Why (And When) Was the Terracotta Army Built in China?

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Throughout history, various cultures have honored fallen leaders through massive funerary art projects. Although we’ve known about the existence of some of these for a long time now, archaeologists continue to discover more examples of these grand tributes. China’s Terracotta Army is one of the more significant.

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If you only have a vague familiarity with this famous site, you might not necessarily know that it’s much more than simply a collection of statues. The nature of those statues can actually tell us quite a lot about early Chinese society in general. The way people honor the dead has always been a reflection of their values.

The Terracotta Army is a fascinating subject. There’s much more to know about it than a single blog entry could cover. This guide will simply provide you with a general overview of this unique artifact from history.

What is the Terracotta Army?

The Terracotta Army is a collection of literally thousands of clay figures, many of which are life-size, or close to it.

As the name implies, most of the figures resemble Chinese warriors. However, the collection also includes a range of other figures, such as horses, birds, musicians, and numerous others. It’s also worth noting that archaeologists haven’t completely discovered all the figures in the Terracotta Army. While some estimate there may be as many as 8000, there’s a good chance we’ll never know the true number for certain.

The Terracotta Army is greater than 2000 years old. Thus, you might naturally assume we’ve known about its existence for a long period of time. That’s not actually the case. The first discovery of the Terracotta Army occurred in 1974 when peasants digging a well came across fragments of one of the clay figures.

The fact that we only discovered the Terracotta Army a few decades ago may naturally surprise you. The next section of this blog will help you better understand why it remained hidden for so long.

Location

Lishan in the Shaanxi Province, central China is home to the Terracotta Army. Of course, that doesn’t explain why its location prevented anyone from discovering the Terracotta Army until fairly recently.

Quite simply, the Terracotta Army remained undiscovered for thousands of years because the figures are actually part of an underground mausoleum. Peasants only discovered it accidentally when they were digging in the area. 

Why Was the Terracotta Army Built?

The mausoleum to which the Terracotta Army belongs serves as a tomb for Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor. That’s why many scholars consider the Terracotta Army to be a strong visual and historic example of Chinese ancestor worship, traditions, and beliefs.

Shi Huangdi wasn’t the only person from his time period who requested that figures of warriors stand guard by his tomb after he passed. It wasn’t uncommon for such figures to accompany the tombs of numerous rulers from this era in China’s history. What’s unique about Shi Huangdi’s mausoleum is its scale. While previous rulers would have only two or three statues near their tombs, Shi Huangdi had thousands.

There’s no absolute consensus regarding the specific purpose of the warriors. Some scholars interpret them as guardians of the tomb itself. Others believe they were meant to serve as bodyguards for Shi Huangdi in the afterlife.

The presence of other figures supports this interpretation to a degree. The Terracotta Army also includes such figures as musicians and various animals. Many of these other figures are relatively close to a statue that most scholars consider to represent Shi Huangdi himself. Thus, they believe that, just as the warriors are meant to guard Shi Huangdi in the afterlife, these additional figures may serve as entertainers for the emperor in the afterlife.

How Was the Army Constructed?

You can probably tell by now that actually constructing the Terracotta Army was by no means a simple process. Some researchers believe the workforce involved in the project may have consisted of as many as 700,000 individuals. 

Time it took to build

As of now, we can’t know for sure how long it took to build the Terracotta Army. That said, court historian Siam Qian recorded certain details in writing during the Han dynasty that may shed light on the subject.

His writings claim Shi Huangdi commissioned the project not long after taking the throne in 246 B.C.E. They also indicate construction of the mausoleum continued for about a year after his death until uprisings resulted in construction stopping in 209 B.C.E.

If these writings are accurate, that means construction of the Terracotta Army and surrounding mausoleum may have continued for approximately 37 years! That said, many similar projects from other parts of the world and periods in history, such as the pyramids, also took decades to complete. They serve as reminders that showing respect for the dead (particularly dead rulers) was a major priority in various cultures and societies from the past.

Design and materials

Constructing the Terracotta Army figures was clearly a massive undertaking requiring substantial resources and materials. Some of the figures weigh more than 400 pounds!

This, combined with the fact that there are thousands of them, gives researchers ample reason to believe those involved in creating the Terracotta Army relied on huge amounts of clay from nearby deposits. Molding that clay into sculptures also required the use of large quantities of firewood to provide fuel for the pottery kilns. 

To design and construct the figures, their creators used molds for various body parts. They would then combine the finished individual pieces created from these molds together to create a full statue.

Despite this, scholars have found that the vast majority of Terracotta Army figures are at least slightly unique. This indicates this project was a massive undertaking, involving a degree of planning that would be impressive even by today’s standards.

What’s the Terracotta Army Like Today?

Odds are good you’ll never see the full Terracotta Army because we’ll never discover all of it. If you’d like to see what researchers have already discovered for yourself, you can explore the following.

Visiting the Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army mausoleum consists of various pits archaeologists have dug out over the years. Some remain fairly inaccessible to tourists. However, the Terracotta Army Museum consists of three significant pits that tourists can visit.

China tourism experts recommend walking from the parking lot to the entrance and seeing Pit 1 first, followed by Pit 2, then Pit 3. They explain this is key to seeing the “Terracotta Army story” in the proper sequence.

The figures remain in relatively impressive condition given their age. However, thieves have stolen weapons and other items from some of the figures.

Tourism experts also recommend avoiding the souvenir shops or restaurants directly around the site if you have the opportunity to spend some time in Xi’an instead. The items in the souvenir shops near the Terracotta Army tend to be more expensive than what you can find not far from the mausoleum.

Additionally, the restaurants in the immediate vicinity of the Terracotta Army are low-quality because their proximity to such a major tourist destination ensures they’ll always have guests. You’re better off grabbing a bite somewhere else if you have the time to.

Seeing exhibitions

Not everyone can justify heading to China to see the Terracotta Army. Luckily, there are other options if you still wish to see these figures up close. Several of them are now part of traveling exhibitions that give people throughout the world an opportunity to get a glimpse of the warriors.

Because the dates and locations of these exhibitions change nearly every year, your best bet is to regularly Google “Terracotta Warrior exhibition” from time to time. Numerous online guides provide regular updates about where and when you can see exhibitions of the Terracotta Army.

Virtual tour

If you’re just interested in getting a quick look at the Terracotta Army without having to make any travel arrangements, you can also do so through a virtual tour available online via the official Mausoleum Site Museum. This offers impressive 360-degree views of various parts of the mausoleum. 

You can also drop yourself into a few different spots throughout the site via Google Maps Street View. Thanks to such apps as Wander with Friends, if you have your own virtual reality headset, you can enjoy an even more immersive experience with full 360-degree coverage.

While this certainly isn’t the same as actually seeing the Terracotta Army in person, it’s still an option worth considering if you want to actually see what the figures and surrounding area look like.

Terracotta Army: Representing More than Just a Man

Technically, Shi Huangdi commissioned the Terracotta Army to stand in his honor. However, these figures and their mausoleum have taken on greater meaning over history, serving as a symbol of early Chinese values and beliefs regarding death.


Sources

  1. “A 360-degree virtual tour of Terracotta Army.” China Daily, China Daily, 13 March 2020, www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202003/13/WS5e6b3589a31012821727ef2e.html
  2. Cartwright, Mark. “Terracotta Army.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia Foundation, 06 November 2017, www.ancient.eu/Terracotta_Army/
  3. Griggs, Mary Beth. “Someone Had to Build the Terracotta Army—Archaeologists Just Found Their Humbler Grave Sites.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 09 May 2014, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/tombs-workers-who-built-terracotta-army-discovered-180951377/
  4. “How to Visit the Terracotta Army Hassle Free.” China Highlights, China Highlights, www.chinahighlights.com/xian/terracotta-army/how-to-visit.htm
  5. Lubow, Arthur. “Terra Cotta Soldiers on the March.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, July 2009, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/terra-cotta-soldiers-on-the-march-30942673/
  6. Roach, Jon. “Emperor Qin's Tomb.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, www.nationalgeographic.com/history/archaeology/emperor-qin/#close
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