top of page

The Incredible Discovery of China's Terracotta Army | Imperial China Project

On what was supposed to a day like any other for farmers digging a well near the city of Xian, China in 1974, quickly turned extraordinary, when the terracotta head of an ancient Chinese warrior was unearthed. The farmers never did get their well built, but they did discover one of the greatest archaeological finds in the world, so I guess that’s an acceptable consolation. This is the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, and it’s about to blow your mind.

The story of the Terracotta Army begins with a man named Ying Zheng, who came to reign over the Qin state of China in 247 BCE at the age of 13 during the tail end of the Warring States Period. The Warring States Period was… well a period of warring states in China that lasted over 200 years in the pursuit of territorial and political dominance. I can’t really imagine being 13 and ruling the most powerful state in a time of upheaval and constant war, but hey Ying Zheng seemed up for the challenge, and he did not disappoint, that’s for sure.

Ying Zheng was a determined, ruthless leader and by 221 BCE, through the use of espionage, extensive bribery, and some very talented military generals, he eliminated all rival states, creating a unified China under the one ruling state of Qin. To commemorate this achievement, Ying Zheng changed his name to Qin Shi Huangdi, which translates to “First Sovereign Emperor” and claimed that his dynasty would last 10,000 generations.

Qin Shi Huangdi

Qin Shi Huangdi reigned for 36 years, and even though his dynasty didn’t last for as many generations as he’d hoped, his accomplishments were pretty damn impressive. He implemented intensive administration reforms, built an extensive network of roads, and other important infrastructure, and introduced the standardization of writing, weights and measurements, and currency throughout all of China… oh and he also was the mastermind behind the creation of a little something called the Great Wall of China. So yeah, okay maybe his fancy title was justified. Like, he wasn’t the nicest guy… burned a lot of books, executed a lot people… but man did a lot of things, left a lot of marks on the world! (Not that that justifies anything, though, just wanna put that out there).

China’s first emperor had a bit of a complex though… he seems to have been a little bit afraid of his own mortality. I mean, who isn’t a little concerned about dying, but this man took it next level. Qin Shi Huangdi spent the last years of this life in pursuit of immortality, becoming obsessed with the fabled elixir of life. He employed countless alchemists to create supposed immortal concoctions for him, and launched expeditions in search of fabled far off places and people who could supposedly help him achieve his goal of everlasting life.

No elixir of life was ever found, but have no fear! As early as the first year of his reign, Qin Shi Huangdi began the construction of a massive monumental underground mausoleum.

The mausoleum was constructed over 36 years, and is located under a 76-meter tall pyramid-esque mound. It’s modeled after the ancient Qin capital of Xianyang, and through the use of remote sensing, archaeologists have determined that the entire complex covers around 98 square kilometers!

In this mausoleum was everything Qin would have needed in the afterlife. Similar to the ancient Egyptians and many other cultures, the ancient Chinese believed that items that you were buried with could be taken into the afterlife.

According to a source written by Han dynasty historian Sima Qian, over 700,000 workers and craftspeople worked day and night to finish the mausoleum. This is a huge number, and British Historian John Man calculated that it probably wasn’t that make, as 700,000 people would have been more people than the population of any city in the world at the time. Instead, he calculated that the foundations could have been built by 16,000 men in about 2 years. That seems much more feasible.

Even though his numbers were a bit far-fetched, Sima Qian’s account of Emperor Qin’s tomb is fantastic, and paints a picture of one of the most opulent burials of all time:

"Palaces and scenic towers for a hundred officials were constructed, and the tomb was filled with rare artifacts and wonderful treasure. Craftsmen were ordered to make crossbows and arrows primed to shoot at anyone who enters the tomb. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze, Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above were representation of the heavenly constellations, below, the features of the land. Candles were made from fat of "man-fish", which is calculated to burn and not extinguish for a long time."

What is perhaps the coolest thing about this fantastical description of Emperor Qin’s tomb, is that archaeologists have located it and probed the soil deep in the mound. The found ridiculously high level of mercury, about 100 times the naturally occurring rate, which means that there may indeed be some truth in Sima Qian’s account… which makes my imagination go wild with the possibilities of what might actually be in that tomb! Sima Qian notes that some not so nice things occurred after the mausoleum was constructed:

After the burial, it was suggested that it would be a serious breach if the craftsmen who constructed the mechanical devices and knew of its treasures were to divulge those secrets. Therefore after the funeral ceremonies had completed and the treasures hidden away, the inner passageway was blocked, and the outer gate lowered, immediately trapping all the workers and craftsmen inside. None could escape. Trees and vegetations were then planted on the tomb mound such that it resembles a hill.

— Sima Qian, Shiji, Chapter 6.

Again though, this guy knew how to tell a story, but clearly Emperor Qin had never heard of the phrase Secrets don’t Make Friends… and I’m only a little bitter about all the lost technology and secrets of this tomb. What is probably the most fascinating thing from this account is his omission of the archaeological find that has captured the world’s attention for almost 50 years. The Terracotta Army.

As we talked about earlier, the ancient Chinese believed that you could take things from this life into the next after death. Naturally, Emperor Qin required an army to accompany him after death for protection and to further cement his dominance and continually defeat his enemies. Luckily though, he decided to get creative with what this meant instead of executing thousands of people to make this happen. And thus, the Terracotta Army was created, and they are… insane to say the least. There’s a reason this find has been called the “Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World” friends.

The Terracotta Army consists of at least 8,000 statues of soldiers, still standing in battle formation, ready to fight for the emperor. In fact, the army faces east because that is the likely direction an enemy would come from to attack the underground mausoleum. The army itself is split across several pits, the largest containing the main force of 6,000 life-size soldiers, and another including 130 war chariots pulled by 520 horses, alongside 150 cavalry horses – oh yeah they made terracotta horses too and they’re super cool. A third pit houses what is called the high command, which I’m assuming are the super important people, and an empty 4th pit suggests that this large scale construction project was left unfinished, even though Qin had already been dead for four years by the time it was completed in 206 BCE.

One of the most incredible things about the Terracotta Army, is that while the craftspeople working on these statues only used about eight different mix and match molds of body parts for their construction, no two are exactly alike. 8,000 statues, each unique in its own special way just like real warriors in an army.

The warriors stand according to rank, possess various bronze weapons (about 40,000 have been excavated so far including battle axes, crossbows, arrowheads and spears), uniforms and distinct hairstyles. Artists individualised each statue by hand to create unique facial features and expressions – including ears of all shapes and sizes. I don’t know why the ear thing is so exciting for me, it just is. These guys even added individual tread patterns and shoe ties shoes!

They also have varying height s… because people weren’t all the same height. You guys, it’s insane. Like… who did this! What looks like what might have been a highly standardized conveyor belt construction is actually a huge artistic endeavour and a testament to individuality. Most of the statues are around 5 foot 11, with the tallest coming in at 6 foot 7.

Everything was painted too. Regular warriors were painted with solid colours, whereas the armour of generals and other high ranking officials had more pizazz lets say, with geometric and leaf designs. Unfortunately, pigments fade over time, and the army’s exposure to air caused the pigments to curl and flake off the ceramic surface… sometimes literally within minutes. Luckily conservation science has evolved over the past 50 years, and now we have methods such as the use of polyethylene glycol to help consolidate any pigments the moment a new statue is unearthed.

Chemical analysis into the pigments also revealed that inorganic chemistry was known and being practised during the Qin dynasty. The purple pigment that was found on the terracotta warriors is barium copper silicate, a synthetic inorganic colour known as Han Purple.

Example of a Terracotta Warrior with paint remnants still visible

The tomb complex wasn’t all armies and defense, though. Statues of workers, government officials, acrobats, dancers, strongmen, and musicians were also included, alongside bronze animals, which indicates that Emperor Qin had more than warfare planned for his afterlife.

As far as most people can tell, Emperor Qin’s tomb remained unraided and untouched, though literary records suggest that the burial site was attached at the end of the Qin dynasty when peasant armies rose up against Qin rule.

A rebel force lead by Xiang Yu ransacked the capital of Xianyang in 206 BCE and according toe Sima Qian, opened the mausoleum and plundered it for 30 days. Apparently even a month of looting the tomb couldn’t exhaust the treasures that were inside though! Like wow, that’s a lotta treasure. Also according to Sima Qian, bandits melted some of the bronze coffins and set fire to the tomb, which was said to have burned for 90 days.

For conservation purposes, the main tomb containing the burial of the emperor hasn’t been opened yet, so we can’t confirm the accuracy of these plundering reports. However, the burial pits of the guardian army do show signs of having been set on fire by intruders as archaeologist have found charred bits of wood and pottery, as well as scorched bits of earth.

Furthermore, in Pit 3 many warrior statues were purposefully damaged, with many terracotta figures broken and some even missing their heads. Many weapons are also missing from these pits, which means that Qin’s tomb was never that much of a secret.

That being said, there is evidence of the main tomb remaining relatively intact. But since exposure to air and light will fade pigmentation and degrade whatever else may be hidden underground, archaeologists are waiting until a way can be found to expose the tomb without damaging its contents. So now we wait and desperately fund heritage and conservation technology to advance the field enough to make the excavation of the main tomb possible.

Another reason there’s a bit of hesitancy to excavate the main tomb are those high levels of mercury we talked about earlier. Mercury is very toxic, and if these rivers and pools of mercury do exits, it would be putting a lot of people in danger once it’s exposed.

Emperor Qin’s commitment to having all these warriors and people enter the afterlife with him may seem unique, especially given the large scale in which he did it, but the entire concept of being buried with figurines and clay representations of humans, animals, and other things that were important during life isn’t something unique to the Terracotta Warriors. For example, we have the shabtis of ancient Egypt, who were placed in tombs to carry out work for the deceased in the afterlife. And during the Kofun period in Japan, people were buried with statues of horses and houses.

Sometimes representations of these people and animals weren’t used though, and the real things were killed and buried with important rulers. Luckily, Emperor Qin didn’t actually use real people in his tomb for this purpose, which had been done in various other places around the world and previous Chinese dynasties.

That being said, Qin’s body isn’t the only one buried at the site. Archaeologists have uncovered mass graves of craftsmen and labourers, and apparently even some convicted criminals in chains. Iron handcuffs and collars were found on site, which has lead some to suggest that a portion of the labourers involved in the construction of the burial complex were criminals sentenced to hard labour.

Also, in a central location, not too far from the emperor’s tomb, a few of the approximate 90 tombs in the area have been excavated. All of them have been empty, but disarticulated skeletons have been found in the doorways, which some people have suggested to be executed concubines.

The Mausoleum of Emperor Qin and his amazing Terracotta Army provides archaeologists with amazing insights into the Qin dynasty military system, weaponry, dress, hairstyles, and art, manufacturing techniques, and technology. In my opinion, it is indeed a wonder of the ancient world, and will continue to captivate and give us new insights in to ancient China for years to come.


You Might Also Like:
bottom of page