Terracotta Army Facts

How to Repair the Damaged Terracotta Army Statues

Believe it or not, every unearthed Terracotta Army statue is in debris at the beginning, as a result of earth movement, burning and the erosion of underground substances during more than 2,200 years. Thus, how come these broken debris turn into the august Terracotta Army tourists appreciate now? Five main steps conducted by cultural relic restorers are of crucial importance.

 See more about How did the Terracotta Army get burnt and destroyed?​

Step 1: Make Photographic Records

Every time people find the debris of Terracotta Army statues at the archaeological site, they will first bring them back to the laboratory, classify them into warriors and horses, and then take photos respectively as a record. If some pieces have colorful paintings, people on the spot will instantly spray protective agent to moisture their coatings, and then restorers will fix them in laboratory.

Step 2: Clean the Debris

Next, restorers will carefully examine each piece’s size, shape and original color. Then, they will judge what kind of damage the debris have, fix their various problems and then clean the mud on their surface with bamboo skewer and wooden brush. Colorful pieces need cleaning and fixing at the same time with suitable humidity and temperature in the lab.

Step 3: Piece the Debris Together

Restorers usually start with the pieces of larger size, and then follow the direction from the terracotta figure’s feet to its head. This step calls for staff’s extreme patience. And it is said that before a restorer pieces a real Terracotta Warrior, he or she should have been practicing doing jigsaw for at least one year. Such a strict requirement is reasonable, because a deviation of only 0.1mm at the bottom can finally result in the failure of piecing on the top.
In fact, the primary goal of piecing debris together is to check how badly the statue is damaged, and then restorers are able to determine the feasibility of the repair. For example, during piecing the debris, if the restorers find that two thirds of the statue’s debris are lost, they will probably decide to pause the repair of this statue and go on finding its remaining pieces. That’s to say, only those Terracotta Army statues whose most debris are already collected are qualified to enter the next repair step.

Step 4: Stick the Debris Together

Just like different patients need different treatments, every broken Terracotta Army statue also has its unique plan of sticking. When making sticking plans, restorers will consider many factors. For instance, which part of this Terracotta Warrior is most severely damaged, arm or leg? Or, how many pieces are going to be fixed, dozens or hundreds? Based on different sticking plan, restorers will accordingly use different instruments and materials.
No matter how different among these numerous plans, equal attention should be paid on choosing adhesive. Many restorers and experts have reached the consensus that the stickness of adhesive should be slightly weaker than the hardness of the terracotta pieces. And the balance between these two indicators should be handled with great delicacy. On the one hand, if the adhesive is not sticky enough, this process will be in vain; on the other hand, if several pieces are sticked too firmly, it will cause secondary damage when restorers accidently make a mistake and have to take them apart. That is to say, a proper adhesive is to ensure the reversibility of the sticking process.
Unlike the operational direction in Step 3, when sticking debris, restorers will start with the middle part of the statue and extend to its two sides. The reason is that no matter how carefully the people operate, some errors are inevitable because of the already jagged debris. Therefore, sticking from the middle can effectively minimize the deviation on two sides. Another reason is that the middle part is the firmest part of Terracotta Warriors. Thus once the middle is finished, it will be easier to place the statue in a standing position.

Step 5: Fix the Fallen Colorful Coatings

As we know, the original Terracotta Army statues were painted with colors. After being unearthed and exposed to the air, their coatings are oxidized and fall off. While cleaning the debris in step 2, some colorful parts will still shed off along with the mud no matter how careful the restorers are. Thus, the last step of repair is to fix the Terracotta Warrior’s fallen coatings. In order to replicate the original style as much as possible, restorers will try every means to extract the pigment from the fallen coatings and apply it to the statue’s surface again. And such extraction is of great difficulty.
A Terracotta Army Statue comes alive until all the five steps above are completed. Then the restorer will set up an archive to give this statue its own “ID number”. After being observed for one to three months, this Terracotta Army statue will be sent to the department of cultural relics storage, and then prepare for the exhibition.
Thanks to the restorers’ assiduous effort, tourists can now feast their eyes with the lifelike Terracotta Warriors and horses with different expressions and postures. The majestic army in Qin Dynasty (221BC-207BC) is perfectly revived after more than 2,200 years.

How Long does it Take to Restore a Terracotta Army Statue?

The restoration can be laborious and the time needed depends on how badly the statue is damaged. Sometimes the statue splits into dozens of pieces, and sometimes into hundreds of pieces. Thus the time needed may vary a lot. However, even a statue with relatively fewer debris will take three restorers one to three months to repair. Not to mention that some difficult ones need the effort of several years. So far, a Terracotta General holds the longest repair record of two years.

​Further Reading:
 How the Terracotta Warriors were Made
How to Protect the Terracotta Warriors
- Last updated on Dec. 18, 2020 -
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