How were China's legions of terra-cotta warriors made? Experts have pieced it together.

Creating thousands of live-size soldier statues to protect the mausoleum of China's first emperor was a massive operation, requiring many steps and close collaboration.

Thousands of life-size terra-cotta soldiers stand in Pit 1, the largest repository of figurines at the third-century B.C. funerary complex of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, near Xi’an, China. Discovered in the 1970s, the terra-cotta army was created 2,200 years ago to protect China’s first emperor in the afterlife.
OLEKSIY MAKSYMENKO/ALAMY/CORDON PRESS

The land belonging to farmer Yang Zhifa in eastern China was covered by fruitful orchards of persimmon and pomegranate trees. In 1974, while digging a well, his spade struck something unexpected in the soil: a man’s head.

On closer inspection, Yang saw that the object was clay, not bone. He alerted the local authorities, and over the months that followed, Chinese archaeologists made an astonishing discovery. Under Yang’s peaceful orchards lay a man-made army: thousands of life-size terra-cotta soldiers and hundreds of sculpted horses, along with bronze carriages and weapons.

The figures were unearthed less than a mile to the east of the third-century B.C. resting place of Qin Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor and one of the most important figures in its history. Today a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts millions of visitors every year, the complex—including not only the vast terra-cotta army but also the tombs of real people—is regarded as the biggest funerary complex in the world, extending more than 25 square miles.

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