Tasty History: Chocolate

Hello guys! It has been a really long time since we have had time to write a proper blog entry. But now hat we have got the podcast up and running and the team is reconfigured, it is time to deliver. And, our first topic since the formation fof Nu History couldn’t be more delicious: Chocolate! Whether you like it dark, with milk, hot, cold, as a bar or a drink, I believe there is a chocolate for every kind of person. So, today I will give you an insight into how chocolate came to be. For this, we must first travel thousands of years into the past to one of my favourite historical areas: pre-Hispanic Meso America.

The Origins of Cacao

Just to clarify; chocolate is a product derivate from cacao or cocoa beans. The actual word for chocolate comes from the Aztec xocolatl, which meant bitter water. However, cacao was used way before the Aztecs to create indeed bitter tasting beverages made with cocoa and often used for either ritual or medicinal purposes. In a recent study (2018) published by Sonia Zarillo et al. trace back the earliest recorded used of cacao to 5300 years ago, in the area of Santa Ana, (Ecuador). Coe and Coe also state that the Olmecs had domesticated cacao plants and used its produce for medicinal purposes and religious rituals, and we have ample evidence of this from the area of Veracruz (1900–900 BCE). But the most extensive knowledge of Meso-American culture that we have regarding cacao comes from the Mayan culture, (500-800CE) where there is an abundance of ceramics that depicts its varied uses. It is also the Mayans from who we get the word cacao as kakaw. Kakaw was essentially a gloop of cacao made into a drink and the most renown discovery of this type of product is found at Rio Azul. This is the site where in the 90s the scientists from Hershey Corporation first identified the original chemical signature of cacao. By the time the Aztec empire took control of most of Meso America, things had changed. It seems that the Aztecs didn’t actually grow their own cacao already by the 1400s, and instead they used to obtain it as an import, often paid as a tax from areas they conquered. They also started drinking it cold and branching its uses, so that in Aztec culture cacao was an aphrodisiac according to Szogyi.

Cocoa Beans Comes to Europe

The beans were brought back to Europe by the cargo ships from the Americas. It was in fact Columbus who originally shipped them to Spain, however they got little interest from the public until much later when chocolate was introduced to the Spanish court. Despite it being first found by the Spaniards, the success of cocoa and chocolate in Europe would come from other nations, two main rivals of Spain in fact: the English and the Dutch. Cocoa was prominently imported during the reign of Charles I and during the 16th century, it was actually used as a drug to solve tooth decay and dysentery. Moreover, one of the physicians for Queen Anne, Hans Sloane, seemingly saw Jamaican workers during his visit to the island back in 1680 mixing cocoa powder with breast milk as a form drink, so he decided to borrow the concept (but with cow’s milk) for medicinal purposes once more. At this stage, the history of chocolate takes a dark turn as during the early modern period many African slaves were used in the cocoa plantations that the English, Dutch and French had in the transatlantic colonies. And so, with cheap labour and the invention of the first mechanic cocoa grinder in Bristol (1729) the European obsession with chocolate – and slavery – continued all the way to the 19th century when things changed once again.

Dutch Production, English Consumerism: Cocoa in the 19th Century

The transformation of cacao into the product that we could recognise nowadays only happened in the 19th century thanks to a clever Dutch chemist. Coenrad van Houten came up with the idea of removing cacao butter and added baking powder to the mix all successfully achieved by his creation: the cocoa press (1828). He had previously invented a alkaline solution that made chocolate less bitter to the taste, so the “Dutch Cocoa” invention made it a lot more marketable. Interestingly most the cocoa consumed in the UK during the 19th century was produced in the Netherlands, making this a very profitable industry for the Dutch. In Victorian Britain the first chocolate houses opened in the area of Mayfair and the concept drove English society into an absolute craze. In fact, at the royal apartments in Hampton Court we know that Willian III, as well as George I and II had a dedicated chocolate kitchen. Lizzie Collingham argues however that during this period much of the cocoa powder used in these establishments was heavily adultered with other products. Amongst these feature things like lentils or tapioca, which actually made what they served more similar to a cocoa soup rather than a cocoa drink.  However by then, the price of cocoa dropped becoming more affordable and an easily available product in many houses. Cadbury’s chocolate in the UK was a great conduit for this phenomenon. Still popular today, the first shop was opened in Birmingham in 1824 by John Cadbury. Collingham again adds that the most influential brand that contributed to the popularisation of cocoa amongst the working clasess was not Cadbury, but the now forgotten Dr Tibbles’ Vi-Cocoa. Vi-Cocoa distributed a blend of cocoa, kola nut, malt and hops that made it incredibly popular between 1895 and 1910. In her book The Hungry Empire, she says that Cadbury’s target audience would have most likely been middle classes women, whilst Vi-Cocoa was targeting the working class man with an alternative to tea.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Daniel Peters enhanced Victorian chocolate by using powdered milk in the beverages and therefore creating milk chocolate, and instant national favourite. Dutch cocoa balanced bitterness reached a new height when the Swiss chocolatier Rodolpe Lindt (1879) used his conching machine to turn cocoa butter into an improved product, with better texture and flavour. The manufacturing advances of the time also allowed for Lindt’s product to be easier to distribute and reach new markets, so Lindt was a key player in changing chocolate into a food item rather than a drink. Meanwhile in America? Cacao beans were also used as a currency up until the 19th century in Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Brazil. Funnily enough, these were easy to fake: empty casks were often filled with soil to pretend they were ripe cacao beans.

So as you can see the journey of cacao, cocoa, and chocolate is a varied and multicultural one. From its origins in America to its developments in Europe kakaw has adopted many forms and purposes. And, although I certainly believe most of us don’t use it as a medicine for tooth decay…I think we can probably agree it is a medicine for the soul and, as recent scientific research confirms, good for our mental health. With this history of chocolate, and the many more to come articles and podcasts regarding food history, I am trying to send a message of hope and unity. I truly believe that food brings people together, and in this day an age of conflict and division, humans and human history could do more with interconnectivity and hope.

I hope you join us on the next one 🙂

Bling and Explosions: China & the Song Dynasty

Hello everyone, and sorry to have been a bit absent as of late. As many of you probably know I am desperately trying to finish my PhD so I don’t get a lot of time to write about anything other than Vikings, women, and fashion…yeah. However, I have been playing a lot of Total War: 3 Kingdoms, and as these things usually come about, my love for eastern cultures has resurfaced again. So, I decided to bring you something about one of the most fascinating periods of Chinese history: the Song Dynasty. Yes, I could be writing about epic China and Cao Cao and the Battle of the red Cliff instead, but that would be expected and therefore, boring. So, instead today we are going to talk about money and guns…:D

Why these two things? Well, because these were arguably some of the most important developments that the song contributed towards not just Chinese history, but the entire world. The Song succeeded in centralising power in China after a relatively turbulent period known as the 5 Dynasties and 10 kingdoms era. This was a series of upheavals and conflicts that followed the Tang dynasty which had primarily managed to keep Chinese civilization going thanks to their military prowess. This did not avoid their fall, though. So, after usurping power like any Asian drama would teach you was the norm in these parts of the world, The Song decided that invest their efforts in bureaucracy rather than the military. That said though, the Southern Song did make considerable improvement to their naval assets which gave them a solid backbone to stand against the Jin at the north. Their key pieces for this strategy were the paddle-wheel boats which became a quintessential part of their navy.

However, like I was saying, what really allowed the Song dynasty to excel was their economic development and scientific advancements. There are masses to talk about regarding this topic so I will attempt to give you a brief summary. The Song were arguably some of the most prosperous people in the medieval world. They had abundant trade thanks to their connections through the Yangze river which was well invested into joint stock companies that saw prosperity over this period. Kaifeng, the Northern song capital was a bustling city with merchants and artisans organised in guilds. According to Gang Deng Maritime trade, with its new naval developments did much for the growth of China allowing new connections that were not spoiled by the tartars and the Mongols such as south east Asia as well as east Africa. The iron industry was booming in this period too which was a greatly demanded resource, particularly with regards to the military. However, Rongxing Guo argues that one of the reasons behind the prosperity of the Song during the 11th century is due to the fact that there was a great shift in the government structure, removing regional military officials and replacing them with civilian scholars, which in return gave a lot of power back to the emperor. With this power and the influx of trade, the economy reached such stakes that the amount of minted copper skyrocketed to around 6 billion coins in 1085, which lead to the development of paper printed money. So, it is thanks to the Song Jiaozi as it was called that we use bank notes nowadays.

With all this money, opportunities came for the Song to develop other aspects of the society that perhaps have been a little neglected in previous times. What the Song decided to take away from their military output against the war tribes chipping at their frontiers, they decided to invest in technology to overcome their enemies. Alongside with the revolution that were the movable type printing innovations (not just for the sake of money) two other great technological advances came from the Song to change the world: the compass and firearms. Dieter Kuhn advises that, although the compass was perhaps not that revolutionary for the Chinese themselves, it had a huge impact in European societies and would eventually lead to the golden age of Western navigation and sea exploration. Gunpowder had been invented in China in the 9th century, but its application to the military had not been fully explored until he Song dynasty. The manuscript of 1044 known as Wujing Zongyao lists one of the first formulas for the use of gunpowder in the form of bombs for to be used as part of siege equipment. There were many other weapons that were developed during this time period, amongst which the flamethrower is one of my favourites. The Song repurpose the technology of Greek fire with a double piston hose gun to make this new weapon that became super useful and deadly.  But gunpowder was not the only thing that allowed the Song to have an advantage over their adversaries. The improvements done overall to their society stimulated learning and great engineering developments came from this particularly in terms of siege equipment. In the list of inventions that gave the Song this military prowess, Andrade includes the long-range catapults, new artillery crossbows and rapid-fire cartridges

But of course, this does not mean the world around the Song was not changing. They were partially forced to improve their military tactics due to the constant development of their warlike neighbours, particularly the Mongols and the states of Liao, Jin and XI Xia with which they had contested territories. So, when considering the success, at least I these terms, of this dynasty, one must not forget that the Far East was almost always in constant movement and that although the period of the Song is somewhat quieter in comparison to their predecessors, part of the reason behind this was because of the stalemate of forces between them and their rivals. This pushed for new methods, new techniques, and thus the Chinese states flourished to heights that the Europeans would not experience for a few hundred years.

This is my brief intro to the Song and their great history. If you are curious about the couple of sources I mention above, the details are below. Asian history is fascinated and seriously neglected in the west, so, if this inspires curiously, go to the library and get on with some learning 😉

Andrade – The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

Guo – An Introduction to the Chinese Economy: The Driving Forces Behind Modern Day

Kuhn – The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China

Olga of Kiev: Queen of the Rus

Vikings here, Vikings there, Vikings everywhere…! So today I take us back to one of my favourite women in history: an absolute kick ass queen who manage to take rulership of an old Norse state to a different level. Today, I bring you Olga of Kiev – or rather a summary of the things we know about Olga, because, as you know, I love me nothing better than dark characters and subjects in history that no one else seems to care about…Or that have hardly any research published in English…Oh Well!

So… Who’s Olga?

Good question! As far as we understand, Queen Olga of Kiev, ruled the realm after the death of her husband Igor, in the first half of the tenth century. Olga and Igor had only one son who was at the time of the death of his father, an underaged infant, which meant Olga acted as his regent…And the rest that we know about this incredible woman, is patchwork – at best. On a further note about the issue with the secondary sources- there is more availability of materials in other languages, mainly in Russian and other Eastern European languages. Even though, it is surprising how little in general has been written about her despite she was the first member of the royal family leave paganism behind and adopt Orthodox Christianity. Despite there are not many secondary sources about her, there was an increase in the amount of research done about her related to her conversion to Christianity and the millennium anniversary of her baptism In fact, Olga was the first member of the dynasty that became Christian; an event that had repercussions for the entire kingdom in the following years. This event was exposed in different ways in contemporary sources, which allowed the historical debate to begin.

According to Moseley, there are extensive materials for the study of middle- and upper-class women, such as personal correspondence and diaries; nevertheless, this does not apply to the Early Middle Ages where it was commonly the monks who recorded most events. Moreover, it was uncommon for women to write for it was seen as ‘exceeding society’s expectations. Apart from a few exceptions, like Christine of Pissan, the limited chances a woman had to influence written work were through patronage, as seen in the Encomium of Emma of Normandy. No sources written by Olga have been preserved or are known, although it has been suggested that the two Slavonic contemporary sources that remain could be based on a lost Encomium. Zemon Davis states that there are plenty of materials for research on European women, despite these might sometimes be under represented. However, we cannot be certain this applies to women that were not from mainland Europe. One of the very few sources we have availale that talk at lenght about Olga is the Russian primary Chronicle (which is super epic by the way, and if you have the time to read it, I thoroughly recommend it). Written in the twelfth century, this is nonetheless a controversial source: The text is meant to be a compilation of earlier manuscripts as well as oral traditions, although it is not disregarded it could just be the product of propaganda: both from the state and the Church.  Jesch defines it as an “apocryphal” and “legendary” text where the events are clearly manipulated by the author, but on the contrary Riha thinks that despite the religious bias it is the only remaining source of the early Russian past, so it cannot be disregarded. Thus, this source explains how Olga tricks the Derevlians, killers of her husband, and then leads the army to avenge the death of Igor and impose her rule over the neighbouring land .

According to Stafford, Olga was no exception as others like Aethelflead or Gerberga took active roles in siege and town defence. Furthermore, she states that ‘the struggles surrounding succession were often accompanied by propaganda wars’, a fact that fits in with the circumstances of Olga’s son’s minority and the political instability after the death of Igor. Moreover, it also reflects the Viking literary heritage presented in the sagas of the warrior maiden, that shows the perceptions of contemporary women by society. Finally, this source does mention other affairs related to the administrative power of the queen, like the economic prosperity reached since c.947 due to the building of several trading posts and the imposition of a tax on the goods transported through the Russian rivers. But, this does not say much about Olga’s personal life or experience of queenship. There is a passage of the Russian Primary Chronicle that perhaps reflects on this issue or maybe is just a remain of how she wanted to portray herself as a ruler. According to the events described, the Byzantine emperor fascinated by Olga proposes her marriage, for it is what she requires to be baptised. As he performs the rite, she eludes the proposal because of the formula used by the emperor, which calls her his daughter and therefore the incestuous controversy stands in Olga’s favour. It is interesting to know, though, that this is the only source that mentions this event. There is much debate amongst scholars regarding the truth behind this passage. Some consider that was the reality, some others that it never did happen. In addition, there are some that think that even if it happened it would not have been recorded elsewhere as it would have been a humiliation of the Emperor and, thus, too favourable for Olga, who after all was a widowed queen from a “lesser” kingdom. Perhaps that was her way to reinforce her position of widow, the one moment when women enjoyed more freedom and respect.

Related to that episode is the most celebrated part of Olga’s life: her baptism and conversion to the Christian faith. She was the first Russian Christian ruler who was the most inspiring figure for later tsar’s wives ‘who manipulated her image as intercessor for her people to legitimize their own roles as spiritual mothers of the realm and independent rulers’, according to Schaus. The importance of religion in life reaches its peak with her later beatification and sanctification. Interestingly, Schulenburg’s research shows how in the first half of the tenth century the number of female saints, all the clear example of piety, devotion and morality, increased by 20 per cent. Indeed, it is known women were a key part in the conversion process and spread of Christianity, and one of the few subjects where queens could get involved and develop their own affairs. Specifically, Norse women seem to have used this new opportunity that Christianity gave them to acquire more influence within their communities, just like Olga. Furthermore, women, and queens in particular, were the ones in charge of the spiritual protection of their families, which was very important for the well-being and prosperity of a dynasty. The importance of such matter is partially seen in a passage of Adalbert of Magdeburg’s Chronicle of Regino of Prüm that includes information regarding missionary work agreed between Olga and the court of Otto I. This is odd considering she was on good terms with Byzantium and she was converted to the Orthodox faith. However, it has been suggested that one of her multiple visits to Constantinople was intended to get a bishop for her realm but due to internal issues within the Byzantine administration this never happened, which may have made her get in contact with the Holy-Roman Empire.

 However, the German mission failed and with it the developments of Christianity in the Rus. Certainly Olga did not manage to convert her own son to the new faith, but the influence spread, reaching even a more important figure than the heir to the throne: Vladimir, Olga’s grandson. It was with Vladimir’s rule that Kiev became officially Christian, two decades after Olga’s attempt. Poppe suggests that this shows how important it was for female rulers to have support in different spheres and how religion was a way of gaining control and allies at the same time. Related to this, is the general question about status being so prominent and relevant in the study of these figures. There is one last source that deals with this subject, De Caeremonis: the book of ceremonies from the Byzantine court which provides details on the ceremonies Olga attended in Constantinople, and her dinners with the royal family, evidence of her high status and diplomatic abilities. Finally, Jesch mentions the large number of females from her family that had an active role in Olga’s court, perhaps suggesting a sort of female agency, and most definitely establishing the importance of household and family support for these individuals.

So, this is what we can comfortably talk about Olga. There is a very important issue that I need to address here which is something that Schaus points out and is the issue of romanticism with figures like Olga. There are extra difficulties to investigate characters like this due to the pagan-Christian controversy. After all, Kievan women suffered from the romanticism of the sources and their personas due to the Romantic and Nationalistic movements Kievan scholars experimented. Therefore, perhaps what we know about her must be taken with a pinch of salt? I am a little reluctant to believe it is all a fantasy or apocryphal. However, the lack of access to sources in different languages make this a very biased discussion.

Regardless, I still think that Olga is a well interesting figure that did a lot of great things for her people and that is still very under represented in her field.  

And here is the bibliography from where I pulled most of this research…So you can see it is archaic…However, I would like to point out that a few things have come out recently which will be worth examining…I just haven’t had the chance to get my hands on to them.

‘The Russian Primary Chronicle’, ed. T.Riha, Readings in Russian Civilization, Vol. 1, (Chicago and London, 1964), pp. 20-30.

Featherstone, J., ‘Ol’ga’s Visit to Constantinople’, Harvard Ukranian Studies, Vol. 14, No 3-4, (Dec., 1990), pp. 293-312.

Jesch, J., Women in the Viking Age (Woodbridge, 1991).

Jewell, H.M., Women in Dark Age and Early Medieval Europe c.500-1200 (Basingstoke and New York, 2007).

Moseley, E.S., ‘Sources for the New Women’s History’, The American Archivist, Vol. 43, No. 2, (Spring, 1980), pp. 180-190.

Poppe, A., ‘Once Again Concerning the Baptism of Olga, Archontissa of Rus’, Dumbaton Oak Papers, Vol. 46-Homo Byzantinus: Papers in Honour of Alexander Kazhdan, (1992), pp. 271-277.

Schaus, M., Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: an Encyclopedia (London, 2006).

Smith-Rosenberg, C., ‘The New Women and the New History’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1-2, (Aut., 1975), pp. 185-198.

Stafford, P., Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages (London and Virginia, 1983).

Zemon Davis, N., ‘“Women’s History” in Transition: the European Case’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3-4, (Spring-Summer, 1976), pp. 83-103.

On Medieval Parish Guilds in England

Today I bring you something I worked on a few years ago when I was doing my MA investigation: Medieval guilds and fraternities. I remember this was a very relaxed module – only 2 students! – but we had an amazing field trip to see some of the most spectacular gothic cathedrals of the south of England. As the topic for the module was the general development of the English church in the later middle ages, i found myself a little out of my depth..Yeah I know religious history and I are like bread and butter…But perhaps you missed the Later Middle Ages in England…So I decided to focus on something that was not so foreign territory. I had considered focusing my undergraduate dissertation in cults and sects in the later medieval period as well as societies and fraternities rising at this point in history. So, i decided to dust up some tomes, research and different bag of beans to put something on the subject together. This is very much condensed and edited from the general investigation, but I hope it sparks some interest. /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin-top:0cm; mso-para-margin-right:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:8.0pt; mso-para-margin-left:0cm; line-height:107%; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; font-family:”Calibri”,sans-serif; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi; mso-fareast-language:EN-US;} Introduction to The Religious Fraternities I guess you all would like to know what we consider guilds or parish fraternities. Well, here is the first issue: there are many words that refer to the same type of association. Farnhill provides several names such as guilds, brotherhoods, fraternities, charities, companies and confraternities. All these words seem to be synonyms of the concept of parish fraternities. Whatever the name of these associations may be, it seems clear that they originated from the efforts of the lay community to get more involved in their religious life. Most of them were created to help the building of cathedrals and other churches in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, although the origin of these communities changed with time.  A good example of these Samaritans is the Brotherhood of St. Andrew at Wells. We also see the rise of these guilds in correlation to the period of the Black Death. They became means to obtain salvation, by founding a chantry where to perform prayers for the souls of the founders and benefactors. But as usual, there are other theories and it has been suggested that the origin of these fraternities goes far back to Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon times. Although these associations were predominantly formed by the laity, some included members of the clergy as well. In fact, the parishes tried to incentivise these organisations as they were beneficial for the church: the guilds provided with clerical funds, and they contributed to the pastoral work as well as to the acquisition of money for the altar fabrics. However, the guilds were not always welcomed by the clergy or the English society. At the beginning of the movement, it was considered by many that their practices were “pre-Christian” if not “un-Christian”. But eventually the clergy stopped their criticism and some joined in their local groups….If you can’t fight them…Right? I guess it was all for the benefit oftheir own pockets… There are other complications that muddle the investigation of these guilds; for instance, the dualism between religious and craft fraternities. Sometimes it is fairly difficult to identify them as separate beings. Barron suggests that at the core of every trade guild was ‘a religious brotherhood dedicated to the worship and promotion of a particular saint’. We have to consider that in many ways these associations were as much of a religious community as they were a social group. Brown actually questions in his work how much the actual legitimacy of the religious implication of craft guilds was. He does indeed consider that, although they would most likely profit from the spiritual intercession of their cult, perhaps there was more wealth and social status display involved in their activities than actual religious ritual. Another problem is that a lot of these societies seem to be rather ephemeral in nature. There is a definitive date of termination for these associations, as they were abolished in 1547 because of the Reformation and dissolution of the monasteries. But before that not much can be inferred from the sudden termination of their activities. They seemed really active and involved whilst they lasted. Role and Function of the Guilds The guilds primary function was to provide for the souls of the laity that were part of these groups. However, they performed many other activities from which laity benefited, and in which they contributed. Let’s have a look at the case of the fraternity at St.Laurence in Reading. The records show that he churchwardens of the parish acquired ₤6, 2s and 4d from the guild of Our Lady to repair he chancel. Furthermore, the biggest achievement a fraternity could hope for was to provide with a perpetual chaplain for the guild, or even the parish, but this was expensive and not all associations could afford it. Primordially guilds oversaw providing lights for their saints’ altar and for the high altar on Sundays, as well as performing funerals for their departed brethren and commemorations. The guild was also in charge of organising their annual meal, and patron feasts, where all their members would gather. This was almost a process on its own, perhaps less ritualistic, where commensality and solidarity, bringing people from different background and status, were key factors. These were also opportunities to carry other other charitable events, for example, the members Saint Lawrance’s guild in Lincoln invited paupers to their feast to share their food and drink. Rosser argues that these activities apart from being para-liturgical, were a way of reclaiming the moral authority that the parishioners had and that the canons had denied to the lay members of society. It seems likely that this type of activity was one of the biggest appeals for the lay people to belong to a guild. Once again, Rosser argues that the proportion of members attending the guild meal was higher in smaller, more localized guilds, although the attendance level was satisfactory in general for most of the brotherhoods. Finally, it is likely that some guilds would have asked for their members to go on pilgrimage, although this sort of activities seem to decline in popularity by the end of the fifteenth century. Other guilds carried out more liturgical activities. Such is the case of the Kalendars. The Kalendars were an interesting and uncommon fraternity; there are barely three recorded in England, located at Bristol, Exeter and Winchester, and they met to celebrate the Kalends, from where their name comes from, on top of the usual intercessory masses. Nevertheless, the guild at Bristol acquired an evangelic function when Bishop Carpenter decided to fund a public library in the fifteenth century, to try and eradicate the seeds of Lollardy spread around the area. So, in this sense the members of these guilds were meant to behave not only like good citizens, but in general like good Christians. They were role models even. Their sense of communitas drove the brotherhoods to help maintaining good relationships with the city rulers as well, in addition to organising collective activities and being arbitrators in certain issues affecting the town. In some cases, fraternities would become shadow governments like in the case of the guild of St. George in Norwich, whose members acted as a parallel town authority and dispensers of the town’s law. On a final note, it seems that many of these associations could have acted as sources of credit, as well as patronage and employment. It is more than likely that many of these fraternities would have provided money for the poor, as well as for their sick members, but this type of transaction is not properly recorded in their official accounts, which suggests perhaps it was a more informal action that was not strictly regulated. This is my brief introduction to the topic. However, if this is something that interests you, here are some bibliographical references so you can dig in and find out more about these religious societies: Ken Farnhill. Guilds and the Parish Community in Late Medieval East Anglia, c. 1470–1550. York: 2001. Richard Goddard. ‘Medieval business networks: St Mary’s guild and the borough court in later medieval Nottingham’, Urban History, Volume 40, Issue 1, (February 2013) , pp. 3-27 Caroline Barron. London in the Later Middle Ages: Government and People, 1200–1500. Oxford: 2004 Andrew D. Brown. Popular Piety in Late Medieval England: The Diocese of Salisbury, 1250-1550. Oxford: 1995. Gervase Rosser. The Art of Solidarity in the Middle Ages: Guilds in England 1250-1550. Oxford: 2015. Nicholas Orme. Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England. New Haven and London: 2006. – this one contains a fair bit of info about the guilds themselves like the Kalendars.

The Diquis Spheres – (2019 Update)

Today we will move across the globe to discover the Diquis Spheres. These are some stone spheres found in the delta of Diquis, between the rivers Terraba and Sierpe, in the peninsula of Osa and the Isla del Caño (Costa Rica). They are unique archaeological finds due to their number of existing specimens (over 300!), as well as their sizes, formations and rounded perfection. Their dimensions vary from the 10 cm to 2.57 m of diameter. They can weigh as much as 16 tones and have been found in 34 different archaeological sites. These are the products of the Diquis culture: a pre-Columbian culture, indigenous from Costa Rica. Diquis means great waters or river in the Boruca language (the native speaking tongue), which seems to tie in with the locations of the finds. However, their meaning and origin is a mystery.

According to Ifigenia Quintanilla (University of Costa Rica), the spheres were most likely produced sometime between the 800 and the 500 B.C. However, local archaeologists investigating the subject have trouble dating and interpreting them as 90% of the spheres have been moved and found away from their original locations. The theories on their meaning and purpose get even more obscure and confusing. Most archaeologists and historians support the idea that these artifices had an astronomical function. Perhaps they were a way of timing agricultural cycles, or even maybe representations of constellations. Another supported hypothesis is that these could be used as markers of social status for the leaders of the indigenous tribes. Nevertheless, more fantastical explanations have been proposed:

-Some think these could have been done by the people of Atlantis, or even by extra-terrestrial beings!

-There is also the myth that the Diquis culture knew of a chemical product that could manipulate the physical state and shape of stone.

-Some more logical beliefs consider that perhaps these were used as territorial markers.

-More interestingly, many have found them to be an analogy of a pre-Columbian myth. This is related to the god of thunder Tara, or Tlachque, who used throw some spherical objects against the Serke, or the gods of wind and hurricane, to keep them away from these lands.

The Diquis Spheres in Modern Day Costa Rica:

The spheres were discovered in 1939 when the American company United Fruits made some moves over Costa Rica in order to clear some woodlands for the sake of banana cultivation. And then the mystery and fascination began.

They were first mentioned, and worthy of scholarly consideration, in 1943 when Doris Stone wrote an article for the magazine American Antiquity about them. Since then, many studies have been carried out to try to understand what these items actually are. And it seems that one of the most plausible explanation is that these spheres were used as some form of astronomical tool (Ivar Zapp, George Erikson, 1998). Other theories, such as the work produces by Patricia Fernandez and Ifigenia Quintanilla support the idea that these were public items; symbols of local power (2003). Perhaps this ties in with the theory that the stones were actually used by this society for funerary purposes, and that although no clear dating or chronology has been established yet, the society that produced them were likely to be a splinter group from the Aguas Buenas settlement (Roberto Herrera, 2017). This makes sense if we consider, as pointed out by some of the most striking pieces of goldsmithing does come from the Diquis area as well.

However, the research moves slowly. It took years for scholars to actually show a decent interest in the subject and try to solve the mystery. It seems that for several decades, the spheres lied out in this banana plantation, forgotten, catching the interest of occasional looters. Nonetheless, these stones are part of the collective memory of Costa Rica. They are a symbol of identity for the indigenous and local inhabitants, and they are commonly referenced in their popular culture and the media. Thanks to the superb work of archaeologists Francisco Corrales and  Adrian Badilla (Museo Nacional de Costa Rica) since 2002 to the area has gained some interest, to the point that, it is worth mentioning that the Diquis spheres have as of 2014 – a year after the original introduction to this piece was written – now been added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the site, tourism and conservation of the area evolves slowly as this is a new field for the Costa Rican nation.

We can only hope that the new generations of archaeologist will bring us more answers as to the origin and faction of these items, and of course, how they were made!

1260: From Mongol to Mamluk Control in the Near East

The following update has been inspired by an article I read by Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia) regarding the year 1260 and the incredibly important consequences that this date had for Europe and the Mediterranean world. Vincent declared this to be a dramatic year which is often overlooked despite the serious political change it brought to more than one civilisation, but particularly the changes to the Mongol empire. I have been in a very “oriental/Asian” mood lately – in fact I am writing this whilst listening to some Mongolian throat singing – so I decided to pick up on this topic which I had looked into a while back, so we can all share the mood.

Vincent’s article was mostly focus on the Battle of Ain Jalut, which took place in the Kezreel valley near Jerusalem the 3rd of September 1260. The result was the clash of two great fighting forces. By this moment in time the Mamluk had consolidated power very quickly in the area of Egypt and extended their area of influence all along the Mediterranean coast in the Near East. This was of great threat to the Mongols, who has already started suffering from this shift in power since their ransacking of Baghdad in 1258, thus ending 500 years of Abbasid rule. The leader of the Mongol army at this moment in time was Hülegü Khan – sometimes referred to as Hulagu Khan, who was the grandson of our dear friend Temujin. Hugalu is responsible for the formation of the Ilkhanate of Persia, which will lay the foundations for modern-day Iran. And he was also the man responsible for the siege of Baghdad and the following conquest of Syria. So, as you can see, it is not like the Mamluks were just going against any whatever general. Now the reasons why with this background the Mongols were caught off foot at Ain Jalut are multiple, and there are more than I could cover in a blog post – with intrinsic details I would leave to military historians, a field that as you know is not my strong suit. Nevertheless, I will give you an outline of the issues at this scenario that leads to the Mamluk control of the area and the reason why Vincent determines this was a decisive moment in history.

First of all, the army that Hugalu was commanding ranked around 20,000 people who needed to eat.  Reuven Amitai-Preiss discusses in his study of this period that this proves to be an issue and leads Hugalu to withdraw from Syria. Traditional viewpoints suggest this was due to the unrest that appears in the central domains of the Mongol empire following the death of Mongke Khan, who was Hugalu’s brother. This opens a window for the classic political manoeuvres of succession that end in civil wars. However, Reuven thinks that this was not so much Hugalu’s concern, but rather the fact that with such a big army, he finds himself in an area where supplies are scarce – Syria is not particularly well-known for its grazing fields! There is an exchange of correspondence between him and Louis IX of France where this is discussed. So, although there is evidence that food and graze for the horse was an issue, the fact that Iran was suddenly very exposed to the potential threat of the leader of the Golden Horde, and Hugalu was without his brother as protector, most likely led him to retreat part of his troops over to the eastern border of the Ilkhanate. In addition, it seems that, despite all his military might, Hugalu also made a strategic mistake: he completely undermined the threat that the rising powers in Egypt supposed to his realm. Turns out that the force that was marching over towards Hugalu on behalf of the Mamluk Sultanate was bigger – current estimates range from around 24,000 to the 100,000s…the reason for this disparity in the sources, however, escapes me. Regardless, the thing is the Khan simply did not take his enemy seriously, and the consequences were devastating. Baibars, commander of the Mamluk army, took advantage of the mobility of their units to exercise hit-and-run tactics to lure the Mongols to where the main force lead by Qutuz, the sultan of the Mamluk dynasty at the time. The first attack was gained by the Mongols and they did hurt the Mamluk forces significantly. However, the retaliation of the enemy was great, and their superior knowledge of the area – and presumably the considerably larger army – eventually turned the tables and destroyed Hugalu’s force. In the process of doing so, his designated deputy commander, Kitbuqa, was captured and his head was cut off and sent over to Cairo as a souvenir and proof of the Mamluk prowess.

The thing is, that with the defeat of the Mongols in 1260, and the growing tensions elsewhere in their domains in what is known as the Berke-Hugalu War (as you can see they really did not get along…), they were never able to secure back the area, with the resurgence of Egyptian power to extents that could be compared to the previous Abbassid rule. In fact, it only took the 30 years for the pressure from the Mamluks to be so prominent in the Near East that the Crusader armies started to give up and evacuate the area. This led the crusading efforts towards the Baltic and left the Mongols in a state of crisis and civil war. Interestingly, and despite his amazing victory, Qutuz did not enjoy his success for much longer. On his way back to Cairo, he was assassinated at El Salheya, seemingly due to the scheming of our ambitious friend Baibars, although it appears several Emir’s unhappy with Qutuz own raise to power and policies may have actually been the cause of his death. In any case, Baibars becomes the new sultan and with him a consistent rule, that lead to the consolidation of Mamluk power in the Levant area, and the defeat of the Seventh Crusade.

Lost Cities: Timgad

Returning to our lost Cities series, today we jump back to the African continent, but this time we are going to the north of the Sahara to talk about the formidable city of Timgad. Also known as Thamugas or Thamugadi in old Berber, this settlement dates to Roman times. Located on the northern slope of the Aurès Mountains – the east side of the Atlas system – Colonia Marciana Ulpia Traiana Thamugadi, as Trajan named it, was literally built out of scratch in the year 100AD at a very important crossroad in the Roman province of Numidia; modern day Algeria. According to the volume Archaeology: The Essential Guide to Our Human Past (ed. By Paul G. Bahn), this was originally established as a military colony for the legionary veterans from Lambaesis, corresponding most likely to the 3rd Augustan legion. Trajan gave the place such an elaborate name in honour of several of his family members most notoriously his mother, father and sister (Marcia, Marcus Ulpius, and Ulpia Marcia…). Like with many of the cities we have been looking at during this series, Timgad was once a centre of great importance, which eventually declined and remained hidden from the human eye for centuries. In this particular case, what actually stopped the city from being undisturbed and preserved since its abandonment in the 8th century, was the endless layers of sand blown straight from the Sahara and encroached by the mountains that kept Timgad from harm. According to Donald Langmead and Christine Garnaut, Timgad remained under Arab control until the annexation of Algeria by France in 1830. It was in fact a French architect, Albert Ballu, who commenced the investigations for the site leading to its eventual rediscovery in 1881. Albert was working then for the Service des Monuments Historiques de l’Algerie. Thankfully for us, Albert was a man of integrity and well learned, and advocated for the preservation of the local heritage according to the traditions of the country. Thank to his care of the site, routinary excavations were carried out all the way to the 1960s, exposing what is believed to be one of the best-preserved representations of a grid plan Roman town. In fact, Langmead and Garnaut state that the city became a key source already back in the day for the development of city plans in early modern society, therefore having a direct impact in architectural development and urban planning. It is very likely that this very knowledge, given Albert’s background, is what allowed him to search for the city and recover it from oblivion. Thankfully for Timgad, unlike many of the other sites we have explored so far, the UNESCO recognised its importance very early on, and has been under their listed of protected monuments since 1982. The Algerian government worked closely with the site too to ensure that no modern buildings would cover the ruins either.

So what do we know about Timgad? In order to understand the reason why the place was created, we can make use of the toponomy and the geographical location to see why this area of Numidia was so important for Rome. The words Thamugas/Thamugadi refer to a peak or summit in the Berber language. Considering its location right off the Aures and the Atlas, this probably makes more sense. The Berbers were the original population of this area, and they lived in the mountains as their natural refuge, which is where the Romans would have got the last bit of the name of the settlement. Numidia was known as the granary of Rome, and the area surrounding Timgad at the time of its creation would have been that of a savannah grassland. Several olive presses have been found in the site as well as the nearby area, and there is evidence for an aqueduct that would have carried water for 3 miles. Therefore, as you can see this was killing 2 birds with one stone: cover your basic military threat and farm the land. Interestingly, and despite the threat of the natives, the city was walled but no fortified. The design of the grid plan suggest it was originally intended to host around 15000 people. However, this was outgrown quickly as the city prospered, leaving its perfect orthogonal shape based on the cardo and decumanus behind, and incorporating suburbs for the new inhabitants. This expansion corresponds with the Severan period, when the vast majority of the public buildings of the settlements were commissioned. According to Bahns book by the end of the 2nd century, Timgad already counted with a great public market and a theatre capable of sitting around 3500 people – which by the way is still in use these days for public functions! The total remains of the buildings erected by the state go up to 20, including a curia, thermae, basilica, and a temple dedicated to Jupiter which is roughly the same dimensions than the pantheon in Rome. There is also the famous Arch of Trajan, also known at the Timgad arch, which is a wonderful triumphal arch that got restored to its former glory in 1900. However, one of the buildings that has interested many scholars is the library gifted by Marcus Julius Quintianus Flavius Rogatianus (as stated clearly on the building site itself), which cost 400 000 sesterces. Although no evidence remains from the examples that this library may have contained, the size and distribution of it suggest it had a capacity for at least 3000 rolls. All the building mentioned above and found in the settlement are made from stone and there are clear since of frequent upgrade throughout Roman rule. Furthermore, investigations carried out by Katherine Dunbabi suggest that during the 2nd and early 3rd century Timgad was also an important centre for the production of mosaics. She has identified remarkable work in geometric pavement patterns, as well as finds amounting to 40 pieces contained luxuriously decorated vegetation motives. Finally, another other reasons why Timgad became a renown city was due to its function as a religious centre, which came a bit later in the 4th century. A famous and respected bishopric, the people of Timgad unfortunately carried the enemy within! Some religious disturbances arose in Numidia due to the practice of Donatism. This is a branch of the early Roman church that developed in North Africa as part of the schisms caused by the Church of Carthage and that advocated for a more rigorous and virtuous dogma. The name comes from a Christian Berber bishop who popularised the practice, Donatus Magnus, and who believed the church and clergy should a place for saints and good actions, with no room for sins and sinners. As it stands, Timgad’s role in the spread of this dogma was vital. Standing on a cross road connecting 6 of the most important ‘viae’ in the area, and with ample trade, Donatism flourished where others may have failed.

Once again you may be thinking, okay, so what happened here for the city to end up abandoned and in ruins? Timgad just suffered the fate of the rest of the empire. The 5th century becomes really tricky for Rome trying to fend off the Germanic groups that had been infiltrating the borders for centuries due to lazy and poor management. The Vandals were a greatly mobile group and very quickly they made their way down from the Iberian Peninsula into the north of Africa, resulting in the sacking of several settlements – Thamugadi included. The area was deprived of the means for preservation and decline followed. There was a brief period of resurgent around 535 after the arrival of the Byzantine general Solomon. He came with the intention to occupy the settlement, but he found it empty, so an attempt to recolonise the area took place, with the Byzantine troops building a citadel towards the southeast of the city, repurposing some of the original construction materials from the site. Nevertheless, our good old friends the Berbers gave Solomon and his friends hell throughout the 6th and 7th centuries which led once again to the stagnation of the settlement with the eventual downfall taking place in the 8th century at the hands of the Arabs. There wasn’t much for them to ransack at this stage, so the place was essentially left to rot and be buried by sand.

*references mentioned in text: 

Donald Langmead, Christine Garnaut Encyclopedia of Architectural and Engineering Feats (Michigan, 2001).
Katherine m. D. Dunbabi, Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World (Cambridge, 1999).


Lost Cities – Caral

Today we jump across the Atlantic to one of my other passions; pre-Colombian civilisations, to bring you yet another “Lost City”. This is of course one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries of the last century (in my opinion at least!), and one of the most magnificent sites in the world, with a very impressive team taking care of it. I am, of course, talking about the sacred city of Caral-Supe, or simply known as Caral. The site is currently under the protection of La Zona Arqueológica Caral (ZAC), which is a public entity created by a state decree in 2003 specifically to preserve the area. The location is, however, not quite what you would expect for a wonderful Andean discovery. Caral is in the desert terrace that overlooks the Supe river valley, approximately 23km away from the Pacific coast. So why is Caral included in our lost cities series? In a similar way than Gedi (https://nuhistory.wordpress.com/2018/10/30/lost-cities-gedi/ ), Caral was also abandoned. However, this happened more gradually over time.  The period of occupation for the site is understood to be between 2600BC and 2000BC. That is the conservative approach. However, there are evidence that suggest the area was settled much earlier than this, which would have made Caral the oldest city in the entirety of the American continent. The data takes us as far back as the Pyramids of Giza. Nonetheless, the recent discovery of Bandurria has taken the claim for oldest city in Peru, going back to the 4000BC. Although there had been previous investigations in the Supe valley (early 1900s), it wasn’t until 1948 when Paul Kosok – the researcher that brought us the original investigations on the Nazca lines – put Caral back on the map but under the name of Chupacigarro. However, his finds were dismissed due to the lack of typical artefacts previously found in the Andes cultures. It was later in the 70s when the investigations of the Peruvian archaeologists Carlos Williams brought it to the forefront of these types of investigations. Since then more people have come to investigate what has now been classified as the biggest thriving urban area in Andean Peru, and probably the city after which many more were modelled in the years to come. Nonetheless, the most important name is that of the woman who actually understood the site for what it was and that has allowed for its preservation by the ZAC: Ruth Martha Shady Solís. She started investigating the site in the 90s under the “Caral Project”. Her constant research and dedication have been plenty fruitful: she has enough evidence to establish the Caral (or Norte Chico civilization as it is known in English), as one of the earliest, or even the first known cultures in all South America.

So how did Caral get so lucky in terms of preservation? Well, the thing is that it was originally mistaken as a natural formation. Plus, thanks to the lack of any valuables (items of gold or other precious materials) being visible, it received little attention from looters. In addition, there are no evidence of warfare unlike in the previous two sites that we have seen so far. So, as you can see, things went well for the conservation of the ancient settlement,despite it only became a site recognise by the UNESCO in 2009. It is thanks to this that it has gained the status of one of the best investigates cities in the Norte Chico area of Peru. Now that you know about how the site got to us,you’d probably be wondering what there is actually left of it. Well, the total complex is of about 60 hectares renown for its architectural complexity.Amongst the structures found, there are huge stone and earthen platforms mounts and sunken circular courts, as well as pyramids and what appear to be residential buildings. The archaeology reflects this was a peaceful society,with no discoveries of fortifications or human remains that present signs of armed conflict. The people of Caral, much like the people in Gedi seemed to have thrived in commerce and had a strong economy. One of the most surprising pieces of evidence found was that of a quipu – also known as talking knots – which are these recording devices made out of fabric, similar to an abacus. Interestingly, quipus were believed to have been invented by the Inca,but the evidence of Caral show this system dates much further back. The city of Caral expanded amply across the region creating 19 temples plus what is known as Templo Mayor (main temple in Spanish) Caral itself. This is the reason why the site is mainly identified as a religious centre which is highlighted by the further evidence of ritualistic items found in the settlement and in the surrounding area. In addition, Caral also shows evidence of public buildings which reflect a central government and administration; it has been suggested that there were different social strata which this is evident in the development of the city and the different urban areas.So what type of people were the citizens of Caral? A total of 32 flutes have been recovered here by the archaeologists, which suggests the inhabitants were skilful artisans. In fact, the dating of the site was achieved through the carbon dating of woven carrying bags known as Shicras found in some of the temples. There are also evidence that suggest Caral was an advanced civilisation.In 2000 a team of archaeologist(Marco Machacuay and Rocío Aramburú) discovered a geoglyph just to the west of the site, which resembles a long screaming face, believed to be somewhat related  to the find in Cerro Sechin, just 150 km north of the site. It is likely that the geoglyph was part of the ceremonial and ritualistic aspects of this society. Finally,I think is it fair to point out that there are ample evidence of knowledge of astronomy, supported by different utensils, as well as a monolith ( known as huanca) located in one of the main squares.Shady believes that the monolith would have been used for the observation of time and the movement of the astral bodies.

Now you will probably be wondering, how does such an advanced and rich civilisation simply disappear? Well, Rodriguez argues that the abandonment of this settlement happened slowly over time, since the 2000BC – with it being deserted by the 1800BC. He argues that the most likely causes for this occurrence are due to natural phenomenon such as earthquakes and El Niño. The peak population of Caral would have been of around 3000 at its peak, however, if one was to consider the let’s call it metropolitan area of the settlement in the Supe Valley, this would encompass a total of approximately 20000 (Shady). The communities that formed the populace of Caral are believed to have been ayllus – an extensive population with a common familial origin that congregated to work for the envelopment of the lands of religious leaders of some sort, which
is a common type of conglomeration in Quechua societies. This was the essential glue of this population and what allowed them to thrive and developed for such a long time, hence emphasising the role of Caral as a scared city. Perhaps, the city lost religious significance and due to the fabric of its society started a slow mass exodus on to other thriving areas.

If you wanted to find out more about Caral, I am sad to say you will have to learn some Spanish as the majority of the publications are done by the local archaeologists. Shady and Rodrigues – which I have mentioned in my piece – have a multitude of books on the subject. Amongst these, I would recommend Rodríguez, Gonzalo (2015). Guerrero, Ricardo; Pease, María Elena, eds. Culturas antiguas del Perú: Caral. Hacia la primera civilización de América. As well as, Shady, Ruth; Cáceda, Daniel; Crispín, Aldemar; Machacuay, Marco; Novoa, Pedro; Quispe, Edna (2009). Caral. La civilización más antigua de las Américas: 15 años develando su historia. Nevertheless, I believe a lot of the work done by Shady has been translated to English. Otherwise have a look at Andean Archaeology III: North and South, Volume 3, edited by William Isbell, Helaine Silverman – also a pretty good book with an overall narrative.

Lost Cities – Gedi

Continuing this series of Lost Cities (https://nuhistory.wordpress.com/2018/10/11/lost-cities-xanadu/ for the first one) today I would like you to take you on a trip to the east coast of Africa. I know we don’t tend to go there much in this blog, so I thought this was a perfect opportunity to pay a visit. Where are we off to, you will be wondering? Well, today we are having a look at the ruins of the city of Gedi – or Gede depending on the spelling. This town is of medieval origin and seems to belong to the Swahili cultures of the area, however as the middle ages developed the influence of the Arabic expansion in Africa becomes apparent. Why am I referring to Gedi as a lost city? There are a few reasons. The first one ans perhaps most obvious is that, like with Xanadu, the settlement in currently in ruins. And this leads us to point 2: Gedi was abandoned by the locals, and we are still a bit unsure as to why exactly, particularly considering this seems to have been a remarkable settlement. Amongst the archaeological find we have Ming pottery, Venetian glass and even what seemingly is a flushing toilet! Another reason why I count Gedi into this list, is because there is virtually no record of it in the historical sources. Considering the heavy influence of the Portuguese during the Age of Discovery in these area, it is interesting to know they didn’t really acknowledge this place…Yet the archaeology seems rather clear: Gedi was a mighty town. So, where abouts exactly is what remains of Gedi? The location is in the Eastern coast of Kenya, in the Arabuko-Sokoke forest, and nearby the towns of Watamu and Malindi. The ruins excavated originally rediscovered in the 1920s, and it quickly became one of the most thoroughly excavated Swahili sites in the stretch that goes from southern Somalia to the Kenya-Tanzania border – there are 116 in total. Thankfully, it was made into a historic monument in 1927, and the status was elevated to that of a protected monument in 1929 following the looting of Chinese porcelain found in the site.  Nonetheless, and technically speaking, the location of Gedi had been known to non-African people since the 19th century. The British Sir John Kirk – explorer and companion of the renown Dr Livingstone, went to the site during his visit from Zanzibar. The first proper excavations were carried out in the 1940s under supervision of archaeologist James Kirkman, and were concentrated on the core buildings. This also led to the proclamation of the forest around it as a national park in 1948. The excavations around the mosque took precedence for the decades that followed, becoming this the key feature of research papers published on the subject, and hence enhancing the Arab influence in the area. As an example, the paper: “The Arab City of Gedi, The Great Mosque, Architecture and Finds” relates the vast majority of the information known about this building and the city itself. The author was, of course, Kirkman himself. Although seemingly forgotten and unknown to the colonist of the area, Gedi was known to the Mijikenda people, particularly the Giriama tribe one of the largest communities amongst the Mijikenda) who revere the site as a sacred place. This culture believe strongly in spirits and the otherworldly; despite the Islamic influence in the area, they still think there is a connection between Gedi and the spiritual world. Regarding the material culture of the site, we have a fair amount of stuff left. There is blatant evidence that Gedi was a walled town, with an inner and outer wall comprising an area of 45 acres. The walls alongside with the majority of the buildings here were made from coral stones extracted from the Indian ocean. They all seem to be one storey of height and there is a plurality of buildings, not just houses. Amongst these feature the already mentioned mosque, as well as a palace. Due to its location and growth, Gedi has been understood to be a trading centre, particularly with routes and commerce in the Indian Ocean. The period of occupation for the site has been dated thanks to carbon analysis of the remains and finds to the 11th century, and it seems the city was already abandoned by the to abandoned by the 17th. However, there are evidence of settlement in the vicinity of Gedi since the 6th century by different tribes and Swahili people. The estimated population of the city at its peak is of 2500, so perhaps not the greatest number one could think of but given the location it was certainly an important settlement. Gedi prospered and increased numbers until the early stages of the 16th century thanks to trade. And here comes the issue, you see, because it is likely that the most easily explained for the depopulation of the town had to do with its commercial nature. By the 16th century, the presence of Portuguese merchants in the area was extensive, and it is known that their monopolisation of trade led to the general decline of the local activities. Perhaps Gedi was one of the affected towns along the coastline as more and more Portuguese colonists established themselves a little further north. In addition, the Tanzania-Kenya border has traditionally been an area of conflict. There are mentions of raids from Somalia, and the evidence suggest the Galla people – or more commonly known these days as the Oromo –  from Ethiopia seem to have also been a likely contender for the depopulation of Gedi, which is a theory supported by Aylward Shorter in his study of the East African Societies. Currently, the site remains under the care of the National Museums of Kenya, and it is open to the public for touristic visits. However, the archaeological work is still ongoing. In fact, since the 90s, the investigations on Gedi have grown in interest and depth. The current works are attempting to understand the settlement beyond the narrow frame of its Arabic development and the mosque itself. Works by Stephane Pradines and Lynn Koplin have focused on other buildings found in the site which are seemingly mud thatched properties built between the inner and outer walls. This is helping reshape the history of the site as a socio-political body with an important urban development and not just a religious site of one kind or another.Another item of investigation and that comments on the economic importance of the settlement is the abundance of cowry shells. It has been speculated that, perhaps these were a form of currency amongst the people of Gedi, which would make sense considering the evidence for these shells been used as legal tender indifferent areas of Africa throughout history. However, as you can see there is still a lot of work to be done in Gedi as a whole. As usual, African cultures seem to be right at the bottom of the list of things to be investigated, and that needs to change. Hopefully as the years come by I may be able to revisit this post with bran new and up to date information on the site and see that wonderful remains from the middle ages all over the world are taken proper care of.  

Lost Cities – Xanadu

Today I bring you the first instalment of my series of posts on “Lost Cities”. I would like to let you know right from the beginning that the term “lost city” is applied loosely here. As you will see throughout the different posts these are not always locations that are physically lost or not found. In many cases, I use this term to refer to places that used to stand tall. These were often centres of power, the core to long gone civilisations and empires. Therefore, as long as you keep that in mind, we are good to go. Why have I chosen these sites? Well, the answer is different for each of them. This is a fairly popular topic I guess in terms of public history – I am sure you have seen a documentary somewhere. But I think what draw me to look into these locations was not that populist approach, but my inner Indiana Jones looking for adventures that I am very unlikely to have in real life. Every archaeologist and history dreams (I Think…I Certainly Do!) of finding something forgotten and buried down into oblivion in the annals of our past. Now, I am in no position of doing great discoveries, so I only have left the stories of this places. And sometimes, a story is all you need…

XANADU

Xanadu, actually named Shangdu means upper capital. This was in fact the summer capital of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan and the Yuan dynasty. It used to be home to 100.000 people until its destruction by an invading army of the Ming dynasty. The razing of Xanadu took place during the reign of the last Yuan Emperor and Khagan of the Mongol Empire: Toghon Temur in 1369. Sadly, and due to very extreme deterioration, all we have left are just the bases of the outline of the walls. What is left of these measures 2200 square metres, and the layout goes a bit like this. The walls and measurements I have just given you are part of the outer city, then they would have had an inner city held within the walls, with a palace which would have been around 550m in length. You know…Small! In any case, the current location of this site is actually in Zhenglan Banner (Mongolia).

I know this seems like a bit of a pessimistic note to start this post on, but I wanted you to feel the devastation from the beginning. And then, hopefully you will understand why Xanadu was such a symbol and why it had to be destroyed as an act of war – I am sure in any case that’s what the Ming forces thought to themselves in the process of trashing the place, anyway. So, what else do we know about Xanadu?  The city’s original name was Kaiping and was designed by the Chinese architect and adviser Liu Bingzhong or Liu Kan for the Yuan dynasty. The project started in 1252 and finished by 1256. Just a decade after the works were finished the famous Venetian Marco Polo visited the renown city. He actually called it Chandu, or Xandu; in fact, it seems the name change to Shangdu happened in 1264, which would explain the vocabulary used by Marco Polo. In the Travels of Marco Polo (Book 1, chapter 61 specifically for Xanadu, read the rest just for fun!), he goes at great length to explain his adventures around the old region of Cathay, and we find extensive information on Xanadu as an imperial city. He describes it as being an opulent, remarkable city. The palace, he says, is built with marble, gilded decorations all over, and then, he also mentions a second palace, also known as the Cane Palace where the Khan lived alongside in the main marbled residence… I think the evidence speak for themselves. In essence, Xanadu was a massive hub connecting trade for China in the north of “Cathay”. However, as the Mongol domains expanded, its location lost importance as the capital of the kingdom, and instead it was refashioned as an imperial city of high status by the mid 14th century.

Well, curiously enough, the city regained its former name after the Ming destroyed and occupied the area of Xanadu: they torched the remains of Liu’s creation and renamed it Kaiping. The site remained unoccupied and uncared for hundreds of years. Luckily the UNESCO decided to finally inscribe it in the list of World Heritage as of 2012. Like many sites that are abandoned and left to fend for themselves much destruction has been done to the archaeological record by the locals. In fact, it is reported notoriously that a lot of the stone work and marble of the city was repurposed for houses more recently in the town of Dolon Nor. As of today, not much other than the outline of the walls is left, though and effort for restoration and preservation of the site has been carried out since 2002.

Now, you will be thinking, what specifically pushed the Ming forces to destroy such a city, when it was no longer the capital? Granted its status was indeed very high and it was still an important symbol of the Yuan dynasty, but the treatment it received was pretty harsh. Perhaps it will start making more sense if I told you that, the down fall of Xanadu came as a result of the Red Turban Rebellion. The roots of the rebellion were many, although they mostly had to do with the economic and environmental problems link together caused by the constant flooding of the Yellow River, bouts of the Black Death and the very high expenses required to maintain such a vast empire. Not a good scenario. It also helps knowing that the Red Turban army was formed by Guo Zixing and his followers were members of the White Lotus society

…And before you start thinking we are suddenly in a Wuxia movie, I will tell you what that means. The White Lotus crew were essentially a political and religious movement, with basis in Dharmic religions as well as Persian Gnosticism. With their strict codes of conduct that resonated with the issues described earlier that the empire was facing, they quickly started becoming the champions of the injustices performed by the Mongols in their own lands, and as every rebellious group they did part take and a few demonstrations. The Mongol administration pick on this quickly and proceeded to ban them, and thus the White Lotus became a secret society of sorts. What I haven’t told you yet is that the vast majority of the members of this organisation were Han Chinese, therefore causing complications here not just in terms of religiosity but also ethnicity and cultural status. The Yuan dynasty saw a variety of religions amongst their ranks, including an increase in the number of followers of Islam in China, whilst the state never officially converted to the doctrine this caused some social dissent. Kublai Khan himself eventually established Tibetan Buddhism as the de facto state religion. Nonetheless, he particularly favoured the Sakya sect; a move that he did in part to have an advantage in his conquest of the Tibet area. Sadly, as a result of this favouritism the rest of religious movements in the Mongol empire lost importance, which caused once again social anxieties amongst the people, particularly the ordinary folk. This only contributed more to the escalation of things if we consider that during Mongol rule the “Han” or the previous Jin dynasty were all divided as a separate class in their feudal system and the decorum that they had received in previous rule was dismissed. So, in essence, the Han Chinese were super bitter. As the Red Turban Rebellion gained momentum, the White Lotus society became an incredibly favourable basis for their desire to overthrow the established system, and from here on, the story is pretty obvious to follow: all you need is the numbers and will to raise in arms, and soon your have a whole bloody war. To their great advantage, the mid 14th century saw a moment of great instability amongst the Mongols who were too busy fighting themselves over a very far stretch territory. So, by the time the Ming forces made it to Xanadu, little was left of the former glory of the empire this wonderful city had helped to build. Razed to the ground as is raided by Genghis reborn himself, Xanadu crumbled and set itself to sleep.