Remains of 2,000-year-old sheep-drawn chariot discovered near 'Terracotta Army' in China

Some of the 6,000 statues in the Army of Terracotta Warriors and horse statues.
Detail of some of the 6,000 statues in the Army of Terracotta Warriors, 2,000 years old, from the tomb of the first emperor of China. (Image credit: Tuul & Bruno Morandi via Getty Images)

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of what appears to be an ancient sheep-drawn chariot near the famous "Terracotta Army" in northwestern China.

The English-language website China Daily, which is owned by the Chinese Communist Party, reported that the remains were found in the "western tomb" at the site of Emperor Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum, a few miles northeast of the city of Xi'an in Shaanxi province.

Archaeologist Jiang Wenxiao, who is leading the excavations of the tomb, told China Daily that the main structure of the chariot had rotted away after spending more than 2,000 years in the ground. (The mausoleum dates to the third century B.C.)

But the team did find a row of six sheep skeletons wearing accessories used for pulling a chariot, so they inferred this was a sheep-drawn chariot, Wenxiao said.

Related: 1,400-year-old tomb of emperor in China reveals evidence of royal power struggle among brothers and a warlord

Drawn by sheep

The chariot has not survived being buried in the tomb, but the archaeologists found a row of six sheep skeletons wearing accessories for pulling a chariot. (Image credit: Dayoo News)

Horse-drawn chariots and ox-drawn carts were common in ancient China, but a sheep-drawn chariot is an extremely rare find, Wenxiao said.

They appear in Chinese history, however, as well as in Chinese lore. The founder of the Western Jin dynasty, Emperor Wu (or Sima Yan), who ruled from A.D. 266 to 290, is said to have ridden in a sheep-drawn carriage around his palace complex every night and would sleep wherever the sheep stopped.

His practice may be the origin of the modern Chinese phrase "seeking luck in a sheep cart"; it's said the emperor had a harem of 10,000 wives, and this seems to have been Sima Yan's method of choosing among them.

Wenxiao presented the discoveries at the Fourth Congress of Chinese Archaeology, which was held in Xi'an in October, according to the state-owned website

The team hopes laboratory analysis on the western tomb's burial chamber, which is currently underway, will help them determine who was buried there, the report said.

Chinese chariots

It's not yet known who was buried in the "western tomb" at the Emperor Qinshihuang's mausoleum near Xian. (Image credit: Dayoo News)

In addition to the six-sheep chariot, archaeologists unearthed a four-wheeled wooden chariot, presumably drawn by horses, equipped with an ornate rectangular umbrella. It is the oldest of its type ever found, according to Wenxiao.

They also found a wealth of copper chariot and horse-related artifacts, as well as iron tools and copper weapons, providing new insight into the period when iron tools first began to appear.

The mausoleum was built in the third century B.C. for the Emperor Qinshihuang, who's considered the first emperor of a united China. (Image credit: Dayoo News)

The mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who ruled from 221 to 210 B.C. and is considered the first emperor of a united China, is spread over about 10 square miles (26 square kilometers) and took 38 years to complete. Three immense pits in the mausoleum site hold more than 8,000 life-sized sculptures that depict the emperor's soldiers and their horses — the so-called Terracotta Army.

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Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.