Terracotta: the earth-colored pottery of Xian warriors

Hello! How are you? In this post we tell you all about the terracotta! What is it, the history of the warriors of Xian, their colors, uses in architecture and decoration and ... Finally we will give you a small recipe in case you dare to make it at home 😎

The terracotta is the clay with which we have gotten our hands the most throughout history. Used on all continents, this clay has accompanied human potters almost since they began to play with earth, water and fire 🏺

A primitive but functional clay. An ancestral clay from cooked earth. A unique clay.

What is Terracota?

Terracota is a type of clay made with clay, fluxing oxides, and iron oxides. The latter give you the earthy-orange color so characteristic. Its name comes from the Italian "terra cotta”, which means cooked earth and by its name it is known both the raw clay, as well as the final ceramic piece already fired.

 Maceta de Terracota modelo Terrakota 24

It is probably the oldest clay and the one that we have worked the most throughout history. And according to the archaeologist Antonio Caro, some of the figures found in the shapes of small animals, date from the Upper Palaeolithic, 26,000 years ago, in central Europe. Almost yesterday 😮

Its use spread during prehistory in Egypt, then China, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, India, etc. And that is why it could easily be said that terracotta is the ceramic of all peoples.

Terracotta is super great. It is a clay whose raw materials are abundant, resulting cheap. It is also a very plastic mud, which makes it ideal for modeling all kinds of pieces, from the simplest (jugs, pots, tiles or terracotta tiles) to the most complicated (statuettes, sculptures, or the famous 8000 Terracotta Warriors).

Cerámica de terracota en mano

In addition, in its composition there is usually a large amount of flux oxides, which make it possible to cook at temperatures as low as 550-600ºC.

This is fine today because it helps save electricity or gas, but thousands of years ago, when you didn't have modern ovens, it was very interesting. After the barbecue was done, they could use the ashes and place the terracotta jugs on top to cook them. A full-fledged 2 × 1 ✌

As well widely used to create bricks as a substitute for adobe. The adobe was mud along with straw and other branches, which was allowed to dry in the sun, but did not cook. On the other hand, the terracotta, when cooked, acquired much better thermal and structural properties.

Ladrillos de Adobe

Adobe bricks for construction in Kyrgyzstan - By Vmenkov

Today, it is a material that continues to be used all over the world and that is also making a comeback with more force than ever in this return to nature and the use of noble materials. And it is that terracotta is a clay with a lot of history ...

The 8,000 Terracotta Warriors; brief history and pictures

One day in April 1974, Chinese farmers were looking for water in the middle of a drought. When digging in an area to make a well, the shovel of one of them hit a harder than normal object. They believed it to be an ancient jug and called archaeologist Zhao Kangmin.

When he received the call, he immediately knew that it could be something interesting, since that area was next to the mausoleum of the greatest of the emperors of China: Qin shi huang.

Upon arrival, he began to excavate and first found that the jug was actually a terracotta head. Then an arm, some bronze arrowheads, then a whole warrior. It was the first of the 8000 Terracotta Warriors.

Soldados de terracota

Terracotta Soldiers - Photo by Tor svensson

Little by little Zhao took pieces and pieces to rebuild several warriors.

Finally (and despite the political-cultural situation of the government that destroyed all traces of Ancient China) Zhao got an excavation team assigned and more than 500 warriors were unearthed in the first months.

What they found there is one of the largest and most impressive terracotta works ever seen: 8,000 warriors, 200 horses and various chariots. All made in terracotta, life size. All unique, with their armor, bows, arrows and swords. A pharaonic project that involved hundreds of families.

But... Who were these warriors and why were they buried there?

Like the Egyptian pharaohs, many Chinese emperors believed in life after death and sought immortality. How could they, half men half gods, just die? Emperor Qin Shi Huang ascended to the throne when he was only 13 years old and at 35, in the year 221, he had already conquered the 6 great states, forming what we know today as China.

Guerreros de terracota de Xian Detail of a Terracotta Soldier - Photo by Peter morgan

As you can imagine, his government and his army weren't known for their good vibes. Unifying China was done in a tyrannical way and cost many lives. This caused Qin to carve out quite a few enemies. Maybe that's why he thought that after his death, he would need to take his army with him in order to continue fighting against the spirits of his defeated enemies.

Well, what a mess. These terracotta warriors were very realistic statues. Each warrior was totally unique, with individual facial expressions, hairstyles, and clothing. With their royal armor and weapons. Painted in all kinds of colors: red, green, purple and yellow. Although now with the passage of time they are no longer preserved, they have been rebuilt by the remains of oxides that remain.

As each warrior was different, they were not made with molds. Also, they still had no cast. They were made one by one.

On the inside of the pieces you can see the layers that made up the body, each about 4cm thick. This means that those 8000 warriors were made by superimposing clay long rolls.

It is the technique of rolls or macaroni. But due to the size of these 1.70m high warriors, each roll was placed and waited for it to dry before placing the next, otherwise the weight could crush the body.

Restos de ejército de terracota

Torso and head of a warrior during excavations - Source here

What's more, manufacturing was divided into different lines. Some workshops made the legs, other workshops made the torso, others the arms and others the head. This is known because each workshop had to put its stamp. Not to do marketing, if not to make the revisions and see if they were well done or if there were delays, to know from which craftsman or workshop they came. And thus be able to apply the sanctions: S

It is believed that many potters were buried alive around 8000 warriors. The first emperor applied collective punishments. And if one failed, the entire squad was punished. Qin always in a good mood.

Finally all the pieces were assembled and after having been painted, they were baked at about 1,000ºC with well-executed cooking.

It took the work of many Chinese potters, over several dozen years, to make Qin shut eye when he was alive and stay calm before kicking the bucket. It is believed that today it rests in an incredible pyramid-shaped tomb, surrounded by rivers of mercury. Be that as it may, what is more alive today than ever are its 8000 terracotta warriors.

Terracotta color, what is it really?

The terracotta color is usually associated with a Salmon or light brown orange. But terracotta covers a large number of shades, from light brown, through light yellow, beige, characteristic orange, dark brown, black and even pink.

Pieza de terracota de Marga Méndez

Terracotta Piece - Marga Méndez

In addition, a large part of the terracotta pieces have been found enameled in all kinds of colors used to decorate bricks, tiles, sculptures or household objects. For example the blue terracotta It was widely used as a decorative wall of temples.

But the characteristic orange tones are due to the impurity of its composition that collects many oxides and especially, to iron oxide, present in so many lands. That contributes the red-orange tones.

Later the color also depends on the cooking temperature. At a lower temperature, between 600-700ºC, the tones are usually darker, while at a higher temperature, between 1000 and 1100ºC, lighter tones are usually achieved. And the type of cooking: if it is an electric, gas or wood oven ... If it is in an oxidizing or reducing atmosphere. If there are more or less impurities, etc.

Jarra de Terracota precolombina

Pre-Columbian style Terracotta Jug - Marga Méndez

Today, in the industry, all these variables are precisely controlled. But in artisan ceramics, where there are no such advanced measuring tools, many of them are left to chance, providing a unique, imperfect and personal character to each piece.

Terracotta decoration

Terracotta is back in fashion. More and more, we return to noble materials, as a way to reconnect with that nature that we have lost. Clay, and especially terracotta, are materials that are reused for give a rustic, natural and warm touch to our homes, both indoors and outdoors.

Terracota decoracion interiores

Photo by Jomar Bragança - Source

In current Mediterranean architecture it is common to combine white lines with wood, stone and even terracotta. Terracotta, with its earthy color, provides that natural and organic counterpoint.

Even it has a smell. Being porous, several tiles soaked in a rainy day can infuse the house with scents of earth and field. The same happens with terracotta pots, which in addition to helping to maintain the temperature in the roots, help regulate excess water through the perspiration of its porous walls. Something that was also done a lot with wine amphorae.

Maceta Terrakota 24 color terracota claro

Finally, depending on the type of terracotta and the amount of sodium or calcium it contains, salts can develop on the surface. This not long ago was considered a defect. Today that worn look is valued much more.

Characteristics, properties and manufacture with terracota

Terracotta is a porous clay of low temperature (900-1085 ° C approx).

Once cooked, it has a porosity of between 10 and 15%. Whereas for example in porcelain or glass, it is 0%. Porosity refers to the mini internal holes that the ceramic piece has and defines the amount of water it can absorb.

That is, in the case of terracotta once cooked, if it gets wet it could absorb 15% of its weight in water. The pot is soaked literally filling a part of its pores. The glass, if it gets wet, does not absorb anything.

Cerámica color terracota claro en horno

Terracotta pieces are fired in an electric oven at 1,000ºC

Another characteristic of terracotta is its ability to resist thermal shocks, being able to withstand sudden changes in temperature, without actually breaking. Even freezing temperatures.

The decoration of it has always been very varied. His plasticity it has made it possible to create all kinds of shapes and incisions and apply different slips or enamels. For example, the famous majolica ceramic (originally from Majorca, Spain) used terracotta on which drawings were made with different colored glazes, opaque and shiny.

Modeling with terracotta is a joy, since it is a very plastic paste and easy to work with. That is why it is also used a lot around. It rarely has a chamotte percentage of more than 20%, which makes its surface fine to the touch.

Maceta terracota con filodendro

Terracotta combination with plants

Finally, as we promised, we leave you a standard terracotta formula for the most daring:

SiO2 (silica) - 55%

Al2O3 (clay) - 20%

Fe2O3 (ferric oxide) - 5%

CaO (calcium oxide) - 5%

MgO (magnesium oxide) - 3%

Na2O (sodium oxide) - 2%

K2O (potassium oxide) - 5%

TiO2 (titanium oxide) - 1%

Chamotte - 4%

As can be seen, iron oxide is abundant and the rest of the oxides act as fluxes in cooking.

In short, it is a paste very practical, easily available, easy to work with and with a rustic look that due to its simplicity and shades gain followers all over the world again.

At Plantaku we have always been fans of this clay. Terracotta LOVE!

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