In spring 1974, a number of farmers near Xi’an (a famous Chinese cultural city) discovered some ancient bronze weapons and pieces of broken terra-cotta armoured warriors while sinking a well. This turned out to be one of the most amazing archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century. Excavations since then have found 1800 terra-cotta warriors although it is estimated that there are at least 6000 more still to be excavated. The terra-cotta warriors are in battle formation and include cavalry, infantry and charioteers. They are a replica of the Qin army and were created over 2200 years ago. A high level of technological skill was needed for this to be possible. This ancient society was powerful and technologically advanced.
In addition to the warriors, an entire man-made necropolis for the Emperor has also been found around the first Emperor’s tomb mound. The tomb mound is located at the foot of Mount Li as an earthen pyramid, and Qin Shi Huangdi’s necropolis complex was constructed as a microcosm of his imperial palace or compound. It consists of several offices, halls, stables and other structures placed around the tomb mound which is surrounded by two solidly built rammed earth walls with gateway entrances. Up to 5 metres (16 feet) of reddish, sandy soil had accumulated over the site in the two millennia following its construction, but archaeologists found evidence of earlier disturbances at the site. During the digs near the Mount Li burial mound, archaeologists found several graves dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where diggers had apparently struck terracotta fragments which were then discarded as worthless back into the back-filled soil.
The terracotta army figures were manufactured in workshops by government laborers and by local craftsmen, and the material used to make the terracotta warriors originated on Mount Li. The head, arms, legs and torsos were created separately and then assembled. Studies show that eight face moulds were most likely used, and then clay was added to provide individual facial features. Once assembled, intricate features such as facial expressions were added. It is believed that their legs were made in much the same way that terracotta drainage pipes were manufactured at the time. This would make it an assembly line production, with specific parts manufactured and assembled after being fired, as opposed to crafting one solid piece and subsequently firing it. In those times of tight imperial control, each workshop was required to inscribe its name on items produced to ensure quality control. This has aided modern historians in verifying that workshops that once made tiles and other mundane items were commandeered to work on the terracotta army. Upon completion, the terracotta figures were placed in the pits in precise military formation according to rank and duty.
The terracotta figures are life-sized. They vary in height, uniform and hairstyle in accordance with rank. Most originally held real weapons such as spears, swords, or crossbows. The figures were also originally painted with bright pigments, variously coloured in pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white and lilac. The coloured lacquer finish, individual facial features, and actual weapons used in producing these figures created a realistic appearance. Most of the original weapons were thought to have been looted shortly after the creation of the army, or have rotted away, and the colour coating has flaked off or greatly faded.
There are four main pits associated with the terracotta army. These pits are located about 1.5 km east of the burial mound and are about 7 metres deep. The army is placed as if to protect the tomb from the east, where all the Qin Emperor’s conquered states lay. Pit one, which is 230 metres long and 62 metres wide,contains the main army of more than 6,000 figures.Pit one has 11 corridors, most of which are over 3 metres wide, and paved with small bricks with a wooden ceiling supported by large beams and posts. This design was also used for the tombs of noblemen and would have resembled palace hallways. The wooden ceilings were covered with reed mats and layers of clay for waterproofing, and then mounded with more soil making them, when built, about 2 to 3 metres higher than ground level. Pit two has cavalry and infantry units as well as war chariots and is thought to represent a military guard. Pit three is the command post, with high-ranking officers and a war chariot. Pit four is empty, seemingly left unfinished by its builders.
Some of the figures in pit one and two showed fire damage and remains of burnt ceiling rafters have also been found; these, together with the missing weapons, have been taken as evidence of the reported looting by Xiang Yu and its subsequent burning. The burning is thought to cause the collapse of the roof which crushed the army figures below, and the terracotta figures presently displayed have been reconstructed from fragments of the crushed figures.
A large number of other pits which formed the necropolis have also been excavated. These pits may lie within or outside the walls surrounding the tomb mound. These accessory pits variously contain bronze carriages, terracotta figures of entertainers such as acrobats and strongmen, officials, stone armour suits, burials sites of horses, rare animals and labourers, as well as bronze cranes and ducks in an underground park.
Weapons such as swords, spears, battle-axe, scimitars, shields, crossbows and arrowheads were found at the pits of the terracotta warriors. Some of these weapons such as the swords are still very sharp and found to be coated with chromium oxide. This layer of chromium oxide is 10–15 micrometre thick and has kept the swords rust-free and in pristine condition after 2,000 years. Chromium only came to the attention of westerners in the 18th century. Many swords contain an alloy of copper, tin and other elements including nickel, magnesium, and cobalt.Some carry inscriptions giving dates of manufacture between 245 and 228 BC, indicating they were actual weapons used in warfare before their burials.
An important element of the army is the chariot, and four types of chariots were found. In battle the fighting chariots form pairs at the head of a unit of infantry. The principal weapon of the charioteers was the ge or dagger-axe, an L-shaped bronze blade mounted on a long shaft used for sweeping and hooking at the enemy. Infantrymen also carried ge on shorter shafts, ji orhalberds, and spears and lances. For close fighting and defence, both charioteers and infantrymen carried double-edged straight swords. The archers carry crossbows with sophisticated trigger mechanisms capable of firing arrows over 800 meters.