ABC World History: Andorra

Today we start the writing project that we are dedicating the rest of the year to, which is the ABC of World History! We are going to be writing every week and bringing you posts from all over the world following the letters of the alphabet. These were completely picked at random: we opened a list of countries in the world sorted alphabetically and rolled a die for each letter – no fumbles either so we are going with whatever came up first! With this e hoped to open new horizons, keep things a bit less Eurocentric and more diverse. This is also a great opportunity to get our mojo back on the writing game as we have been putting a lot of our energy on the podcast, so we really hope you enjoy it. And, without more delay, today we start with a for ANDORRA!

Having been born and brought up in Spain, Andorra is that country you are aware of, but not many people pay much attention to, unless you like skiing. So I started doing some reading into the history of Andorra and hit my first barrier: languages! This is a recurrent theme when we explore certain topics but, in case you wanted to know what the issues affecting Andorra are from a linguistic viewpoint here we go. First of all there isn’t an awful lo written on the history of this country, due to its size and the fact that has always been wedge between Spain and France, so politically speaking it gets buried under a lot of border and frontier changes. And then, there is the language issue: there is barely anything writing in English. Most sources I have used for this post were written in Catalan (or the Andorran variant of Catalan), a few more in Spanish, but the majority of the useful sources and reports I was able to use were in French. Now that we have cleared this out of the way, I’m going to take this chance to call up some Andorran historians to the front! This is a cool niche that deserves some recognition! And now that we all know where we stand, I’ll tell you more about what the blog post will be about: the prehistoric origins of this region.

Continue reading “ABC World History: Andorra”

Nu History Podcast – Episode 6: The Origins of Warfare

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined once again by James to talk about a favourite topic of his and Alex’s; Warfare. We specifically get into the possible origins of warfare in prehistory, how it may be distinct from other forms of early human conflict, and how it may link into the concept of civilization itself. We also take a look at Sparta as an example of a highly militaristic society.

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

Gegharot and the Armenian Bronze Age (Updated August 2018)

Some more updated information on something I wrote a while back – this site has become extremely important in the archaeological discourse of Armenia, the Bronze and the political relationships between countries in Europe and the Near East

Nu History

Today we are going to take a trip to the site of Gegharot in Armenia. This area is currently under excavation as part of the ArAGATS – American-Armenian Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies. The project which was developed in 1998 by Dr Adam Smith and Dr Ruben Badalyan focuses in the investigation of the Tsaghkahovit Plain of Central Armenia under the northern slopes of Mt. Aragats. Their aim is to understand the cultural diversity and historical issues in Armenia since ancient times and up to the modern age. Gegharot, is one of the specific field projects of the ArAGATS since 2005. In order for you to get the picture, I’ll give you first of all an overview of the site.

This is a Bronze Age settlement, with a fortified wall and a cemetery which was the main area of research upon its discovery in the…

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The Prehistoric Thames Valley

Despite living in London for most of my life, I only recently went to visit the Museum of London. The museum in general covers the entire history of the city, and has some great objects to go and stare at, especially in the medieval period for me. However, what I want to focus on right now is what the museum covers of period before the city, or any trace of it, even existed. This is the first part of the museum you’d see if you visit, and it covers the history of the Thames valley from before human settlement, and right through the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age, and beyond of course.

The River Thames has played a vital role in the development and story of London for the last 450,000 years. It is only 352 kilometres from source to the sea, but throughout time it has continuously shaped the local landscape. It has been used by humans as a highway, a boundary, a food store and a sacred stream. In London today most of the Thames has artificial embankments, but in prehistory the river was wider and shallower, and probably flowed in a number of different channels. To Julius Caesar the river was known as Tamesa – ‘the flowing one’.

Artist’s impression of the prehistoric River Colne, a tributary of the Thames.

The Palaeolithic period up to 8800BC is characterised by climate change. Gradual, but continual cycles of warming then cooling, with periods when Britain was too cold to be occupied. During warmer times nomadic hunter-gatherers moved in and out of Britain, via a land bridge, following herds of animals. People would have eaten big game like mammoth and reindeer along with foraged foods such as nuts, fruit and roots. At the beginning of the Ice Age in this period, the Thames was much longer and ran through a different part of the UK. It started in the Welsh uplands, flowed across the English midlands and eventually joined the river Rhine in the southern part of what is now the North Sea. Nearly half a million years ago it was diverted into its present valley by ice sheets. Since then, it has changed course many times because of changes in global climate and sea level. Each time the sea level dropped, the river had to cut its way down through the land to reach the sea, leaving behind a dry flood plain. Nowadays, these former flood plains, or gravel terraces, are rich in archaeological finds, which were carried there by Ice Age flash floods. These include basic flint tools such as ‘hand axes’, as well as animal bones.

200,000 year old mammoth jaw found in Ilford, East London.

From 8800BC was the Mesolithic. As the climate warmed in this period the landscape changed from tundra to woodland. Hunter-gatherers continued to move in and out of Britain until it became cut off permanently from Europe around 6500BC. People began to manage the land to lure smaller prey such as red deer and wild boar into forest clearings. Tools changed and smaller worked flint was used to create weapons such as arrows. Evidence of transient Mesolithic occupation is provided by scatters of flint knapping debris found along the riverside of the Thames. The area of the Thames and its tributaries were widely used by mobile hunters and gatherers taking advantage of the rich fishing and wild fowling opportunities. As well as fresh water, the Thames provided these prehistoric people with a wide range of natural resources such as reeds, rushes and timber for building. The river bed was also full of flint nodules which were vital for making sharp tools. As mentioned, the wildlife was plentiful, and there were many types of fish and birds, and small mammals like beavers and otters. Larger animals, including deer and cattle, also came down to the river to drink. Seasonal runs of salmon, migrating birds and the occasional beached whale would have supplemented this diverse diet. Together, this made the Thames Valley a very prosperous place to live.

The fertile river banks were also prime soil to be farmed for grain, and this started to take place in the Neolithic period up to 2500BC. During this period there was a transition from nomadic hunter gathering towards small scale farming. Animals such as sheep and goats were domesticated and crops including spelt were grown. Excavations on the gravel terraces of the upper Thames at Yarnton in Oxfordshire show clear evidence of Early Neolithic farming. Here a rectangular ditched mortuary enclosure was constructed, a rectangular hall or communal longhouse defined by postholes, plus numerous pits and other postholes. It appears that Yarnton was an area of open grassland which was not continuously occupied, but was inhabited on an intermittent or seasonal basis for a long period of time by early pastoral farmers. The animal bones found at the site consist mostly of cattle, sheep, goat and pig. The presence of charred grain and bread demonstrates that cereals were produced nearby.

Various Stone Age tools on display at the Museum of London.

During this time we see the first evidence of monuments and large earthworks such as henges and cursus. Although centuries of cultivation of the Thames gravels have destroyed almost all the standing earthworks within this region, aerial survey has revealed a landscape covered with cropmarks of all periods. These surveys have also revealed long barrows, cursus monuments, causewayed enclosures, numerous ring ditches, mortuary enclosures and multiple henge monuments. One area of the Thames Valley where its cropmarks have been extensively excavated is Heathrow Airport. Work here revealed part of the Stanwell early neolithic cursus, which was later replaced by a series of late Bronze Age ditched fields. Interestingly, the Bronze Age settlement at Heathrow initially respected the line of the cursus; it was only encroached upon later, perhaps implying that over time its significance or sacred status was forgotten.

And it was the Bronze Age itself that came next from 2500BC to 800BC. The introduction of metal working changed lives and society. It is likely that those who controlled the supply, making and trade of bronze became more important and powerful. Britain was now a fully settled farming society. Widespread settlement would have led to friction between groups, and conflict over territory, and thus People began to live in more permanent roundhouses and protect their land. The emergence of weapons also becomes more prevalent during this time, perhaps for this reason. The Thames would have played an important role in these new issues, as the river acted as both a physical and psychological barrier. Settlements built on its islands used the water as a first line of defence. The remains of a number of wooden bridges have been found along the Thames. In the last century BC, the Thames also acted as a tribal boundary. Archaeologists have mapped out prehistoric territories using coins, and their conclusions suggest the river might have represented the boundary between neighbouring groups. According to Julius Caesar, the river was ‘fordable at one point only, and even there with difficulty’.

Bronze spearheads at the Museum of London.

Large numbers of objects have been recovered from the Thames during dredging. These include human remains, particularly skulls, as well as weapons, tools and ornaments made from stone, bone and metal. Many are beautifully made and seem to have been placed in the river deliberately. This happened in rivers across northern Europe. There may have been a variety of reasons why prehistoric people did this. Was it to appease the river’s power in times of flood? The later second millennium BC was a period of climatic deterioration and rising river levels. These events may have prompted the development of a new water-oriented cult, replacing an earlier sky or earth oriented cult. This new cult could explain the numerous discoveries of bronze tools and weapons during dredging of the lower Thames, as offerings to the river.

From 800BC is the Iron Age. New strong iron tools enabled people to plough heavier soils and clear more forest. This created a farming boom which In turn saw an increase in the population. People had different roles in society such as druids, craftspeople and farmers. Wealthy leaders showed off their prestige with decorated gold and bronze objects, jewellery and imported goods. Coins were produced as symbols of power. Eventually the Romans write about life in Britain, even prior to their invasion of the island, and this ends the prehistory of Britain. London was established as Londinium in AD43 on a site that guarded the Romans’ bridgehead on the north bank of the Thames and a major road nexus.

That covers the history of prehistory in the Thames valley, and London before London. To see artefacts from this whole period, and further beyond up to the present day then take a trip to the Museum of London, I really recommend it! I should have gone a long time ago myself.

The Thracian Step Pyramid near Kovil (Bulgaria)

Here I bring you a quick update on a relatively recent archaeological discovery that has taken my interest. I am talking about the Thracian rock pyramid researched by Vassil Markov and his team of archaeologists. Markov is the head of the university research centre for ancient european and eastern mediterranean cultures at Bulgaria’s south-west university. According to the survey, this has been dated to be a thousand years older than the pyramids from Egypt. However, this is a more peculiar type of megalithic monument. What seems to have happened in Bulgaria is the use of a natural rock formation which later on was used for sacred rites. The landscape of Bulgaria seems to have promoted this culture of rock-cut ancient monuments. Georgi Nehkrizov advises of the use of rock-cut graves and tombs by the ancient Thracians in this area, however the phenomenon of rock-cut niches and altars seems to be exclusive and specific to the area where this pyramid has been found, in the area of the Rhodope mountains. However most of the sites of these characteristic that you can visit in Bulgaria seem to be just suitable pieces of volcanic turf or limestone, use for religious practices, like in the case of Tatul Village, Perperikon and Belintash – some of the most famous Thracian sanctuaries in the area. But what has been found in Kovil goes a step beyond.

The actual site consists on 5 different mountainous layers, in the fashion of steps, which reach up to 15 metres of height. Markov’s team has found evidence of the use of this place for ritual purposes as far back as the year 4500 – 4000 BC. However, it seems that the altars that can be found at the site are later additions. They are believed to date from around the 2500 BC. Nevertheless, this is proof that this location must have been a long and well established religious centre, otherwise the activity would have ceased or change in nature, rather than emphasised. The altar carved in the lowest step is illuminated by the sun at dawn during the equinoxes, which also applies to the altar located in the upper level. This has led Markov to believe that this was potentially used as a temple devoted tot he cult of the sun. In addition to the altars, there are some mysterious entrances carved on the rock, which meaning has proven yet difficult to ascertain, but could be related to a similar find in another Thracian site – Ilinitsa. The shrine in Ilinista is known as the Womb Cave: a vertical entrance  into a cave resembling a human womb. Markov’s assessment is that this could be a similar type of shire, but on a smaller scale. The archaeological survey has recovered ceramics dating from the Chalcolithic to the Roman period, suggesting that the site was in use up to the conversion of Christianity brought to the Thracians by Rome.

But the wonder of Kovil do not end there. Markov’s team have identified this site as part of a much larger prehistoric complex – in a similar fashion to recent archaeological surveys of other megalithic structures such as Stonehenge. The entirety of this network expands for a square mile. The latest finds within the complex are two smaller pyramid-shaped rock outcrops. What is fascinating about this, is Markov’s own surprise upon finding the site. Thracian sites of similar characteristics are well-known to the locals and there are many other locations nearby which were known by the researcher and his team – whose original enterprise was to investigate further these sites to compare them with others in different geographical regions of Bulgaria. And it seems they did more than developing already established finds, but to discover something entirely new.

As always, I am glad to bring you news from parts of the world which we tend to forget they exist. And I must say, after looking into these sites in the Rhodope Mountains I am deeply curios and eager to go visit sometime. Hopefully further archaeological surveys of the area will keep on bringing forward the picture of Thracian culture in Bulgaria in the coming years.

In the meantime, if you are curious, I would recommend you try to get hold of A Companion to Ancient Thrace by Emil Nankov and Denver Graninger, which only came out in 2015 and has a plethora of fascinating research papers.

Gegharot and the Armenian Bronze Age (Updated August 2018)

Today we are going to take a trip to the site of Gegharot in Armenia. This area is currently under excavation as part of the ArAGATS – American-Armenian Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies. The project which was developed in 1998 by Dr Adam Smith and Dr Ruben Badalyan focuses in the investigation of the Tsaghkahovit Plain of Central Armenia under the northern slopes of Mt. Aragats. Their aim is to understand the cultural diversity and historical issues in Armenia since ancient times and up to the modern age. Gegharot, is one of the specific field projects of the ArAGATS since 2005. In order for you to get the picture, I’ll give you first of all an overview of the site.

This is a Bronze Age settlement, with a fortified wall and a cemetery which was the main area of research upon its discovery in the late 1950s. However, the ArAGATS project is now focused on the actual fortress with the purpose of understanding the sociopolitical interactions of ancient Armenian groups. One of the latest discoveries within the site was a large village dating to the early Bronze Age and part of the Kura-Araxes culture. If you are not very familiar with the cultures from the Caucasus, you may want to know that these people inhabited the region from 3400 BC to 2000 BC – although there are theories that suggest the disappearance of the Kura-Araxes may have begun around the 2600 BC. This culture moved northwards from the Ararat plain, and then southwards all the way to modern-day Syria, comprising a total area of  1,000 km by 500 km. In addition, the name of the culture is taken from the two main rivers that nourish this land: Kura and Araxes. Abundant archaeological finds and stable sediments up to the late Bronze Age prove that Gegharot was a prolific settlement, with a decent production of pottery and bronze work. In fact, recent studies in the area such as the work presented by by Alan F. Greene suggests that the vast majority of the pottery was used I the export of goods from Gegharot, which suggests this was indeed an active area in term of commerce (The Archaeology of Power and Politics in Eurasia: Regimes and Revolutions, p.317 – 318). However, it seems that this area of Armenia became suddenly vacant and unoccupied following the destruction of a nearby citadel: Tsakahovit. Scholars working on this field of study are still trying to understand the reasons behind this phenomenon, which they believe key to unveil the rise of early politics around the second millennium BC.

The research at Gegharot is still work in progress, and news from the site appear with frequency. The latest took place earlier on this year with the announcement of 3 shrines from 3300 years ago that had been found within the settlement. It seems that these were used for divination and prediction of the future. The archaeological team has found idols, and items made out of clay, as well as bones. Presumably these were used for osteomancy as well as lithomancy. Moreover,  flour for aleuromancy as well as bread making for the ceremonies was discovered there too. Other quirky finds show stamp seals, potentially used to give shape to the dough at the shrines. Adam Smith (Cornell University), who is currently investigating the site, believes these shrines may have been a place for the practice of the occult, where rulers would have gone in time of need. They seem to have been in use for an entire century, but were eventually destroyed alongside the fortress in Gegharot during a time of political unrest in the Caucasus.

So once again, a pretty unknown piece of the past served in W.U Hstry for you.

And in case you are interested in finding out more about the project itself and the cultures of the Caucasus, please visit the website.

Mogou and the Qijia Culture

Today I am bringing you a very quick update on something I don’t tend to write a lot about -Asia- even though I’d love to learn more and more about it. Nevertheless, I found about this earlier on the year and I thought it was a pretty interesting discovery to share with you all and give you something to ponder about.

Recent excavations in the site of Mogou, north-west China, have revealed a prehistory cemetery from around 4000 years ago. The work on the site has unearthed over 300 tombs from 2008 to 2011. The original report was published in the Chinese Journal Wenwu, however an English translation is available in the most recent volume of Chinese Cultural Relics. The burials grounds present all types of goods accompanying the dead to the afterlife. Among the most abundant items, the archaeologists at Mogou have found finely craft pottery, with a peculiar ‘O’ pattern. In addition, some weapons and pieces of jewellery appears frequently. Moreover, they have also discovered bones and items used for what presumably would have been divination and other ways to predict the future. The settlement seems to coincide with the Qijia culture, which occupied the area of the upper Yellow River valley. Perhaps what has raised questions about this site and its function is the numerous burials which sometimes seem to include entire families. Some have ventured to sustain the idea that these burials in fact contain the remains of ritual sacrifices. Honghai believes that these could have been slaves or people who the Qijia conquered and then sacrificed, but this is not for certain.

About the Qijia culture we know that is regarded as one of the earlier Bronze Age cultures in China, and probably the world, inhabiting the land between 2400BC and 1900BC . Honghai states that archaeological evidence in other areas suggest they lived in modest settlements, where their houses would have been partly buried in the ground. These buildings would have been squared or rectangular. The first site belonging to these people, Qijiaping, was discovered by Johan Gunnar Anderson in 1923. The Qijia are also well-known for the early fabrication of bronze and copper mirrors, and their extensive use of horses as domestic animals. Some other interesting artefacts found in Qijia sites include the oldest noodles unearthed! This was reported in 2002 on the BBC news. The discovery constituted around 50cm of noodles, made with different techniques and materials than those we are used to nowadays. In fact, scientists believed this would have been made with millet grass, based on the evidence from Lajia. But despite the fact that this was a dominating culture and the multiple sites such as Mogou, Lajia, Huangniangniangtai or Dahezhuang, show their widespread settlements and domain, it seems that towards the 1900BC they suffered a sudden diminishing of numbers and they retreated from their lands in western China. What happened to the Qijia after that is still unclear. Some evidence from Lajia again suggest that the settlement may have been abandoned after the effects of a seemingly devastating earthquake and possible flooding, as reported in 2011 by Maolin Ye and Houyuan Lu.  Many experts support the theory that the Siwa culture took over them and developed this inheritance. Other theories suggest that the Qijia perhaps did not fully retreat from the west, but instead a branch of them, later known as the Kayue culture populated the area.

To be truthful, we do not know an awful lot about this culture, or many of these Bronze Age cultures as our main way of finding out about them is through archaeology. In addition, the same problem that I encounter with the Meso/Southamerican history occurs: the lack of materials in English. And unfortunately, in the Western world, is more common for someone to learn Spanish than Chinese. So I think we are missing the trick in here, and ignoring certain fields with a lot of potential and new grounds to explore…Just a thought.