years ago, the first Qin emperor of China, Qin Shihuangdi, had thousands of craftsmen create a lavish tomb where he could spend his eternal life. The emperor needed soldiers to protect him in the afterlife, so some 8,000 seven foot tall terra-cotta warriors were created. These figures were discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well near the Chinese city of Xian. Now scientists using the most modern technology available are studying these statues to understand how and why they were created. I found this episode of the PBS series Secrets of the Dead: China’s Terracotta Warriors to be absolutely fascinating and something I will definitely show my AP Art History class.
The first technological examination these figures were exposed to was done by facial recognition expert Glen Cameron who used Neoface (a facial recognition software) on them. What Cameron discovered was how uniquely individualized each of the 8,000 figures are. Although there are some similarities between the sculptures, there are no two figures exactly alike. Next, the terracotta warriors were examined for evidence as to how they were made. Because of their immense size (each warrior is about 7’ tall and weighs about 650 pounds), these warriors had to be made out of clay that was dense and sticky enough so that it holds together as it dries out, but not too dense that the inside of the hollow statue cannot dry out. The perfect clay was discovered near the emperor’s tomb. The emperor died only 11 years after ordering his tomb constructed. How did craftsmen manage to produce so many figures in such a short period of time? By examining the interior of the figures, it was discovered that each figure was made by hand using a coil method (the first craftsmen in China to make terracotta figures in this manner). Coiling a sculpture of this size could take a month. Archaeologists have discovered the names of 87 master craftsmen working on the figures, each master craftsman had at least 10 apprentice craftsmen working with them—this would have provided enough man power to produce 8000 figures in eight years. The warriors were originally painted with brilliant colors that when exposed to the air as they are excavated, vanish within a week. Scientists have been trying to save the original coloring of these statues for years with no success. Most recently, they have discovered why—each figure was covered from head to toe in a coating of lacquer. For ancient Chinese craftsmen, this lacquer was hard to obtain. It was harvested from the sap of the mature lacquer tree only from June to September. It is estimated that it would take the sap of 25 trees to cover one statue. Additionally, the lacquer tree is related to poison ivy and poison sumac, so touching the sap or breathing its fumes can cause extreme discomfort. As the terracotta figures are removed from the damp soil and exposed to air, the sap dries out, curls and drops off the sculpture, taking the paint with it. Based on paint samples found in the soil after years of painstaking research, scientists have been able to create two warrior replicas as they believe they looked right after they were created. Finally, it was realized that the warriors had traces of Chinese purple paint on them—a paint created by the Chinese from lead oxide and barium. It is believed that the Chinese stumbled upon this pigment while trying to create a synthetic jade material (Chinese glass) out of these two substances. Most interestingly, it was discovered that Chinese purple might lead to incredible technological breakthroughs. When Chinese purple was loaded into the core of the world’s most powerful magnet, the molecules of Chinese purple became a single magnetic wave—a unique state in quantum physics. When the temperature was further dropped, the magnetic wave lost its third dimension, separating into individual two-dimensional planes. Studying these shifts from three dimensions to two could ultimately help make better superconductors.
Not only are scientists discovering how technologically advanced Chinese craftsmen were in the production of these Terracotta Warriors, they are realizing that Chinese chemists produced something 2000 years ago that could have a major technological impact on the 21st Century. This video would be a perfect complement to a high school level course in physics, science, ceramics, Asian culture or Art History.

Interesting new look at the terracotta warriors

Field of Interest/Specialty: English
Posted On: 12/18/2014

This documentary takes a new look at the 8,000 terracotta warriors buried with the emperor. It was interesting to see how far we have come in the understanding of how the terracotta warriors were made. Today, companies make replica warriors in various sizes.
As far as using this as a teaching resource, the documentary spends most of the time explaining the process of creating the clay statues and the process of discovering how they were made through different recreation techniques. This could be used in a science classroom to show the different technological advances made in clay figures as well as the techniques to recreate and preserve the terracotta warriors. The documentary focuses mostly on the clay figures and not on the history. I believe that is partly because we are still trying to figure out some of the historical information.
Because this is a PBS production, this would work well in most grade levels. It might be interesting for younger students to see the reconstruction of the terracotta warriors, and older students might be more interested in the science behind it. It was very interesting to see a completed reconstruction of the soldiers in full colors, as they would have been originally created. It is also fascinating to think that all 8,000 warriors were created as individuals.

An Army for the AfterLife

Field of Interest/Specialty: East Asian Studies
Posted On: 04/20/2012

This video explores the secrets of the 8,000 terra cotta soldiers that were discovered in a dig in the Emperor's Tomb. Questions asked included how were the workers able to produce 8,000 life-like figures, each different in features and stature, without the aid of technology? In addition, these brilliantly colored soldiers from the past survived for over 2000 years only to "suffer from the ravages of time" when they were uncovered, their colors disappearing. Why did this occur, and how could it be stopped? The secrets from these mighty warriors give us a glimpse into the Emperor's court, his household, and into the lives of the workers who created them.