‘Mysteries of the Terracotta Warriors’ explained: What was in the tomb?
(Credit: Netflix)

Films

'Mysteries of the Terracotta Warriors' explained: What was in the tomb?

In 1974, a small group of peasant farmers digging a well in northwestern China made an astonishing discovery. A discovery that was to unearth the historic foundations of their nation, and become one of the greatest archaeological finds in human history.

50 years on, Netflix has released a documentary film about what they found, which attempts to uncover the secrets of the warriors who make up the Terracotta Army. Mysteries of the Terracotta Warriors has already proven a big hit, reaching the platform’s top five globally and demonstrating that streaming audiences aren’t all about romance flicks and bingeable thrillers. History is a big draw, too. And the Greeks and Romans weren’t the only ancient peoples to have fashioned formidable armies of warriors.

Farmer Yang Zhifa realised there was something unusual going on when on the third day of digging his well, he came upon “the neck of a terracotta statue without a head.” Familiar with the legends surrounding the area of land he farmed, Yang carefully extracted his find and had it transported by horse and cart to a local museum.

“People had always said that the tomb of the Qin emperor covered an area of just over 9 hectares,” Yang explained to Swissinfo, “and that our village was about two kilometres from the mausoleum.” He was referring to emperor Qin Shi Huang, the man who unified Chinese provinces into one nation for the first time over 2200 years ago. Emperor Qin also transformed disparate stone barriers along province borders into a single continuous wall. The Great Wall of China.

Determined to leave a legacy of his reign behind, while he was still a teenager, Qin ordered the construction of a great mausoleum in preparation for his death over 36 years later. As it turned out, the mausoleum would reflect the emperor’s historic military conquests and his unification of China.

So what was in the tomb?

Ancient historian Sima Qian wrote about work on the mausoleum in extensive detail in the century that followed Qin’s reign. But he fails to mention its most extraordinary feature. In fact, until Yang Zhifa’s discovery two millennia later, no one had ever been able to explain what made up the majority of  Emperor Qin’s gigantic tomb.

Over 8,000 life-sized statues of warriors, each standing as high as two metres, complete with weapons, military costumes and regalia, horses and chariots, had been fashioned out of terracotta. The warriors are depicted in exquisite detail, with their size, posture, weapons and garments varying according to rank. The legacy of the emperor’s victorious battalions. And perhaps an army to protect him in the next life, too.

These are merely speculative suggestions about why the emperor had his army of clay warriors sculpted alongside his final resting place. We don’t know his true motive since there is no historical record of the Terracotta Army’s existence. Nor do we know who the sculptors responsible for this remarkable artistic achievement were. Or, maybe more importantly of all, the identity of the warriors themselves.

The new documentary attempts to answer these questions, among others archaeologists and historians still have about the Terracotta Warriors. But do they actually manage to solve the mystery?

Well, it ends by telling us, “The quest to prove the identity of the mystery warrior continues.” But Yuan Zhongyi, the lead archaeologist known as the ‘father of the Terracotta Warriors’, also describes how the work of restoring the artefacts “gave us the greatest happiness.”

Perhaps we’ll never find out the who, why and how of these ancient marvels. And maybe that’s not the point. Instead, we should revel in resurrecting, protecting and enjoying this astounding accomplishment of humankind.