Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Chinese Terracotta Warriors Were Likely Replicas of Real Soldiers

Technology Reveals Chinese Terracotta Warriors Were Likely Replicas of Real Soldiers

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

When Chinese farmers uncovered an ancient site while digging a well in 1974, they had no idea they were to encounter a giant army of warriors. The Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang had lain in wait for 2,000 years, guarding the emperor’s tomb – the largest in Chinese history - at the base of Lishan Mountain in Shaanxi Province. Now research suggests the ears of these famous clay warriors provide a clue into how the army was made.

Archaeologists and historians have marveled over the find since its rediscovery, wondering how ancient artisans in 246 BC created the ranks of life-sized clay soldiers, each seemingly unique in detail. Using advanced imaging technology, researchers from the University College London (UCL) and Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum Site Museum in China have now surmised that each warrior was made to represent a real man of the time. Although some researchers had long suspected this to be the case, there was no real evidence to prove it.

Could the ears of the terracotta warriors hold a clue to their creation?

Could the ears of the terracotta warriors hold a clue to their creation? Credit: Richard Fisher / flickr

Until now, the conventional view was that in order to create the army of terracotta figures, approximately 7,000 strong, as well as the 130 chariots and nearly 700 horse sculptures buried with them, the whole process had been done ‘assembly-line’ fashion, with workers tasked with creating just mouths, or just noses, and the pieces would then be added to the whole. However, the new study may reveal a different technique.

The team took detailed scans of the facial features of the warriors, in particular the ears, which forensic research shows can be used to identify individuals as effectively as a fingerprint, UCL archaeologist Andrew Bevan told National Geographic. The scans revealed that no two ears of the sculptures were identical. This variance in shape mimics real human populations, and gives support to the theory that realism was the intent.

Individual clay ear shapes and styles represented

Individual clay ear shapes and styles represented (Creative Commons, Journal of Archaeological Science)

Marcos Martinón-Torres of UCL said, “Based on this initial sample, the terracotta army looks like a series of portraits of real warriors.” Reportedly this study echoes conclusions from a 2003 paper published in the journal Antiquity that studied the heights of the clay warriors, suggesting they matched probable statures of Chinese infantry at the time.

Detail of facial features and clothing of clay warrior

Detail of facial features and clothing of clay warrior. Credit: Ana Paula Hirama / flickr

Further research into the weapons and armor of the warriors revealed distinct pieces sporting makers’ marks. This would have made each artisan personally responsible for his work. According to National Geographic, “Qin Shi Huang's armorers worked in a ‘cellular production’ system similar in some respects to that pioneered by Toyota to produce cars. Instead of monotonously making the same part for an assembly line, the imperial weapon makers were probably versatile artisans who worked in small, dispersed workshops making weapons from start to finish.”

Much of the site remains to be excavated, and thousands of statues still need to be unearthed. As they are painstakingly returned to their original splendor, a clearer portrait of the emperor’s army and ancient Chinese history will be revealed.

The Journal of Archaeological Science study examining the Terracotta Army can be found at

Featured Image: An ancient terracotta warrior. Source: BigStockPhoto

By Liz Leafloor



I like these images, I also like terracooters. Enjoy

DeAegean's picture

No wonder the war was so expensive... an entire army immortalized

It is sad that based on one discredited historical account - written a hundred years after the first emperor died - the media perpetuates this foolish idea that the terra cotta array was to "protect the emperor in the afterlife." What an insult to the greatest peace maker and nation builder - ever.

The terra cotta array was the emperor's memorial to the end of war. It was intended to draw thousands - who would come to see the vast expense of war - vast expense that would never happen again under his administration.

A great story. Made silly by an old tale.

The full story of Qin Shi Huang is found in The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War, available from Amazon.

mrtkpc's picture

It would only make sense that these are likenesses of his actual warriors. If Emporer Huang went to this much trouble to sculpt an army, why not make it his own personal army?

rbflooringinstall's picture

Maybe the emporer had 7000+ best me learn the art and sculpt their own terrecata version of themselves?

Peace and Love,



Liz Leafloor is former Art Director for Ancient Origins Magazine. She has a background as an Editor, Writer, and Graphic Designer. Having worked in news and online media for years, Liz covers exciting and interesting topics like ancient myth, history,... Read More

Next article