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Centuries Before China's 'Great Wall,' There Was Another

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Centuries Before China's 'Great Wall,' There Was Another

Science

JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

The Great Wall of China, built over 2,000 years ago, stands as one of the monumental feats of ancient engineering. Stretching thousands of miles, it protected the newly unified country from foreign invaders. But before the Great Wall, warring Chinese dynasties built numerous great walls to protect themselves from each other. Recently, an American archeologist has been surveying one of the biggest of these early structures. NPR's Christopher Joyce has this story.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Gary Feinman did not set out to excavate what he now calls the first Great Wall. He was simply walking around eastern China's Shandong province staring at the ground like a good archaeologist, looking for tiny pieces of pottery. But two years ago, he came across an earthen wall. In some places, it was 15 feet high. People knew there was an early great wall in Shandong, dating to about 500 B.C., built centuries before the Great Wall. And this seemed to be part it.

GARY FEINMAN: By walking this part of the wall, we have seen how well designed it was. It really runs along the higher ridge tops of these very craggy mountains in eastern Shandong. In the upper reaches of its run, it was amazingly well preserved.

JOYCE: Feinman has essentially adopted this wall. He's been mapping it and he thinks it may extend several hundred miles.

FEINMAN: Nobody has done that before, nobody has seen how it snaked, exactly snaked the path it took through such a large area.

JOYCE: When the Chinese built the wall, they used a technique called rammed earth. Workers apparently got fine-grained soil from lower elevations and carried tons and tons and tons of it up to the ridge tops. They dumped it there into piles. And then they started...

FEINMAN: ...beating them, you know, just beating them and ramming them so that they are exceedingly hard. And that's part of why this wall has survived after 2,500 years on a landscape that has been intensively utilized.

JOYCE: Doing that for hundreds of miles took lots of manpower. Archaeologist Gideon Shelach at Hebrew University in Jerusalem says the Qi dynasty, which oversaw the project, had plenty of hands they needed to keep occupied.

GIDEON SHELACH: They were very good at recruiting people for war, first of all. And I guess part of it they found out they can do basically everything that they want because they have so much manpower, and so they started building those walls.

JOYCE: Unlike the Great Wall that would follow three centuries later, this Great Qi Wall was not built to keep out foreign invaders.

FEINMAN: It was a wall between large existing states, and it was probably built because that apparently was a time when the size and scale of armies got much, much larger.

JOYCE: The regional dynasties that employed those armies were constantly at war until a very tough guy named Qin Shi Huang put a stop to all of it with what Gideon Shelach says was an almost unimaginably mighty army.

SHELACH: The army of the Qin that conquered all the other states had like 1.5 million soldiers fighting in different fronts for 10 years.

JOYCE: Qin Shi Huang unified the regional states in 221 B.C., and created - naturally - the Qin dynasty. Qin's soldiers were the models for the famous terracotta warriors that were discovered in 1974. Those statues were buried along with Qin Shi Huang when he died. But before he died, Qin realized that good walls make good neighbors. He started building another wall in the north even bigger than the Qi wall, one that eventually led to the Great Wall that people know now. Feinman, who's with the Field Museum in Chicago, says the Chinese public is interested in rediscovering this earlier Qi wall. There's a lot of building going on in rural China, though, which threatens to swallow up parts of it, but, Feinman says, that may not be a bad thing.

FEINMAN: Oddly enough, parts of it serve as the base for dirt roads connecting communities so what was once a means of keeping people apart is now a way of bringing them together.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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