One of the Greatest Archeological Mysteries of All Time
On the Discovery of China's Hidden Warriors
The existence of a mausoleum built for Qin Shihuang, who is better known outside of China as the first Emperor, has been recognized since fairly soon after this death over 2,200 years ago. For the story of its construction was related in a celebrated chronicle of ancient Chinese history, whose title is usually translated into English as Records of the Grand Historian or Records of the Scribe, written on bamboo strips by the Grand Historian (also known as Grand Astrologer) at the court of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, Sima Qian (145-86). He described the process as follows:
From the beginning of his reign Shihuan had Mount Li built and shaped. Then, when he had united the whole empire in his hands, he had 700,000 workers transferred there. They dug down until they reached the water level and poured in bronze to make the sarcophagus. They made replicas of palaces and government buildings, and wonderful utensils, jewels and rare objects were brought and buried there to fill the tomb. Experts were ordered to build specifically set-up crossbows to fire arrows at anyone who tried to break into the tomb.
But the precise location of the funerary mound and its underground tomb were unknown to the ancient Chinese because it had been deliberately hidden. Unlike mausoleums designed to be admired from afar, such as the Taj Mahal in Agra or the Panthéon in Paris, this product of the long-term labors of such a vast workforce was always intended to be made invisible after the burial. Once the thousands of artifacts and treasures which would enable the Emperor to continue his terrestrial life into eternity had been placed in the tomb, the artisans and craftsmen who had completed the task were to be locked inside to die with him. Trees and bushes were then planted over the site so that it would resemble another mountain in an already mountainous landscape.
Legends and rumors abounded through the centuries; some local villagers may have known or guessed what it was, but failed to imagine its significance in a landscape dotted with funeral mounds, imperial tombs, and ancient ruins. The exact location was identified and roughly surveyed in the Ming period, around the time of the Italian Renaissance, and it was photographed by two foreign travelers just over a century ago; but meaningful knowledge dates only from the 1960s. Superstition and fear—the presence of mercury, known from Sima Qian’s account and to be discussed later—seem to have provided immunity through the centuries from the grave-robbers and dealers who ransacked other tombs.
This is remarkable in itself, and already poses difficult questions and mysteries to resolve, but it refers only to the tomb. What is truly astonishing is the fact that the existence nearby of an army consisting of thousands of terracotta figures intended to protect the emperor and his tomb was totally unknown to the local people and even to a well-informed chronicler like Sima Qian, or to his father Sima Tan, whom he succeeded as Grand Historian. Sima Tan began the Records and had been born within living memory of the sepulture. There had never been the slightest hint in surviving documents or books. It was, literally unimaginable until 1974 and still astounds in its dimensions and complexity. There is nothing quite like it in the world.
In fact, the entire story of the Emperor and his Mausoleum is one of history, mystery, and discovery. History: the chronicles and annals of Chinese history help us to outline the straightforward historical record: this provides the basic starting point of the story. Mystery: since the emperor’s death there have been several mysteries, including the character of the emperor himself, the deliberately disguised location of the tomb, its real purpose and more recently the uncertain role of the terracotta warriors. Discovery: in the past this was serendipitous, as in the 1974 discovery of the warriors, but today it has become systematic and adopts advanced archaeological and scientific techniques which fill out the history and build on the mystery.
One of the foreigners mentioned above, the French poet, novelist, sinologist, and doctor Victor Segalen, was not the first to photograph the tumulus, but he is the only one to have recorded his “discovery.” His photos, taken with equipment provided by Kodak for an official missions sponsored by the Ministry of Education in Pars, were also of better quality. Segalen recounts how on February 15th 1914 he arrived in the nearby town of Linton in search of Tang dynasty tumuli—supported by his mentor, Chavannes, and the latter’s own mentor, Henri Cordier, a professor at the École Spéciale des Langues Orientales. Chatting to some old local men one evening, he was told about another much larger funerary mound nearby. One of the villagers mentioned the name of Qin Shihuang. It sounded implausible to Segalen and his companions, since as far as they knew the First Emperor had been buried closer to Xi’an, and it was thought likely that his tomb had long since been violated and eliminated like hundreds of others which once lined the roads of north-western China. In the later formal report on the mission, he explains further that they were sure they were being duped, for such deceptions were common.
But when he and his companions approached the large tumulus from the north, doubt dissipated. As dusk began to fall, they saw a chain of violet tinted mountains which appeared in front of them with regularly spaced natural buttresses like masonry shoulders. There, Segalen wrote the next evening in a letter to his wife, at the foot of the mountain range, was “another mountain, isolated, ash white, with such a regular, deliberate, and orderly shape that there could be no doubt.” It corresponded perfectly to the three layers or terraces mentioned in ancient texts by Sima Qian. Ironically, it is more like the original now than it was in Segalen’s time, since in recent years trees have been replanted over the mausoleum. In its nude form, he intuitively compared it to the Great Pyramid at Giza, and on March 3rd took an excellent photograph which has since provided a key visual reference to archaeologists. The original glass plate is in the Musée Guimet in Paris, but a copy may be seen in the Mausoleum Site Museum and in many books on the First Emperor. Yet neither Segalen nor the architects who built on his early exploration could imagine the riches which lay beneath the earth over a much wider area than that of the tomb itself.
So we can imagine the astonishment—and fear—felt by superstitious villagers nearby when, in 1974, the first of the warriors came to light. This part of the story is well known, and has been repeated by guides in one form or another to the 90 million Chinese and 15 million foreign visitors who have made the pilgrimage to Lintong since the first museum housing the warriors was opened in 1979. In the midst of a drought in March 1974, which threatened that year’s income from fruit-farming, six brothers named Wang who owned the orchard under which the pits then lay hidden decided to dig a new well. Just one meter down they reached something solid which they assumed to be an old brick kiln, but after a few days they had dug a broad deep hole. Then, to their surprise, fragments of pottery began to emerge as they worked, and, quite suddenly, a terracotta head whose eyes and appearance frightened them. When clay limbs, entire torsos, and bronze arrowheads were revealed, they realized they were finding ancient relics such as other farmers and grave-robbers had come across closer to the mausoleum in earlier decades. Their first thought was to make some quick money by selling their finds to collectors or recycling the money as scrap. They could have no idea of the scale of what still lay underground. The spot where the brothers dug down and made their first discovery is still shown to visitors by guides in Pit 1 today.
Their finds were so numerous that word rapidly spread through nearby villages and soon reached the ear of Zhao Kangmin, the curator of a small museum in Lintong. He had himself found three figures of crossbow archers a few years earlier, and when he visited the site of the discoveries he recognized that the brick and other objects were from the Qin period. He took some of the finds to his museum to begin some simple cleaning and restoration; he also located and bought back metal objects which had been sold for scrap. No one else guessed their real potential value. Credulous villagers were worried in case these finds should bring disaster or just bad luck on them; some believed they were figures of demons or deities linked to sickness and epidemics, and they even burned incense to protect themselves. There were also other kinds of fear. Zhao himself was concerned that so soon after the Cultural Revolution, one of whose tenets was to eradicate ancient imperial relics, the newly discovered objects would be destroyed by nervous officials as so many had been in the previous decade.
At first, the news spread no further.
Then a Beijing-based journalist, Lin Anwen, happened to hear about the discovery while visiting his family in the Lintong area. He visited Zhao’s museum, listened to his story and studied the artifacts. On returning to Beijing, he wrote a 1000-word report for an official journal which was published in June 1974. This report spurred interest at the highest levels, and the excitement is palpable in the rapid sequence of events at a time when communications and travel were much slower than today: within days it was seen by Li Xiannian, vice-premier of the state Council and also by the minister of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, on 6 July the director of the Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology in Xi’an dispatched a team to evaluate the site.
The next part of the story is less well known in its details. Three archaeologists set off on the open back of of a bull-nosed Jiefang CA-30 military lorry, known as a Liberation Truck, with one canvas bag each and a mosquito net. They had been ordered to visit the site, measure its extent and then write a report for the government in Beijing. The future museum director Yuan Zhongyi, who was part of this group, recalls that they expected to be away for a week and thus took very few supplies. They slept under a tree by beside the site, protected by the mosquito net, and ate their meals in a different farmer’s home each day, paying 30 mao in cash (ten mao, or jiao = 1 yuan) and also giving them a ban jin coupon (with which they could get an extra pork ration of a quarter of a kilo). Their primary task to calculate the size of the pit, so they began from the well-hole and worked outwards; at the same time, they selected two large baskets of terracotta fragments from a pile of apparent rubbish and began to study them. On August 2nd, still at the site, they began to drill exploratory bore-holes while the expanding pit continued to astonish them by its contents. The then 42-year-old Yuan already had a reputation for “lucky” finds: his previous task had been a dig in San Yuan, north of Xi’an, at the 7th century AD tomb of the uncle of Li Shimin (The future Tang emperor Taizon), where he had found the first-known surviving Tang murals—now in the Shaanxi History Museum. Hard work under the hot summer was relieved by a series of magnificent surprises. That August, they found the first bronze sword, its blade still gleaming in the absence of rust. Then, in September, after 20 or so warriors had emerged, Yuan expressed a wish that they should find a horse: two days later, the first terracotta horse emerged from the dig, and in the evening they celebrated with baijou, the Chinese liquor. But it was not until March 1975, after innumerable trips out to the site, now taking two-and-a-half hours by bike without the privilege of a truck which urgency had conferred, that they were able to report the exact scale of the pit, measured as 230 by 62 meters.
A year after initial work had hinted at the wealth of Pit 1 with the discovery of the bronze sword and terracotta horse, it was decided that a museum should be built. But as work on the new structure began in May 1976 two further sites, known as Pit 2 and Pit 3 were discovered beside the original one, together with the unfinished and never used Pit 4. Yuan Zhongyi’s task stretched from a week to three decades of digging, analysis, research and publication, lasting until his retirement in 2003. Today in his mid-80s, he is still honorary director of the Mausoleum Site Museum and respected as the doyen of “warrior studies.” Under his guidance, the accretion of knowledge has been constant, and his major publications on the tomb and the terracotta army are the most complete and authoritative sources of information, though never translated into any foreign language because they are highly technical (his most recent summary on the warriors, published in 2014, runs to nearly 600 pages of dense text with dozens of sketches of archaeological detail). Soundings and digs continued over the years in the wider area around the mausoleum site under a growing team, with surprising results and discoveries which continue to emerge. The total area involved has been thought for some time to be around 56 square kilometers, nearly twice as large as that—spun outwards like a spiral from the original well-hole.“In September, after 20 or so warriors had emerged, Yuan expressed a wish that they should find a horse: two days later, the first terracotta horse emerged from the dig.”
Traditional archaeological techniques have been augmented in recent years by scientific analysis, and by methods which were unavailable 40 years ago, together with important international collaborative projects. Magnetic scans of the area made in 2005, for example, allowed a more precise map of the site and its buildings to be made, and indicated the presence of a large number of metal objects and coins. Metallurgical studies on unearthed weapons and objects have provided fascinating information, as has research into colors and pigments used to decorate the warriors. In the summer of 2009 a third series of excavations began at Pit 1 (following those of 1974 and 1985, which identified Pits 1, 2 and 3) and lasted until 2011. Significant new finds include over 100 terracotta warriors and horses, two sets of chariots and large quantities of weaponry. Some of those newly discovered figures are high-ranking officers, with more elaborate decorations on tunics and weapons; new techniques have allowed the preservations of a larger amount of color, including flesh colors on the faces and painted eyelashes. Preliminary details were reported in 2015, and a full study is due to be published. In March 2015, promising new excavations also began in Pit 2.
Over the period from 1999 to 2012 a series of other excavations took place in the area closer to the mausoleum. Archaeologists found near the burial mound the remains of what was then thought to be an imperial palace but is now believed to be the prayer halls and reception halls for the afterlife, comprising 18 courtyard-style houses with one main building at the center. The remains of subsidiary pits, walls, gates stone roads and brickwork have provided a clear idea of the layout and construction. The Qin development of the ancient idea of mausoleum with garden or precinct around it involved a symbolic representation of the capital city for the afterlife, which as we will see formed the template for such structures under the Han and future dynasties.
At the same time, knowledge of the Qin has been enhanced by numerous parallel discoveries concerning their rivals in the Warring States period and near-contemporary tombs of the early Han emperors who succeeded them. Other spectacular discoveries, well known to sinologists and specialist historians but not to the average visitor, have furnished significant insights into the workings after that of the warriors, of 1155 bamboo strips bearing texts which provide information about laws, administration and religious and everyday life during the First Emperor’s lifetime. They were found at Shuihudi, in Yunmeng County, Hubei Province, where in 210 the emperor himself traveled and made sacrifices, and many artifacts are on display in the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan. These ancient texts are difficult to read and interpret even for Chinese scholars, but following their publication in specialized journals a selection was translated and published in English by the Dutch sinologist A. F. P. Hulsewé in 1985 as Remnants of Ch’in Law. Since then, other caches of documents have been unearthed: in 1989 in Longgang (also Yunmeng County), in 1993 in Jingzhou, Hubei Province, and in 2002 and 2005 at Liye, Longshan County, Hunan Province, of which the first publication of one of five projected volumes was made in Chinese in 2012. New information has also appeared in the form of inscriptions on bronze vessels and steles, and by means of new disciplines such as geo-archaeology, the study of DNA from human bones, and advanced techniques of digital analysis.
These new sources, and sometimes almost monthly announcements of new tombs and related discoveries, are likely to be augmented by further revelations for many years to come and to offer an ever clearer overview of the Mausoleum and its Terracotta Army. This book is based on information available up to mid-2017.
From The Terracotta Warriors: Exploring the Most Intriguing Puzzle In Chinese History. Used with permission of Pegasus Books. Copyright © 2018 by Edward Burman.