It was discovered in the spring of 1974 in the eastern suburbs of Xi'an, Shaanxi Province by local farmers named Yang who were drilling a water well 1.5 miles east of Mount Li. The region around the mountain was riddled with underground springs and watercourses, and every little extra bit of water helped when it came to irrigating fields. In 195 B.C., Liu Bang himself — the first emperor of the dynasty that followed the Qin — had ordered that 'twenty households' should move to the site of the mausoleum of the First Emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huang, "shi huang" means the first emperor) to watch over the tomb. To this day, twenty villages sit in the immediate vicinity of the mausoleum, one of them the hamlet where the Yang family lived; the terracotta army may have been rediscovered by the direct descendants of the people left to guard it. For centuries, there were reports of pieces of terracotta figures and fragments of the Qin necropolis — roofing tiles, bricks, and chunks of masonry — having been occasionally dug up in the area.
This most recent discovery prompted archaeologists to investigate. The Terracotta Army is a form of funerary art buried with the First Emperor of Qin in 210-209 BC. The Army's purpose was to help rule another empire with Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife. Consequently, they are also sometimes referred to as "Qin's Armies." The material to make the terracotta warriors originated on Mount Lishan. In addition to the warriors, an entire man-made necropolis for the emperor has been excavated. Up to 5 meters (16 feet) of reddish, sandy soil had accumulated over the site in the centuries following its construction, but archaeologists also found evidence of earlier, impromptu discoveries. During the digs at Mount Li, archaeologists found several graves from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whose diggers had obviously struck terracotta fragments, only to discard them as worthless with the rest of the back-filled soil.
According to historian Sima Qian (145-90 BC), construction of this mausoleum began in 246 BC and involved 700,000 workers. Geographer Li Daoyuan, six centuries after the death of the First Emperor, explained that Mount Li had been chosen as a site for its auspicious geology: it once had a gold mine on its north face and a jade mine on its south face, demonstrating not only its sacred value, but also perhaps how the tunnels had come to be dug in the first place. Qin Shi Huang was 13 when construction began. He specifically stated that no two soldiers were to be made alike, which is most likely why he had construction started at that young age. Sima Qian, in his most famous work, Shiji, completed a century after the mausoleum completion, wrote that the First Emperor was buried with palaces, scenic towers, officials, valuable utensils and "wonderful objects," with 100 rivers fashioned in mercury and above this heavenly bodies below which he wrote were "the features of the earth." Some translations of this passage refer to "models" or "imitations," but he does not use those words.
Recent scientific work at the site has shown high levels of mercury in the soil on and around Mount Lishan, appearing to add credence to Sima Qian's writings. The tomb of Shi Huang Di is under an earthen pyramid 76 meters tall and nearly 350 square meters. The tomb remains unopened, in the hope that it will remain intact. Archeologists are afraid that if they do excavate the tomb, they might damage some of the valuables buried with emperor Qin Shi Huang. Only a portion of the site is presently excavated, and photos and video recordings are prohibited in some areas of the viewing. Only few foreigners, such as Queen Elizabeth II, have been permitted to walk through the pits, side by side to the army.
Qin Shi Huang’s necropolis complex was constructed to serve as an imperial compound or palace. It comprises several offices, halls and other structures and is surrounded by a wall with gateway entrances. It was also said[citation needed as a legend that the terracotta warriors were real soldiers, buried with Emperor Qin so that they could defend him from any dangers in the next life.
The terracotta figures are life-like and life-sized. They vary in height, uniform and hairstyle in accordance with rank. The colored lacquer finish, individual facial features, and actual weapons and armor from battle used in manufacturing these figures created a realistic appearance. The original weapons were stolen by robbers shortly after the creation of the army and the coloring has faded greatly. However, their existence serves as a testament to the amount of labor and skill involved in their construction. It also reveals the power the First Emperor possessed, enabling him to command such a monumental undertaking.