Emperor's Ghost Army

Explore the buried clay warriors, chariots, and bronze weapons of China's first emperor. Airing April 8, 2015 at 9 pm on PBS Aired April 8, 2015 on PBS

  • Originally aired 11.12.14

Program Description

In central China, a vast underground mausoleum conceals a life-size terracotta army of cavalry, infantry, horses, chariots, weapons, administrators, acrobats, and musicians, all built to serve China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di, in the afterlife. Lost and forgotten for over 2,200 years, this clay army, 8,000-strong, stands poised to help the First Emperor rule again beyond the grave. Now, a new archaeological campaign is probing the thousands of figures entombed in the mausoleum. With exclusive access to pioneering research, "Emperor's Ghost Army" explores how the Emperor directed the manufacture of the tens of thousands of bronze weapons carried by the clay soldiers. NOVA tests the power of these weapons with high-action experiments and reports on revolutionary 3D computer modeling techniques that are providing new insights into how the clay figures were made, revealing in the process the secrets of one of archaeology's greatest discoveries.


Emperor's Ghost Army

PBS Airdate: April 8, 2015

NARRATOR: It's one of the greatest marvels of the ancient world: China's terracotta army, 8,000 strong, fully armed and built for eternity. Created more than 2,000 years ago, it was lost and only recently discovered. Now this stunning treasure reveals the first empire to rule ancient China.

XIUZHEN JANICE LI (Terracotta Army Museum): We found amazing archaeological objects.

ANDREW BEVAN (University College London): And the implications are enormous for archaeology. It's going to be truly revolutionary.

NARRATOR: But who made this vast army? How? And why? It's the creation of an amazingly advanced civilization.

MIKE LOADES (Military Historian): The Chinese crossbow is two millennia ahead of its time.

NARRATOR: Its ancient weapons excel in rigorous modern tests.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES (University College London): You cannot make a better arrowhead than this.

NARRATOR: Archaeologists piece together clues and try to decode these ancient wonders. Warriors and weapons, chariots and horses, an entire world, buried for more than 2,000 years, now sees the light of day. Revealed in all its original glory, the Emperor's Ghost Army, right now, on NOVA.

It's been called the Eighth Wonder of the World: a vast army of almost 8,000 warriors, all over 2,000 years old, larger than life-sized and made from “terracotta,” or “baked clay,” a stunning array of infantry, cavalry and chariots.

Creating on such an epic scale must have been an extraordinary challenge. How was it done? And what can it tell us about ancient China?

Now, a series of archaeological excavations shows the terracotta army is only the start, a small part of a vast complex, estimated to be over 21 square miles.

On the outskirts there's chilling evidence. The mass graves of the people who built it, piled with bones. The site contains hundreds of subterranean tombs, filled, not only with the clay warriors, but also birds, horses, musicians and acrobats. All of this surrounds a huge manmade mound, a tomb of the man responsible for creating China's first ever empire.

So far, archaeologists have excavated about 1,900 terracotta figures, only a fraction of the number believed to be buried in three major pits. Each figure is intricately detailed, weighs 3- to 400 pounds and is made from seven main parts.

The archaeological work has taken 40 years, and much still remains to be uncovered.

JANICE LI: We found amazing archaeological objects. So, I think we cannot guess what buried beneath in the whole tomb complex.

NARRATOR: But now, archaeologists are finding new answers to many of their questions. Why was the terracotta army created? And how and when was it engineered? Who were the people who built it? And what was their fate?

Scientists have dated the charcoal found in the pits as well as the clay in the figures. All the evidence indicated that the terracotta warriors were made around 2,200 years ago, more than 200 years before the birth of Christ.

It was the end of what historians call “the warring states period,” when, for over two centuries, China was devastated by rival states fighting for dominance. Mass invasions and battles raged across the countryside, but, finally, one of those states conquered all the others and created the terracotta army, and all in a single lifetime.

The great mystery is how. It's a mystery, because the oldest surviving literary source was written nearly a century after the terracotta army was built, by the father of Chinese history, Sima Qian, who wrote these classic records of the warring states and later dynasties. Surprisingly, he made no mention of the terracotta army, nor does any other source.

Over 2,000 years ago, these warriors were buried and forgotten. No one knew they ever existed. Then, one day, in 1974, during a drought in Shaanxi province, Mr. Yang and other local farmers started digging a well.

He tells China historian Jonathan Clements what happened.

YANG ZHIFA (Farmer who discovered the Terracotta army): I used a pickaxe to dig the hole.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS (Historian): As they were digging down, they found what they first thought to be the rim of a pot.

YANG ZHIFA: I said, “There's bronze underground.”

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: They also found bronze. They found metal artifacts, so they start dragging cartfuls of broken terracotta out of this well.

YANG ZHIFA: Then a shoulder and chest appeared.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: As they dug away the earth around it, they realized that they were looking at the body of a statue. They had the top of the armor, and they saw an arm.

YANG ZHIFA: I told my friend, “This is a temple.”

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: What if they have disturbed gods in an old temple? That is bad news.

Of course, what he didn't know was the importance for the entire planet, because this is the most important archaeological finding in China of the last 100 years that you can look at and say, “Ancient China was amazing!”

NARRATOR: Archaeologists soon found heaps of broken terracotta. Bits of legs, headless humans and even horses, all smashed after 22 centuries underground. They were buried in three large pits.

Pit 2 has only been partially excavated and still looks as it did when first unearthed. The roof planks are thought to cover nearly a thousand warriors and scores of chariots.

Pits 1 and 3 have also been partially excavated and an elaborate restoration project begun, repairing hundreds of warriors and recovering their lances, arrowheads and swords.

CAO WEI (Terracotta Army Museum): It astounded the world, when it was first discovered, and is truly unique. We have five ongoing archaeology sites in the mausoleum.

NARRATOR: The Terracotta Army Museum has become a major international tourist attraction, housing a vast treasure trove of ancient art, technology and information.

But can it be used to clarify how a 2,000-year-old culture overcame all the challenges of creating such an epic masterpiece?

It's a mystery that a joint team from University College London and the Terracotta Army Museum is investigating.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: There are two types of visitors to the terracotta army. Some appreciate the beauty in the detail. You can choose any of these warriors and you will immediately admire the very personal facial expressions, the individual hairstyle. Other people are more taken by the sheer scale of this site, its magnitude. How was it possible to orchestrate all the technological knowledge, all the resources and all the manpower needed and to do it so quickly?

NARRATOR: And it was built in an amazingly short period, all within 37 years. The length of the reign of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.

That's according to Sima Qian's historical records, which state that he was enthroned in 246 B.C., and that this is when work started on his mausoleum, and that 37 years later, he died and work stopped. But by then Qin Shi Huang had built an empire.

His Qin state ended over two centuries of war and conquered all its powerful neighbors. The first emperor now ruled many millions of people and an area that rivalled the size of the Roman Empire. The Qin Empire gave its name to China, along with a legal system and one currency. But the first emperor also had a reputation for extreme cruelty.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: What we now call China is only called China because of the first emperor. The problem that the Chinese have today is reconciling this idea that he was a cruel tyrant and that hundreds of thousands of people suffered and died under his regime,&

NARRATOR: His story in Sima Qian also lists some of his crimes as massacring prisoners of war, burning books and slaughtering his critics.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: &but also that he did some good, that he unified China, that he took these disparate states, with different languages and with different writing systems, and he forced them all to be Chinese.

NARRATOR: Sima Qian's accuracy has been questioned, since he lived a century after the first emperor died and was a member of the succeeding dynasty, but his account describes the Emperor's obsession with immortality, which may help explain the motivation behind the building of his vast tomb.

JANICE LI: What he believed, when he died, he still could carry on his life in the underground kingdom. So he brought all of the things with him to the underground kingdom.

NARRATOR: The ancient Chinese saying “treat death like birth” meant he could enjoy his possessions in the afterlife. This may have inspired the elaborate planning of his vast mausoleum and overshadowing it all, the first emperor's own huge tomb mound.

The grand historian said the imperial coffin was buried under the mound, which was originally 350 feet high. The mound has not yet been excavated, for fear of damaging it, and it won't be, until the contents can be safely preserved.

But Sima Qian vividly described how a model of the empire surrounded the bronze coffin, with miniature rivers of mercury flowing into seas and heavenly bodies on the ceiling above. The tomb mound is the center of a mausoleum unrivalled in history, built so the emperor's afterlife matched his luxurious life before death.

Dams diverted streams around the tomb. Over 300 coffins were filled with horse skeletons. Other pits held models of exotic animals and even members of the emperor's court.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: So we're finding musicians and acrobats and weight lifters. So we're seeing an entire culture revealed to us.

NARRATOR: This is not just a mausoleum, but an eternal pleasure palace: two half-size chariots made up of over 3,400 parts. Each is pulled by four bronze horses, their harnesses embellished with gold and silver.

JANICE LI: They got bronze chariot for his spirit to travel in the afterlife. And also he got terracotta warriors with him to protect him in afterlife.

NARRATOR: Such beliefs may explain the creation of the terracotta army and why it is located a mile to the east of his tomb. It stands guard between the emperor's grave and the states he subjugated to the east.

He may have feared that the spirits of his many victims would seek revenge in the afterlife. So, perhaps the terracotta bodyguards were created to combat any threat from the underworld.

The ongoing survey work has mapped the newest finds and shows the site is far larger than originally thought, covering the area of 10,000 football fields.

But how did the Qin craft so many imposing and intricately designed clay warriors? Reassembling the broken figures is the first part of their restoration and reveals the clues to how they were made. Each figure was handcrafted from the local clay. You can see, on the broken figures, how the torso was created by coiling clay around in layers to build the upper body.

JANICE LI: That's the marks here, probably the hand holding inside and then smooth outside.

NARRATOR: Master craftsman Mr. Han has studied the figures with the museum curators and worked to replicate ancient production methods.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: So what's the weight of an average warrior?

JANICE LI: (Translating from conversation with Mr. Han): About 200 kilos.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: That's over 400 pounds.

JANICE LI: Yes. So, that's very heavy.

NARRATOR: Limbs, boots, hands and heads were all cast from the local clay, which was pressed into molds and shaped for each body part. Originally, the legs were based upon molds used for drainpipes. The molding process creates a variety of limbs that can be combined with the various torsos in different ways to create a mix of figures: archers, heavy infantry, cavalrymen, generals, officials and charioteers and even their horses.

Once the hollow mold is filled out with clay, it's joined and allowed to dry before the figure is assembled, ready for firing in a kiln or oven.

Mr. Han has built a replica of an ancient Qin kiln.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: So, it's based on the real Qin archaeology.

JANICE LI: Yeah, that's based on the Qin, real Qin archaeology.

NARRATOR: The figures are sealed up and then fired for days to harden them. The original figures are a combination of molded parts. But are they clones or individuals? There are a variety of different faces. They are dark and light skinned, with varying facial hair. They have many different eye shapes and a dazzling array of hairstyles and head wear.

There are clearly differences among the figures, but is each one truly unique?

The scientists hope to provide a definitive answer, by making 3D models to allow precise comparisons. Each figure will need to be scanned into the computer, but 3D-laser-scanning is time-consuming and expensive.

So Janice Li is using a still camera as the first step in the process that will turn 2D pictures into 3D models.

ANDREW BEVAN: This is a very new technique, and the implications are enormous for archaeology. And it's going to be truly revolutionary.

NARRATOR: Back in London, Andrew Bevan is compositing the photographs, to create a 3D model.

ANDREW BEVAN: What the software tries to do is to go through each photograph and define a set of features that it can recognize. It might be, for example, the tip of an ear.

NARRATOR: In humans, no two ears are the same, and Andrew Bevan wants to know if this is the case for the terracotta figures. The computer maps the features in three-dimensional space, then joins them up to create the head.

ANDREW BEVAN: We've done this particular warrior in all of his glory.

NARRATOR: These models are designed to allow precise comparison of everything from hands to heads, arms to armor, or figure to figure.

ANDREW BEVAN: Effectively, the sky's the limit. In this particular case, I'm going to slice off the ear of the warrior, so it could be compared to some others.

NARRATOR: This will show if they are all anatomically unique. The results indicate that the ears vary in shape, with different sized earlobes.

ANDREW BEVAN: What we've discovered, so far, through these 3D models, is that no two ears are demonstrably the same. These warriors seem to be very individual, in the same way as a typical human population.

NARRATOR: Some archaeologists suggest that they are even portraits of real people.

So, this was an army of individual warriors, each strikingly real and unique, the product of the skill, dedication and technique of the craftsmen creating them.

JANICE LI: The hands work really reflected the processes of making terracotta warriors 2,000 years ago.

(Translating from conversation with Mr. Han): Yes, so, it normally takes three days for Han to carve, you know, the details.

NARRATOR: Even today, the individual style of the craftsman clearly shows up in his work.


JANICE LI: Yeah. It's really big ear lobes there. Yeah.

NARRATOR: But years of careful restoration, preservation and analysis have given rise to clues that the terracotta army was originally quite different from what we see today. Flakes of bright pigments still cling to the surface of torsos, hands and heads, showing the warriors were once highly decorated and suggesting a colorful, even gaudy array when first created.

We can now see how the warriors may have looked over 2,200 years ago: a dazzling display of colors, with painted figures and ornate chariots, all fully armed and intimidating.

But were they carrying sharpened war-grade weapons or merely symbolic representations? After the wooden parts rotted away, all that was left on the floor are the bronze weapons once placed in the warriors' hands.

But how are these weapons made? And how are they used? To analyze them, Janice Li is creating silicon casts of the ancient weapons, using a technique originally developed for dentists.

JANICE LI: We use this silicon mold to get very clear impression on the surface.

NARRATOR: By putting the silicon impression under a scanning electron microscope, Janice Li avoids any damage to the original weapon and can examine the blades in extreme close up. The screen is filled by a tiny section of the blade. The marks show it was originally sharp and still is today.

JANICE LI: These parallel fine marks show this really massive effort for sharpening these functional lethal weapons.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: So consistent, so, you cannot do these by hand. Every one of the 40,000 arrowheads were sharpened by somebody on a wheel.

NARRATOR: The identical parallel lines on so many weapons show this is mechanical sharpening, on an industrial scale. Only one type of machine could make these fine even lines, a rotary lathe that uses a spinning stone to sharpen blades.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: All the swords, all the lances, all the halberds and every one of the 40,000 arrowheads have been sharpened in the same way.

NARRATOR: Combat damages the edges of bronze weapons, but the terracotta army ones are unmarked.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: There's no sign whatsoever of them having been used. These are freshly made weapons, delivered directly to the terracotta army.

I think it's obvious these are not representations for religious purposes. These are real, lethal weapons, made to kill.

NARRATOR: This is the earliest evidence of rotary lathes being used for sharpening weapons, on an industrial scale, anywhere in the world.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: They're really well done. This is fantastic.


MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: I think we are onto something exciting.


NARRATOR: So the terracotta army was fully armed. The heavy infantry carried the deadly “G” or halberd. Some were over six feet long.

Military historian Mike Loades demonstrates how it was a highly flexible weapon. The Qin army's best defense against their greatest foe, cavalry.

MIKE LOADES: A major threat to all Chinese armies of all states was cavalry, both horsemen and charioteers. And the principle defense against them was the halberd.


Now, obviously, I had to stop the horse there, or it would have impaled himself on the spear. And that's really the first function of the halberd. And you'll see it's got this crosspiece, this transverse bar, so if I had gone hurtling into a line of halberds, this would have skewered the poor horse here, but it would have stopped, so the halberdier himself doesn't get trampled.

He can also use the spike to take out the horse's leg. But what if the animal gets past the point of the halberds, and I'm coming in with a lance? He could use his halberd to lift the point, so that it's done that, and that's pushed it onto my throat. And he has pushed me where he can obviously be quickly dispatched.

NARRATOR: As well as the halberd, the Qin deployed a range of bronze weapons, including spears, lances and longswords. But the ancient Chinese led the world in one particular branch of warfare: archery.

A variety of pre-Qin sources show the Chinese invented the crossbow centuries before the first emperor. But how and why did it evolve to become the most effective offensive weapon of the age?

MIKE LOADES: The Chinese battlefield was full of arrow storms. Storm after storm of arrows. But that takes skill and training. How could you do that with an army full of peasant conscripts that were there for a few months? Well the answer was in the Chinese crossbow. Just a simple stock of wood easily mounts any bow, so the bow is already made. It fits onto there and just with putting a crosspiece in there you could lash that into position.

NARRATOR: None survive. This is a working replica. Its importance is shown by the ranks of terracotta archers, armed with crossbows and ready for battle. But all that is left of the Qin crossbows, after the wooden parts have rotted away, are clusters of strange bronze objects found in the pits.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: This is a bronze crossbow trigger, one of the most sophisticated three-dimensional engineering mechanisms of ancient times.

NARRATOR: They were mass-produced, with all the parts made to fit together precisely, as historians of the day recorded.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: The Annals of Lü Buwei, who would date to around the time of the first Emperor, claim that if there's any misalignment in the parts of a trigger, it will not function.

NARRATOR: Using a replica, Mike Loades demonstrates the design of the trigger.

MIKE LOADES: The real genius was the trigger: the bronze, the cast bronze trigger, produced to a standardized form in the hundreds of thousands. So it's got its very simple interchangeable component parts. It comes apart very easily, and it goes together very easily. And this whole assembly just drops into a pre-carved slot in the bow, and you have got a bow ready to shoot.

NARRATOR: The trigger locks tightly and can securely hold and smoothly release the power of the bow.

MIKE LOADES: It is an ingenious bit of mass-produced, standardized military equipment.

NARRATOR: But any crossbow is only as deadly as its arrows. Over 40,000 arrowheads have been excavated from the pits. This is just one bundle of a hundred, a quiver's full, discovered here, in the middle of Pit 1.

So what were these arrowheads made of? A portable X-ray fluorescent spectrometer is used to explore the details of Qin metalworking.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: This is, today, the simplest, fastest, even cheapest, way we have of determining the chemical composition of something. It's only recently that we are beginning to use it in archaeology, bringing about a revolution in the way we can characterize materials.

NARRATOR: It shows the terracotta army's weapons are nearly all made from bronze, an alloy that's a mixture of copper, lead and tin. At first, the researchers assume that every part of the arrow will be a single blend of bronze.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: This is telling us the recipe that the weapon-makers had for each of the parts of their weapons. There's the head proper, and then what we call the “tang,” which would be inserted in the longer bamboo shaft.

The tang contains three percent tin, one percent lead, and the rest is copper. So, it tells us that this is a bronze with relatively low amounts of lead and tin.

We can now turn it over, we can immediately see a relatively high tin content that's around 20 percent. This is an alloy that we know would be extremely hard.

NARRATOR: More tin makes for a harder, sharper arrowhead, but less tin makes the tang more flexible and less likely to snap.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: When you only have bronze, you cannot make a better arrowhead than this. This is as good as a bronze weapon is going to get.

NARRATOR: So, they used two different alloys of bronze in one fused section of the weapon, the arrowhead and the tang, the part connecting the arrowhead to the shaft. But how?

Master forger Andy Lacey is experimenting, trying to reproduce the casting techniques developed in China over 2,000 years ago.

ANDY LACEY (Master Forger): You have your tang pre-cast, already exists. You just insert it into the mold. You can see that it sits within the space that's the arrowhead, and then, you put the top part on and clamp it together. Then you see the tang just sticks out there and that's the funnel that would take the metal in.

It's got these two components beautifully together,&

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: Yeah, that's the important thing.

ANDY LACEY: &and has welded on very tightly.


NARRATOR: Joining the two bronze alloys reveals the Qin's impressive technical sophistication and innovative production skills. But only a test can show if the replica arrowheads perform in practice.

Ancient Chinese sources give clues to how the bows that shot them were loaded.

MIKE LOADES: We have some evidence that the Qin laid on their backs to span their bows. That would suggest pretty powerful bows of about 200 pounds, which is more powerful than a hand-bow is going to be.

NARRATOR: Mike's demonstration bow replicates the mechanism of an authentic Qin bow, but only creates a quarter of the force.

MIKE LOADES: And we're now shooting with more than four times the power.

NARRATOR: To test the replica arrows to the limit, he's using a modern bow, with the 200-pound draw weight of the original Qin bows. It's devastating against ballistic gel, but how will it fare against Chinese armor?

MIKE LOADES: This is the level of armor that an arrow has to defeat. It's lamellar armor. That means you've got scales, which overlap each other, and then, behind that, is soft textile armor. And you can see on the terracotta warriors, they're wearing quite bulky clothing. And armor is a composite defense of hard exterior with soft padding, and they've probably got felt coats under that. Deep inside, here, is a piece of pork, to represent the human being inside. So that's the challenge an arrowhead has. Delivering that crucial thump to the target.

Safety off.

Well, it's stuck in. It's done something, by god, and its gone right through the pork. That is a dead enemy.

It's actually gone right through, and it's come out the other side, through the pork. Through three layers of hardened leather, through multiple layers of gathered silk, through a thick piece of felt, through a side of pork, and here it is, out the other side.

NARRATOR: The Qin used the crossbow to powerful effect. In 223 B.C., the Qin faced the vast Chu army on the banks of the Yangtze River. The Qin tricked them and then attacked with their devastating archers.

MIKE LOADES: This seemingly simple mechanism is two millennia ahead of its time.

NARRATOR: It would take over 1,500 years for European crossbows to surpass the Chinese ones in power, and only then with cumbersome levers and pulleys, making them far slower to use and difficult to master.

MIKE LOADES: You can learn to use this in less than two minutes. And it enabled a peasant army to be converted into state of the art troops.

NARRATOR: The Qin army had become so well organized and equipped, it conquered all its rivals and ended two centuries of war. The Qin leader now ruled all China, as the first emperor.

Historian Sima Qian, writing a century later, from the prospective of a succeeding dynasty, describes a frenzy of book-burning.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: All of the books in his kingdom were destroyed, possibly thousands of Chinese documents that we'll never get back, a terrible cataclysm for Chinese history and for Chinese historians.

NARRATOR: It was, according to Sima Qian, a descent into complete tyranny, as 700,000 workers were forced to expand the tomb complex. On the far western edge of the site, chilling evidence has revealed the dark secret behind the making of the terracotta army.

Janice Li is heading into the orchards, where mass graves have been excavated, filled with the bodies of workers, including women and children, worn down by the relentless toil. Archaeologists also found leg and neck irons, while Sima Qian refers to some workers as convicts and men condemned to castration.

The all-controlling Qin bureaucracy gave each body an inscribed death certificate or dog tag. Each is a moving testimony to an individual story of hard labor.

JANICE LI: Bu Geng Jiu is the builder's name, means, like, he owed the government money. So, he needs to work here instead of paying off the money to the government.

NARRATOR: The story of worker Bu Geng Jiu is typical. He was forced to work because he couldn't pay a crippling debt he owed the government. It was this forced labor that enabled the Qin to create the Chinese empire, protected with the earlier stages of the Great Wall, connected with intercity highways and irrigated with networks of canals and locks.

Conscripted laborers and slaves also assisted skilled artisans in making the 8,000 terracotta warriors. But how did the Qin do it all on such a vast scale? And with such attention to detail.

The careful study of both the figures and the weapons now enables us to understand how the workforce was organized and controlled.

Inscriptions on the warriors reveal who made them. They were built by groups, or cells, led by 92 master craftsmen, each probably controlling about 10 workers. These cells came from the palace factories or local workshops.

And the weapons also provide evidence of this highly productive and tightly controlled organization.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: We have hundreds, thousands of weapons here, but we want to find out how that was achieved. How is it that they could produce so many weapons in such a relatively short period?

NARRATOR: To help answer this, Janice Li has meticulously plotted all the armaments found in Pit 1.

JANICE LI: This is the map of all these bronze weapons, discovered in the east part of Pit 1. So, like, the red one showed the bronze triggers, crossbow triggers, discovered in the pit; and the black dots presents the arrow boundaries.

NARRATOR: The plots are then compared with the analysis of the metal content of the arrowheads,&

JANICE LI: This group really are very different from&


NARRATOR: &and the precise shape of the triggers. This reveals that the triggers fall into distinctive groups, defined by their characteristic shapes.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: For example, this hanging knife, here, is curved at this corner. This other one, here, ends at an angle.

NARRATOR: The plots of the armaments in Pit 1 identified several distinct batches of triggers. All the trigger combinations located in the top northeast corner are identical in size, bronze content and design, suggesting they were made by the same cell of workers. While this set of triggers is different, showing it was made by another cell of workers.

ANDREW BEVAN: This is a series of cells, working individually to create these metal weapons.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: All of this requires a very versatile workforce that can produce a sword today, a crossbow tomorrow, a halberd the day after, depending on what's needed, as the work moves forward.

NARRATOR: The worker cells were trained to be, not only productive, but versatile.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: I think this production model holds the key to understand how it was possible to produce something so colossal, so big, but also so sophisticated in a time window, maximum, 40 years, quite possibly less.

NARRATOR: Janice Li has also found crucial evidence about how the workers were organized, by decoding inscriptions chiseled into their weapons. They reveal a structure of strict supervision, where all the workers had to record their names.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: We can see individual workers, working on different years of the reign of Qin; above them, the craftsmen form and that will be working with them; the officials; and then, on top of all, Lü Buwei, who was then the Prime Minister or Chancellor of Qin.

NARRATOR: The craftsmen at the bottom had to sign their names, so any substandard work could easily be traced.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: Sometimes people referred to this supervisory system for quality control as a “carrot and stick” system. If something was wrong with a particular weapon that didn't fit the standard, then one could identify worker Jing, in particular, and make him accountable for his error.

NARRATOR: Everything had to be perfect for an immortal army, created to defend the first emperor in his perpetual afterlife, and perfection was achieved through fear.

Some recently discovered Qin legal codes detail a harsh system, where even minor crimes had terrible consequences.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: The state of Qin didn't just define things like theft and murder as crimes. Incompetence was also a crime. So, not meeting a particular standard of workmanship would also have been met with savage punishment: maimings, you have tortures, you have executions.

NARRATOR: This was all part of the system the Qin had created to rule every aspect of life in the empire. It was called “legalism.”

The grand historian, Sima Qian describes a society organized into small groups, each person responsible for the others' behavior.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: Every unit of five or ten houses was obliged to report on each other. If anyone committed a crime within your cell and you didn't report it, the entire cell would be punished. It's very likely that just as the army and society was divided up in this cellular way, that the artisans, the blacksmiths and the potters of the Qin world also worked on very similar lines.

It creates a vicious, brutal society of people informing on each other, and everyone was terrified.

NARRATOR: All the evidence shows that the Qin deployed small groups of skilled workers capable of mass-producing both weapons and individualized figures. They were controlled by a rigid system of incentives and punishments.

In 210 B.C., 11 years after he conquered all his neighbors, the first emperor died. Sima Qian records he was buried in a bronze coffin, surrounded by rivers of mercury, laid out in a map of the empire.

His tomb mound has never been excavated, but the terracotta army opened the door to a lost world. This massive site stands as testimony to the ingenuity and ruthlessness of the ancient Qin civilization. Its pioneering system of flexible manufacturing, combined with authoritarian rule, allowed it to create the eternal wonder of the terracotta army.

This remarkable discovery gives a glimpse into how one small state created a vast empire, perhaps foreshadowing the rise of a super-power today: modern China.

Broadcast Credits

Bill Locke
Gillian Mosely
Ian Bremner
Su-Mae Khoo
Ross Bradley
Jake Finbow
Brian McDairmant
Will Fewkes
Eric Meyers
Claire Smith
Patrick Chan
Grant Covacic
Audio Network
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422 South
Dominic Hutton
Tim Gillett
Madeleine Gerry
Amy Tapper
Xia Juxian
Dr. Hiromi Kinoshita, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Dr. Jane Portal, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Prof. Robin D. S. Yates, McGill University
Emperor Qin Shihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum
Institute Of Archaeology, University College, London
Dr. Andrew Bevan
Dr. Xiuzhen Janice Li
Prof. Marcos Martiní³n-Torres
Prof. Thilo Rehren
yU + co.
Walter Werzowa
John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.
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Linda Callahan
Sarah Erlandson
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Kristine Allington
Tim De Chant
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Lisa Leombruni
Ariam McCrary
Brittany Flynn
Kevin Young
Nathan Gunner
Elizabeth Benjes
David Condon
Pamela Rosenstein
Laurie Cahalane
Evan Hadingham
Julia Cort Chris Schmidt
Melanie Wallace
Alan Ritsko
Paula S. Apsell

A NOVA Production by Lion Television All3 Media/Medialab for WGBH Boston in association with Channel 4 and Arte France

© 2014 Lion Television

All Rights Reserved

Additional Material © 2014 WGBH Educational Foundation

All Rights Reserved

This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content.


Image credit (clay warriors)
© Lion Television


Andrew Bevan
University College London
Jonathan Clements
Xiuzhen Li
Terracotta Army Museum
Mike Loades
Military Historian
Marcos Martinon-Torres
University College London
Cao Wei
Terracotta Army Museum

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