How was the army discovered?

In the throes of a drought in March 1974, brothers who farmed a smallholding in the village of Lintong, a day’s ride east of Xi’an in central China, decided to dig a new well. A metre down they reached a solid layer, which they assumed to be an old brick kiln. Then, to their surprise, fragments of pottery began to emerge and, quite suddenly, a life-sized terracotta head, which terrified them.

Archaeologists were dispatched to the site – later designated Pit 1 – and, when more objects, including bronze swords, were found, the excavation evolved into a long-term project involving the establishment of a new museum. In May 1976, two further sites – designated Pit 2 and Pit 3 – were discovered near the original one, covering a total area of about 20,000 square metres.

In 1979, after about 2,000 warriors had been excavated, the museum opened. The complex has since been developed as a major tourist attraction, but excavation at the site continues.

What are the Terracotta Warriors?

They are an army of around 8,000 life-sized pottery figures, who were buried close to the tomb of Qin Shihuang, the leader of the Qin state and the first emperor of a united China.

Varying in function and rank, each warrior wears the appropriate uniform for his role – infantryman, cavalryman, charioteer, archer – and has unique physical features. The warriors were created to guard the Qin emperor in the afterlife, and were buried – along with around 700 terracotta horses and 130 terracotta chariots – in c210–209 BC.

Is this an army poised for battle?

No. The soldiers in Pit 1 – by far the largest of the three pits, containing the main army of around 6,000 warriors – do not represent an army facing potential enemies in the east, as has often been suggested. The officers do not carry weapons, and many of the infantrymen and archers are wearing neither armour nor helmets. The explanation may be linked to the army’s location: these soldiers are underground, ready for action in the afterlife, not this one.

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The figures were originally painted in bright colours that flaked off when excavation exposed them to the air, but you can imagine them, in their original coloured splendour, as guards or courtiers ready for imperial rituals and ceremonies.

One theory holds that the higher-ranking warriors in Pit 3 are wearing quefei hats, formal headwear sported by palace guards as prescribed in the Book of Han, a first-and second-century AD history of China. Of the 68 figures in Pit 3, 30 bear a bronze shu, a short ritual mace used by guards of honour, and not employed as a weapon. Meanwhile, Pit 2 is occupied by cavalry and chariots.

How large is the wider complex?

Archaeologists have discovered that the pits containing warriors represent just a small part of an immense necropolis: the mausoleum complex of the emperor Qin Shihuang. An inner walled precinct is surrounded by an outer wall that encompassed a microcosm of the emperor’s palace and empire. In the southern part of the inner precinct is the pyramid-shaped burial mound beneath which, some 30 metres below ground, lies the emperor’s burial chamber. The Terracotta Army was buried some 1.5km east of the tomb.

Beyond the outer walls are imperial stables where real horses were buried, a town for the building workers who constructed the site, and hundreds of further tombs in which these workers were buried. The whole necropolis covers well over 50 sq km between the mountains and the river Wei, with the burial chamber – which is still to be excavated – and the Terracotta Warriors at its heart.

Were any other figures discovered at the site?

From 1999, other figures were excavated from pits close to the imperial tomb. The pit known as K9901, in the south-eastern corner of the tomb area, contained 11 figures with a more delicate build than the warriors, wearing short, toga-like garments over bare legs and torsos. Possibly influenced by western designs, they are thought to represent acrobats and entertainers.

The following year, the tomb – and afterlife office – of the person believed to have been the imperial minister of justice was excavated in the southwestern corner, very close to the tomb mound. Here in Pit K0006, 12 figures, a single chariot and the bones of four real horses were found, together with a special ritual shu, which was carried as a symbol of power by the minister when he led the imperial cortège. The theory that the tomb belonged to the minister is supported by its location. As it is the closest to the imperial tomb, the minister would be on hand to lead the emperor in ceremonies and on inspection tours of the empire.

About a kilometre north of the mausoleum, one of the most noteworthy finds was an artificial lake (Pit K0007). Here were discovered 46 life-sized bronze swans, cranes and geese – some resting, some searching for food in the water – and one crane holding what is believed to be a trout in its beak, on the banks of a river. Opposite were 15 terracotta figures sitting or kneeling on mats, with their hands in position as if holding now long-decayed wooden instruments, together with a barefooted man who is assumed to be the bird-keeper. The troupe is believed to comprise part of a department providing musical entertainment for the afterlife.

Is the site unique in China?

Not entirely. Duke Jing (576–537 BC), who ruled the Qin some 13 generations before the first emperor, initiated the use of large funerary monuments at the then capital of Yong, 150km west of Xi’an. These sites followed a standard layout that had evolved with the ruling Zhou dynasty: a ramp led down to a deep trench on an east–west axis, in which the funerary chamber lay with the coffin at its centre.

The chamber of Jing’s tomb, which lay 24.5 metres underground, had a reception room for visitors, a coffin room, and a bedroom or study with an offset private room containing his personal art collection. Around the chamber, on a slightly higher level, were 72 coffins of court officials, who were required to commit suicide to join Jing in the afterlife; beyond them were 94 smaller coffins of artisans and musicians. There were also 20 labourers’ coffins. Altogether, 186 people committed suicide or were killed in order to ‘follow’ the duke into the next world.

When the work was completed and the incumbent buried, the whole area was refilled up to surface level. This mausoleum can be read as a preliminary study for its more famous successor at Lintong, but many more examples of this type exist in China.

What were the design influences?

The basic plan and design derived from traditional Chinese royal tombs, but there are several elements unique to Qin Shihuang’s resting place. Duan Qingbo, an ex-director of the museum at Xi’an, believes that western influence facilitated new skills that enabled the craftspeople to increase the size of terracotta figures they made. Figures found in other, earlier tombs were between 10 and 20cm tall, whereas the warriors in Pit 1 are nearly 2 metres tall. This could also explain the shift from the firing of small objects at low heat to firing life-sized figures at 950–1,000°C, for which there was no precedent in China.

The techniques used in making the bronze birds found in Pit K0007 included the new art of casting pieces separately then joining them together. The bronze itself was new, made from copper and tin (as in the eastern Mediterranean) rather than with other metals that may have been to hand.

One of the most astonishing recent discoveries, in 2012, was of a huge seated figure (so large he would have taken size 18 shoes), probably a weightlifter. His power and pose seem very much in the tradition of Hellenistic copies of figures by Lysippos (Alexander the Great’s personal sculptor) still to be seen in Rome, though research into these influences is still a long way from providing definitive answers.

How long did construction of Qin Shihuang’s necropolis take?

Tradition dictated that one of the duties of a king on succession was to prepare for his funeral – to start his tomb and make his own coffin, then varnish it once a year so that it would be ready for use at any time. On that basis, work on the necropolis would have started in 246 BC, when the boy who would later be emperor became King Zheng of the Qin, with the prime minister Lü Buwei – evidently a stickler for tradition – as his regent. The scheme would have been expanded after he became emperor 25 years later. This is confirmed by dates inscribed on halberds and dagger-axes, which indicate that they were made as early as 244 BC.

The building of the necropolis would thus have taken about 36 years, from 246 BC to the emperor’s death in 210 BC (at which time it was still not completely finished). Such a project required years of labour by thousands of artisans, conscripts and convicted criminals. However, there are no specific dates for the Terracotta Army, and no contemporary references to it.

What lies within the tomb of Emperor Qin Shihuang?

The emperor’s tomb itself has not yet been excavated for fear of damaging its contents, and there are no current plans to do so. However, investigations have been undertaken using scanning and ultrasound techniques. The best-known historical description of the tomb is by Han historian Sima Qian (c145–c86 BC), who wrote of a bronze sarcophagus placed amid “replicas of palaces and government buildings, and wonderful utensils, jewels and rare objects…” These were set under a dome representing the solar system and stars, with a relief map of the empire that included the major rivers rendered vivid by flowing mercury.

The first emperor intended to live forever, and therefore wished to duplicate in his tomb the trappings of life above ground, including a microcosm of his empire and a private ‘collection room’ like that of Duke Jing. His childhood mentor, Lü Buwei, asserted in his annals that the larger the state and the richer the family, the more elaborate the burial should be. Pearls would be placed in the mouths of corpses and jade suits covered them like fish scales. Among the other items buried with the illustrious dead would have been silk cords, bamboo documents, jewels, trinkets and all the utensils needed to satisfy the needs of the emperor as in his previous life.

Most archaeologists anticipate findings more stupendous than those already excavated, especially because the burial chamber appears to be intact. They expect artworks of the highest imaginable quality, and artefacts from the west as well as from China. But for the time being, the chances of such treasures seeing the light of day appear remote.

Edward Burman is a visiting professor at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, in Suzhou. His latest book, Terracotta Warriors: History, Mystery and the Latest Discoveries (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), is out now,

This article was first published in the February 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine