11th July 1975 - “There are 7 wonders of the world and the discovery of the Terracotta Army, we may say, is the 8th miracle of the world. No-one who has not seen the pyramids can claim to have visited Egypt, and now, I’d say that no-one who has not seen the terracotta figures can claim to have visited China.” So said Jacques Chirac, the former President of France.
On 29th March 1974 local farmers were digging a well. There were well known underground springs in the area. They stumbled upon one of the greatest archaeological finds ever made. It was over a year before the full extent of what they had found became known. Over 8000 figures – warriors, officials, horses and chariots lay in a series of pits. These life size characters were to protect the Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife.
The burial mound of Emperor Qin lay just under a mile away near Mount Li. It was pyramidical in shape, 400 square metres large and over a 100m high. Underneath lay a mammoth necropolis that was built like the Imperial palace. Qin had an obsession with immortality and was forever searching for an elixir. Protecting himself after his death became a fundamental requirement. Built near Xian in the Shaanxi province, these underground vaults were immense.
Coming to the throne at the age of just 13, in 246BC, Qin had become the first Emperor to unify China, subduing the farthest-reaching pockets of the empire. He had crushed all political resistance, including many Confucian scholars, and started to build defensive structures around the perimeter of the empire. These eventually formed the Great Wall of China. He also standardised the currency in China. On his death in 209BC not only had he built himself a mausoleum but also a vast army of terracotta soldiers to guard him.
In vault 1, which measures 230m by 60m, there were 6000 soldiers, of which less than 2000 are on display. In vault 2, 96m by 84m, there are archers, chariots and cavalry. Vault 3 was smaller at just 21m by 17m but was important as it housed 68 figures many of whom were officials and officers as well as a chariot and soldiers. Many of the craftsmen who made the tomb were sealed alive inside it for fear of them revealing its whereabouts. It is believed that over 700,000 craftsmen and slaves built the burial pits and necropolis.
These figures were life size measuring 5ft 9inches to 6ft 3 inches tall. Each one is different and highly detailed. They were made in workshops by labourers on an assembly line and then the heads, ears, legs, arms, moustaches, hair, facial expressions and armour were added. To make sure that the quality of the figures was maintained each workshop had to put their mark on each item. There were 8 different head shapes and these parts were added. The body armour contains incredible detail and even the soles of the feet of those kneeling down have tread patterns. Some of the soldiers have calm expressions some fearsome. In the Bronze Carriage exhibition hall are two such carriages weighing 1,234kg each made up of 3,400 parts. Weapons were also found inside the pit – shields, crossbows, arrows, swords and spears each coated to make sure that they remained rust free. The figures had originally been painted with bright colours but much of this has disappeared.
The first museum was opened to the public on October 1st 1979, China’s National Day, and covered 16,300 square metres. There were columns of soldiers, in rank order, with the chariots at the back. Pit 2, with 1000 soldiers and 90 wooden chariots opened to the public in 1994. Since October 1st 2010 the museums have combined into one large attraction area – one of the leading tourist attractions in China.
In 2008, 120 objects from the collection came to London and tickets to see them sold so fast that the museum was forced to extend it’s opening hours to midnight on certain days to satisfy the demand. The museum drew its greatest number of visitors since the Tutankhamun exhibition in 1972.