Terracotta Army shoes reveal secrets of ancient Chinese footwear

An analysis of the sculpted shoes on the statues in China’s Terracotta Army, which dates back about 2200 years, suggests that their real-life soldier equivalents had surprisingly flexible footwear.

Shoes worn by the warriors of the first emperor of China, famously depicted by the Terracotta Army, were surprisingly flexible and slip resistant, according to a reconstruction of the ancient footwear. The replicas help build a better picture of what Qin dynasty soldiers may have worn and how they might have aided them in battle.

The shoes of a kneeling archer from the Terracotta Army
David Davis Photoproductions RF/Alamy Stock Photo

The Terracotta Army was discovered in 1974 near Xi’an, China, and is formed of more than 8000 sculptures depicting the armies of the founder of the Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang. The terracotta figures included warriors, chariots and horses and were buried alongside the emperor more than 2200 years ago to guard him in the afterlife.

Extensive analysis of the sculptures has helped reveal insights into the ancient Chinese warriors, such as what armour they wore and what weapons they used. Now, Na Cha and Jin Zhou at Sichuan University in China have recreated the shoes they wore by analysing the footwear of one of the army’s kneeling archers.

The pair closely examined and measured the archer figure, determining that its square-toed shoes had upturned tips and its sole was around 1.5 centimetres thick. The shoes also had circular markings on the bottom of the soles, which the researchers took to represent stitches. These circles were more concentrated at the front and the heel (see below), indicating that the real shoe was thinner in the middle, they say.

The terracotta shoes seemed to resemble real shoes unearthed around the region from the Qin dynasty, so the researchers decided to use traditional shoe-making techniques from the time to recreate them.

They constructed the sole by overlaying multiple layers of linen cloth and sewing them together using a natural fibre called ramie, which also made up the body of the shoes. They used denser stitches in the top and bottom thirds of the sole to replicate the circular markings of the warrior’s shoes.

Circles on the sculpted shoes are though to represent stitching
Tricia Daniel/Shutterstock

The researchers also created replicas of other shoes found in the region and wore both types to test them out. They found that the Terracotta Army replicas were more likely to bend during walking and were much more slip resistant compared with replicas of the other shoes. The replicas were also more slip resistant in wet conditions than modern shoes with rubber or plastic soles.

If the properties of the replica shoes reflect the real ones, such footwear would probably have enhanced the Qin dynasty soldiers’ combat abilities, say Cha and Zhou.

Journal reference:

Research SquareDOI: 10.21203/rs.3.rs-3279731/v1

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