Xia Juxian.

Were the Terracotta Army's weapons preserved?

Embargoed until: Publicly released:
Many of the weapons excavated from the Qin Terracotta Army have been maintained in good condition, with some speculation that their makers used an advanced form of preservation to prevent metal corrosion. But new research suggests the traces of chromium found on some weapons are the result of contamination rather than deliberate preservation. Examining 464 weapons from the site, they found chromium on only 37 and suggest this could be contamination from the lacquer used to treat the wooden elements of the weapons, which have since decayed.

Journal/conference: Scientific Reports

Link to research (DOI): 10.1038/s41598-019-40613-7

Organisation/s: University of Cambridge, UK

Funder: Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum, the British Academy, Rio Tinto and the Institute for Archaeo-Metallurgical Studies.

Media Release

From: Springer Nature

Insights into Terracotta Army weapons preservation 

The presence of traces of chromium on bronze weapons from the Qin Terracotta Army may not represent evidence of an advanced preservation method, according to research published in Scientific Reports. The research suggests that the presence of chromium may have been the result of contamination from the lacquer used to treat wooden parts of the weapons. This challenges a long-standing hypothesis that the Qin craftspeople had developed a chromium anti-rust system over 2,000 years ago.

The Qin Terracotta Army of Xi’an was created for the emperor Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC). The site in Xi’an, China, was first excavated in the 1970s and so far 2,000 well-preserved ceramic warriors with fully functional weapons have been excavated. Previous research has suggested that the good preservation of the weapons is due to chromium being used as an anti-rust treatment, applied by the Qin craftspeople to prevent them decaying in the afterlife.

Marcos Martinon-Torres and colleagues examined 464 weapons from the site and found the presence of chromium on only 37. They suggest that the presence of chromium on some weapons is due to contamination from lacquer used by the Qin craftspeople. Chromium was detected on 88% of weapon parts near fittings, such as handles, grips, or scabbards, whereas chromium on arrow heads or sword blades was detected in 2% of the samples or less. The authors argue that the pattern of distribution is due to the metal parts’ proximity to the lacquer used to treat the wooden elements of the weapons, which have since decayed. They also propose a number of other factors that may have contributed to the preservation of the weapons including the high tin content of some of the bronze and the soil composition of the site.

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  • Pit 1
    Pit 1

    View of Pit 1 of the Terracotta Army showing the hundreds of warriors once armed with bronze weapons.

    File size: 697.2 KB

    Attribution: Xia Juxian.

    Permission category: © - Only use with this story

    Last modified: 05 Apr 2019 12:04am

    NOTE: High resolution files can only be downloaded here by registered journalists who are logged in.

  • Pit 1
    Pit 1

    View of Pit 1 of the Terracotta Army showing the hundreds of warriors once armed with bronze weapons.

    File size: 402.5 KB

    Attribution: Xia Juxian.

    Permission category: © - Only use with this story

    Last modified: 05 Apr 2019 12:04am

    NOTE: High resolution files can only be downloaded here by registered journalists who are logged in.

  • Bronze sword
    Bronze sword

    One of the bronze swords from the Terracotta Army showing an excellent state of preservation, with a shiny and sharp blade. Also shown are the metal fittings from the grip and scabbard, which were made of organic material and have not survived.

    File size: 203.9 KB

    Attribution: Zhao Zhen

    Permission category: © - Only use with this story

    Last modified: 05 Apr 2019 12:04am

    NOTE: High resolution files can only be downloaded here by registered journalists who are logged in.

  • Sword grip
    Sword grip

    Detail from the grip and blade from one of the Terracotta Army swords. In most of the swords analysed, the highest concentrations of chromium are detected in the guard and other fittings, which would have been in contact with the lacquered organic parts.

    File size: 3.3 MB

    Attribution: Zhao Zhen

    Permission category: © - Only use with this story

    Last modified: 05 Apr 2019 12:04am

    NOTE: High resolution files can only be downloaded here by registered journalists who are logged in.

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