China’s first emperor broke the mold when he had himself buried with a terra-cotta army. Now insight into the careful crafting of those soldiers is coming from the clays used to build them. Custom clay pastes were mixed at a clay-making center and then distributed to specialized workshops that cranked out thousands of the life-size figures, new research suggests.
Roughly 700,000 craftsmen and laborers built Emperor Qin Shihuang’s palatial mausoleum in east-central China between 247 B.C. and 210 B.C. A portion of those workers gathered clay from nearby deposits and prepared it in at least three forms, researchers propose in the August Antiquity. On-site or nearby workshops used different signature clay recipes for terra-cotta warriors, parts of mostly bronze waterfowl figures and paving bricks for pits in which the soldiers originally stood.
Around 7,000 ceramic foot soldiers, generals and horses — equipped with a variety of bronze weapons — make up the army, which was accidentally discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well. The emperor would have regarded the ceramic statues as a magic army that would protect him as he ruled in the afterlife, many researchers suspect.
Building and assembling the multitude was an enormous task. Workers poured clay mixtures into casts of torsos, limbs and other body parts, and then assembled the bodies, taking care to create different facial features for each soldier. Finished statues, now mostly gray, were covered in colored lacquers and likely fired in kilns. Most figures were placed inside one giant pit. Earthen walls formed 11 parallel corridors where statues stood in battle-ready rows.
Still, no workshops or debris firmly linked to the statue-making process have been found. As a result, the number, size, location and organization of workshops involved in producing the emperor’s ceramic troops remain uncertain.
Archaeologist Patrick Quinn of University College London and three Chinese colleagues studied the…