5 Things You Didn’t Know About China’s Terra-Cotta Army

Relics from the legendary Chinese archaeological site are now on display in New York City. Here's what you need to know

  • Share
  • Read Later
Kate Springer

Excavation continues in the largest pit, which is home to the majority of unearthed figures

Kate Springer

While digging a well near Mount Li in Shaanxi, China, in 1974, a farmer stumbled upon one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the century: the tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di, an Emperor who died in 210 B.C. and was buried with a terra-cotta entourage. Since then, archaeologists have spent the past 40 years carefully uncovering the life-size warriors from 22 sq. mi. (57 sq km) of earth-and-wood pits.

So far, excavations at the Museum of the Terracotta Army, located roughly 25 miles (40 km) east of Xi’an, have unearthed about 2,000 of the 6,000 figures thought to exist. Alongside the subterranean army lie horses, chariots, weaponry — even acrobats meant to entertain Emperor Qin in death. Scholars say the warriors were buried with China’s first Emperor to protect him in the afterlife and were never meant to be seen. Today, this so-called eighth wonder of the world attracts an estimated 2 million tourists per year.

For those who can’t make it to Xi’an, a handful of figures are on display in New York City through Aug. 26 as the centerpiece of an immersive exhibit in Times Square. The show will feature artifacts dating back to 221 B.C., including 10 of the authentic, 6-ft.-tall (183 cm) clay soldiers and their armor. In honor of the exhibit, here are five important bits of terra-cotta trivia:

(MORE: Terra-Cotta Soldiers Marching On)

1. Preservation Power Archaeologists have unearthed roughly 40,000 bronze weapons from the terra-cotta pits. From spears to battle axes, crossbows to arrowheads, these exquisitely made pieces have been preserved with the help of a protective chromium coating. Though both the Germans and Americans invented this chrome-plating technology in 1937 and ’50, respectively, it existed in China 2,200 years ago.

2. Thinking Big When Emperor Qin Shi Huang was just 13 years old, work began on his extravagant tomb. According to Chinese historian Sima Qian’s account, Records of the Grand Historian, more than 700,000 men took 36 years to build the grave. It was one of the Emperor’s great accomplishments, but he is also known for his political and cultural feats: Qin implemented a standard written script, joined the states with canals and roads, unified warring states, considerably advanced metallurgy, standardized weights and measures, built the first version of the Great Wall and then later connected tactical parts of the Great Wall.

3. A Cruel King Though he advanced the empire considerably, Qin was also infamous for his brutishness. Hundred of skeletons have been uncovered in the tomb, many of them believed to be artisans and workers who helped build the grave. According to Sima, these laborers were put to death to preserve secrecy of the location and its treasures: “After the burial and sealing up of the treasures, the middle gate was shut and the outer gate closed to imprison all the artisans and laborers, so that not one came out. Trees and grass were planted over the mausoleum to make it seem like a hill,” he wrote.

4. Bad Medicine Emperor Qin feared death and is said to have searched frantically for medicine, potions, concoctions — anything that promised everlasting vitality. Allegedly, he sent 8,000 people, including his royal herbalists, to find him a magical elixir. While he awaited a tonic, Qin turned to mercury tablets. As it turns out, the habit is said to have contributed to his death at age 50.

5. Mystery Map Though Qin’s tomb has not been excavated, legend has it that artisans carved a map of the Qin kingdom on the floor. Replicas of palaces, pavilions, as well as booby traps (artisans rigged crossbows to shoot trespassers) are said to fill the grave, while jewels represent the sky, and rivers of quicksilver represent the kingdom’s waters. Modern investigations have been able to corroborate this legend with some chemical evidence. In 2005 a research team led by Chinese archaeologist Duan Chingbo took 4,000 samples from the earthen mound to test for mercury, and all the samples came back highly positive.

LIST: Qin Shi Huang — Top 25 Political Icons