The day after my mother died, I found myself in a very strange place – the Mausoleum of the First Emperor of China. How odd to be looking at the faces of thousands of warriors who would protect the Emperor on his journey to the afterlife on the very day when I would be contemplating my mother’s same journey.
It was odd to be out photographing at all, but the photographers I was travelling with convinced me that my mother wouldn’t want me to miss the greatest archeological discovery in modern times. And while seeing the terracotta warriors was never high on my bucket list, the concurrence of the two events created an unforgettable experience.
China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di, accomplished many things including uniting warring kingdoms into one country, putting an end to feudalism, standardizing weights and measures, building a national road system, and building the Great Wall of China. Another accomplishment was to be his resting place, a city-sized mausoleum guarded by the Terracotta Warriors.
Discovered in 1974, farmers uncovered the figures while digging a well. Little did anyone know that the soldiers stood guard right under the farmer’s fields in Xi’an for more than 2,000 years.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the grand funerary complex is over 38 square miles (98 square kilometres). The three excavation pits hold as many as 8,000 life-sized, intricately carved, soldiers and horses who guard the tomb and protect the Emperor in the afterlife for eternity.
Astonishingly, the army is made up of unique individuals. Some soldiers have topknots, while others have caps. Some wear tunics and others wear armoured vests. They have goatees, moustaches, or neither. The face of each soldier is different. Some have suggested that they may be modelled after the Emperor’s real army.
There are also chariots, horses, archers and weapons.
Huang Di was obsessed with achieving immortality. In the mountains that were named after him, the Huangshan Mountains I visited earlier in the trip, he sought master alchemists to make immortality pills. He is thought to have died by drinking the “elixir of life” which would supposedly allow him to live forever, but turned out to be mercury.
The mausoleum has many more secrets yet to be discovered since the tomb itself has not been opened. There are fears that light and exposure to air will harm the artifacts so the archeologists are waiting for better techniques to be developed before opening the tomb. As well, there are legends that say it is booby trapped with crossbows rigged to shoot anyone who breaks in. Add to this, the “rivers of mercury” inside, and it becomes a very dangerous place.
The existence of the mercury has been proven by soil testing, but many other secrets remain since the hundreds of thousands of unpaid labourers who built it were killed before they could reveal its secrets. They, too, are in the mausoleum in mass graves that also contain the emperor’s concubines and even his sons, who were killed during a brutal struggle when one son tried to take the throne.
The story is just one in China’s long and most intriguing history. It’s not just a bunch of statues, its an archeological mystery shrouded in conspiracy, secrecy and the supernatural. I’m so glad I didn’t miss the experience. I only wish I got to share the photos with my Mom because she was looking forward to seeing them.
To make these images I used my Sony NEX6 and the 55-210mm lens. My group was the first to arrive at the museum when it opened so we were able to use our tripods most of the time. It was only when the crowds got too large that the tripods became too difficult to squeeze in.
I’ve never photographed an archeological dig before, so I did my best to capture both large groups of soldiers, smaller individuals in more intimate scenes, and some soldiers that were still in the midst of being revealed.