Academic journal article Antiquity

Crossbows and Imperial Craft Organisation: The Bronze Triggers of China's Terracotta Army

Academic journal article Antiquity

Crossbows and Imperial Craft Organisation: The Bronze Triggers of China's Terracotta Army

Article excerpt

Introduction

Since their rediscovery by Chinese archaeologists in the 1970s, the tomb complex containing the Qin terracotta warriors of Xi'an has become one of the world's most impressive archaeological sites. An army many thousand strong, the ceramic warriors were originally equipped with fully functional bronze weapons and were stationed at the eastern end of the mausoleum of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi (Figure 1) (259-210 BC) (SIAATQ 1988; Yuan 1990, 2002; Wang 1994; Ledderose 2000; Portal 2007; Duan 2011). To date, more than 40 000 arrowheads and several hundred other bronze weapons have been found associated with the warriors in three different pits within the tomb complex. Only parts of these weapons have survived to the present day, but this remarkable assemblage includes crossbow triggers, sword blades, lance tips, spearheads, dagger-axe blades and halberds, as well as a few ceremonial weapons (Qin & Zhang 1983; Yuan 1984; Liu 1986; SIAATQ 1988; Huang 1990; MEQSTA 2008). The arrangement of the weapons in the pits reflects prevailing Qin battle formations and military strategies, and these have been widely discussed in the existing literature, both in Chinese and English (Yuan & Qin 1975; Wang 1980, 1983, 1990; Yuan 1990, 2002; Yates 2007). Far less has been said about what the bronze weapons might tell us about craft standardisation, workshop organisation or the logistics of this monumental funerary project (Yuan et al. 1981). One particular challenge our research faces is that no production remains have been found, and hence our reconstruction of production organisation has to be based on the reverse engineering of finished items in their depositional contexts. The present study focuses on the most extensively explored of the Terracotta Army pits (Pit 1) and on one particularly intriguing component: the multi-part triggers that were key devices behind China's early development of crossbow technology. Detailed typological and metrical characterisation of these artefacts combined with spatial analysis allows us to reconstruct possible workshop practices, storage behaviours and the logistical feat that placed these artefacts in their final positions beside the warriors.

If historical records from later periods are to be believed, the construction of the First Emperor's mausoleum was commissioned as soon as he became ruler of the Qin state in 246 BC. Construction took about 40 years and involved 700 000 labourers, who were conscripted to the Qin capital. It is likely that many of the items in the pit were produced specifically for the mausoleum: not only the terracotta warriors themselves, but the ceramic acrobats, officials, musicians and horse keepers, the bronze chariots and birds, as well as the stone armour (SIAMEQSTA 1998, 2000, 2006, 2007; Yuan 2002).

For the bronze weapons, several options should be considered: a) they could have been commissioned specifically for the Terracotta Army; b) they could have been made in one or more weapon-making facilities following ordinary practice for the supply of real armies; or c) they could have been removed from circulation in order to be deposited in the tomb, perhaps after a period of use. In any of these cases, the weapons may or may not have spent some time in storage prior to being transported to the tomb complex and being placed alongside the warriors.

The style of the triggers and other weapons is different from contemporary examples found in other parts of China, but comparable to those at other Qin sites (Yang 1980: 206-17). In addition, the 'regnal years' inscribed on a small handful of the weapons predate the ascent of Qin Shihuangdi to the imperial throne (Yuan 1984; SIAATQ 1988: 251; Li et al. 2011). However, most of the weapons, including the triggers, are not dated, and they could conceivably have been made later (see below). Our study of filing and other tool marks on the trigger surfaces showed no obvious wear marks (Li et al. …

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