Ice Sledges Beat Wheels in Ancient China

(Last Updated On: December 18, 2013)

Beijing-forbidden4 Saad Akhtar 200pxScience Fact:  Ice sledges were used for transporting immense stones for construction, and offer new understanding concerning the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The Forbidden City was first built during the Ming Dynasty, during the years 1406 to 1420 in Western reckoning. It served as the Chinese imperial palace for nearly 500 years, through the Ming and Qing Dynasties.  Now a World Heritage Site, it is truly an impressive achievement, encompassing 980 buildings occupying 180 acres.

The scope of the Forbidden City is overwhelming, and that tends to distract visitors from considering some basic engineering questions. Consider the Large Stone Carving, which is the sloped carved stone appearing in the center of the photo of the Hall of Supreme Harmony at the beginning of this post. That stone was re-carved in 1761 and now weighs a “mere” 200 tons.  However, when it was originally installed it weighed an estimated 300 tons, and had to be brought 43 miles overland from the Dashiwo quarry in Fangshan.

Pause for a moment to consider just how much weight that is.  The highest Gross Vehicle Weight Rating in the U.S. is 33,000 pounds, or 16.5 tons. So 300 tons is well above what you will usually see driving down the road.  It’s more like the weight of a medium-sized house and yes, it’s possible to conduct a “whole move” of things that heavy, but it’s not a walk in the park. Today, you would probably transport such a piece of stone, assuming you could pick it up and load it, on a specially-equipped high-load railroad car. The point is, you can’t just get a bunch of people together and muscle it.

Wheeled vehicles were used in China long before the Ming Dynasty – since 1200 BC, perhaps 2000 BC. For that reason, until recently it has been assumed that the Chinese simply built a really big wheeled cart to move stones from the quarry using mule power.

Recent scholarship, however, has concluded that the largest stones, those weighing 100 tons and more, were too heavy to be moved on the largest carts that could be built at the time. The heavy concentration of weight risked breaking wheels and axles, and when that happened a valuable stone could easily suffer damage.

Prof. Jiang Li and her colleagues in Beijing and at Princeton translated and studied a text dating from 1618 which describes stone transport as a major engineering project using ice sledges.

The ice sledges were used just after the winter solstice (December 21), when the average temperature in Beijing is 25 degrees Fahrenheit. This ensured that the ground would be hard enough to support the weight, and that an ice surface could be maintained. Wells were dug every 500 meters along the route, to provide water to spread on the roadbed to make an ice layer. The ice sledges were large wooden platforms matching the size of the stones (roughly 10 by 30 feet) which were dragged over the ice by teams of men. It is not recorded how many men it too to move the ice sledges, but 20,000 peasants were hired for the entire transport job.

Science Speculation:  The researchers did more than just translate an old manuscript:  they also studied data on ice sledges used today to transport mining equipment, to understand the friction of wood on ice.  They applied this knowledge to analyze the Chinese case to see whether the numbers were plausible.

Ice sledges move much more easily if there is a thin layer of water on top of the ice to reduce friction. However, the researchers calculated that a sledge being pulled at 8 cm per second (0.2 miles per hour) would not generate enough frictional heat to maintain a layer of water. Therefore, they believe that while some men were pulling the sledge, others were pouring water on the icy road just ahead of it to keep the interface lubricated.

This analysis doesn’t address the “start-up” problem:  Static friction is much greater than kinetic (moving) friction, so it’s hard to get the sledge moving to start with. Even worse, if you let the sledge stop, even for a moment, the under surface of the sledge will freeze solidly to the icy road. It took 28 days to make the journey from the quarry to the Forbidden City construction site, and it’s likely that at least some pauses along the way were necessary.

The historical record does not reveal what the Ming Dynasty Chinese did to get around the freezing problem. The researchers assume that if they had to stop the ice sledges en route, they rested them on planks or small rollers to keep them from freezing to the ground. This appears to be standard procedure today when using ice sledges.

Incidentally, although ice sledges were an unusual choice for the Chinese compared with using wheeled carts, ice sledges have long been a workhorse means of transportation for some societies: the Inuit qamutiq and the Lapland ahkio are ice sledges used to transport freight today. They incorporate sophisticated design principles and a deep understanding of how to move goods over ice.

Ice sledges are an example of the surprises that still await us when we look at the historical record. Have any historical discoveries particularly surprised you?

Photo Credit: Photographer Saad Akhtar of New Delhi, India, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Beijing-forbidden4.jpg

Comments

Ice Sledges Beat Wheels in Ancient China — 2 Comments

  1. I’ve always been amazed by the scope of the historical engineering projects to transport huge stones such as this across many miles of terrain. I find it amazing that so little in the way of descriptions are available to us only a few hundred years later to describe how it was done. I’m assuming it was held as a guild-secret in those ages by the engineers of the day, and was actually part of the impact on the intended audience, much like a magic act strives to keep the details of its accomplishment secret.

    To me, the problem of moving such an unwieldy mass ONCE ON THE SLED is dwarfed by the stunning achievement of actually (1) cutting such a block out of solid rock, (2) getting the block onto the sled initially, and finally (3) getting the block off the sled and into the final desired position once it has arrived.

    The same problems exist anytime you look at ancient stone monuments such as the pyramids or Stonehenge or Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu or the Mayan temples or any of the massive stone monoliths that exist and are still standing today. A single man can lift a few hundred pounds given a strong base stance and lifting only vertically but cannot “walk” that weight any significant distance. To just lift an object weighing 300 tons would require at least 2000 strong men if you relied on brute force alone. In the case of the Large Stone Carving, at 32 feet by about 10 feet, there are only about 85 linear feet along the edge and you obviously can’t fit 2000 men along such a constrained length.

    Of course that means that something more than brute human strength has to be applied to solve this problem, but what? I don’t know that this is any kind of authoritative article, but it does produce statements that seem to be based on fact, and correspond with other articles I’ve encountered through the years:

    http://www.s8int.com/enigma.html

    • Charles, thanks for your thoughtful comment, and the link to Will Hart’s article, which I hadn’t seen. Your notion of secret guilds makes sense to me, based on Middle Ages analogies.
      Hart has trouble imagining the quarrying process, but Donald Redford, a classics professor at Penn State, has a plausible description of how the stones were cut — see http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080328104302.htm. Basically, he claims that the Egyptians did not use the copper chisels imagined by Hart, but used “pounders” made of dolerite, a very hard stone. Once a slot was pounded into the stone, wooden pegs were forced into the slot, then soaked in water until the wood expanded and split the stone. Splitting sounds like an efficient way to separate a large block from the quarry.
      As to how you load it onto a sled, I haven’t seen the answer to that. It seems that there’s lots more to be learned about ancient engineering!