When Was the Terracotta Army Found?

One of the Most Important Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century

Qin Shihuangdi’s buried clay terracotta warriors

Grant Faint/The Image Bank/Getty Images

In 1974, a life-sized, terracotta army was discovered near Lintong, Xian, Shaanxi, China. Buried in underground pits, the 8,000 terracotta soldiers and horses were part of the necropolis of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, to aid him in the afterlife. While work continues on excavating and preserving the terracotta army, it remains one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century.

The Discovery

On March 29, 1974, three farmers were drilling holes in the hopes of finding water to dig wells when they came upon some ancient terracotta pottery shards. It didn't take long for news of this discovery to spread and by July a Chinese archaeological team began excavating the site.

What these farmers had discovered was the 2200-year-old remains of a life-sized, terracotta army that had been buried with Qin Shihuangdi, the man who had united the varied provinces of China and thus the very first emperor of China (221-210 BCE).

Qin Shihuangdi has been remembered throughout history as a harsh ruler, but he is also well known for his many accomplishments. It was Qin Shihuangdi who standardized the weights and measures within his vast lands, created a uniform script, and created the first version of the Great Wall of China.

700,000 Workers

Even before Qin Shihuangdi unified China, he began building his own mausoleum nearly as soon as he came to power in 246 BCE at age 13.

It is believed that it took 700,000 workers to build what became Qin Shihuangdi's necropolis and that when it was finished, he had many of the workers -- if not all 700,000 -- buried alive within it to keep its intricacies a secret.

The terracotta army was found just outside of his tomb complex, near modern-day Xi'an. (The mound that contains Qin Shihuangdi's tomb remains unexcavated,)

After Qin Shihuangdi's death, there was a power struggle, ultimately leading to a civil war. It was perhaps at this time that some of the terracotta figures were knocked over, broken, and set on fire. Also, many of the weapons held by the terracotta soldiers were stolen.

8,000 Soldiers in Battle Formation

What remains of the terracotta army are three, trench-like pits of soldiers, horses, and chariots. (A fourth pit has been found empty, probably remaining unfinished when Qin Shihuangdi died unexpectedly at age 49 in 210 BCE.)

In these pits stand approximately 8,000 soldiers, positioned according to rank, stand in battle formations facing east. Each one is life-sized and unique. Although the main structure of the body was created in an assembly-line fashion, added details in the faces and hairstyles, as well as clothing and arm positioning, make no two terracotta soldiers alike.

When originally placed, each soldier carried a weapon. While many of the bronze weapons remain, many others appear to have been stolen in antiquity.

While pictures often show the terracotta soldiers in an earthy color, each soldier had once been intricately painted. A few remnant paint chips remain; however, much of it crumbles when the soldiers are unearthed by archaeologists.

In addition to the terracotta soldiers, there are full-sized, terracotta horses and several war chariots.

A World Heritage Site

Archaeologists continue to excavate and learn about the terracotta soldiers and Qin Shihuangdi's necropolis. In 1979, the large Museum of Terracotta Army was opened to allow tourists to see these amazing artifacts in person. In 1987, UNESCO designated the terracotta army a world heritage site.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "When Was the Terracotta Army Found?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/terracotta-army-discovered-in-china-1779393. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2020, August 26). When Was the Terracotta Army Found? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/terracotta-army-discovered-in-china-1779393 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "When Was the Terracotta Army Found?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/terracotta-army-discovered-in-china-1779393 (accessed March 28, 2023).