By Debi Lander

In 1974, two peasant farmers digging a well in their field discovered one of the top ten archeological sites of all time. The remarkable story has fascinated me for over 40 years, and I recently went to Xi’an, China to see the Army of Terracotta Warriors for myself.

The Terracotta Army is a collection of life-sized clay sculptures depicting the soldiers of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. No two look alike and researchers believe the contingent to be 8,000 strong with accompanying horses and chariots. The army was buried with the emperor in 210 BC, to protect him in his afterlife. Recent studies using ground-penetrating radar suggest the army is just part of an extraordinary necropolis, approximately 38 square miles, of which only a small portion has been uncovered.

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The tombs lie about an hour’s drive from Xi’an, in Shaanxi Province, China’s central region. Many hotels and tour groups arrange visits to the UNESCO World Heritage site.

After arriving, I first explored the Mausoleum Museum. Its treasures include two intricate bronze chariots, each with four horses and charioteer found near the terracotta soldiers’ underground pits. The bronzes are half life-sized and clearly detail the clothing, mechanics, and horsemanship of the ancient world. The museum also gives visitors a 360-degree close-up view of various ranking terracotta soldiers and their bronze weapons.

I was anxious and fidgety, however, as I’d come thousands of miles to view the army of soldiers. “Not so fast,” said my guide. He headed us toward Pit 3, site of ongoing excavations and saved the best for last — the immense Pit 1. He was right! Staring into Pit 3, I looked down into deep earthen rows containing broken fragments. Unfortunately, time, water and land shifts caused the sculptures to topple and break. The complexity of brushing away layers of dirt, carefully extracting pieces, and finally reconstructing the soldiers is painfully slow. International teams of researchers have come to assist.

Pit 2, although small, displays all the types of terracotta warriors found so far, including infantries, cavalries, chariot warriors, and archers arranged in formations.

Pit 1 simply takes your breath away. The size of the Quonset hut-like building itself overwhelms; the behemoth enclosure could fit two of the largest jumbo jets. The warriors stand tall, each five to six feet tall weighing between 300 and 400 pounds. Legs and feet form a solid base, but the rest of each figure is hollow. Torsos, arms, hands, and heads were molded separately then attached, with final details added later. Apparently, each warrior has its artist’s name etched into its foot to make sure the work met standards.

Squadrons of soldiers, divided by solid partitions, stand ready to march or mount their nearby horses, also made of clay. The assemblage feels both creepy and awe-inspiringly magnificent. The realistic faces, especially their eyes, project piercing looks. Glance away, and the army might start advancing at any moment.

Originally each figure was painted, but once the terracotta fragments are exposed to oxygen, the paint begins to decompose and flake off. For this reason, future work has stalled.

Intrigued by this massive project, I learned that more than 700,000 people were enslaved for the 36 – 38 years it took to build the Emperor’s self-indulgent tomb. Even worse, upon his death, the grave was covered over, and the workers killed to keep anyone from revealing the location. Some, including numerous concubines, were buried alive. All was left undisturbed for centuries while the warriors silently kept guard for the Emperor in his afterlife.

Now it’s your turn to see how this extraordinary place has come back to life.

Visit to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.


Photo courtesy Debi Lander

Facing the Terracotta Army in Pit 1.


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