Archaeologists Reveal An Ancient Tomb With 8,000 Life-Sized Sculptures

In 1974, Chinese farmers dug up an unusual discovery while creating a well. Without knowing it, they had discovered the largest necropolis on earth, which had been buried for over 2,000 years. It was the burial site of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang (sometimes spelled Huangdi).

The tomb contained 8,000 life-sized sculptures, a pyramid, a palace, and numerous treasures. It’s so big that archaeologists have only explored 1% after half a century. To learn about the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, keep reading.

Unknowingly Selling Historical Relics

A view shows relics of a buried ancient terracotta warrior.
China Photos/Getty Images
China Photos/Getty Images

On March 29th, 1974, farmer Yang Zhifa and his five brothers were digging a well at the base of a mountain in Xi’an, China. Around six feet down, the men dug up red pottery, terracotta bricks, and arrowheads. While the villagers repurposed the terracotta into bricks, Zhifa sold the arrowheads to a commercial agency.

In May, a team of archaeologists from the Shaanxi province arrived at the well. They continued digging in the area that would eventually become the first excavation site.

A Tomb Buried For 2,200 Years

Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Terra Cotta Soldiers stand in rows.
Gilles BASSIGNAC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Gilles BASSIGNAC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Archaeologists spent two years excavating Pit One alone. In May 1976, they began on Pit Two, and in June, they started Pit Three. Overall, they uncovered over 60,000 square feet of an ancient burial plot.

Historians determined that the site belonged to the first Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang. And not only that, but it was filled with over 8,000 life-sized soldiers made of clay. All of them were uniquely carved and had been underground for centuries.

China’s First Emperor

An artistic depiction shows China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In 221 BCE, China received its first emperor. Qin Shi Huang ascended to the throne during the Warring States Period when several Chinese civilizations were battling for supremacy. He conquered them all and began an empire that spanned 2,000 years.

Throughout that time, archaeologists had never found Qin Shi Huang’s tomb. They knew that it existed since they had discovered the graves of many other Chinese rulers. But Qin Shi Huang’s resting place remained a mystery until 1974.

Decades Of Work And 700,000 Workers

Archaeologists set out labeled statues for repair.
Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images
Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

Qin Shi Huang began constructing this tomb before he became emperor. At age 13, he ascended to the throne of Qin. He immediately began working on his mausoleum, which took at least 38 years to complete.

As Qin Shi Huang conquered more lands, his workforce multiplied. Soon, he had 700,000 workers creating this tomb for him. They continued to work even several years after the emperor’s death, and it remained underground for over 2,200 years.

Relics Upon Relics Upon Relics

Archaeologists dust off buried terracotta soldiers.
Daniele Darolle/Sygma via Getty Images
Daniele Darolle/Sygma via Getty Images

In 1975, archaeologists doubled their work on the tomb. Preliminary digs covered dozens of miles, and they still had far to go. During the excavation, they discovered a pyramid, sacrificial altars, offices, storehouses, stables, and the remnants of a palace.

When they extended the area to 22 square miles, they uncovered four major plots. Within these pits, archaeologists discovered 2,000 statues, replicas of palace structures, and even Qin Shi Huang’s tomb. They had decades of work ahead of them.

Only 1% Has Been Unearthed

Shards of a terracotta warrior lay in the ground.
Getty Images
Getty Images

Archaeologists continued to dig through and rebuild the tomb through the 21st century. And yet, the monument is so massive that experts have only discovered 1% of it. Using 3D volumetric scanners, archaeologists found that the burial site spans 6,003,490 cubic feet.

This single tomb is one-fourth of the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Currently, they have unearthed 2,263 feet by 820 feet. Even then, they haven’t fully explored every area that they’ve uncovered.

Why Were The Statues Made?

A metallic statue stands among clay warriors.
Getty Images
Getty Images

Historians aren’t entirely sure why Qin Shi Huang made the terracotta soldiers. The most popular theory is that the soldiers were meant to protect the emperor in the afterlife. The ancients believed that life continued after death, and Qin wanted to bring all of his forces.

Another theory is that the statues replaced human sacrifices. In feudal China, servants were buried with their leaders to join them after death. The sculptures ensured that Qin’s entire army wouldn’t be sacrificed.

Booby-Trapped?

A clay warrior's head is seen.
Getty Images
Getty Images

In texts about the tombs, ancient writers described booby traps that the emperor set up. These included arrows that would automatically fire upon anyone who entered. However, Emily Teeter, curator of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, said that these booby traps are merely a legend.

Even if the traps were real, there’s a possibility that the ancient crossbows wouldn’t work after 2,000 years. Still, no archaeologist wants to be the first to test the tomb.

An Entire City Built Underground

A photo shows one of the tombs in Qin Shi Huang's burial site.
Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images
Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images

The first emperor’s mausoleum wasn’t laid out randomly. The necropolis mirrored Qin’s capital, Xianyang. It has inner and outer cities, and the 250-foot-tall mound in the southwest corner looks like a truncated pyramid. It contains the body of Qin Shin Huang.

Two inner and outer walls also surround the entire mausoleum. In the center of the city stands a replica of the emperor’s palace. Because the castle was discovered in 2012, we know little about it.

A Poisonous Moat Of Mercury

Terracotta soldiers are dug up in moats.
Getty Images
Getty Images

The legendary traps aren’t the only reason why archaeologists avoid the rest of the tomb. Rivers of mercury flow throughout the burial site. In fact, the servants intentionally installed a moat of mercury, because the ancients believed that it would grant immortality.

Ironically, these mercury rivers will kill people who are exposed to them for too long. Some historians believe that riches and terracotta statues of the emperor’s concubines are deep inside the tomb, but we cannot find them yet.

An Ironic Quest For Immortality

Portrait of Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Empire of China.
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

While Qin Shi Huang spent decades years building a tomb, he was also searching for the elixir of immortality. According to one artifact, the emperor enacted a nationwide decree for villagers to hunt for the elixir. For a while, he believed that the solution was mercury.

Kristin Romey, a curatorial consultant for the Terracotta Warrior exhibition, brings up the irony in it. Qin Shin Huang ingested so many mercury pills that it likely killed him at the young age of 39.

History’s First Ever Assembly Line

Restored terracotta warriors are lined up.
China Photos/Getty Images
China Photos/Getty Images

Over 8,000 terracotta statues exist in the tomb, including warriors, horses, chariots, infantrymen, standing and kneeling archers. Each one has unique facial and hair features. Historians believe that the workers who made these statues mimicked modern assembly lines.

Ancient craftsmen each worked on one part: one would make the head, the other the arms, etc. After all the body parts were completed, the statues would be assembled. Then, the distinctive features were added with clay.

Not Just Soldiers

Sculpted horses line up in Emperor Qin Shi Huang's tomb.
Gilles BASSIGNAC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Gilles BASSIGNAC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The life-sized terracotta figures don’t only represent soldiers. Musicians, acrobats, government officials, and concubines have also been found in statue form. At least 670 horses and 130 chariots also stood in the tomb.

Artisans even crafted waterfowl for the tomb, such as ducks, swans, and cranes. Since archaeologists are still discovering terracotta figures, there are likely many more sculptures that we haven’t seen. It’s no wonder why Qin’s tomb has fascinated people from around the world.

From Clay To Soldiers

Shards of a warrior of the Terracotta Army lay in the dirt.
Getty Images
Getty Images

The statues were made from a type of clay called yellow earth. Archaeologists found heaps of yellow earth all around the tomb. Every limb, torso, and head was created with this clay before being assembled into a statue.

After connecting the parts and carving the details, artisans would heat the statues in a kiln until hard. But the figures were rough after the oven, so artisans polished and painted the surface. That’s how every sculpture became unique.

Don’t Forget The Paint

Terracotta warriors have painted faces.
New China TV/YouTube
New China TV/YouTube

The unique sculptures aren’t the only artwork in Qin’s tomb. The statues are also intricately painted–or, at least, they were. When archaeologists excavate the sculptures, the paint peels off within 15 seconds. In four minutes, all the paint flakes off.

Today, scientists use polyethylene glycol (PEG) to seal the paint before it falls off. However, for some sculptures, it is too late. Restorers aim to recreate the elaborate paintings on chariot and soldier sculptures.

Qin Shi Huang’s Casket Hasn’t Been Opened

Archeologists work at one of the tombs of the Terracotta Warriors.
Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images
Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images

Archaeologists know where the emperor Qin Shi Huang is buried–but nobody has excavated it. “Partly it’s out of respect for the elders, but they also realize that nobody in the world right now has the technology to properly go in and excavate it,” says curatorial consultant Kristin Romey.

When archaeologists discovered King Tut’s tomb in the 1930s, their hasty digging efforts destroyed a lot of historical information. The Chinese government is holding off on the emperor’s tomb to prevent this same mistake.

Should They Explore The Underground Palace?

Tourists converge on a glass case holding a Terracotta Warrior at the Terracotta Warriors Museum.
Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images
Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images

Like Qin Shi Huang’s resting place, the underground imperial palace has not been fully explored. China’s government worries that the current technology is not advanced enough to excavate it safely. They don’t want to destroy any ancient art or artifacts.

However, others argue that they should explore the underground palace now. Since the mausoleum is in an earthquake zone, the artifacts could be destroyed anyway by natural disasters or grave robbing. Until the Chinese government allows it, archaeologists will not investigate the palace.

Qin: A Powerful But Cruel Ruler

A portrait depicts Emperor Qin Shi Huang.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Although many advancements happened under Qin Shi Huang’s rule, he was also known for his cruelty. He would order the deaths of Confucian scholars that he disagreed with. He also showed little remorse for his workers; many laborers and artisans died while working on his tomb.

Inside the grave, there’s a sacrificial altar. Historians believe that Qin sacrificed laborers at that altar, believing that it would protect the tomb from robbers. The sacrifices didn’t prevent others from entering, though.

The Three Vaults

Tourists look down at the pit of terracotta soldiers.
Gilles BASSIGNAC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images

Qin’s tomb is divided into three vaults. The first vault is the largest, with over 6,000 terracotta soldiers and horses. At 755 feet by 197 feet, it’s the size of an airplane hanger. The second vault is smaller, and it contains sculptures of archers, cavalry, chariots, and mixed forces.

The third vault is the smallest and represents the “command post.” No soldiers stand here; the 68 sculptures are all government officials. All three vaults exclude the exhibition hall.

The Exhibition Hall Of The Bronze Chariots

A terracotta warrior chariot is on display.
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Beyond the three vaults, Qin’s tomb also features an exhibition hall. It contains all the vehicles that Qin Shi Huang could drive in the afterlife. Made with 1,720 pieces of gold and silver, the chariots perfectly resemble the technology used at the time.

Every chariot has over 3,000 parts and weighs 2,720 pounds. Artisans carved intricate details to make the sculptures more realistic, including umbrellas that shield the drivers and designs on the chariot’s wheels.

Burying A Real Ancient Army

Life-sized clay soldiers stand in rows.
Gilles BASSIGNAC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Gilles BASSIGNAC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The underground sculptures aren’t random. They mirrored the real army of the Qin dynasty, lined up in rows of nine as if they were actually marching to war. Instead of representing specific people, the warriors likely illustrated different kinds of soldiers who served in ancient China.

“People thought when the emperor died, he took just a lot of pottery army soldiers with him,” said Duan Qingbo, the head of the excavation team. “Now they realize he took a whole political system with him.”

Over 40,000 Ancient Weapons

Ancient bronze Chinese weapons excavated from Qin's tomb are on display at a Paris museum.
Patrick AVENTURIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Patrick AVENTURIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Qin Shi Huang’s army wasn’t buried unarmed. Along with the sculptures, servants created at least 40,000 weapons for the clay soldiers to wield. For instance, archaeologists discovered bronze swords carved into the shape of willow leaves.

Among the many weapons, historians have uncovered crossbows, arrowheads, bayonets, axes, spears, daggers, and halberds (an ax-spear hybrid). They also found non-lethal weapons, such as a cone-shaped spear called a shu, that were held during ceremonial events. Many of these weapons are on display at museums.

A Statue Reduced To 1,000 Pieces

A bronze chariot statue is seen at the Terracotta Warriors Museum.
Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images
Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images

Beyond the clay sculptures, at least two bronze sculptures were buried with Emperor Qin. In 1980, two bronze chariots were discovered west of the emperor’s burial site. When archaeologists discovered them, the chariots had been shattered into 1,000 pieces.

Restorers spent eight years rebuilding the bronze chariots. Today, they are the largest bronze chariots in China, even though they were half the size of Qin’s real chariots. The largest is five feet tall and weighs 2,340 pounds.

Not Exactly Life-Sized

A visitor poses near terracotta soldiers at the National Museum of Thailand.
Chaiwat Subprasom/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Chaiwat Subprasom/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Although the statues are described as “life-sized,” that’s not entirely true. On average, the sculptures are taller than most people. Most figures are five-foot-eight, while the tallest is six-foot-two.

Does that mean ancient people were taller? Not exactly. According to historical records, the ancients were as tall as we are. The statues are likely taller to appear more impressive and threatening. After all, the tomb is meant to display the power and influence of China’s first emperor.

The Eighth Wonder Of The World

A terracotta warrior is displayed at a museum exhibition.
China Photos/Getty Images
China Photos/Getty Images

Qin Shi Huang’s tomb is the largest and most elaborate burial site on earth. In September 1987, French President Jacques Chirac called it “the Eighth Wonder of the World.” Nine years later, UNESCO declared the tomb to be a World Heritage Site.

Tourism to Xi’an has thrived since the 1970s. In 2015 alone, over five million tourists visited the site. Artifacts from the tomb have been restored and displayed in museums around the world. It has inspired and fascinated people across all cultures.

China’s Unification Made This Possible

A scroll from 1100 AD depicts Chinese citizens gathering for a spring festival.
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Qin Shi Huang would not have constructed such a massive tomb without uniting China first. After conquering all neighboring states, the emperor had thousands of workers at his disposal. They built parks, palaces, and even an early version of the Great Wall of China.

Some of these constructions are still undiscovered. According to the accounts of Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, it also has palaces, towers, and statues of the emperor’s officials. Archaeologists have not found all of these yet.

A Project That Spans Centuries

Chinese archaeologists carefully brush off a terracotta warrior.
STR/AFP/GettyImages
STR/AFP/GettyImages

The tomb is so massive that archaeologists have hardly uncovered anything. Although they’ve excavated over 2,000 terracotta soldiers, historians estimate that over 8,000 remain underground. And that’s after 50 years of digging.

Archaeologists could very well dig at Qin’s grave for centuries. How far they go is up to the discretion of the Chinese government. Still, many historians are itching to discover what else is down there. Time will tell how much they discover in our lifetime.

The Long, Hard Restoration Process

Archaeologists excavate Pit One of Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum.
STR/AFP/GettyImages
STR/AFP/GettyImages

Discovering the tombs was only half the battle. Since many artifacts were damaged, restorers worked to reassemble them. Over thousands of years, robbers broke into the tomb and vandalized or stole from it.

Restorers work to polish, repaint, and attach lost limbs to the statues. These restored artworks are placed in museums across the world. They also help historians examine the sculptures more clearly. Of course, it takes a long time to repair thousands of statues.

After The First Emperor’s Death

Terracotta warriors are displayed at an exhibition titled
Li Yibo/Xinhua via Getty
Li Yibo/Xinhua via Getty

Construction on Qin Shi Huang’s tomb continued after his death. Meanwhile, a quarrel over leadership resulted in his younger son, Qin Er Shi, ascending to the throne. However, the second emperor could not contain recent revolts.

Qin Shi Huang’s dynasty would later fall apart. As a result, construction on his tomb stopped. As massive as the mausoleum seems, it still remains unfinished. Despite that, it is the largest necropolis ever discovered, larger than the Pyramids of Giza.

Tourists Can Visit Qin Shi Huang’s Tomb

Queen Elizabeth II views some of the Terracotta Army soldier statues at the Qin Shi Huang's Museum Of The Terra-cotta Warriors And Horses.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Residents in Xi’an opened a Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum for tourists to see the sculptures in person. The museum ticket includes entrance to part of the mausoleum. For those who can’t travel, some international museums (such as the British Museum) display relics from the mausoleum.

Several actors, intellectuals, and political figures have visited the Terracotta Warriors Museum. These include Queen Elizabeth II, several American presidents, and French and British prime ministers. It’s truly the Eighth Wonder of the World.