An Earlier Great Wall of China

The centuries before China’s unification under the Qin Dynasty (221 BC) are known as the Warring States period, an era when large armies clashed in fierce competitions for power and territory. 

The rulers of these competing large states amassed giant armies of tens of thousands of infantrymen, who marched in combat against their enemies.  In China, one innovation against such attacks was the construction of fortification walls built along borders.  

Sections of the famous Great Wall of China may have been built during the Warring States period, and this renowned wall is certainly the most famous, but was it the first?   

As part of a two-decade-long survey of settlements in eastern Shandong Province, China, a collaborative team of researchers from the Field Museum and Shandong University in China are now mapping a great wall that was built by the Qi state and pre-dates the more famous Great Wall. 

Led by Gary Feinman, Curator of Anthropology at the Museum, and Professor Fang Hui of Shandong University, the Sino-American team is meticulously documenting both the path of this early great wall and recording its long-term relationship to settlement patterns in the region.

The Qi wall has long been known to a small number of scholars and local residents, but this feature made of rammed earth has never been traced in detail over an extended area.  Feinman, working with Field Museum Adjunct Curator Linda Nicholas and graduate students in archaeology from Shandong University have now documented the wall over a 50 km stretch that crosscuts the region where this international team has been surveying ancient settlements.

“The wall cuts across our study region,” Feinman said.  “It relates to the history of the settlements in that area, and so we’ve taken a great interest in it.”

 “Because the wall is a part of our survey, we know the history of settlements before, during, and after the time in which the wall was built (ca. 500 BC),” said Feinman.  “By following the wall, and mapping its precise location over about 1/12th of its extent, we have observed how large and well engineered it was, and how it takes advantage of the contours of the terrain.  For example, the wall follows ridges, so that it remains elevated as much as possible.  These observations have helped us understand its function as a barricade.  Such detailed contextual information doesn’t exist for even the more famous “Great Wall of China.”

The Qi wall itself was constructed using a technique called “rammed earth,” in which workers took great pains to carry huge amounts of fine soil to elevated areas, and then vigorously pounded the sediment (mixed with water and perhaps a binding agent) to heights of 15 feet, in some places! 

“This was a major effort, because the wall follows ridges into mountainous areas that would have been very difficult to reach with great volumes of earth,” Feinman said.  Today, the wall is best preserved at these higher elevations where it likely was most difficult to erect, but where it is not endangered by subsequent farming and flooding.

While it could be scaled with ropes, the Qi wall would have been an effective impediment against large infantries, which likely had accompanying carts carrying food and supplies.  Such massive arrays of foot soldiers would have been slowed down as ropes were deployed to scale the wall, and some supplies would have likely been lost or left behind.

While the wall is slowly disappearing due to contemporary priorities, such as road construction, Feinman hopes that mapping the wall will encourage Chinese scholars and the government to preserve the wall as a historical landmark.

“Nevertheless, we also understand that there is an important balance between modern economic development and the historical importance of preserving these features,” said Feinman.

Find out more about The Field Museum's anthropological research in Asia.