Historians have just discovered the oldest reference to the mathematical concept of "zero" in India. The concept of zero as a number was revolutionary in mathematics. In Eurasia, the idea came from India (and the Mayans separately invented it hundreds of years late in the Americas) but exactly when zero was first conceived in India is a bit of a mystery. Now, we have a potential clue: the Bakhshali manuscript, which a farmer dug up the text from a field in 1881 in the village of Bakhshali, near Peshawar in what is today Pakistan. It consists of 70 leaves of birch bark and contains hundreds of zeros in the form of dots. Why was it only just discovered, if the farmer dug it up over 100 years ago?
People knew what it was, and knew it zeros throughout the text. But they thought the Bakhshali manuscript was written between the 700s and the 1100s CE. Since the oldest then-known written reference to zero was the Indian astronomer Brahmagupta's work "Brahmasphutasiddhanta," which was written in 628 CE, the Bakhshali manuscript was a lot less exciting. It was a mathematical manuscript utilizing the newly-invented concept of zero, which astronomers had been using for at least a couple decades before the Bakhshali.
But recent, more advanced carbon dating resulted in three different dates for different parts of the Bakhshali manuscript. It appears now to be not one document but several, put together. And the oldest part dated to 224 to 383 CE! That is hundreds of years before Brahmagupta! Two other parts dated to 680 to 779 CE, and 885 to 993 CE, which is probably why earlier analyses got the manuscript's age wrong. If further tests confirm the findings, the Bakhshali manuscript moves up when zero was invented to the same time the Roman Empire was falling to barbarians, the Three Kingdoms Period was reordering China, and Teotihuacan was near the heights of its power.
You probably are familiar with Camelot and Avalon. Legendary places in British legends, they were places the Knights of the Round Table and King Arthur visited or lived, sometime in the unsettled 500s between the collapse of Roman power and the coming of Saxon invaders. One of the less-well-known places in Arthurian legend is Rheged. It was home to a famous knight in the legends: Sir Owain, son of King Urian and Morgan le Fay, the man who killed the Black Knight. And now archaeologists may have found Rheged.
The researchers were drawn to Trusty's Hill, a hill fort in Galloway in Southern Scotland, because there are pictish symbols carved into its bedrock. They are unique in the region, and archaeologists (plus 60 volunteers) wanted to survey what they could about the mysterious Picts. And in the course of their examination in summer 2016, archaeologists realized they had accidentally uncovered something else: the Pictish symbols seemed to form a symbolic entranceway, which in many sites in Scotland is associated with royalty. Had they found a royal stronghold? Then the dig uncovered pottery from France, and a workshop exclusively to produce costly fine metalwork and jewelry, which support that the site was a significant trade center at the time.
Putting everything together, it seemed they had accidentally uncovered a royal hillfort stronghold, which flourished sometime around 600 CE under the rule of Britons who lived in Galloway. The region's wealth, demonstrated by the finds at Trusty's Hill, make it the strongest contender we have for the legendary kingdom of Rheged. We are pretty sure Rheged existed, too, because we have two sources on it. First, Rheged is mentioned in Arthurian legends dating to the 1100s, and second, Urien of Rheged was praised in verse by Taliesen, a poet we know lived around the 500s CE.
For centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, everyone was still writing in Latin. It was the language used by scholars, monks, and government officials and since they were the main ones writing, most of what has come down from about 400 CE to about 700 CE is in Latin. Which means our first known literature in many languages was only written down centuries after those languages started being spoken, when it became fashionable to write in the local languages again.
In the 600s, people in Britain spoke what we now call Old English. It was a Germanic language, brought by invaders and retained by locals. Sometime between 657 and 680, a cowherd named Caedmon, who spoke Old English, lived in northern England’s Northumbria. Caedmon was likely illiterate, so most of what we know about his existence and what happened next comes from oral tradition.
An angel was said to appear to Caedmon in a dream. He asked Caedmon to sing a song of the creation of the world -- “sing me frumsceaft.” The hymn he was inspired to compose Caedmon recited to others, who recited to others....who eventually recited it for the scholar Bede, who wrote it down. Today, Caedmon’s Hymn is the first known English poem. Although you need a translation to understand it!
The term “Byzantine Empire” came into common use during the 1700s and 1800s. It would never have been heard, let alone embraced, by the people who once lived in it. To them, Byzantium was still the Roman Empire, which had merely moved its seat of power from Rome to a new eastern capital in Constantinople. Though largely Greek-speaking and Christian, the Byzantines called themselves “Romaioi,” or Romans. They used Roman law, played Roman games like chariot racing, and enjoyed Roman festivals. While Byzantium evolved a distinctive, Greek-influenced identity as the centuries passed, the Romaioi continued to cherish their Roman roots until the end. When he conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Turkish leader Mehmed II even took the emperor's title as “Caesar of Rome.”
A new study, looking at macaw skeletons found at three prehistoric pueblo sites in New Mexico, USA, suggests that Native Americans in this arid area imported the birds from less-arid places. The bird remains which were examined date from between 300 CE and 1450 CE. The majority were tropical macaws -- definitely not native to New Mexico! There is also no evidence of macaw breeding save at one site. Put together, the evidence points to importing the birds.
In addition, there was widespread scarring along the surface of their bones, showing that humans removed their feathers. And many of the macaws' skeletons showed malnourishment, likely from being kept inside and fed a largely corn diet. Which, counter-intuitively, suggests the Pueblans were caring for them extremely well, for their society. Basically? The macaws were being imported, kept in captivity, and systematically harvested for their bright and colorful feathers.
Really, really good history! Since I know next to nothing about Ukraine's national history, I particularly appreciated the accessibility -- the vlogger assumed we had been born yesterday, and it worked.
Did you know Tibet once controlled an empire? It ruled the Himalayan highlands, Bengal, and the modern Chinese provinces of Gansu and Yunnan from 618 CE to about 840 CE. Between the first and third emperor, their territory expanded eventually to the height shown in the map above. But difficulty of transportation and communication, and religious tensions due to the introduction of Buddhism in the early 700s CE, led to infighting which pitted the royal family against ancient noble families and supporters of the new religion.
The last two emperors were assassinated, one by pro-native religionists, one by a Buddhist hermit. Yes, a Buddhist assassinated an emperor. After the death of the tenth emperor, the Tibetan Empire disintegrated into civil war.
A funerary mask, from the Mayan city of Calakmul. It is a mosaic of jade, obsidian, and shell. It was made between 660 and 750 CE, and buried with an unidentified ruler of the Kaan Dynasty of Calakmul.
The mask is complex and full of symbolism. Among other symbols, the ruler's ears are shaped like corn flowers, sacred in Mayan mythology as the first man was crafted from corn. And the white whisps by the nose and mouth likely represent the ruler's last dying breaths: his transition from the mortal world to the afterworld.
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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!