On 29 March 1974, a group of farmers who were digging a water well just outside the city of Xi’an found about two meters deep a terracotta soldier the size of a real man, who seemed ready to fight, along with arrowheads and spears.
That statue was the first of thousands of others, an entire army, a faithful replica of the army that had allowed the great conqueror Qin Shi Huang to unify China.
Until then it was thought that his mausoleum was lost forever, but the unexpected discovery of the terracotta army, one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the world, allowed to shed light on an important aspect of Chinese history and art.
Whole platoons of life-size clay soldiers had the task of accompanying in the afterlife Qin Shi Huang (259 BC – 210 BC) himself, the first ruler of China to boast the title of “Emperor” because he unified the country, which was initially divided into several kingdoms.
Ying Zheng ascended the throne when he was only 13 years old. When he managed to unify various kingdoms, in 221 BC, he took the name of Qin Shi Huangdi, which means “first emperor of the Qin dynasty”. It was he who began the first construction of what would later become the Great Wall, as he proceeded to unify many administrative aspects (currency, weights, measures) of the kingdom, without ever neglecting the military strength of his army.
According to Sima Qian, historian of the court of the subsequent dynasty, Qin Shi Huang was worried about his earthly burial shortly after he ascended the throne: thus, 700,000 people participated in the construction works of the mausoleum, which lasted almost 40 years, and which left the unfinished business, due to the riots that took place a year after the death of the emperor himself.
The mausoleum is structured like a real city, which follows the configuration of the imperial capital: an “Outer City” and an “Inner City”, and then several sepulchral complexes, intended to house the Terracotta Army and not only.
To date, the mausoleum has been excavated only in part: according to archaeologists, the number of clay soldiers could be about 8,000 figures, in addition to 130 wagons and 670 horses, although the exact total of the statues will probably never be discovered.
Each figure is a unique work of art, each with its uniform, facial expression and hairstyle. Although today all appear in the same shade of gray, the statues were originally colored, to make them as realistic as possible.
In addition to his army, the emperor also wanted company in the afterlife, as dancers, strongmen, musicians and acrobats, who seem joyful and vital as they perform their performances while the army soldiers are austere and martial.
Historian Sima Qian, who lived about a century after the emperor’s death, wrote that the first emperor was buried with palaces, towers, officials, valuable artifacts and wondrous objects. It seems that 100 rivers were simulated using mercury, flowing through bronze hills and mountains, while the fake vault of heaven was studded with pearls representing stars and planets.
When the emperor’s funeral rite ended, the mound was covered with earth, making it look like a hill on which trees and other vegetation were planted, to camouflage it.
To date, the remains of the emperor, who desired eternity, has not yet been disturbed: archaeologists have not opened the mound, and it seems that even the raiders of tombs have never dared to profane, in these 2000 years, the tomb of the great Qin Shi Huang.
The mausoleum will be opened, according to Chinese archeology experts, when you are sure not to damage the buildings below. The Chinese superintendency will therefore wait for the period in which the excavation technology will be sufficiently advanced to guarantee the conservation of the finds. An expectation that annoys history and archeology enthusiasts, but that could prove decisive for keeping the story of a mythical emperor intact.
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