Institute of Archaeology


Imperial Logistics Network: The Making of the Terracotta Army

Imperial Logistics is a joint research initiative between the Museum of Emperor Qin Shihuang's Mausoleum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology.

The Making of the Terracotta Army

Qin Shihuang’s mausoleum is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, famous worldwide for its Terracotta Army of thousands of lifelike clay soldiers, but it is also a much vaster complex stretching across some 56 sq.km and as many as 500 accessory pits or tombs. Bronze, clay, wood and other resources were all deployed on a massive scale: for human and animal sculptures, for weapons and other equipment, and for the architecture of the mausoleum itself. Their monumental use at this funerary site also provides important clues about more everyday marshalling of resources in support of wider Qin empire-building. The mausoleum of Qin Shihuang is thus both a compelling research problem in its own right, and an evidence-rich vantage point on much wider social, economic, ecological and political change.

The Imperial Logistics network and joint Museum-UCL research initiative has two main aims: 

  • To investigate the crafting methods and logistical organisation behind the construction of the Terracotta Army and the broader mausoleum of the First Emperor of China
  • To develop 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.

Two important further aims are an improved transfer of specialist knowledge among Chinese, UK and other researchers, and active engagement and dissemination beyond academic circles.

Our collaboration began in 2006 and has so far focused not only on the famous terracotta warriors themselves but also the thousands of bronze weapons buried with them. Our multidisciplinary method has illuminated the way these weapons and their placement with the terracotta army most likely follow a specific production model, with interesting parallels in modern manufacturing. Amongst many different strands, examples of our research emphasis so far include:

  • 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 evaluate bronze weapon manufacture and alloy selection
  • Spatial statistical analysis of the distribution of warriors, weapon subgroups and metal batches seeking to go beyond simple observation of the military layout of the terracotta army, but instead to identify patterns that might be informative about the logistics of transportation and placement of the weapons in the pit. 
  • 3d photogrammetric modelling of whole warriors and warrior body-parts with a view to understanding patterns of both individuality and standardisation in warrior appearance.
  • A pilot study of the multi-spectral signatures of ink marks on the bronze weapons.
  • Petrographic and geochemical analysis of the clays used for the terracotta warriors.
  • Artificial ageing experiments that considered the behaviour of chromium residues on bronze weapons.

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" and this status was renewed in 2017 and again in 2022.

For further information, please also consult the project website: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/terracotta-army/

Related outputs

  • Li, X. 2020. Bronze Weapons of the Qin Terracotta Warriors: Standardisation, Craft Specialisation and Labour Organisation, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports International 2992.
  • Quinn  P., Yang, Y., Xia, Y., Li, X., Ma, S., Zhang, S. and D. Wilke 2020. Geochemical evidence for the manufacture, logistics and supply-chain management of Emperor Qin Shihuang's Terracotta Army, China, Archaeometry. doi: 10.1111/arcm.12613.
  • Martinon-Torres, M., Li, X., Xia, Y., Benzonelli, A., Bevan, A. et al. 2019. Surface chromium on Terracotta Army bronze weapons is neither an ancient anti-rust treatment nor the reason for their good preservation, Scientific Reports 9 doi:10.1038/s41598-019-40613-7
  • Bevan, A., Li, X., Zhao, Zh., Huang, J., Laidlaw, S., Xi, N., Xia, Y., Ma Sh., and Martinón-Torres, M. 2018. Ink marks, bronze crossbows and their implications for the Qin Terracotta Army, Heritage Science 6. doi:10.1186/s40494-018-0239-5
  • Quinn, P., Zhang, S., Xia, Y., and 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.
  • Li, X., Bevan, A., Martinón-Torres, M., Yin, X., and K. Zhao 2016. Marking practices and the making of the Qin Terracotta Army, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 42: 169-183. doi:10.1016/j.jaa.2016.04.002
  • Martinón-Torres, M., Li, X., Bevan, A. 2015. Mapas de distribución, estadística espacial y organización de la producción en arqueología: las armas de bronce de los guerreros de terracota de Xi’an, China, Sémata. Ciencias Sociais e Humanidades 27: 141-158.
  • Li, X., Bevan, A., Martinón-Torres, M., Rehren, Th., Cao, W. Yin, X., and K. Zhao 2014. Crossbows and imperial craft organisation: the bronze triggers of China’s Terracotta Army, Antiquity 88: 126-140.
  • Bevan, A., Li, X.J., Martinon-Torres, M. (2014). 冶金及手工的空间统计学分析 (A quantitative spatial analysis of metallurgical and other craft activities). In Cao, W., Rehren, T. (Eds.), 期冶金考古国文集 (International symposium on Qin period metallurgy and its social and archaeological context), 65-76. Beijing: Science Press.
  • Li, X.J., Martinon-Torres, M., Xia, Y., Zhao, K., Rehren, T. (2014). 打描电镜下的青兵器文及加工痕迹 (Inscriptions and other tool marks on the bronze weapons observed under the Scanning Electron Microscope). In Cao, W., Rehren, T. (Eds.), 期冶金考古国文集 (International symposium on Qin period metallurgy and its social and archaeological context), 47-57. Beijing: Science Press.
  • Martinon-Torres, M., Li, X.J., Bevan, A., Xia, Y., Zhao, K., Rehren, T. 2014. 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.), 期冶金考古国文集 期冶金考古国文集 (International Symposium on Qin Period Metallurgy and its Social and Archaeological Context), 38-46. 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初步分析 (An initial analysis of the arrow tangs and swords from the Qin Terracotta Army). In Cao, W., Rehren, T. (Eds.), 期冶金考古国文集 (International symposium on Qin period metallurgy and its social and archaeological context), 58-64. Beijing: Science Press.
  • Bevan, A. et al. 2013. Computer vision, archaeological classification and China’s terracotta warriors, Journal of Archaeological Science 49: 249-254.
  • Bevan, A.,  Li, X.J., et al. 2013.Intensities, interactions and uncertainties: some new approaches to archaeological distributions. In A.H. Bevan, M. W. Lake (Eds.), Computational Approaches to Archaeological Spaces (pp. 27-51). Walnut Creek, US: Left Coast Press.
  • Martinón-Torres, M., Li, X.J., Bevan, A. et al. 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 21: 534–562. doi:10.1007/s10816-012-9158-z
  • Li, X. J.2012. Standardisation, Labour Organisation and the Bronze Weapons of the Qin Terracotta Warriors. PhD thesis, UCL Institute of Archaeology, London.
  • Li, X. J., Martinón-Torres, M., Meeks N. and Xia, Y. 2012. Scanning electron microscopy imaging of tool marks on Qin bronze weapons using silicone rubber impressions, in N. Meeks, C. Cartwright, A. Meek and A. Mongiatti (eds.),Historical Technology, Materials and Conservation: SEM and Microanalysis, 62-68. London: Archetype and The British Museum.
  • Li, X., Martinón-Torres, M., Bevan, A., Rehren, Th., Xia, Y., and Zhao, K. 2011. 秦俑坑出土青弩机生准化及劳动组织 (Standardisation and labour organisation in the Qin bronze triggers of the Terracotta Warriors). Qin Shihuangling Bowuyuan Yuankan 1: 251-263.
  • 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.
  • Martinón-Torres, M. Li, X., Bevan, A., Xia, Y., Kun, Z. and Th. Rehren 2011. Making weapons for the Terracotta Army. Archaeology International 13-14: 65-67.


  • British Academy Research Project (2012-)
  • International Centre for Chinese Heritage and Archaeology
  • Rio Tinto
  • Kwok Foundation
  • UCL Small Research Grants in the Arts and Humanities