Category Archives: terra cotta warriors

First emperor Qin may have used “just-in-time” production methods for his weapons

We set much of the plot for our medical mystery/thriller “Rabbit in the Moon” in Xi’an in Shaanxi province. If you’ve ever traveled there, you’ve certainly seen the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor who unified China. In 210 BC, Qin was buried surrounded by terra cotta likenesses of over 8,000 of his personal soldiers as well as 150 calvary horses and 130 chariots with 520 horses. Each clay soldier carried swords, axes, spears, lances and crossbows made of the bronze.


The tomb was first discovered in March, 1974 by local farmers when they were digging a water well. Still not completely excavated, the site draws crowds of tourists who marvel at the individually sculptured faces of the soldiers.

Scientists have been particularly interested in how the bronze weapons were made.  A recent study of 40,000 bronze arrowheads published in the Journal of Archaeological Methods and Theory argues that these weapons were manufactured within various multi-skilled units that would have included a master artisan and a quality control supervisor rather than in a Ford motor car assembly line model. The authors state that “this system favored more adaptable and efficient logistical organization that facilitated dynamic cross-craft interaction while maintaining remarkable degrees of standardization.”

If true, this ancient “just-in-time” approach was a precursor for the same method favored by companies like Toyota today.

The distance between each carved soldier is quite small, so the assumption is that they were placed in the pit fully outfitted with their weapons. According to the researchers, this suggests that the weapon manufacturers had to coordinate their work with the statue carvers in order to keep the production flow efficient. Given that Qin was known to deal harshly with those who didn’t please him, there must have been incredible pressure on the 700,000 indentured slaves, prisoners of war, skilled artisans and others said to have worked on his mausoleum complex. Skeletons in iron shackles unearthed at the site suggest they didn’t always make the grade.


Leave a comment

Filed under Asia, China, Rabbit in the Moon, terra cotta warriors