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Despite these two emperors' contrasts, they are nowadays linked by archaeology because no other imperial tomb complexes in the Xian region have been so extensively excavated. And their reigns span what may have been the most formative period in Chinese history, when a collection of warring kingdoms united into a single country with a strong imperial tradition. The Qin introduced this revolutionary concept of empire, and then the Han imbued it with a sense of tradition and order, setting the tone for more than 2,000 years of imperial rule.

Qin Shi Huang Di's achievement of a unified China has come to be represented by the more than 1,500 terra-cotta warriors and horses excavated since 1974, when a group of peasants stumbled upon a pit of statues while digging a well. Designed to accompany Qin Shi Huang Di in the afterlife, the regimented figures reflect the ruler's military strength. But the massive army, estimated to be a total of 8,000 pieces, occupies only a fraction of the largely unexcavated tomb complex, which extends over 22 square miles (57 square kilometers) and is said to have required a labor force of 700,000 to build.

One afternoon I climb to the top of the 250-foot (76-meter) high tumulus above the emperor's burial site. From the summit, low dusty hills roll northward toward the horizon; to the south, a green carpet of pomegranate trees leads to the foothills of the Li Mountains, whose blue-gray peaks are sharply shadowed by the setting sun. It's a beautiful scene—but I find myself thinking more about the unknown treasures that are buried beneath my feet. And I think about the path I took around the back of the tomb mound, where I stepped over shards of 2,200-year-old ceramic tiles that lie half-buried in the dust. There's so much history here that it literally rises out of the ground.

Recently archaeologists have been doing some additional prodding. Although officials say they won't open the tomb mound itself until they are satisfied that preservation techniques are up to the challenge, they have permitted extensive soil testing that has left the earth around the tomb pockmarked with tiny holes. Since 1998 the authorities have also granted permission for two small experimental excavations of pits 650 feet (200 meters) southeast of the mound. One of these digs uncovered 12 nonmilitary statues that had been smashed by vandals in the distant past.

Although all but one of the heads was damaged beyond repair, archaeologists have been able to reconstruct five statues, including the potbellied strongman. The statues might represent baixiyong—performers who entertained the court with acrobatics, singing, dancing, feats of strength, and sleight of hand. Similar statues of smaller size have been found in Han tombs, but never before have any been dated to the Qin. To experts these discoveries are at once exciting and sobering: a glimpse of something entirely unexpected but also a reminder of how little is actually known about the burial goods of Qin Shi Huang Di.

"We've realized there might be more varied figures in other pits," says Zhang Yinglan, vice-director of the museum's archaeological team. "These figures are concerned only with every-day life, while the others all have military aspects. The military ones are very stiff and formal, but these are so different."

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