Imperial Logistics: The Making of the Terracotta Army


The Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army of the First Emperor of China is one of the most emblematic archaeological sites in the world. While the public eye is familiar with the many rows upon rows of individually-crafted warriors in battle formation that have made the site famous, many questions remain about the logistics of technology, standardisation and labour organisation behind the creation of such a colossal construction in just a few decades over 2,000 years ago.


View of Pit 1 of the Terracotta Army

Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC) is one of the most famous and controversial figures in Chinese history. Widely known as 'the First Emperor', he forcibly unified China for the first time, prosecuted intellectuals and opponents, abolished feudalism, and standardised philosophy, script, coinage and law. The enormous mausoleum complex he commissioned for himself in Xi'an, Shaanxi, remains an unequalled material representation of his world, providing an almost inexhaustible source of information about the powerful political and symbolic system that was built up around his personality. Today, the complex is a Unesco World Heritage Site and attracts over four million visitors a year, in addition to contributing to major travelling museum exhibitions across the globe.

The mausoleum complex covers an area of over 50 square kilometres. Alongside the colossal main pyramid structure underneath which the Emperor is said to be buried, archaeological research in the last four decades has unveiled a wealth of other installations that were built to provide an ideal environment for the ruler's afterlife. There are various pits with life-sized servants, acrobats and musicians; water channels with delicate bronze birds; bronze carriages fitted with gold and silver implements and lavishly decorated with polychrome pigments - and surely, many more finds yet to be discovered. The Terracotta Army, however, since its discovery in the 1970s, has become the very emblem of the site - an unarguable manifestation of the substantial military power, lavish wealth and artistic achievement of the Qin Empire. Stationed in three pits to the east of his tomb, the Terracotta Warriors are supposed to have been placed there to host and protect the Emperor from his many enemies in his afterlife. So far, over 2,000 warriors have been recovered during archaeological excavations in three pits, although it is estimated that their number may reach up to 8,000.


Some of the 40,000 identical bronze arrowheads recovered with the Terracotta Army

Previous research on the mausoleum complex in general, and the Terracotta Army in particular, has targeted a range of topics including the survey and excavation of several structures, the identification and conservation of the polychromy, and the technology of manufacture for the warriors and their weapons. However, no project has previously attempted a holistic approach aimed at reconstructing the craft organisation and logistical model that allowed the construction of the whole mausoleum. Our Imperial Logistics project constitutes the first systematic attempt at tackling this issue.

Further reading

  • Blänsdorf, C., Emmerling, E., and Petzet, M. (eds.) 1999. The Terracotta Army of the First Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuang. Paris: ICOMOS.
  • Portal, J. (ed.), The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army. London: British Museum.
  • Wu, Y., Zhang, T., Petzet, M., Emmerling, E., and Blänsdorf, C. (eds.) 2001. The polycromy of antique sculptures and the Terracotta Army of the First Chinese Emperor. Studies on Materials, Painting Techniques and Conservation. Paris: ICOMOS.
  • 陕西省考古研究所 始皇陵秦俑考古发掘队:"秦始皇陵兵马俑坑一号坑发掘报告 (1974-1984)", 文物出版社,1988版。[Excavation Report from Pit 1 of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses (1974-1988) by the Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology and the Excavation Team of the Terracotta Army. Beijing: Culture Relic Press, 1988]