March 29, 1974 CE: Discovery of the Terra-Cotta Warriors

2 min


On March 29, 1974, the first set of terra-cotta warriors was unearthed in Xian, China. Local farmers stumbled upon fragments of a clay figure, which ultimately led to the remarkable discovery of an ancient tomb. This burial site, both extensive in size and the number of artifacts it contained, was commissioned by Qin Shi Huangdi, the inaugural emperor of China. Notably, the section housing his remains remains unexplored.

Within the excavated portion of the tomb, an astonishing sight awaited: thousands of life-size sculptures depicting horses and armored warriors positioned in battle formation. Standing at around two meters (six feet) tall, these sculptures weighed up to 272 kilograms (600 pounds) each. Notably, every warrior boasted distinctive attributes, including facial features, hairstyles, clothing, and poses.

In recent years, several museums worldwide have hosted exhibitions showcasing a limited selection of these awe-inspiring terra-cotta warriors. Meanwhile, the warriors in Xian continue to occupy their original positions, facing east—the direction from which the emperor’s adversaries once approached.

It is an extensive army of pottery figures that is gradually being excavated from the tomb where it has been lying for over 2,000 years. During my time working in society for many decades, I encountered these life-sized valets who resembled real soldiers. Each figure had distinct facial features that could be distinguished by their hairstyles and headgear. The discovery began when local farmers stumbled upon some pottery fragments, including a warrior’s head. A team of experts was then dispatched to the area, initiating the excavation process.

Originally, in ancient China about 3,000 years ago, it was believed that in the afterlife, kings or noble individuals would be buried with their servants as a form of human sacrifice. However, this practice was criticized, and the terra-cotta warriors are thought to have served as substitutes. When we discovered them, we were surprised to find that the colors on the figures were remarkably well-preserved. As we lifted a warrior’s toe, bright colors such as red, pink, blue, and green were visible on the soil. Some colors were likely derived from natural pigments, possibly minerals or plants, but the vibrant hues were a result of chemical reactions, indicating the use of artificial pigments. These types of chemical reactions are only found in China, making it a truly revolutionary and fascinating aspect of ancient technology dating back 2,000 years. It has been a significant part of my archaeological career, and I feel both fortunate and responsible for the preservation of these unique treasures, not only in China but also in the world.

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With over a decade of writing obituaries for the local paper, Jane has a uniquely wry voice that shines through in her newest collection of essays, which explore the importance we place on legacy.


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