In A Nutshell
The wall we now think of as the Great Wall of China was begun sometime in the end of the Warring period—around 221 B.C. Before that, though, the Qin dynasty had already been building a massive wall of hard-packed dirt that was hundreds of miles long. It helped them win the war, and once their place in power was cemented, they turned their attention northward to build parts of the more well-known Great Wall.
The Whole Bushel
There are plenty of stories about the Great Wall of China. (Some even claim that it’s visible from space, but we’ve already debunked that one.) Regardless, the wall itself is a sprawling testament to ancient ingenuity, and it would be an amazing architectural achievement even today.
And it wasn’t the first.
The Great Wall of China was built in sections, and some of those sections date back to around 221 BC. That was the end of what was called the Warring States period, and when the Qin dynasty emerged at the top of the pile, they started joining parts of wall that their opponents had once been using to defend their territory. The project wasn’t completed until sometime in the Ming dynasty, between 1368 and 1644. It was a massive defensive structure, not just a wall but a series of towers, fortresses, and shelters. It’s more than 20,000 kilometers (12,430 mi) long, and it wasn’t the first great wall to be built.
Not by several centuries.
The discovery of the earlier Great Wall of China came pretty unexpectedly, when archaeologists were scouring the landscape of the Shandong province looking for shards of pottery. Researchers from the Field Museum of Chicago found more than pottery when they stumbled across a wall 4.5 meters (15 ft) tall in some areas and realized that the pieces were a part of a much larger structure.
That structure stretches for what might have been hundreds of miles over incredibly inhospitable terrain. The wall runs along rocky outcroppings, traces the ledges and crags of mountain ranges, and dips back down onto the lower plains.
Today, not all of the wall remains—one reason that it hasn’t attracted much attention or formal research. Better preserved in higher altitudes, the wall was built sometime around 500 B.C. by the immense manpower of the Qin dynasty.
And building it was no small challenge. It was done with a method called earth-ramming, which essentially meant hauling fine soil to the site of the wall, mixing it with a binding agent, then dumping it in piles where the wall would be formed. The soil was then beaten—a lot—until it formed the hard walls that still survive today.
Construction would have meant the movement of tons and tons and more tons of fine soil, dragged up into the mountains before more back-breaking work would have been done to build the wall itself. And it was all to keep out not foreigners, but enemy city-states that were all vying for control of China.
The Qin dynasty certainly had the manpower for such a massive building project. When they put an end to the Warring period, they were at the head of an army that numbered somewhere around 1.5 million soldiers, spread out across their territory and going head to head with the other families fighting to seize control.
After the end of the war, leader Qin Shi Huang kept doing what he did best. He turned his wall-building efforts to the northern border, creating some of the earliest sections of what we now think of as the Great Wall of China.
And his original wall hasn’t entirely fallen out of use; in some areas, it’s used as a road.