Archive for October, 2007

What the Hellespont are ‘the Dardanelles’? (ca. 480 – 334 BC)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

The Hellespont was a rather important area of the sea in ancient Greece, both in terms of warfare and ancient mythology.

Often referred to by its contemporary European name ‘the Dardanelles’, the Hellespont is actually a long, narrow strait that divides the Balkans from Asia Minor. While that may seem relatively unimportant, the Hellespont also connects the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which leads inward toward the Black Sea.

The Hellespont is 61 kilometers long, but only 1.2 to 6 kilometers wide at any given point – which is very, very narrow when it comes to sailing down the strait… not to mention the difficulties and danger that would be involved if a ship needed to be turned around at one of the narrowest spots. In addition, if ships needed to enter the Hellespont from the Black Sea – since that was the only way out – they had to wait on a little island called Tenedos until the winds were favorable enough to allow them to enter the strait. As a result, in ancient times, whoever controlled Tenedos basically controlled the Hellespont – and subsequently all traffic in and out of the Black Sea.

According to Greek legend, the little island of Tenedos was situated near the city of Troy – and after the Greeks left the Trojan horse at the gates of Troy, they went into hiding on Tenedos before conquering the city… and as later mythological events progressed, the strait became named after the mythological Helle, a woman who drowned there during the events of the myth of the Jason and the Golden Fleece.

History’s dealings with the Hellespont were no less dramatic: around 482 BC, King Xerxes I of Persia attempted to have a bridge built across the Hellespont’s width so that his army of “5 million men” (so Herodotus claims) could cross to the other side. Unfortunately for the architects, the first bridge was destroyed by a storm before anyone could cross. Of course, this caused Xerxes to lose his temper as only Xerxes could, and he had the heads of both his bridge architects cut off and ordered the river to be whipped three hundred times – that’s right, he had the water beaten. Thankfully for the next crew, the bridge was a success.

The entrance to the Hellespont connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. (Photo courtesy of

Later on, the Athenians would fight the Spartans at the Hellespont during the final battle of the Peloponnesian War. Unfortunately for the Athenians, the Spartan general Lysander managed to reach the Hellespont first, securing his position before the Athenian navy could arrive. If the navy had made it there first, history would have told a very different tale… but whoever controlled the Hellespont controlled the battle, and at the end of this battle, the Athenian Empire was no more.

In 334 BC, Alexander the Great would cross the Hellespont to invade Persia, an ironic twist on Xerxes’ invasion from the opposite direction just over a century before. Indeed, the Hellespont is full of spilt blood from centuries past – but its history teaches a lesson about the importance of strategic military positioning.

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Tomorrow: The Female Judge

Sailing Obelisks Down the Nile (ca. 3000 – 300 BC)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

Turns out the Egyptians were able to float the giant obelisks down the Nile to their final destinations… and when the workers were bored, they drew graffiti on the walls!

Ever wonder how the Egyptians managed to build their large monuments, let alone get them where they needed to be? After all, even if the shapes of statues were carved out once the stone was in place, the stone needed to get to its destination somehow – and there weren’t simply giant limestone stores in the city, either. People had to quarry the stone that to be used, and then transport it to the site where the temple or monument was being built – sometimes hundreds of miles away.

The standing suspicion was that the Egyptians moved their massive stone artifacts from one place to another via waterways – there are plenty of paintings and carvings from Egyptian tombs that show people using large boats and barges to move things like statues and obelisks, and it is not hard to see that both the Luxor Temple and the pyramids at Giza have ancient canals that lead up to their “front door”, as it were.

The only problem was, nearly all the known obelisks from ancient Egypt came from a granite quarry in Aswan – and until now, there was no known canal route to get them from the quarry all the way up the Nile to other cities, except by dragging the monument across the ground on a land journey. That clearly would not have been an ideal situation for these artifacts, considering that some of the larger obelisks can weight upwards of 50 tons. One of the unfinished obelisks in the Aswan quarry is estimated at over 1,100 tons – and was abandoned by the ancient workers only because of the appearance of latent cracks, and not because of its weight.

However, recent discoveries have revealed that there may have been a canal in Aswan after all, hidden from historians for centuries by modern roadwork. This canal would have made transporting obelisks a nearly effortless endeavor, as compared to moving them by land: the canal linked the Aswan quarry with the Nile, which meant that the obelisks could have been moved from the quarry to the Nile, and then sailed down the Nile to their final destination.

The only downside to this method was that the timing had to be perfect – in ancient Egypt, the Nile flooded several times annually, and it was the floodwater that would have filled up the quarry’s canal. So, in order to take advantage of the floodwaters and actually use the canal, workers would have needed to finish their obelisks on time, move the monuments onto rafts and into the canal at a point below the floodwater levels, and wait for the water to come – then the monuments could easily float once the flood came.

As a side-note, the archaeologists who found the Aswan quarry also discovered graffiti drawings left behind by quarry workers thousands of years ago, as well as grid markings that would have helped with measurements for the obelisks. Some of the graffiti includes images of ostriches and dolphins, but as water levels rise in the area, Egyptologists fear that the graffiti will be lost or washed away forever.

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Tomorrow: What the Hellespont are ‘the Dardanelles’?

When Chickens Discovered America (ca. 1400 AD)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

Polynesian chickens – and humans – discovered America a hundred years before Columbus got there. Talk about kicking history in the teeth… Columbus was shown up by a chicken!

Although the popularly held belief is that Columbus discovered America… it seems that he wasn’t actually the first to make it there from across the ocean. That’s right – the chickens beat him to it.

Well, actually both the chickens and the Polynesians arrived at the same time, according to ancient DNA evidence. It turns out that the ancient Polynesians were much better sailors than anyone gave them credit for, and somehow managed to beat Christopher Columbus to the Americas by at least a century, arriving in the early 1400s, if not before.

So, not only did the Polynesians colonize nearly every island in the South Pacific – and there’s plenty of evidence for their existence on these islands – but they apparently figured that journeys of several thousand miles weren’t enough. They wanted to sail even further, which brought them to: South America.

Ancient chicken bones found along the coast of Chile were DNA analyzed and compared with the DNA of other chickens found at archaeological sites across the Polynesian islands. The results? The chickens’ genetic stock was Polynesian and not European… and since chickens have a bit of problem when it comes to sailing across the open Pacific on their own, they must have arrived on the ships of Polynesian sailors.

The chicken bones dated to sometime between 1320-1410 AD, which fits with the time when Polynesians probably would have been expected to reach the American continent, although until now, there was no evidence that they actually did so. It is likely that they traveled here from Easter Island, and made their way across the ocean to Chile.

The Mapuche people living in Chile today, coincidently, have quite a number of Polynesian words in their language, and some of their tools are very similar to Polynesian items. While this may be a direct link between these people and the ancient sailor, there is not enough evidence to be %100 certain.

At the very least, there can be no doubt that Polynesian chickens – and humans – discovered America well before Christopher Columbus ever knew of its existence.

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Tomorrow: Sailing Obelisks

Beer & Fire = Bad Combination (ca. 1000 AD)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

This is where the Wari people drank themselves into oblivion and then proceeded to torch half their town. Apparently fire and beer make a great combination.

About a thousand years ago, the Wari people living at the town of Cerro Baul in southern Peru evacuated their city… but before they left, they had a few tasks to fulfill:

1) Get completely plastered on spicy corn beer.
2) Set the brewery, temple, and palace on fire.

Naturally, this was simply the course of action taken to fulfill a ‘ceremonial destruction’ of where they used to live – since both the Wari nation and the neighboring Tiwanaku state were in decline, the Wari people of Cerro Baul probably figured that they had better plans for helping their people survive than to simply continue living up on their flat-topped mountain.

The Wari people and their Tiwanaku neighbors were both agriculturally-based societies, and the Wari had lived since 600 AD on top of a 2,000-foot-high mesa – which might seem somewhat counterproductive, since any traded goods would have needed to be hauled up and down the side of the mountain, a rather dangerous task no matter how you look at it.

However, the most likely explanation was that the Wari wanted to show off their prowess to the Tiwanaku – establishing themselves with a bit of ‘king of the castle’ bravado, since the nearest Tiwanaku city was only 5 miles away and would have been able to see the Wari’s town rather clearly from their vantage point. Mind you, there is no evidence for the two groups ever fighting each other – it seems that the Tiwanaku were more focused on their religious devotion – and both seem to have worshipped the same gods… can you say ‘sibling rivalry’?

Wari ritual drinking vessels! They might have even smashed some of these in the ‘deliberate’ fires they set while drunk out of their minds.

Another thing both the Wari and the Tiwanaku shared was a deep appreciation for something called ‘chicha’, which was a fermented alcoholic drink made from corn – it was quite similar to modern day beer, and it was consumed in excessive quantities during their necessary drinking rituals.

Michael Moseley, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, had this to say about the Wari and Tiwanaku’s love for beer: “You couldn’t have a ceremony without intoxication; people would drink until they fell down, then get up and start drinking again.” Considering this perspective, perhaps the sudden decline of both cultures around 1000 AD isn’t so inexplicable after all…! Though, of course, it actually seems that a long-term drought was to blame.

Thus, if the drought caused severe problems for these agricultural societies, the Wari probably saw their inconvenient settlement location as less important than it had originally seemed to be – and so, the Wari people brewed up one last batch of beer and promptly set fire to the entire city. Archaeological evidence shows that the roofs of buildings were deliberately burnt and many drinking cups were ‘ritually smashed’.

Since chicha takes a week to brew, the people had time to get themselves organized for the event – evidence shows that there were not only 28 local tribe leaders assembled in the courtyard at the time of the drinking party, but the presence of many, many animal bones shows that the people had quite the feast before heading out to burn the town.

So, after eating too much, and getting far too drunk, the local men went out into their former hometown and set everything in the palace, temple, and brewery that could possibly be combustible on fire – then they threw their beer mugs into the flames, and walked away to start new lives elsewhere… presumably, they had actually taken that part into consideration.

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Tomorrow: Racism in ancient Rome (or the lack thereof)

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