Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

, Volume 21, Issue 3, pp 534-562

First online:

Forty Thousand Arms for a Single Emperor: From Chemical Data to the Labor Organization Behind the Bronze Arrows of the Terracotta Army

  • Marcos Martinón-TorresAffiliated withUCL Institute of Archaeology Email author 
  • , Xiuzhen Janice LiAffiliated withUCL Institute of ArchaeologyMuseum of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum
  • , Andrew BevanAffiliated withUCL Institute of Archaeology
  • , Yin XiaAffiliated withMuseum of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum
  • , Kun ZhaoAffiliated withMuseum of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum
  • , Thilo RehrenAffiliated withUCL Qatar

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


This paper explores the integration of chemical data with metric studies and spatial analyses of archaeological artifacts to investigate questions of specialization, standardization, and production organization behind large-scale technological enterprises. The main analytical focus is placed on the 40,000 bronze arrowheads recovered with the Terracotta Army in the First Emperor’s Mausoleum, Xi’an, China. Based on the identification by portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry of chemical clusters that correspond to individual metal batches, and combined with a study of their context in the tomb complex, we argue that the manufacture of arrows was organized via a cellular production model with various multi-skilled units rather than as a single production line. This system favored more adaptable and efficient logistical organization that facilitated dynamic cross-craft interaction while maintaining remarkable degrees of standardization. We discuss the use of “the batch” as an analytical category and how our method might be applied to other studies of craft organization in complex societies and imperial systems.


Terracotta Army Craft specialization Standardization Chemical analysis pXRF