Ranked in battle formation, many thousands of life-size terra-cotta soldiers and their horses protect the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Although strikingly beautiful, the army was never meant to be seen by mortal eyes. The clay figures were buried more than 2,000 years ago in underground vaults, ready to escort the emperor into eternal life.

The splendid treasure, the legacy of the first emperor of a unified China, was discovered in 1974 by peasants digging a well. Among the terra-cotta warriors so far uncovered in three vaults are archers, cavalry, charioteers, and armored soldiers wielding spears and dagger-axes. The soldiers' military ranks can be determined by examining their hairstyles and the fine points of their uniforms. (Originally, their clothes were painted green, red, purple, and blue, but only a few traces of pigment remain.)

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In the largest vault, about 1,000 figures have been uncovered so far, perhaps only one-eighth of the total.
©Shutterstock
In the largest vault, about 1,000 figures have been uncovered so far,
perhaps only one-eighth of the total number of warriors buried here.
See more pictures of famous landmarks.

Remarkably, every figure has unique facial features and may actually be a portrait of an individual imperial guard. Yet the statues were in a sense generic; the mostly hollow figures were mass produced, then the individually modeled heads and hands were put on.

Like real soldiers, the terra-cotta warriors originally carried actual crossbows, swords, and spears. Some 10,000 weapons already have been found in the vaults. Because the swords' metal surfaces were specially treated, they defied corrosion so effectively that the blades still remain sharp, even after 2,000 years in the ground. Somewhat ominously, arrowheads found here were made of a poisonous alloy of lead -- just like the arrows that were set up as traps in the emperor's tomb itself.

In one vault a great number of clay warriors were found shattered and broken, the aftermath of their centuries-long vigil beneath the ground. Uncovered now, they create the impression of a battlefield of fallen soldiers -- a reminder, perhaps, of the futility of war and the vanity of emperors.

Here are links to dozens of other world-famous landmarks:

Abu Simbel, EgyptEiffel Tower, FranceThe Leaning Tower of Pisa, ItalyRoman and Georgian Bath, England
The Alhambra, SpainEllora Caves, IndiaMachu Picchu, PeruSt. Mark’s Basilica, Italy
Angkor Wat, CambodiaThe Forbidden City, ChinaMont-St.-Michel, FranceSt. Paul’s Cathedral, England
Arc de Triomphe, FranceThe Golden Pavilion, JapanNeuschwanstein Castle, GermanySt. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, Italy
Borobudur, IndonesiaThe Great Buddha, JapanPalace of Versailles, FranceShwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
Chartres Cathedral, FranceThe Great Wall of China, ChinaThe Pantheon, ItalyStonehenge, England
Christ the Redeemer Statue, BrazilGuggenheim Museum, Bilbao, SpainThe Parthenon and the Acropolis, GreeceSydney Opera House, Australia
CN Tower, CanadaHagia Sophia, TurkeyPetra, JordanThe Taj Mahal, India
The Colosseum, ItalyHouses of Parliament, EnglandPompeii, ItalyThe Temple at Karnak, Egypt
The Dome of the Rock, IsraelThe Kaaba and Al-Haram Mosque, Saudi ArabiaPotala Palace, ChinaThe Terra-cotta Army, China
Easter Island Statues, ChileKrak des Chevaliers, SyriaThe Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, Egypt
Edinburgh Castle, ScotlandThe Kremlin and Red Square, RussiaPyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuac√°n, Mexico


To learn more about these landmarks and vacation destinations, see:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.