The 29th of March 1974 was just a regular Friday for Yang Xi-An and his four older brothers. They were digging a series of wells in search of water on their farmland east of Xi’an, when they unearthed a soldier’s head crafted from pottery. Unaware of its significance, they bundled it into a basket and brought it to Xi’an market to sell. For three days customers passed by, uninterested, until a policeman noticed the delicately carved piece.
The brothers relayed their story to the officer, who reported the find to local and central government. Within a matter of weeks, over 300 excavators descended on the provincial area. Completely by chance, the brothers had uncovered one of the most significant archaeological finds in history: a subterranean vault containing over 8,000 life-sized infantrymen, generals, archers and horses created to guard China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di, in the afterlife.
Now 71 years old, Yang Xi-An’s life has changed beyond all recognition. The farmland of his youth is covered in hectares of concrete, ticketing machines and golf carts ferrying visitors to the three pits that have been opened for public viewing. I find him sitting in the gift shop, signing copies of the museum guide. “What do you think of all the changes?” I ask, him via our translator and guide Chris.
“It has made people’s lives better – here and across the whole of China,” he replies. But I notice the shop manager keeping a careful eye on us and sense his answer has been pre-approved and rehearsed. I shake his hand in thanks and walk towards Pit 1, the grandest of them all and so impressive it was praised as the Eighth Wonder of the World by French President Jacques Chirac when he visited in 1978.
Rising above the clamour of the crowds is the whiff of damp earth. I push myself through the human fence of selfie sticks and gaze down. My breath catches in my throat. The din seems to quieten as my stare is matched by thousands of pairs of stony-faced glares. Beneath the arched wrought-iron roof echelons of soldiers stretch in battle formation: charioteers grasping for reigns that have long since withered, archers kneeling with empty curled fingers and infantrymen clasping in vain for their bronze swords. Long-legged horses – the first trade the Huns made on the Silk Road in favour of their squat ponies – stand patiently waiting for a charge that’ll never come. The details are staggering: top knots, plaited hair, armour, belts and moustaches. Indeed, no two men are alike.
“Do you want to survive, or be buried with me?” Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di would tease. “I want to survive,” came the stammering reply from each soldier. So the emperor brought in a sketch artist to capture each man’s likeness. These and the hands were handcrafted and then attached to a generic body made in a mould. It took 700,000 men 38 years to complete.
Of course, the excavators didn’t find them like this. Four years after the emperor’s death, the pits were looted and burned by Xiang Yu, a contender for the throne. The earth, wooden-beams and fibre-matting roof crashed down, shattering the warriors, and for over 2,200 years they lay in bits. Just a handful survived intact. The rest have been painstakingly reconstructed using sticky rice extract and quicklime.
“A curator told me that it would take 400 years to rebuild all the men and horses found here. Each piece takes three months,” says Chris.
Originally, painted in bright pigments of cinnabar (red), charcoal (black), burned bones (white) and malachite (green), the soldiers were stripped back to their terracotta base when the egg-paste lacquer dried and flaked off after the tombs were opened. X-ray imaging has revealed there to be around 600 pits in total, which will remain closed. I try to picture those soldiers sentenced to stand guard for eternity.
We weave through hoards of grandmothers plying baskets of pomegranates and persimmons toward the exit and, driving back toward Xi’an, pass a small green hill on the horizon. Known as Mount Li, it’s the site of the emperor’s tomb. Untold riches are still sealed inside — along with the 75 concubines and tomb workers who were buried alive with Shi Huang to keep its location secret.
Who knows, perhaps in another 2,000 years a farmer will stumble upon its treasure?