HONG KONG — Zhao Kangmin, an archaeologist who pieced together pottery fragments discovered by farmers and reconstructed the life-size terra-cotta warriors that have become one of China’s best-known ancient wonders, has died, the state news media reported. He was 81.
Mr. Zhao died of an unspecified illness on May 16, the state news media reported. His granddaughter, who declined to give her name, confirmed the death on Tuesday.
The thousands of warriors were made more than 2,000 years ago and buried at the vast underground tomb complex of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, along with models of horses, weapons, chariots and other objects.
Qin Shi Huang had united much of the country under the short-lived Qin dynasty, which is generally considered the origin of the name “China.” The warriors’ job was to defend him in the afterlife.
Several thousand of the terra-cotta warriors are now on display in giant pits — the largest the size of an aircraft hangar — at the partly excavated tomb complex, which lies at the site of the Qin dynasty’s ancient capital, Xianyang, about 22 miles east of present-day Xi’an. Many others remain buried around the complex.
The complex, which was designed as a subterranean mirror of Xianyang, was named a Unesco World Heritage site in 1987.
Mr. Zhao was not the first person to see the pottery fragments, nor did he order the partial excavation of the complex, which became a national treasure.
Yet decades later he was still signing his name with a grand title: “Zhao Kangmin, the first discoverer, restorer, appreciator, name-giver and excavator of the terra-cotta warriors.”
Qi Xiaodong, the office director at the Xi’an Museum, said that Mr. Zhao’s work had a significant impact in China and beyond.
“It’s a great loss for us to lose a hard-working and responsible archaeologist like him,” Mr. Qi said.
The statues were uncovered in 1974, when a group of farmers in Lintong County hit a hard patch in the red earth while digging a well, according to a 2009 account in the state-run newspaper China Daily.
One of the farmers, Yang Zhifa, recalled finding a warrior’s head, which was mistaken for a jar.
“Another villager asked me to dig gently so he could take the ‘jar’ home to use as a container,” Mr. Yang told China Daily. “Then we dug out the body, which was like a statue in a temple.”
Mr. Zhao, a local cultural official, rushed to the scene and had the pieces collected and taken to a local museum. He began reconstructing heads, torsos, arms and legs from the fragments, including pieces as small as a fingernail.
Soon the warriors were standing before him: life-size, armored and with half-clenched fists.
“My discovery marked the beginning of the enormous excavation project of the underground army,” Mr. Zhao wrote in a 2014 essay.
Zhao Kangmin was born in July 1936, his granddaughter said in a message on Sina Weibo, a site that is similar to Twitter. The state news media reported that he worked as an archaeologist for more than 40 years, but further details about his family and career were scarce.
When Mr. Zhao and his colleagues arrived at the tomb complex in 1974, he wrote, some villagers had already taken pieces home as trophies. Children were tossing other fragments around like toys.
At the time, Mr. Zhao wrote, he feared that reporting the restoration project to the central government could put him in the cross-hairs of a Cultural Revolution-era campaign to wipe out the “Four Olds”: ideas, customs, culture and habits. That campaign resulted in the widespread destruction of historical sites.
But a few months later, a journalist from a state news agency heard about the discovery while vacationing in Xi’an. The journalist described the find in an article, which caught the attention of a top official in Beijing. Soon a formal excavation was underway.
In 2003, three of the farmers who had found the statue fragments asked the museum authorities for a certificate that officially declared them the discoverers of the terra-cotta army. It didn’t happen, China Daily reported in 2009.
Mr. Zhao told the newspaper that “seeing doesn’t mean discovering.”
“What they want is money,” he said.
The warriors have become a major draw for international tourists, and some are lent out for exhibitions around the world, including a recent one at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
In February, an American man was charged with vandalizing one of the warriors on display at the Franklin Institute. An affidavit by an agent assigned to the F.B.I.’s art crime team said that the man broke off a thumb after putting his arm around the warrior and snapping a selfie.
That statue alone is valued at $4.5 million.
Mike Ives reported from Hong Kong, and Karoline Kan from Beijing.