For anyone who thinks pyramid research is dead: think again. There is a future in pyramid excavation – and that future is China, where a large number of pyramids remain unexcavated. What new dimension could they add to the pyramid debate?
Think of China. Now think of Chinese monuments. What comes to mind? The Great Wall? The Terracota Army? It is unlikely to be pyramids. Still, several tourists see the “Chinese pyramids” when they are on approach to Xi’an airport, where tourists come to see the Terracota Army. They see the pyramids again on their bus ride from the airport to the town. Unfortunately, that is about all most tourists will see of them – except, of course, on the way back to the airport.
More than a decade ago, this sight nevertheless was rare – and worthy of major headlines in magazines. In 1994, Hartwig Hausdorf and his company of fellow travellers landed at the then brand new Xi’an airport, near the neighbouring town of Xianyang, and, driving to the city and their hotel, saw one pyramid which stood along the road. It had been “discovered” a few years earlier, when Xi’an’s airport was relocated and a road to the city was built.
Hausdorf was passionate about China’s ancient history and had written about its ancient mysteries; he had read and knew Erich von Däniken’s work. Fate – or the Chinese government’s new policy of openness – seemed to have singled him out as the first modern westerner to report back on the existence of the Chinese pyramids. For more than half a century, their existence had been reported on, but no recent confirmation or details were known about them.
In 1995, Hausdorf told me: “It’s a small miracle I received the go-ahead to enter some ‘no go’ areas. I was, in fact, the only one who was granted such favours. I assume there are two reasons for this. I regularly visit China with a group of tourists. In 1993, I became acquainted with Chen Jianli, an avid researcher of his country’s past. He assured me that he would try and open a few doors inside the Chinese Ministry of Tourism. In fact, in March 1994, I was able to visit some former ‘no go’ areas in the Shaanxi province. I passed around some copies of my German book, Die Weisse Pyramide (The White Pyramid), to the right people. I talked to archaeologists who at first denied any pyramids existed, but finally recognised that they did exist. I was most pleased when the same people gave me further permission to enter other ‘no go’ zones when I returned in October 1994. I never expected any of this would happen to me. But it seems it had to happen eventually. Following decades of rumour, someone had to clear the picture.”
In March 1994, Hausdorf climbed a pyramid and saw a few more from its top, but adverse weather conditions meant that others might be hiding in the mist. In October 1994, he climbed the same pyramid again and was able to count twenty more pyramids, all lying in the immediate vicinity. It confirmed what had been seen from a US Air Force map of the area around the city of Xian, made with the use of satellite photographs, which showed at least 16 pyramids.
But old Chinese habits died hard, it seemed. In March 1994, Hausdorf also met Professor Feng Haozhang, a prominent member of Beijing’s academic circle, his assistant, Xie Duan Yu, and three colleagues. At first, they denied the pyramids’ existence. But when Hausdorf showed them three photos of three different pyramids, they caved in. Hausdorf described this encounter: “It was as if I had entered a hive. The photographs I took in both March and October 1994 are the proof that squelched five decades of rumour. Most scientists denied the existence of pyramids in China. If any scientist still clings to that, show him my photographs.”
Ten years later, in 2004, Chris Maier went to China. He was “just” a tourist and did not have – or need – any special permission. There were no longer forbidden zones around the city; in fact, tourists are now welcomed in Xi’an and tourist hotels have been built for those who mainly come to see the Terracotta Army, which has become the town’s main tourist attraction.
In the hotel, he spoke to his tour operator of his desire to visit the pyramid sites and was told that tourists were presented with two tours: one taking in the Terracotta Army, and a far less popular tour that visited the burial mounds, many of which matched the pyramids that had intrigued the western world since Hausdorf’s confirmation a decade before. Maier opted for the least popular tour.
The following day, Maier was on his guided tour, beginning with the largest pyramid, known as the Maoling Mausoleum. “Looking around me, I saw no foreign tourists and Daniel [the tour guide] assured me that most of the people he brought here never took the time to climb the mound, being satisfied with merely viewing it from a distance. But the pyramid was certainly well known to the locals. Atop the summit, a dozen people walked or sat leisurely and one family was even enjoying a picnic lunch.” He also was able to establish its height: a little less than 150 feet, or 50 metres.
Maier thus confirmed an early report about Chinese pyramids, which had originated from the “Segalen mission”, a tour of China that the French doctor, ethnographer, archaeologist, writer and poet Victor Segalen had made in 1909-1914 and 1917. In 1913, he measured the pyramid’s height at 48 metres, encompassing five terraces. One side measured 350 metres in length, a stunning 120 metres longer than the side of Great Pyramid at Gizeh. With 1,960,000 cubic metres of material, it is now the fourth largest pyramid in the world.
The Segalen mission also revealed the existence of more pyramids and tombs along the River Wei, the largest tributary of the Yellow River that flows past Xi’an. He dated the structures to the Han period, following that of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the man who had built first Great Wall.
The Maoling Mausoleum is one of the “The Imperial Tombs”, or “The Imperial Tombs of the Han and Tang” – i.e. the Chinese pyramids. As previous visitors had noted, there are two main concentrations: the Han tombs are nearly due west of Xi’an, only 30-40 km away; the Tang tombs are grouped ca. 80-100 km northwest of Xi’an, though Emperor Yang Guifei built his tomb at Mawei, inside the “Han pocket”.
The “Xi’an Han pyramids” sit on the northern side of the river Wei, upriver from Xianyang airport (Xi’an being downriver), some 120 km from where the River Wei flows into the Yellow River. There are nine pyramids – referred to as “tombs” – and despite their growing fame as a tourist attraction, none of the imperial tombs has been excavated.
Two tombs are located closely together: The “Maoling Mausoleum”, otherwise known as the tomb of Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty, who reigned from 157-87 BC, and the tomb of Huo Qubing (140-117 BC), one of his generals. The structure is composed of densely packed earth and is now describes as being 46 metres high, covering 54,054 square metres – conform to the measurements of Segalen and Maier. The surrounding wall that once existed has now all but disappeared. Records reveal that the Emperor began the construction of his tomb as early as the second year of his reign, a practice which was customary. Inside, it is believed to hold his body, dressed in a jade suite made of small pieces joined by gold wire, with a jade cicada in the mouth. Stories state that “jade boxes were buried with the emperor and many animals were sacrificed to provide food for his spirit. It is also said that his favourite books were buried with him.”
Nearby is the Tomb of Huo Qubing, a man who died young of disease, which once had a series of stone carved animals lining the approach. These have now been moved into a small museum, which also displays relics of the tombs that have been found in the vicinity. They include decorated bricks that lined the tombs, as well as hollow bricks decorated with dragons and tigers, tortoises and snakes and a range of ceramic models, such as ducks, sheep, farmyards and houses.
This “approach” has been identified as a predecessor of the “spirit roads”, which can be seen in the approach to the valley of the Ming tombs, 45 kilometres northwest of Peking. Here, the entrance to the valley is a ceremonial “Arc de Triomphe”, or the P’ai-lou, which commemorates the glory of the Ming dynasty. The next structure is the Great Red Gate, considered to be the real entrance into the valley and the official starting point up the road to the tombs. Half a kilometre up the road is the Stele Pavilion, where the deceased were commemorated through inscriptions on stone tablets. The road behind the Stele Pavilion is officially known as the Spirit Road and was built for the spirits of the deceased to serve as an aide to lead the spirit to its final resting place. The beginning of the Spirit Road is marked by two stone beacons, after which the road is lined with 24 animals, as in the “Xi’an approach”. It shows that the pyramid had a Spirit Road as its approach and the question needs to be asked whether there is a correspondence with the Avenue of the Dead that forms the approach towards the pyramids of the Mexican Teotihuacan… or a similar “road” that existed from the Valley Temples to the Pyramid Temples in ancient Egypt.
The second “pocket” of tombs around Xi’an sits further west, still along the River Wei. The most impressive of these “Tang tombs” is the triple-hilled Qian ling, 85 km northwest of Xi’an and built for Li Zhi, the Gaozong (Exalted Ancestor) emperor of the Tang and his empress Wu Zetian. Again not excavated, it is the largest tomb of the site and lies on a natural hill that is approached by a spirit road which stretches over the impressive distance of three kilometres, passing between two artificial mounds, making it a “triple hill”. The start of the spirit road is marked by two tall towers, conform to the two stone beacons of the Ming Spirit Road near Peking. Whether Han, Tang or Ming, the same animals were depicted along the spirit road.
Unlike the other tombs, since the 1960s, five of the 17 satellite tombs have actually been excavated. The excavations showed that each site had been robbed, but only of precious stones and metals; the ceramics and wall-paintings were left undisturbed. One of these structures, the Tomb of Princess Yongtai, can now be entered, leading the visitor down a long sloping corridor with small stepped niches in the walls, filled with rows of pottery tomb figures. The walls are covered with paintings of women, court attendants and servants, carrying offerings and candles and flowers. The corridor leads to a dark stone sarcophagus in the tomb chamber, the ceiling of which is painted with stars. The interior structure is identical to that of the nearby Tomb of Prince Yide and Prince Zhanghuai, the latter which contains a wall painting showing people playing polo. The scene is well-known, if only for its vivid depiction of the game.
The second concentration in this second pocket of pyramids – tombs – focuses on the Zhao ling, the Tomb of Taizong, the second emperor of the Tang dynasty (626-649 AD). It is composed of 177 subsidiary tombs and spread over an extensive 20,000 hectares. But unfortunately, the main structure remains unexcavated.
There is one more pyramid – mound – in this region: that of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the man who built the first Great Wall, the first Emperor, but also the man of the Terracotta Army. And his “pyramid” sits just one mile from where the army was buried.
It is believed that Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum once stood almost 330 feet in height, though today it measures to just 150 feet. Its sides measure between 1600-1700 feet, giving the structure a volume that also exceeds that of the Great Pyramid. As the structure remains covered by trees, it is not as impressive as the bare Maoling Mausoleum. One tourist guide describes the ascent as “it has a stepped path to the top, running through stalls where peasants sell anything from appallingly fragile miniature clay warriors to apples and ‘ancient coins’.” Like most other “pyramid mounds”, it has not yet been excavated and archaeologists should be prudent as one story goes that automatic crossbows and arrows designed to fire are installed inside if the tomb is entered. It may seem a tall claim, but could be true!
Like the Great Pyramid, Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum has been the subject of endless treasure trove stories. In Records of the Historian: Biography of Qin Shi Huang, Han historian Sima Qian describes the automatic crossbows and a burial chamber containing miniature palaces and pavilions with flowing rivers and surging oceans of mercury lying beneath a ceiling decorated in jewels depicting the sun, moon and stars. There could be truth in the latter statement, as the ceilings in some of the excavated satellite tombs did indeed display stars. Recent scientific work at the site has also shown high levels of mercury in the soil, tentatively indicating that Sima Qian may be correct as to what awaits the archaeologists. One magnetic scan of the site has also revealed that a large number of coins are lying in the unopened tomb. A preliminary, month-long excavation was done in 1986 and revealed extensive damage, probably by Tang and Song robbers, which has led some archaeologists to conclude that the interior structure, despite Sima Qian’s wonderful description, may be found largely void.
On July 2, 2007, the Xinhua news agency reported that archaeologists, using remote sensing, had concluded a five years of research project that led to the confirmation that the pyramid of Qinshihuang contained a 98-foot high building. The find came as a surprise, as historical records describing the tomb do not mention the room. Researcher Duan Qingbo of the Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology said the building may have been built for the release of the soul of the departed Qinshihuang.
But despite this discovery, the Chinese authorities continue to refuse permission to excavate the site. It is believed that they wish to perfect archaeological techniques before probing any further, and archaeologists have had to use the sensing technology at the site since 2002.
Sima Qian also noted 700,000 workmen laboured on the site. It is a staggering number of people, far in excess of anything Herodotus reported on Khufu’s “slave force” that built Egypt’s Great Pyramid. Other sources instead speak of 70,000 labourers, still an impressive workforce.
Like Khufu, Qin Shi Huang was not cordially remembered by his descendents. Still, it started promisingly: he was only 13 when he ascended to the throne in 246 BC and succeeded in uniting the other six states in 221 BC, going down into history as “the First Emperor”. He ruled from 221 to 210 BC. But it seems that the “unification” was brutal and the Emperor was remembered as a brutal tyrant for millennia – hence why it took the discovery of his Terracotta Army to somewhat restore his public profile.
Xi’an, the ancient Sian-Fu, translates as “Western Peace”. It served as China’s capital for most of the Han, Sui and Tang dynasties, when it was known as Chan’an, “Eternal Peace” and recognised as the umbilicus of China’s civilisation.
It was the site where the First Emperor decided to be buried. And our First Emperor desired to show that he was no longer a simple king like the kings of old during the Warring States Period; as such, he created a new title, “huangdi”, combining the word “huang” from the legendary Three Huang (Three August Ones) who ruled at the dawn of Chinese history, and the word “di”, from the legendary Five Di (Five Sovereigns) who ruled immediately after the Three Huang. These Three Huang and Five Di were considered perfect rulers, of immense power and very long lives – echoing stories of the prediluvian patriarchs of the Bible, or the Egyptian Shemsu Hor – the “Followers of Horus”. But though he knowing or unknowingly tried to mimic them, his people obviously felt he failed in that ambition.
But it is not his legacy that interests us; for the moment, we are mostly captivated by his new title, “huangdi”. The word “huang” also means “big”, “great”, while the word “di” also refers to the Supreme God in Heaven, the creator of the world. Thus, by being the first to join these two words for the first time, Qin Shi Huang created a title that identified him with the creator of the world. Is it a coincidence that in Egypt, pyramids are uniquely linked with the cult of the creator god Atum, worshipped in Heliopolis as Atum-Ra? Such identifications with the creator or “the point of creation” was equally found to be present in Mesoamerica and as I have shown in my book, The New Pyramid Age, conforms to a world-wide “pyramid template”: a site is marked as a “point of creation”, where the creator god descended upon Earth; from that site, the local ruler installed divine kingship, performing ceremonies and later often buried, stating that his rule went back to the mythical times of the gods. In the case of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, he had indeed created, thus emulating the work of the creator god; the Emperor had created a new China.
The Emperor was clearly greatly interested by mythology and seems to have had a desire to validate the myths as historical facts. He died – rather ironically – while on a tour to Eastern China, searching for the legendary Islands of the Immortals (off the coast of Eastern China) and for the secret of eternal life. Reportedly, he died of swallowing mercury pills, which were made by his court scientists and doctors, but which erroneously contained too much mercury. Equally ironic was that these pills were meant to make him immortal.
His death occurred on September 10, 210 BC (Julian Calendar), at the palace in the Shaqiu prefecture, about two months away by road from the capital Xi’an. His Prime Minister Li Si, who accompanied him, was extremely worried that the news of his death could trigger a general uprising in the empire, and thus kept the news of his passing secret until they returned to the capital. To make sure there were no leaks, most of the imperial entourage accompanying the emperor was equally left uninformed of the emperor’s death, and each day Li Si entered the wagon where the emperor was supposed to be travelling, pretending to discuss affairs of state with him. The secretive nature of the emperor while alive allowed this stratagem to work, and it apparently did not raise doubts among courtiers. Li Si also ordered that two carts containing fish be carried immediately before and after the wagon of the emperor, in the hope that it would prevent noses from sniffing out what was truly going on inside the imperial wagon: the body of the emperor slowly decomposing. Eventually, after two months of political intrigue, Li Si and the imperial court were back in Xi’an, where the news of the death of the emperor was officially announced.
Qin Shi Huang was buried in his mausoleum, together with the famous Terracotta Army nearby. That magical army, there to assist the Emperor in the Afterworld, was eventually discovered in March 1974 by local farmers drilling a well to the east of Qin Shi Huang’s pyramid. The figures were found in three separate pits, with an empty fourth pit nearby. 8,099 figures in all have thus far been unearthed at the site; they include infantry, archers and officers, and are manufactured in a crouching or standing pose. Each figure was given a real weapon, such as bronze spears, halberds or swords, or wooden crossbows with bronze fittings. It is believed that these weapons date to as early as 228 BC and may have been used in actual warfare – perhaps the unification of China itself.
Though the Army has become his legacy, the Qin Empire itself barely survived his death, for his equally ruthless advisers eliminated his heir in favour of a second, believed to be “less controversial” son; but their choice was nevertheless still overthrown by a series of revolts, installing the Han dynasty in 206 BC, who despite rejecting the previous regime, nevertheless continued to build pyramids, though on the other side of the capital.
The Chinese pyramids are therefore clearly linked with Emperors; they are labelled “Imperial Tombs” and thus seem to share much with the Egyptian pyramids – at least in their standard identification as “just tombs”. Like Egyptian pyramid building chronology, those around Xi’an fall in two periods: the Qin-Han rule, in the late 3rd century BC, and the much later Tang dynasty, in the 7th-8th century AD. Like Egypt, the satellite tombs are known to contain burials. But unlike Egypt, none of the main structures have been properly excavated. And hence, what they will contain and in what state they will be found in, remains a question. But, unlike ancient Egypt, we do have written and largely contemporary written accounts of these rulers and their pyramids. This does not, like the Great Pyramid, make them a blank canvas, used to promote pet theories; it is why little has been written about these pyramids in recent years. But unlike the Egyptian pyramids, the Chinese hold a promise: whether or not they will have become the victim of grave robbery, a whole new world – an “afterworld” – a depiction of the hereafter on earth, inside the tomb – is waiting to be discovered. As such, a new dawn to the pyramid debate might be unveiled in China… hopefully soon.
This article appeared in New Dawn Magazine 104 (September-October 2007)