Archaeologist Yuan Zhongyi talks to reporters at the terracotta warriors excavation site. [Courtesy of Yuan Jingzhi/China Daily]
When archaeologist Yuan Zhongyi was sent to Lintong, Shaanxi province, to excavate the site in July 1974, he had no idea he would spend his next 30 years there.
One of his leaders said the excavation would probably take a week. Instead, it has lasted for more than three decades and will continue for generations.
Yuan, 77, has retired from his post as curator of the Museum of Terracotta Warriors and Horses. He now lives in Xi'an and is often invited as a consultant for the No 1 pit's excavation, which started in June.
"I've spent most of my life digging. Archaeological excavation is boring work, but I often feel a happiness that outsiders won't be able to understand because it is heaven for archaeologists," Yuan says.
"First, we excavated around the area the farmers drilled and found the relic site to be much, much larger than expected. It took us about half a year to find the edge of the site, which turned out to cover 14 sq km."
Based on this, the team estimated there were 6,000 soldiers buried in the pit, he says.
"We were so excited, because such a vast funerary pit had never been found anywhere around the globe," Yuan says.
"And the enormous, life-sized underground terracotta army shocked not only China but also the world."
The second and third pits were found in 1976, during the museum's construction.
The second pit is about half the size of the first, but its warriors - painted red, green and purple, among other colors - are the best preserved. The third and smallest pit is the buried army's "headquarters".
All together, the three pits contain nearly 8,000 terracotta warriors and horses, 2,000 of which have been unearthed under Yuan's leadership.
The excavation has involved risks. The heavy iron bracket of a tackle used to lift the earth once tumbled into the 6-m-deep pit, brushing past him.
On a snowy day in the winter of 1976, Yuan lost track of time as he swept the earth off the burial horses in a pit from morning until afternoon. When his colleagues found him, he was stiff from being confined in the cold for so long.
"But the sense of happiness felt after such arduous work is tremendous," Yuan says.
When he was digging the southeast corner of the No 1 pit, he saw a bronze sword under the body of a terracotta warrior. He covered the sword immediately and called it a day, fearing thieves might be nearby.
After the workers left, he and two assistants cleared the earth again and found an untarnished bronze sword, the first of its kind unearthed at the site.
He worked until midnight that day. In a dilapidated house in a nearby village, Yuan carefully measured and recorded every detail of the sword as it glittered in the candlelight.
"That was one of the happiest moments in my life," he says.
There were low points, too. Early in the dig, archaeologists worked year-round, only taking off during the Spring Festival.
While they were excavating the bronze chariots, the wife of archaeologist Cheng Xuehua came to ask Yuan when her husband could come home. Yuan told her the work was almost finished.
Soon after, Cheng's wife committed suicide.
"When I heard that, I felt as if a knife was being stabbed into my heart," Yuan says.