Inside the first Chinese emperor’s underground kingdom

Around 8,000 terracotta warriors were created to guard the burial place of China’s first emperor. Among them was this armoured infantryman. The finished sculpture was painted and traces of the original red can still be seen. (Image: Mr Ziyu Qiu)

Creating the Terracotta Army was an extraordinary achievement. Around 8,000 life-size ceramic men and horses were created in battle formation to protect the burial place of China’s first emperor. But what can modern technology reveal about these faithful soldiers? As a cadre of the figures go on display at Liverpool’s World Museum, Xiuzhen (Janice) Li revealed to Matthew Symonds some of the secrets they took to the grave.

Ying Zheng was clearly a man who knew how to hedge his bets. When he became king at the age of 13, it placed him at the head of the Qin, one of numerous warring states vying for supremacy. By the time Ying Zheng died, just 36 years later, he had conquered and unified those states to become the first emperor of China, and renamed himself Qin Shi Huangdi. This extraordinary military achievement was matched by Zheng’s administrative zeal and willingness to harness the best talent available, regardless of an individual’s origins. But the creator of this earthly empire was driven by an even bolder aspiration: to defeat death itself.

A kneeling crossbowman. Today, the bows once held by the archers have completely disintegrated, while only the metal trigger mechanism survives from the crossbows. (Image: M Symonds)

Ancient texts document how Zheng sought to secure the elixir of life and so achieve immortality. As well as dispatching an expedition to search for a mythical island in the eastern ocean, the emperor engaged alchemists to brew potions that would lengthen his lifespan. Ironically, these concoctions were laced with mercury, the toxic properties of which probably hastened Zheng’s death. But despite his quest for eternal life, the emperor had an ace up his sleeve in case immortality eluded him: the largest mausoleum ever constructed. There, within an underground empire, Zheng was guarded by an army that has kept watch for over 2,000 years: his terracotta warriors.

These sentinels, with their hauntingly impassive faces, were only one component of a burial complex that is believed to cover a staggering 56km². Of this, the three pits containing warriors only amount to a modest 0.02km² of the total. At the heart of the funerary monument lay Zheng’s coffin chamber, ringed by a set of inner and outer walls that created a subterranean version of a city’s defences. Indeed, the complex consciously evokes the nearby capital of the Qin empire at Xianyang. Just as the living city provided the emperor with the perfect backdrop to flaunt his status, so too his funerary complex was a study in splendour.

The warriors themselves lie beyond the outer mausoleum walls, facing a mountain pass to the east through which the emperor feared his enemies among the conquered states would attack. While the modern world has become captivated by this army, Zheng was probably more interested in the delights on offer within the funerary precinct. Underground palaces and offices once stood in this space, while further pits held terracotta figures that could entertain the emperor’s spirit with feats of acrobatics or wrestling. Not all of the emperor’s companions from life were present as imitations, though, and the excavation of 19 of 99 tombs near his burial mound revealed that they uniformly contained female skeletons. The simplest explanation is that Zheng’s concubines were entombed with him. Elsewhere, pits and even coffins contained the remains of real horses, while to the west of the walls lie tombs for what appear to be the workers who constructed Zheng’s edifice. Taken in its entirety, this empire for the dead can reveal much about the world of the living.

Ritual vessels like this cocoon-shaped potter jar from the Warring States period (475-221 BC) usually held wine. (Image: M Symonds)

Splendour and sacrifice

The arrival of a selection of the warriors at the World Museum in Liverpool provides an opportunity to admire these breathtaking sculptures close up, and also place them within the wider story of Chinese burial traditions. ‘The first emperor’s tomb was a big step forward from the previous dynasties’, says Dr Xiuzhen Li, Senior Archaeologist in the Department of Archaeology at Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoelum Site Museum. ‘Before that, the kings of the Seven Warring States did not build such largescale mausoleum complexes. You also don’t see such realistic sculptures, nor the mass of other materials that were buried with the first emperor. But while the Qin empire brought together so many special elements, there was already a long-standing tradition of equipping the dead with the goods that would fulfil their needs in the afterlife.’

A desire to ensure that the deceased carried the luxuries they enjoyed in life to the hereafter is already apparent in parts of the region that would become China far back into the 2nd millennium BC. One of the most celebrated features of the custom occurs in the valley of the Yellow River, where bronze cups with monstrous faces peering out from a maze of ornate decoration were deposited in some graves. In return for such largesse, the ancestors would send omens of the future, transmitted via the pattern of cracks that formed when bones favoured by oracles were exposed to fire.

One tomb foreshadowing that of the Qin emperor received the remains of Duke Jing of the Qin in the 6th century BC. This complex was 300m long, and at its centre lay a structure arranged like a house for the living. Despite the depredations of tomb robbers, thousands of objects remained to be found by archaeologists. The duke’s demise took a terrible toll on the living, though, with 166 people having been buried – seemingly alive – within his funerary complex. Burial rites continued to evolve as the seven rival powers struggled for supremacy during the Warring States period, from 475 to 221 BC. Although the quality of ritual bronze vessels declined, the range of goods represented grew more diverse. One feature of this was the widespread popularity of ceramic or wooden figurines, which probably offered a humane substitute for sacrificing real people to serve the deceased in the afterlife.

A recent study of the terracotta warriors created 3D models of their ears. Comparison on these revealed that they were all unique sculptures and that no two sets of facial features – such as those of this mid-ranking officer – are identical. (Image: M Symonds)

Ears of clay

It probably came as a relief to the soldiers in Ying Zheng’s army that the practice of using figurines in lieu of sacrifices was firmly established by the time of the emperor’s death, even if his concubines were not so fortunate. But while the cost in human lives was not as severe when clay figures were used, fashioning the life-size sculptures making up the army of figurines was far from being an easy option. The raw materials, manpower, industrial facilities, and artistic talent monopolised by the project are mind-boggling. It used to be widely believed that some corners were cut by adopting a production-line approach, resulting in individual warriors being assembled like Frankenstein’s creature from pre-prepared limbs and body parts. Modern technology, though, has revealed that the task of fabricating these figures was far more laborious.

‘Recent Sino-British cooperative research shows that the individual terracotta warriors display more unique characteristics than we had realised’, says Xiuzhen Li. ‘It’s not like they have come from several moulds and then been pieced together. We have been creating 3D images of the ears, which on humans are almost like fingerprints because they are so particular to individuals. We can thus compare them, with the idea being to find out whether they have come from moulds, or whether they are individual creations. It turned out that they are unique sculptures. This is also true of the terracotta warriors’ facial characteristics in general. In the past we found some faces that look so similar we called them twins, but when you create a 3D model and compare them in detail it turns out they are not the same. There are enough differences that we can be confident they weren’t made in the same mould. All of the warriors were individually sculpted, and that’s fascinating.’

This is an extract from the full article in featured in issue 88 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.


Further information
The exhibition China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors will run at Liverpool’s World Museum until 28 October 2018. Tickets are £14.50 for adults, £5.50 for children aged 6-17, and free for children under five. To book, and find other concessions, go to www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/terracottawarriors.

The exhibition catalogue provides a fascinating account of life and death from the Neolithic through to the Han Dynasty: China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors by J C S Lin and X Li is published by National Museums Liverpool (ISBN 978-1902700595, £19.99).