This article first appeared in the September 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine


The spring of 1974 was hot and dry in the Shaanxi province of north central China. As rivers dried up and the water table dropped, those who lived off the land were growing increasingly desperate for new sources of water. Farmers set to work digging new wells and in late March one of them noticed something strange. As he dug down the colour of the soil was changing. Five metres below the surface he uncovered a terracotta face. Word spread fast and by July a team from Beijing began a thorough investigation. They soon found a countless number of shattered life-size terracotta figures. The news spread across the world in a flash. The farmer had stumbled across one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century.

One mile to the west loomed the man-made mound housing the tomb of China’s First Emperor Qin Shihuangdi. Within a few months of digging it became clear that this collection of terracotta figures was linked with his tomb. In fact, they were an entire army created, “to guard Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb,” says Jane Portal, curator of the British Museum’s First Emperor Exhibition, which displayed the Terracotta Warriors in 2007. Jane first visited the site in 1979 as a student when “only a fraction” of what is now on display had been uncovered. “His tomb was created so that he could go on ruling for ever in the afterlife. It consists of an underground governmental system, the army is just part of the exercise which, as we dig, we realise is larger than we ever thought.” Incredible as it seems the magnificent terracotta figures are by no means the main focus of the tomb. They’re merely the gatekeepers to a vast necropolis. Thirty years and thousands of hours of excavation since Jane’s first visit, the scope and scale of the First Emperor’s tomb complex is still unclear. Despite the earth yielding up a vast array of finds, spread out over 56 square kilometres, everyone believes that there will be a lot more to come.

In 221 BC Ying Zheng, the King of Qin, emerged victorious from a war that for 250 years had torn apart much of the area now known as China. A decade of conquest saw him annex competing states such as Chu, and the once mighty Zhao. In 221 BC the last one, Qi, surrendered without a fight. The title King of Qin no longer did justice to a man who had achieved the unthinkable – uniting all the warring states together in one empire. He coined a new title, Qin Shihuangdi, which roughly translates as “Divine August Emperor of Qin”. It was a statement of intent. He was to be merely the first of 10,000 generations of divine emperors who would rule this vast new empire.

Qin Shihuangdi is one of the most important political figures in history. He took a divided collection of states and welded them into an entity that would survive to the present day. Although China would suffer periods of upheaval and division, the idea of a united China has not been seriously challenged since.

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Today China is poised to become a superpower. Its far flung provinces and different ethnic groups are brought together by a powerful cultural and linguistic centrifugal force that owes much to Qin Shihuangdi’s reign.

The Emperor mobilised his bureaucracy as effectively in peacetime as in war. Conscript armies of hundreds of thousands worked on roads and canals. The various walls that protected the warring states from the fierce nomadic tribesmen of the northern Steppe were joined together in the first Great Wall of China, 1,500 years before the Ming wall which attracts floods of tourists today. He standardised weights and measures, established a currency that lasted to the 20th century and even insisted on a universal length of axles for carts so that ruts would be regular on the country’s roads. Perhaps most importantly of all he unified the Chinese script, suppressing regional variations. He made certain that from then on the people of his new empire would all speak the same language.

The Boy King

Work on his tomb had been proceeding ever since his accession as a boy to the throne of Qin. No doubt plans were revamped to reflect his vastly increased status as the most powerful man on Earth. Before the chance discovery in 1974, all that was known for sure about Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb complex was the location of the central mound. It is a pyramid which today stands 76 metres high, eroded down from perhaps 100 metres when it was built. The only description of what might be inside came from a single written history, compiled 100 years after the First Emperor’s death – the Shi-Ji records of the “grand historian” Sima Qian.

It was thought to be fanciful. According to Sima Qian, inside the tomb mound was a hoard of treasure as well as a replica of the universe complete with gems on the ceiling representing the stars. On the ground lay a model of Qin Shihuangdi’s domain bounded by mercury representing the rivers and oceans of the Earth. Finding the terracotta warriors, which were not even mentioned by Sima Qian, forced historians to accept that the almost mythical stories about the power of Qin Shihuangdi and the opulence of his tomb may have a good deal of truth to them. Subsequent finds and scientific tests provided more corroboration for Sima Qian. High levels of mercury were found in the soil of the mound and ground-penetrating radars to revealed a 30-metre-high chamber hidden inside the mound.

Around 700,000 workers were supposed to have worked on the tomb. Some of their remains were exhumed from pits near the mound. Although it took 40 years, Jane Portal doesn’t think it was completed: “The First Emperor died suddenly in 210 BC and it is thought that the tomb complex was unfinished at the time because one of the four pits, intended to be filled with terracotta figures, was found empty”.

Despite this, by 2007 more than 8,000 terracotta figures had been discovered – just over 7,000 men and 700 horses. They are divided into three pits. Pit One is a vast oblong space of 14,260 square metres, with figures standing in battle formation and officers commanding from a few horse-drawn chariots. Pit Two is a mixed force of cavalry and infantry, and Pit Three is a small collection of senior officers in a command and control pit. It’s important to remember that no-one ever saw them as they are displayed today. They were placed in tunnels underground with a wooden roof above them. Despite all the care and artistry lavished on them they were not designed to impress the living but the dead.

Works of art

The figures stand nearly two metres high and are individual works of art as well as collectively magnificent. They were mass-produced and then hand-finished. Different body shapes and sizes came out of moulds, with a stamp from the workshop to ensure quality control, and then artisans did the fine-tuning. As a result, no two are exactly the same, eyes are different shapes, and strands of hair are individually represented. Close inspection of the back of their heads reveals an array of buns, plaits and braids. Facial hair differs from soldier to soldier and some are noticeably more portly than others.

Various types of soldier are clearly delineated. There are senior officers, hands on hips, exuding leadership, there are lightly armed troops, archers, heavy infantrymen, cavalrymen and even bureaucrats. To make them even more lifelike they were coated in colourless lacquer and then painted. Traces of this garish colouring remain on a couple of the warriors and a method being pioneered by German archaeologists means that the paint will not flake off as the figures are excavated. The faces, coats, trousers and shoes would have been a heady mix of bright blues, reds, yellows and greens. They would all have been holding real weapons appropriate to their job – bronze swords, crossbows and spears.

Very few weapons have been recovered, however. Crisis followed Qin Shihuangdi’s death: “Between 210 and 206 BC China was chaotic,” says Portal. “There were peasant rebellions and looting of the tomb complex. The weapons were valuable and so were taken, and enemies of the First Emperor tried to destroy much of the tomb complex.” Fire raged through the tunnels, the roof collapsed and earth fell in. The figures were damaged by smoke and flame, and eventually crushed.

Excavations even of the original pits are still far from complete and visitors can look down at half-excavated smashed torsos and lower legs poking out from the surrounding earth.


Dan Snow is a historian who has presented many history programmes for the BBC.