Imperial Logistics: The Making of the Terracotta Army

View of Pit 1 of the Terracotta Warriors (Photo: Xia Juxian)

Craft specialisation, interactions and social cohesion in emerging imperial systems

'Imperial Logistics' is a joint research initiative between the UCL Institute of Archaeology and the Museum of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum. It pursues two main research aims:

A small handful of the 40,000 bronze arrowheads recovered with the terracotta warriors
  • investigating the crafting methods and logistical organisation behind the construction of the Terracotta Army and the broader mausoleum of the First Emperor of China
  • developing novel hypotheses and methods, via artefact-scale metric analysis, materials science and spatial modelling, that may be used as a comparative platform for studying craft specialisation, logistical organisation, cross-craft interactions and strategies of enforced social cohesion in emerging imperial systems.

Given the project’s wider context as an international collaboration centred on a World Heritage site, two important further aims are an improved transfer of specialist knowledge among Western and Chinese scholars, and active engagement and dissemination beyond academic circles.

The first stage of the collaboration (2006-2010) focused on the impressive set of thousands of bronze weapons buried with the terracotta warriors. It involved:

  • a typological study of the weapons, including inscriptions related to workshops and makers
  • a quantitative study of weapon dimensions and standardisation to identify weapon subgroups within what were otherwise visually identical categories
  • a materials science study (e.g. optical microscopy, pXRF, SEM-EDS and EPMA) to study manufacture and alloy selection
  • spatial statistical analysis (e.g.inhomogeneous point process models) of the distribution of warriors, weapon subgroups and metal batches seeking patterns that went beyond a simple observation of the military layout of the terracotta army, but instead were informative about the logistics of transportation and placement of the weapons in the pit. 
Bronze lance and (inset) detail of the fine marks left on the blade by a rotary polishing wheel

The digital platform already includes tens of thousands of artefact measurements, thousands of chemical analyses, and spatial coordinates for each item. Our multidisciplinary method has illuminated the way these weapons and their placement with the terracotta army followed a very specific production model, with interesting parallels in modern manufacturing. 

The second stage (2011-2016) will apply similar methods to the warriors themselves, look for cross-cutting organisational patterns between them and their weapons and engage more heavily with the broader mausoleum and imperial landscape.

In 2012, the initiative was adopted by the British Academy as an Academy Research Project in recognition of “the excellence of their scholarship, and the promise and excitement of their programmes”. Only five projects have received this recognition since 2008. British Academy Research Project status has been renewed for 2017-2022.

Terracotta Army News
Media recognition for Terracotta Army research

Related outputs

  • Quinn, P., Zhang, S., Xia, Y., & Li, X. (2017). Building the Terracotta Army: Ceramic craft technology and organisation of production at Qin Shihuang's mausoleum complex. Antiquity, 91 (358), 966-979. doi:10.15184/aqy.2017.126
  • Bevan, A., Li, X.J., Martinón-Torres, M., Green, S., Xia, Y., Zhao, K., Zhao, Z., Ma, S., Cao, W., Rehren, Th. 2014. Computer vision, archaeological classification and China's terracotta warriors. Journal of Archaeological Science 49, 249-254.
  • Martinon-Torres, M., Li, X.J., Bevan, A., Xia, Y., Zhao, K., Rehren, T. (2014). 为秦始皇打造兵器:秦俑坑兵器的冶金考古学分析 (Making weapons for the First Emperor: an archaeometallurgical analysis of bronze weapons from the Terracotta Army). In Cao, W., Rehren, T. (Eds.), 秦时期冶金考古国际学术研讨会论文集 秦时期冶金考古国际学术研讨会论文集 (International symposium on Qin period metallurgy and its social and archaeological context). (pp. 38-46). Beijing: Science Press.
  • Bevan, A., Li, X.J., Martinon-Torres, M. (2014). 冶金及手工业生产的空间统计学分析 (A quantitative spatial analysis of metallurgical and other craft activities). In Cao, W., Rehren, T. (Eds.), 秦时期冶金考古国际学术研讨会论文集 (International symposium on Qin period metallurgy and its social and archaeological context). (pp. 65-76). Beijing: Science Press.
  • Li, X.J., Martinon-Torres, M., Xia, Y., Zhao, K., Rehren, T. (2014). 打描电镜下的青铜兵器铭文及加工痕迹 (Inscriptions and other tool marks on the bronze weapons observed under the Scanning Electron Microscope). In Cao, W., Rehren, T. (Eds.), 秦时期冶金考古国际学术研讨会论文集 (International symposium on Qin period metallurgy and its social and archaeological context). (pp. 47-57). Beijing: Science Press.
  • Xia, Y., Li, X.J., Martinon-Torres, M., Rehren, T., Zhao, K. (2014). 秦俑坑出土铜镞铤的金相及电镜能谱初步分析 (An initial analysis of the arrow tangs and swords from the Qin Terracotta Army). In Cao, W., Rehren, T. (Eds.), 秦时期冶金考古国际学术研讨会论文集 (International symposium on Qin period metallurgy and its social and archaeological context). (pp. 58-64). Beijing: Science Press.
  • Martinón-Torres, M., Li, X. J., Bevan, A., Xia, Y., Zhao, K. and Rehren, Th. 2012. Forty thousand arms for a single Emperor: from chemical data to the labor organization behind the bronze arrows of the Terracotta Army. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, online first, DOI: 10.1007/s10816-012-9158-z
  • Martinón-Torres, M., Li, X. J., Bevan, A., Xia, Y., Kun, Z. and Rehren, Th. 2011. Making weapons for the Terracotta Army. Archaeology International 13/14, 65-75.
  • Li, X. J., Martinón-Torres, M., Meeks, N. D., Yin, X. and Kun, Z. 2011. Inscriptions, filing, grinding and polishing marks on the bronze weapons from the Qin Terracotta Army in China. Journal of Archaeological Science 38, 492-501.
  • Li, Li, X.J., Martinón-Torres, M., Bevan, A., Rehren, Th., Xia, Y., and Zhao, K. 2011. 秦俑坑出土青铜弩机生产的标准化及劳动力组织 (Standardisation and labour organisation in the Qin bronze triggers of the Terracotta Warriors). Qin Shihuangling Bowuyuan Yuankan, 1.
  • Li, X.J., Martinon-Torres, M., Meeks, N.D., Xia, Y. (2012). SEM imaging of toolmarks on Qin bronze weapons using silicone rubber impressions. In Meek, A., Meeks, N., Mongiatti, A., Cartwright, C. (Eds.), SEM and Microanalysis: The Study of Historical Technology, Materials and Conservation. London: Archetype.
  • The project has featured in several TV programmes, and team members have delivered public talks in the UK, China, India, US, Canada, Spain, Australia, and Belgium.


British Academy logo

Network Co-ordinator:

Network Members:

  • Wei CAO (Museum of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum)
  • Andrew Bevan (UCL Institute of Archaeology)
  • Xiuzhen Janice LI (Museum of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum and UCL Institute of Archaeology)
  • Patrick Quinn (UCL Institute of Archaeology)
  • Thilo Rehren (UCL Institute of Archaeology)
  • Yongqi WU (Museum of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum)
  • Yin XIA (Museum of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum)
  • Tianzhu ZHANG (Museum of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum)
  • Kun ZHAO (Museum of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum)
  • Rong ZHAO (Shaanxi Cultural Relics Bureau)


Further information:

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