I expected the Terracotta Warriors to be lined up, facing straight, polished and secure. Instead, I’m looking at what is essentially still an archaeological dig. And that’s what makes a visit here so brilliant.
Once inside Pit One, the most famous pit, you need to jostle for position to obtain that first glance. We squeeze through the crowd to the left of the main entrance and slowly push our way to the front barrier. Once there, we gaze out on row after row after row of terracotta warriors. Their outstretched Lego-like hands once held flags or weapons. But many of these were stolen by farmers who ransacked the tomb following the emperor’s death. Some still have scorch marks from the fire the villagers set.
The Terracotta Warriors were the life-long project of China’s first emperor Qin Shuhuang. Qin ruled from 7 May 247 BC to 220 BC. He was just 13 when he took the throne and 14 when he began to build his own tomb and the spectacular terracotta army. Emperor Qin believed the Terracotta Warriors would follow him into the afterlife and come to life as a vast army.
It’s not known how many Terracotta Warriors actually exist. So far three enormous pits have been discovered. There may be more.
The sight of the Terracotta Warriors is different from Qin’s tomb. That still remains untouched under a nearby mountain. Qin’s body is said to be as far down as the mountain is tall. And legend has it that it is surrounded by a mercury river. Scientific studies of the ground close to the mountain do indeed show high levels of mercury. Qun survived multiple assassination attempts but died at the age of 49 from suspected mercury poisoning. According to our guide, he drank a little bit of mercury every day because he believed it gave him superpowers.
After the Qin dynasty, the Hans took over. And in some places, you can actually see Han bones still on the ground.
It took 720,000 builders to build the Terracotta Warriors. The project took at least 30 years. Many were locked into the building site until their deaths.
The warriors were moulded in parts, fired and then assembled. They once had brilliant colours. A few examples of colour warriors remain locked behind glass cases. But for most of them, exposure to the elements quickly faded the colour.
They’re not all the same. Different ranks of soldiers have different hairstyles. Differences can also be seen on the shoes and the armour. Horses have also been uncovered.
Qin is also credited with building the first roads through China. These may perhaps be some of the first roads in the world. Archeologists are still unearthing them in the fields nearby. But it’s the Terracotta Warriors that most people come to see.
As you stand overlooking the pit, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed. The soldiers in the first few rows stand at attention, facing the incoming crowd.
But it’s a little further back that the magic happens.
In the middle of the pit and sprightly young man pushes a wheelbarrow up a steep slope. He’s carting dirt – uncovering more ancient remains.
The Terracotta Warriors were discovered in 1974 by two farmers digging a well. For years the farmers had wondered why the crops would not grow around the area. Two more pits were discovered in 1976. In 1979 China constructed a museum over the sight and allowed tourists to come and see the work.
Wooden covers over the pits of soldiers had decayed over time and the soldiers were slowly crushed and broken by soil that piled on top of them. Evidence of this destruction is still visible. Inside Vault One many Terracotta Warriors lie smashed and cracked on the sides. Slowly, piece by piece, the archaeologists are putting them back together, a jigsaw of history.
Cranes are used to hold chunks of terracotta aloft at the back of pit as horses and soldiers are slowly are carefully resurrected. Headless solders await their heads. Arms are splinted and other bodies lie on what looks like operating tables.
If you make the mistake of walking back out the main door instead of walking all around Vault Onet – you will miss this most fascinating glimpse into the work of archaeologists.
From there Pit two, Pit three and the museum offer more treasures including spectacular bronze horses. The tiny bronze tassles are still the subject of archaeological discussion – how were they made? How did they get them so thin?
The Terracotta Warriors is a must-see if you love history. My Discoveries offers a 9 day Terracotta Warriors China tour for $999 per person including flights, hotels and meals.
Other sights to see in Xian include the city wall, the Muslim Quarter and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.
For delicious noodles and dumplings head to First Noodle Under the Sun close to the Wild Goose Pagoda.