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Terracotta Army: The 1974 Discovery Of 8,000 Ancient Clay Warriors

Artifacts | March 29, 2020

The Terracotta Army guards the Emperor's tomb. (Photo by API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Like many stories of fantastic discoveries from the past, the tale of how the Terracotta Army of ancient China was found begins with farmers digging in a field. It was 1974, and the region around Xian, China was experiencing a drought. A group of seven farmers decided to dig a well to supply their farm fields, but what they found was even more valuable than water. The discovery of the Terracotta Army on this day in 1974 was one of the most important archaeological discoveries in China and, indeed, the world. 

Farmers digging a well discovered the Terracotta Army. (bbc.com)

Unearthing A Treasure

While the men dug their well on March 29, 1974, a farmer named Yang Zhifa felt his shovel strike hard, red clay about three feet below the ground. Upon investigation, the farmers uncovered a number of artifacts, including some old bronze arrowheads, but the most astonishing find was two life-size heads made out of terracotta.

Zhao Kangmin, the archaeologist who was first to work the site. (cultura-china.com)

The First Archaeologist On The Scene

Zhao Kangmin, an archaeologist working at a museum in central China, soon received a phone call about the artifacts. It wasn't uncommon to unearth small trinkets from ancient China from time to time, so Zhao assumed that was what he would find when he visited the site. Still, the location of the find intrigued him. It was around the area where Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, was thought to be buried.

Hastily, he took the heads and broken shards of pottery back to his museum to see if he could put them together. In no time at all, he reassembled two full-size ancient warriors sculpted from terracotta. 

More and more statues were found. (telegraph.co.uk)

Searching For More

Zhao and a colleague soon uncovered additional terracotta figures. As an archaeologist and student of history, Zhao was certain that this was an important discovery, yet he was hesitant to alert the Chinese government about the find. In those days, China still operated under the regulations imposed by Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution. The Red Guard was tasked with destroying the ancient traditions and culture of China to make way for a new, streamlined society. Zhao feared that the historically significant terracotta statues would be seized or destroyed.

Each terracotta warrior is unique. (thevintagenews.com)

The Secret Gets Out

Although Zhao had hoped to keep the discovery under wraps until he could literally dig deeper, an eager journalist from Xinhua, the state-run news agency, came across the site while traveling through the region. Despite pleas from Zhao, the young journalist wrote and published an article about the historical find. Thankfully, Zhao's fears that the government would (re)bury the historical discovery, which encompassed 500 statues by that point, turned out to be unwarranted. On the contrary, they were determined to protect and preserve this blast from the past.

The Terracotta Army remains standing in place, guarding the Emperor's tomb. (mymodernmet.com)

A Vast Number of Warriors

The excavation in Xian led archeologists to finally locate the ancient tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi. If Zhao was astonished by a mere 500 statues, he was about to be in for a real shock: More than 8,000 clay soldiers, dubbed the Terracotta Army, were found at the 2,200-years-old burial site. 

The amazing thing about the Terracotta Army, aside for their sheer number, is that each one is different. The styles of clothing and armor, hairstyles, facial expressions, hand gestures, and poses all differ in subtle ways from statue to statue. Each one is an individual masterpiece, and together, they represent an enormous volume of work. 

The tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi has not been opened. (smarthistory.org)

Why Were They Made?

Was it the work of some deranged wannabe wizard who hoped to bring these clay soldiers to life and conquer the world? Not quite. The enormous Terracotta Army was created to protect the burial site of Emperor Qin, a highly superstitious man who believed that actions and possessions in one life impacted the next. To protect his status as emperor, he ordered the ghost army of terracotta warriors to stand guard over his tomb. The Chinese government opted to keep the tomb sealed, just in case.

Although he was the first archaeologist on the scene, Zhao Kangmin didn't get credit for the discovery. (thoughtco.com)

Who Gets Credit For The Find?

Visitors to the location, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the nearby museum are told that the Terracotta Army was discovered by Yang Zhifa, the farmer who first unearthed parts of the statues. This didn't sit well with Zhao Kangmin, who felt that he should have been credited with the find, or his supporters. It was Zhao, he/they argued, who recognized the importance of the discovery and took the necessary steps to protect the site and the statues. Alas, even as the Terracotta Army has become famous, Zhao has not. His name was not recognized in China, something that his fellow archaeologists lament. 

Tags: ancient china | Ancient WarriorÃÃà | art | historical artifacts

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.