The Terracotta Army or the “Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses”, is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BC and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife.
The figures, dating from 3rd century BC, were discovered in 1974 by some local farmers in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province. The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots and horses. Current estimates are that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits near by Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. Other terracotta non-military figures were also found in other pits and they include officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians.
The Terracotta Army was discovered on 29 March 1974 to the east of Xi’an in Shaanxi province by a group of farmers when they were digging a water well around 1.6 km (1 mile) east of the Qin Emperor’s tomb mound at Mount Li (Lishan), a region riddled with underground springs and watercourses. For centuries, there had been occasional reports of pieces of terracotta figures and fragments of the Qin necropolis – roofing tiles, bricks, and chunks of masonry – having been dug up in the area. This most recent discovery prompted Chinese archaeologists to investigate, and they unearthed the largest pottery figurine group ever found in China.
In addition to the warriors, an entire man-made necropolis for the Emperor has also been found around the first Emperor’s tomb mound. The tomb mound is located at the foot of Mount Li as an earthen pyramid, and Qin Shi Huangdi’s necropolis complex was constructed as a microcosm of his imperial palace or compound. It consists of several offices, halls, stables and other structures placed around the tomb mound which is surrounded by two solidly built rammed earth walls with gateway entrances. Up to 5 metres (16 feet) of reddish, sandy soil had accumulated over the site in the two millennia following its construction, but archaeologists found evidence of earlier disturbances at the site. During the digs near the Mount Li burial mound, archaeologists found several graves dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where diggers had apparently struck terracotta fragments which were then discarded as worthless back into the back-filled soil.
According to historian Sima Qian (145–90 BC), work on this mausoleum began in 246 BC soon after Emperor Qin ascended the throne (then aged 13), and the full construction later involved 700,000 workers. Geographer Li Daoyuan, six centuries after the death of the First Emperor, recorded in Shui Jing Zhu that Mount Li was a favoured location due to its auspicious geology: “… famed for its jade mines, its northern side was rich in gold, and its southern side rich in beautiful jade; the First Emperor, covetous of its fine reputation, therefore chose to be buried there”.
Sima Qian, in his most famous work, Shiji, completed a century after the mausoleum completion, wrote that the First Emperor was buried with palaces, towers, officials, valuable artefacts and wonderful objects. According to this account, there were 100 rivers simulated with flowing mercury, and above them the ceiling was decorated with heavenly bodies below which were the features of the land. Some translations of this passage refer to “models” or “imitations,” those words however weren’t used in the original text with no mention of the terracotta army.
Recent scientific work at the site has found high levels of mercury in the soil of the tomb mound, giving some credence to Sima Qian’s account of the emperor’s tomb. The tomb of Shi Huangdi appears to be a hermetically sealed space that is as big as a football pitch and located underneath the pyramidal tomb mound. The tomb remains unopened, one possible reason may be concerns about the preservation of valuable artifacts once the tomb is opened.
For example, after their excavation, the painted surface present on some figures of the terracotta army began to flake and fade. In fact, the lacquer covering the paint can curl in 15 seconds once exposed to the dry air of Xi’an and can flake off in just four minutes. Later historical accounts suggested that the tomb had been looted by Xiang Yu, a contender for the throne, and other people after the death of the Emperor, however there are indications that the tomb may not have been plundered.
Only a section of the site is presently excavated, and photos and video recordings are prohibited in some viewing areas. Only a few foreign dignitaries, such as Queen Elizabeth II, have been permitted to walk through the pits to observe the army at close quarters.
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