Fathoming the Ruins of Yanmen Shan Mountain and the Biggest Cut Rocks in the World
Along the side of Yanmen Shan mountain, located twenty kilometers to the east of Nanjing, China, the legendary Yangshan quarry can be found. Although it is believed to have been in use from at least the time of the Six Dynasties (220 – 589 AD), the majority of the work at Yangshan is still attributed to the wave of construction that took place after the Ming dynasty was founded in 1368 AD, when the new emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, chose nearby Nanjing to become his capital city.
As the story goes, the emperor’s son ordered the construction of a gigantic stele in 1405 AD for the Ming Xiaoling mausoleum; which had been built for his father, by his father, and was then later completed during the reign of his son. The Yangshan mountain quarry was chosen by the city’s stonemasons. They were then said to have cut and crafted three enormous blocks from the mountain side before finally coming to the realization that the blocks they’d been cutting were far too big. At which point, they abandoned the effort in favor of a more realistic project.
How big were these blocks that they mistakenly sized-up?
The stele that these masons did end up creating for the Emperor is 6.7 meters (22 feet) tall—8.78 (29 ft), if you include the height of the stone tortoise it’s perched on—and, altogether with the tortoise, would weigh right around 100 tons. If assembled, the stele that they were said to have mistakenly attempted would have been over eight times as tall—73 meters high—and over three-hundred and ten times its weight—31,000 tons. For reference, a typical car weighs between 1 and 1.5 tons; the largest monolith, in the ancient and modern world, is the 1,250-ton Thunder Stone moved by Russia in 1770, resembling a rough outcropping that was never carved.
The stele that was built for the Emperor’s mausoleum (Vmenkov/Author provided)
One part of the stele that was claimed to have been cut out for the Emperor; it is hundreds of times bigger than anything man has ever been known to have moved (Vmenkov/Author provided)
A Monumental Failure
If taken as the authentic history it’s presented as, this story should be alarming for a number of reasons.
What could have led the Emperor’s master masons to believe that they could transport three blocks, totaling 31,000 tons, twenty kilometers through the mountains?
How could the construction of the Emperor’s grand gift to his father have been entrusted to such a thoroughly incompetent group? Especially when considering that, overall, this was many, enormous blunders taking place over a very long period and would have involved a substantial number of people: it seems preposterous that the effort wouldn’t have been halted almost immediately, let alone being allowed to begin in the first place.
The severe differences in the size, placement, and shape of the cuts indicate that they were never meant to be placed together or even moved. If they were, they also wouldn’t have all been cut at the same time and in such disparate fashions.
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Consider the long-running conflict that was being fought with the Mongols, which was soaking up much of their resources and attention, and the fact that, only years later, the country’s bankrupt treasury couldn’t even manage to find the funds to create a single print of their newly created encyclopedia. This strenuous period doesn’t exactly appear to be the time to embark on one of the most immense engineering projects known to man, a project that would have amounted to nothing more than an art piece.
Enormous cut stones at Yangshan (Vmenkov/Author provided)
Yangshan Was More Than a Quarry
There hardly seems to be a need to reconcile this curious tale as a quick review of the site reveals a multitude of inclusions that would never have been made if the site was simply a quarry.
For instance, in the image above, three outcroppings of rock can be seen. These, at first, might be seen as sites to attach ropes. However, their placement quickly deflates this idea. They can only be found on some of the stones, and they’re also clustered on a single side on some of those stones. Many of the protrusions are also fully rounded and would make for poor grips for rope. Certain ones are also beneath the area where the block would have been cut.
Also, as can be seen in the same image, smooth cylindrical segments have been removed in a place that would serve no purpose if the blocks were to be removed.
It becomes even harder to accept that these blocks were ever intended to be moved when examining the patterns carved into the walls of the rooms that have been created beneath these giant masses of stone—as seen in the pictures below.
Patterns carved into the walls of the rooms that have been created beneath these giant masses of stone (Vmenkov/Author provided)
A Display of Entopic Phenomena?
Engraved a centimeter or more, and sometimes deeper than an inch, these patterns appear to have been worked into the interior surfaces of these structures much in the same way that entoptic phenomena was incorporated into some of the oldest cave art sites in the world.
Entoptic phenomena, in an archaeological context, are patterns that naturally occur within the eye or brain which are then used as a motif for art when their occurrence in a normal human’s experience is greatly increased due to that person undergoing an altered state of consciousness; in other words, our ancient ancestors used to put themselves into altered states of consciousness—typically, through the use of naturally occurring psychedelic compounds—and they would then carve or paint entoptic phenomena, among other things, inside of caves and on rock faces.
If the engravings at this site are truly indicative of entoptic phenomena, this realization might help to place the site into a much deeper period of antiquity as the other examples of entoptic phenomena in cave art typically receive dates on the order of tens of thousands of years old. [For more on this, look to the work of David Lewis-Williams].
To be clear, these long, engraved patterns of lines are certainly not the aftermath of the stone in these openings simply being removed—at least not by any tools or techniques attributed to ancient man; though many, particularly along the side walls, do resemble what remains after a pass by a modern heavy excavator. So why would the workers, said to be quarrying these blocks, go through the trouble? The designs appear artistic, similar to what might be found in a ritual space. Additionally, and strangely enough, they don’t appear to have been made by a basic chisel.
A Staggering Amount of Rock Moved
One particularly bizarre aspect of the site is just how much stone appears to have been moved. Looking at the spaces between the major blocks and the surrounding mountains, it looks as if millions of tons of rock have been removed. The region is known to have been a quarry for some time, though this explanation would hardly seem to account for the staggering amount of rock that appears to have been moved. In addition, if the site was used to quarry rock then take it elsewhere, it was done so in a very bizarre fashion; as if there was a contrived effort to leave behind towering, flat walls—this isn’t found at any other ancient quarry.
A more reasonable explanation would seem to be that whoever initially worked at this site did so to create the structures found at the site. It’d be an immense project, though not entirely without precedent. The Longyou caves, which are a few hundred miles away, are considered to be one of the ancient world’s biggest engineering projects, though no one can determine who made them or why. A similar amount of stone would have been displaced in the area around Yanmen Shan. The Longyou caves also have very similar patterns of engraved lines like those seen in the images above.
This image gives an indication of just how much rock was carved and moved (Vmenkov/Author provided)
If the site really is the ruins of some incredibly ancient culture, there’s a possibility that they might have lessened their workload by using rubble-masonry stonework and rammed-earth building techniques to shape different parts of the area. The techniques are rather simple—rubble-masonry, for instance, is the process of mixing small rocks with cement then using that material to fill in wooden frames to make walls or blocks—and would have been employed in an adding-subtracting manner; as the workers would break apart certain areas of rock, they’d use the rubble to fill in other areas of the site: piecing together giant stone creations while they carved out others.
Left: Examples of the Rammed Earth Method. Right: Example of the Rubble Masonry Method (Author provided)
There’s more to this site than it being a simple quarry. However, its original purpose is tough to discern. What is known is that at least some material has been taken from this site; so it’s likely that those operations would have taken apart any smaller stone structures as well as removing anything that might be considered valuable or precious—such as what might be found in a temple.
Further shrouding the site in mystery is the intense level of secrecy China maintains in regards to some of its strangest ancient ruins. Many sites are completely restricted, and in general, it’s almost impossible to gain permission to dig at or research any historical site.
Even more frustrating, as well as bizarre, is that the existence of certain megalithic sites is simply denied. For instance, the hundreds of pyramids that cover China’s landscape weren’t acknowledged until more recent times; and, at first, these structures were downplayed as a handful of small Han-era burial mounds. To this day, the areas with the largest and most interesting structures are off limits. A few well-known burial mounds are available to the public, and it’s explained that any other pyramid-like structures that exist are just like the ones that can be seen.
Also, interesting to note is that the Chinese government has since gone out of their way to cover some of these pyramids with a fast-growing species of conifer, seemingly for the purpose of masking their presence from aerial photography while also degrading their structure.
The ruins at Yangshan (Vmenkov/Author provided)
A beautifully precise scoop taken for no apparent reason out of a large rock (Baike/ Author Provided)
As is the case with most of our world’s oldest existing works of art and architecture, this creation seems to belong to a disparate culture that embodied a way of life radically different than our own. And, just like other ancient megalithic sites, it would seem its builders utilized techniques that have long since been lost; a body of techniques that likely arose from an entirely different tree of engineering which allowed for the working and movement of enormous stones to be a far more practical endeavor.
Top image: The ruins at Yangshan quarry. Source: Vmenkov/Author provided
By Winston Hall
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