Temple Complex Remains Found In Southwestern China

A Buddhist temple complex dated to the Tang Dynasty (618–906 CE) has been discovered in southwest China’s city of Dali. The structures contained tons of tiles and pottery. Also uncovered have been 14 foundations for structures, 63 stone walls and 23 ditches, including the remains of brick and tile kilns. Inscriptions suggest the temple may have held the remains of members of the royal court of the State of Nanzhao. This was a state made up of people from the Bai tribe and six tribes from the Erhai Region centered around present-day Yunnan.

In the complex, the researchers discovered a tile inscribed with the characters "Buddha sarira enshrined by the government," which indicates that the Buddhist relics of Nanzhao's royal court are likely to have been enshrined and worshiped inside the temple. The word "sarira" has a variety of meanings in Buddhism. It generally means, though, the remains after a Buddhist cremation. Perhaps this was where Nanzhao's royal family enshrined holy figures, or their own ancestors.

Ancient China’s Deadly Sport

Ancient China had its own form of mixed martial arts. Called lei tai, it was a no-holds-barred mixed combat sport that combined Chinese martial arts, boxing and wrestling. Killing your opponent was allowed. The sport was played by having a man on a rail-less platform who would invite anyone who wished to challenge them. If a challenger won, they became the man on the platform. But if a man beat enough opponents they would win acclaim as a “champion.” One famous champion, Lama Pai Grandmaster Wong Yan-Lam, fought over 150 people over 18 days to become a champion.

The modern form of lei tai appeared during the Song Dynasty. It is still practiced, though in a modified form that makes deaths less likely.

A Brocade Poem

In the 300s CE the poet Su Hui wrote a massive, massive poem to her husband. Called the Star Gauge (璇玑圖) it is made up of a 29 by 29 grid of characters, and when you combine all the different ways the grid of characters can be read, it creates over 3,000 smaller poems (that rhyme!) But that was not impressive enough for Su Hui. Around that grid is a circle of 112 characters which creates yet another poem, thought to be the first and the longest of its kind. Su Hui's poem was described by contemporaries as being not written on paper, but as shuttle-woven on brocade. Making it an impressive piece of art as well as piece of poetry. It was continuously circulated in China after it was written, and the earliest surviving excerpts of the entire grid version date from a 900s CE.

Page taken from a copy of the Suwaru-l-kawakib (Description of the Fixed Stars) by 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903 - 986). Al-Sufi is one of the famous nine Arab astronomers. He identified the Andromeda Galaxy for the first time, as well as the Large Magellanic Cloud. These were the first galaxies other than the Milky Way to be observed from Earth. Al-Sufi published many of his findings in his famous "Description of the Fixed Stars" which compared Greek and Arabic constellations, and showed two illustrations for every constellation. This particular copy of the book was probably created in Iran during the Safavid Era, sometime in the 1500s.

Coastal Amazonian Diets Analyzed

An international team of researchers studied the diets of people who lived between 200 CE and 1000 CE on Brazil’s Amazon coast. Using statistical models and analysis of the chemical composition of their bones, the results suggested that people ate mostly terrestrial plants and animals. This is surprising since they were studied specifically based on their living in coastal areas. Rodents such as those from the guinea pig family, the agouti, and the paca; the brocket deer; and catfish are all thought to have been consumed, in addition to wild and cultivated plants such as cassava, corn, and squash.

The Pornocracy: When The Popes Were Really, Truly Corrupt

During the first two-thirds of the 900s, the Roman papacy was basically the property of a Roman elite fammily, the Theophylacti. Which resulted in some strange doings.

The man who is considered the start of the pornocracy, Pope Sergius III, was put on the throne thanks to the Theophylacti. He (allegedly) then had his two predecessors murdered to make sure they could not challenge him. Sergius III was also the alleged father of Pope John XI, who became pope at just 21 through the machinations of his mother, Marozia of the Theophylacti. Marozia was actually the power behind the throne of course.

When John XI died, a reluctant Benedictine monk was put on the throne by Marozia's son, to ensure the pope would be controllable. Three similarly weak successors were chosen by the family Theophylacti. Then they put a family member, Marozia's grandson John XII, on the throne.

He was the end of the Pornocracy and has the distinction of being the only man to ever become pope three times. John XII was deposed for an antipope 20 years after his election, restored to the papacy a year later, then sold the office but changed his mind and took it back from the buyer. John XII ended up being deposed for good in 964 by the German emperor in collusion with a church council. And that was the end of the pornocracy, though the Theophylacti remained powerful in Rome for a few more generations. In all, two grandsons, two great-grandsons, and one great-great grandson of Marozia would sit on the papal throne.

Mildly Unusual Viking Warrior Grave Found

A in a burial ground near a Viking-era farm (800s - 900s CE) in central Norway included a full set of weapons. Specifically, an ax, spear, shield, and sword. Having such weapons meant he was probably a warrior. Which also meant he was probably a farmer, who lived nearby, because by law all farmers who owned their land were required to also own such weapons. That's not the only thing unusual about the find. In most graves from the period, the sword is found on the right side of the body, even though a right-handed person would have worn a sword fastened to the left side of the body, in order to withdraw it from its scabbard with the right hand. It is not clear why swords went on the right side but that's the way it was. This burial had the sword on the left.

Cup made of agate and shaped like a horn. This cup was found in China as part of the Hejiacun Hoard, a huge collection of over a thousand silver and gold items unearthed at the site of Chang'an, the capital of the Tang dynasty. But the craftsman who made it was almost certainly in Persia, and specifically the Parthian Empire. We know this because the drinking vessel is in the style of horn-shaped rhytons found in central Asia and the Mediterranean which are known to have been produced in Persia.

The Epic Life of A Viking Explorer

Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir was a Norse explorer, born in Iceland, but remembered for her participation in the Viking expeditions to what is today Canada. She became known as the ‘far-traveller' and she is talked about in two Old Norse sagas, The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders.

Gudrid is described in The Saga of the Greenlanders as “a woman of striking appearance, and wise”. Both sagas start Gudrid's story with her and her father sailing west to join Erik the Red’s newly-founded colony in Greenland. According to The Saga of the Greenlanders Gudrid, her husband, and several others were shipwrecked. Then they were rescued by Leif the Lucky, son of Erik the Red. A sickness came through the Greenland colonists that winter and Gudrid's husband died. The Saga of Erik the Red does not mention a shipwreck or Gudrid already being married. Instead, when Gudrid arrived Greenland was in the grip of a famine. Though a Christian, she took part in a pagan ritual, and assisted a seeress in chanting songs to sway spirits and end the famine.

Both sagas agree that after arriving in Greenland, Gudrid married Thorstein, son of Erik the Red and younger brother of Leif the Lucky. That winter a deadly sickness struck again. Gudrid and her husband sickened, and her husband died. But once again, Gudrid survived. She then married an Icelander, Thorstein Karlsefni, who travelled with her to Vinland. After they landed, Gudrid gave birth to a son, Snorri. If the sagas are truthful Snorri was the first baby born to a European on the North American continent.

Gudrid's story continues after the Vinland attempt at a colony is abandoned. She becomes a revered matriarch in Iceland, who many famous Icelanders trace their ancestry to. She even makes a pilgrimage to far-away Rome. The Saga of the Greenlanders ends with a list of Gudrid's descendants. Some historians argue that the saga should more rightly be named "The Saga of Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir" given how important she is in the history.

North-western Syria has about seven hundred "Dead Cities" or "Forgotten Cities." They include villages, towns, and some cities that were mainly abandoned between the 700s and 900s CE. Because they rest in an elevated area of limestone known as the Limestone Massif, which gets relatively little rain, the settlements are more or less still at surface level and well-preserved. There are three main groups of highlands on the Massif, each with their own Dead Cities. They provide us with insight into what life was like for prosperous agriculturalists in Late Antiquity and the Byzantine period.

The Dead Cities became a massive UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, although they have been largely inaccessible since 2013.

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    By Lillian Audette

    This blog is a collection of the interesting, the weird, and sometimes the need-to-know about history, culled from around the internet. It has pictures, it has quotes, it occasionally has my own opinions on things. If you want to know more about anything posted, follow the link at the "source" on the bottom of each post. And if you really like my work, buy me a coffee or become a patron!

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