Imperial Logistics: The Making of the Terracotta Army


Forty thousand weapons

One of the over 200 composite bronze triggers used in the sophisticated crossbows used by terracotta archers.

This project started in 2006 as a collaboration between UCL Institute of Archaeology and the Museum of Emperor Qin Shihuang's Mausoleum, under the auspices of the International Centre for Chinese Heritage and Archaeology. It brings together multidisciplinary expertise to investigate the crafting methods and logistical organisation behind the vast Terracotta Army that was constructed to guard the mausoleum of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC). These globally-famous archaeological remains offer an excellent opportunity to combine typological and metricapproaches, materials science and spatial analysis to address the central role played by craft organisation under an emerging empire. The longer-term research aim of this project is to ensure that these new methods (a) may be applied to the entire mausoleum complex, and (b) can be used as a comparative platform for studying craft specialisation, logistical organisation, cross-craft linkages, strategies of enforced social cohesion and the rise of imperial authorities elsewhere in the world. As a collaborative venture, knowledge transfer and wide dissemination is a key concern, involving Chinese and Western scholars, senior and early career, as well as various contributions to museum displays and public engagement.

The project’s first stage (2006-2010) focused on the impressive set weapons buried with the terracotta warriors. These include dozens of lances, swords, hallberds, crossbow triggers… and as many as 40,000 bronze arrowheads. Our work involved:

  1. a typological study of the weapons, including inscriptions related to workshops and makers;
  2. a quantitative study of weapon dimensions and standardisation to identify weapon subgroups within what were otherwise visually identical categories;
  3. a materials science study (e.g. optical microscopy, XRF, SEM-EDS and EPMA) to study manufacture and alloy selection; and
  4. 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.

The digital platform already includes tens of thousands of artefact measurements, thousands of chemical analyses, and spatial coordinates for each item. The initial results reveal a patterned distribution of weapon subgroups (probably due to the use of marginally different moulds or the involvement of different workshops), as well as of individual chemical batches (likely deriving from single crucibles). 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. Further aspects of the metallurgical and weapon-making technology gradually became clearer as the first state of the project progressed, including evidence for the earliest large-scale use of rotary devices for the grinding and sharpening of all the weapons, the construction of bi-metallic swords and the use of tinning for decoration.

Map of the excavated area in Pit 1 showing the spatial distribution of various weapon types.