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In the Shadow of the Wall Volume 56 Number 6, November/December 2003
by William Lindesay

Walking the Great Wall of China, a British explorer encounters the descendants of those who built--and destroyed--the most labor-intensive monument in human history.

From the first time I walked on the Great Wall of China--a three-month trek from desert to sea in 1987--I began to see the Wall as more than a building; rather, it was a historical landscape, a "Wallscape," and it was therein I discovered the logistics and mechanics of its construction. Valleys below the ramparts were once industrial centers that contained army villages and farmed fields. Smoke belched out of kilns in which bricks were baked and lime burned for mortar. Explosions echoed as rock faces were blasted to produce the Wall's fill, while the orchestral ring of chisels on stone rang out as artisans shaped massive blocks for its containing walls. I imagined how building materials were hauled, rolled, and carried block by block, brick by brick across the hillsides and up the mountain ridges. But I could never have imagined I'd meet the descendants of those builders.

In small villages, I'd learn how the forebears of some families had migrated during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) under the ban jun, or rotating army system, to build the Wall. The ministry of war introduced such a system to spread the task of construction among all the provincial military divisions, rather than overburden the northern ones and risk rebellion. Ironically, I've met families whose ancestors played roles in the original building of the Wall some fifteen or so generations ago, whose grandparents participated in Mao's sanctioned demolition of it just a few decades ago, and whose current middle-aged generation helped in the recent rebuilding of it.

A herder once commented to me that one could never complete a journey along the Great Wall. At the time I dismissed his murmuring as pessimistic nonsense. Only much later did it begin to dawn on me what he meant: that the Wall is tortuous and extensive, and besides there are other Walls built by other dynasties, making it impossible to reach any end. And the span of a good life is not the only limitation. With each passing year the Great Wall is disappearing, not only in place, but also in person.

It had been a good day on the Wall in Ningxia. In the morning I found two large fragments of worked stone that fitted together, and although incomplete, showed a hollow. "This is a rock bomb," I announced confidently to my colleagues from International Friends of the Great Wall. I went on to explain that the weapon, dating from the 1570s, was packed 70 percent full with gunpowder, sealed with mud and stored up on the Wall, ready to be lit and hurled off at the approach of attackers.
Later that day we met this herder, taking an afternoon rest beside the Wall. We had little water and asked him about a source. "I keep watch on a well for the army," he said. He offered to take us there and we followed eagerly. After quaffing many a cup of clean, icy water, I asked him if he'd ever found any artifacts of interest. "Yes, I've found some tools used by the Wall builders," he replied. A shepherd boy was instructed to get the artifacts, and returned a minute later dropping a large chunk of rock onto the floor. The old man took a broom handle and pressed it into the hollowed rock: "This is how they rammed the earth, with tamping tools like this."

It was one of my "rock bombs," and my companions and I laughed. It felt good to still be able to learn something from locals after ten years' exploration and inquiry on the Great Wall. (William Lindesay)

For more exclusive images, see the November/December 2003 issue of ARCHAEOLOGY.

William Lindesay, founder and director of the International Friends of the Great Wall (, is the author of Images of Asia: The Great Wall, which has just been published by Oxford University Press.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America