It was a prolonged drought that forced farmer Yang Zhifa and his five brothers to go looking for a new source of water. For several days, the brothers dug a well in a small wooded area just outside their village in Lingtong County near to the city of Xi’an in Northwest China, eventually reaching a depth of fifteen metres. On March the 29th 1974, they found something much more remarkable than water – the terracotta head of a Chinese warrior along with a heavily-corroded bronze arrowhead. They did not know it at the time, but the brothers had stumbled across the first emperor of China’s Terracotta Army.
When local archaeologist and museum curator Zhao Kangmin got a phone call a couple of weeks later about the farmers’ discovery, he knew he needed to get down to the dig site as quickly as possible. The farmers weren’t archaeologists; they were probably unwittingly damaging the site as they continued to dig for treasure.
Zhao jumped on his bicycle and raced to the site. There his worst fears were realised. The brothers had indeed continued to dig, and the site was now littered with hundreds of fragments of shattered terracotta. He ordered the farmers to stop what they were doing immediately. Reluctantly, they agreed.
Zhao gathered the broken fragments together and transported them on the back of a truck to the Lingtong County Museum where he worked as a curator. Over the course of the next few days, Zhao painstakingly put the fragments back together. When he was finished, two imposing, 1.78-metre-tall figures stood before him. This was an incredible find, but was it just the tip of the iceberg?
Zhao assigned a small team to start excavating the site. It soon became clear as more soil was cleared and more figures and fragments of figures emerged that far from there being just a few figures down there, there could potentially be hundreds. This left Zhao in a difficult position.
As more and more figures were unearthed, it was clear this was a major discovery. However, Zhao couldn’t help but wonder what would happen when the authorities in Beijing got wind of the discovery. China had just been through the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. If the central authorities found out about the figures, would they be smashed as so much of Chinese cultural heritage had been during the Communist Party’s misguided attempt to drag the country into the modern world?
It was quickly dawning on everyone that the farmers had stumbled upon one of the most astonishing archaeological finds in modern history.
Zhao decided to sit on the figures’ discovery. However, a visiting journalist heard about the dig site and wrote an article about it. The cat was out of the bag. What would the Chinese government do next?
Thankfully, the authorities recognised the importance of the find and ordered a full excavation of the site. Soon, the dig was teeming with archaeologists. It was quickly dawning on everyone that the farmers had stumbled upon one of the most astonishing archaeological finds in modern history. What they had found was an army - an army cast in terracotta made to defend the first emperor of China in the afterlife.
Over the months that followed, four pits were uncovered. To the astonishment of everyone involved, what was unearthed was an army over eight thousand strong, complete with horses and chariots. The first pit revealed the main bulk of the emperor’s army. Six thousand warriors in total arranged in battle formation scattered around their feet a huge collection of bronze arrowheads and swords.
The second pit contained more infantry units, alongside cavalry units and chariots pulled by teams of terracotta horses. The third pit revealed high-ranking officers and an elaborate bronze war chariot. The fourth and final pit was empty. In total, the emperor’s army numbered eight thousand strong, all laying undiscovered for 2,200 years, buried just a kilometre and a half away from the giant burial mound that houses the still-unexcavated mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor.
As more and more of the figures were painstakingly uncovered, one thing became clear - no two were the same. Built on an industrial scale by workers in government workshops in the late 3rd Century BC, each soldier’s face had been individually finished off by hand to give each one a unique look. Once cast and put together, the soldiers were then painted to make them look as realistic as possible. Unfortunately, this paint quickly flaked off from the figures when they were unearthed, leading to criticism that insufficient paint and environmental research had been undertaken before the soldiers were exposed to the elements.
A year after the discovery of the army, the Chinese government decided to open up the site to the public. A museum was built, and a protective roof was constructed over the now fully-exposed pits. It wasn’t long before tourists began to trickle into the small provincial city of Xi’an, eager to see this amazing sight. Soon word spread around the world, and by the 1980s that trickle had become a torrent as tourists and foreign dignitaries flew in from all over the world to see the army in all its glory.
It is certainly up for debate whether the name of Zhao Kangmin and not Yang Zhifa should be the one remembered as the true discoverer of the army.
Unfortunately for Zhao, his involvement in the army’s uncovering was soon overshadowed by the farmer who had made the initial discovery. This annoyed the archaeologist, who argued that Yang Zhifa and his brothers didn’t know what they had found; that they had damaged what they had unearthed and that they had even stolen bronze arrowheads and swords from the site and sold them on the black market.
It was to no avail. The name of Yang Zhifa is much more well-known both inside and outside of China as the man who discovered the army. The farmer was even given a job in the gift shop at the museum that houses the army as a thank you from the Chinese government. Zhao died on the 16th of May 2018 at the age of 82. As he pointed out before his death, if he hadn’t intervened when he did, Yang and his brothers may have gone on to cause immeasurable damage to one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th Century. It is certainly up for debate whether the name of Zhao Kangmin and not Yang Zhifa should be the one remembered as the true discoverer of the army.
The Terracotta Army was officially recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Today, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in China. And on the rare occasions, groups of soldiers have been allowed out of the country to be displayed in national museums around the world, they have attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors.
The Terracotta Army was an incredible find, but it is considered just the tip of the iceberg. The mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang still remains tantalisingly untouched. One day, it is hoped a future generation will finally get to see what is buried in the tomb of the first emperor of China. If the awesome spectacle of the Terracotta Army is anything to go by, it will undoubtedly be an incredible sight.