Is it normal for a 13-year-old to start planning his own elaborate tomb? Well, apparently, this was quite regular in ancient China if you were the King, soon to become First Emperor!

In 247 BCE, the teenaged Ying Zheng took the throne of Qin (pronounced Chin, from where we get the name China). He was an efficient but ruthless man who crushed all his enemies and created a huge kingdom for himself. By 221 BCE, he ruled over “all the known world” aided by a network of officials, spies and a powerful army. He decided to call himself First Emperor or Qin Shi Huangdi. He was now one of the most powerful men in the world.

The first thing that Qin Shi Huangdi did as King was to order the planning and construction of his own tomb. Two thousand years later, that order led to one of the greatest archaeological discoveries ever!

In 1974, a group of farmers digging a well near the city of Xi’an hit upon an unusual, life-size terracotta figure of a soldier. He was dressed in ancient costume and looked ready for action! Chinese archaeologists entered the scene and started digging.

They were dumbfounded by what they unearthed: networks of underground corridors with line upon line of life-size terracotta figures. They were warriors, thousands of them, lined up in battle formation. There were infantrymen in armour, archers standing or kneeling, charioteers, cavalrymen on horses and high officials armed with crossbows and swords. More than 2,000 of them have been uncovered so far. About 5,000 are said to still remain underground!
Incredibly life-like
What was even more amazing was the detail on each of the figures. This was no mass produced army: no two faces were alike!  Uniforms had been carefully crafted so that the infantryman’s armour had the texture of real leather, archers wore clothes with realistic details right down to patterns on the soles of their sandals, higher ranks wore elaborate headgear, incredibly life-like horses were in full battle regalia. The soldiers had once carried real arms – metal swords, lances, daggers, axes and crossbows. Some were still razor sharp! Originally when they were dug out, the figures were painted in bright colours. Unfortunately due to exposure over the years, the lacquer-based paint has faded to the dull grey it is today.

What was this mind-blowing place? Who made it?  How? And why?

Questions tumbled around the dazed archaeologists. As they dug further, some answers began to emerge. They found a snaking compound wall, kilometres long, with watchtowers and guard outposts. Within were remains of palaces, pavilions and gardens.

Referring to official records of the time, scholars read about the young Qin Shi Huangdi. In 247 BCE, he had ordered a necropolis or city for the dead to be built to house his tomb. Apparently over 7,00,000 workers had been put to work on the job. They stopped only when the Emperor died in 210 BCE.  It was obvious that these warriors were part of that city.
Meet the terracotta warriors
Meanwhile, more spectacular finds were being unearthed: two bronze chariots each drawn by four horses. The chariots were masterpieces of art and engineering, one of them having 3462 separate pieces! Large amounts of hay had been thoughtfully placed in front of the bronze horses. In other pits were a collection of terracotta dancers, musicians and acrobats in performance poses. Many rare birds and animals in clay coffins were accompanied by their human wardens carrying their dishes and collars. There were remains of real horses, each with their own terracotta groom.

How had all this been made in just 10 or 11 years? Using a combination of historical records and the artefacts, archaeologists were able to work out some theories.
 Terracotta workers, who usually made tiles and drainage pipes, were organised into highly regulated government run factories. The terracotta warriors were made of assembled body parts. First, the torsos were cast from a mould.

Limbs were then attached and finally, a pre-fabricated head customised individually with hairstyle, eyes, moustache, eyebrows, clothes etc. They were painted in bright colours.  Each soldier weighing over 100 kilos was then carefully carried to the pits, placed in authentic battle formation and armed with real weapons, ready to go into battle with his dead Emperor.

Why had the First Emperor chosen this unusual way of equipping himself with terracotta companions in the after-life?  We can only guess that the powerful First Emperor, ruler of “all the known world”, wanted something more lasting than human remains or wooden replicas. Terracotta is not known to decay and for a king obsessed with immortality, this was an important point.

The story does not end here. In fact, it may have just begun.

Necropolis...on hold
The official records also speak of the royal tomb. They describe an area as big as a football stadium where the Emperor himself is entombed, surrounded by everything a dead Emperor might need. There are scale models of palaces, pavilions, gardens, stables and offices. These are equipped with slaves, wives, officials, entertainers, horses…the list is endless. There are boxes full of rare and precious jewels and other marvels never seen by the common man. There are flowing rivers of mercury, replicating the rivers of China, winding their way through bronze mountains to a silvery ocean. High above is the sky studded with stars made of precious stones such as pearls, rubies and jade. The First Emperor wanted to carry even the landscape he knew into the afterlife.

Lethal crossbows were positioned at strategic points so that intruders would be instantly shot dead – a deadly burglar alarm! Naturally all the workmen who toiled to make this were buried alive with their secrets so no one would be able to rob these treasures.
The exact location of this tomb is still unknown. However, recent soil tests around a high mound in the area have shown an unusually high level of mercury!

 As of now, excavation work at the site has stopped. Archaeologists feel that conservation techniques will have to improve much more before they start digging again. They do not want to risk losing the invaluable treasures they know still lie beneath the dirt.

For now, the First Emperor can remain undisturbed. The terracotta warriors can continue to stand by, awaiting his orders. And the world will have to await the revelation of the wonders in his City for the Dead.