Photographed in 1974, freshly excavated 2000 year old Terracotta warriors still showing the original color scheme before rapid deterioration.

The Tomb of the First Emperor of China was accidentally discovered in 1974 when farmers digging for a well found several ceramic figures of warriors. As the discovery quickly garnered national attention, archaeological investigation revealed three large underground chambers (referred to as “pits”) containing shattered fragments of terracotta warriors. These life-sized, life-like ceramic figures depict warriors, with every detail of their dress skillfully rendered, and still bearing traces of their original paint at the ᴛι̇ɱe of their discovery. The terracotta warriors looked unlike any tomb figures that had been known before. What is more, pits 1, 2, and 3 were only a small part of what turned out to be the massive tomb complex of the First Emperor.

The First Emperor (born Ying Zheng), initially ruled as the king of the Qin state. Through forceful military campaigns, he conquered the states occupying much of the current territory of China, bringing an end to the Warring States Period. He reformed the culturally and politically distinct states into a single, centralized political entity.

In 221 B.C.E., he officially declared himself Qin Shi Huangdi, a title he coined himself commonly rendered as the “First Emperor” that literally translates to “First August Emperor of Qin.” This was no empty gesture—the First Emperor’s reforms and unification would forever change the meaning of rulership in East Asia.

Among his monumental building projects was a monumental tomb of unprecedented splendor, whose scale and luxury became, with the passage of ᴛι̇ɱe, the matter of legend. Nevertheless, none of the fantastic tales found in the written record prepared archaeologists for what they would find in the Mausoleum of the First Emperor.