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A special delivery: Guarding China's Terra Cotta Warriors

Sometimes even warriors need someone to have their backs.

And when the warriors are 2,000 years old and a nation’s treasure, the protection extends to hovering sheriff's helicopters, highway patrol car escorts and local police cordons.

That atop private security, tracking devices and choreographed delivery routes.

From the time that 42 crates carrying China’s Terra Cotta warriors landed in California in 2008 through their more recent arrival in the District on the last leg of a U.S museum tour, the warriors have been under watchful eyes.

Terra Cotta Warriors. (Bill O'Leary/Post)

Fifteen figures from the tomb of China’s first emperor are on display at the National Geographic Museum at 17th and M streets in Northwest through March 31. They are among an estimated 7,000 figures crafted and then buried to protect China’s first emperor in the afterlife.

Farmers digging for water outside of Xi’an in central China discovered them in 1974. Since then in ongoing excavations, the clay army has emerged. I am fascinated by the warriors. I first was awed by them in late 2003 in Xi’an, row after exquisite row, each face different, each mesmerizing.

I was traveling alone in China, had only 10 days, spoke only English, and am impatient with crowds -- not the best mix, as wiser friends counseled, for making a day trip between Beijing and the warriors’ home in Xi’an on a small, crowded flight that landed, it turned out, in a snowstorm.

I’d ignored good advice.

It was a great decision.

That day planted a curiosity about all things warrior, including how are they protected on tour? Or, at least, what are the measures handlers will disclose?

On the October night that the exhibition arrived in the District from Houston, site of the previous show, crews from the District's Fraternal Order of Police lodge closed part of M Street NW as two 53-foot refrigerated tractor trailers -- set to 76 degrees to offset external temperature changes -- pulled up to the National Geographic loading dock.

Bolt cutters snapped the trailers’ locks and crate-by-blue-crate the artifacts, the warriors and a full-size horse statue were checked for damages. “After two years of planning, the snap of those bolt cutters was a big moment,” said Richard McWalters, director of exhibits for the National Geographic Museum..

“There was a lot of discussion about D.C. traffic and we changed our route plan several times,” but in the end, the trucks came in off I-95 to 395 North and up 14th Street, said Dave Csontos, operations director for UPS. The company flew the warriors from Shanghai in a 747 and has moved them on land to museums in Santa Ana, Atlanta, Houston and the District.

When the warriors originally arrived in the dark of night at the UPS hub in Ontario, Calif., three increasingly restrictive security perimeters were set up, starting blocks away with a remote parking site, a shuttle and then a taped-off sector close to the plane with assigned escorts.

County sheriffs and highway patrol officers on the roads and in the air followed the trailers as they pulled out later for Santa Ana where local police picked up the escort, said Dan McMackin, spokesman for UPS. The company is funding the transport costs through its corporate foundation, including any billed police services.

A team of 120 planned the moves, from pilots to the two-person driver teams for each rig and traveling security, all outfitted with a playbook on how the tranports would be done, said Csontos. Each trailer and each tractor has its own GPS with real time tracking and every 30 minutes an automatic email update was sent to a monitoring group confirming the trailers’ location and whether they were moving.

The crates travel flat and anchored to the walls of the trailers. Every move from crate to gallery space was mapped, McWalters said, starting with the delicate task of uprighting the cases where the figures were swaddled in packing. The heaviest piece, McWalters said, was a 750-pound horse standing directly on four hooves -- no clay plate beneath them, which meant the hooves needed to land flatfooted on the gallery floor at the same time to avoid breaking a clay leg. A rigging expert hired to supplement the museum staff helped.

Extra security was brought in to monitor viewers in the galleries and the exhibition is staged in rooms with retractable metal gates, hidden in wall panels, that are drawn each night.

The four American museums that hosted the warriors tour are sharing the cost of insuring the exhibit but aren’t saying the value assigned to objects routinely called priceless.

“Unfortunately, as with most museums, it is our policy not to discuss the value of objects,” said Stephanie Montgomery, a spokeswoman for National Geographic.

For McWalters, the warriors -- for all of their handling requirements -- have not been the most complicated work he's handled. The Peruvian Ice Maiden was.

The mummy had to be shown under lights bright enough for viewing. But she also had to be kept frozen.

Intriguing, yes, and I saw her when she arrived too. But fly in a snowstorm for her? No.

-- Mary Pat Flaherty

By Mary Pat Flaherty  |  December 30, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Around the Nation , Around the World , Mary Pat Flaherty , Offbeat , The District  
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"crews from the District's Fraternal Order of Police lodge closed part of M Street NW"

What does this mean? I could understand if the Metropolitan Police Department, operating as an official arm of government, closed the street. But since when does a private club (albeit one made up of cops) have any authority to close streets?

Posted by: web_user | December 30, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Thanks go to China for sharing this important part of their history with us here in the USA. This was a very nice thing for them to do. I'm glad we took good measures to keep the artifacts safe & whole.

Posted by: Nymous | December 30, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

I saw this about two weeks ago and loved it. It was well worth the price of the tickets. The audio tour was an extra $5, and I would recommend that.

Posted by: swissmiss150 | December 30, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

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