Are you both a toy collector and a fan of history? Let us walk you back to 221-207 B.C. and the life of Qin Shi Huang. As founder of the Qin dynasty, he was the first emperor of a unified China and also key to the creation of the legendary Terracotta Army. How does this history relate to collectibles? Hang with us as for a moment as we share what we know about this emperor’s terracotta warrior (and terra-cotta horse, chariot, general, and nobel) collection, then we’ll draw some modern parallels that might just surprise you.
The Terracotta Army is a massive series of terracotta sculptures (over 6,000 standardized, life size works of art) depicting the emperor’s armies which were first discovered in 1974. Sure, Emperor Qin is notable for building the first version of China’s Great Wall, but these days he’s much better known for the massive mausoleum and necropolis complex constructed at his request (and in his honor) near the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province, China. His tomb is guarded by an army of over 6,000 life-size terracotta soldiers and that’s just the start. To date four pits have been uncovered. The first (750 feet long by 203 feet wide) contained the soldiers. Pit two contained terracotta cavalry and infantry units along with wonderfully detailed war chariots. Pit three held high-ranking officers while pit four was found to be empty.
Setting aside the fact that this is the largest burial complex known to exist in the world, most researchers actually believe it was never completed (as hinted by the empty pit four mentioned above). Initially this masterpiece managed to remain hidden for over 2,200 years and was only uncovered by farmers drilling down for water. Now, roughly 42 years after its initial discovery, less than one percent of Qin’s tomb has been fully excavated and there is no timeline for excavation to continue. This is due to in part to concerns regarding preservation of the artifacts but it is also the result of fears regarding high levels of mercury present in his tomb. You see, when the complex was initially built, streams of mercury were laid into the floor to simulate local rivers running through the tomb and toxicity of the site hampers excavation even today. I doubt even Indiana Jones himself would make the trek into the heart of this treasure trove of antiquities due to the risk.
What makes this whole discovery so interesting for the modern toy collector is the standardization present in the Terracotta Army. While researching the statues it became clear that molds were used in an almost assembly line fashion during construction of each statue. Here the hands were near identical and only eight different molds were used to add shape to the statues heads. The facial features were detailed individually giving them each a distinct look but overall they were constructed in sets representing platoons. Starting to sound like modern action figure construction to you? It did to CompleteSet’s own Ryan Lietzenmayer who first proposed this article idea a few months back.
Where would a good line of action figures be without accessories, right? Archaeologists have found some 40,000 bronze weapons, including battle axes, crossbows, arrowheads, and spears ready to equip the warrior army (and delight those of us who look at the world through the lens of collecting). Also, these were not simple figures. They were colorful! Sure, there is a very grey base to them today, but patches of paint hint at what was certainly a sea of brightly colored warriors when they were first released to the pits they inhabit.
When we see the Terracotta Army standing tall and proud, we also see the roots of Skeletor, He-Man and the many figures that battle in and around Castle Greyskull. Can we not draw a parallel with the modern action figures? If you have any doubt whatsoever, take a look at those hands. Does that clenched right hand, open palm left hand combination not look familiar? The original Terracotta Army were based on a standard body form with variations in the head sculpt and paint? This should begin to sound more and more familiar as it’s very close to the basis for the much loved Master of the Universe line of toys from Mattel.
It’s clear that this standardization of sculpt was as beneficial to the Terracotta Army as it would one day be to Mattel. It allowed for variance in design, but a core that allowed the figures (or statues for the average terracotta soldier) to stand out from each other. Mass production with individuality. Qin Shi Huang had it right and an argument could certainly be made that he was a collector at heart and, as much as he wanted to impress the world with his passing, it was pretty nice that he chose to do it with what just may be the very first action figure collection. Stretch? Sure, but if you look at it with a collector’s eye the similarity can be uncanny.