What Is the Terracotta Army?

The Terracotta Army is an ancient underground army of warriors built to accompany China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang into the afterlife.

Nov 18, 2022By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

what is terracotta army ancient china


The Terracotta Army is a burial tomb from ancient China. Discovered in 1974, the underground tomb was once the burial ground for China’s first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. It features around 8,000 Terracotta warriors, horses and chariots. They were all built to accompany the great leader on his perilous journey into the afterlife. Today the tomb is a renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site that holds secrets about Chinese history. We take a look through some of the most fascinating facts surrounding this stirring emblem of ancient China.


1. Farmers Discovered the Terracotta Army in 1974

terracotta army fragments
Broken fragments from the Terracotta Army.


Local farmers in Xiyang Village discovered the ancient burial tomb on their land in Lishan Town in Lintong County, while digging deep into the ground to create an underground well. Initially they discovered some broken pieces of pottery, followed by several shattered, life-sized terracotta warriors. They notified the government, who sent out an archaeological team to investigate further.


terracotta army close up detail
The Terracotta Army in China, photographed by Kevin Poh

What the researchers found was nothing short of miraculous – an underground army made up of thousands of warriors, which had remained relatively untouched for around 2,000 years. 


2. The Terracotta Army is Over 2,000 Years Old

emperor qin tomb china
The Terracotta Army today, covered in protective roofing and open to viewers from the balcony.

Incredibly, the Terracotta Army is one of the oldest surviving tombs in the world, at nearly 2,000 years old. Emperor Qin Shi Huang began the construction of his burial tomb when he was just 13 years old, following his ascent to the throne, as a monument to celebrate the contribution he hoped to make within Chinese history. Because of its age, the tomb is a source of fascination for historians, revealing deep insight into the culture, beliefs, military, arts and culture of the Qin Dynasty

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3. The Entire Terracotta Army Took 39 Years to Build

terracotta army warriors detail
Close up detail showing the detailed craftsmanship on each warrior.


Archaeologists believe the Chinese government employed some 700,000 highly skilled laborers to create the Terracotta Army. This vast workforce carried out the extensive work over a period of around 40 years. Sadly, researchers believe the epic team involved in the creation of this huge army were buried within the tomb, in order to keep the details of the mausoleum a secret to the outside world.


4. Each Warrior Is Around 2 Meters Tall


Each figure in the Terracotta Army is around 2 meters tall. However, the heights of different figures vary slightly, with generals the tallest, and the lower ranking soldiers somewhat smaller in stature.


5. Craftsmen Made the Warriors from Local Clay

chinese emperor qin tomb warriors face details
Detailed faces on the soldiers of the Terracotta Army.


The soldiers were made from local earth mixed with Quartz sand. Archaeologists believe the laborers made the individual soldiers using around 8 different molds to create certain different body types and physiques. But incredibly, each figure was given its own unique, distinguishing facial features, meaning no two figures are the same. These models were fired in a kiln to create the strong structures that have survived for 2,000 years. 


6. Originally, the Army Was Colorful

replica models terracotta army soldiers
Coloured replicas showing how the Terracotta Army might once have looked.


While the monumental army is a sea of terracotta browns today, research suggests in their day they would once have been painted with brightly colored lacquer to give them a truly lifelike appearance. Around 40,000 ancient weapons have also been excavated from the tomb, which would once have been held by the army, including axes, spears, crossbows and arrowheads. 


7. No one Knows What’s Inside the Emperor’s Private Tomb


The private tomb of Emperor Qin remains unopened, so no one really knows what it contains inside. This is because archaeologists are deeply concerned about the preservation of the remains inside. They are also worried that the tomb might have a dangerous booby trap inside. However, ancient writings describe how it once contained miniature palaces, pavilions and offices. Given the care, detail and attention the Chinese took in creating the army, we can only imagine what revered treasures might be lurking within the tomb.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.