Archive for June, 2007

So Much For Gun Laws… (ca. 1500 AD)

By: The Scribe on June, 2007

First gunshot victim

Near Lima, Peru, archaeologists believe they have discovered the first gunshot victim in the Western Hemisphere. In a shallow grave, surrounded by a large group of ancient Incan bones, the skull had an almost perfectly round hole, leading experts to wonder at first whether it had been made by a slingshot, spear, or some other circular weapon.

The Incans who died here, however, appear to have been killed rather violently – likely as a result of the Spanish Conquistadors, who battled against the Incan empire around 500 years ago. The shallow graves seem to suggest that the victims were buried in a hurry, which usually means that the burials were conducted during a time of conflict – in this case, possibly during a known uprising against the Spanish invaders in 1536.

In order to determine what made the hole in the one victim’s skull, forensic experts looked for a trace of metal around the wound, believing there was a very slim chance that any traces would remain after this long. However, against the odds, they found minute fragments of musket ball metal stuck inside the area surrounding the hole! Further examination revealed that the musket shot was less than an inch in diameter, and was powerful enough to enter the back of the victim’s skull and exit through the top of the head at an angle.

Since identifying this skeleton as the first gunshot victim in the Americas, two more gunshot victims have also been located among the bones, with further research on their conditions still to come!

Ican  mummies

As for the hastily buried bodies, their burials absolutely did not conform to the typical Incan burial customs: they were facing the wrong direction in the graves, they were wrapped only in a simple cloth, the graves were far too shallow, and there were no burial offerings – something absolutely unthinkable in many ancient burial rites. A closer look at the Incan mummies also revealed something more disturbing – many of the bodies seemed to have been hacked up and were missing limbs, there was evidence of impalement by iron weapons, and chunks of the bodies appeared to have been torn apart, in addition to the several bodies with gunshot wounds.

Although it is still not conclusively known what occurred here, the Incans buried here were clearly victims of some horrific and extremely violent acts. Hopefully, further forensic study on the bodies from these graves will help to shed some light exactly what happened at this site in Peru.

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Tomorrow: Scandalous Roman poetry!

A Brief History of the Crossbow (ca. 4th C BC – onward)

By: The Scribe on June, 2007

An early crossbow

As one of the deadliest projectile weapons known to man, the creators of the crossbow must have had some very intense warfare in mind as they developed this weapon. In fact, there is quite a bit of uncertainty over when and where the crossbow was first created and used, but evidence for its use first appears around the 4th century BC in China.

The earliest definitive evidence for Chinese crossbow use comes from manuscripts dating to the 4th and 3rd centuries BC in China, associated with the followers of Chinese philosophy Mohism, developed by a man named Mozi. This philosophy, although it asserted a belief in universal love, also called for the development of a political structure within which there was no central authority other than Mozi’s writings. The Mohists developed many ideas on fortification, statecraft, as well as agricultural theories, and were soon hired as advisors for the leaders of warring states.

Keeping this in mind, perhaps it isn’t so unusual that the first reference to crossbows appears in Chinese philosophical writings – the document discusses the use of a giant crossbow catapult during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Since the use of the crossbow occurred before the manuscript was written, it cannot be said for sure whether use of the crossbow originated in China – though it is certainly possible. However, Sun Tzu’s book The Art of War also refers to the use of crossbows, and this book first appeared around 400 BC.

Another  early crossbow

There are also reliable records that crossbows were used in 341 BC at the Battle of Ma-Ling, and by the end of the 3rd century BC, the crossbow had been very well developed and was a standard weapon used in Chinese warfare. In fact, Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb from 210 BC contained several crossbow pieces, strewn about between the Terracotta Warrior statues.

In the Greek world, the earliest documented evidence for crossbow use was during the Siege of Motya in 397 BC, described by the scholar Heron of Alexandria in his book on war machines from the 1st century BC. Of course, since the gap between the event and the book’s composition is quite wide, there is speculation over the authenticity of the report. Regardless, Alexander the Great is known to have used crossbows for the siege of Tyre in 332 BC – and his crossbows were the first to have documented use of ballista construction, which used torsion spring bundle technology to increase projectile force. Ballistae could actually the shoot lighter projectiles, providing they had higher velocities, over a much longer distance.

As improvements to the crossbow continued, the Greek world soon saw the introduction of a smaller, sniper model called the Scorpio. By the time the Siege of Rhodes came around in 305 BC, siege towers were being constructed with multiple crossbows: a large ballistae at the bottom, designed to demolish the parapet and rid it of troops, while the top of the siege towers held armor-piercing Scorpios to snipe soldiers patrolling city walls.

An early Ballista

It turned out that these types of crossbows were so effective in ancient warfare that the basic styles and functions saw very minimal change until well into the Middle Ages!

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Tomorrow: So much for gun laws…

Herding Cows in Caves (8,000 – 1,200 BC)

By: The Scribe on June, 2007

Cave arch

In southeast Algeria, North Africa, there is a mountain range by the name of Tassili n’Ajjer in the Sahara that is composed of about 300 natural rock arches – and an incredible amount of rock paintings. These rock paintings date as far back as the Neolithic, and include depictions of horses, giraffes, crocodiles, and humans in the midst of cattle herding and hunting!

Cave painting hunter

Some of the earliest pieces of rock art are actually less “paintings” and more “etchings”, as the artists seem to have sketched out images of local wildlife and human interactions, including some wildlife that now are extinct from the area.

Cave arch number 2

In the picture here, there appear to be two female dancers, several big-horned rams, a camel with rider, and… a jellyfish!? Clearly, the jellyfish is rather out of place in this scene, but it attests to geological assertions that the Sahara was habitable for humans during the Neolithic period. In fact, much of the Sahara desert was covered in grasslands and lake basins, with giraffe, crocodiles, ostrich, hippos and antelopes living along the plains.

Second cave painting hunter

As usual, there are many theories as to why the Neolithic hunters chose to create so many paintings and etchings on Tassili’s rock arches. Some believe that it was a way to show appreciation to the gods, a symbolic representation of religious beliefs, while others have – perhaps not surprisingly – proposed that the humans in the pictures are actually aliens.

Camel cave painting

Whatever the reason may have been for creating the extensive rock art at Tassili, one thing certainly remains clear: humans have a penchant for artistic expression, regardless of the time or place. Perhaps they were merely creating art for art’s sake?

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Tomorrow: Crossbow history

Tasty Jelling Stones (10th century AD)

By: The Scribe on June, 2007

Jelling stones of Scandinavia

What are these stones, and why do they seem to be named after canned preserves? The truth is, they’re actually named after the town of Jelling in Denmark, and currently rest in one of Jelling’s churchyards between two large, earthen burial mounds.

These enormous rune stones were carved in the 10th century, during the transition period between traditional Norse paganism and Denmark’s Christianization. Due to the lack of written history for most of Scandinavia’s past, the few inscriptions found on these stones are quite valuable for their historic worth.

The smaller – and older – of the two stones was set up by King Gorm the Old, the last ‘pagan’ king of Denmark, as a memorial for his wife, Queen Thyre. The larger stone was erected by Harold Bluetooth in memory of his own parents, King Gorm and Queen Thyre.

The Jelling stones have a strong association with the establishment of Denmark as a nation, a notion which may have originally come from the inscriptions. The older rune stone reads: “King Gorm made this monument in memory of Thyvre, his wife, Denmark’s salvation”.

More jelling stones

The Bluetooth inscription says:

“King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyvre, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.”

This stone also has an image of Christ on one side, and a picture of a lion wrapped in a serpent on the other.

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Tomorrow: More fascinating stuff!

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