Buried for over 2,000 years, researchers reveal this lost Chinese dynasty
The terracotta warriors of China were underground for over 2,000 years before they were discovered in 1974. Since then, the area is so booby trapped, spread out, and dangerous that only 1% of it has been explored. Archaeologists have their hands full trying to get inside the emperors mausoleum, but if they don’t figure out the mysteries of the terracotta warriors, they’ll never make it out alive.
Terracotta Warriors unearthed
On March 29, 1974, rice farmers in the Lintong County of China were digging a well at the base of a 4,000-foot-tall mountain. The region was a honeycomb of underground waterways, but on that day they found something far more spectacular than ground water – they found the eighth wonder of the world.
For centuries, the region that was well in the interior of China turned up pieces of brick and mortar, and occasionally pieces of terracotta figurines. This time they found much more, and archaeologists were soon on the scene. They discovered something unimaginable – a 40 square-mile area with almost 8,000-terracotta warriors buried beneath them.
Locating the Emperor’s Mausoleum
The terracotta warriors represent an entire army, but what were they for? In the 40-square mile area, there’s a small hill that rises a couple of hundred feet above the earth, and a forest sits on top. Archaeologists suspected there was a much larger complex beneath the earth there, so they brought in ground-penetrating radar to take a peak.
What they found was an enormous mausoleum, housing the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. His mausoleum has never been penetrated because archaeologists fear that it’s heavily booby-trapped. But the pyramid structure beneath the earth is actually the eighth largest pyramid in the world, and no one alive has ever seen it!
The army was built for revenge
The terracotta warriors that guard the Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum are there to protect him in the afterlife. This is because he spent so much of his life conquering China, and massacred the armies of six-separate Chinese states in order to do so. He feared that he would have to face those vanquished souls again in the afterlife, and needed an army to fight them.
The terracotta army is in a strategic position to protect the emperor from attack. The emperor’s mausoleum sits at the base of a mountain, making any attack more likely to occur from the east, which is the direction the terracotta army faces. Hopefully, his enemies didn’t learn to fly in the afterlife.
No two are alike
You would think that with an entire army of terracotta warriors, workers might’ve stuck to a common mold, but the fact is no two are exactly alike. The terracotta warriors are meant to mimic an actual army, which means they come complete with different ranks such as generals, officers, and regular soldiers.
Constructing the terracotta warriors might’ve been an example of the world’s first assembly line. They were put together in sections, and while features like their hands are all the same, they had eight molds for faces. When the faces came off the assembly line, artists molded clay to create unique features for every single one.
Their faces peeled off
When archaeologists unearthed the first heads of the terracotta warriors, a frightening thing happened that sent shivers down their spines. Each one of the warriors was hand-painted upon completion, with vibrant colors that made them glow. Yet, when you see them, you’ll notice that they don’t have any paint on them anymore.
The reason is that when the first heads were unearthed, the paint started curling and pealing within 15 seconds. In a couple of minutes, the paint completely flaked off, like they were dipped in acid. Centuries under the ground left them ill-equipped for the warm, dry air of the region. Fortunately, scientists developed a method called PEG, which preserves the paint immediately.
Less than 1% of the tomb has been discovered
Do you see the rising slope in the background? That’s the eight largest pyramid in the world housing the 8,000 warriors comprising the eighth wonder of the world (“8” is the luckiest number in Chinese culture, meaning anyone who is blessed by the number “8” has strong insight and intuition).
So if we know it’s there, why don’t we explore it? The reason is that scientists are terrified to enter the tomb. Not only are they concerned about preserving the emperor and all his treasures within the mausoleum, but mercury levels are at toxic levels inside, mainly due to the emperor’s fascination with the deadly element. He’s rumored to have had some every day of his adult life.
Their weapons were very well preserved
The warriors may be made of terracotta, but their weapons were actually made for killing. If there was some divine fight that occurred in the emperor’s afterlife there was no evidence of it, as many of the weapons the terracotta warriors possessed were still very much intact.
Archaeologists have found over 40,000 weapons under the ground. Not only are their swords and spears, but also battle axes and crossbows too. The secret to the endurance of the weapons rests inside their chrome plating, which is odd because as far as we know, the practice started with the Germans in 1937.
The emperor was ruthless
If you’re a believer in the ends justify the means, then you’ll think that Emperor Qin Shin Huang was a good ruler, but if you don’t, you’ll probably conclude that he was a bloodthirsty psychopath. Toward the end of his life he became obsessed with finding an elixir that would grant him eternal life, and many people died trying to find it.
If scholars disputed any claim against eternal life, the emperor commonly had them executed. In fact, he went to great lengths to have scholars focus on alchemy and finding him his elixir for eternal life. When a group of hundreds of his minions set out to find what he craved, they never returned, fearing execution if they came back empty-handed.
There’s a river of mercury
As mentioned previously, one of the Emperor’s favorite elixirs was mercury. The ultimate irony exists in the fact that in his quest to find a substance that would make him immortal, he ingested one that instead most certainly led to his early death at age 50.
According to an account of the tomb in “The Grand Scribe’s Records,” by early Chinese historian Sima Qian, there are rivers of mercury that flow in the tomb. They’re meant to simulate real rivers, complete with the emperor’s favorite toxic element. Given how testing has revealed that there is indeed plenty of mercury in the tomb, scientists won’t be penetrating it for a long time.
The animals were given a lot of attention
The photograph below shows a cavalry soldier walking his horse, and as you can see the horse is just as detailed as the man. Scholars believe they’re meant to depict Hegu horses who live today in Gansu, which would’ve made them perfect for the hilly terrain, as they are fast and very strong.
The detail in the horses is amazing, but what was far more startling for archaeologists was the discovery that each horse had a saddle. Again, the Chinese appear to be way ahead of their time, as prior to this discovery, saddles were thought to have been invented hundreds of years later.
The terrible trick pulled on the workers
With a river of mercury and a mixed bag of unknown booby traps, scholars will take their time trying to get inside. They don’t want to end up dead, like the many workers who died inside after being tricked by the emperor’s men.
When the emperor died the mausoleum was still under construction, and after his body was placed inside the final touches were put on the complex. But the emperor’s men feared that the workers might take advantage of the fact that they knew the inner-workings of the tomb. To make sure they didn’t share their secrets, they were locked inside and left to die.
All kinds of animals were buried with the warriors
The terracotta army was certainly a formidable force, as it was equipped with nearly 700 horses. One hundred and fifty of them are cavalry horses, while the majority of the horses (520 more horses) pulled chariots. There were also birds, such as cranes, bronze ducks, and waterfowl.
Evidently, Qin Shi Huang wanted other, non-military animals, to accompany him in the afterlife to make it more like planet earth. For his entertainment, scholars speculate, he also had acrobats and musicians constructed. The emperor had more possessions in death than most of us have in life! Did he pack his bathing suit too for the mercury river?
Did the king’s mausoleum burn?
According to an account written over 100 years after the emperor’s death, the tomb may have burned. It’s believed that Qin Shi Huang dispatched hundreds of thousands of workers to combat a rebellion within the empire. When the tomb was abandoned the insurrection reached the mausoleum, and according to the historian Sima Qian, they looted mausoleum.
The story goes further and says that shepherd accidentally started a fire inside the tomb. He was looking for his sheep when the torch he had started a much bigger blaze. But because no one has ever been inside the mausoleum, nobody knows for sure if this account is true.
The statues could’ve been influenced by the Greeks
Below are photos of two acrobats – the one on the left is part of the terracotta army, while the one on the right is from ancient Greece. Marco Polo arrived in China in the 13th century AD and represents the first well-documented case of a European traveling to China. However, scholars now believe the link may have been established centuries before.
Alexander the Great came into contact with the East in the 3rd century BC, just before Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s rule. It’s thought that they may have brought along their influence, and some scholars even believe there were Greek emissaries on hand during the construction of the army.
There were 700,000 workers, many of whom died
When the emperor pulled his workers away from construction, it’s estimated that there were 700,000 of them. Construction began after Qin Shi Huang conquered the Qin state in 246 BC, which made the emperor roughly 13 years old. Work continued for 40 years until 206 BC, which was four years after the emperor died.
This means the tomb was under construction during his entire adult life, thus showing his obsession with living forever. It’s amazing that it took so long, as 700,000 workers slaved day and night to create the army, and many were worked to death, or executed to prevent them from sharing secrets.
The four pits
The excavation of the terracotta army has revealed that there are four main pits that comprise the emperor’s immortal army. The first pit contains most of the soldiers, as there are roughly 6,000 terracotta warriors spread out between 11 corridors, and was found about 23 feet beneath the surface.
The second pit has more specialized soldiers, as the majority of the chariots and cavalry units, which makes scholars believe they’re a military guard for the emperor. The third pit contains a command post, while the fourth pit is empty. Nobody knows why the fourth pit is empty, but experts speculate that it was never finished.
Drainage in the mausoleum is a marvel
According to the Chinese history Sima Qian, the tomb was buried about 100 feet beneath the surface, and the construction crew encountered the water table three separate times. Scholars agree that that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the tomb is most certainly under the water table, but somehow, everything inside is still dry.
In 2000, archaeologists got curious about the water level in the tomb and conducted a study to find out if it infiltrated the mausoleum. They found that there’s an advanced drainage system in the tomb itself, and an underground dam has kept the water at bay for over a millennium.
Significance of discovery
The discovery of the terracotta army is one of the most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century. Other discoveries that rank highly are the Dead Sea Scrolls in the West Bank, and the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, and while those discoveries are amazing, the terracotta army will have archaeologists busy for much longer.
The photograph above shows a dig that resulted in the discovery of another 120 terracotta warriors, displaying just how amazingly large the area is. As mentioned previously, only 1% of the total area has been unearthed. To put that in perspective, consider that it took eight years to fully exhume Tutankhamen’s tomb, but in China, after nearly 50 years, scientists have barely scratched the surface.
Restoration efforts for the terracotta army are some of the most advanced in the world, and that’s because archaeologists are presented with extraordinary problems. Unearthing the warriors themselves requires special procedures to prevent the paint from flaking off their faces, and if they did get into the tomb, they worry the river of mercury will volatilize immediately, which could be deadly.
The scientist in the above photograph is conducting a test on the effects of pollution on the terracotta warriors. This particular test cost a quarter-million dollars, and was just done to see if these warriors can make it in a museum.
Making the Terracotta warrior
Though the assembly line wasn’t invented for another 2,000 years, constructing the terracotta warriors was about as close to it as we’ve seen. Artisans from around the countryside were rounded up and commissioned to create the pieces of the warriors, and then they would lute them together.
These pieces were produced in separate facilities that were well away from the site and then put together piecemeal. Once they were assembled, they were placed in the pit, carefully, as to respect their line of march, and rank and duty. For quality control, the added step was taken of documenting which factories were responsible for which pieces.
Dignitaries visit from around the world
Understandably so, the terracotta army is a huge source of pride for the Chinese people and is a significant cultural assemblage that represents their history. Perhaps most significant, is how well preserved the entire army is, and it has attracted the attention of dignitaries and world leaders across the globe.
The photograph above reveals the awe in Queen Elizabeth II’s face as she walks among and views the near human terracotta warriors. Whenever statesmen, dignitaries, or world leaders visit China, the government tries to get them to visit the site, as President’s Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, as well as the French, German, and Indian Prime Minister’s have visited.
If you want to see the terracotta army in person, in their natural habitat, you’ll obviously have to travel to China. But even that gives no guarantee that you’ll visit the army, as the emperor’s mausoleum in Lintong County is a good 12-hour drive from the capital Beijing and a 14-hour drive from Shanghai.
For decades now a small contingent of the terracotta army has been traveling the world, stopping at various cultural centers and museums. This is a much easier option than travelling to China and has seen significant results. When the warriors visited the World Museum in Liverpool in 2018, they had their best year on record.
UNESCO World Heritage site
In 1987, 13 years after the discovery of the terracotta army, and 11 years after the first excavations, UNESCO declared the location of the army as a World Heritage Site. Because of it’s cultural significance to the world, it is now under the protection of UNESCO, which finds natural and man-made sites that are important to mankind as a whole.
Finding terracotta, which is a type of clay, that is over 2,000 years old is an amazing discovery in and of itself. But it’s truly the scale of the find that is of particular significance and has given scientists, archaeologists, and historians a window of what life may have been like so long ago.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s concubines
Emperor Qin Shi Huang actually never named an empress, but he wasn’t lonely, as he had dozens of concubines. In his lifetime we don’t know how many concubines the emperor had, but we do know that he had enough to sire about 50 children, as he’s known to have fathered 30 sons and 15 daughters.
When the next emperor to came to power he decided that it wasn’t appropriate for the previous emperor’s concubines who did not have a child to hang around in the court. Therefore, it was decided that they should join the emperor, and were promptly killed inside the mausoleum.
The imperial palace
One of the awesome truths about the terracotta army and the surrounding area is that the site is so new, that scientists make significant discoveries all the time. For example, in 2012, it was revealed that there is an “imperial palace” buried beneath the earth.
The imperial palace isn’t small either, as it’s estimated to be nearly 600,000 square feet, which makes it about a quarter the size of the entire Forbidden City in Beijing. It contains a giant courtyard, 18 houses, and a much larger complex. Excavations continue at the site, where archaeologists have found walls, gates, and stone roads.
Who is Emperor Qin Shi Huang?
Qin Shi Huang’s original name was Zhao Zheng, and when he ascended to the throne at age 13, he started his bloody reign early. He had a half brother banished from the Qin kingdom, and this half brother later committed suicide to avoid being murdered.
He then had his top adviser executed in a particularly brutal fashion when he started an insurrection. According to the text, the man was tied to five different horse carriages, and you can guess what happened when someone said, “Yah!” With his own kingdom secured, he set his sets on the surrounding territory. But there were many men eager to stop him.
The below image is a stone rubbing depicting of the first known assassination attempt on Qin Shi Huang’s life. A rival named Jing Ke was summoned to the palace to provide gifts for the emperor, and he tried to take advantage of this opportunity.
When he unrolled a map that was a gift, Jing Ke’s dagger fell to the floor. The king drew his sword and cut Jing Ke, and then he struck him again. In one last desperate attempt, Jing Ke threw the blade at the emperor, but he missed. The emperor had to defend himself in the process, as weapons were not allowed in the royal court at the time.
Qin Shi Huang
Shi Huang is loosely translated to “the first emperor,” and upon conquering the whole of China, he changed his name to what we know him as Qin Shi Huang. His war of conquest started in 230 BC, and within eight years he brought all the different kingdoms of China under one rule.
Though the emperor’s methods were particularly cruel to unify the country, he set about redefining the administrative duties of the country to great effect. For one, he unified the currency and trade system in China, which wonders for the country, and secondly, he gave China an identity when he standardized the language.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s death
In 211 BC, it’s said that a meteor struck a distance province in China, and someone inscribed a prophecy that was unfavorable for the emperor. It said, “The First Emperor will die and his land will be divided.” It was an ominous message.
The emperor sent emissaries to see who done it, but no one would confess, and many were executed. The emperor would be dead within a year, and even though no one really knows what the cause of death was, many scholars agree that it was probably from ingesting mercury. We’d love to travel back and tell him that mercury is a bad idea, but he’d probably execute us too.