Gallery F

Man-Made Caverns

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China’s Mysterious Longyou Caves

By James Donahue

It was in 1992 that Wu Anai, a resident of the village of Longyou, on the outskirts of Shanghai, got his neighbors to pool their money to buy a water pump and siphon out a strange "bottomless pit" in their town just to find out what was in it.

After 17 days of pumping, the men realized that they were exposing a water-filled man-made cavern filled with carved stelae. The more water they pumped the larger the cavern turned out to be.

That discovery was the beginning of a long series of discoveries of what has turned out to be a network of at least 36 hidden underground and massive chambers in the area, all dating back about 2,000 years to the early Han dynasty.

The chambers have mystified archaeologists, geologists, architects and engineers from all over the world because of their size, their design, and their unknown purpose. Also mysterious is how such massive earthworks could have been constructed without any kind of historical record, since the Chinese were always meticulous record keepers when it came to community projects of any size.

The cavern walls are covered in decorative chisel marks, indicating a long and slow construction period by a large number of workers. They moved an estimated 1,000,000 cubic meters of rock. Inside are stairs, support columns carefully located to support the ceilings, paintings, stone rooms, bridges, gutters and even pools. All of this is a clear indication that the work was deliberate.

Marked as one of the largest underground excavations of ancient times, with caverns covering some 30,000 square meters are carved into solid siltstone and descend about 30 meters into the earth.

These are the things about the caverns that are known. The mysteries about the site is why the caverns were cut, who did it, and how it was done.

Considering that work like this would have been done by hard labor, it is estimated that it would take at least 1,000 workers working steadily for at least six years to cut this much out of the rock. But this does not explain the intricate decorative carvings that are found in the stone. And scientists do not know how the workers achieved the similarity in symmetry and precision that is found in all of the known caves.

Another mystery is that researchers have found no evidence on the surface that such construction work ever went on below the ground. They do not know where all of the cut rock went after it was cut.

The walls in every one of the caves have been chiseled in a uniform pattern. Why was this done?

There were found no lanterns or sources of light in the caves. This obviously raises the question, how was the work done without some kind of artificial light source?

Also the 36 different caverns were carved close together, some of them with walls separating them by only a few feet. But none of the caves are connected.

Engineers ask how the ancient builders achieved such precision. They say that all of the caves reach the same depth, the walls are cut in identical patterns, and it was all done in apparent darkness and separate from one another.

Finally, since no records of the project have been found, the work was obviously done in strict secrecy. How was something as massive as this possible? And why was it done?