Archive for December, 2010

How Greenland got its Name

By: The Scribe on December, 2010

If you have ever been to Greenland, you know that it does not live up to its name. Instead of being a beautiful, green island Greenland is icy and cold. There have been many theories about how the island, along with nearby Iceland came to be named what they were. The secret lies with the Vikings who settled in Iceland and in many different areas of Northern Europe.

The Vikings were a race of Scandinavians who settled in many areas of Northern Europe. Although they are commonly portrayed as bloodthirsty warriors who pillaged, raided and raped their way through much of Europe they also had a thriving culture. While it is true that many of them were violent and blood thirsty there were also Viking traders and explorers as well. image

They were able to explore much of Northern Europe using their famous long ships. The design of these ships was very different than many of the sailing vessels we are familiar with today. A Viking ship did not have a large keel like other sailing vessels did. This meant that it could sail in shallow rivers as well as at sea. Viking raiders were able to use their ships to penetrate inland and then attack outwards from there. In areas such as Ireland, this tactic proved to be exceptionally successful.image

One Viking in particular, Erik the Red was very good at raiding and pillaging. Although history is somewhat sketchy, it is believed that he discovered Greenland after being sent away from Iceland in exile. This was rumored to have been his punishment for committing murder. He was able to settle in Greenland and survive there for several years. Finally, his exile was ended and he found that he wanted to settle the island more fully. For that, he needed to convince others to come with him. Erik the Red is believed to have lived from circa 950 to 1003CE.

Of course, when you tell someone that they will be travelling with you to a place that is barren, cold and inhospitable you may have trouble convincing even a Viking to come with you. So instead, Erik (according to popular legend) called the island Greenland and instead painted the island as being a wonderful place to settle.

There are other theories as to how Greenland got its name. One theory is that the “green” in Greenland is actually a translation error. The word “grunt” actually means ground and it could be that Greenland was meant to be named Gruntland (or ground land).

The island has never been heavily populated. Much of it is covered by a sheet of ice. The only area that is not covered in ice is only clear because the air is so dry that ice cannot form. Many Native cultures have used the island as a hunting ground and several nations have used the island as a strategic launching point or a base during various conflicts and wars.

The island is currently owned by Denmark despite previous attempts by the United States to purchase the island.

Al Khazneh- An Ancient Building carved from a single block of stone

By: The Scribe on December, 2010

Most ancient buildings were constructed in essentially the same way. Blocks or bricks of hardened clay, mud or stone were fitted together to form walls. These blocks were held together using some form of mortar- a substance which would harden and keep the blocks immobilized so that they could withstand the weather and wear and tear of everyday life. They were built by many different cultures with varying degrees of skill. Some had blocks that were fitted together so tightly that it was difficult to slip a piece of paper between them and they may have appeared to be made from a single piece of stone.

Al Khazneh was built very differently. This is a building found in the Jordanian city of Petra. It has beautiful soaring lines and an intricate façade that begs the question of how it could be created from individual bricks or blocks. The fact is- it wasn’t. This beautiful building is a true marvel as it was carved from a rose colored sandstone rock face.image

The city where Al Khazneh is located is a bit of a mystery as well. Petra was believed to have been founded around the 6th century BCE and it is located in the country of Jordan, where it is one of the country’s major tourist attractions. Originally it served as a center of the Nabataean caravan trade routes. It was built within rock cuts and was incredibly easy to defend. To reach the city from the east, for example, it is necessary to travel through a deep rock cleft. The area formed a sort of natural oasis and water was plentiful. The Nabataeans were able to create dams and reservoirs so they could channel and store the water in the area, making it a refuge that was also incredibly hospitable.

Because much of the city is carved from rock it is no wonder that the Nabataeans were known for their carving ability. Al Khazneh is considered to be the pinnacle of their carving, however. They removed the rock by exploiting its natural fissure lines and were able to recycle the stone that had been cut away for other buildings. The façade of the building has columns and is designed with many familiar elements of Western architecture. The Nabataeans had contact with other cultures such as the Greeks due to their active participation in trading items such as frankincense, myrrh and other luxury items. At its height, the Nabataean empire reached as far north as Damascus and as far south as Hegra.image

Although Al Khazneh is thousands of years old it continues to attract attention even now. The building has been used as a backdrop for several movies. Two of the most famous include Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Transformers; and Transformers:Revenge of the Fallen. While the purpose of Al Khazneh varies depending on which film you are watching the original purpose for this unique and beautiful building is still a mystery.

China’s Terracotta Warriors

By: The Scribe on December, 2010

Many ancient cultures had traditions of placing things in the grave of someone who died. This could be as simple as placing containers of food in with the deceased or as extreme as killing slaves and family members. Whether it was furniture, food or servants, the entire principal was to provide the deceased with tools and items that they could use when they reached the afterlife. These were often personal items although they may also have been heavily ornamented and, in the case of some ancient rulers, were often extremely valuable.

Funerary art and grave goods were also placed in graves as a way to honor the deceased and to celebrate the accomplishments that they achieved in life. This meant that some ancient leaders would have large quantities of grave goods and funerary art pieces placed in their tombs when they were being buried.

This practice of adding items to the grave was often done on a fairly small scale in terms of size even if there were large numbers of individual items. Miniatures of furnishings, homes and other items were lovingly crafted and placed in the graves or tombs. Some cultures placed many items in tombs especially if the person who died was extremely important or powerful.

Perhaps the most elaborate example of placing items in a tomb would have to be the Terracotta Warriors of China. Found in 1974, this collection of beautifully crafted figurines dates from 210 BCE and is made up of more than 8,000 individual pieces. These figurines were located near Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province in China.image

The figures are much larger than other funerary statues that are normally found in tombs. Instead of being miniature, they are life sized and, in some cases, are actually larger than life. The smallest figurines are approximately 6 feet tall but some measure up to 6.4 feet tall. They are very detailed and show a variety of different professions. In addition to the 8,000 soldiers figurines of acrobats, cavalry horses and horse and chariot combinations were also found. Each of the figures is unique. This uniqueness is due to a direct order from the Emperor who did not want the figures to be duplicated at all. It is because of this attention to detail that the collection took many years to complete.

The figurines were part of a larger necropolis, a city for the dead that was built to honor the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. The creation of the mausoleum and the necropolis was a massive project that involved as many as 700,000 workers. The necropolis and the army were meant to serve two different purposes in the afterlife. The necropolis had been designed to act as a palace or imperial compound. image

There are several theories about the purpose of the army. The first is that the army had been designed to act as protection for the emperor in the afterlife. The second theory was that the army was provided for the use of the emperor so that he could continue to attack and conquer others even in the afterlife.

The terracotta warriors have become an international sensation and portions of the collection have been taken on a tour that has stopped in many countries around the world.

The Women of Machu Picchu

By: The Scribe on December, 2010

Many people have heard of Machu Picchu, the mysterious lost Inca city in the mountains. This stunning marvel of ancient construction was likely built to serve as both a royal estate and a religious retreat and many of the skeletons that were found in and around the site seem to support the theory that many of the individuals living there served a religious purpose. What is surprising is that a large number of the skeletons are female.

The site itself was discovered in 1911 and has been successfully dated back to the time between 1460 and 1470. It is located in Peru, about 43 miles northwest of the city of Cuzco. The name means “Old Peak” and this is accurate, since the city is built about 8,000 feet above sea level.image

Although some theories have suggested that it may have been an administrative center its remote location makes this seem unlikely. It was originally constructed by the Incan ruler Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. The site is a collection of 200 or so buildings and archaeologists have been able to discover that the majority of these were residences. At its heyday, the site housed approximately 1,200 people.

Many of the women who lived at Mach Picchu actually belonged to an order known as the Chosen Women or Quechua Aclla Cuna (“Virgins of the Sun”). Although they were originally believed to have lived at the site to act as servants for the Emperor it is now believed that their role was mainly a religious one. They took vows of chastity and were responsible for the preparation of any ritual food that was served during rites, weaving ritual garments, and tending and maintaining a sacred fire that was located at Machu Picchu. Other garments woven by the women were worn by the Emperor but were not specifically linked to any religious ceremonies.image

The women lived and worked under the supervision of a number of matrons. These women were known as Mama Cuna. In turn, they were overseen by a single high priestess. This woman was known as the Coya Pasca and she was believed to be a human, earthly consort of the Incan sun god.

Virgins were chosen by priests and came from many different Incan villages. They were young. It was not uncommon for a girl as young as eight years of age to be taken from a village and brought to Machu Picchu. These girls were commoners and were selected for a variety of reasons. Physical attractiveness was a factor in whether a woman would be chosen to become one of the Chosen Women.

The women were often required to serve for a period of six or seven years after which they may have found it possible to be released from their duties. Life for a Virgin of the Sun could be a good one, and might end as the wife or concubine of a rich or powerful individual. Some also ultimately ended up as sacrificial victims.

The city’s downfall was mainly due to smallpox. Half of the population was dead from the disease by 1527 and the city was completely abandoned and forgotten by 1532.

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