Original Purpose of World’s Largest Construction Exposed
You could be forgiven for thinking that the Great Pyramids of Egypt or Mexico were the “largest” constructions in the ancient world, but archaeologists have long known that this sublime title is held by the ancient long walls (or ‘great’) walls of the Eurasian Steppe and China, the most famous being The Great Wall of China, mythically ‘visible from space’.
The walls occurred from the last centuries BC to the seventeenth century AD and for over a century archaeologists have offered a range of theories to explain their original purpose with many believing they functioned as the borders to changing ecological zones, or defensive structures to keep out aggressive nomadic tribes, while others maintain they were built to control the movement of local nomadic groups following imperialist expansion. However, these “beliefs” have been scientifically assessed in a collaborative project involving archaeologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and Yale University.
Investigators assess one section of the wall. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)
Defensive Walls Or Eco-Borders?
In 2020, a paper published in the journal Antiquity by Professor Gideon Shelach-Lavi from the Department of Asian Studies, Hebrew University, detailed the findings of the professor’s team who had researched an eleventh to thirteenth century, 737 kilometer (458 mile) long medieval wall, which runs from northern China into north-eastern Mongolia. Built by either the Liao or Jin Dynasties, the team of scientists set out to better understand the reasons behind the wall ’s construction, as well as its various possible functions.
According to the researchers, long walls are often thought of as demarcating “an ecological boundary between agriculture and pastoralism, which they refer to as the classic “steppe vs sown” division. The extensive eleventh to thirteenth centuries AD ancient wall presented in the article, called (the ‘northern line ’), however, is located deep inside the eastern Steppe zone and ‘didn’t’ represented a border between ecological zones.
The Great Wall(s) of China, with the Northern Line highlighted (Image: Connor J. Sweetwood. Data from © Mapbox and © OpenStreetMap / Antiquity Publications Ltd)
Measuring The Largest Construction, Ever
Not knowing if the wall had served a purely military purpose to defend a territory against invading armies, or if it was perhaps a symbolic demarcation of a frontier borderland, or if deteriorating climatic and ecological conditions catalyzed a need to control and monitor the movement of populations across the walls and into state-controlled lands, the scientists asked when and why was this northern wall built, and by whom?
High definition drone photography revealed that the wall was one continuous structure with the best-preserved sections about 1 meter (3.2 ft) above ground level and that the current width of the wall is approximately 10 meters (32 ft). And what is now confirmed is that this wall belonged to an expansive and complex wall system that spanned over 3500 kilometers (2175 miles) and the paper says if all the parallels are taken into account the accumulated length “exceeds 6500 kilometers”(4040 miles) representing one of the “longest wall complexes, and largest monuments, ever constructed.” Yet, relatively little research has been done on this medieval wall system, and it was missed from most Chinese historical works.
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The remains of the wall and nearby structure (Image: G. Shelach-Lavi / Antiquity Publications Ltd)
Mapping A Sprawling Stone Serpent
The new study presents the researchers fieldwork focusing on a section of the northern wall located in Dornod Province, north-eastern Mongolia, which features several expansive auxiliary structures, such as towers and camps all revealing the structure’s original function. The paper’s authors employed GIS analysis, drone photography and the analysis of satellite imagery of these features, to explore the function of the wall and the logic behind its construction.
The researchers used high-resolution satellite imagery to identify the line of the wall and to plot structures associated with it, and this remote-sensing approach revealed clusters of ancient structures located along the course of the 737 kilometer (458 mile) wall, which the team say were “centers of human activity probably contemporaneous with the wall being in use.” The rectangular structures are thought to have probably functioned as bases for soldiers who operated the wall system, and the circular structures may have been used as animal corrals.
Structures next to the wall, likely militart bases and livestock corrals. (Image: G. Shelach-Lavi / Antiquity Publications Ltd)
And Finally, The Wall’s Function Is Realized
Ground based detection equipment included metal detectors which were used to find coins, which in turn helped the scientists more accurately determine when the wall was functional, and the ceramics they found all dated to the Liao period (907–1125 AD). The new analysis suggests that the northern wall line was a carefully considered design, pre-planned and systematically built across a relatively flat lowland area between two mountain ranges, and that this massive ancient structure facilitated an intended set of functions related to “protecting, observing, monitoring and/or in some way demarcating this northern zone.”
A typical collection of ceramic fragments found during pedestrian survey from areas around cluster 27. (Image: By the authors /Antiquity Publications Ltd)
The scientists argue that the northern wall line was probably “not the fortified border that it is sometimes considered to represent” because they say neither the Liao or Jin Dynasties conceived of their polity as bounded by what is the “very modern notion of rigid borders.” Rather, the function of the wall was more about “controlling nomads, rather than establishing clearly defined land borders,” which is evident in that the wall line lies to the west of the borders of the Jin State inside Liao territory.
And with the wall having been built between two mountain ranges, with structures situated at locations that “favour natural pathways through the wall“ both of these factors indicate that the wall controlled the movement of people, and trade, rather than defending against armies. Thus, the wall probably functioned to control the movement of both people and commodities out of Liao territory and into regions inhabited by unaffiliated outlying nomadic communities.
The study, ‘Medieval long-wall construction on the Mongolian Steppe during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries AD’ is published later today by Antiquity, https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2020.51.
Top image: The wall is part of the World’s largest construction project that spanned 1000s of miles and 1000 years. Source: siew sin audrey sim/EyeEm / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie
Gideon Shelach-Lavi, Ido Wachtel, Dan Golan, Otgonjargal Batzorig, Chunag Amartuvshin, Ronnie Ellenblum & William Honeychurch, ‘Medieval long-wall construction on the Mongolian Steppe during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries AD’, Antiquity Publications Ltd. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2020.51