A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Exclusive photographs of China's most recently discovered terra-cotta army, found at a vast tomb site south of Beijing
Hundreds of foot-tall terra-cotta warriors, along with horses and chariots, have been discovered in four burial pits at a Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) tomb complex some three hundred miles south of Beijing. The ongoing discovery of additional figure-bearing pits has led experts to believe the site may cover as much as ten thousand square feet and hold thousands of figurines.
The size of the tomb complex and the presence of "warrior pits," a rarity in China, suggest that this is the tomb of a Han nobleman or relative of a Han ruler. Previous warrior-pit discoveries include 7,000 life-size figures found at the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, in 1974, and 40,000 figurines in the tomb of the later Emperor Jingdi and Empress Wang 157-141 B.C.), excavated in 1990.
Villagers from Sheng-jing made the discovery accidentally while planting trees on the outskirts of town near Weishan Mountain. A team of archaeologists now faces the daunting task of excavating a site that keeps getting bigger as more and more pits are discovered. For the moment they work against the cold and the clock to conserve hundreds of the 2,000-year-old figures before their colorful painted decoration is lost. They also confront the puzzle of an associated tomb containing gilded bronze crossbows, hundreds of arrows, and several rare stone reliefs. Although archaeologists did find a coffin with a body in the tomb, they do not think these are the remains of the tomb complex's owner; this has yet to be found.
The Weishan terra-cotta army, as it is now known, is important because the pattern of its organization--cavalrymen followed by chariots and infantrymen--is the first archaeological evidence for a typical Han Dynasty battle formation. Cui Dayong, vice director of the Jinan Municipal Bureau of Cutural Relics, notes that "the formation of the warriors and horses agrees with what we know of how Han nobleman went out with their troops. Before now, such a formation could only be studied in Han paintings and writings. It is the first time we were able to dig out the real artifacts shown in such scenes."
Some experts believe the figures are a kind of honor guard, not warriors. Han Dynasty funeral practice was strict and specified that only generals could be buried with warriors and horses. The question will not be resolved until the owner of the tomb complex is identified. Meanwhile, as work continues at the site, the figurines are being taken to the nearby Jinan Museum for conservation and restoration. Eventually a local museum will be built to house and display the finds.
Jarrett A. Lobell is photo editor and production manager of ARCHAEOLOGY.