China’s 8,000 Terracotta Warriors: An Animated & Interactive Introduction to a Great Archaeological Discovery

Unless you’re a Chi­nese his­to­ry buff, the name of Qin Shi Huang may not imme­di­ate­ly ring a bell. But per­haps his accom­plish­ments will sound famil­iar. “He con­quered the war­ring states that sur­round­ed him, cre­at­ing the first uni­fied Chi­nese empire” — mak­ing him the very first emper­or of Chi­na — “and enact­ed a num­ber of mea­sures to cen­tral­ize his admin­is­tra­tion and bol­ster infra­struc­ture,” writes’s Brig­it Katz. “In addi­tion to stan­dard­iz­ing weights, mea­sures and the writ­ten lan­guage, the young ruler con­struct­ed a series of for­ti­fi­ca­tions that lat­er became the basis for the Great Wall.”

Sec­ond only to the Great Wall as an ancient Chi­nese arti­fact of note is Emper­or Qin’s army: not the liv­ing army he main­tained to defend and expand his empire, fear­some though it must have been, but the even more impres­sive one made out of ter­ra­cot­ta.

“In 1974, farm­ers dig­ging a well near their small vil­lage stum­bled upon one of the most impor­tant finds in archae­o­log­i­cal his­to­ry,” says the TED-Ed les­son writ­ten by Megan Camp­isi and Pen-Pen Chen above: “a vast under­ground cham­ber sur­round­ing the emper­or’s tomb, and con­tain­ing more than 8,000 life-size clay sol­diers, ready for bat­tle,” all com­mis­sioned by Qin, who after ascend­ing to the throne at age thir­teen “began the con­struc­tion of a mas­sive under­ground necrop­o­lis filled with mon­u­ments, arti­facts, and an army to accom­pa­ny him into the next world and con­tin­ue his rule.”

Qin’s ceram­ic sol­diers, 200 more of which have been dis­cov­ered over the past decade, have stood ready in bat­tle for­ma­tion for well over 2000 years now. Stored in the same area’s under­ground cham­bers are 130 char­i­ots with 520 hors­es, 150 cav­al­ry hors­es, and a vari­ety of musi­cians, acro­bats, work­ers, gov­ern­ment offi­cials, and exot­ic ani­mals — all made of ter­ra­cot­ta, all life-size, and each with its own painstak­ing­ly craft­ed unique­ness. They pop­u­late what we now call a necrop­o­lis, an elab­o­rate­ly designed “city of the dead” built around a mau­soleum. You can get a 360-degree view of a sec­tion of Qin’s necrop­o­lis above, as well as a deep­er look into its his­tor­i­cal back­ground from the BBC doc­u­men­tary New Secrets of the Ter­ra­cot­ta War­riors, the BBC doc­u­men­tary above, and this episode of PBS’ Secrets of the Dead.

Why direct so much mate­r­i­al and labor to such a seem­ing­ly obscure project? Qin, who also showed a great inter­est in search­ing far-flung lands for life-pro­long­ing elixirs, must have con­sid­ered build­ing a well-pop­u­lat­ed necrop­o­lis a rea­son­able bet to secure for him­self a place in eter­ni­ty. Nor was such an endeav­or with­out prece­dent, and in fact Qin’s ver­sion rep­re­sent­ed a civ­i­liz­ing step for­ward for the necrop­o­lis. “Ruth­less as he was,” write Camp­isi and Chen, he at least “chose to have ser­vants and sol­diers built for this pur­pose, rather than hav­ing liv­ing ones sac­ri­ficed to accom­pa­ny him, as had been prac­ticed in Egypt, West Africa, Ana­to­lia, parts of North Amer­i­ca,” and even pre­vi­ous Chi­nese dynas­ties. “You can’t take it with you,” we often hear today regard­ing the amass­ment of wealth in one’s life­time — but maybe, as Qin must have thought, you can take them.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

One of World’s Old­est Books Print­ed in Mul­ti-Col­or Now Opened & Dig­i­tized for the First Time

How Ancient Greek Stat­ues Real­ly Looked: Research Reveals Their Bold, Bright Col­ors and Pat­terns

Roman Stat­ues Weren’t White; They Were Once Paint­ed in Vivid, Bright Col­ors

What Ancient Chi­nese Phi­los­o­phy Can Teach Us About Liv­ing the Good Life Today: Lessons from Harvard’s Pop­u­lar Pro­fes­sor, Michael Puett

3D Scans of 7,500 Famous Sculp­tures, Stat­ues & Art­works: Down­load & 3D Print Rodin’s Thinker, Michelangelo’s David & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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