Cemetery of the Week #100: the Burial Complex of Qin Shi Huang

Photo from the exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, April 2013.

Photo from the exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, April 2013.

Museum of the Terracotta Warriors
Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province, China
Founded: 246 BCE
Size: 4 miles in circumference
Number of interments: unknown
Open: 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Admission: RMB 150 (March 1-November 30); RMB 120 (December 1- February 28). The ticket also includes the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum, which has not been excavated yet

Called one of the Eight Wonders of the Ancient World, the burial site of China’s first emperor remained buried for more than 2000 years. Larger than four football fields, the site is comprised of as many as than 8000 terracotta warriors, along with figures of acrobats, jugglers, water birds, horses, and chariots. The site includes models of palaces, stables, a zoo, and riverbeds that once flowed with mercury between mountains of bronze. The layout of the burial site is modeled on the Qin capital of Xianyang, with two concentric cities. The outer one has a circumference of almost four miles.

The burial site was discovered in 1974 when three farmers sank a shaft for a well. After almost 40 years, much of the site remains unexcavated. In fact, the Emperor’s actual tomb, which lies under a mound is still 140-some feet high, has not yet been opened. UNESCO estimates that the tomb houses the coffin and burial artifacts, but it is booby-trapped with automatically triggered weapons to dissuade grave robbers.

Warrior with traces of paint, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, April 2013.

Warrior with traces of paint, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, April 2013.

Ying Zheng became king of Qin in 264 BCE as a boy of 13. By 221 BCE, he had unified the warring kingdoms of Ancient China and declared himself emperor. Among his achievements were the standardization of currency, a uniform system of writing, and a new legal code.

During his reign, an estimated hundreds of thousands of artisans were assembled to construct the burial complex and its permanent denizens. Over the course of nearly four decades, from 246 to 208 BCE, these artists made molds for the warriors, cast them in orangish brown clay, baked them, and assembled the pieces. The workmen labored until the Emperor’s death, when the second emperor ordered them to be walled up to protect the tomb’s secrets.

In addition to the size and complexity of the burial site, the warriors themselves are breathtaking works of art. Their faces were each individually carved; while elements of armor and dress recur, each figure is unique. In addition, each figure was fully painted. Traces of the original pigments are all that remain. Chinese archaeologists were unable to stop the paint from flaking away when they unearthed the figures.

Kneeling archer found in the second pit, on display at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, April 2013.

Kneeling archer found in the second pit, on display at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, April 2013.

UNESCO calls the site “one of the most fabulous archaeological reserves in the world.”

I have not yet been able to make the pilgrimage to China myself, but I did get to see four of the warriors when they traveled to San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum earlier this year. I would dearly love to go and see the whole army. In the meantime, I’ve pulled the visitation information from the internet. Links are below.

Apparently, up to 40,000 tourists a day visit the Terracotta Warriors during the high season in the summer time. No advance tickets seem to be available, so you may stand in a very long line.

Useful links:

The UNESCO World Heritage listing

National Geographic page on the Terracotta Warriors

Guide to visiting the Terracotta Warriors

Lishan Garden Park, which includes the museum, warriors, and burial mound

The San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s Winter 2013 exhibition

About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. Scribner published my favorite essays from Morbid Curiosity magazine as Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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2 Responses to Cemetery of the Week #100: the Burial Complex of Qin Shi Huang

  1. coastalcrone says:

    At least you got to see the warriors. I had never heard of this tomb. Sounds like a challenge for Indiana Jones with all the booby-traps! Thanks!

  2. Pingback: My Dream Round-the-World Itinerary | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

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