Archive for the ‘Ancient East’ Category

Astyages, Last King of the Medes – Part 1/2 (ca. 585 – 550 BC)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007

The Median King Astyages stabs a lion on this gold scabbard from the British Museum.

Since almost all the information available on the last king of the Medes comes from the Greek historian Herodotus’ Histories, it is difficult to sort the truth of his writings from tales he wrote down through hearsay. Needless to say, there are some details which can be confirmed: Astyages was the son of king Cyaraxes; he reigned from 585 BC until he was dethroned in 550 BC; and he was married to Aryenis, sister of the Lydian king Croesus, through the terms of a peace treaty agreement that Cyaraxes signed after fighting the Lydians for 5 years.

It is beyond this basic introduction that Herodotus’ ‘historical account’ provides more information, though one should always take Herodotus’ writings with a grain of salt – however, that does not mean that he doesn’t have interesting stories to tell!

According to Herodotus, Astyages was a superstitious and vain king. Sometime during his rule, he had a dream about his daughter Mandane: in the dream, his daughter gave birth to a son who would grow up to destroy his empire. In fear, Astyages arranged a marriage between his daughter and the Iranian prince Cambyses I, who had a reputation for being quiet, thoughtful, and “of little power.” In his mind, a marriage between Mandane and this kind of man would never result in the birth of a child capable of seizing the throne.

Harpagus probably had a cool hat like this guy, a terracotta figure of a random Persian nobleman.

After the birth of Mandane and Cambyses’ first son, Astyages had a second dream which he interpreted as a warning against the child’s future actions. Paranoid and fearful, Astyages ordered his courtier (and fellow member of the Median royal house) Harpagus to find and kill the baby. Harpagus, although realizing that disobedience would come with grave punishment, was naturally reluctant to spill royal blood. Hoping to pass the task off to another, Harpagus gave the child to a local herdsman named Mitridates, whose own wife had just given birth to a stillborn child. Mitridates and his wife then raised the child, Cyrus II, as their own – and Harpagus presented the stillborn baby to Astyages as his daughter’s dead son.

Herodotus goes on to explain that when the boy was about 10 years old, it became clear that the child was not the son of a herdsman – his behavior was “far too noble”. Coming across the boy on a chance encounter, Astyages began to be suspicious when realized that the child looked remarkably like himself. He immediately confronted Harpagus about what he had done, and the courtier confessed. Although Astyages spared the child’s life at the advice of his Magi – and allowed Cyrus II to return to his natural parents – Harpagus was subject to a horrendous punishment: Astyages fed Harpagus his own son at a banquet.

Enraged, Harpagus waited for a chance to avenge himself and his family…

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Tomorrow: Part two of the Astyages story

Tasty Salt Men from Iran (550 BC – 224 AD)

By: The Scribe on July, 2007

The original salt man

In 1993, a mummy was accidentally discovered in the Chehrabad salt mine in northwestern Iran, and since then, five additional ‘salt men’ have been found elsewhere inside the mine. Who they were and what they were doing there 1700 years ago has yet to be determined, however the unique preservation of the bodies is intriguing, and studies are ongoing in hopes to learn more about these ‘accidental’ mummies.

Salt Man 1: Found in 1993, this body had long hair, a gold earring and a beard, and was found with several items in his possession. These included a leather boot (with the leg inside), three iron knives, a sling and silver needle, pieces of leather rope, a walnut, some pieces of pottery and a grinding stone, and some textile fragments. The skull appears to have been fractured before death, but why he was there and exactly how he died has yet to be determined.

Salt Man 2

Salt Man 2: Found in 1994, the second salt man still had hair, a beard, nails, jaw, and hand and foot bones still intact. He was found with several pieces of clothing, a hand-woven rug with a unique pattern, and seems to have been around 35-40 years old at death. Interestingly, he was found only about 40 meters away from where the first salt man was discovered.

Salt Man 3: Found in 2005, the third salt man was located underneath a rock – which had unfortunately done a fair bit of damage to the skeleton. The body was found with a leather sack of salt, two pairs of shoes and two cow horns, and a clay tallow burner. According to excavators, the sack of salt was tightened as though he had just filled it and was probably about to leave the mine – whereupon he was crushed by the falling rock.

Salt  Man/Woman 4?

Salt Man 4: Found in 2005, the fourth salt man may actually be a salt woman! There were no traces on a beard on this mummy, and the height was significantly less than the previous mummies. This one was found with an iron knife inside a scabbard at the body’s waist, and two ceramic jugs with oil inside that might have been used for a lantern. The ‘man’ also wore two gold earrings, and was wearing a knee-length quilted garment and leggings that reached the thighs. Other speculation is that the body is of a young adult male, which could account for the size.

Salt Man 5: Found in late 2005, very little information has been revealed about this mummy.

actually the 4th Salt ManSalt Man 6: Found in 2007, this salt mummy has yet to be removed from the mine, as excavators are concerned about preservation. The mummy was revealed due to heavy rainfall in the area, and only about half the skull is currently visible underneath the large rock that probably caused his death. Since this salt man was only recently discovered, there is very little information available to the public at the current time.

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Tomorrow: 35000 year old mammoth carving

First Brain Surgeons – Part 7/7 (ca. 3,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on May, 2007

ancient brain surgeryContrary to popular belief, it appears that the ancient Egyptians were not the first people to conduct brain surgery in the ancient world! A skull unearthed at the Burnt City has provided evidence of surgical practices that appear to have dethroned the ancient Egyptians as originators of such a highly skilled task.

This skull from ancient Persia, found in one of the Burnt City’s many burials, contains markings thought to have first been mentioned in an ancient Egyptian tale called “The Story of Sinuhe”, written around 2000 BC in hieroglyphs. In the story, an Egyptian physician and nobleman named Sinuhe discusses open brain surgeries in detail. Although there is still debate around whether or not the events described in the story actually took place, elements of the tale that are described in great detail – such as brain surgery – are typically assumed to be factual accounts, simply because of the great level of detail included.

It now appears that, with the appearance of this skull, archaeologists can comfortably say that the practice of brain surgery did not originate in ancient Egypt, but rather in Iran, the location of ancient Persia. While some smaller prehistoric sites in Europe have yielded skulls with holes on top, it is thought that this may have been done for aesthetic or cultural purposes, rather than medical, simply due to the smaller size of the holes.

The typical method of brain surgery at this time was called ‘trepanation’, which involves cutting or drilling a hole into the patient’s skull. This was done to relieve pressure from excess fluids around the brain, or in some cases, possibly to release ‘evil spirits’ from those with mental disorders. It appears that in most cases, the patient survived months or even years after their surgeries.

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Tomorrow: The history of Chocolate!

Saturday Morning Cartoons in Ancient Persia – Part 6/7 (ca. 3,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on May, 2007

The earliest animation

An animated piece, considered to be the ‘first animation in the world’, was found on an earthen goblet from the “Burnt City” in Iran, dating around 5,000 years old. The sequence depicted on this goblet is that of a goat who jumps toward a tree and eats its leaves.

The goblet itself is 10 centimeters high, with an 8 centimeter diameter. The images show movement in a manner unprecedented in ancient art, because although other earthenware vessels recovered from the Burnt City show repetitive images, none of them indicate any movement.

Iranian archaeologist Mansour Sajjadi, who has worked at the Burnt City excavations for several seasons, commented on the context of the goblet: “while excavating the grave in which the cream-colored goblet has been found, we came across a skeleton that probably belongs to the creator of this piece.”

The archaeologists of the site also put together a 20-second animated piece based on the images from the goblet. This video may be downloaded and viewed.

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Tomorrow: Ancient brain surgery!

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