An Army of Thousands Stands Guard for Eternity
One of the more qualified contenders for the Eighth Wonder of the World (and regarded by many as the most sensational archaeological discovery of the 20th century), Xi’an’s army of 2,200-year-old terra-cotta soldiers is one of China’s supreme cultural treasures, a life-size funereal honor guard standing in ranks near the tomb of Emperor Ch’in Shih Huang-ti, who died in 210 B.C.
The soldiers were first discovered in 1974 by a local peasant who was digging a well, and so far three vaults have been excavated, the first alone containing more than 6,000 soldiers and horses arranged in an imposing formation of 38 columns, 16 feet deep. They have been left in situ; a protective hangar constructed over them now comprises the Museum of Qin Pottery Figures.
The second vault contains an additional 1,000 soldiers and 500 horses, while the highlight of the third is an elaborately detailed war chariot. Every soldier, varying from 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet 2 inches, differs in facial features and expressions. Most carry actual weapons of the day, and originally were painted.
Xi’an, the current capital of Shaanxi Province, was the homeland of eleven dynasties, including the powerful Qin, the first dynasty to rule over all eastern China. It was the easternmost city on the fabled Silk Road, which first linked East and West in the 2nd century B.C., providing a route for merchant caravans traveling between the route’s remote kingdoms, exotic cities, and trading outposts.
The resulting exchange of precious cargo, philosophy, religions, and technology transformed every culture along its route, to the doorstep of Europe and beyond.