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On the Hunt for a Once-Buried Treasure

The Trip

As we drove toward the Terracotta Army archaeology site just outside of Xi'an (pronounced shi'an) China, our guide pointed to a hill on the left side of the road. "That's the tomb of Emperor Qin", he said. It honestly didn't look that impressive. But it's what lies underneath that is. With an estimated underground labyrinth of 38-42 kms, including streams and lakes of mercury, a reproduction of an entire city and an unknown amount of treasure, it is a mausoleum that few tombs of ancient rulers can compete with. All this is known by the writings of the court historian and some modern-day remote sensing technology. It's a mixture of concern of the mercury and respecting the elders that keeps him buried for the moment.

The Man Himself

Emperor Qin came into power at the age of thirteen and almost immediately began planning for his death. They knew from the writings that he created his subterranean city for the afterlife around 2200 years ago, and that it was exceptionally large, but they lacked any indication of just how far it went. Then in 1974, over a mile away from the burial mound, farmers in a communal piece of land unearthed some clay pieces while digging a well on the property.

The Discovery

The next week the farmer called the Chinese authorities and a local archaeologist to come take a look. They had stumbled on to the greatest archaeology discovery of the 20th century. Once a team took over and began to dig, they unearthed 4 separate "pits" or vaults (the fourth was empty, indicating that they were still working on it at Qin's death at age 49). Each pit was paved with ceramic tiles and split into corridors with wood and brick. In the first pit, the size of an airplane hangar, they unearthed a 6,000 warrior strong terra cotta army. The figures are a bit larger than life size and each one has unique hair and facial characteristics. They were lacquered and painted; traces of paint are still found on some of the figures. The army consists of various personnel, and includes infantry, weapons, horses and chariots, command posts, in various positions and poses, each ready for battle in realistic detail. To date, they have uncovered around 8,000 figures between the three pits and they are still discovering more. The writings of the court historian indicate that it took 700,000 men, many of them slaves, nearly 40 years to construct the army, which was still unfinished when the emperor died unexpectedly.

The Work

But here's the kicker. All except for two of the 8,000 statues found to date were broken into pieces and many are charred from what is assumed to be a major fire. It is believed that in this time of war and instability after Qin's death a rebel leader and his army got into the vault, smashed the figures and set fire to them. So, the entire army that we can visit today have been painstakingly reconstructed, and the process continues. What an amazing feat (for the second time)!

Our Visit

We pull into a crowded parking lot, even though it is very early in the morning. The crowds and the heat continue to grow as the day goes on, so it’s a great time to get there. The pits are divided into different “buildings” and the warriors are still in their underground vaults, many feet below the viewing area. You can walk all the way around the perimeter of the vault which really allows a view from different perspectives. On the day we visited we were fortunate to see the archaeologist team digging in a new part yet unearthed, which does not happen every day. Towards the back of the first pit we saw what I would call a make shift hospital with teams working on putting figures of the warriors and horses back together. It was an incredible sight.

Our guide knew every detail of the history of the Army and also knew the short cuts through the crowds - a definite bonus. In fact, our guide himself was part of history. He explained to us that his family, his mother a doctor and his father a professor were sent to Xi’an from Beijing by the communist party when he was very young. At the time, Xi’an was considered a small town. Today it has a population of over 8 million people. His family stayed in Xi’an, and consider it home. And speaking of considering it home, the original farmer who struck the clay and is considered the “discoverer” of the terra cotta army sat in the bookstore for many years signing books. He was moved to a nearby piece of land when the government began the excavation, though some of the original farmers complain that they were never properly compensated. And the first archaeologist on the scene that very first morning sat in the museum almost every day during his retirement. If you ever have a chance to check out this Unesco World Heritage site, I would highly recommend it!

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