The Steppes, The Silk Road, And An Unscientific Fur Experiment

When the Silk Road was in its heyday, it is generally known that silk and porcelain from China was being traded for gold and amber from Europe and spices from India. But did you know that the steppes of Eurasia were a large part of the Silk Road too? They traded horses, which were eventually commercially raised in stud farms, falcons for hunting, swords for fighting, and wax and honey which were popularly believed to provide resistance to the cold. But above all, the steppes traded animal pelts. Furs were highly prized, both for their practical warmth and their social prestige.

Muslim merchants learned to distinguish between different animal pelts, and set their prices accordingly. They were valued depending on their scarcity — less common furs meant higher social cachet — and their warmth. One caliph in the 700s CE went so far as to conduct a series of experiments to test which furs were the warmest. He placed each fur in a separate container, then filled each container with water, and left them all outside overnight in ice-cold weather. In the morning, he checked the containers. All had frozen except for the one with black fox fur. The caliph declared the experiment a success, and black fox fur the warmest and the driest of the furs.

Interesting Turkic Tomb Found In Mongolia

In eastern Mongolia, archaeologists have uncovered a tomb dating to the mid-700s CE, surrounded by 14 stone pillars. Turkic runes inscribed on the pillars indicate the deceased was a viceroy and high-ranking administrative officer during the Second Turkic Qaghanate. This state, which controlled much of the steppes above the Great Wall of China, had emerged in 682 CE and lasted until 744 CE, under the leadership of the Götürk's Ashina clan. Think the Mongol Empire, but earlier and confined to the steppes, and led by Turkic clans. Prior to the discovery of the tomb, it had been thought that Turkic elites were only buried in particular parts of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of the ancient empire.

New Technology Used To Examine An Old Site

Tsuzuraozaki Kotei Iseki is an interesting archaeological site in Japan: it is entirely underwater! The site, in Lake Biwako under about 200 feet (61 meters) of water, is known to be home to a wide variety of pottery dating from as early as 8000 BCE through the 1100s CE. Japanese archaeologists recently used a robot (surprise, surprise) to explore Tsuzuraozaki Kotei Iseki. It spotted a Haji pottery urn, measuring about a foot long and dating to the 500s to 700s CE, and shallow, grayish-black bowls thought to be Sue pottery, made in Japan and southern Korea for funeral and ritual use beginning in the 400s CE.

Where Do Popes Come From?

  A map of where, in the world, popes have been born. Note that they placed each pope in the country he would be born in, if he was born today. Three popes were born in modern-day Tunisia, sure, but that was back in the Roman Empire. Those ancient "Tunisian" popes would have called it the province of "Africa" and it included eastern Algeria and northern Libya, as well as Tunisia.

All That Glitters Is Orange?

Usually, when we think of gold, we think of a warm yellow color. But the Nahuange, who lived in northern Colombia during the first millenium CE, intentionally treated gold jewelry so that it looked pinkish orange. A recent study analyzed 44 Nahuange artifacts from the Museum of Gold in Colombia, and found that they were made from tumbaga, a gold alloy which contains a substantial percentage of copper. They were also all "depletion gilded" which means copper was removed from the surface through hammering, a heating and cooling process, or both. The result was a golden shine on the outside which hid the metal's true high-copper content. That gilding was later removed, on purpose, to bring the copper's pinkish tones out. So initially, the jewelry makers desired golden objects, but at some later point, it was preferable to have pinkish-orange jewelry.

Derbent, Russia's Oldest City

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.

Prehistoric women's arms 'stronger than those of today's elite rowers'

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.

Beware The Dancing Girls!

The Tuyuhun were a nomadic people who created a powerful kingdom in the northern part of the Himalayan plateau. The Tuyuhun were unsurprisingly interested in their rich neighbor to the east, and invaded the Tang Dynasty in 623 CE. The Tuyuhun regularly raided Chinese settlements along the western Tang frontier. This was just another of a long line of incursions by nomads into China. So in 623, the Tuyuhun departed from their homeland, and invaded Gansu, in northwest China. The Tang general Chai Shao was dispatched to defeat them. The problem for him was the Tuyuhun army controlled the high ground, having arrived at a strong position and refused to abandon it. Their archers easily held off any approach by the Tang army, so why should they move? All pretty standard so far.

Chai Shao was an unorthodox man, though, and he thought of an unorthodox solution: erotic dancers. He sent two dancing girls and a group of musicians to a small hill near the Tuyuhun camp. The girls performed an erotic dance, accompanied by the musicians, just where they could be seen by the Tuyuhun army. Discipline fell apart completely as soldiers rushed to get a better view of the dancing.

Meanwhile, Chai Shao and the Tang cavalry snuck around behind the Tuyuhun, while everyone was distracted by the ladies. When they attacked, the Tuyuhun were completely defeated: they lost over 500 men, and were forced to retreat out of Gansu. Hostilities continued, but now the Tang were attacking the Tuyuhun, instead of fending off invasions.

Have you heard of the Moosleute? Dwarflike "moss people," they live in the forest of Germany. If treated well Moosleute will heal people, and for some reason, offer good advice. They're like folktale's Ask Amy.

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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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