Giovanni Belzoni, an early Egyptologist, wrote in 1821 what it was like to enter an Egyptian tomb:
I sought a resting place, found one and contrived to sit; but when my weight bore on the body of a dead Egyptian, it crushed it like a band box. Naturally I had recourse to my hands to sustain my weight, but they found no better support; so that I collapsed together among the broken mummies with such a crash of bones, rags and wooden cases as kept me motionless for a quarter of an hour, waiting until it subsided again. I could not remove from the place, however, without increasing it and every step I took I crushed a mummy in some place or another… Thus I proceeded from one cave to another, all full of mummies piled up in various ways, some standing, some lying and some on their heads.
This buffoon was known as the "Great Belzoni" and is still considered a pioneer archaeologist in the study of ancient Egypt. Seriously, read his wikipedia page, I couldn't believe it either.
Some 2,500 years ago, the Greek doctor Hippocrates described infestations of parasitic worms in his patients. Modern scholars suspected he was referring to roundworms, pinworms, and tapeworms, but had not been able to confirm the diagnoses. Until now. A recent study led by the University of Cambridge analyzed the soil near the pelvic bones in 25 skeletons found on the Greek island of Kea, to recover traces of parasites that may have been housed in the individual's digestive tracts while they were alive. The study detected and identified roundworm and whipworm eggs in four of the burials! Unlike usual, finding parasitic worms is actually a good thing! The researchers noted that the eggs of those two parasites have robust, protective outer membranes, whereas the more delicate outer membranes of other parasitic worm species likely decomposed over time, and would be unrecoverable by now.
Located on a narrow strip of land between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains in the far western end of Eurasia, is the city of Derbent. With a history going back by five thousand years, Derbent is said to be Russia’s oldest city. It is also the southernmost city in Russia. Derbent’s position between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains is strategically important in the entire Caucasus region. It is one of only two crossings over the mountain range; the other being over the Darial Gorge. This position has allowed the rulers of Derbent to control land traffic between the Eurasian Steppe and the Middle East and levy taxes on passing merchants. In fact, the city’s present-day name comes from the Persian word Darband which means “barred gate”.
Being at such a strategic location, it has long been a target, or a prize, of states with imperial ambitions. The city was historically an Iranian city, and its first intensive settlement in the 800s BCE was Persian. The city’s modern name came into use during the 500s CE, when the city was re-established by the Sassanid dynasty of Persia. In 654 CE, Derbent came under the hands of the Arabs. They called the city Bab al-Abwab, or “the Gate of Gates”, signifying its strategic importance. The Arabs transformed the city into an important administrative center and introduced Islam to the area. After the Arabs, the region came under the Armenians who established a kingdom there which lasted until the Mongol invasion in the early 1200s. After the Mongols, Derbent changed hands relatively quickly, given its history, coming under the rule of the Shirvanshahs (a dynasty in modern Azerbaijan), the Iranians and the Ottomans before finally being ceded to the Russian Empire as part of the end of the Russo-Persian War.
A belief in witches -- and consequently witch-hunts -- have been found in every single inhabited continent of the world, and most of the peoples who have lived on it. But belief in witches is not entirely universal: the largest witch-free area is Siberia, covering about a third of the northern hemisphere, and the ancient Egyptians were notable for their lack of belief of witchcraft and embracing magic, instead of fearing magic.
About 5,000 years ago, the Chinese discovered how to make silk from the cocoon of silkworms. Silk quickly became highly prized -- and very expensive -- so to keep their monopoly, the Chinese kept the secret of how to make the valuable fabric. It was illegal to take silkworms outside of China. Anyone caught trying to export the secret of silk could face the death penalty. With such stringent measures, the Chinese managed to keep the secret for almost 3,000 years! Which opened the door for knock-offs.
The most common knock-off was cotton, beaten with sticks to soften it, then rubbed against a stone to give it a shine like silk. The resulting fabric was called "chintz" because it was "cheap." Even today, with silk much cheaper and more available, the word chintz means something less valuable and of less good quality.
About ten kilometers from the abandoned city of Persepolis, Naghsh-e Rostam is less well known but similarly impressive. The sheer size of the tombs, cut out of the cliff face, helps you to understand the power and wealth of the Archaemenid empire (also known as the 'First Persian Empire'), which ruled almost half the worlds population at its height, around 450 BCE. The tombs are positioned high enough to be inaccessible to tourists. The necropolis contains the tombs of Darius I, Darius II, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I, with a fifth unfinished tomb probably intended for Darius III. It was unfinished because the Archaemenids were conquered by Alexander the Great. He spared the Naghsh-e Rostam tombs when he burnt down nearby Persepolis, although the four tombs were ransacked either by his troops or by grave-robbers in the following years.
The study of ancient bones suggests that manual agricultural work had a profound effect on the bodies of women living in central Europe between about the early Neolithic and late Iron Age. The study examined the remains of 94 women spanning about 6,000 years, from the time of the early neolithic farmers (dating back to around 5,300 BC) through to the 800s CE, from countries including Germany, Austria, and northern Serbia. These ancient women had arm bones which were extremely strong -- about 30% stronger than non-athletic modern women. And stronger than modern rowers, soccer players, and runners. The study also reveals that the strength of women’s arm bones dropped over time. Probably because technology was developed to ease manual labor. By medieval times, the strength of women’s arm bones was on a par with that of the average woman today.
Geneticists investigating the ancient domestication of cats happened to find that ancient cats had stripes -- but no spots. A specific gene is responsible for spotted fur, and it is absent in ancient cats. How fur patterns relate to when cats began to live with humans, I do not know. Anyways, the researchers' findings were confirmed by Egyptian murals, which only show striped cats. The gene causing blotched or spotted coats only began to appear in Europe during the Middle Ages.
The mosaic above comes from the House of the Faun, in Pompeii, during the early Roman Empire. Roman cats, which were descended from Egyptian cats, were striped too.
Source: National Geographic History, November/December 2017. "Finicky Felines Take Their Time with Domestication." Pp. 4 - 5
A catapult is technically any kind of machine that causes a projectile to travel a great distance. That means everything from a slingshot up is a catapult. But when most of us think of a catapult, we think of a medieval weapon of war. So that's what this post is about.
The catapult was invented in China (unsurprisingly) in the 300s or 200s BCE. Its first form was basically a giant, meaner crossbow. The catapult was good enough at its job, of killing people and taking cities, that more and more sophisticated versions were invented. Today we actually still use catapults, albeit much less than they did in the middle ages. For instance, sophisticated version of the humble catapult launches planes off the decks of aircraft carriers!
This beautiful depiction of a preaching Buddha was sculpted in Gandhara, a kingdom in northwestern Pakistan, around the 200s CE. After the Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment, he decided to teach others his path to spiritual freedom. The gesture that this Buddha makes refers to the Buddha's first sermon and more generally to the Buddhist teachings, or "dharma". This is not a purely Indian sculpture, however. The Buddha's wavy hair, his toned arm, and the folds of his cloak show influences of Greco-Roman sculptural conventions. Gandhara had been conquered by Alexander the Great in the 300s BCE, and continued to have trading ties with the Mediterraean through the time this particular sculpture was made.