2,200-Year-Old Stone Armor Reveals Qin Shi Huang's Legacy
Excavations in 1998 and 2019 unearthed hoards of ancient stone armor in and around the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, offering insights into the emperor's military achievements and life. Now, a new study highlights how these discoveries represent various aspects of Qin Shi Huang's military legacy.
In 1998, archaeologists in China discovered a stash of ancient stone armor in ‘Pit K9801,’ in the Mausoleum of the First Qin Dynasty Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who ruled in the central Shaanxi Province from 221 to 210 BC. Famous for having united China under a centralized imperial government, Qin Shi Huang constructed the Great Wall of China and commissioned the famous Terracotta Army as part of his elaborate tomb complex.
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In 1998, archaeologists unearthed over 600 small limestone plates, which were connected to each other using bronze wires. In 2001, further stone armor products, and the tools used to make them, were found in a well in Xinfeng, by the Wei River, that dated to the Qin Dynasty.
Then, in 2019, archaeologists from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology excavated the Liujiagou site, beneath the barren bush to the north of the main burial site, near a high-rise building in Xianyang, the capital city of the Qin Dynasty. Even more defective stone armor and tools were found, and all of the findings matched the previously excavated stone armor remains from Pit K9801, and from the site in Xinfeng.
Analyzing “32,292” Ancient Artifacts
A new study published in Science Direct, by professor Xuewei Zhang of the Bioarchaeology Laboratory, Jilin University, Changchun, says the 2019 discovery “is significant,” because it links two phases of Qin Shi Huang’s life and death. Furthermore, these archaeological finds illustrate funerary and burial processes within the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor.
In 2019, the team of archaeologists excavated an area of 144 m2, (1,550 sq ft) revealing a hoard of “32,392 artifacts,” according to the study. Some stone armor plates were rectangular in shape with drilled holes, polished surfaces, and treated edges, and “almost finished,” resembling previously excavated stone armor. Furthermore, the artifacts represented a specific type of stone armor, and included production waste.
Tellingly, the team of archaeologists also discovered tools that were used in the production of the stone armor, which informed the researchers about the manufacturers craft skills and production methods. The new paper focuses on the production process of stone armor, and it breaks the methods down into its different stages.
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Stone armor, Warring States period (457-221 B.C.), excavated in 1998 in the Terracotta Army buried near the Mausoleum of the First Emperor of Qin, in Lintong District of Xi'an, Shaanxi. (CC0)
Almost Finished Stone Armor
Stone armor consists of front and rear tunics, pauldrons, and a tasset. The new analysis revealed the use of high-quality limestone with minimal joints as the raw material, and the researchers matched some “nearly finished,” broken plates, to their original armor sets. The scientists also experimented with the wear patterns to better understand the perforation techniques used in making the stone armor. And after reconstructing the stone armor production process, the researchers found that the armor “was abandoned” before completion.
According to the new study, evidence suggests the process of making stone armor was similar to that of producing leather armor, by casting molds. Furthermore, the stone armor production process consisted of “nine repetitive steps, potentially influenced by random variables.” And the new study also showed that the raw materials used to make the armor, “were not local but imported from distant locations”.
Stone armor helmet. (CC BY 2.0)
Stone Armor, For Afterlife Battles
The new study concluded that the 2019 excavation site was “a significant stone armor workshop during the Qin Dynasty.” However, in the practical world, stone armor offers limited protection, and is easily damaged when impacted, therefore it was unsuitable for use in combat. Stone armor was used in ancient China to preserve grave goods during funerals, “because it decayed less rapidly than leather armor,” according to the new paper.
2,200 years ago, in China, stone armor was made primarily for funerary purposes, rather than for actual use in battles, but it imitated the style of armor used at that time. Despite its practical limitations, the inclusion of stone armor and stone weapons in burials, such as that of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, reflected the people’s reverence for all things military, and each piece of stone armor reflects the military power and authority wielded by various rulers during their lifetime.
Top image: Stone armor from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang. Source: CC BY 2.0
By Ashley Cowie