The Terracotta Army
of Xi’an

Ian Robert Knight
Travel Photographer, Canada

If you asked ten random people to list the attractions they know about in China, I bet at least eight of them would list the Terracotta Army of Xi’an. They may not know much more about the country, but they will know that. It’s certainly one of the most well-known and popular sites to visit in China – for both foreign and domestic tourists. Usually, I would be the person that would tell you to avoid visiting the place, because it’s so crowded, but I actually recommend that you make the time to see it.

The Terracotta Army of Xi’an site is one of the largest archeological excavations taking place in the world today. It was discovered quite by accident in 1974, when farmers were digging a well. Since then, thousands of statues have been unearthed and many more thousands are known to exist in the area. Archeologists are using remote-sensing technology, and discovering dozens more burial pits all over the area.

Soldiers in formation

Despite the fact that the dig sites are commercialized so the public can view everything, it’s still an ongoing dig. There are archeologists and paleontologists working on the site every day, year round. They are continuously finding more buried warriors, horses, and other military figures all the time. The entire excavation process could take many more decades.

It is understood that the thousands of soldiers were buried to protect the emperor in the afterlife.

It is understood that the thousands of soldiers were buried to protect the emperor in the afterlife. That emperor was Qin Shi Huang Di, who was declared the first emperor of what was to become China, in 246 BC. If you understand that the name ‘Qin’ is pronounced ‘Chin’, you can quickly surmise how the name China and Chinese came to be.

I’m a standard Image Caption.

There is a massive burial mound for Qin himself, clearly visible for hundreds of kilometers. It is built similar to a pyramid like those in Egypt and Mexico, and is 98 square kilometers in size. The difference is that Qin’s pyramid remains covered with vegetation and has not been excavated. It will remain intact for the foreseeable future, since high-levels of mercury have been detected at the site. This was foretold by historians that described the interior of the pyramid to have ‘rivers of mercury’ flowing through them.

The portions of the site that are open to the public include three large ‘pits’, cleverly named Pit 1, Pit 2 and Pit 3. The largest of the pits is the first one, and it contains several hundred intact statues and horses. There are rows and rows of soldiers standing in formation, looking like they are prepared for battle. When they were originally created more than 2 millennia ago, they were painted in traditional military colors. Today most of that color is gone, and the statues are bland and earth-toned.

Is there European Influence?

Archeologists are still debating the origin of the sculptures style. The design of the warriors and horses don’t look anything like the statuary created during the same time period in China. It’s now thought that there was significant influence from Greek artisans who where brought to northern China to teach locals on the fine art of sculpting. DNA evidence found near the site includes European genetic codes, so this idea doesn’t seem unlikely. If this were true, it would mean Greek artisans had been in China more than a thousand years ahead of Marco Polo.

Overall, this is a fascinating place to visit. As a photographer, it’s a bit disappointing, since it’s really challenging to get great images in the site. But from a historical point of view, it’s definitely worth your time. Getting to the site takes about an hour by car from Xi’an city, and entrance to the site costs about $22 USD. Pro tip: don’t give in to the pressure to buy souvenirs at the shops near the dig sites – you’ll get better prices in the main city.

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Ian Robert Knight Photography

Ian is a professional photographer, specializing in travel editorial and street photography. Find out more about Ian's background and experiences in the bio page here.

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