A look at China’s puzzling pyramids
China’s mysterious pyramids may rival those of ancient Egypt.
Central China’s Shaanxi Province holds ancient secrets that are nearly 8,000 years old. Dozens of pyramids can be found in the province’s capital of Xi’an, along with Wei River, with dozens more scattered around other parts of the country.
Some of the memorials are step-like structures, similar to the pyramids in Mesoamerica. However, many are just massive, unassuming earthen mounds that are hiding elaborate underground rooms and passageways designed for royal life. The tallest is 154 feet in height but stood 249 feet tall in its heyday.
Why were they built? A fierce debate between archeologists and pseudo-scientists has been raging for more than 80 years. Here’s what we know about China’s pyramids.
A heavenly home for the dearly departed
Most scientists agree that China’s pyramids were built to honor beloved emperors and their families. According to “National Geographic,” some of the burial sites have underground palaces, kitchens, and even toilets.
“One of the most famous pyramids is the mausoleum of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who reigned from 247-221 B.C.”
Chinese historian Sima Qian wrote that more than 700,000 workers constructed Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, although this number is considered an exaggeration. British historian John Man speculated that the project likely required 16,000 men and took two years to complete.
A menacing mausoleum
It’s believed Qin Shi Huang planned his final resting place during his youth. The tomb was built at the foot of Mount Li. Legends claim the pyramid has been booby-trapped with crossbows and mercury to prevent thieves from making off with royal treasures.
Taking heed of the stories, archaeologists probed the mausoleum and discovered it contains high levels of mercury, giving the legends some credence.
In 1974, one of the most spectacular archeological discoveries was made after some Chinese farmers happened upon more than 6,000 terracotta warriors. The statues had been left behind to protect the emperor and battle evil spirits as their beloved ruler traveled through the afterlife.
The tomb also contained chariots and approximately 40,000 weapons.
Exactly who’s inside those pyramids?
In addition to revered Chinese emperors, several other people who were either family members or part of the imperial entourage were memorialized with a tomb.
Excavated burial sites have revealed empresses, children, consorts, and even concubines. Rumor has it that the tombs’ laborers didn’t make out as well and were sometimes killed to prevent them from revealing where the tombs and their treasures were kept.
A celestial tie to China’s pyramids
In 2018, Italian archaeoastronomer Giulio Magli announced a different hypothesis concerning Xi’an’s pyramids. Magli is an expert at determining how astronomy is tied to ancient sites, such as those found in Greece, Egypt, Central and South America.
While studying China’s pyramids, Magli also looked at the possible use of the ancient art of arrangement known as feng shui at royal burial sites. The scientist used satellite imagery to look at pyramids’ placement.
“Magli suspected there would be a correlation between the location of the pyramids and the stars since the royals believed their reigns were mandates from the heavens.”
According to Magli, emperors from the Western Han dynasty either chose to align their burial sites with the Earth’s cardinal points (north, south, east, and west) to show that they were the most powerful people on earth.
Another group of emperors have tombs that are unaligned. In some cases, there are off by up to 14 degrees. Magli asserts that the off-kilter pyramids and burial sites represent a slight lean in the Earth’s access as it orbits the sun. During the time the pyramids were built, they would have aligned with the star Polaris.
Magli contends that during ancient times, Polaris was an important celestial body. He speculates that some emperors may have broken away from tradition and had their tombs built to pay respect to Polaris, rather than the Earth.
Alien ties to China’s pyramids?
“China’s pyramids first gained major exposure when U.S. Army Air Corps pilot James Gaussman claimed to have seen a bejeweled pyramid while flying missions between China and India.”
Gaussman’s story gained traction on March 30, 1947, when the “New York Times” published an account by Colonel Maurice Sheahan, who gave details about the bizarre pyramid he saw in China. The photo that accompanied Sheahan’s story was credited to Gaussman.
It wasn’t long before conspiracy theorists began tossing out wild stories that tied China’s pyramids to Atlantis and even aliens. There were claims that villagers around Xi’an had heard stories about their ancestors talking to “people from the sky.”
A pyramid used as an alien launchpad
Pseudoscientists latched on to a 2002 story from CNN that reported on a mysterious pyramid thousands of miles southwest of Xi’an that local legends claimed was a launch tower designed for alien spacecraft. The pyramid sits at the apex of Mount Baigong, which has three caves and pipes running from the mountain to a nearby lake.
“While scientists found the pyramid and the story intriguing. Chinese researcher Yang Ji told CNN that ‘scientific means must be employed to prove whether or not (the story) is true.'”
Could there be a cover-up?
Conspiracy theorists have long asserted that the Chinese government has been trying to cover up the true significance of the country’s pyramids. Dozens of websites have devoted pages to denouncing the government keeping quiet about the ancient monuments and what secrets they may reveal.
There are also alleged accounts of the government planting trees around the pyramids to hide them from aerial view.
The government has countered with several very logical reasons for not heavily promoting the pyramids, with the most apparent being that Chinese culture believes the dead should be left to rest in peace.
Other explanations include discouraging tourists and tomb robbers, concern about outside archeologists damaging the pyramids or the valuable artifacts they contain, and preferring to have excavations done with equipment that will be as gentle as possible.
“In the old days, the dirt surrounding an artifact might have been carelessly brushed away. Not anymore,” Chinese archeologist Rong Bo told “Sixth Tone.” “One misjudgment, one careless removal, and a relic’s history might disappear,” he added.
“In the old days, the dirt surrounding an artifact might have been carelessly brushed away. Not anymore. One misjudgement, one careless removal, and a relic’s history might disappear.” –Chinese archeologist Rong Bo.
A well-known secret
And while China has not gone out of its way to advertise the pyramids as a hot tourist destination, they’ve hardly been hidden. As early as 1667, Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher wrote a book about the tombs called “China Monumentis Illustrata.”
During the early 20th century, Western traders and adventurers Fred Meyer Schroder and Oscar Mamen detailed the pyramids, as did Victor Segalen, a French naval doctor and archeologist who wrote “Mission Archéologie en Chine,” a work that was published posthumously.
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