The Terracotta Army – An Incredible Discovery Of The Ancient Chinese History
The Terracotta Army is one of the recent incredible discoveries of the ancient Chinese history. It is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Emperors started building their tombs as soon as they took over the throne. By studying terracotta army, we can learn so much about the Chinese society 2,200 years ago.
For centuries, people living in villages near Xi’an, Shaanxi province, in northwestern China heard stories of ghosts and spirits living beneath the earth. Many years ago, this area had been the home of the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang.
In the early twentieth century a farmer was digging in a field near Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. The earth suddenly crumbled beneath his feet, revealing an underground cave. Standing there was the perfectly formed, life-sized figure of a warrior. It is made of baked clay called terracotta. But who put this amazing figure here? And why?
Years passed. Life in rural China was difficult. Growing food for people always seemed more important than broken pieces of pottery in the plowed ground. However, in 1974 a group of Chinese farmers, digging a water well, rediscovered a few figures of this huge terracotta army. Soon, top Chinese archaeologists came to survey the site. The findings were even more interesting because they were so close to Qin Shi Huang’s tomb.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang
The first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huang was born as Prince Zheng of Qin in 259 BCE into a world of war. From 480 to 221 BCE, Qin and six other kingdoms, collectively known as the Warring States, had been fighting for domination and control. These powerful kingdoms were called Qin, Han, Wei, Zhao, Chu, Qi, and Yan. They formed much of what later became modern China.
Prince Zheng became king when he was thirteen years old. As he grew older, he gained more experience and became a decisive warrior king. He created one of the world’s most powerful armies. His forces went on to defeat the other Warring States in 221 BCE Zheng became known as Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of Qin. The emperor built the mausoleum, probably hoping that his spirit will continue to live in the afterlife. Work on the mausoleum began in 246 BCE soon after Emperor Qin ascended the throne, and the project eventually involved 700,000 workers.
During his reign, Qin Shi Huang used slave labor excessively to build palaces, tombs, and the Great Wall to satisfy his personal ego. In spite of his dictatorship, Emperor Qin had critical influence on Chinese history. After unifying China, he standardized weights and measures, introduced a uniform writing script, enabling people with vastly different dialects to communicate. He also enacted a civil administration system that lasted for centuries.
A spirit city is a tomb complex built to resemble a city. Spirit cities were based on the belief that, after death, the spirit lives on in much the same way the person did while alive. The mound over the emperor’s burial chamber, the “spirit city”, lies in the southern part of a much bigger rectangle. Originally, high walls and a water-filled moat surrounded the whole area.
Yuan Zhongyi, one of the first archeologists to visit the terracotta army, noted that many archeologists had never seen such big pottery figures or such a large pit. He could not believe it. After surveying the test area and making many borings, he discovered that the terracotta army indeed was a real find.
Some archeologists call this huge area “a city of spirits”, although no living person has ever called it home. Even after two thousand years, the mound still stands 43 meters high. Huge inner and outer earth walls surround the burial area. The digging also reveals an eastern wall or foundation of a building. For that matter, the terracotta army is one of the greatest archeological discoveries.
The team of archeologists realized that the pit with the terracotta army must contain hundreds of clay warriors. They also unearthed the broken pieces of a beautiful life-size terracotta horse. The statue had a wide mouth and flaring nostrils.
Soon after finding the first horse, the archeologists also discovered bronze swords, glistening and shining in the sunlight. The wooden parts of the weapons rotted away long ago. But the metal was still as sharp and shiny as it was when these weapons were first made. Some twisted metal pieces were triggers from crossbows. This terracotta army must have carried these weapons. What was amazing that these weapons did not contain any rust on them.
The scientists found that ancient workers treated the sword’s blade with a coating of salt and chromium. It was thought that this kind of unusual treatment protected the sword from rust. However, research in 2019 showed that the chromium was merely contamination from nearby lacquer, not a means of protecting the weapons. The slightly alkaline pH and small particle size of the burial soil most likely preserved the weapons.
The amount of terracotta beneath the ground is almost beyond belief. Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta soldiers were likely meant to protect the emperor in the afterlife. They were buried in pits near the emperor’s tomb after his death in 210 BCE Nethertheless, probably nobody, not even the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, ever saw the terracotta army in its entirety.
Most of the terracotta warriors were originally placed facing east. Does this have something to do with the rising sun? The first emperor had chosen to build his capital city, Xianyang, in one of China’s most protected places. High mountains rose to the west. The Wei River flowed to the south, the Great Wall protected the city against invasion from the north. But the capital was open to the east. Perhaps, the emperor placed his army facing this way because he believed an attack would probably come from the east. He wanted to be ready for an invasion, even after his death.
The terracotta warriors stand in line to protect the emperor. Their legs, arms, bodies, and heads may have been made in molds. However, before they were fired in kilns, each figure seems to have been carefully sculpted by hand. Heads, arms, legs, and torsos were created separately and then assembled by combining the pieces together. Then, the terracotta figures were placed in the pits according to rank and duty.
The warriors’ legs were probably made in much the same way that terracotta drainage pipes were manufactured at the time. In this case, the process looks like assembly line production, with specific parts manufactured and assembled after being fired, as opposed to crafting one solid piece and subsequently firing it.
During production, skilled artists paid special attention to the head and carefully designed each soldier’s hair, and moustache, and other facial features. The colored lacquer finish and individual facial features would have given the figures a realistic feel, with eyebrows and facial hair in black and the faces done in pink. The craftsmen probably used flat wooden paddles, sharp sticks, brushes, and metal tools for this work. The craftsmen also added details to the warriors’ clothing and armor before baking the clay.
While every head and body looks different, the basic parts of most soldiers are similar. Why would the sculptors have gone to so much trouble to model unique warriors’ faces, only to bury them out of sight? The people who made these figures were laborers, prisoners or slaves, not professional artists. A few skilled sculptors probably oversaw the project. Still, thousands of unhappy workers managed to construct one of the most beautiful works of art.
Since the army stands in a tomb, it seems to be ceremonial, not practical. The warriors carry the best weapons of their day. Their hands were clearly formed to hold actual weapons. These terracotta warriors meant to be an actual army, ready to fight. The soldiers have traces of red, brown, blue, purple, yellow, and green pigments on their clothing, shoes and headgear. After the excavation of the Terracotta Army, the painted surface began to flake and fade.
Pits and Pieces
The archeologists have found four main pits with the terracotta army. These pits have different shapes, sizes and contain various pieces of the army. Pit 1 houses the army’s main battle formation of 6,000 figures. This pit has eleven corridors, most more than 3 metres wide and paved with small bricks with a wooden ceiling. This design was also used for the tombs of nobles and would have resembled palace hallways when built.
Pit 1 has eight wooden chariots, thirty-two life-sized terracotta horses, and more than one thousand warriors. Each warrior stands 175 centimeters tall. Soldiers in the front unit wear no armor or helmets but they once carried crossbows and longbows. Longbows were wooden bows about 1.5 to 1.8 m long. A crossbow is a weapon made of a bow placed crossways on a wooden frame. The frame holds an arrow against the bow’s string. When a shooter pulls back the string and aims the crossbow like a rifle, a trigger releases the string, which shoots the arrow with great force.
About two hundred central units of infantry face east. These warriors wear armor. They once carried spears, swords, and other long-shafted weapons. This main group stands in eleven long rows. A rear unit of about one hundred soldiers faces west. In addition, rows of archers on the outside, holding bows and arrows, face north and south. They are ready to protect the unit from attack from those directions. In addition, there are more than ten thousand bronze weapons.
Pit 2 is L-shaped and covers about 6,000 square meters. It holds pieces of jade, gold, bone, iron, bronze, cavalry and war chariots. Along with the infantry and chariots are units of 160 cavalrymen. These expert horsemen could ride and shoot a crossbow at the same time. Each soldier stands in front of his animal, one hand clutching the horse’s rein and the other clenched around a crossbow.
The Pit 3 is roughly shaped like an irregular letter ‘U’. It is not nearly as large as other pits. Nethertheless, it has a few bronze arrowheads, one war chariot, and sixty soldiers. The main chamber of this pit may represent the command post for a high-ranking person. Perhaps, it was a place for the spirits of the emperor’s best soldiers and horses to stay. Nearly all of these high-ranking officers missing their heads. While other pits show evidence of raiders in ancient times setting the pits on fire, the inside of this chamber does not appear to have been burned.
All in all, the number of warriors and horses in the pits is amazing. No one has ever found such a huge number of historical relics in one place. The three pits containing the Terracotta Army held more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses. It is surprising that Pit 4 was empty. The tomb complex was still unfinished when Qin Shi Huang died suddenly in 210 BCE. The craftsmen may have left the building in this way because its contents meant to be spiritual, not physical.
The museum of Terracotta Warriors was opened in Lintong County in October 1979. The pit area was divided into twenty-seven separate sections. The museum allowed visitors to view the excavation close up from raised wooden walkways around the pit. Since then, Qin Shi Huang’s tomb complex and its museum have become known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. In 1987, the UNESCO listed the tomb as a World Heritage Site.
Growing Terracotta Army
It could take fifty to one hundred years to uncover the whole area. In their latest round of excavation, archaeologists have unearthed about 200 more terracotta warriors and a large number of weapons from Pit 1. The Terracotta Army is part of a much larger necropolis. The necropolis is a microcosm of the emperor’s imperial palace. It covers a large area around the tomb mound of the first emperor. As the teams continued to explore each new section of the tomb, they came across more startling objects. While the figures are commonly referred to as warriors or an army, they are not all soldiers. Some are stablehands, tradesmen, and other civilians. Workers even found the remains of rare birds and exotic animals in coffins containing dishes of food. Terracotta statues of the animals’ keepers located nearby.
An estimated three hundred to four hundred additional pits are thought to hold other animals and attendants. All of these figures are part of a huge city meant for the dead emperor’s pleasure. The archeologists even discovered acrobats, lifting, spinning, dancing, jumping, and making other movements. They also unearthed more than twelve life-sized bronze cranes. These birds have great spiritual meaning in Chinese culture. They symbolize long life and immortality.
Close to the pits with horses and grooms is a row of seventeen pits filled with human bones. Some of these graves also hold pieces of silk, as well as jade, gold, and silver objects. These items show that these real people were extremely important and wealthy during their lifetimes. They may have been the emperor’s children, killed in the rebellion that followed his death. Some scholars believe they may have even asked to die so that they could go with the emperor on his spirit journey.
There is a mass grave about 1.6 km from the emperor’s tomb. These people lie outside the spirit city. Clay tablets buried with the skeletons clearly identify them as forced laborers at the tomb complex. They had been sentenced to death for crimes. This discovery reveals the contrast between these workers’ hard lives and the luxurious lives of the people they served.
Qi Shi Huandi’s terracotta warriors are not the only one discovered in China. In 2003, south of Beijing, workers found a tomb holding thousands of horses, chariots, and terracotta soldiers. This tomb dates back to the Han dynasty (202 BCE - 220 C.E.) that ruled China after the Qin dynasty. The practice of burying kings and nobles with symbolic armies must have been common in ancient China.
Sounds of the Battlefield
The chariots are some of the rarest discoveries at the Qin tomb site. No one has found anything like them in such numbers before. It feels that we can almost hear the sounds of the battlefield. Several horse-pulled chariots are part of the main battle unit. Each one once carried an armored driver and one or two warriors. These men also held spears or other weapons. The group of soldiers around each chariot probably cooperated with the chariot and its riders during battle.
Qin horses were specially bred and trained for battle. The horses of the terracotta army have eager eyes, tense muscles, flared nostrils, and wide neighing mouths. Everything about the army shows organization and strength. For an ancient army marching forward, appearing unstoppable was sometimes half the battle. Just the sight of Qin’s vast army moving toward the battlefield was often enough to send enemies fleeing in terror. The Qin army was more than ready to strike with incredible force.
Four bronze white-painted horses once pulled each two-wheeled chariot. The hardware and fittings on the wagons and horses are mainly silver and gold. Delicate painted patterns decorate the precious metal. Each chariot also has a bronze driver. Wide bronze umbrellas protect the drivers from sun and rain. Based on the drivers’ clothing and hairstyles, these men held very high ranks in the army. They hold swords, ready to guard each side of the chariots. It appears to be a royal procession. The bronze chariots were probably the vehicle for the journey of the emperor’s soul.
The larger chariot weighs more than 1,179 kilograms. How did ancient metalworkers make the paper-thin bronze umbrellas protecting the drivers? These metal canopies are less than 0.2 cm thick. How did they make the intricate tassel decorations on each horse? The tassels are even thinner than the canopy. These metal creations are incredibly precise. Still, artists made them without any modern tools or technology.
According to ancient legends, wild and fearless Qin soldiers charged into battle without armor or helmets. Not carrying extra weight made Qin warriors faster and more agile than armored soldiers. They were a powerful and deadly fighting force. But most of the infantry, archers, and chariot drivers had armor. The archeologists have identified seven different types of armor. Most soldiers wear leather armor.
These weapons were the best of their day. The crossbow is especially impressive. In its time, it was the most powerful weapon in the world. It had a range of nearly 823 meters. And its design made it faster to load and easier to shoot than older models. Qin factories mass produced this improved crossbow.
Workers have found three unusual weapons at the Qin site. They are the pi, wandao and shu. The pi is a sickle-shaped, 0.3 meter spearhead on the end of a 3 meter long pole. The wandao is a curved sword is shaped like a crescent moon. The shu is a narrow, heavy piece of metal, 15 cm long and 2.5 cm across, shaped like a cylinder with a pointed top. It was attached to the top of a long pole. Warriors riding in fast-moving chariots swung shu like clubs. In Qin times, warriors used them mainly for defensive purposes, not for attack. Such weapons would have been used to help protect an important person.
Some musical instruments were also found in the pits among the warriors and chariots. In ancient times, soldiers used these instruments to guide the army. The sounds of drums told soldiers how and where to move in battle. For example, a single, regular drumbeat signified a steady movement forward. A faster beat or drumroll meant an attack. The sound of a bell ordered warriors to stop. A repeated ringing signaled a retreat. Directed by these signals, the Qin army operated like a giant machine. Each part acted in perfect harmony with the others.
Archaeologists call tomb figures and other buried items mingqi, or “spirit articles.” People placed these items in ancient tombs to recreate a dead person’s earthly life. Putting rare and valuable items in a tomb also showed a ruler’s power and status. An emperor’s ability to sacrifice valuable objects, not to mention the lives of thousands of tomb builders, showed people how important he was.