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 BCE 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 BCE at the age of twelve and a half. In 221 BCE 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 BCE, 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 7,000 life-size sculpted clay terracotta soldiers, chariots, and horses.

Shihuangdi's Necropolis: Not Just Soldiers

Terracotta Statues at the Mousoleum of Qin Shi Huangdi
Terracotta statues of animals and court eunuchs in the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of unified China, at Xi'an, China. Dave Bartruff / Getty Images

The terracotta soldiers are only a part of the vast mausoleum project, covering an area of some 11.5 square miles (30 square kilometers). In the middle of the precinct is the still-unexcavated tomb of the king, 1640x1640 feet (500x500 meters) square and covered by an earthen mound some 230 ft (70 m) high. The tomb lies within a walled precinct, measuring 6,900x3,200 ft (2,100x975 m), 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 soldiers were armed with fully functioning weapons made of bronze: spears, lances, and swords, as well as bows and arrows headed with 40,000 bronze projectile points, and 260 crossbows with bronze triggers.

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 3x3.7 miles (5x6 kilometers). 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 BCE, and it continued until about a year after he died. Sima Qian also describes the demolition of the central tomb in 206 BCE by Xiang Yu's rebel army, who burned it and looted the pits.

Pit Construction

Terracotta Warriors of Qin Huangshi, Painted with Chinese Purple
Terracotta Warriors of Qin Huangshi, Painted with Chinese Purple. Billy Hustace / Getty Images

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 (3.5 acres or 14,000 square meters), 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 7,000 soldiers (infantry to generals), 130 chariots with horses, and 110 cavalry horses.


Archaeologists have been looking for the workshops for some time. Kilns for the project would have to be large enough to fire life-sized human and horse statues, and they would likely be near the tomb because the statues each weigh between 330–440 pounds (150–200 kg). Scholars estimated a workforce of 70,000 over the course of the project, which lasted from the first year of the reign of the king until they year after his death, or about 38 years.

Large kilns were found near the tomb, but they contained fragments of bricks and roof tiles. Based on ceramic thin-section studies, the clay and temper inclusions were likely local and may have been processed in a large mass before being distributed to workgroups. The maximum firing temperatures were about 700°C (1,300 °F) and the wall thicknesses of the statues are up to about 4 inches (10 cm). The kilns would have been enormous, and there would have been many of them.

Chances are they were dismantled after the project was completed.

Continuing Excavations

Archaeologists work at the excavation site of No. 1 pit of the Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum in Lintong District of Xian, Shaanxi Province, China. (August 2009)
Archaeologists work at the excavation site of No. 1 pit of the Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum in Lintong District of Xian, Shaanxi Province, China. (August 2009).  China Photos / Getty Images

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 afterlife.”

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Emperor Qin's Tomb -- Not Just Terracotta Soldiers." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/emperor-qins-tomb-170366. Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 28). Emperor Qin's Tomb -- Not Just Terracotta Soldiers. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/emperor-qins-tomb-170366 Hirst, K. Kris. "Emperor Qin's Tomb -- Not Just Terracotta Soldiers." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/emperor-qins-tomb-170366 (accessed March 28, 2023).