In 1974, a couple of farm workers digging a well in the fields outside Xi'an uncovered the limb of a terracotta figure. What they didn’t know then, and which only became apparent after years of careful excavation, was that the statue formed part of an army of more than 8,000 soldiers, horses and chariots buried below ground in three huge pits, each the size of several football pitches.
The discovery ranked among the most sensational archaeological finds of all time. Until you set eyes on the subterranean legion, lined up in long trenches now protected by giant hangers, it’s hard to comprehend the scale of the project. Yet the long-buried army is only one part of a much larger ensemble that includes a colossal, man-made mound – still unexcavated, and thought to hold the actual tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, who reigned in the second century BC.
Apart from the bewildering size of the site, what most impresses about the Terracotta Army is how unnervingly lifelike the figures are. Each one has its own distinct facial expression, posture, hairstyle, clothing and weapons, preserved in amazing detail.
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