Mozambique: Sofala & Chibuene

Welcome once again dear readers to another entry in our ABC of World History. Today I am taking you back to Africa to the area of Mozambique in yet another effort to make this blog less eurocentric. I really hope the importance of this area comes across because as I was doing my research I still found so many sources about Mozambique and the Swahili coast of Africa that seem to ignore anything noteworthy before the European colonialists swinging by. So today I am bringing you some details about the development of Mozambique in the middle ages and the importance of this area for the development of trade.

As you may know, the Indian ocean key for trade in Africa since ancient times, and Mozambique is an important enclave. Evidence suggests however that since the collapse of the roman empire, sea trade may have declined for people living on the east coast of Africa and this may have powered the growth of the interior of countries such as Mozambique. But changes again with the arrival of Islam into Africa in the 7th century when the Indian ocean becomes again a prime hub for the exchange of goods, people and culture. Although it has been debated for a very long time how much interaction and mingling was between the Bantu and Swahili peoples of Mozambique and surrounding areas, it seems to transpire that there was a fair interaction and integration between the Arab newcomers and the natives. Briggs and Edmunds argue that the best evidence of this is in the language. Although Islam triumphs in terms of religious conversion, Swahili became the language used overall, even if with some Arabic borrowings. Now that you have some context I would like to use the following sections to 2 different enclaves in Mozambique that highlight the importance of trade and that show how active this part of the world has been for such a long time:

Continue reading “Mozambique: Sofala & Chibuene”

“White Rus”: A History of Belarus

For this week in our alphabet of History, will be (pun intended) looking at the History of Belarus. The history of Belarus is a narrative of invasions, wars, unifications and atrocities, but is of great value to any whose interests involve History. Because Belarus’ history is so encompassing, to avoid making this blog seem like a small essay, I will be focusing on Belarus from the earliest days of Human occupation, up until the late medieval period – pre-modern Belarus essentially. I may finish off Belarus’ history in a future blog, but here is the first half!

Continue reading ““White Rus”: A History of Belarus”

Nu History Podcast – Episode 4: Beowulf and the Anglo Saxons

The fourth episode of our podcast is here!

For this episode Lilly and Alex are joined by Elton, a historian and “nerd guy about Beowulf” (his own words), who is here to talk about some of his recent work and projects, mostly relating to Beowulf of course!

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Nu History Podcast – Episode 2: Vikings and Slavs

The podcast returns for episode 2!

Lilly and Alex are joined this time by Natalia Radziwiłłowicz who is currently working on a PhD on Scandinavian and Slavic interactions during the Viking age around Pomerania/the southern Baltic coast.

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

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.

Ancient and Medieval Board games

Board games have been a part of human society for thousands of years, and although most of them have been lost to the ages, there are still plenty that have survived either in some physical form, or described. Archaeological finds of various game boards and pieces that we may never know the rules to can be an interesting if frustrating source, but the combination of games that have survived to the modern day, written sources and artwork can often reveal how many of these old games are played. There is evidence to show that all levels of society would have enjoyed gaming in various forms, be you rich or poor, educated or not, old or young.

There are many examples in recorded history of people playing board games, such as Romans sitting in the forum playing Ludus Latrunculorum, Monks in Gloucester Cathedral playing Fox and Geese in their cloister, or even Queen Elizabeth I entertaining her courtiers by gambling with dice games. With all these games, we may know who played them but unfortunately there is little to no word on who designed them. Game design is a very commonly discussed and recorded topic amongst gamers today, but there isn’t really anything of this sort to look at in Historical games. But it is interesting to think how some of these very unique games came to be. A modern game usually undergoes a long process of design, starting with the creator’s first ideas and knowledge of game mechanics, and then going through rigorous testing and redesign. These historical games must have undergone a similar process, as games that are well balanced and play so well don’t get made by accident.

Roman Board games
Throughout the Roman Republic and Empire, there is evidence to suggest that Romans had a culture rich in board and dice games. Game boards have been found scratched into surfaces and pavements, and fragments of ceramic and even wooden boards have survived. Ludus Latrunculorum or Latrunculi is the ‘game of little soldiers’. This appears to have been a well-respected game in the early Empire. Unfortunately the game in its Roman form hasn’t really survived, so instead we must look at those related to it such as the Greek game Poleis, which was played throughout the 1st millennium AD in Asia Minor and the Near East. There is also the North East African game Seega, which appears to preserve some of the Roman game’s characteristics. It would be nearly impossible to fully recreate this game now, not least because a game that existed across an area the size of the Roman Empire was bound to have more than a few variations and houserules. Some Roman authors do give some information though, and these can usually be confirmed by the archaeological finds. Varro (116-27 BC) writes that the board was marked by orthogonally intersecting lines where the pieces moved on the squares between those lines. This sounds like a simple grid as you’d expect. Boards of this type that have been found from the Roman period appear to have varying sizes. For example there was a stone block of 9×10 squares excavated in Dover, 8×8 squares discovered in Exeter, as well as on the steps of the Parthenon in Athens and the Basilica Julia in Rome. And a roof tile from Mainz shows a 9×9 grid. So it appears that the number of squares on the board, and perhaps the number of pieces would have varied. Among other writers to mention the game, one anonymous author wrote a poem dedicated to Roman Senator Cnaeus Calpernius Piso, supposedly a famous player of the game. They mention that the pieces used by the two players would be of two different colours such as black and white, and at the beginning of the game “the pieces are cunningly disposed on the open board”. This suggests that the initial placing of the pieces requires some strategic thought, similar to nine men’s morris, and unlike a game such as chess which has fixed starting positions. An isolated piece was captured by flanking it on two sides, but as philosopher Seneca wrote it was still possible to find a way “the surrounded stone could go out”, before it was removed from play.

Another example of a popular Roman boardgame is ‘Five Lines’. It is one of the oldest known boardgames from ancient Greece where it was known as Pente Grammai. The poet Alkaios mentioned the game in one of his poems, and boards in terracotta with five parallel lines typical of the game have been found in graves of the same period. There are also similar boards to be found scratched into the surfaces of marble floors in temples the ruins of other Greek sites. In the time of the Roman Empire we can find more information about the game. Pollux in the 2nd Century AD wrote that “each of the players had five pieces upon five lines” and that “there was a middle one called the sacred line”. Based on other descriptions and archaeological finds, it appears that there would have been larger versions of the game as well.

Anglo Saxon and Viking Board games
As we go further through history, we can see some different games appearing. The Anglo Saxons and Vikings of the early Medieval period both played ‘nine men’s morris’ extensively. The game is much older though, and is one of the longest surviving board games to this day. There are Roman Examples, with boards carved into pavements and clay tiles, and the earliest dated example is a clay board dated to around 100 AD from Mycenae, but there are other boards resembling these from Egypt that may go back as far as 1400 BC. The game also spread through the Roman Empire and even ended up in 9th century India. Examples from the Viking world include those from the 9th century Gokstad ship burial in Norway. The game was also incredibly popular through the medieval period, as such it was recorded in Alfonso X’s ’Book of Games’ in 1283, and many carvings of it have been found in the cloisters of Cathedrals such as Canterbury, Salisbury, and Westminster Abbey. The origin of the name ‘Nine Men’s Morris’ is somewhat of a mystery, but it was possibly first recorded as such in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The most plausible theory for the name is that ‘Morris’ is not actually related to the English folk dance, but comes from the latin merellus, which means gaming counter. The game itself is a fairly simple two-player strategy game where each player attempts to capture their opponent’s men by making rows of three counters. A key aspect to the game is that it is played in two phases, with the first phase being about each player taking turns to strategically place all their men before the main phase starts. There are also many variations of the game with varying rules, inevitable for a game that has lasted thousands of years across multiple continents. Some versions differ in size, such as the smaller three men’s morris, or the larger twelve men’s morris.

Tafll Pieces found in a 9th Century grave in Birka, Sweden

One game that is most commonly associated with the Vikings is the Tafl family of games, most notably Hneftafl. There are many variations of this game, usually of differing sizes, and many examples come from England and Ireland, as well as Scandinavia. Most games date to the typical dates of the Viking period, from around 800 AD, but it could have originated much earlier. All Tafl games are asymmetrical, which is what makes it fairly unique when compared with most other historical games. It is a grid of an odd number such as 13×13, 11×11 or 9×9 squares. This allows for a central square on which a ‘king’ is placed. The concept of the game is that a king and his bodyguards are in the center, and a greater number of attackers on the opposing team surround them on all 4 sides of the board. The Goal for the attackers is to capture the king by surrounding him with 4 pieces, whereas the king’s team instantly wins if he reaches one of the 4 corners of the board. There are two particularly important writings about Tafl games, the earliest being a 10th century Irish gospel book which shows the starting positions for a game called Alea Evangelii, which is an 18×18 variant of Tafl. The second is a Welsh writing from the Tudor period which explains the rules of an 11×11 variant. Other variants of the game include Fitchneal which as a small 7×7 variant taken from Irish written sources, and with some physical examples such as the Balinderry peg-board, which is now at the National Museum of Ireland. Tablut is a 9×9 version which has a written observation of it in play from 1732 by Carl Linnè while travelling in Lapland. Hneftafl is the example that appears frequently in Norse literature and discovered in Viking Age sites. It is a 13×13 board with 32 attackers facing 16 defenders and a king.

Later Medieval Board games
Related to nine men’s morris, which would have still been popular at the time, is a game that is first named in 15th Century English documents, and that is Fox and Geese. Physical evidence for this game goes further back, as there are some carvings of the board in Gloucester Cathedral from the 14th Century. It may be even earlier, as it is also referred to as Marelles, which is related to the other name for nine men’s morris. The name ‘Fox and Geese’ itself is first found in 1633. It is also around this time when the game seemingly saw an increase in popularity. The basic rules are that there is a single ‘Fox’ against a gaggle of thirteen ‘geese’. Players take it in turns, with one moving a single goose at a time, and the other moving their fox. The geese have to trap the fox and prevent it from moving to win, whereas the fox has to remove all the geese, which is done by jumping over a goose if there is an empty space the other side. This means the geese must surround or corner the fox in multiple ranks before they have too few left. Variants of this game mostly include more geese, which may have been an attempt to balance the game. There are also double and triple size versions of the board that come about in the 17th century that increase the number of geese and foxes as well. An offshoot of the game is Asalto from the 18th century, which replaces the old theme for a more military emphasis, it being about two officers facing off against multiple enemy soldiers.

There are many many other board games that I could go into here, not least of all is chess, but that is perhaps the most famous board game of all time, so I needn’t explain it here. I will simple say that chess was originally a 6th Century Indian game known as Chaturanga. It reached Europe by the 10th Century. From the 13th century onwards there were many variants that would seem bizarre to us now such as four-seasons chess, which is a four player version, and there is also courier chess, which is played on a rectangular board, uses more pieces named the courier, counsellor and spy that move differently, and moves are taken in turn but four at a time. From the late 15th Century onwards we begin to see what would become modern chess, and it was fairly recognizable by the 17th Century.

Petra: The Lost City

For the latest instalment on our lost cities theme I will be writing about the history of Petra. Petra is a historical city located in modern day Jordan, which is renowned for its archaeological heritage and now popular for tourists. It was designated as a UNESCO world heritage cite in 1985.
It was originally known as Ramqu. The area was thought to have been inhabited appropriately in the year as early as 9000BC. Petra was likely established in the 4th or 5th century BCE and is largely attributed to a nomadic Arab tribe, the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans settled the area as a prime trading route, particularly the spice trade, to buy and sell goods between the Mediterranean continent and Asia. This is where caravans of people would cross. 

Trade was relatively successful for the Nabataean inhabitants, until over time nautical trading routes proved more popular. Petra gained some attention from outsiders, notably the Greeks and Romans. One of the first written accounts of Petra was documented by  Greek historians. King Antigonus I a Macedonian ruler planned an invasion in 312 BC. 

The site’s population grew to approximately 10,000-30,000 inhabitants. The Nabataeans were prevailed in attempts to takeover their land. They knew the terrain very well and how best to defend it from outsiders, that was until the Romans invaded in 106CE. Petra, henceforth was incorporated into the Roman Empire as a province.Trade was still customary in those parts, particularly the spice trade. However, over time this particular route steadily declined in popularity. What’s more in 363AD Petra suffered a terrible earthquake which significantly damaged the area. This halted further developments to the area in terms of commerce and population increase. Another earthquake would follow in 551.AD

During the Byzantine era  Petra contained a number of Christian churches In the 7th century AD Petra was seized by neighbouring Muslims in Arabia. This was a significant time for the spread of Islam and its influence as Arabia was was unified by the prophet Muhammed in 622AD. During the Byzantine era  Petra contained a number of Christian churches as the old city was the capital of the Byzantine province, Palaestina III and as a result was a part of the Byzantine empire sandwiching the Mediterranean to the Levant. These churches were excavated at the site and attributed to the Byzantines. Later in the 12th century the was evidence to suggest the area was an outpost of the Crusades, military campaigns from Christian Europe to the Islamic territories in response to their rapid spread. From then there are no accounts from the West about the Petra. However, that is not to say the area was unknown territory completely. Outside of the western world there are accounts during the end of 13th century that Petra was often visited by Egyptian sultans who were interested in the sandstone formations. Nevertheless, there are little to no accounts after this, that is not to say non eurocentric accounts. Nomadic tribes continued to live in the area.  

Moving forward to the 19th century, The ‘discovery’ of Petra was attributed to a Swiss traveller by the name of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. He was the first European to describe the sandstone structures. The remnants of tombs and structures at Petra were visualised by David Roberts, a Scotsman who painted them in 1839. Unfortunately over time the site of Petra was highly vulnerable, its structures were weak and this attracted the attention of thieves hoping to amass its treasures. Petra was surveyed and excavated properly in 1922 by archaeologists along with help from a Physician, expert in local folklore and a scholar. 

A number of scrolls written in Greek were found in the remains of a church, dated in the Byzantine era. These items were found 25 years ago in 1993. This discovery confirms Petra was not an isolated domain despite its land locked location. It shows other ethnic groups were interested in the area and remained for a time.

In the early twentieth century Petra was a focal point in the Arab-Ottoman conflict. In October 1917 during the First World War to intercept the Ottoman forces resources from the British advancement in Gaza, regarding the Sinai and Palestine campaign between the British and the Ottomans. The Arabs led a revolt from Petra against the Ottomans along with British support they managed to halt the Ottomans. Local Bedouin women also took part in the revolt.

Nowadays Petra is waiting to be discovered by tourists and is considered to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the world up with the likes of Machu Picchu in Peru and The Taj Mahal in India. 

Lost Cities – Gedi

Continuing this series of Lost Cities ( 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.  

The Evolution of European Sword Design – From the Romans to Normans

My aim with this topic is to examine the development of European swords through the Medieval period and into the Renaissance, along the way looking at all the details that change throughout that timeframe. I also intend to look at the possible reasons behind the gradual transformations of the sword, be they caused by changes in technology, society, combat styles, or even fashion.

Today I will tackle the first part of this period up until around the 11th to 12th century. Before we go straight into the Early Medieval period however, we do need to find where our starting point originates. Like many things in Medieval Europe, the influence of the Romans is never too far off, and in the case of swords it is no different. The Roman Empire is famous for its use of the ‘gladius’, a relatively short sword with an acute point optimized for stabbing. While this makes for a very deadly weapon when used in a well organised tight formation of troops, all of which would have used the very large ‘scutum’ shield, this sword isn’t incredibly well suited in other situations. A different type of sword started to enter Roman service that was particularly favoured by Celtic cavalry auxiliaries in the early Imperial period. This was the ‘Spatha’, a longer, narrower sword that is more optimised for cutting, and was seemingly inspired by long Celtic Iron Age swords. Initially the spatha was a cavalry sword, suited to the job due to the longer reach it afforded the wielder; up to 100cm as opposed to the 65-85cm of the gladius. Eventually however, in the later Imperial period from around the 3rd Century AD, and until the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the spatha became the primary sword of the infantry. There is still debate on the reasons for this change, with possible theories stemming from the shift in demographic of the Late Roman Army. It appears that more Germanic peoples made up a greater portion of the armies, many of whom even commanded whole legions of their own culture. This may have caused the fighting style to change, with looser formations, lighter more manoeuvrable shields, and these longer swords to take advantage of the greater freedom and space in the melee. Additionally, these Germanic people could have simply chosen to fight with weapons more familiar to them, as the spatha is more similar to Northern European swords of the time. Whatever the reasons, it is ultimately this change that would be the basis for the vast majority of European sword development through the medieval period.

Examples of gladius and spatha hilts from the 1st to 3rd centry AD

Towards the end of the Western Roman Empire, and until around the 8th Century we have what is known as the Migration Period. Throughout these few hundred years we see very little change in the basic design of the sword from the spatha. The migration period sword is still somewhat different in that the guard and pommel shapes change slightly from the more rounded Roman styles. Initially the guard and pommel pieces seem to become more minimal, with some being simple flat bars, ovals or discs, resulting in swords that have almost no pommel and simply a bar to help retain grip. Early on in this period most of the hilt construction appears to consist of organic materials, generally wood, as well as perhaps some horn and bone elements, very similar to Roman swords. As we move closer to the early medieval period the guards and pommels seem to feature metal more prominently, especially on the more ornate examples that are also heavily jewelled. The metals are mostly gold, silver or copper alloys, although these metals survive much better than Iron, so this could be skewing our statistics. The metal on these swords is mostly in the form of ornate plates covering parts of the grip, or plates in the pommel and guard construction that from a sandwich around a core of organic material.

Examples of Migration Period sword hilts from 300-400 AD

It is later in the migration period, more specifically going into the Vendel period and the time of the Merovingian dynasty, that these swords start to change again in subtle but significant ways. We start to see pommels changing in shape due to end caps being fitted over the flat bar piece that already exists. The reason for this change is fairly straightforward and is most likely to do with the way sword hilts are constructed. Every sword is made as a single piece in essence, with a thin bar section continuing from the bottom of the blade called the ‘tang’, which is where the sword is held. This keeps the whole sword from having any significant weak points where any joins could be. From there the hilt is basically just slotted onto the tang in order to make the sword more comfortable and easy to hold. With the previous migration period examples the tang was mostly fitted straight to the plate at the pommel end of the hilt, with the affixing method such as rivet or simply the exposed tang being peened. What we get in the later migration period is the appearance of larger end caps on top of this plate, which seemingly started to be used as a way of adding more decorative elements to the hilt without the fragile materials interfering with the strength of the construction. The prominent example of this pommel style is known as the ‘pyramid pommel’. These pommels, and the swords in general, are amazing examples of craftsmanship of the period, with gold elements holding finely shaped garnets in the cloisonné technique, and sometimes added filigree and different textures added under the stones to give different reflections. It is from these end caps that we start to see pommel design turn into the familiar shapes of the Viking age.

Modern reproduction of the Sutton Hoo sword featuring a typical pyramid pommel

Gold pommel end caps from the Staffordshire hoard.

Overall it appears that the place of the sword shifted somewhat in the migration period, with it becoming a more high-class weapon that only the very elite could afford. Gone were the days of the large standardised army of the Roman Empire. Small groups and petty kingdoms could scarcely afford to outfit many of their troops with this expensive weapon. Instead we see the spear return to prominence, if it ever left. Much less Iron was required for spears, and they could be far more effective in a basic shieldwall of less disciplined troops than the sword. This could explain why so many examples from this period are so incredibly ornate, when earlier and later swords are generally far more utilitarian.

From the migration period we move into the early medieval period. Possibly also referred to as the ‘Viking age’ or the ‘Carolingian period’. Many of the examples of swords that we will see in this period are commonly known as ‘viking swords’, although very similar styles were used across Europe, such as in Francia and Britain prominently. Again the changes we see are rather minor in overall appearance, but they set some significant precedents that develop later into the medieval period. The first point to be made is that there certainly were the ornate styles of Migration period sword being used well into this time, just as these ‘viking swords’ could be seen after their time of prominence too.  The most striking change we see as we advance in time is that the guards and pommels of swords start to be made entirely of iron or steel. There would still have been many rich examples featuring precious metals and other decoration, but for the most part the organic elements are now confined to the grip alone, which is usually made of leather wrapped wood, or sometimes made of bone, horn, and even wrapped in wire. The hilt styles of these swords appear very similar in shape to earlier examples, with flat bars against the hand on both ends, resulting in a very secure grip on the sword. The pommels are also still made with an added end cap, often still hollow, covering the end of the tang. Although they do start to simplify, with less individual parts until they combine into a single piece as this period comes to a close.

Wheeler’s typology of viking age sword hilts. The types are in roughly chronological order.

An important part of the development of swords is of course in the quality of the steel being used for the blade. While I couldn’t possibly go into all the details of the metallurgy and smithing processes that combine to make a good sword, now is a good point to mention the basic approach to swordsmithing in this period, as a big change is about to occur. Swords of this early medieval period are famous for having very intricately made ‘pattern welded’ blades. The term ‘damascus steel’ is commonly used for this style of blade construction, but in this case is a misnomer. From the Roman period, through the migration and early part of the Viking age, pattern welded sword blades, and those of other weapons, were very common. This method is essentially a way of making a high quality blade that is strong, flexes but does not bend, and has few weak spots. This was a necessary technique due to large quantities of quality iron not being readily available, as well as the ability to melt steel in order to homogenize it into a uniform structure not being prevalent. So what pattern welding does is it allows you to take pieces of steel of differing qualities and form them into bars or rods and twist them together into various patterns, some of which can be highly decorative as well as functional. The different steels are then ‘forge welded’ together, basically meaning they were heated to a high temperature and hammered into shape until they fuse together. Early forms of this technique had been done for hundreds of years, possibly even by early Celtic smiths, through a method known as ‘piling’ which is mostly just forge welding various pieces together at random or in simple lines. The point here is that by the early Medieval period, pattern welding techniques had been around for centuries and had essentially been perfected. A smith making these complex patterns had reached the peak of forging technology. The significant change that happens in this period is not to do with forging technology, but with smelting technology, which is the earlier stage where the metal is extracted from Iron ore and refined. What actually changed here is the type of furnace being used in this process, going from a type called a ‘bloomery’ to the new ‘blast furnace’, essentially allowing for higher temperatures. This change is commonly thought to have happened around 1000 AD, but it appears to being around 800 AD, so essentially the entirety of the ‘Viking age’ is covered by the slow process of pattern welded swords being replaced by new single steel swords. Many methods did carry on further however, such as the use of forge welding different steels together, notably done to have a softer or more flexible body to the sword, with harder steel on the edges. It is important to mention that the majority of this change comes out of the Carolingian or Frankish Empire, and frequently the high quality swords made there were sought after in surrounding regions, including Scandinavia. This continues to include the famous swords inscribed with the name ‘ULFBERHT’ that seemingly denoted the highly advanced steel being used.

Excellent examples of pattern welded blades. Made by Patrick Bárta at

Having covered the material changes of the sword going through the early medieval period, we should finally look at some of the significant changes that occur in the shape of swords and their hilts again before we get to the High Middle Ages post 11th century. The development I mention here is most likely linked to changes in combat techniques that also come from the Carolingian Empire. The whole period I have covered here, from the Roman Empire, through the migration period and the early medieval, has always featured the sword alongside its best friend; the shield. Not just any shield however, but specifically the centre-gripped or boss held shield, a shield held in the middle in a single fist, protected by the metal dome of a ‘boss’, the Viking round shield and the Roman scutum are good examples. Eventually this type of shield gave way to the strapped shield in its various forms, with straps attaching the shield to the forearm. There are several reasons why this change of shield may have taken place, one being the ability to free the hand while still retaining the shield being more suitable for cavalry, an element of the Frankish army that became more prominent in this period, as they were credited with being the origin of the medieval knight. Also, although the centre-gripped shield was more manoeuvrable in certain ways, and more offensive and allowing for greater reach, it could be easily manipulated by the opponent by pivoting the shield around the wielder’s gripping hand. The first strapped shields of this period came in a dome shape which could glance off attacks rather than being pivoted, and the strapping to the arm also helped with this. Ultimately this type of shield would appear to be more useful and sturdy in tight formations of troops, as the face of the shield could more safely be pointed toward the enemy while giving greater cover to the formation from missiles.

9th Century manuscript image showing dome shields held close to the body.

So why is all this detail on shields relevant to the use of swords? Well the key point here is that these new shields being strapped to the arm were no longer held forward along with the sword hand in combat. Also previous shields would essentially do most of the work in creating openings in the opponent’s defences, and then the sword would be quickly used to exploit them. The strapped shield can no longer function this way, which both leaves the sword hand now more vulnerable, and the sword now being made to do more of the work in combat, rather than just waiting for the time to strike. Dealing with that last point first, the sword would now be more likely to encounter other swords and weapons, and result in opponents entering a ‘bind’, where swords are used to apply pressure on and manipulate each other. This is what you may think of when you imagine proper ‘swordfighting’. So how does the sword adapt to this? First of all we can see the shape of the pommel and guard changing. The pommel will start to become more rounded, and smaller in some cases, allowing the sword to be gripped more comfortably in a point forward position with the blade more in line with the forearm. This allows for the swordsman to exert greater pressure in the bind, as well as attack with the point more easily. The previous method of gripping the sword in more of a right angle to the arm, while seeming more secure in the hand, had a weak point at the grip itself when attempting to apply pressure rather than going for the quick chop. The grip will also change overall by becoming slightly longer, as well as both the pommel and guard starting to curve away from the hand in some examples, all of which gives the hand more room to grip the sword more comfortably in this more forward position. Lastly, to deal with the issue of vulnerability of the hand, the guard of the sword will now truly become a crossguard. Early examples begin to have slightly longer guard pieces, until they eventually become much longer, as well as thinner to help accommodate for the weight as they get larger.

Examples of late 10th to 11th century swords. Made by

It is these developments all together that start to bring us towards the ‘arming’ sword of the high middle ages, the most prominent of which we may know of at the period around 1000 AD would be those famously wielded by the Normans, such as in the Bayeux tapestry. The improvement in smelting technology gives the appearance of a single-steel sword, and the new requirements in combat and use of different shields start to lengthen the grip, change the pommel first into slightly rounded or ‘brazil nut’ shapes, before the iconic circular pommel, and then the true ‘crossguard’ comes into existence.

With this important transition taking place, I will stop there. Keep an eye out for my next post on this topic where swords start to evolve more drastically and rapidly throughout the rest of the medieval and following renaissance period, including changes to the overall shape and length of the swords, the first longswords and two-handed swords, and various blade types meant for specific purposes.