You can’t even begin to imagine the feeling that a local group of peasants felt, that day in 1974 when they began drilling for a well, just outside of Xi’an. Drilling came to a halt as they uncovered an underground vault, containing shattered pieces of terracotta. As they explored further and deeper, the vault and the areas surrounding the site yielded whats now known as one of the most famous archaeological finds in the world, and often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World – the Army of Terracotta Warriors.
The Army of Terracotta Warriors are an example of funerary art – that is, a form of artwork that is placed in a repository for remains of the dead. In this case, the art was created for the first emperor of China – Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Two theories exist for the presence of the Army – one is that Emperor Qin Shi Huang was either fearful of what awaited him in the afterlife, and therefore the Army was created for protection. The second is that Emperor Qin Shi Huang expected to continue ruling in death as he did in life – and wanted to take his Army with him.
Either way, the Army of Terracotta Warriors provides glimpses into an ancient history that prior to 1974 – archaeologists knew so little about. Restoration work has been taking place for over 40 years, however has recently been halted until new technologies in excavation are developed. The Warriors themselves were once brightly painted, however the lacquer still present on many figures has flaked and faded once exposed to the dry air of Xi’an. This is why the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang is yet to be opened, to preserve the artefacts inside.
The Army of Terracotta Warriors Museum is located about an hour outside of Xi’an. You can easily reach this by bus – tourist buses are located in the eastern car park of Xi’an Train Station, just outside of the north city walls. As one of Xi’an’s premiere attractions, buses run all day, every day!
The museum is made up of a number of exhibits showcasing the various artefacts discovered during the excavation. To experience them fully (and allowing time to battle the crowds!), you’ll need at least four hours.
A small museum to the right of the main entrance houses bilingual information and photography pertaining to the 1974 discovery of the archaeological site. Encased in a glass exhibit, a pair of bronze chariots complete with horses and soldiers is on display. The level of detail is astounding!
This is the smallest of the excavation pits on site, and its recommended to visit them smallest to largest to ensure the ‘wow’ factor!
This pit contains 72 warriors and horses – the majority of the figurines are high-ranking offices. This pit is particularly enjoyable as the proximity to the warriors is quite close – you can see quite a number of details from the barriers surrounding the pit.
To be totally honest, this pit was somewhat underwhelming. Despite its huge size and that it held around 1300 warriors and horses, the majority of the figures were only partly excavated and you couldn’t make out what a lot of them were. The barriers were also quite high in this pit, so there was quite a distance between yourself and the artefacts below – again, making it hard to see anything.
What WAS of note in this part of the museum though was the five individual warriors encased in glass exhibits that you could inspect up close – a kneeling archer, a standing archer, a cavalry man with his horse, a mid-ranking officer and a general. This is where you can see for yourself all those details that make the Army of Terracotta Warriors so unique – including the fact that every single one has a different face. It is thought that they were likely modelled after Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s real life army – every nose, mouth, chin, brow, ears are different – phenomenal considering that around 8000 warriors have been discovered.
Also located in Pit 2 is a rather cheesey tourist photo op – a recreated pit with a number of kneeling and standing warriors which you can pose with for a fee!
Save this one for last! Pit 1 is the largest of the excavation sites in the museum and is absolutely incredible. Housed inside a building not dissimilar to an aircraft hanger, Pit 1 houses around 2000 warriors – standing in line, facing east, ready for battle. The sight is phenomenal.
It’s the busiest of all the sights at the museum, and it may take some time (and a bit of a jostle) to get a prime position at the front of the barriers – but stick it out – the sight is worth it.
Towards the rear of the exhibit, are a number of warriors still in restoration stage, with displays detailing the process – this is all in Chinese, however its quite easy to understand. It’s fascinating, painstaking work – be sure to make your way around the entire pit to view the impressive army from all angles!!
- How do I get to the Army of Terracotta Warriors Museum?
The cheapest way to reach the museum is by bus. You can find the bus station in the eastern carpark of the Xi’an Railway Station. Take bus number 5 (306) – there is a sign on the footpath, however you should be able to find it easily enough as there is always a long queue! The bus costs 7 RMB per person, and takes about an hour to the museum. On arrival, the museum is about a 15 minute walk through various shops and carparks from the station – follow the signs.