Chinese Walls around the World

University of Vienna; University of Innsbruck
18.10.2018 - 20.10.2018
Alexandra Nachescu, Institut für Kunstgeschichte, Universität Wien

The conference aimed to address wall-building as a recurring feature in human history. It was conceived in the context of contemporary political rhetoric frequently offering the building of walls as a simple solution for current major problems. Such suggestions usually ignore the experiences gained during earlier wall building enterprises of which the Chinese Great Wall is the most famous one.

This event aimed to provide a platform for comparative research on fortified boundaries throughout history. In order to facilitate discussion, we requested our speakers to address a common set of questions: the basic characteristics of the structures serving as the subject of each talk, and the rhetoric and ideology surrounding their erection, to the extent that these are recorded or can be reconstructed. Speakers were also asked to consider the (economic, social, military or cultural) impact of the erection of the walls, as well as well as the perception and interpretation of the wall from the outside and posterity.

LUKAS NICKEL (Vienna) opened the first welcome address with a discussion of the increased prominence of wall construction in current discourse. He contrasted the momentum in wall building projects such as Donald Trump's proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico with the zeitgeist of ‘89 that revelled in the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of border defenses separating the Eastern Block from Western Europe. He continued by tracking the growing number of constructed and planned solid border defences over the past few decades, and identified the re-emergence of such structures as a global phenomenon. Nickel emphasised the apparent disconnect between the popularity of border walls and the lack of reference or insight of the initiators of these projects to historical precedents, and suggested this was strong motivation for the conference participants to consider which lessons “can be learned from history”.

ROBERT ROLLINGER (Innsbruck), the co-organiser of this conference, gave the second opening talk. He brought up the fact that as late as 2007, Astrid Nunn referred to walled boundaries in Europe as being "no longer in step with the times", structures that are no longer relevant. He introduced the idea of walls as icons of protection that signal sovereign potency even when they fail as physical structures. Echoing Nickel, Rollinger referenced the modern ignorance of wall-building projects by past societies, whose intent to use walls as a ‘simple reaction to a complex problem’ bears an uncanny resemblance to current rhetoric.

GEBHARD SELZ (Vienna) opened the first panel with his paper. At the end of the 3rd millennium, despite many centuries of intensive contacts between central Mesopotamia and the Semitic speaking people in the west, the last rulers of the so-called Ur III dynasty engaged in a huge wall-building project in order to prevent the intrusion of the West Semitic ‘Amorites’ into the Mesopotamian heartland, the so-called MAR.TU or Amorite wall. Selz discussed the Amorite wall as an attempt at ‘cultural stereotyping’, that is the interconnection between physical and mental walls. He discussed the physical impact of the wall on the movement of the nomadic Amorites, as well as how documents such as the “The Marriage of MAR.TU” reflect ambiguous attitudes towards the allegedly culturally inferior but militarily efficient Amorites.

Robert Rollinger returned for the second talk in the panel. After providing a survey of textual evidence of the “Median Wall” in Greek and Roman sources, Prof. Rollinger reviewed attempts in modern scholarship to identify the location of these fortifications through archaeological and epigraphic evidence. Rollinger contrasted the Greek and Roman sources with the view resulting from the Babylonian inscriptions that saw the walls as monumental statements of sovereignty, aiming to frame Babylon as a cosmic centre and the walls as defences against an abstracted ‘Other’ rather than a specific enemy.

The third talk was given by Lukas Nickel, who discussed the Qin and Han Great Wall. His lecture started with a survey of wall building in China, showing that wall building enjoyed periods of revival but also whole dynasties with little to no construction activity. The Warring States period (475–221 BC) fortifications were brought up as examples of territorial demarcations between proto-Chinese states, rather than defences against nomads. The Qin wall, built by the First Emperor of China (259-210 BC), was contextualised in the rhetoric of the First Emperor, as reconstructed from his stele inscriptions. These conspicuously omit the northern walls from the lauded state building efforts of the Emperor. The talk also considered the Qin walls the context of the broader military strategy regarding the Northern Frontier of the First Emperor.

In the second panel, NICOLA DI COSMO (Princeton) continued the focus on the Chinese walls with his talk. The paper questioned the interpretation of the Great Wall as an iconic element of Chinese civilization by exploring its meaning from the standpoint of the history of pastoral nomads. Di Cosmo focused on walls as focal points of the relationship between the Han Emperors and the Xiongnu confederacy whilst invoking further examples across Chinese history, including Mongolian and Manchu leaders using walls as negotiating points in dealing with their Chinese neighbours. The speaker considered the use of textual and archaeological sources, as well as climatic reconstruction to better understand the how the walls impacted pastoral economies and strengthened certain segments of the nomadic elites.

The last talk of the first day was given by KRZYSZTOF NAWOTKA (Wrocław). His talk started with the notion of the Gate of Alexander as relating to two discreet realities: literary and archaeological. The paper first investigated the history of the surviving Derbent Defense Complex (DDC), and its broader role as a measure to control the movement of nomadic peoples between the Roman and Sasanian empire. Nawotka contrasted the possible historical circumstances of the construction of the wall with the later literature on the structure, including the Hellenistic anecdotal tradition that ascribed the wall to Alexander the Great.

TIMOTHY TAYLOR (Vienna) provided the closing remarks of the first conference day, and chaired the ensuing discussion. He provided a summary of recurring themes that came up in the papers, including walls as structures that communicate safety, walls as instruments of economic control, walls as infrastructural projects requiring the mobilisation of great masses of workers, and walls as responding to the need for internal control rather than external threat.

The notion of walls as a ‘defined edge implying the actuality of the centre’ was brought up in the final discussion. Another topic discussed was the place of walls in collective memory, in particular the apparently inexplicable absence of written records on certain monumental structures.

Dr LAUREN MORRIS (Freiburg) opened the second day of the conference with her talk. She first surveyed the archaeological remains of the several layers of artificial fortifications found in the area of the Iron Gates. The role of the wall as a frontier mark between the sedentary and the nomadic world was discussed, with attention paid to the micro-ecologies of the region and their impact on nomadic people, the possible identities of these nomadic peoples, and the Kushan military hierarchy responsible for the construction and maintenance of the fortifications.
EBERHARD SAUER (Edinburgh) presented a paper written in collaboration with Jebrael Nokandeh and Hamid Omrani Rekavandi. Sauer's paper suggested the Gorgon Wall as a counterexample to the previously presented case studies, in that far from being a ‘signal of fading power’, it effectively protected the empire's economic resources. The talk provided a thorough survey of archaeological remains of the wall and associated structures that suggested both the incredible scale and the great complexity of the Gorgon defence system. Architectural similarities between distant military structures within this defence system and the repeated presence of Sasanian kings on campaign in those areas suggest strongly that these structures were imperial initiatives.

The final talk of the second day was presented by DIRK RUPNOW (Innsbruck), who brought the conference back to one of the first walls mentioned on the first day: “The Berlin Wall”. The paper provided an overview of the structure of the Berlin Wall, delving into the different stages of its construction and the different layers of defence it was composed of, as well as discussing the aesthetic effect of different parts of the wall, from both the East and the West side. It also presented both the discursive ‘prehistory’ of the wall, as well as its reception in the later decades of its existence, particularly in the art and art criticism of the Federal Republic. Finally, the destruction of the wall was discussed and also the problem posed by the conspicuous absence of such a defining boundary for the cultural memory of the city of Berlin.

The closing discussion was chaired by SITTA VON REDEN (Freiburg). Prof. Von Reden brought up the implicit narratives present in diagrammatic representations of walls in popular and academic literature. The discussion focused on the symbolic effect of walls such as the Berlin wall.

After the conclusion of the talks, the speakers were invited on a tour of the historical city centre of Vienna with ANDREAS SCHWARCZ (Vienna). The guide led the group around the areas of the centre matching the location of the Roman fortifications of Vindobona, illuminating how the features of the Roman garrison town left their mark on medieval and modern Vienna.

KAI RUFFING (Kassel) opened the final day of the conference with a paper on "Hadrian's Wall". The speaker argued that while the Wall in particular, as well as the Roman limites in general, were seen first and foremost in older research as a testimony of Roman defence strategy, current scholarship present a much more complicated picture of the potential reasons for the construction of such physical barriers in the frontier zones of the Roman Empire. Ruffing's paper gave a brief overview of current debates on these structures, and posited Hadrian’s Wall as a monument. The talk further contextualised the Wall among the efforts of self-staging of Roman emperors, especially of the expression of the military virtue of Roman emperors through architectural means.

The last talk was given by CHRISTOPH SCHÄFER (Trier) on the Rhine and Danube Limes. His paper discussed the new types of vessels developed for riverine defence, and how the fixed and mobile elements of the riverine defences of the “wet Limes” interacted. An important focus of the paper was the use of experimental archaeology as a methodology to be used in conjunction with archaeological source material to better understand the nautical technology of the Romans. Efforts led by Schäfer and his team to reconstruct Roman vessels were also presented in the paper.

The concluding summary of the conference was given by BERT FRAGNER (Vienna). He began by discussing a recurring theme of the conference, namely walls as instrument of both inclusion and exclusion. He also discussed other apparent contradictions, such as walls having the potential to be expensive projects actively leading to the decline of society, as well as potentially supporting regional economic structures, and creating societal structures through their presence. The notion of the ‘agency’ of walls, as expanding beyond the will of their constructors and planners, was brought up and expanded upon in discussion. Fragner concluded with the urge to see walls not as isolated symbols, but to understand the system into which they are embedded.

Conference Overview:

Lukas Nickel (Wien) / Robert Rollinger (Innsbruck): Welcome and Opening

Panel 1
Panel Chair: Eberhard Sauer (Edinburgh)

Gebhard Selz (Wien): The Martu-Wall of the UR-III Period

Robert Rollinger (Innsbruck): The Median Wall and Xenophon

Lukas Nickel (Wien): The Qin and Han Great Wall

Panel 2
Chair: Christoph Schäfer (Trier)

Nicola DiCosmo (Princeton): The Chinese Wall from a Nomadic Perspective

Krzysztof Nawotka (Wrocław): The “Gates of Alexander” and the Caucasian Wall of Derbent

Chair: Timothy Taylor (Wien)

Panel 3
Chair: Lukas Nickel (Wien)

Lauren Morris (Freiburg): The Iron Gate Wall in Uzbekistan

Eberhard Sauer (Edinburgh): The Wall of Gorgan

Dirk Rupnow (Innsbruck): The Berlin Wall

Chair: Sitta von Reden (Freiburg)

Roman Vienna with Andreas Schwarcz (Wien)

Panel 4
Chair: Robert Rollinger (Innsbruck)

Kai Ruffing (Kassel): The Hadrian´s Wall

Christoph Schäfer (Trier): The Rhine and Danube Limes

Concluding Remarks and Final Discussion
Chair: Bert Fragner (Wien)

Tagungsbericht: Chinese Walls around the World, 18.10.2018 – 20.10.2018 Wien, in: H-Soz-Kult, 28.11.2018, <>.