In 1974, farmers digging a well in China’s Shaanxi province stumbled upon fragments of a life-size clay figure crafted in the shape of a battle-ready soldier. Subsequent excavations revealed a stunning, now-iconic archaeological discovery: an army of “terracotta warriors,” each rendered with unique traits some 2,000 years ago.
The clay army flanks the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, whose short but formidable reign lasted from 221 to 210 B.C. Archaeologists estimate that some 7,000 warriors, more than 2,000 of which have since been excavated, were interred alongside the emperor. Now, the state-run Xinhua news agency has announced the discovery of an additional 200 soldiers, as well as a large number of weapons, in the emperor’s tomb.
The finds were made over the course of the 10-year excavation of “No. 1 Pit,” the largest of three major pits containing the fascinating figures. (A fourth pit discovered during early digs turned out to be empty, suggesting the burial project was abandoned before it could be finished.)
Shen Maosheng, the researcher who headed the excavation, tells Xinhua that most of the newly discovered warriors were sculpted into one of two positions: either clutching pole weapons, with their right arms bent and fists partially clenched, or carrying bows, with their right arms hanging at ease. The figures were arranged in different positions within the pit based on their military tasks; details on their armor and clothing point to their rank. This individuality is one of the soldiers’ more remarkable qualities: All figures found thus far boast distinct expressions, hairstyles and physical features.
Archaeologists also discovered a trove of other relics, among them 12 clay horses, the remains of two chariots, colored shields, bronze swords, bows, weapons stored in boxes and traces of building sites.
The subterranean army was created at the behest of Qin Shi Huang shortly after his accession to the throne of the Qin state at age 13. He conquered the warring states that surrounded him, creating the first unified Chinese empire, and enacted a number of measures to centralize his administration and bolster infrastructure. 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 and built networks of roads and canals.
Qin Shi Huang is said to have been keenly interested in immortality. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, he embarked on a series of “imperial inspection tours” in part because he hoped to find magicians or alchemists who could provide him with an elixir of life. Although these efforts proved fruitless, the emperor likely aspired to continue his supremacy after death. His 20-square-mile funerary compound is “presumably a facsimile of the court that surrounded him during his lifetime,” wrote Arthur Lubow for Smithsonian magazine in 2009. The emperor’s mausoleum has not been opened due to preservation concerns and the possibility of booby traps, but ancient writings indicate it was “filled with models of palaces, pavilions and offices.” Experts think Qin Shi Huang’s sprawling array of terracotta warriors was meant to protect him in the afterlife.
An estimated 700,000 workers labored for three decades to build the elaborate burial complex—a mammoth project that came to a halt during uprisings after the emperor’s death. It took another two millennia for Qin Shi Huang’s underground empire to come to light, and as recent finds demonstrate, there are still many more wonders to discover.