The First Emperor of China ordered the Terracotta Army to protect him in the afterlife, unlike earlier rulers who had their entire court put to death to serve them.
Xiang Chen works at the Xi’an archaeological site as a restorer. He explains that Qin Shi Huang hoped to continue his reign once he was dead and did not skimp on resources. The site sprawls over a vast area, with the buried army revealed in a series of pits covered with new roofs to protect them from the elements. The first I visit has a collection of more than 1,300 pieces, horses and horsemen. Besides the awesome scale, I delight in being able to see five figures close up: a pair of archers, a soldier with his horse and two officers of differing rank.
The sculptures are perfect in every detail, as well as each being recognizably different individuals. Their sense of life leaps across the centuries. What battles did they fight, what adventures did they have, what loves lost and found?
A second pit nearby contains only 72 figures, mostly generals and other senior officers, the headquarters staff. But most exciting of all is the final pit, which has a staggering 6,000 figures of warriors, chariots and horses arranged in battle formation. Archers screen the flanks, while crossbowmen add their firepower to the shock troops of the heavy chariots, each pulled by four horses. All the figures are sculpted in life-size terracotta, although the bright paint they were covered in has faded through the passage of time.
Something not found so far are helmets or shields, although both were common in the armies of the time. “Perhaps their absence was designed to highlight the value of the warriors, or perhaps it was more of a marching army than one in battle formation,” says Chen. “No one knows for sure.”