Ancient art

As the flagship event of the county's Jiangsu Festival, Colchester Castle hosts the spectacular sculptures of The Guardians to the King. Amy Ward tells us more

COLCHESTER Castle is currently home to one of the most referred armies in history.

The Guardians to the King exhibition features 43 terracotta warriors, officials and cavalry horses which were originally kept in various tombs in China having been made to look after the kings of the Han Dynasty in the afterlife.

The figures have been specially organised to be brought over from China as part of the Jiangsu Festival in Essex and will be on display in the museum until November 2. Miriam Stead, head of heritage at Essex County Council, spotted these unique terracotta figures while visiting the Jiangsu province of China and made the decision to get them brought over to Colchester. It was then the job of several representatives from Colchester Museum to go over to China to transport 43 of the figures. It was a difficult task trying not to damage any of the figures, but they were boxed up, placed in crates and then loaded onto the cargo hold and flown to Essex.

Tom Hodgson, community history manager at Colchester Castle Museum, had plenty of research to carry out before the figures were put on display in the museum. 'What the Chinese believed at the time was that when you died, the afterlife was a mirror of real life and the dead required all the possessions they had when they were alive,' Tom explains. 'At first this was interpreted literally and royal tombs were filled with fine objects and the bodies of sacrificed servants and wives.' It would appear that human sacrifice soon disappeared and instead various lifelike figures, like the ones on display in Colchester, were placed in the burial tombs. The majority of the terracotta figures that are on display at the exhibition were found in a tomb on Shizishan Hill. These amazing figurines are just some of the thousands that were first discovered buried in the tombs in and around Xuhou by Professor Li of Xuhou Museum during the 1980s. This exhibition is different to the famous Terracotta Army discovered in 1974 by local farmers near Xi'an in China's Shaanxi province but almost as old, dating back about 2,100 years. Putting together the exhibition itself wasn't an easy task, but luckily several people from the Xuhou Museum came over to lend a helping hand in setting up the figurines ready for the opening. Some figurines are made from several moulded pieces so they had to be assembled together.

'It was like watching an acrobatics display trying to put the pieces together and place them gently in the display cabinets without damaging them,' says Tom. The figurines on show range from soldiers to dancers and are accompanied by information boards beside their cases explaining their history and origins. Despite being buried under ground for thousands of years, some of the figures still have traces of the brightly coloured original paintwork on them and the fine detail of their facial features and clothing can still be seen.

'We are very pleased how well the exhibition is going and it has been very popular with members of the public.' Tom explains. The figures are currently on loan from Xuzhou Museum and this is the first time they have ever been seen in the UK, so this is a fantastic opportunity to see such amazing pieces of history at first hand. The Jiangsu festival marks the successful 20 year partnership between Essex County Council and the Jiangsu province in China. Over the next six months, many different events will take place all over the county in the biggest international arts festival Essex has ever seen. The festival will see numerous cultural shows and events coming all the way from Jiangsu to various venues all over Essex. The festival is sure to bring a taste of real life in China to our home county.

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Visit The GuardiansColchester Castle MuseumCastle Park, Colchester CO1 1YG01206 282 939

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