One of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time is the Terracotta Warriors, a literal army of 7,000 life-size soldier and horse funerary statues buried in pits near the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of a unified China. While putting together such a massive burial truly took the resources of an emperor, the idea of being buried with an army must have sounded pretty cool to other blue bloods—as Owen Jarus at LiveScience reports, a miniature terracotta army was recently discovered in China, likely belonging to the tomb of a lesser royal.
According to the report, recently translated into English in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics, the mini-warriors were found at Shanwing Village in the Linzi District of Zibo City, in Shandong Province. Construction in 2007 unearthed five Han-era tombs, including the pit, which is actually two vertical pits. In total, it contains 500 figurines, including horses, humans, weapons, musical instruments, wild and domesticated animals. It also has watchtowers, gates, buildings, granaries, stoves, and other architectural pieces populating the pit, including a theatrical pavilion.
The approximately 300 figures of infantry soldiers, which stand about 11 inches tall, are laid out in a square formation, with the armored figures standing and crouching in a left or right-handed position. The 49 cavalry figurines, who wear helmets, body armor and pibo-shoulder armor, and are accompanied by horses and five vehicles, are as small as 5 inches. Meanwhile, the pottery watchtowers, which are depicted as two-story pavilions, stretch 55 inches in height. The scene is laid out to resemble the compound of a well-to-do noble or government official.
So where did the figures come from? The researchers from the cultural relics agencies who examined them believe the clothing and armor styles on the figures date them to the Western Han Dynasty around 2,100 years ago. That means they were produced approximately 100 years after the full-size Terracotta Warriors. It’s likely they were constructed for a tomb that was either destroyed or covered over by urban development. According to the paper, aerial photos taken by the Japanese military in 1938 and local stories suggest there used to be two purported burial mounds in the vicinity of the pit that were flattened during the construction of a railway that may have been associated with the mini-warriors.
Without excavating the associated burial, it’s difficult to say who the figures were created for, but the layout of the figures and the fact that they depict an army and high-class lifestyle suggests it was to commemorate a member of the royal family or other high-status person. One possibility is Liu Hong, a son of emperor Wu, who lived in the area during the right time period and died young.
This is not the only pit full of figurines found from the time period. Similar mini-armies have been found accompanying the burials of emperors, senior government ministers and princes dating from the same era.
The craftmanship is interesting in and of itself, but it also served a purpose. As the Victoria and Albert Museum details, during the centuries before the Terracotta Warriors were created, real servants were often buried with Chinese nobles. In one Shang-era (1600-1046 B.C.) grave, more than 350 human sacrifices were buried along with the ruler. By the Han era (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), however, those human sacrifices were replaced with figurines that represented attendants, servants, entertainers, guards and warriors that accompanied the noble into the afterlife, which is when this miniature terracotta army was made. Come 900 A.D., such figurines were starting to become mass produced, opening up the opportunity for more citizens of lower ranks and wealth to also be able to share their final resting places with the company of a few terracotta servants.