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Terracotta Army – 5 things you didn’t know

The Terracotta Army were ancient warriors well known for guarding the tomb of an emperor for millennia. To this day we are still fascinated by these life-sized figures standing in eerie eternal vigil. They are a symbol of Ancient China whose purpose was to protect the Emperor in his afterlife. Here’s what you need to know about the Terracotta Warriors:


The Terracotta Army was painstakingly constructed to honour the man who created China: Qin Shi Huang who was born in 260 BC and is now remembered as the First Emperor. He was the powerful ruler who through sheer force of will united several rival states to create one vast nation: China. He is also credited with being responsible for some of the original stretches of the Great Wall of China.


The Terracotta Army was discovered on 29 March 1974 by farmers digging a water well approximately 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi) east of the Qin Emperor’s tomb mound at Mount Li. A Chinese farm worker named Yang Zhifa was out digging a well when his hoe clanked against a chunk of terracotta. More digging revealed a headless statue and other old objects. One of Yang’s fellow workers joked “These things will be worth quite a bit of money. You’ll be able to swap them for tobacco.” This discovery prompted Chinese archaeologists to investigate, revealing the largest pottery figurine group ever found in China. Decades later, Yang revealed that he still tended his garden with the very same hoe which dug up the first soldier of the Terracotta Army.


It is estimated that there are around 8,000 warriors in the Terracotta Army. Incredibly each statue is as unique as a fingerprint. The terracotta figures are life-sized. They vary in height, uniform, and hairstyle in accordance with rank. It is said that they were actually built using a surprisingly modern-seeming mass production process, with workers creating various body parts using moulds and were then “hand finished” using clay to apply individual facial features and hairstyles. And don’t be fooled by their relatively drab appearance – the warriors were once brightly bedecked in a multitude of colours, painted with bright pigments, variously coloured pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white and lilac. but the paintwork has long since flaked away.


It’s not just the warriors of the Terracotta Army which are so impressively detailed and convincing; their weapons are too. Most of the figures it appears originally held real weapons such as spears, swords, or crossbows, and the use of actual weapons would have increased the figures’ realism. Most of the original weapons were looted shortly after the creation of the army, or have rotted away. Nevertheless, many weapons such as swords, spears, lances, battle-axes, scimitars, shields, crossbows, and arrowheads have been found in the pits. Over 40,000 pieces of bronze weaponry over the years, ranging from spears to swords to battle axes. The blades are still sharp and dangerous, and this is down to the 10–15 micrometer layer of chrome-plating technology which has protected the metal from corrosion over the past thousands of years. It’s a perfect example of the ingenuity of Ancient Chinese science, coming so long before chrome-plating became commonplace in the 20th Century.


The Terracotta Army makes up just a fraction of a sprawling subterranean “city” built around the tomb of Qin Shi Huang. It appears this complex is a scaled down model of Chinese society at the time, but much of it is still a mystery. The tomb itself has never been opened, although according to the account of an ancient historian it’s a miraculous creation which features rivers of mercury flowing in an elaborate mechanism.

Historians now believe that some 700,000 workers worked for nearly three decades on the mausoleum. So far, archaeologists have uncovered a 20-square-mile compound, including some 8,000 terra cotta soldiers, along with numerous horses and chariots, a pyramid mound marking the emperor’s tomb, remains of a palace, offices, store houses and stables. Even 40 years after its discovery, less than 1 percent of Emperor Qin’s tomb has been excavated. Initial fears of damaging the corpse and the artifacts within the tomb later gave way to concerns about the potential safety hazards involved with excavation and, as there’s so much concern about accidentally destroying the complex, chances are we’ll never get the full measure of this secret realm.


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Travel Asia is a tour agency that specialises in customised, all-inclusive tours throughout China and Asia. We create adventurous, reliable and cost-effective customised tours for Australians wanting to travel throughout Asia.

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