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Field Museum archeologists map the First Great Wall of China

Field Museum archeologist Gary Feinman team researchers from Shandong University survey portiFirst GreWall which still stands 15-feet tall some places.

Field Museum archeologist Gary Feinman and a team of researchers from Shandong University survey a portion of the First Great Wall, which still stands 15-feet tall in some places. | Photo courtesy of Gary Feinman

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Updated: February 3, 2014 2:26PM

Most people have heard of the Great Wall of China.

But the First Great Wall of un-unified China? Not so much.

For centuries, remnants of the so-called First Great Wall — also known as the Qi Wall — have dotted the terrain of the country’s coastal Shandong province. Historical legend details the sheer volume of blood shed by workers who helped build it.

But until recently, no one connected the dots, mapping out the earthen structure, which at one point stretched 400 miles, said Field Museum archeologist Gary Feinman.

That changed almost by accident when Feinman’s wife, Linda Nicholas, made one of the archeologist couple’s biggest discoveries.

“The wow factor here is, of course, that there was a ‘Great Wall’ before the famous ‘Great Wall,’ ” Feinman said of the remnants, which still stand 15-feet tall in some places. “People knew where little segments were, but they didn’t know the full extent.”

For nearly 20 years, Feinman and Nicholas gathered artifacts, systematically roving the province with colleagues from Shadong University.

Then on one excursion in 2012, “My wife noticed this big mounded feature running up a hill,” Feinman said. “After that day we started to take time from our usual foot survey to follow it.”

Now they hope their discovery will be incorporated into an upcoming Field Museum exhibit.

Formed from “rammed earth” around 500 B.C., the wall was built to keep attacking armies at bay during turbulent times.

It likely took an army-sized workforce to construct. The wall stretched up mountainsides, ridgelines, and hills — occupying higher ground for strategic superiority.

Archeologists think the workers hauled sediment from the lowlands to clear-cut areas up high. There it was wetted and pounded with clublike objects until it was solid enough to last millennia.

In all likelihood, the imposing mass made armies think twice before marching on the region to the north, where its builders lived, Feinman said.

“If all the sudden everybody has to stop and get the ropes out to climb the wall, you’re really delaying things,” he said. Traversing it with cartloads of supplies was probably even more difficult.

It is thought that’s how the defense worked until the invasion of Quin Shi Huang, who was the first emperor to unite China. The area behind the wall was the last to fall to his armies, around 220 B.C.

With the wall compromised, Quin Shi Huang repopulated the mostly rural land. But Feinman thinks he was probably inspired as well.

Before his death, he started construction of what is now known as the Great Wall of China.


Twitter: @BrianSlodysko

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