The Terracotta Army of China's First Emperor
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The Terracotta Army of China's First Emperor

The Terracotta Army is a collection of life-size terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Dated to 210 BCE, the mausoleum housing the Terracotta Army, construction of which began when Huang was thirteen, was discovered in 1974 by local farmers who were digging a well about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) east of Mount Li.

The Terracotta Army ("soldier and horse funerary statues" or the "Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses") is a collection of life-size terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang (sometimes, QinShihuang), the first Emperor of China.

Dated to 210 BCE, the mausoleum housing the Terracotta Army, construction of which began when Huang was thirteen years of age, was discovered in 1974 by local farmers who were digging a well about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) east of Mount Li. The mausoleum itself is associated with an especially significant historic world event, the first unification of the Chinese territory by an absolute monarch in 221 BCE--formally establishing “China.”

According to the Chinese historian Sima Qian (145-90 BCE), a Prefect of the Grand Scribes of the Han Dynasty, “The First Emperor was buried with palaces, scenic towers, officials, valuable utensils and wonderful objects, with 100 rivers fashioned in mercury and above this heavenly bodies,” which he described as "the features of the earth."  Construction of this mausoleum began in 246 BCE and is said to have involved 700,000 workers.

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As Chinese geographer Li Daoyuan explained six centuries after the death of the first emperor, Mount Li was probably chosen as the site of the spectacular burial tomb because of its auspicious geology: “It once had a gold mine on its north face and a jade mine on its south face, demonstrating not only its sacred value, but also perhaps how the [network of] tunnels had come to be dug in the first place. Huang specifically stated that no two soldiers of the Terracotta Army were to be made alike, which is most likely why he had construction started at such a young age.”

Quite thoughtfully, the figures vary in height, according to their professional roles, with generals being the tallest.  The figures include warriors, chariots, horses, officials, acrobats, strongmen, and even musicians. Current estimates are that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army, there are over 8,000 soldiers, 130 (bronze) chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits.

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As closer examination has shown, the heads, arms, legs, and torsos of the figures were  created separately and assembled after firing. To ensure quality control, workshops were required to inscribe their name on each component they produced, thus helping to verify which workshops were commandeered to work on the Terracotta Army figures instead of making tiles and other building materials for the city proper.

Although a total of eight face molds were most likely used, additional clay was added to make each face of the Terracotta Army unique. Once assembled and intricate features added, the figures were placed in the pits in precise military formation according to rank. (According to surviving documents, most of the workmen who built the tomb were killed, and crossbows are allegedly rigged to shoot would-be intruders.)

In addition to the warriors (which were unearthed alongside their emperor), an elaborate cemetery has also been uncovered.  Removing up to 5 meters (16 feet) of reddish, sandy soil which had accumulated over the site in the centuries since its construction, archaeologists found evidence of earlier, impromptu discoveries, including several graves from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whose diggers had apparently struck terracotta fragments, only to discard them as worthless, along with the rest of the back-filled soil.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Terracotta Army Museum, which consists of Pit 1, 2 and 3, was opened to the public in 1979.  In addition to the pits, there is another exhibition hall containing the bronze chariots and horses, as well as many other historical artifacts.  While the sheer magnitude of the burial chambers is astonishing to most visitors, what many find most fascinating is the attention to detail, size, colored lacquer finish, facial expressions, and real battle weapons which make thearmy  figures eerily lifelike and realistic.  Interestingly, the weapons which were found with the figures were chemically treated to make them rust and corrosion resistant so that even after being buried for over 2000 years, they remain sharp and ready for battle.

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Throughout the centuries, the Terracotta Army has survived fire and looting, but in recent years is facing, perhaps, their greatest foe: raised temperatures and humidity have resulted in mold that is eroding the warriors, and there have even been reports of soldier’s arms and noses falling off due of oxidization. Furthermore, soot found on the surface of the statues, thought to be caused by pollution from near-by coal burning plants, seems to be accelerating the terracotta statues’ decay. Recently, sections of the pits have been re-buried in an effort to preserve the figures.


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Comments (10)

I recently saw them on exabition in Sweden, amazing!

You're quite fortunate, Petal. They're still on my "must-see" list.

Excellent account to the history of such amazing and large number of of these terracotta statues with these intricate details. I wonder how these figures survived more than 2000 years although they are made out of such a fragile material. Very interesting reading...Thumb up

Thanks for your contribution, Abdel-moniem. Undoubtedly, being buried under sand all those centuries had a lot to do with the preservation process.

I visited this site last summer, interesting article on their find and history.

Indeed an interesting archaelogical find.

Excellent discussion, James. I've think I've seen a few of the figures on exhibition at the British Museum.

I enjoyed reading this article so much that I saved it.

I'm both pleased and honored, Eva!

very interesting, my son loves this kind of history on military forces all over the world