The Qin terracotta warriors: a stunning discovery

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On the anniversary of the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors in 1974, Senior Archaeologist Janice Li reveals more about the groundbreaking discoveries that followed:

"People are fascinated by the Qin terracotta warriors that were created over 2,000 years ago: thousands of them, life-sized with individual facial features, equipped with lethal bronze weapons, formed into battle formation, and served to protect the Qin First Emperor (259-210 BC) in his afterlife. However, the discovery of the terracotta warriors was by chance when the local farmers dug a well at the site.

In March 1974, a small village at the foot of Li Mountain in Lintong, China, faced a spring drought, so it was crucial to find a solution to the water shortage. Some farmers gathered together to dig a well in the south of the village, and found some pieces of pottery when it reached three metres deep. As the digging continued, fragments of terracotta heads, legs, arms, and other pieces were uncovered respectively. Some of the villagers thought these were deities from a temple and burned incense to pray for their blessings, but they did not realise what a stunning discovery it was!

When the news quickly spread to the Lintong County Museum, the local archaeologists came to the site and started the archaeological survey and excavation. Originally, it was supposed to be a one week long archaeological task, but the results astonished everyone. They quickly realised that this task could take decades, and probably generations. From the spot where the well was dug, archaeologists found the boundary of the pit, measuring 230 by 62 metres. Surprisingly, this was not the only one! Pit 2 and Pit 3 followed, revealing more terracotta warriors. In the China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors exhibition at World Museum, the terracotta warriors were selected from different pits to present a variety of postures in the battle formation, including a general, an officer, infantry, cavalry, and standing and kneeling archers.

It also showcases some lethal bronze weapons with sharp blades for the Terracotta Army to use in the underground empire. The bronze lance and halberd bear long inscriptions to indicate the regnal year in which they were produced, the name of the person in charge of production, the workshop, and the name of the specific worker. It provides valuable information about chronology and how production was organised during the manufacture of the weapons. The arrows and crossbow triggers demonstrate the Qin military strategies, and the fine and parallel sharpening marks on a large quantity of the weapons indicate the workshops making mechanical devices on an industrial scale.

Actually, the three pits of the terracotta warriors are only the tip of iceberg within the vast First Emperor’s tomb complex, which covers approximately 56 square kilometres. Ongoing archaeology has shed a light on about 600 ancillary tombs and pits surrounding the centre of the tomb mound that the coffin chamber was buried beneath, with crossbows automatically releasing arrows on intruders, as a 3D animation shows at the end of exhibition. In death, as in life, Emperor Qin brought everything with him to his afterlife: a Terracotta Army to protect him, bronze chariots for travelling, terracotta acrobats and bronze birds for his entertainment, an arsenal storing stone armour, stables full of horse skeletons, and even his concubines were buried alive with him.

The two exquisite bronze chariots, half the size of the real Qin model, were buried 20 metres west of the tomb mound. It is most likely that they were for the Emperor’s afterlife journeys. The chariots were made of thousands of components assembled together. A variety of techniques, including casting, soldering, hammering and drilling were employed. These exquisite and luxurious characters were further decorated with gold and silver inlay and ornaments. The Emperor intended to continue the inspection tours that he carried out in his life time. The reproductions of the two bronze chariots in this exhibition provide a good opportunity for visitors to have a close look the details of the Qin chariots.

Horses were very important to Qin society, not only because their ancestors raised horses, but also because they were essential for transportation, military purposes, as well as hunting in the imperial gardens. The large number and variety of horse skeletons found with the terracotta stable boys indicate their importance in the Qin First Emperor’s daily life. We also found some bones of exotic animals and birds in pottery coffins, accompanied by the kneeling pottery figures, presumably keepers to the west of the mausoleum (shown in the exhibition). These animals and birds may have been rare specimens acquired as gifts and kept in the imperial gardens.

Stone armour and helmets were stored in the arsenal of the Qin underground empire, adjacent to the Emperor’s palace. A suit of armour and a helmet are displayed in this exhibition. The stone scales and linking copper wire are well presented. In addition, a suit of horse armour was also found in the trial trenches, which demonstrates a need to protect the horses in war at that time.

Entertaining was also one of the themes for the Qin First Emperor’s afterlife. A pit adjacent to the tomb itself contained a group of terracotta figures of performers in various postures, and mostly wearing just skirts. A large bronze tri-pot was unearthed on the top of the roof in the pit to match some performing postures of muscular strong men for lifting the weight. These terracotta figures most probably signify acrobats, with the sense of movement conveyed to entertain the Emperor in his underground empire.

The bronze waterfowl in the tomb complex depict another form of entertainment for the Emperor. The bronze birds are laid in neat order along the riverbanks. Each bird is unique and well depicted in bronze, and even birds of the same species are slightly different to each other. One of the bronze cranes is holding a little worm in its beak; the creature frozen at the moment when the crane plucked it from the water.  Some terracotta figures were posed as if playing music, while in front of them a group of waterfowl, including charming swans, elegant cranes and wild geese in lines, are ready to dance to the music in a clear stream.

As shown in this exhibition, the discovery of the terracotta warriors and the ongoing archaeology revolutionised our knowledge of the Qin Emperor, Qin society and its legacy in modern day life. We can see through these objects how the Qin people lived and pursued their afterlife in early imperial China.  You can discover more objects from this groundbreaking discovery at our landmark exhibition, China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors which runs until 28 October 2018."