Visiting an archaeological dig site: the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an, China
The very first thing that popped up when I started researching Xi’an, China was the terracotta warriors. I had just found out that I was heading to China to explore Shaanxi province and just had to see what was in store. I knew that it was the heart of ancient Imperial China, but I got just a bit overjoyed at the chances of visiting the coolest archaeological dig I’d ever studied.
So, if you’ve seen our other posts about China, you know that this trip was just me (Rob) and that everything about China completely surprised me. Well, visiting the terracotta warriors was surprising also. Here’s how the day went…
Driving to the Terracotta Warriors
After leaving the Sheraton Xi’an nice and early, we headed on our little tour bus through the city. Yeah, so rain+traffic+China+coffee=OMG. It actually wasn’t so bad. It was the first day of our trip around Shaanxi province and the six of us on the trip got to spend time getting to know the city.
We spotted cool architecture, got a preview of the ancient city wall, and started experiencing the unfortunate grammatical errors that plague Chinese signage. The first one we saw was the Golden Shower Hotel. Luckily for us we got to pass it again later in our trip and snapped a picture.
After getting out of the city congestion we pulled off the highway towards the terracotta warriors. We knew that we were in the general vicinity because everything was terracotta this and terracotta that. The neighborhood capitalized on the amazing archaeological site of the terracotta warriors in every way possible. We actually were quite fortunate to get to experience the warriors even before getting to the National Archaeological Park… but how??
Tip: plan that any city driving in China will take longer than you initially expect. Even though the congestion is just as bad as roads in the United States, the stress of the traffic seems a bit stronger. Maybe it’s just me…
A stop in an artisan shop
Our driver dropped us off on a narrow street and headed down the road. Our awesome guide, Elsie, took us through a brick archway surrounded by bamboo and into a courtyard. We had no clue why. It turned out to be one of the workshops where terracotta warrior souvenirs are made and we actually were going to meet some of the potters and work WITH them.
Among my many jobs I’ve had in life, one was teaching pottery/ceramics to elementary school kids. I worked alongside my life-mentor, Dorothy, and we taught kids how to use plaster molds and work with all kinds of clay. I thought this would be just like that. Nope. The local terracotta clay was much sandier than what I have used throughout my pottery life and the molds were much more intricate than any I’ve ever worked with.
The ladies in the shop were very patient with us as we each started “helping” them make figures. I don’t know how they do it so well and so quickly, but it was difficult to create a quality figure… even though they were able to do it in a matter of seconds. Whatever. It’s not a skill I have anymore apparently.
After learning about the terracotta process (which takes weeks of drying and baking for the final products) we got to wander through the rest of the shop and gallery. This was the first activity we did and it was the one that inspired the theme of the rest of the trip: #ColorfulChina. Seriously, from lacquered furniture to intricate porcelain vases… Everything. It was the precursor to the colorful visit to the Imperial garden and Wild Goose Pagoda.
Note: shops like the one we visited have the ability to ship terracotta warriors all over the world. If you’re reallllllly interested, they’ll even help you start your own army in your own yard. It is quite costly though, with life-sized replicas starting at over $2000 USD.
Lunch and meeting the farmer who discovered the terracotta warriors
As you arrive at the area surrounding the terracotta warriors site, you’ll see that it’s exceptionally built up and is a destination. As we walked through the plaza we all were equating it to Downtown Disney or the Universal Citywalk (but less flashy and much more grown-up oriented). Countless restaurants and shops lay before you as you approach the entrance to the terracotta warriors site.
We stopped within the plaza for a really wonderful lunch full of traditional foods. This was where we discovered the Chinese, or at least the Shaanxi, preparation of eggplant. To quote Sarah in our group (Coffee with a Slice of Life) “Aubergine! Oh I love aubergine!”
Note: the preparation of eggplant is done a few ways, but the most common way we had it was in a spicy garlic sauce. Yu Xiang Qie Zi is a super yummy version that has my new favorite ingredient, the Sichuan peppercorn (tingly salad at the delightful Buddhist restaurant we went to had them too).
Do you know what else we got to experience at the restaurant beyond the wonderful Chinese eggplant dish? We got to meet the last remaining farmer who uncovered the terracotta warriors. He had a table set up where he was hanging out with a translator, just chatting with people that wanted to talk with him. He was really nice and kind of funny. Mr. Yang is his name and here’s the rundown of his account of the discovery:
It was 1974 and the drought in Central China was really bad. Three farmers, brothers, were digging a new well when they hit some terracotta pottery. Before uncovering too much, as they knew the government would swoop in, they covered up their initial hole. After talking to a few people and then eventually getting some help, the government came in and started the dig. They moved their farm a bit away and to this day, Mr. Yang still is a steer (cattle) farmer.
Note: Mr. Yang said that while he still manages his cattle ranch he also gets a stipend from the government to hang out and chat with people. I thought that was pretty cool and not what I would’ve expected prior to my visit to China. #SurprisingChina.
Tip: if you happen to figure out which restaurant Mr. Yang hangs out at, you’ll also find a really cool tea shop downstairs that does some pretty comprehensive tastings.
The terracotta army dig site
The actual archaeological dig site is huge. Huge. There are three dig pits and each is very different. Here’s what to expect and the order that makes sense to visit them…
Pit 2: a dig in progress and complete restoration
The first archaeological dig site to visit is Pit 2. This one is quite different from the biggest of the three (which is where we started). Here you’ll see a few tombs that are in the process of excavation as well as plenty of shattered terracotta warriors in pieces. This is the pit that really shows the raw nature of being a live archaeological dig. True, Pit 1 also is an active dig with excavation and restoration happening before your eyes, but Pit 2 is less polished and bare so there is less distraction from the open earth.
Pit 2 is also where the best museum quality restorations are housed. Just a few yards from the active dig are some amazing relics that have been fully restored. As we wandered through the preservation cases we could see all sides of the terracotta warriors, including some of the original color that was painted onto them. Getting up close (even through glass) was really neat, especially following our visit to the terracotta artisan shop we were at earlier in the day.
Tip: the warriors behind glass are really beautiful and fascinating… and so are the reflections they create. Catching reflections without people is tricky though, so being tall or using a (dare I say it) selfie stick may be helpful.
This pit, Pit 2, is where I’d recommend starting the tour of the terracotta warriors. This’ll show you the process’ start and finished product, which would completely lend itself to seeing everything else.
Pit 3: the depth of a dig
Pit 3 is the smallest of the three current dig sites. There wasn’t much to see here except for two things: the terracotta chariot horses and the actual depth of the archaeological dig. I was surprised to see how far down the terracotta warriors were actually found. While I don’t have a specific number, I would guess that the depth of Pit 3 is around 30 feet, maybe a bit more, and then less in spots. Seriously, how much earth filled in the army sight over the last 1400 years?
The horses were the other attraction of this pit. Being so far down, I was glad to have seen the reproductions at the artisan shop earlier. Talking with the lady who gave us the tour, we were able to learn about the horses’ construction and see them up close before seeing them live in the dig site. It made our visit to the terracotta warriors all the more interesting.
Pit 1: the grand terracotta warriors as an army
Even though it makes sense to start here, I’d recommend having this be the final stop as you explore the terracotta warriors dig sites. Here you’ll find more than 1000 of the soldiers just hanging out, all restored and in position. It’s an amazing sight to see. When you look down on them from the walkways all around, it’s really incredible to imagine the dig site being fully exhumed and every one of the unique terracotta figures restored.
Note: pit 1 seems to be less than half completed and it’s an amazing sight. Visit in 2026 and just imagine how much more complete it will be!
Tip: before visiting, if you’re planning on capturing your own 1-of-a-kind photos of the terracotta warriors or a selfie commanding the army, study up on low light photography so you’ll get your best shots and your pics won’t be all pixelated or full of chasers.
Pit 1 really is impressive and was my favorite to visit, so I strongly recommend saving the best for last. As you explore each I think you’ll have the same thought…
Recommendations for visiting the amazing army
Do your visit in your own way, and if you’re a part of a tour follow your guide (especially if they have a headset to talk through), but here’s how I would recommend planning a visit to the terracotta warriors if it were my first time:
Allot a whole day for the travel and activities around the terracotta warriors
Visit one of the artisan markets or shops prior to the actual dig site
Eat before you start touring the dig site
Visit the pits in the following order: Pit 2, Pit 3, Pit 1. You won’t be disappointed
*And don’t forget to brush up on your photography skills beforehand. You’ll be so glad you did.
So yes, it was an awesome day and really a fun way to start the trip through Shaanxi province. Overall, a visit to the terracotta warriors is a great family activity if you have older kids, but I cannot recommend it for children under 10 years old. Don’t get me wrong, as an adult and somebody who’s studied art history as well as some Chinese history, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing and learning about the army and the history. I just know based off my own kids and nieces and nephews that few younger kids are going to be into it.
We will for sure be back some day when the kids are older and we’ll have a great time. Like I said, imagine how much more excavation will be completed in ten years…
Have you been to see the terracotta warriors? What tips do you have?