Archive for the ‘Ancient Mesopotamia’ Category

No Peanut Butter With This Ancient Jam

By: The Scribe on November, 2013

minaret jam 1In Western Afghanistan stands a 63-meter high minaret, built of yellow baked bricks with glazed tile and stucco decoration. This tall monument was constructed in the 1100s as part of a city, though few specifics about the city are currently known.

Archaeologists believe the city was a cosmopolitan area, home to Muslims, Jews, and Christians, who were able to live harmoniously despite their differences.

It’s thought by some that the minaret, known as the Minaret of Jam, may have been part of Turquoise Mountain, the lost medieval capital of Afghanistan… though this is, presently, only speculation. More on that below!

First, however, the minaret:

minaret jam 3

The minaret would have been illuminated by a torch at the top, and inside the structure are opposing spiralling staircases constructed in such a way—like a double helix—that the fragile-looking building has remained standing, despite many earthquakes in the area.

The most remarkable aspect of the minaret, however, is the decoration. The writing on the structure is from a section of the Quran that speaks of the life of Mary, mother of Jesus, which clearly highlights the similarities between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. And with  Jewish graveyard nearby, it’s hard to deny that there were people of different faiths living here at one time!

minaret jam 4

Historians and archaeologists postulate that the Minaret of Jam is placed at the ancient location of the Ghruid Dynasy’s summer capital, called Firuz Koh (Turquoise Mountain). During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Ghurids controlled the area here, which is now part of Afghanistan, as well as parts of northern India, Pakistan, and eastern Iran.

The specific dating on the minaret is somewhat unclear, leaving the exact construction date unknown, let alone its purpose (which might otherwise be guessed at by the date).

The landscape around the Jam does include some “palace” ruins, along with a pottery kiln and some fortifications, but no one lives there now—and the site is very difficult to reach.

That said, it’s impressive, and seems unique in its mystery of being a potentially unifying monument for religious beliefs that have often clashed (to a deadly degree) throughout history.

minaret jam 2

How to Trap Leopards in Ancient Israel

By: The Scribe on October, 2013

leopard trapScattered throughout Israel’s Negev Desert, archaeologists have discovered a number of traps set to catch leopards… and one of these is 5,000 years old!

The 5,000-year-old trap was discovered alongside a 1,600-year-old trap, both of which are identical to traps that have been used over the past century in the area by local Bedouins.

The discovery of these traps suggests that this ancient-origins technology has been used since the first local domesticated sheep and goats, in order to lure carnivores and thereby protect the flocks.

At least 50 of these traps have been found in Southern Israel in the Negev, but the traps aren’t obvious when viewed in the landscape. The traps look just like a pile of stones, and it’s only when they’re dug into that it becomes obvious they were put there for a purpose.

Negev-2005-1The traps were set by attaching a piece of meat to the end of a rope, luring the leopard (or other carnivore, really) to the trap. The rope was attached to a rock slab door, so that when the leopard grabbed the bait, the rope pulled the door closed—trapping the leopard inside a box trap made of stone.

The location of the traps near 6,000-year-old goat and sheep enclosures helped archaeologists to determine their usage.

Today, the Bedouin and sheep-herders of the area don’t need to worry about leopards attacking their sheep. Habitat loss and hunting (and trapping, perhaps?) brought the population to extinction in the area.

Recycle Those Mammoth Bones!

By: The Scribe on October, 2013

recycleTurns out that all those reminders for us to recycle, recycle, recycle aren’t quite as modern a phenomenon as we’ve believed! While it sure seems like environmentalists have turned up the heat these past few decades, the truth is that there’s mounting evidence that prehistoric humans were excellent recyclers—and they didn’t even have a Blue Box.

An international conference of researchers in Israel, entitled “The Origins of Recycling: A Paleolithic Perspective”, saw presentations and discussions on prehistoric recycling habits. In the same way that we recycle items like plastic and paper in order to create new items, people in ancient times collected broken tools or items made of flint and bone in order to create new things.

Archaeologist Ran Barkai said that this recycling behavior “appeared at different times, in different places, with different methods according to the context and the availability of raw materials.”

That said, it’s likely that Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and other hominids weren’t driven by a desire to “save the environment” or protect the planet, the way we tend to think about recycling in modern times, but the concept of energy conservation isn’t new either. If you recycle a piece of broken flint to create something new, you don’t have to find more. If you recycle a piece of bone to create a utensil or weapon, you don’t have to find another one that’s the right shape and size.

It’s possible that this behavior began unconsciously, and then began happening on purpose after the benefits became clear. A dry pond near Rome has apparently yielded Neanderthal bone tools from 300,000 years ago, many of which show various levels of reuse and recycling—for example, “the bones were shattered to extract the marrow, then the fragments were shaped into tools, abandoned, and finally reworked to be used again” (Giovanni Boschian, University of Pisa; geologist). 

qesem_BarkaiAt Qesem cave near Tel Aviv, archaeologists have found flint chips that were reshaped as small blades capable of cutting meat—a possible early form of cutlery! And for the skeptics who wonder whether the flint chips were a natural phenomenon: scientists have methods to determine natural vs. man-made alterations to a particular material, looking at things like the object’s patina (progressive discoloration) or surrounding evidence of reuse.

While the evidence for recycling in ancient history was certainly driven by different reasons than modern-day recycling, one thing is clear: No matter when or where in history, humans “appear to display similar responses to the challenges and opportunities presented by life over thousands of years” (Norm Catto, Memorial University of St. John’s; geographer).

Life is an (Ancient) Highway

By: The Scribe on June, 2013

The next time you’re stuck in gridlock on the highway, spending hours in traffic to get to your destination, remember… the ancient Persians had it better than you. Despite the enormity of the Persian Empire in 5th-century BC, the Persian Royal Road was built for speed and efficiency. And it actually worked!

The Persian Royal Road was a reconstruction and rebuilding of an existing ancient highway by Darius I (also known as “Darius the Great”), king of the Achaemenid Empire from 522 BC to 486 BC. The intent behind constructing the road was so that rapid communication between corners of the vast empire—from Susa to Sardis—could be facilitated as effectively as possible.

top road is Persian highway

Moving along the road, couriers on horseback were able to travel 2699 kilometers in just seven days (1677 miles)! Even the famous Greek historian Herodotus was impressed by this feat, writing that “there is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers.”

Through archaeological research, historical records, and Herodotus’ writings, most of the ancient highway’s route has been reconstructed, and it’s thought that there would have been many outposts—also known as caravanserai—along the route, where travelers could rest and refresh during their journey.

And the couriers definitely needed places to rest, because the road didn’t always follow the easiest route between cities! Rather, there were sections of road that Darius I reconstructed which likely had been built by Assyrian kings, since it heads through the heart of their empire—and like today’s road construction projects, it’s often easier to just fix a road than try to build a brand new one.

darius_the_greatThat said, Darius I’s reconstruction efforts were so good that the road continued to be in use until the Roman period, whereupon the Romans made some improvements of their own. The Romans used improved paving technology—ie. a hard-packed gravel surface held within stone cubing—and new posting stations to ensure travelers had access to fresh horses, particularly when messengers had to travel with an urgent message from one side of the empire to the other.

The most famous feature about the Persian Royal Road actually comes from Herodotus’ writings… a quotation about the Persian messengers and their travel speed along the reconstructed highway:


“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

And you thought he was talking about your mailman! Come on… 2699 kilometers in seven days? Next time your mail arrives late, tell that mailman he has no excuse!

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