Institute of Archaeology


Imperial Logistics Network: The Making of the Terracotta Army

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:

  • 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. 

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 had received this recognition since 2008. British Academy Research Project status was renewed in 2017.

Related outputs

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A number of publications are due to appear in the near future and this site will be updated with details as they appear.


  • British Academy
  • International Centre for Chinese Heritage and Archaeology
  • Rio Tinto
  • Kwok Foundation
  • UCL Small Research Grants in the Arts and Humanities