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Secrets of Chinese Terracotta Army Weapons Revealed

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In 1974, one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the world took place when more than 8000 life-size clay warriors were uncovered in Xi’an, China. They have become known as the ‘Terracotta Army’.  In December, 2013, an analysis on the weapons found with the clay warriors revealed they were real weapons, not replicas, and they were powerful enough to pierce armour and kill opponents with a single blow. Now, scientists have worked out how the bronze triggers for the crossbows of the terracotta warriors were manufactured .

The 2,200-year-old terracotta army lies in the greatest mausoleum in the world, and archaeologists believe that it was meant to protect Emperor Qin Shi Huang in his journey after death. Each soldier was created with unique characteristics and was placed according to rank.  They were also equipped with new weapons, which would allow the army to defend their king in the afterlife.

Historical documents suggest that soon after Emperor Qin Shi Huang ascended to the throne in 246 BC, he began work on his tomb near Xi'an, China. The massive effort required 700,000 labourers, many of whom were convicts or people who were in debt to the empire. As part of the huge project, craftspeople sculpted about 8,000 colourful warriors — likely using real human beings as inspiration — and those warriors wore stone armour and "wielded" lances, swords and crossbows.

According to a new study published in the journal Antiquity, teams of craftspeople worked in small groups to produce the bronze pieces in batches for the tomb of ancient Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The research team analysed 216 of the crossbow triggers from the mausoleum and found that the lack of wear confirmed the weapons were never used but instead built solely for the tomb. Furthermore, the trigger pieces were found to be mostly uniform, suggesting the parts were made in the same or nearly-identical moulds and produced in small batches. Each batch of the trigger pieces was likely then assembled in small cells, or workshops, perhaps headed by an overseer.  That model contrasts with the "assembly line" hypothesis that some archaeologists thought might have been used.

The organization into small workshops was similar to the structure the emperor imposed on the rest of society in ancient China, said study co-author Marcos Martinón-Torres, an archaeologist at the University College London.

He abolished any privileges inherited by blood, and the population was divided in small groups that were collectively responsible for their adherence to imperial laws," wrote Martinón-Torres. "For example, if someone in one of these groups committed a crime, all of them were held responsible, unless they reported the culprit and allowed them to be punished.

One thing is for certain, the weapons of the terracotta army were designed to kill as efficiently in the afterlife as in this one.

Featured image: The Terracotta Army. Photo source: Wikimedia

By April Holloway

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