Top Sites at the First Qin Emperor’s Tomb Complex

by janice on Mon, 09/21/2009 – 13:39

Senior Curator at the Museum of the Qin Terracotta Army and Heritage Key expert, Janice Li, gives us a list of her top sites at the First Emperor’s tomb site. Having conducted and led archaeological excavations at the site over the past 20 years, she knows the area like the back of her hand, and shares some insights into one of the most fascinating finds in recent decades!

Plan of the Xi'an First Emperor's Tomb Complex

1. Tomb Mound

The tomb mound of the First Emperor is located in the centre of his vast tomb complex. The artificial hill above the ground is pyramid shaped, enclosed by two sets of walls on a rectangular plan, however the mound has eroded over time. Current data of its height varies from 55-87 metres. Its base measures 350 by 345 metres. Beneath the First Emperor’s tomb site, is what is considered his burial chamber which is called the “underground palace”, and has not been excavated yet. We can have a glimpse from the an descriptions written by renowned Han-dynasty historian, Sima Qian:

Qin Masoleum Mountain. Image Credit - Jon Himoff.

“When the Emperor first came to the throne he began digging and shaping Mt. Li. Later, when he unified the empire, he had over 700,000 men from all over the empire transported to the spot. They dug down to the third layer of underground springs and poured in bronze to make the outer coffin. Palaces, scenic towers, and the hundred officials, as well as rare utensils and wonderful objects, were brought to fill up the tomb. Craftsmen were ordered to set up crossbows and arrows, rigged so that they would immediately shoot down anyone attempting to break in. Mercury was used to fashion the hundred rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, and the seas in such a way that they flowed. Above were set the heavenly bodies were, below, the features of the earth. ‘Man-fish’ oil was used for lamps, which were calculated to burn for a long time without going out.”

2. Three Pits of the Terracotta Warriors

The three pits of the terracotta warriors and horses is one of the most stunning archaeological finds of the 20th Century. They were discovered accidentally in 1974 when the local farmers were digging a well.

A Terracotta Warriors Pit. Image Credit - Noel.

Located 1.5 km east of the tomb mound, Pit 1 is the largest of the compound and contained mainly infantrymen, armoured officials and wooden carriages drawn by four horses each. Pit 2, twenty metres to the northeast of the
main pit, housed the cavalry with armoured cavalrymen standing in front their horses, war chariots drawn again by four horses each, and a group of archers and infantrymen. The much smaller pit 3 contained only one chariot at its centre, and 68 armoured figures. It may well have been designed as the headquarters of the army. In addition to these terracotta warriors, large quantity of functional bronze weapons were buried in the three pits.

The architecture of all three pits is essentially similar. Originally, the pits were dug and ramps were built on each side for workers and transport carriages to gain access in and out. The ground and wall surfaces were reinforced with thick layers of rammed earth to make them as hard as concrete. The floors of the corridors were paved with bricks. The walls were lined with wooden beams and posts. On the top of the ceiling beams, reed mats were spread out, followed by a layer of clay, to prevent water penetration. At last, the further layers of soil were heaped over the structure.

3. Pit of the Bronze Chariots and Horses

It is located 20 metres west of the First Emperor’s tomb mound. Two sets of half life-sized bronze chariots unearthed from the pit in 1980 provided clear pictures of the chariots during Qin period.

The two chariots were originally buried in a wooden chamber, however due to the wooden chamber rotting and collapsed top earth over 2,000 years, the chariots were broken into thousands of pieces. It took eight years of archaeological painstaking work to restore them to their original shape.

The Bronze Chariot. Image Credit - Marutina.

Both chariots and horses are cast from bronze with the details painted and embellished in gold and silver. Chariot 1 is 225cm long and 152 cm high. It was a leading chariot, driven by a standing charioteer wearing a long tunic with a jade pendant on his waist and armed with a sword. He is protected from the rain and sun by an canopy. Mounted on the left side of the chariot box is a crossbow, which he could fire against attackers. The chariot is pulled by four horses and details of the harnessing system can easily be discerned.

Chariot 2 is a fully enclosed carriage with the access point being from the rear door. The windows, fixed on each side and with small holes on them for ventilation, still can be opened and closed freely after 2,000 years. The driver in this chariot kneels and he is armed with a shorter sword that is tucked into his belt at his back. This chariot was large enough to sleep in and carry passengers, and may represent the chariot in which the First Emperor toured the country after his final victory.

The excavation of the three pits continues, and it is widely expected that there will be new discoveries in the future ongoing archaeological activities.

The two chariots were possibly created for the deceased emperor’s spirit to travel across his empire after his death.

4. Pit of the Acrobats

The Pit of the Acrobats was discovered in 1999 to the south-east of the tomb mound between the inner and outer walls of the tomb complex. It contains eleven life-sized terracotta acrobats, wrestlers and weight lifters. These figures are all bare-chested animated with mini-skirts. Some of them are very slim, while others have highly developed muscles and protruding stomachs. A massive bronze ritual food vessel, Ding, was found on top of the roof above these figures.

A major difference between these figures and those of the officials and warriors is the sense conveyed that they are actually moving. Their lifelike gestures and diverse bodies, ranging from very slender to heavy and muscular, are very different from the impassive uniform stance of the officials and the immobility of most of the warriors.

These figures were possibly created for the First Emperor’s entertainment in his afterlife.

5. Pit of Bronze Birds

The pit of bronze birds is F-shaped in plan, and is located 3 km to the north-east of the First Emperor’s tomb mound. It was the seventh archaeological discovery in the tomb complex in 2000, and hence it was named “K0007”. K is abrasive Keng in Chinese pinyin, which translates to mean “pit”.

Bronze birds from the Pit. Image Credits - kevsunblush.

The underground structure of the pit is a tunnel shaped lined with planks of wood and measures 925 square meters in size. On the bottom of the pit, there is imitated stream running from east to west. The wooden planks were paved as riverbanks, and the 46 bronze swans, cranes and wild geese are neatly distributed along this riverside. In fact, each bird is unique, even birds of the same species are slightly different to each other. Their necks are particularly noteworthy because they show the different gestures of the birds more clearly: some are bent and scavenging in water, while others are lying or crouching. One of the bronze cranes is even holding a little worm in its beak!

In the branch tunnel of the pit, another fifteen terracotta figures were unearthed. These figures were made with similar techniques to those of the terracotta warriors, acrobats and officials discovered before them. Despite the difference in posture, as some of them are kneeling while others are sitting on mat, they are all dressed in the same costume: a soft cloth cap; a long gown with the front closing from the right, which is tucked and tied with a leather waist strap; a hanging rectangular bag; long trousers; and plain socks.

What is the relation of these birds and these figures? More research still needs to be done in this area. Even though some experts interpreted as musicians, no specific musical instruments or traces were discovered with them in the pit.

6. Pits of Stables

Terracotta Warriors & Horse. Image Credit - veenhuis2003.

Several stable-like structures housed horses were discovered in the emperor’s tomb complex. The biggest site is near Shangjiao village, east of the first emperor’s tomb mound. It thought to be three to four hundred pits, each pit holding one horse skeleton or a kneeling stable boy or both. Some of the horses were buried alive, because from the archaeological traces one can tell that four holes had been dug in the pit before putting the horse’s four legs insides. Generally, a basin and a flask were prepared in front of the horse with millets and water inside. The terracotta stable boy, stood next to the horse, is just 68 cm in height, much smaller than the fully grown warriors.

These pits are represented to the imperial stables for the emperor’s afterlife.

7. Pit of Civil Officials

The pit of civil officials, located at south-west of the emperor’s tomb mound, was the sixth pit discovered in 2000, hence it being named “K0006”.

Twelve terracotta figures were unearthed from the pit with more than 10 horse skeletons. Eight figures have been identified as civil officials by their writing “tools”- a knife and grind stone, which hang from their belt. The knife was used for scraping off the mistakes made when writing on wood or bamboo slips, while the grindstone was for sharpening the knives. The other four are modelled with their arms outstretched. Various theories have been put forward as to what they may be doing: they may be charioteers or perhaps low-ranking officials working in the penal and legal department.

Recent arguments about the function of this pit suggest this may be another emperor’s royal stable as well, as it is difficult to give a proper explanation about all these horses in the government.

8. Pit of Stone Armours

Armour construction details at Xi'an Terracotta Warrior exhibit. Image Credit - Bert Peers.

The Pit of Stone Armours was discovered in 1998 and the trial excavation was carried out in 1999. It is located to the south-east of the Emperor’s tomb mound. The entire pit is thought to cover 13,600 square meters.

During the trial excavation in 1999, eighty-seven sets of stone armour and forty-three stone helmets were unearthed in the south-west corner of the pit. Originally, the sets of armours would have been supported on wooden stands in rows. Because the pit had suffered from fire after it was constructed, the stone armours and the wooden stands were both burned to different degrees as a result of relatively broken and dispersed on the ground when they were unearthed.

So far, two sets of armour and a helmet have been restored. A set of armour consists 612 plates, which weighs 18kg, is 74cm in height and has a circumference at the waist of 128cm. The stone plaques are rectangular, square, trapezoid, fish-scale shaped or irregular, depending on their position within the armour, and were linked together with copper wires. The reconstructed helmet is made from seventy-four stone laminae laced together, weights 3.168kg and is 32cm in height.

Armour was made of leather or metal during the Qin period. Stone armour and helmets could not be used in life as they are too heavy to wear and would be easily damaged by weapons. Therefore, they seem more likely to have been prepared for the emperor’s guards in the afterlife, and the pit was possibly designed to represent the armoury of the Qin.

9. Graves of the Mausoleum Builders

The graves of the mausoleum builders were discovered west of the First Emperor’s tomb in Zhaobeihu village. Some of the builders were lucky enough to have their own small tombs, whereas some of the other skeletons were piled or dispersed in a large pit. According to ancient documents, they were often convicted criminals, recruited as forced labour to construct the tomb of the First Emperor.

Terracotta Army Museum, Xi'an, China. Image Credit - Dave Oakley.

With the skeletons, many pottery fragments (some with inscriptions) have been found in their graves. Some of the inscriptions record the place of origin, the type of sentence, title and name of the person, and reveal how workers were mobilized from all over the country to work on the tomb. For example, one fragment inscribed with nine characters, describes the deceased, surname Yu and title bugeng (low ranking civil servant) as coming from Bochang, a town located in the state of Qi during the Warring States period. He received a sentence to perform labour work in lieu of time in prison.

About 16 kilns have been discovered so far in the First Emperor’s tomb complex, Xi’an, for baking large quantity of roof tiles, bricks, water pipes and possibly for producing the terracotta figures.

About The Author
Xiuzhen Janice Li (follow me: )
Last three pieces by this author: Video of the New Excavation of the Qin Terracotta Warriors | Battle Strategies of the Qin | Advancements in Bronze – Weapons of the Qin Empire.

Xiuzhen Janice Li received her BA in archaeology from Peking University, China and an MA in Field Archaeology from the University College London. She has conducted research and led excavations in pits at the Museum of the Qin Terracotta Warriors Army in Xian, China for almost 20 years.

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