Discovered in China in 1974, the army of life-sized warriors made of terracotta offers a fascinating glimpse into Chinese history. The six thousand warriors were created for the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang and were meant to protect him in the afterlife.
Who was Qin Shi Huang?
Emperor Qin Shi Huang ruled China from 221 to 207 BC and was the first Chinese Emperor. Under his rule China was unified, having previously been divided into several independent states. Unification included standardizing measurements and coinage as well as building connecting canals and roads to facilitate trade.
His rule featured extensive building projects, including the Great Wall of China and his own mausoleum, as well as a national road system. He completed these projects at the expense of numerous workers, who died in the course of the construction.
As emperor, Qi Shi Huang was effective but was also in many ways tyrannical. He executed scholars by burying them alive and burned books to keep the populace from comparing him to past rulers. Late in life he became obsessed with attaining immortality, possibly due to several assassination attempts.
The mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang
Although he did not like to discuss the possibility of his own death, Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum was one of the first major building projects undertaken in his reign. Construction began in 246 BC. The exact number of workers employed in the project is unknown. Historical documents state that over seven hundred thousand workers were involved, but this figure seems far too large given the time period. A more likely number has been estimated by historians at about sixteen thousand.
The main tomb, where Qin Shi Huang was interred, has yet to be discovered. However, other portions of the necropolis, whose structure was based on the imperial palace, have been excavated, revealing the terracotta army as well as weapons and other artifacts. The necropolis itself is estimated to cover about twenty square miles.
Discovery of the terracotta figures
In 1974 peasants in Shaanxi province, near Xi'an, were digging a well when they discovered the warriors. Various bits of pottery and other artifacts had been uncovered in the area over the years, but this was the first major discovery related to Qin Shi Huang's tomb. In 2009-2012, an additional 110 figures were uncovered, as well as a dozen clay horses.
Purpose of the terracotta army
The terracotta army was constructed to protect Qin Shi Huang's tomb as well as to provide him with subjects to rule in the afterlife. The figures were placed in pits facing the regions most likely to attack the emperor's realm and are arranged in a military formation, indicating readiness for battle. With over six thousand warriors of various ranks and sizes, as well as horses and weapons, and with many square miles yet to be excavated, Qin Shi Huang seems to have been well supplied with both company and protection.