History has a funny way of revealing itself by accident. Scholars and scientists who set out with purpose often return empty-handed, yet those simply going about their day are typically the ones who stumble across some grand discovery. But while unearthing some long-forgotten relic may sound like a win-win all around, most would-be explorers are often unaware of the dangers lurking beneath their feet.

When a group of Chinese farmers inadvertently dug up one of history’s greatest treasures, they were over the moon at the thought of their discovery unlocking some lost piece of the past. Yet as scientists began taking stock of the farmers’ find, they soon understood that some treasures become lost for a reason…

It began on a cool March day in the mountains northeast of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. Seeking to tap into the area’s plentiful water reserves, a group of farmers had begun digging a small well about a mile east of the imposing Mount Li.

As they got deeper, the farmers couldn’t help but cast a hopeful eye at the dirt as they pulled each shovelful from the earth. For centuries, these mountains had revealed countless bits of promise for hopeful treasure hunters.

Fragments of terracotta, as well as roofing tiles and chunks of masonry, were common discoveries, yet these small finds had never given way to anything larger. Was there more to be found, or was this just some thousand-year-old garbage dump?

The answer seemed to indicate the former, as just a few hours into digging one farmer unearthed something remarkable — a man. Yet this one wasn’t made of flesh and blood: he was entirely terracotta.

No sooner did the farmer make his discovery that archaeologists were on the scene, clearing the surrounding earth to free the terracotta figure from the dirt. But there was something else beneath the next shovelful: yet another terracotta soldier.

Sensing this deposit of stone men was more than just a few misplaced garden statues, the archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar to see what else was lying below the surface — and what they found was nothing short of historic.

More than 8,000 figures appeared on the scans, all placed in tight formations around what appeared to be an underground tomb. But there was no sense in guessing what else was down there: it was time for the archaeologists to see for themselves.

A massive excavation began, with hundreds of workers brought in to help unearth this army of stone soldiers. One by one, terracotta men poked their heads from the earth and breathed fresh air for the first time in centuries.

Along with the soldiers, hundreds of animal statues were also recovered, including those of birds and military horses. There were also more than 500 working horses pulling close to 150 full-size chariots.

Laypeople were also well-represented, as statues of entertainers like acrobats, strongmen, and musicians were unearthed as well. This discovery was unlike anything the archaeologists had seen before, yet one question remained: what was this terracotta army doing here?

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