In March of 1974 something unusual and wondrous was discovered one mile from the ancient city of Xi’an in central China.
Several farmers were digging a water well when they came across pieces of pottery that seemed to be in the form of a human sculpture. Although it was known that pottery sculptures, roofing tiles, bricks and other chunks of masonry had been found in the general location, this find got the ear of the Chinese government. Not long after, the site became a significant archaeological excavation, which continues today.
We visited the terra-cotta warriors site in February of 2015. Our trip to China started by flying from Honolulu to Beijing, but our travel plans included Xi’an. We booked a ride on the bullet train, and at the speed of 200+ mph it took over four hours to make the trip across the ancient lands of China. It was off-season, cold and the air was polluted, but we waited years to see the terra-cotta warriors, so we endured.
Our guide met us at the train station and dropped us off at the Grand Noble hotel, which is located within Xi’an’s old city wall and near the central bell tower. The next day our guide picked us up at the hotel and drove us to the farm outside town, which has been turned into an archaeology site and national treasure.
Once inside the site were guided to “Pit One” which is the first of four excavations. This pit is covered under a massive arching roof and contains life-sized figures, dating from approximately the late third century. The lineup of statuary is impressive and is famously known as the Terra-cotta Army, which is a collection of terra-cotta 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 BCE and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife.
Pit one, which is 750 feet long and 203 feet wide, contains the main army of more than 6,000 figures. The excavation has 11 corridors, most of which are more than 9 feet wide and paved with small bricks with a wooden ceiling supported by large beams and posts. This design was also used for the tombs of nobles and would have resembled palace hallways when built. The wooden ceilings were covered with reed mats and layers of clay for waterproofing, and then mounded with more soil raising them about 6 foot 7 inches to 9 foot 10 inches above the surrounding ground level when completed.
The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots and horses. Estimates from 2007 were that the three pits containing the Terra-cotta Army held more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which remained buried in the pits nearby Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. Other terra-cotta non-military figures were found in other pits, including officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians.
Other pits that formed the necropolis have also been excavated. These pits lie within and outside the walls surrounding the tomb mound. They variously contain bronze carriages, terra-cotta figures of entertainers such as acrobats and strongmen, officials, stone armor suits, burials sites of horses, rare animals and laborers, as well as bronze cranes and ducks set in an underground park.
The tomb appears to be a hermetically-sealed space the size of a football pitch, and given concerns regarding preservation of its artifacts, the tomb remains unopened. For example, after their excavation, the painted surface present on some terra-cotta figures began to flake and fade. The lacquer covering the paint can began to curl in fifteen seconds once exposed to Xi’an’s dry air.
Regardless of the conditions, our visit to the site of the tomb and viewing of the soldiers and horses was fulfilling. At this time of year there were few crowds, which we had been told can be overbearing when trying to appreciate and photo-document the this rich historical site.
At the end of the tour of the pits our guide took us to a museum that contains many artifacts found within the site and several of the best preserved figures and horses. Although the figures were contained within glass enclosures to protect their finishes, it was an opportunity to get up close and inspect the fine detail of each sculpture.
Although the site is somewhat remote, outside of Xi’an, and it is an archaeologic dig still in progress, the tomb of emperor Qin and his terra-cotta entourage is well worth the visit.