Discover the history behind one of China’s most important archaeological finds.

Emperor’s Ghost Army begins like a horror movie might. A group of peasants are out of water and must dig for a new well. But while digging they uncover something, something ancient and mysterious. It’s a room filled with thousands of life-sized terracotta soldiers, an entire army silent as ghosts. Yet unlike a horror movie where a theft may occur or a curse enacted, this discovery brings history to life in a way not seen for thousands of years. The room is part of a tomb, but not just any burial chamber. Rather the discovery is more monumental than anticipated, for this is the final resting place of Qin Shi Huang Di, the first emperor of China. And the soldiers at rest within are China’s ghost army.

Emperor’s Ghost Army is an episode of NOVA, PBS’ long-running educational series of documentaries, and it’s one of the more entertaining in engaging segments I’ve seen to date. The best part of this documentary is it’s a work in progress. For so many topics the documentary becomes the culmination of years or even decades of research and preparation. But Emperor’s Ghost Army is just the beginning, really. The room in question which was excavated is just that—a room. There is so much more to unearth—both literally and figuratively—from this site. The actual burial chamber, for example. The other two resting places for the additional terracotta soldiers suspected to be still entombed, for another. And there are questions to answer. Will the other terracotta warriors also be one-of-a-kind? Or will they be clones of the ones already unearthed? It’s a subject with countless years of exploration ahead and thus something the viewer can truly continue to learn about. It’s an exciting aspect to the disc and its main selling point.

Part of the documentary is concerned with recreating the ancient methods used to create the warriors themselves along with the weaponry discovered. It’s really interesting to watch modern-day craftsmen fashioning these items as the hands-on aspect gives the viewer more of an appreciation for the original creators who had to work in much different surroundings. But when we learn that these thousands of warriors were all created over the span of merely a few decades the inevitable question is asked—how? You can easily guess the answer and it’s not a happy story. Much like the Egyptian pyramids the wonder of this site is tinged by the harsh reality of the brutal conditions during which it was constructed. Though that is a downside to the study of China’s first emperor the documentary still makes for fascinating viewing. It’s a history lesson which reminds us not only of the horrors which can befall a people when they are ruled by tyranny but also of the capacity for brilliant achievement within that same people.

The technical specs don’t break new ground yet as with most documentaries on public television they don’t need to. The video is a standard 1.78:1 transfer with the natural palette kept intact. Very little color timing was applied which allows the natural beauty of the relics to shine through. With little grain or distortion to speak of the transfer plays like similar offerings on PBS. The audio is likewise straightforward, a well-mixed Dolby Digital 2.0 track. A soft soundtrack plays throughout but the levels have been adjusted well-enough that the only impediment to being able to hear is the occasional foreign accent which one needs only a moment to adjust to.

There are no special features.

 

THE VERDICT

Emperor’s Ghost Army is that rare breed of documentary—one in which the subject is at its genesis as opposed to zenith. That makes this disc an easy recommendation as even those with no knowledge of Chinese culture whatsoever can easily access the information provided.

 

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