“Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor” at Pacific Science Center features 10 warriors from the tomb of Chinese Emperor Shihuangdi and more than 100 other artifacts from the third century BC.

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Midway through “Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor,” the new exhibit at Pacific Science Center, a series of hanging banners reminds us of the astonishing scale of the archaeological site near Xi’an, China.

More than 8,000 life-size ceramic figures were buried there. Each figure weighs about 300 pounds. Together they add up to 2.4 million pounds of clay. Only 2,000 of them have been excavated so far.

The burial site covers at least 22 square miles, and it lay hidden for 2,200 years. Discovered in 1974, when drought-stricken farmers stumbled across it while digging a well, the site is a work in progress more than 40 years later.


‘Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor’

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, through Sept. 4. Pacific Science Center, 200 Second Ave. N., Seattle; $26.75-$34.75 (206-443-2001 or www.pacificsciencecenter.org).

And its biggest prize remains deeply buried: the tomb of Shihuangdi (also noted as Qin Shi Huang), the Qin dynasty emperor (259-210 BC) who unified the warring states of China and ordered this vast underground retinue to be created for his use in the afterlife. He lies under a man-made hill more than 250 feet high.

“Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor” does an excellent job of putting all the details in context. It features 10 of the life-size figures from the original site and more than 100 other artifacts. The show is laid out for maximum dramatic effect.

An armored general, a cavalryman, a musician and other figures anchor different sections of the main gallery, while around them are arrayed the tools and weapons of their daily existence. Their limbs and torsos were produced by an assembly-line method, but their faces were individually crafted. Facial-recognition technology confirms that no two faces are alike. A high-ranking general is unusually benign in expression. A kneeling musician looks lost in his (invisible) instrument. A government official, by contrast, has something piercing and wily about him as he subtly cranes his neck toward the viewer.

Weapons, including a crossbow that could accurately strike targets half a mile away, were also mass produced (their interchangeable parts, if damaged, could be replaced). Arrow-resistant stone and leather armor further strengthened the emperor’s million-man army. A meritocratic system of advancement, rather than rankings by social class, made it invincible.

While warriors dominate the burial site, terracotta acrobats and musicians and rare animals in bronze were also interred, there to keep the emperor entertained.

Shihuangdi’s accomplishments went beyond his military conquests. He secured his empire’s power by unifying its currency and standardizing its written language and its system of weights and measures. Before his reign, “coins” could be knife-shaped or spade-shaped, depending on region. Shihuangdi introduced bronze banliang coins closer to our notion of what loose change should look like. They’re round, with a small square hole in their center.

The exhibit devotes significant space to replicas and videos that evoke what these clay figures looked like in their original state. After being lacquered, they were painted in vivid colors, traces of which survive in a few instances. There’s a dimly lit, tunnellike portion of the show that lets you stroll among these brightly hued warriors. One of them is a body-shaped “screen” on which facial and costume colors are digitally projected, then shown in fast-forward decay over the centuries.

The final component of the exhibit is its attention to excavation practice. Film footage makes it clear that archaeologists’ cautious, fastidious work with scalpels and brushes is the equivalent of trying to unearth a whole city with a toothpick.

Why, after 40-plus years, does Shihuangdi’s tomb remain buried?

One reason is that digging it out means risking damage to all the treasures it must hold. The other is that the tomb itself may pose a danger to excavators.

A Han dynasty historian, writing 200 years after Shihuangdi’s reign, said his coffin was set amid rivers of mercury that reproduced the courses of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. Scientists have detected “unnaturally high levels of mercury” inside the man-made hill, possibly confirming this account.

In conjunction with “Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor,” Pacific Science Center is showing an IMAX documentary, “Mysteries of China,” that gives a more vivid picture of the burial site and its surrounding countryside than the exhibit can on its own. The documentary also includes filmed re-creations of life in the Qin dynasty that seem like scenes from a big-budget epic. Don’t miss it.