China’s most famous attraction after the Great Wall is found about 40 miles from the modern-day city of Xi’an, China. The area is dry and scrubby, planted in persimmon and pomegranate. It is scorching hot in summer and extremely cold in winter. The land is mostly flat except for a few hills dotted with caves. In this otherwise desolate and isolated place, suddenly there appear several large hotels and a number of roadside souvenir shops. Their presence suggests that something other than the exporting of fruit is going on here. Sure enough, it is!
In 1974, nine farmers who were digging a well, found something of much greater importance than water. They unearthed what turned out to be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time: a life-size clay statue of a soldier poised for battle. Of course, the well-diggers did not realize the significance of what they had uncovered, but they did think to contact the Chinese government, which dispatched a team of archaeologists. As these trained researchers began their work, they found scores of these clay soldiers, each with a unique head which bore a different facial expression and accompanying bodily gestures.
Over the ensuing years, archaeologists have located a complex of underground vaults in a 22-square-mile area that includes almost 600 distinct pits – most extremely difficult to access. Thankfully, there are three major pits that are easily accessible. Today these are enclosed inside the four-acre Museum of the Terracotta Warriors. This museum has been literally constructed over these discovery sites.
In Pit 1, long columns of warriors, reassembled from broken pieces, stand in formation. The warriors were positioned in formation according to rank. At the head of the formation are three rows of men with crossbows ready to launch a long-range attack. The main force, formed by infantry and chariots, follows those with crossbows, and on the two sides of this formation is stationed a troop of cavalry designed to outflank the enemy.
Terracotta Warriors Pit 1 is enclosed in an expansive arched hall, an area of over 57,000 square feet. This huge complex was built above the pit in 1976 to protect this magnificent archaeological find from the elements. In October 1979 this hall was opened to the public. Pit 1 is rectangular, measuring 756 feet by 204 feet long and ranging from 15 to 21 feet in depth, the largest of the pits that has been found to date.
Upon entering this building, I could scarcely believe my eyes. There were notable “gasps” among other tourists as they, too, first entered the hall. The magnitude of the exhibition hall, plus the many hundreds and hundreds of soldiers stretching out before me, was almost too much to comprehend.
The statues range in height from 5’8″–6’2”. Today these “toy” soldiers are a dull shade of grey, yet random patches of paint, on a few, point to what was once their brightly colored clothing. These warriors with their goatees or close-cropped beards, topknots (caps), and armored vests look quite life-like. One pit exhibits the stalwart soldiers exactly as they were unearthed: some standing upright, others buried in the soil up to their shoulders, some others toppled over onto their backs, alongside their cracked clay horses.
Extended excavations have uncovered all of the accoutrements for battle: shields, crossbows, arrowheads, axes, spears, and other weapons of war. In all, some 40,000 bronze weapons were found – most extremely well preserved. Their pristine condition is the result of the protective chrome plating (not developed in the U.S. until 1950). This fact reveals the sophistication of ancient Chinese metallurgy.
Because hundreds of the Terracotta Warriors were vandalized by subsequent generations, painstaking restoration work has been undertaken. During this process, archaeologists discovered that the warriors were originally formed using molds, perhaps in a proto-type of the assembly line. Though most of their hands are identical, only eight molds which were used to shape their heads have been found. Since each warrior exhibits distinctive facial features, each statue had to be finished by hand. This process reveals a high level of craftsmanship and artistry.
These soldiers are in underground corridors, some of which contain clay horses aligned four abreast, pulling wooden chariots. Since the initial excavations began, more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, and 670 horses have been unearthed. The work continues. According to the curators of the tomb, there are tens of thousands of these figures still to be uncovered.
These Terracotta Warriors have been described as “the Eighth Wonder of the World.” In September 1987, this find was praised by the former French President Jacques Chirac. He said, “No one who has not seen the pyramids can claim to have visited Egypt, and now I’d say that no one who has not seen these terracotta figures can claim to have visited China.”
While the excavation work continues, to date, three separate pits have been partially excavated (another pit was located but it was actually empty – a fact that almost certainly points to a cessation of the work at some point before its planned completion). This Terracotta “Army” was actually only a part of the world’s largest ancient imperial tomb complex. It was constructed more than 2,200 years ago as an elaborate mausoleum designed to accompany the first emperor of China into the afterlife. To protect the emperor in the afterlife, the Terracotta Warriors, together with horses and chariots and archers, were stationed in military formation near his tomb.
During the 3rd century BC with the Greek Empire of Alexander in total collapse and the Roman Empire engaged in the Second Punic War, the Indian Maurya Dynasty was in rapid decline, leaving south Asia divided and at war. Into this vacuum there arose a strong and prosperous dynasty that marked the first period of the unification of China. This dynasty constituted the most powerful state in the world with a population of 20 million people. It was strong in natural resources and boasted a powerful military. These resources and this prosperity made possible the project that included the Terracotta Warriors.
Its young emperor, Qin Shi Huang, came to the throne in 246 B.C. at the age of 13, but despite his youth he served effectively by unifying several warring kingdoms during the early years of his reign. He took for himself the title “Qin Shi Huang Di the First Emperor of Qin.” He also standardized weights, coinage, and the various units of measure. He linked the various states with canals and roads and is even credited for having built the first version of the Great Wall.
Qin was also a brutal emperor. He executed thinkers whose ideas differed from his own, and showed little regard for the quality of life of the slaves who labored on his burial complex. It is said that many of these workers were executed simply to preserve the secrecy of the tomb’s location and the treasures within it.
It is estimated that more than 70,000 laborers worked on this tomb complex (including the building of the Terracotta Warriors); however, work on the project was halted in 209 B.C. amid uprisings a year after Qin’s death. While the actual burial chamber where Qin was entombed remains unexcavated, ancient writers speak of even greater treasures buried inside. They say that the tomb is filled with models of palaces, pavilions, and vessels of various kinds, as well as precious stones and jewels. One ancient writer indicates that his tomb contains replicas of the area’s rivers made with mercury that flows to the sea through hills and mountains. Above the rivers of mercury are countless pearls that represent the sun, moon, and the stars. Modern tests on the tomb mound have revealed unusually high concentrations of mercury which gives credence to these ancient accounts. At the moment, further excavations of the tomb itself are on hold, but the Terracotta Warriors are on exhibit for all to see – a major cultural achievement of the Qin Dynasty and one of the greatest archeological discoveries of all time. The Terracotta Warriors represent the largest hoard of ceramic art found anywhere in the world, and remain the single greatest sculptural masterpiece of Asian art.
Next time: From Moscow to Beijing aboard the Trans-Siberian Railroad