Emperor Qin's Tomb -- Not Just Terracotta Soldiers

Who Was Qin Shihuangdi and What Was His Tomb Like?

Broken terracotta soldier at Qin Shi Huangdi Tomb
Crumbled remains of terracotta warrior in the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor of China from 210 BC, Xi'an, China. | Located in: Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huangdi. Paul Souders / Getty Images

The exquisite terracotta army of the first Qin Dynasty ruler Shihuangdi represents the emperor’s ability to control the resources of the newly unified China, and his attempt to recreate and maintain that empire in the afterlife. The soldiers are part of Shihuangdi's tomb, located near the modern town of Xi'an, Shaanxi province in China. That, scholars believe, is why he built the army, or rather had them built, and the story of the Qin and his army is a great tale.

The Emperor Qin

The first emperor of all China was a fellow named Ying Zheng, born in 259 BC during the "Warring States Period", a chaotic, fierce, and dangerous time in Chinese history. He was a member of the Qin dynasty, and ascended to the throne in 247 BC at the age of twelve and a half. In 221 BC King Zheng united all of what is now China and renamed himself Qin Shihuangdi ("First Heavenly Emperor of Qin"), although ‘united’ is rather a tranquil word to be using for the bloody conquest of the region’s small polities. According to the Shi Ji records of the Han dynasty court historian Sima Qian, Qin Shihuangdi was a phenomenal leader, who began connecting existing walls to create the first version of the Great Wall of China; constructed an extensive network of roads and canals throughout his empire; standardized philosophy, law, written language and money; and abolished feudalism, establishing in its place provinces run by civilian governors.

Qin Shihuangdi died in 210 BC, and the Qin dynasty was quickly extinguished within a few years by the early rulers of the subsequent Han dynasty. But, during the brief period of Shihuangdi’s rule, a remarkable testament to his control of the countryside and its resources was constructed: a semi-subterranean mausoleum complex, which included an estimated army of 8,000 life-size sculpted clay terracotta soldiers, chariots, and horses.

Shihuangdi's Necropolis: Not Just Soldiers

The terracotta soldiers are only a part of the vast mausoleum project, covering an area of some 30 square kilometers (11.5 square miles). In the middle of the precinct is the still-unexcavated tomb of the king, 500x500 meters (1640x1640 feet) square and covered by an earthen mound some 70 m (230 ft) high. The tomb lies within a walled precinct, measuring 2,100x975 m (6,900x3,200 ft), which protected administrative buildings, horse stables and cemeteries. Within the central precinct were found 79 pits with burial goods, including ceramic and bronze sculptures of cranes, horses, chariots; stone-carved armor for humans and horses; and human sculptures that archaeologists have interpreted as representing officials and acrobats.

The three pits containing the now-famous terracotta army are located 600 m (2,000 ft) east of the mausoleum precinct, in a farm field where they were re-discovered by a well-digger in the 1920s. Those pits are three out of at least 100 others within an area measuring 5x6 kilometers (3x3.7 miles). Other pits identified to date include the tombs of craftspeople, and a subterranean river with bronze birds and terracotta musicians.

Despite nearly constant excavation since 1974, there are still large areas as yet unexcavated.

According to Sima Qian, construction on the mausoleum precinct began shortly after Zheng became king, in 246 BC, and it continued until about a year after he died. Sima Qian also describes the demolition of the central tomb in 206 BC by Xiang Yu's rebel army, who burned it and looted the pits.

Pit Construction

Four pits were excavated to hold the terracotta army, although only three were filled by the time construction ceased. The construction of the pits included excavation, placement of a brick floor, and construction of a sequence of rammed earth partitions and tunnels. The floors of the tunnels were covered with mats, the life-sized statuary was placed erect on the mats and the tunnels were covered with logs.

Finally each pit was buried.

In Pit 1, the largest pit (14,000 square meters or 3.5 acres), the infantry was placed in rows four deep. Pit 2 includes a U-shaped layout of chariots, cavalry and infantry; and Pit 3 contains a command headquarters. About 2,000 soldiers have been excavated so far; archaeologists estimate that there are over 8,000 soldiers (infantry to generals), 130 chariots with horses, and 110 cavalry horses.

Continuing Excavations

Chinese excavations have been conducted at Shihuangdi’s mausoleum complex since 1974, and have included excavations in and around the mausoleum complex; they continue to reveal astonishing findings. As archaeologist Xiaoneng Yang describes Shihuangdi’s mausoleum complex, “Ample evidence demonstrates the First Emperor’s ambition: not only to control all aspects of the empire during his lifetime but to recreate the entire empire in microcosm for his after- life.”

Please see the slide show on the terracotta soldiers for more information on the soldiers and artifacts found within the Qin's mausoleum.

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