When the burial complex was first discovered by farmers in 1974, archaeologists set to work on one of the most astonishing ancient sites on record.
The excavation uncovered a sprawling citadel with thousands of warriors, each designed with a unique face and clothing. In addition to the warriors themselves, the dig uncovered horses, chariots, bronze ritual vessels, jade jewelry, and gold and silver ornaments. According to historian Sima Qian, the emperor so feared that his artisans “might disclose all the treasure that was in the tomb, . . [that] 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 no one came out.”
The story of the burial complex is also fascinating because it was conceived by such a very young individual. Court records reveal that, despite taking the throne at the age of 13 (in 246 BCE), the eventual emperor ordered construction to begin almost immediately. Enormous numbers of laborers worked on the project, which was halted as the dynasty neared collapse. To date, four pits have been partially excavated. Three contain terracotta soldiers, horse-drawn chariots and weapons. The fourth pit was found empty, a testament to the original unfinished construction.
One of the most extraordinary features of the terracotta warriors is that each appears to have distinct features—an incredible feat of craftsmanship and production. Despite the custom construction of these figures, studies of their proportions reveal that their frames were created using an assembly production system that paved the way for advances in mass production and commerce.Armored kneeling archer (detail), 221–206 BCE. China. Terracotta. Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, Shaanxi, EX 2013.1.078.This archer figure retains traces of the original pigment. The nature of these pigments is one of the recent discoveries made during ongoing excavation of the burial complex.
Archaeologists estimate that the objects, including figures, horses, and weapons, number in the thousands, though the true total may never be known.