The First Qin Emperor’s Water Birds: Manufacturing Techniques and Cultural Implications

Wednesday, April 20, 2022 12:00 PM


McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge

Needham Research Institute, Cambridge


Some treasures found in the mausoleum of the First Emperor of Qin (259-210 BC) at Xi'an-- the terracotta warriors, the elaborate horse chariots -- are now familiar icons. But not so the exquisite bronze water birds that also accompanied the Emperor in the afterlife.   

This talk presents results from the scientific examination of a group of bronze water birds, which were unearthed from sacrificial pit K0007 at the mausoleum the First Emperor of Qin (259-210 BC) in Lingtong, Xi’an during 2001-2003.  In total 46 bronze water birds were excavated, including 20 ducks, 20 swans and 6 cranes, all originally decorated with coloured pigments.  So far, only 8 ducks, 8 swans, 1 crane and about 10 fragments have been subjected to scientific examination, revealing some exceptional techniques, such as the use of clay chaplets, metal core rods and thin metal patches. These characteristics are rarely seen in bronze objects dating to the Shang and Zhou dynasties (16th -3rd centuries BCE).  However, they show some intriguing similarities to the technical features observed on ancient Greek bronze statues, which were cast using a lost-wax technique.   

Taking other archaeological evidence into consideration, this talk argues that cultural influence from the West may have played a significant role in shaping the material and spiritual cultures of the Qin Empire.


Jianjun MEI is Director of Research at the McDonald Institute of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, Director of the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge, and fellow of Churchill College. He is also corresponding fellow of the German Institute of Archaeology. His research focuses on the development of metallurgy in Bronze Age China and its relationships with bronze cultures in Central Asia and the Eurasian steppe. His publications include Copper and Bronze Metallurgy in Late Prehistoric Xinjiang: Its Cultural Context and Relationship with Neighbouring Regions (monography, 2000), Metallurgy and Civilization: Eurasia and Beyond (edited book, 2009), and 120 articles published in both Chinese and English.