In the spring of 1974, farmers in Shaanxi Province, China were digging a new well when they struck a hard object. It turned out to be part of a terracotta soldier.
Soon, Chinese archaeologists realized that the entire area outside of the city of Xian (formerly Chang an) was underlain by an enormous necropolis; an army, complete with horses, chariots, officers and infantry, as well as a court, all made of terracotta. The farmers had discovered one of the world's greatest archaeological wonders - the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi.
What was the purpose of this magnificent army? Why did Qin Shi Huangdi, who was obsessed with immortality, make such elaborate arrangements for his burial?
Qin Shi Huangdi was buried with the terracotta army and court because he wanted to have the same military power and imperial status in the afterlife as he had enjoyed during his earthly lifetime. The first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, he unified much of modern-day northern and central China under his rule, which lasted from 246 to 210 BCE. Such an accomplishment would be difficult to replicate in the next life without a proper army - hence the 10,000 clay soldiers with weapons, horses and chariots.
The great Chinese historian Sima Qian (145-90 BCE) reports that construction of the burial mound began as soon as Qin Shi Huangdi ascended the throne, and involved hundreds of thousands of artisans and laborers. Perhaps because the emperor ruled for more than three decades, his tomb grew to be one of the largest and most complex ever built.
According to surviving records, Qin Shi Huangdi was a cruel and ruthless ruler. A proponent of legalism, he had Confucian scholars stoned to death or buried alive because he disagreed with their philosophy.
However, the terracotta army is actually a merciful alternative to earlier traditions both in China and in other ancient cultures. Often, early rulers from the Shang and Zhou Dynasties had soldiers, officials, concubines and other attendants buried along with the dead emperor. Sometimes the sacrificial victims were killed first; even more horrifically, they were often entombed alive.
Either Qin Shi huangdi himself or his advisors decided to substitute the intricately-made terracotta figures for actual human sacrifices, saving the lives of more than 10,000 men plus hundreds of horses. Each life-sized terracotta soldier is modeled on an actual person - they have distinct facial features and hairstyles.
The officers are depicted as being taller than the foot soldiers, with the generals tallest of all. Although higher-status families may have had better nutrition than lower-class ones, it is probable that this is symbolism rather than a reflection of every officer actually being taller than all of the regular troops.
Shortly after Qin Shi Huangdi's death in 210 BCE, his son's rival for the throne, Xiang Yu, may have looted the weapons of the terracotta army, and burned the support timbers. In any case, the timbers were burned and the section of the tomb containing the clay troops collapsed, smashing the figures to pieces. Approximately 1,000 of the 10,000 total have been put back together.
Qin Shi Huangdi himself is buried under an enormous pyramid-shaped mound that stands some distance from the excavated sections of the burial. According to ancient historian Sima Qian, the central tomb contains treasures and wondrous objects, including flowing rivers of pure mercury (which was associated with immortality). Soil testing nearby has revealed elevated levels of mercury, so there may be some truth to this legend.
Legend also records that the central tomb is booby-trapped to fend off looters, and that the emperor himself placed a powerful curse on any who dared to invade his final resting place. Mercury vapor may be the real danger, but in any case, the government of China has been in no great hurry to excavate the central tomb itself. Perhaps it is best not to disturb China's infamous First Emperor.