The Qin terracotta warriors: a stunning discovery

29 March 2018 by Joe

On the anniversary of the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors in 1974, Senior Archaeologist Janice Li reveals more about the groundbreaking discoveries that followed:

“People are fascinated by the Qin terracotta warriors that were created over 2,000 years ago: thousands of them, life-sized with individual facial features, equipped with lethal bronze weapons, formed into battle formation, and served to protect the Qin First Emperor (259-210 BC) in his afterlife. However, the discovery of the terracotta warriors was by chance when the local farmers dug a well at the site.

In March 1974, a small village at the foot of Li Mountain in Lintong, China, faced a spring drought, so it was crucial to find a solution to the water shortage. Some farmers gathered together to dig a well in the south of the village, and found some pieces of pottery when it reached three metres deep. As the digging continued, fragments of terracotta heads, legs, arms, and other pieces were uncovered respectively. Some of the villagers thought these were deities from a temple and burned incense to pray for their blessings, but they did not realise what a stunning discovery it was!

When the news quickly spread to the Lintong County Museum, the local archaeologists came to the site and started the archaeological survey and excavation. Originally, it was supposed to be a one week long archaeological task, but the results astonished everyone. They quickly realised that this task could take decades, and probably generations. From the spot where the well was dug, archaeologists found the boundary of the pit, measuring 230 by 62 metres. Surprisingly, this was not the only one! Pit 2 and Pit 3 followed, revealing more terracotta warriors. In the China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors exhibition at World Museum, the terracotta warriors were selected from different pits to present a variety of postures in the battle formation, including a general, an officer, infantry, cavalry, and standing and kneeling archers.

It also showcases some lethal bronze weapons with sharp blades for the Terracotta Army to use in the underground empire. The bronze lance and halberd bear long inscriptions to indicate the regnal year in which they were produced, the name of the person in charge of production, the workshop, and the name of the specific worker. It provides valuable information about chronology and how production was organised during the manufacture of the weapons. The arrows and crossbow triggers demonstrate the Qin military strategies, and the fine and parallel sharpening marks on a large quantity of the weapons indicate the workshops making mechanical devices on an industrial scale.

Actually, the three pits of the terracotta warriors are only the tip of iceberg within the vast First Emperor’s tomb complex, which covers approximately 56 square kilometres. Ongoing archaeology has shed a light on about 600 ancillary tombs and pits surrounding the centre of the tomb mound that the coffin chamber was buried beneath, with crossbows automatically releasing arrows on intruders, as a 3D animation shows at the end of exhibition. In death, as in life, Emperor Qin brought everything with him to his afterlife: a Terracotta Army to protect him, bronze chariots for travelling, terracotta acrobats and bronze birds for his entertainment, an arsenal storing stone armour, stables full of horse skeletons, and even his concubines were buried alive with him.

The two exquisite bronze chariots, half the size of the real Qin model, were buried 20 metres west of the tomb mound. It is most likely that they were for the Emperor’s afterlife journeys. The chariots were made of thousands of components assembled together. A variety of techniques, including casting, soldering, hammering and drilling were employed. These exquisite and luxurious characters were further decorated with gold and silver inlay and ornaments. The Emperor intended to continue the inspection tours that he carried out in his life time. The reproductions of the two bronze chariots in this exhibition provide a good opportunity for visitors to have a close look the details of the Qin chariots.

Horses were very important to Qin society, not only because their ancestors raised horses, but also because they were essential for transportation, military purposes, as well as hunting in the imperial gardens. The large number and variety of horse skeletons found with the terracotta stable boys indicate their importance in the Qin First Emperor’s daily life. We also found some bones of exotic animals and birds in pottery coffins, accompanied by the kneeling pottery figures, presumably keepers to the west of the mausoleum (shown in the exhibition). These animals and birds may have been rare specimens acquired as gifts and kept in the imperial gardens.

Stone armour and helmets were stored in the arsenal of the Qin underground empire, adjacent to the Emperor’s palace. A suit of armour and a helmet are displayed in this exhibition. The stone scales and linking copper wire are well presented. In addition, a suit of horse armour was also found in the trial trenches, which demonstrates a need to protect the horses in war at that time.

Entertaining was also one of the themes for the Qin First Emperor’s afterlife. A pit adjacent to the tomb itself contained a group of terracotta figures of performers in various postures, and mostly wearing just skirts. A large bronze tri-pot was unearthed on the top of the roof in the pit to match some performing postures of muscular strong men for lifting the weight. These terracotta figures most probably signify acrobats, with the sense of movement conveyed to entertain the Emperor in his underground empire.

The bronze waterfowl in the tomb complex depict another form of entertainment for the Emperor. The bronze birds are laid in neat order along the riverbanks. Each bird is unique and well depicted in bronze, and even birds of the same species are slightly different to each other. One of the bronze cranes is holding a little worm in its beak; the creature frozen at the moment when the crane plucked it from the water.  Some terracotta figures were posed as if playing music, while in front of them a group of waterfowl, including charming swans, elegant cranes and wild geese in lines, are ready to dance to the music in a clear stream.

As shown in this exhibition, the discovery of the terracotta warriors and the ongoing archaeology revolutionised our knowledge of the Qin Emperor, Qin society and its legacy in modern day life. We can see through these objects how the Qin people lived and pursued their afterlife in early imperial China.  You can discover more objects from this groundbreaking discovery at our landmark exhibition, China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors which runs until 28 October 2018.”

  1. Terence Heathcote says:

    How much does it cost for a family of 4

  2. Sharon Forbes says:

    I have my ticket to come and see the Terracotta Army Exhibition on 9 May and I am so looking forward to it. In the meantime I would just like to say that the book to accompany the exhibition is absolutely wonderful. I bought it and had it posted to me so that I could have a better understanding before I come and see the exhibition and I cannot praise the book highly enough. It is so richly illustrated and very interesting and written in a style that in my opinion everyone will be able to understand and enjoy and the quality of the paper etc is of the highest. A very big thank you to James CS Lin, Xiuzhen Li and Karen Miller and everyone involved for what can clearly be seen is a lot of hard work. I am even more excited about seeing the exhibition now because judging by the quality of the book I am sure the exhibition will be something really special. Thank you. Sharon

  3. James Watson says:

    I bought 2 adult tickets plus programme online on Thursday 1st February. Our visit is booked for Saturday 14th April at 2.30.
    However, I have not received my e-ticket. I have checked trash and spam, but I can not find find any tickets. It would have been FIVE working days after the transaction.
    Please can you help?
    James Watson
    07887 242976

  4. Joy Latimer says:

    Do you get cancellations? Would be looking for 4 or 2 tickets 11th April or early 12th April. Only in Liverpool for a couple of nights.

    • Joe says:

      Hi Joy, tickets are sold out online for 11th and 12th April. However, there is a number of walk-up tickets available every day from the ticket kiosk outside the museum. These tickets are very limited in number, so we recommend arriving early should you wish to secure any of these. The ticket kiosk opens at 9:30am daily. Thanks,

  5. warrior fan says:

    Can you buy tickets on day as this is not clear.

  6. Mr L Bladen says:

    My wife & I are from the W Mids & are travelling by rail week Apr 23-27.We hope to see China exhibition.We were given a 2 for 1 leaflet with our tickets, can we use this?.We are both in our 80 s

    • Joe says:

      Hi there,

      Unfortunately the exhibition is sold out online for that week – however, there is a very small number of walk up tickets available from the ticket kiosk outside World Museum every day. These tickets are very limited in number, so we recommend arriving early should you wish to secure tickets in this way – the kiosk opens at 9:30am daily.


  7. Lillian says:

    Is photography permitted in this special exhibition?

    • Joe says:

      Hi Lillian,

      Non professional, non commercial photography (ie with a smartphone or handheld digital camera) is permitted in the exhibition, without flash.
      Thanks, Joe

  8. Sofia lace says:

    I am very much interested in going however I have heard that there’s only about a dozen on display is this true

    • Joe says:

      Hi Sofia,

      The exhibition contains 10 Qin Dynasty terracotta figures from the original burial site of the First Emperor. This is the maximum amount of warriors that are allowed to leave China.


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