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13. Underground Army of the First Emperor
Excavated near the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huangdi, Lintong county,
Shaanxi Province, in 1976

Qin dynasty, 221 - 206 BCE

Underground Army of the First Emperor

In 1974, as workers were sinking a well for irrigation in a village some thirty kilometers east of Xian, four meters down they came upon the pottery head of a human figure, and then the hands and the body. When archaeologists began excavating the area they uncovered an astonishing scene: an immense subterranean vault containing long columns of life-size terra-cotta figures of warriors fully armed with real weapons, chariots and horses, in battle formation.

They were placed 2.5 kilometers east of the burial mound which covers the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor. While the Han period historian Sima Qian (ca. 145-86 BCE) in his Records of the Historian describes the magnificent tomb (which has not yet been excavated) in detail, he does not mention the vast underground army, which is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of our time. Some 8,000 figures have been uncovered grouped in battle order, facing east, to protect the emperor, who lies in his mausoleum with flowing rivers of mercury and a sky with precious stones depicting the stars. The army consisted of 7,000 warriors: archers, foot soldiers, cavalrymen, and charioteers of various rank, 500 chariot horses, 130 war chariots, and 110 cavalry horses. Another pit contained two luxurious bronze chariots

The figures were made in assembly-line fashion: the bodies were cast in a mold, with individual characteristics added to the faces later. The soldiers' and officer's dress, armor, and hairstyles are minutely detailed.

The tern-cotta figures originally were painted in bright colors, which have disappeared with time.

Museum of the Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shi Huangdi, Shaanxi Province

all text & images © The Israel Museum

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