4375 entries. 94 themes. Last updated November 26, 2015.

2,500,000 BCE to Present Timeline


The First Industrial Complex Circa 2,500,000 BCE – 500,000 BCE

Olduvai Gorge

Louis Leakey poses with hominid skulls.

At Olduvai Gorge, a steep-sided ravine in the Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, prehistoric hominins of the Lower Paleolithic manufactured stone tools.

These rough flake tools, discovered in the twentieth century CE, are characterized as Oldowan. They are also characterized as Mode 1 industries.

"The earliest archaeological deposit, known as Bed I, has produced evidence of campsites and living floors along with stone tools made of flakes from local basalt and quartz. Since this is the site where these kinds of tools were first discovered, these tools are called Oldowan. It is now thought that the Oldowan toolmaking tradition started about 2.6 million years ago. Bones from this layer are not of modern humans but primitive hominid forms of Paranthropus boisei and the first discovered specimens of Homo habilis" (Wikipedia article on Olduvai Gorge, accessed 04-04-2009).

"Oldowan tool use is estimated to have begun about 2.5 million years ago (mya), lasting to as late as 0.5 mya. For about 1 million years exclusively Oldowan sites are found. After 1.5 mya Acheulean sites make their appearance in the archaeological record, but this does not mean Oldowan sites are no longer found. It is thought that Oldowan tools were produced by several species of hominins ranging from Australopithecus to early Homo. 'Oldowan' therefore does not properly refer to a culture, but to a very simple tradition of tool manufacture that was in use for a long time" (Wikipedia article on Oldowan, accessed 04-04-2009).

Primitive shaped stone tool artifacts closely resembling Olduwan technology were found with Australopithecus garhi remains dating back roughly 2.5 and 2.6 million years, discovered in the Bouri Formation, an area in the Middle Awash Valley, Ethiopia in 1996 by a research team led by Ethiopian paleontologist Berhane Asfaw and American paleontologist Tim White. Those hominin remains are believed to be a human ancestor species, and the final missing link between the Australopithecus genus and the human genus, Homo. The tools associated with A. garhi may be older than those made by Homo habilis, which is thought to be a possible direct ancestor of more modern hominins.

For a long time anthropologists assumed that only members of early genus Homo had the ability to produce sophisticated tools, and the crude ancient tools associated with Austropithecus garhi apparently lack several techniques that are generally seen in later forms, Olduwan and Acheulean. About 3,000 stone artifacts found in another site in Bouri, Ethiopia, were estimated to be 2.5 million years old.

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"Jonny's Child": Homo habilis Circa 2,400,000 BCE – 1,400,000 BCE

Fragmented part of a lower mandible (which still holds thirteen teeth, as well as unerupted wisdom teeth). (Click on image to view larger.)

Olduvai Gorge.

Artist rendition of Homo Habilis. (Click on image to view larger.)

Louis Leakey.

Mary Leakey.

Between 1960 and 1963 a team led by scientists Louis and Mary Leakey uncovered the fossilized remains of a unique early human at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. The type specimen, OH 7, found by Jonathan Leakey, was nicknamed "Jonny's child". Because this early human had a combination of features different from those seen in Australopithecus, Louis Leakey, South African scientist Philip Tobias, and British scientist John Napier called these remains a new species— Homo habilis, meaning ‘handy man', as they suspected that this slightly larger-brained early human made the thousands of stone tools found at Olduvai Gorge.

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A New Hominid Species is Discovered with the Help of Satellite Imagery Circa 1,950,000 BCE – 1,780,000 BCE

Skull of Malapa Hominin 1. MH1 also known as australopethicus sediba. (Click on image to view larger.)

(Source: Photo courtesy of Lee R. Berger. February 2010.)

The clavicle discovered by Matthew Berger on August 15, 2008.

(Source: Photo courtesy of Lee R. Berger and the University of Witwatersrand 2010.)

On April 7, 2010 American paleoanthropologist, physical anthropologist and archaeologist Lee R. Berger of the Institute for Human Evolution, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, and the University of Arkansas, announced the discovery in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in South Africa of a new species of hominid named Australopithecus sediba, which lived 1.95 million to 1.78 million years ago. The first portion of the fossil remains were discovered by Berger's nine year old son Matthew.

"In a report being published Friday in the journal Science, Dr. Berger, 44, and a team of scientists said the fossils from the boy and a woman were a surprising and distinctive mixture of primitive and advanced anatomy and thus qualified as a new species of hominid, the ancestors and other close relatives of humans. It has been named Australopithecus sediba.  

"The species sediba, which means fountain or wellspring in the seSotho language, strode upright on long legs, with human-shaped hips and pelvis, but still climbed through trees on apelike arms. It had the small teeth and more modern face of Homo, the genus that includes modern humans, but the relatively primitive feet and “tiny brain” of Australopithecus, Dr. Berger said.  

"Geologists estimated that the individuals lived 1.78 to 1.95 million years ago, probably closer to the older date, a period when australopithecines and early species of Homo were contemporaries.  

"Dr. Berger’s team said that the new species probably descended from Australopithecus africanus. At a teleconference on Wednesday, he described the species as a possible ancestor of Homo erectus, an immediate predecessor to Homo sapiens, or a close “side branch” that did not lead to modern humans" (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/09/science/09fossil.html?hp, accessed 04-08-2010).

The formal scientific paper describing the discovery was published in Science 9 April 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5975, pp. 195 - 204 DOI: 10.1126/science.1184944: Berger et al, "Australopithecus sediba: A New Species of Homo-Like Australopith from South Africa."

♦ An unusual feature of the discovery was that it was assisted by satellite imagery.

"At the beginning of this project, there were approximately 130 known cave sites in the region and around 20 fossil deposits. With the help of the navigation facility and high-resolution satellite imagery in Google Earth, Professor Berger went on to find almost 500 previously unidentified caves and fossil sites, even though the area is one of the most explored in Africa. One of these fossil sites yielded the remarkable discovery of a new species, Australopithecus sediba. This species was an upright walker that shared many physical traits with the earliest known species of the genus homo — and its introduction into the fossil record might answer some key questions about our earliest ancestry in Africa" (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/04/google-earth-helps-discover-rare.html, accessed 04-08-2010).
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The Oldest Hominin Fossils Found Outside of Africa Circa 1,800,000 BCE

Fossil skull of D2700. (Click on image to view larger.)

Fossil skull of D2700. (Click on image to view larger.)

In 1991 Georgian anthropologist and paleontologist David O. Lordkipanidze discovered at Dmanisi, in the Kvemo kartli region of Georgia, hominin remains first classified as a new species, Homo georgicus, but later classified within H. erectus, sometimes called Homo erectus georgicus. Since then additional fossil remains dating roughly from this period were excavated from the site.

"The conventional view of human evolution and how early man colonised the world has been thrown into doubt by a series of stunning palaeontological discoveries suggesting that Africa was not the sole cradle of humankind. Scientists have found a handful of ancient human skulls at an archaeological site two hours from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, that suggest a Eurasian chapter in the long evolutionary story of man. The skulls, jawbones and fragments of limb bones suggest that our ancient human ancestors migrated out of Africa far earlier than previously thought and spent a long evolutionary interlude in Eurasia – before moving back into Africa to complete the story of man.  

"Experts believe fossilised bones unearthed at the medieval village of Dmanisi in the foothills of the Caucuses, and dated to about 1.8 million years ago, are the oldest indisputable remains of humans discovered outside of Africa. But what has really excited the researchers is the discovery that these early humans (or "hominins") are far more primitive-looking than the Homo erectus humans that were, until now, believed to be the first people to migrate out of Africa about 1 million years ago.  

"The Dmanisi people had brains that were about 40 per cent smaller than those of Homo erectus and they were much shorter in stature than classical H. erectus skeletons, according to Professor David Lordkipanidze, general director of the Georgia National Museum. 'Before our findings, the prevailing view was that humans came out of Africa almost 1 million years ago, that they already had sophisticated stone tools, and that their body anatomy was quite advanced in terms of brain capacity and limb proportions. But what we are finding is quite different," Professor Lordkipanidze said.  

" 'The Dmanisi hominins are the earliest representatives of our own genus – Homo – outside Africa, and they represent the most primitive population of the species Homo erectus to date. They might be ancestral to all later Homo erectus populations, which would suggest a Eurasian origin of Homo erectus.'

"Speaking at the British Science Festival in Guildford, where he gave the British Council lecture, Professor Lordkipanidze raised the prospect that Homo erectus may have evolved in Eurasia from the more primitive-looking Dmanisi population and then migrated back to Africa to eventually give rise to our own species, Homo sapiens – modern man.  

" 'The question is whether Homo erectus originated in Africa or Eurasia, and if in Eurasia, did we have vice-versa migration? This idea looked very stupid a few years ago, but today it seems not so stupid,' he told the festival.  

The scientists have discovered a total of five skulls and a solitary jawbone. It is clear that they had relatively small brains, almost a third of the size of modern humans. 'They are quite small. Their lower limbs are very human and their upper limbs are still quite archaic and they had very primitive stone tools,' Professor Lordkipanidze said. 'Their brain capacity is about 600 cubic centimetres. The prevailing view before this discovery was that the humans who first left Africa had a brain size of about 1,000 cubic centimetres.'

"The only human fossil to predate the Dmanisi specimens are of an archaic species Homo habilis, or 'handy man', found only in Africa, which used simple stone tools and lived between about 2.5 million and 1.6 million years ago.  

" 'I'd have to say, if we'd found the Dmanisi fossils 40 years ago, they would have been classified as Homo habilis because of the small brain size. Their brow ridges are not as thick as classical Homo erectus, but their teeth are more H. erectus like,' Professor Lordkipanidze said. 'All these finds show that the ancestors of these people were much more primitive than we thought. I don't think that we were so lucky as to have found the first travellers out of Africa. Georgia is the cradle of the first Europeans, I would say,' he told the meeting.  

" 'What we learnt from the Dmanisi fossils is that they are quite small – between 1.44 metres to 1.5 metres tall. What is interesting is that their lower limbs, their tibia bones, are very human-like so it seems they were very good runners,' he said.  

"He added: 'In regards to the question of which came first, enlarged brain size or bipedalism, maybe indirectly this information calls us to think that body anatomy was more important than brain size. While the Dmanisi people were almost modern in their body proportions, and were highly efficient walkers and runners, their arms moved in a different way, and their brains were tiny compared to ours.

'Nevertheless, they were sophisticated tool makers with high social and cognitive skills,' he told the science festival, which is run by the British Science Association.  

"One of the five skulls is of a person who lost all his or her teeth during their lifetime but had still survived for many years despite being completely toothless. This suggests some kind of social organisation based on mutual care, Professor Lordkipanidze said" (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/a-skull-that-rewrites-the-history-of-man-1783861.html [09 September 2009], accessed 08-08-2013).


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Pithecanthropus erectus, the First Known Specimen of Homo erectus Circa 1,800,000 BCE – 141,000 BCE

Original fossil bones of Pithecanthropus erectus (now Homo erectus) found in Java in 1891. (Click on image to view larger.)

Illustration of Java Man scull. (Click on image to view larger.)

In 1891 Dutch physician, paleoanthropologist and geologist Eugène Dubois discovered a fossil skullcap, femur and a few teeth at Trinil - Ngawi Regency on the banks of the Solo River in East Java, Indonesia. Dubois characterized this specimen as a species "between humans and apes," naming it Pithecanthropus erectus (ape-human that stands upright). Prior to Dubois human fossils such as Neanderthal 1 and Cro-Magnon had been discovered by accident; Dubois was the first scientist to set out to discover prehistoric human fossils, and for his controversial discovery of Pithecanthropus erectus he received great fame and notoriety. 

In 1936 a more complete specimen of Pithecanthropus erectus was discovered by German-born paleontologist and geologist G. H. R. von Koenigswald in the village of Sangiran, Central Java, 18 km to the north of Solo. 

"Until older human remains were discovered in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, Dubois' and Koenigswald's discoveries were the oldest hominid remains ever found. Some scientists of the day suggested Dubois' Java Man as a potential intermediate form between modern humans and the common ancestor we share with the other great apes. The current consensus of anthropologists is that the direct ancestors of modern humans were African populations of Homo erectus (possibly Homo ergaster), rather than the Asian populations exemplified by Java Man and Peking Man. Dubois' specimen was later classified as Homo erectus, a species that lived throught most of the Pleistocene epoch, originating in Africa and spreading as far as England, Georgia, India, Sri Lanka, China and Java" (Wikipedia article on Java Man, accessed 08-21-2013).

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The Earliest Completely Preserved Adult Hominid Skull Circa 1,800,000 BCE

On October 17, 2013 David Lordkipanidze, paleontologist and director of the Georgian National Museum in Tiblisi reported the results of eight years study of a 1.8 million-year-old skull, known as Skull 5, discovered at Dmanisi, a site in the republic of Georgia. At the time of discovery, this skull of an adult man was the earliest completely preserved adult hominid skull. It has a surprisingly primitive, protruding upper jaw, and a tiny braincase. Combined with four other skulls found earlier at Dmanisi, it suggests that ancient people from the same time and place could look quite different from each other. For this reason, and because the Dmanisi hominids are so similar to the African hominids of the period, Lordkipanidze and his co-authors theorized that fossils from both continents represent a single species.

"The site of Dmanisi, Georgia, has yielded an impressive sample of hominid cranial and postcranial remains, documenting the presence of Homo outside Africa around 1.8 million years ago. Here we report on a new cranium from Dmanisi (D4500) that, together with its mandible (D2600), represents the world's first completely preserved adult hominid skull from the early Pleistocene. D4500/D2600 combines a small braincase (546 cubic centimeters) with a large prognathic face and exhibits close morphological affinities with the earliest known Homo fossils from Africa. The Dmanisi sample, which now comprises five crania, provides direct evidence for wide morphological variation within and among early Homo paleodemes. This implies the existence of a single evolving lineage of early Homo, with phylogeographic continuity across continents" (Abstract in Science.)  

Lordkipanidze et al, "A Complete Skull from Dmanisi, Georgia, and the Evolutionary Biology of Early Homo," Science 18 October 2013: 
Vol. 342 no. 6156 pp. 326-331, DOI: 10.1126/science.1238484 

(This entry was last revised on April 12, 2014.)

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Acheulean or Mode 2 Industries Circa 1,650,000 BCE – 100,000 BCE

A flint biface, discovered in Saint-Acheul, France.

During the Lower Paleolithic era prehistoric hominins manufactured stone tools, characterized scientifically as Acheulean (Acheulian), across Africa and much of West Asia and Europe. Acheulean tools are typically found with Homo erectus remains.

"The Mode 2 (eg Acheulean or Biface) toolmakers also used the Mode 1 flake tool method but supplemented it by also using wood or bone implements to pressure flake fragments away from stone cores to create the first true hand-axes. The use of a soft hammer made from wood or bone also resulted in more control over the shape of the finished tool. Unlike the earlier Mode 1 industries, the core was prized over the flakes that came from it. Another advance was that the Mode 2 tools were worked symmetrically and on both sides (hence the name Biface) indicating greater care in the production of the final tool" (Wikipedia article on Stone tool, accessed 04-04-2009).

"Providing calendrical dates and ordered chronological sequences in the study of early stone tool manufacture is difficult and contentious. Radiometric dating, often potassium-argon dating, of deposits containing Acheulean material is able to broadly place the use of Acheulean techniques within the time from around 1.65 million years ago to about 100,000 years ago. The earliest accepted examples of the type, at 1.65 m years old, come from the West Turkana region of Kenya although some have argued for its emergence from as early as 1.8 million years ago.

"In individual regions, this dating can be considerably refined; in Europe for example, Acheulean methods did not reach the continent until around one million years ago and in smaller study areas, the date ranges can be much shorter. Numerical dates can be misleading however, and it is common to associate examples of this early human tool industry with one or more glacial or interglacial periods or with a particular early species of human. The earliest user of Acheulean tools was Homo ergaster who first appeared almost 2 million years ago. Not all researchers use this formal name however and instead prefer to call these users early Homo erectus. Later forms of early humans also used Acheulean techniques . . . .

"It was the dominant technology for the vast majority of human history and more than one million years ago it was Acheulean tool users who left Africa to first successfully colonize Eurasia. Their distinctive oval and pear-shaped handaxes have been found over a wide area and some examples attained a very high level of sophistication suggesting that the roots of human art, economy and social organisation arose as a result of their development. Although it developed in Africa, the industry is named after the type site of Saint Acheul, now a suburb of Amiens in northern France, where some of the first examples were identified in the 19th century" (Wikipedia article on Achulean, accessed 04-04-2009).

♦ "These kinds of Acheulean artifacts, as they are known, have been found in Africa dating back about 1.5 million years. But in Europe, the oldest hand axes that had been found dated to only half a million years ago. Scientists have wondered why it took so long for early humans with such refined toolmaking to show up in Europe.

"Now research from two sites in southeastern Spain provides an answer: it didn’t take that long, after all.

"Using paleomagnetic dating, Gary R. Scott and Luis Gibert of the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California have determined that rather than being about 200,000 years old, the two sites, Solano del Zamborino and Estrecho del Quípar, are about 760,000 and 900,000 years old, respectively."

"Dr. Gibert said the finding, which was published in Nature, adds to mounting evidence that humans migrated to Europe from Africa earlier than previously thought.

" 'The question is, which route did they follow?' he said. Rather than coming through the Middle East and then westward, Dr. Gibert said he is convinced they came across at Gibraltar. 'We think the Gibraltar straits were a permeable barrier,' he said. 'It’s a provocative interpretation, but I think there is enough information to support it' " (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/08/science/08obaxe.html?scp=1&sq=stone%20tools&st=cse, accessed 09-12-2009).

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The Earliest Preserved Footprints of Our Ancestors Circa 1,530,000 BCE – 1,510,000 BCE

Ancient footprints at Koobi Fora. Photograph by Brian Richmond. (View Larger)

Footprints discovered by Jack Harris, Brian Richmond, and David Braun in 2007 at the Homo erectus site of Ileret  are "the oldest undisputed evidence of hominins (probably Homo erectus) walking in an efficient style like we do."  

The footprints were found in Koobi Fora, located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana, in the territory of the nomadic Gabbra people in Kenya.

"A key question about human origins concerns when our style of upright walking became fully modern. Today, we walk with a long stride and a spring-like mechanism in the arch of our foot that makes our walking very energetically efficient. In 2007, Drs. Harris, Richmond, Braun, and colleagues discovered the first of many footprints made by our early hominin relatives 1.51-1.53 million years ago at the site of FwJj14E at Ileret, Kenya. The prints show evidence of a well-developed arch in the foot, that contributes to efficient walking, and evidence of a long stride ending in a propulsive 'toe-off' like the characteristic toe-off of modern people. More footprints were found in 2008-2009, so Smithsonian researchers Drs. Richmond and Behrensmeyer, and their colleagues, are optimistic that this site will yield more footprints and shed more light on the origin of human walking and running" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/footprints-koobi-fora-kenya, accessed 05-10-2010).

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Early Humans Make Bone Tools Circa 1,500,000 BCE

Five bone tools excavated in Swartkrans, South Africa, once used by Parantrhopus robustus for foraging purposes. Photography by Jim Di Loreto and Don Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

Experiments and microscopic studies show that the ends of bone tools found in Swartkrans, Republic of South Africa, were used by early humans to dig in termite mounds about 1.5 million years ago.

"Through repeated use, the ends became rounded and polished. Termites are rich in protein and would have been a nutritious source of food for Paranthropus robustus" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/bone-tools, accessed 05-10-2010).

(This entry was last revised on 04-16-2014.)

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The Earliest Hearths Circa 1,500,000 BCE – 790,000 BCE

Scorched stone tools excavated in 2004 at Gesher Benot-Ya-aqov, in Israel, provide evidence for the existence of early hearths. Photograph by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

"The earliest hearths are at least 790,000 years old, and some researchers think cooking may reach back more than 1.5 million years. Control of fire provided a new tool with several uses—including cooking, which led to a fundamental change in the early human diet. Cooking released nutrients in foods and made them easier to digest. It also rid some plants of poisons.

"Over time, early humans began to gather at hearths and shelters to eat and socialize. As brains became larger and more complex, growing up took longer—requiring more parental care and the protective environment of a home. Expanding social networks led, eventually, to the complex social lives of modern humans" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/hearths-shelters, accessed 05-10-2010).

Fire-altered stone tools found in 2004 at Gesher Benot-Ya’aqov, Israel by a team led by Naama Goren-Inbar include stone tools scorched by fire close to concentrations of burnt seeds and wood, indicative of early hearths

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The Most Complete Early Human Skeleton Circa 1,500,000 BCE

Fossil skull and jawbone of Turkana Boy. (Click on image to view larger.)

In 1984 Kamoya Kimeu, a member of a team led by Richard Leakey, discovered the Turkana Boy (Nariokotome Boy) at Nariokotome near Lake Turkana in Kenya.  Scientifically identified as fossil KNM-WT 15000 (Kenya National Museum, West Turkana, item 15000), this nearly complete skeleton of a hominid who died in the early Pleistocene, 1.5 million years ago, is the most complete early human skeleton ever found. It was once thought to be a member of the species Homo erectus, but after much debate, was classified as Homo ergaster.  

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The Earliest Flint Tool Found in Europe Circa 1,400,000 BCE

Carved flint.

On August 7, 2013 Eudald Carbonell, one of the directors of excavation at the caves of Atapuerca, Spain, announced the discovery of a flint blade dating back 1.4 million years. The three centimeter (1.2 inch) blade—a portion of a carving knife— was found in the Elephant Chasm cave at Atapuerca near the northern city of Burgos. 

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The Earliest Human Remains from Western Europe Circa 1,200,000 BCE

The petite jaw suggests the oldest-found European was probably female.

In March 2008 a team led by Eudald Carbonell of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona announced the discovery at Sima del Elefante, Atapuerca, Spain stratographic Level TE9 of a human mandible associated with an assemblage of Mode 1 lithic tools (Oldowan industry) and faunal remains bearing traces of hominin processing. When I wrote this entry in 2013 these were the earliest human remains discovered in Western Europe.

"The earliest hominin occupation of Europe is one of the most debated topics in palaeoanthropology. However, the purportedly oldest of the Early Pleistocene sites in Eurasia lack precise age control and contain stone tools rather than human fossil remains. Here we report the discovery of a human mandible associated with an assemblage of Mode 1 lithic tools and faunal remains bearing traces of hominin processing, in stratigraphic level TE9 at the site of the Sima del Elefante, Atapuerca, Spain. Level TE9 has been dated to the Early Pleistocene (approximately 1.2–1.1 Myr), based on a combination of palaeomagnetism, cosmogenic nuclides and biostratigraphy. The Sima del Elefante site thus emerges as the oldest, most accurately dated record of human occupation in Europe, to our knowledge. The study of the human mandible suggests that the first settlement of Western Europe could be related to an early demographic expansion out of Africa. The new evidence, with previous findings in other Atapuerca sites (level TD6 from Gran Dolina), also suggests that a speciation event occurred in this extreme area of the Eurasian continent during the Early Pleistocene, initiating the hominin lineage represented by the TE9 and TD6 hominins" (Eudald Carbonell et al, "The first hominin of Europe," Nature 452, 465-469 (27 March 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature06815; Received 15 October 2007; Accepted 4 February 2008, accessed 08-08-2013).

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Humans May Have Lived in Britain as Early as 950,000 Years Ago Circa 950,000 BCE – 780,000 BCE

Ancient stone tools discovered at the Hapisburgh excavation site, East Anglia, England. Photocredit: Parfitt et al. Nature (View Larger)

Evidence from a former Thames river bed excavation site at Happisburgh in East Anglia, England, about 220 kilometers northeast of London, suggests that early humans were living in the cold climate of northern England between 780,000 and 950,000 years ago. These artefacts include 78 knapped flint specimens that the research team think were used by hunter-gatherers to pierce and cut meat or wood.

It is believed that the earliest humans moved to Europe from Africa around 1.8 million years ago, possibly crossing from Africa to Gibralter by a land bridge. It is also possible that early humans later crossed from Europe to Britain in a similar fashion. Recent evidence indicates that humans lived in Spain at Solano del Zamborino and Estrecho del Quípar, between roughly 780,000 and 950,000 years ago, but prior to the discovery of the Happisburgh site it was believed that early humans did not have the ability to adapt to the cold climates, similar to modern day Scandinavia, that would have existed in Britain at the time. Nor was it known that humans populated Britain so early. So far there is no evidence that these prehistoric inhabitants had mastered the use of fire for heating or cooking, although evidence from sites in the Middle East suggests that fire was used by other early humans at this date. 

"But because they were adapted to a warmer climate, archaeologists have so far believed that they didn't get as far north as Happisburgh — a comparatively cold, inhospitable place. Other studies at archaeological sites in Germany and France have shown signs of human activity in the north around the same time, but the dating of these sites is perhaps not as well established as that at Happisburgh.  

"The dating of the Happisburgh site is based on a combination of methods. The artefacts were entombed in sediment that records a reverse in the polarity of the Earth's magnetic field — the north and south poles switching places — at the time that they were laid down. The last polarity reversal is known to have been 780,000 years ago, making it probable that the Happisburgh artefacts are at least that old. . . ." (http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100707/full/news.2010.338.html, accessed 07-08-2010).

Human fossil remains have yet to be uncovered at the site, but the botanical and animal remains found there have proved very rich in detail.

Locating evidence of human habitation in a relatively cold and inhospital climate at this date is likely "to prompt a re-evaluation of the adaptations and capabilities of early humans" (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128361420, accessed 07-08-2010).

Simon A. Parfitt, Nick M. Ashton et al. "Early Pleistocene human occupation at the edge of the boreal zone in northwest Europe," Nature 466, 8 July 2010.


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The Oldest Human Footprints in Europe, Identified Using 3D Imaging Circa 900,000 BCE

On February 7, 2014 scientists in England announced the discovery of 49 footprints made by at least five different individuals preserved in soft sedimentary rock on a beach in Happisburgh, Norfolk. The preserved footprints, believed to be around 900,000 years old, were the earliest found in Europe to date. The prints were discovered in deposits that previously revealed stone tools and fossilized bones dating from between 800,000 and one million years before the present.

The footprints were uncovered at low tide in May 2013 after stormy seas pushed away large amounts of sand from the beach. Scientists removed remaining sand and sponged off the sea water before taking 3D scans and images of the surface. In some cases they identified heel marks, foot arches and even toes from the prints. They found footprints equivalent to up to a UK shoe size eight. The scientists estimated that the individuals who left the prints ranged from around two feet eleven inches tall to five feet eight inches tall. At least two or three of the group were thought to be children, and one was possibly an adult male.

"Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists from around the UK have been studying the tracks, and believe they may have been related to an extinct form of human ancestor known as Homo antecessor, or 'Pioneer Man.'

"The tracks include up to five different prints, indicating a group of both adults and children walked across the ancient wet estuary silt.

"They are the earliest direct evidence of human ancestors in the area and may belong to some of the first ever Britons.

"Until now the oldest human remains to be found in Europe all come from around the far south of the continent, including stone tools found in southern Italy and a tooth found in Spain.

"Skull fragments from that are around 780,000 years old hominid – the term used by scientists for early humans – were also found in southern Spain" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/10623660/900000-year-old-footprints-of-earliest-northern-Europeans-discovered.html, accessed 02-08-2014). 

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Hunting Large Animals With Spears Circa 500,000 BCE

Photocredit: James Di Loreto, & Donald H. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

A fragment of a horse shoulder blade discovered by a team led by Mark Roberts at Boxgrove, England "contains a semicircular wound made by a weapon such as a spear, indicating it was killed by early humans. Other horse bones from the same site have butchery marks from stone tools" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/punctured-horse-shoulder-blade. accessed 05-10-2010).

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Early Humans Hunt with Stone-Tipped Spears Circa 500,000 BCE

Example of nearly 500,000 year-old hafted spear tips from Kathu Pan 1. Photo by Jayne Wilkins. (Click on image to view larger.)

According to 2012 research on spear points excavated by Peter Beaumont at Kathu Pan 1, South Africa in 1979-1982, which remain arguably the earliest stone-tipped spears yet found, people began hunting with stone-tipped spears about 500,000 years ago. Prior to 2012 it was thought that attaching a stone tip to a spear, known as "hafting," started about 300,000 years ago.

"Hafting stone points to spears was an important advance in weaponry for early humans. Multiple lines of evidence indicate that ~500,000-year-old stone points from the archaeological site of Kathu Pan 1 (KP1), South Africa, functioned as spear tips. KP1 points exhibit fracture types diagnostic of impact. Modification near the base of some points is consistent with hafting. Experimental and metric data indicate that the points could function well as spear tips. Shape analysis demonstrates that the smaller retouched points are as symmetrical as larger retouched points, which fits expectations for spear tips. The distribution of edge damage is similar to that in an experimental sample of spear tips and is inconsistent with expectations for cutting or scraping tools" (Jayne Wilkins, Benjamin J. Schoville, Kyle S. Brown, Michael Chazan, "Evidence for Early Hafted Hunting Technology," Science 16 November 2012: Vol. 338 no. 6109 pp. 942-946 DOI: 10.1126/science.1227608)

"However, by comparing the wear visible on 500,000-year-old stone points found in South Africa with modern experimental points fired by a specially calibrated crossbow at a springbok carcass, scientists proved they had been used as spear tips for hunting. Leader author Jayne Wilkins, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto in Canada, said the research suggested stone-tipped spears could have been in use before the divergence of early humans and Neanderthals. She said: "This changes the way we think about early human adaptations and capacities before the origin of our own species.

"Although both Neanderthals and humans used stone-tipped spears, this is the first evidence that the technology originated prior to or near the divergence of these two species."

"Attaching stone points to spears was an important advance in hunting weaponry for early humans. Hafted tools require more effort and planning to manufacture, but a sharp stone point on the end of a spear can increase its killing power. Hafted spear tips are common in Stone Age archaeological sites after 300,000 years ago" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9682459/Man-hunted-with-spears-half-a-million-years-ago.html, accessed 11-16-2012).


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Shell Markings by Homo Erectus May Be the Earliest Engraving Done by Humans Circa 500,000 BCE – 430,000 BCE

An engraved shell with a zigzag marking from a freshwater mussel species, collected in the 1890s by the Dutch palaeontologist Eugène Dubois, at Trinil on the banks of the Bengawan Solo River in Ngawi RegencyEast Java, Indonesia, is the oldest abstract marking ever found. At Trinil Dubois discovered the first Homo erectus fossil — a skullcap — and other ancient human bones, which he called Pithecanthropus erectus. He also brought home dozens of shells excavated from the site. They were examined in the 1930s and later stored in a box in a museum in Leiden, the Netherlands.

"The engraving might have stayed undiscovered, were it not for Josephine Joordens, a biologist at Leiden University. She had been working a project on how H. erectus used marine resources at Trinil, which is around 80 kilometres inland from the Java Sea. She found only freshwater shells, yet some contained small perforations, a few millimetres wide, that were made with a sharp object. This suggested that someone had used a tool such as a shark tooth to crack open the shell — like using an oyster knife, says Joordens.

"A visiting colleague photographed the shells and later noticed a faint zigzag pattern on one. 'People never found this engraving because it's hardly visible,' says Joordens. 'It's only when you have light from a certain angle that it stands out.'

"Close inspection under the microscope suggested that the engraving was intentional. The weathering patterns of the grooves, each of which is about 1 centimetre long, show signs of significant ageing, and there are no gaps between turns, indicating that the maker paid attention to detail. He or she probably made the engraving on a fresh shell, and the newly made etching would have resembled white lines on a dark canvas, Joordens’ team notes. Sand grains still embedded in the shell were dated to around 500,000 years ago.

" 'We've looked at all possibilities, but in the end we are really certain that this must have been made by an agent who did a very deliberate action with a very sharp implement,' says Joordens. Her team tried replicating the pattern on fresh and fossilized shells, 'and that made us realize how difficult it really was,' she says" (http://www.nature.com/news/homo-erectus-made-world-s-oldest-doodle-500-000-years-ago-1.16477, accessed 12-14-2014).

Josephine C.A. Joordens et al, "Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving," Nature,   http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13962 (2014).

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Early Humans Process Elephant Carcasses for Food Circa 500,000 BCE

On March 18, 2015 archaeologist Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University and colleagues reported that analysis of 500,000-year-old hand axes and scrapers at a Lower Paleolithic site at a quarry in Revadim, Israel, bore fat residue from processing contemporaneous elephant remains also found at the site, and that an elephant rib with clear cut marks was also found at the site indicating that people living there during the Lower Paleolithic era at big game. The research represents the first scientifically verified direct evidence for the precise use of Paleolithic stone tools: to process animal carcasses and hides. 

Natalya Solodenko, Andrea Zupancich, Stella Nunziante Cesaro, Ofer Marder, Cristina Lemorini, Ran Barkai,  "Fat Residue and Use-Wear Found on Acheulian Biface and Scraper Associated with Butchered Elephant Remains at the Site of Revadim, Israel, " PLOS One  Published: March 18, 2015 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0118572


"The archaeological record indicates that elephants must have played a significant role in early human diet and culture during Palaeolithic times in the Old World. However, the nature of interactions between early humans and elephants is still under discussion. Elephant remains are found in Palaeolithic sites, both open-air and cave sites, in Europe, Asia, the Levant, and Africa. In some cases elephant and mammoth remains indicate evidence for butchering and marrow extraction performed by humans. Revadim Quarry (Israel) is a Late Acheulian site where elephant remains were found in association with characteristic Lower Palaeolithic flint tools. In this paper we present results regarding the use of Palaeolithic tools in processing animal carcasses and rare identification of fat residue preserved on Lower Palaeolithic tools. Our results shed new light on the use of Palaeolithic stone tools and provide, for the first time, direct evidence (residue) of animal exploitation through the use of an Acheulian biface and a scraper. The association of an elephant rib bearing cut marks with these tools may reinforce the view suggesting the use of Palaeolithic stone tools in the consumption of large game."

"There are three parts to this puzzle: the expansion of the human brain, the shift to meat consumption, and the ability to develop sophisticated technology to meet the new biological demands. The invention of stone technology was a major breakthrough in human evolution," Prof. Barkai said. "Fracturing rocks in order to butcher and cut animal meat represents a key biological and cultural milestone.

"At the Revadim quarry, a wonderfully preserved site a half-million years old, we found butchered animal remains, including an elephant rib bone which had been neatly cut by a stone tool, alongside flint handaxes and scrapers still retaining animal fat. It became clear from further analyses that butchering and carcass processing indeed took place at this site."

Through use-wear analysis -- examining the surfaces and edges of the tools to determine their function -- and the Fourier Transform InfraRed (FTIR) residue analysis which harnesses infrared to identify signatures of prehistoric organic compounds, the researchers were able to demonstrate for the first time direct proof of animal exploitation by flint tools.

"Archaeologists have until now only been able to suggest scenarios about the use and function of such tools. We don't have a time machine," Prof. Barkai said. "It makes sense that these tools would be used to break down carcasses, but until evidence was uncovered to prove this, it remained just a theory" (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150319150753.htm,  accessed, 04-01-2015).  

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The Earliest Use of Pigments Circa 400,000 BCE – 350,000 BCE

A sample of geothite, or brown ochre. (View Larger)

Naturally occurring pigments such as ochres and iron oxides were used as colorants since prehistoric times. Archaeologists uncovered evidence that early humans used paint for aesthetic purposes such as body decoration. Pigments and paint grinding equipment believed to be between 350,000 and 400,000 years old were reported in a cave at Twin Rivers, near Lusaka, Zambia.

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The Oldest Wooden Spears Circa 400,000 BCE

One of three spears found at Schöningen, Germany in 1995. Photocredit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

Four wooden spears found at Schöningen, Germany, by Hartmut Thieme in 1995, along with stone tools and the butchered remains of about 20 horses, are thought to date from c. 400,000 BCE. They are the oldest human-made wooden artifacts, as well as the oldest weapons ever found. Three of them were probably manufactured as projectile weapons, because the weight and tapered point is at the front of the spear making it fly straight in flight, similar to the design of a modern javelin. The fourth spear is shorter with points at both ends and is thought to be a thrusting spear or a throwing stick. One of the horse remains found with the spears included a pelvis that still had a spear sticking out of it. This is considered proof that early humans were active hunters with specialized tool kits.

"Hunting large animals was a risky business. Long spears were thrust into an animal, enabling our ancestors to hunt from a somewhat safer distance than was possible with earlier weapons" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/oldest-wooden-spear, accessed 05-10-2010).

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The Oldest Almost Complete Mitochondrial Genome Sequence of a Hominin Circa 400,000 BCE

The "Homo Heidelbergensis Cranium 5" from Sima de los Huesos in Spain.

The exterior of the Denivosa Cave

Molar found in Denisova Cave of the Altay Mountains in Southern Siberia.

On December 4, 2013 Matthias Meyer, Eduald Carbonell and Svante Pääbo and colleagues reported that the almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos in Spain, dating back roughly 400,000 years, shows that it is closely related to the lineage leading to mitochonrial genomes of Denisovans, an eastern Eurasian sister group to Neanderthals.

"The fossil, a thigh bone found in Spain, had previously seemed to many experts to belong to a forerunner of Neanderthals. But its DNA tells a very different story. It most closely resembles DNA from an enigmatic lineage of humans known as Denisovans. Until now, Denisovans were known only from DNA retrieved from 80,000-year-old remains in Siberia, 4,000 miles east of where the new DNA was found.

"The mismatch between the anatomical and genetic evidence surprised the scientists, who are now rethinking human evolution over the past few hundred thousand years. It is possible, for example, that there are many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. They might have interbred, swapping DNA. Scientists hope that further studies of extremely ancient human DNA will clarify the mystery" (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/05/science/at-400000-years-oldest-human-dna-yet-found-raises-new-mysteries.html?hp&_r=0, accessed 12-04-2013).

Meyer et al, "A mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de ls Huesos", Nature (2013) doi:10.1038/nature12788.

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The Earliest Synchronic Use of Bifacial and Levallois Technology Outside Africa Suggests that the Technology Evolved Independently in Multiple Locations Circa 350,000 BCE – 325,000 BCE

In 2008 archaeologist Daniel Adler and colleagues discovered the Nor Geghi 1 paleolithic site in Nor Geghi, a major village in the Kotayk Province of Armenia on the outskirts of Yerevan, the Armenian capital. The site yielded thousands of stone artifacts found in sediments between two ancient layers of lava that could be accurately dated to beween 325,000 and 350,000 years ago. The stone tools were made using two distinct methods of stone knapping or lithic reduction: the older method called bifacial technology and a more advanced method known as the Legallois technique.

The replacement of bifacial stone tools, such as handaxes, by tools made on flakes detached from Levallois cores documents the most important conceptual shift in stone tool production strategies since the advent of bifacial technology more than one million years earlier. This new technology was believed to result from the expansion of archaic Homo sapiens out of Africa. The co-existence of the two technologies at Nor Geghi 1 provided the first clear evidence that local populations developed Levallois technology on their own.

After exploring Nor Geghi 1 in detail, and careful analysis of the artifacts, on September 26, 2014 Adler and colleagues reported results: "Early Levallois technology and the Lower to Middle Paleolithic transition in the Southern Caucasus," Science 345 no. 6204 1609-13. The paper challenged the hypothesis that the appearance in Eurasia of the Legallois technique was the result of the expansion of hominins from Africa, and   suggested that Levallois technology may have evolved independently in different hominin populations. 

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The Oldest Fossil Remains of Anatomically Modern Humans Circa 195,000 BCE

Scull from the River Omo. (Click on image to view larger.)

The bones of an early member of our species, Homo sapiens, known as Omo I, excavated from Ethiopia's Kibish rock formation. The bones are kept in the National Museum of Ethiopia. When the first bones from Omo I were found in 1967, they were thought to be 130,000 years old. Later, 160,000-year-old bones of our species were found elsewhere. Now, a new study by scientists from the University of Utah and elsewhere determined that Omo I lived about 195,000 years ago -- the oldest known bones of the human species. (Credit: John Fleagle, Stony Brook University) (Click on image to view larger.)

Location of Omo Valley in Ethiopia, Africa. (Click on image to view larger.)

Between 1967 and 1974 a scientific team from the Kenya National Museums directed by Richard Leakey and others discovered a collection of hominid bones at the Omo Kibish sites near the Omo River, in Omo National Park in south-western Eithiopia.  These fossil bones, which include two partial skulls as well as arm, leg, foot and pelvis bones, are known as the Omo remains. In 2013, when I wrote this entry, these were the oldest fossil remains of anatomically modern humans, or anatomically modern Homo sapiens—individuals with the range of phenotypes of modern humans.

"In 2004, the geologic layers around the fossils were dated, and the authors of the dating study concluded that the 'preferred estimate of the age of the Kibish hominids is 195 ± 5 ka [thousand years ago]", which would make the fossils the oldest known Homo sapiens remains. In a 2005 article on the Omo remains, Nature magazine said that, because of the fossils' age, Ethiopia is the current choice for the 'cradle of Homo sapiens' " (Wikipedia article on Omo remains, accessed 08-21-2013).

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Early Humans Use Heat-Treated Stone for Tools Circa 164,000 BCE – 70,000 BCE

A silcrete nodule exhibiting the signs of experimental heat-treatment. Photocredit: Science/AAAS. (View Larger)

Kyle S. Brown, a doctoral student at the University of Cape Town, and colleagues published "Fire as an Engineering Tool of Early Modern Humans," Science, 14 August 2009: 325, 859-62.

"The controlled use of fire was a breakthrough adaptation in human evolution. It first provided heat and light and later allowed the physical properties of materials to be manipulated for the production of ceramics and metals. The analysis of tools at multiple sites shows that the source stone materials were systematically manipulated with fire to improve their flaking properties. Heat treatment predominates among silcrete tools at ~72 thousand years ago (ka) and appears as early as 164 ka at Pinnacle Point, on the south coast of South Africa. Heat treatment demands a sophisticated knowledge of fire and an elevated cognitive ability and appears at roughly the same time as widespread evidence for symbolic behavior" (Science).

Brown et al report finding stone tools that show signs of being heated to about 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat-treating, most likely by burying a stone under a fire, made a stone easier to knap, or shape into a tool by striking it with another stone.

"Archaeologists were studying several sites on the South African coast, with artifacts dating from 72,000 to 164,000 years ago that would have been made by modern humans from the African Middle Stone Age. Mr. Brown, an archaeological knapper who tries to replicate ancient tools, said they noticed that blades found at the site, made from a stone called silcrete, did not match silcrete obtained from outcroppings in the area. 'We realized we were missing something,' he said.

"They experimented by heat-treating some of the stone themselves. 'When we pulled it out of the fire and flaked it, it did look like the kind of stone we were finding at our site,' Mr. Brown said. Their findings are published in Science.

"The researchers had to show that the tools they found were intentionally heated to improve workability, not accidentally through a bushfire or other means. They found tools in areas where there was no evidence of burning. And they conducted tests on some of the artifacts, including one that showed that flaked surfaces had a glossiness that occurs only when the stone has been heated, proving that the stones were heated first and then worked into tools" (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/18/science/18obfire.html?_r=1&hpw).

♦ "The find also adds weight to the argument that modern humans were acting in sophisticated ways long before they came to Europe about 35,000 years ago--and that they were engaged in far more complex behavior than were the Neandertals who lived at the same time, says anthropologist Alison Brooks of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. 'This is another piece of evidence that modern humans had made a lot of discoveries that Neandertals had not' "(http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2009/813/1).

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Evidence for the Origin of Language in Southwestern Africa Circa 150,000 BCE – 50,000 BCE

Map showing origin and spread of language from southern Africa.  Graphic from the journal Science and The New York Times. (Click on image to view larger.)

On April 15, 2011 Quentin D. Atkinson of the University of Auckland, New Zealand reported evidence for the origin of language in Southwestern Africa.

"Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa,Science, 332, no. 6027, 15 April 2011, 346-349: 

"Human genetic and phenotypic diversity declines with distance from Africa, as predicted by a serial founder effect in which successive population bottlenecks during range expansion progressively reduce diversity, underpinning support for an African origin of modern humans. Recent work suggests that a similar founder effect may operate on human culture and language. Here I show that the number of phonemes used in a global sample of 504 languages is also clinal and fits a serial founder–effect model of expansion from an inferred origin in Africa. This result, which is not explained by more recent demographic history, local language diversity, or statistical non-independence within language families, points to parallel mechanisms shaping genetic and linguistic diversity and supports an African origin of modern human languages" (Abstract)

"The detection of such an ancient signal in language is surprising. Because words change so rapidly, many linguists think that languages cannot be traced very far back in time. The oldest language tree so far reconstructed, that of the Indo-European family, which includes English, goes back 9,000 years at most.

"Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, has shattered this time barrier, if his claim is correct, by looking not at words but at phonemes — the consonants, vowels and tones that are the simplest elements of language. He has found a simple but striking pattern in some 500 languages spoken throughout the world: a language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it.  

"Some of the click-using languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes, whereas Hawaiian, toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa, has only 13. English has 45 phonemes" (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/science/15language.html?hp, accessed 04-15-2011).

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The Earliest Known Forms of Human Adornment Circa 132,000 BCE – 98,000 BCE

Photocredit: James Di Loreto, & Donald H. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

Nassarius shell beads found in Es Skhūl, Israel are thought to be the earliest surviving forms of human adornment. Assemblages of perforated Nassarius shells, a marine species significantly different from local fauna, have been recovered from the area, suggesting that Es Skhul people may have collected and employed the shells symbolically as beads, as they are unlikely to have been used as food.

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Neanderthals Produce the World's Earliest Jewelry, From Eagle Talons Circa 130,000 BCE

On March 11, 2015 anthropologist Davorka Radovcic, a curator at the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb, and colleagues published research indicating the production of the world's earliest jewelry from eagle talons by Neanderthals about 130,000 years ago, long before modern humans appeared in Europe. The evidence came from eagle bones discovered at the Krapina site where in 1899 archaeologist and paleontologist Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger found over eight hundred fossil remains belonging to Neanderthals on a hill called Hušnjakovo

This video was produced without sound:

Davorka Radovčić, Ankica Oros Sršen, Jakov Radovčić, David W. Frayer, "Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina," PLOS One, March 11, 2015. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0119802

"ABSTRACT: We describe eight, mostly complete white-tailed eagle (Haliaëtus [Haliaeetusalbicilla) talons from the Krapina Neandertal site in present-day Croatia, dating to approximately 130 kyrs ago. Four talons bear multiple, edge-smoothed cut marks; eight show polishing facets and/or abrasion. Three of the largest talons have small notches at roughly the same place along the plantar surface, interrupting the proximal margin of the talon blade. These features suggest they were part of a jewelry assemblage, --- the manipulations a consequence of mounting the talons in a necklace or bracelet. An associated phalanx articulates with one of the talons and has numerous cut marks, some of which are smoothed. These white-tailed eagle bones, discovered more than 100 years ago, all derive from a single level at Krapina and represent more talons than found in the entire European Mousterian period. Presence of eight talons indicates that the Krapina Neandertals acquired and curated eagle talons for some kind of symbolic purpose. Some have argued that Neandertals lacked symbolic ability or copied this behavior from modern humans. These remains clearly show that the Krapina Neandertals made jewelry well before the appearance of modern humans in Europe, extending ornament production and symbolic activity early into the European Mousterian." 

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The Earliest Evidence of Sea Voyages Circa 130,000 BCE

Stone tools found on Crete dating back over 130,000 years suggest that prehistoric civilizations took to the sea much earlier than previously thought. (view larger)

Whether or not pre-modern humans made the journeys deliberately or were washed ashore by accident, the finding, by Thomas F. Strasser and Eleni Panagapoulou, of Lower Palaeolithic flint handaxes, cleavers, and scrapers dating from at least 130,000 BCE at nine sites near the town of Plakias on Crete shows that early humans travelled out of Africa by sea much earlier than had previously been estimated. Some of these stone tools could be significantly older than circa 130,000 BCE since they resemble hand axes fashioned in Africa circa 800,000 BCE by early hominins.

"The cliffs and caves above the shore, the researchers said, have been uplifted by tectonic forces where the African plate goes under and pushes up the European plate. The exposed uplifted layers represent the sequence of geologic periods that have been well studied and dated, in some cases correlated to established dates of glacial and interglacial periods of the most recent ice age. In addition, the team analyzed the layer bearing the tools and determined that the soil had been on the surface 130,000 to 190,000 years ago.  

"Dr. Runnels said he considered this a minimum age for the tools themselves. They include not only quartz hand axes, but also cleavers and scrapers, all of which are in the Acheulean style. The tools could have been made millenniums before they became, as it were, frozen in time in the Cretan cliffs, the archaeologists said. Dr. Runnels suggested that the tools could be at least twice as old as the geologic layers. Dr. Strasser said they could be as much as 700,000 years old. Further explorations are planned this summer. The 130,000-year date would put the discovery in a time when Homo sapiens had already evolved in Africa, sometime after 200,000 years ago. Their presence in Europe did not become apparent until about 50,000 years ago.

"Archaeologists can only speculate about who the toolmakers were. One hundred and thirty thousand years ago, modern humans shared the world with other hominids, like Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis. The Acheulean culture is thought to have started with Homo erectus.  

"The standard hypothesis had been that Acheulean toolmakers reached Europe and Asia via the Middle East, passing mainly through what is now Turkey into the Balkans. The new finds suggest that their dispersals were not confined to land routes. They may lend credibility to proposals of migrations from Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. Crete’s southern shore where the tools were found is 200 miles from North Africa.  

“ 'We can’t say the toolmakers came 200 miles from Libya,' Dr. Strasser said. 'If you’re on a raft, that’s a long voyage, but they might have come from the European mainland by way of shorter crossings through Greek islands.'  

"But archaeologists and experts on early nautical history said the discovery appeared to show that these surprisingly ancient mariners had craft sturdier and more reliable than rafts. They also must have had the cognitive ability to conceive and carry out repeated water crossing over great distances in order to establish sustainable populations producing an abundance of stone artifacts" (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/science/16archeo.html, accessed 01-06-2011).

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The First Complete Neanderthal Genome Sequence Circa 128,000 BCE

Svante Pääbo.

A map of the Altai Mountain range.

On December 18, 2013 Svante Pääbo and colleagues from the Department of Evolutionary Genetics, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, together with scientists from research centers in America, China, Russia and other countries, announced that they sequenced the complete genome of a 130,000 year old Neanderthal woman from a single toe found in a Siberian cave in the Altai Mountains. There DNA evidence has been unusually well preserved because of very low average temperature. Comparison of this complete Neanderthal genome with those of 25 modern humans enabled the authors to compile a list of mutations that evolved in modern humans after their ancestors branched off from Neanderthals some 600,000 years ago. "The list of modern human things is quite short," said John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin who was not involved in the study. The paper, published in the journal Nature, was entitled "The complete genome sequence of a Neanderthal from the Altai Mountains"  doi:10.1038/nature12886.

The abstract read as follows:

"We present a high-quality genome sequence of a Neanderthal woman from Siberia. We show that her parents were related at the level of half-siblings and that mating among close relatives was common among her recent ancestors. We also sequenced the genome of a Neanderthal from the Caucasus to low coverage. An analysis of the relationships and population history of available archaic genomes and 25 present-day human genomes shows that several gene flow events occurred among Neanderthals, Denisovans and early modern humans, possibly including gene flow into Denisovans from an unknown archaic group. Thus, interbreeding, albeit of low magnitude, occurred among many hominin groups in the Late Pleistocene. In addition, the high-quality Neanderthal genome allows us to establish a definitive list of substitutions that became fixed in modern humans after their separation from the ancestors of Neanderthals and Denisovans."

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Tools for Capturing Fast or Dangerous Prey Circa 104,000 BCE

A projectile point, estimated to be over 104,000 years old, uncovered in Omo Kibish, Ethipia. Photocredit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

Stone or bone projectile points, such as those found in Omo Kibish, Ethiopia, attached to spears or darts, enabled humans to exploit fast-moving prey like birds and large, dangerous prey like mammoths.

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Scientists Sequence Woolly Mammoth Genome--the First of an Extinct Animal Circa 100,000 BCE

The largest European specimen of a Wooly Mammoth.

A Steppe Mammoth skull in Sibera.

A male Asian Elephant in India.

A chart from the Mammoth Genome Project depicting gene-encoding bases on chromosomes of both a human and a mammoth. 

On November 19, 2008 scientists from the Mammoth Genome Project at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, reported the genome-wide sequence of the woolly mammoth, an extinct species of elephant that was adapted to living in the cold environment of the northern hemisphere.  The woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius, was a species of mammoth, the common name for the extinct elephant genus Mammuthus. One of the last in a line of mammoth species, it diverged from the steppe mammothM. trogontherii, about 200,000 years ago in eastern Asia. Its closest extant relative is the Asian elephant.

The genome sequence of the woolly mammoth was the first sequence of the genome of an extinct animal, and it opened up the possibility of reconstructing species from the last Ice Age.

"They sequenced four billion DNA bases using next-generation DNA-sequencing instruments and a novel approach that reads ancient DNA highly efficiently."

'Previous studies on extinct organisms have generated only small amounts of data," said Stephan C. Schuster, Penn State professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and the project's other leader. "Our dataset is 100 times more extensive than any other published dataset for an extinct species, demonstrating that ancient DNA studies can be brought up to the same level as modern genome projects' (quoted from Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News accessed 11-21-2008).

" 'By deciphering this genome we could, in theory, generate data that one day may help other researchers to bring the woolly mammoth back to life by inserting the uniquely mammoth DNA sequences into the genome of the modern-day elephant,' Stephan Schuster of Pennsylvania State University, who helped lead the research, said in a statement." (quoted from Reuters 11-19-2008, accessed 11-21-2008).

"The appearance and behaviour of this species are among the best studied of any prehistoric animal due to the discovery of frozen carcasses in Siberia and Alaska, as well as skeletons, teeth, stomach contents, dung, and depiction from life in prehistoric cave paintings. Mammoth remains had long been known in Asia before they became known to Europeans in the 17th century. The origin of these remains was long a matter of debate, and often explained as being remains oflegendary creatures. The animal was only identified as an extinct species of elephant by Georges Cuvier in 1796." (Wikipedia article on Woolly Mammoth, accessed 10-31-2013).

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The Oldest Intentional Burial Circa 100,000 BCE

Pieces of ochre excavated in Qafzeh, Israel, suggesting intentional burial. Photocredit: James Di Loreto, & Donald H. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

The oldest intentional burial site was discovered in 1933 by R. Neuville at Qafzeh, Israel.  The remains of as many as 15 individuals were found in a cave, along with 71 pieces of red ocher and ocher-stained stone tools. The ocher was found near the bones, suggesting it was used in a ritual" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/oldest-intentional-burial, accessed 05-10-2010).

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The Earliest Paint Workshop Circa 100,000 BCE

Ablone shell containing red ochre rich mixture. Image by Grethe Moell Pedersen. (Click on image to view larger.)

At Blombos Cave, 200 miles east of Cape Town, South Africa, Christopher S. Henshilwood, of the University of Bergen in Norway and the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and a team of researchers from Australia, France, Norway and South Africa discovered the earliest paint workshop in 2008. The site contained the tools and ingredients with which early modern humans most probably mixed some of the first known paint.  Accurate dating of the material, and publication of the results did not occur until October 2011. Much of the analysis and dating of the material was directed by Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France.

"These cave artisans had stones for pounding and grinding colorful dirt enriched with a kind of iron oxide to a powder, known as ocher. This was blended with the binding fat of mammal-bone marrow and a dash of charcoal. Traces of ocher were left on the tools, and samples of the reddish compound were collected in large abalone shells, where the paint was liquefied, stirred and scooped out with a bone spatula.  

"In the workshop remains, archaeologists said they were seeing the earliest example yet of how emergent Homo sapiens processed ocher, one of the species’ first pigments in wide use, its red color apparently rich in symbolic significance. The early humans may have applied the concoction to their skin for protection or simply decoration, experts suggested. Perhaps it was their way of making social and artistic statements on their bodies or their artifacts.  

"Of special importance to the scientists who made the discovery, the ocher workshop showed that early humans, whose anatomy was modern, had also begun thinking like us. In a report published online on Thursday in the journal Science, the researchers called this evidence of early conceptual abilities 'a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition.' " (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/14/science/14paint.html?hp, accessed 10-13-2011).

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Katanda Bone Harpoon Point 88,000 BCE – 78,000 BCE

The Katanda Bone Harpoon Point. Photocredit: Smithsonian Institution.

In 1988 Allison Brooks and John Yellin discovered a bone harpoon point in Katanda, Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Humans in Central Africa used some of the earliest barbed points, like this harpoon point, to spear huge prehistoric catfish weighing as much as 68 kg (150 lb)–enough to feed 80 people for two days. Later, humans used harpoons to hunt large, fast marine mammals" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/katanda-bone-harpoon-point, accessed 0510-2010)

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Evidence of Early Trade Routes? Circa 80,000 BCE

Shells of Nassarius gibbosulus, estimated to be around 82,000 years old, found in Morocco. (View Larger)

Nassarius gibbosulus shell beads were discovered in Grotte des Pigeons, Taforalt, Morocco more than 40 km (25 mi) from the Mediterranean Sea, where they originated. "By 40,000 years ago, humans were transporting decorative shells—and perhaps trading them—over areas of more than 500 km (310 mi)" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/ancient-shell-beads, accessed 05-10-2010). 

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Early Attempt to Record Information or Early Art? Circa 75,000 BCE – 73,000 BCE

Pieces of ochre rock decorated with geometric patterns found at Blombos Cave in South Africa, nearly 200 miles from Cape Town, in 2002, have been dated to the Middle Stone Age, equivalent to the European Middle Paleolithic.

"This ocher plaque has marks that may have been used to count or store information. A close-up look at the object shows that the markings are clearly organized. This systematic pattern suggests to some researchers that the markings represent information rather than decoration" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/blombos-ocher-plaque, accessed 05-10-2010).
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Tool Making by Pressure Flaking Discovered in Africa Circa 75,000 BCE

A silcrete stone tool from Blombos Cave in South Africa, finished with pressure flaking. (View Larger)

Discoveries of stone tools with fine edges made by pressure flaking at Blombos Cave in South Africa show that this highly skillful and delicate method of sharpening and retouching stone tools appears to have developed at least 75,000 years ago, more than 50,000 years earlier than previously thought.

"Pressure flaking has been considered to be an Upper Paleolithic innovation dating to ~20,000 years ago (20 ka). Replication experiments show that pressure flaking best explains the morphology of lithic artifacts recovered from the ~75-ka Middle Stone Age levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. The technique was used during the final shaping of Still Bay bifacial points made on heat-treated silcrete. Application of this innovative technique allowed for a high degree of control during the detachment of individual flakes, resulting in thinner, narrower, and sharper tips on bifacial points. This technology may have been first invented and used sporadically in Africa before its later widespread adoption" (Mourre, Villa, Henshilwood, "Early Use of Pressure Flaking on Lithic Artifacts at Blombos Cave, South Africa," Science 29 October 2010: Vol. 330. no. 6004, pp. 659 - 662 DOI: 10.1126/science.1195550)

"The technique provides a better means of controlling the sharpness, thickness and overall shape of bifacial tools like spearheads and stone knives, said Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and a study co-author. Prior to the Blombos Cave discovery, the earliest evidence of pressure flaking was from the Upper Paleolithic Solutrean culture in France and Spain roughly 20,000 years ago." 

"Pressure flaking adds to the repertoire of technological advances during the Still Bay (period) and helps define it as a time when novel ideas were rapidly introduced," wrote the authors in Science. "This flexible approach to technology may have conferred an advantage to the groups of Homo sapiens who migrated out of Africa about 60,000 years ago" (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101028141753.htm).

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At Sibudu Cave, the Oldest Known Early Bedding and Use of Medicinal Plants Circa 75,000 BCE

Sediments containing ancient mattresses at Sibudu Caves.  Photo by Lyn Wadley. (Click on image to view larger.)

In December 2011 Archaeologist Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, and team, reported the discovery at Sibudu Cave of the oldest known early bedding and use of medicinal plants:

"Middle Stone Age Bedding Construction and Settlement Patterns at Sibudu, South Africa," Science, 334, no. 6061, 9 December 2011, 1388-1391. 

The abstract of this paper published in Science is unusually accessible and informative, thus I quote verbatim:

"The Middle Stone Age (MSA) is associated with early behavioral innovations, expansions of modern humans within and out of Africa, and occasional population bottlenecks. Several innovations in the MSA are seen in an archaeological sequence in the rock shelter Sibudu (South Africa). At ~77,000 years ago, people constructed plant bedding from sedges and other monocotyledons topped with aromatic leaves containing insecticidal and larvicidal chemicals. Beginning at ~73,000 years ago, bedding was burned, presumably for site maintenance. By ~58,000 years ago, bedding construction, burning, and other forms of site use and maintenance intensified, suggesting that settlement strategies changed. Behavioral differences between ~77,000 and 58,000 years ago may coincide with population fluctuations in Africa.

First paragraph of text (footnotes removed):

"Genetic and phenotypic (skull) data indicate that after 80 thousand years ago (ka), human populations went through bottlenecks, isolations, and subsequent expansions. Concurrently, the Middle Stone Age (MSA) of South Africa witnessed a variety of emerging behavioral practices by anatomically modern humans, including use of shell beads and engraving , innovative stone technology, the creation and use of compound adhesives, heat-treatment of rock, and circumstantial evidence for snares and bows and arrows. Less emphasis has been placed on innovations in domestic organization and settlement strategies, which might also have been influenced by major demographic changes that were occurring in Africa. Here, we present geoarchaeological and archaeobotanical evidence from the South African rock shelter Sibudu for changing domestic practices in the form of construction of plant bedding starting at ~77 ka, approximately 50,000 years earlier than records elsewhere. Most evidence for bedding in the Pleistocene has been inferential, except for that from Esquilleu Cave, Spain; Strathalan B Cave, South Africa, dated 29 to 26 ka; and Ohalo II, Israel, dated to 23 ka."

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From Sibudu Cave: the Earliest Known Creation and Use of Compound Adhesives, Suggesting Complex Cognition Circa 68,000 BCE

Stone tools (segments) with adhesive from Sibudu Cave.  Segment with red ochre visible to the naked eye as well as microscopic views of red ochre and plant gum on the tool. (Click on image to view larger.)

Archaeologist Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, and team published "Implications for complex cognition from the hafting of tools with compound adhesives in the Middle Stone Age, South Africa," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) June 16, 2009 vol. 106 no. 24 9590-9594, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0900957106.

At Sibudu Cave, in a sandstone cliff in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, a site occupied, with some gaps from circa 75,000 BCE to 33,000 BCE, evidence was found of some of the earliest examples of modern human technology. The complexity of heat-treated mixed compound gluing found in this cave has been presented as evidence of continuity between early human cognition and that of modern humans.

Quoting from the beginning of Wadley's paper (footnotes removed):

"Archaeologists often use symbolic material culture as a marker of modern behavior, but few agree on definitions of either term or explore the types of mental architecture required for symbolic innovations. Here, we move away from the contentious issue of symbolism and draw on the combined expertise of cognitive and earth scientists to create a fresh way of recognizing, in the deep past, cognitive abilities that overlap with our own. People today have a capacity for novel, sustained multilevel operations; this ability may have arisen from neural connectivity in part of the prefrontal cortex. The capacity may be recognizable in some technologies, and we use compound adhesive manufacture as our example. To demonstrate complex cognition, we must show that some executive steps required for compound adhesive manufacture are not possible without mental abilities of the kind implied in the ninth subsystem of the Barnard et al. model of mental architecture. Here, abstract meanings and sophisticated organization of action sequences determine decision making. An earlier eighth subsystem would have been mentally incapable of processing 2 levels of meaning simultaneously or of generating fully abstract concepts about behavior.  

"The use of simple (1-component) adhesives is ancient; for example, birch-bark tar was found on 2 flakes from ≈200,000 years (200 ka) ago at a site in Italy. At ≈40 ka, bitumen was found on stone tools in Syria, and a similarly aged site in Kenya yielded tools with red ochre stains that imply the use of multicomponent glue. Traces of even earlier (≈70 ka) compound adhesives occur, together with microfractures consistent with hafting, on Middle Stone Age (MSA) stone tools from Sibudu Cave, South Africa (see SI Text and Table S1). Several recipes are evident: sometimes plant gum and red ochre (natural iron oxide–hematite–Fe2O3) traces occur on tool portions that were once inserted in hafts. Other tools have brown plant gums and black or white fat, but no ochre. . . . 

"Hunters' lives depend on reliable weapons. This dependency would have been a powerful incentive in the past to create trustworthy adhesives for composite weapons. Our experiments intimate that by at least 70 ka (and earlier evidence may eventually be found at sites other than Sibudu) people were competent chemists, alchemists, and pyrotechnologists. We propose that these artisans were exceedingly skilled; they understood the properties of their adhesive ingredients, and they were able to manipulate them knowingly.  

"Although we have devoted much time to discussing the mechanical and chemical effects of adding ochre to plant gum for the creation of compound adhesives, we have done so to highlight the behavioral implications of this technology. We shall never know for sure whether the process of creating compound adhesive from disparate ingredients was regarded as symbolic in the past. However, our familiarity with compound adhesive manufacture from natural ingredients helps us make interpretations about the type of cognition that the early artisans must have had. Some birds and wasps also create compound adhesives, but they do so instinctively with simply coded operational sequences, “cognigrams,” in which the distance between problem and solution is far smaller than that demonstrated by the human action of making a composite hunting weapon. One obvious difference in human manufacture of compound glue is the use of pyrotechnology. Temperature control depends on understanding wood types, their moisture contents, and their propensity to form long-lasting coals. Vigilance is essential because our adhesives burned, or boiled to form air bubbles, when they were too close to the fire. Overdehydration caused loss of cohesiveness, whereas boiling adhesive created weakness.  

"The glue maker needs to pay careful attention to the condition of ingredients before and during the procedure and must be able to switch attention between aspects of the methodology. To hold many courses of action in the mind involves multitasking, which is one trait of modern human minds, notwithstanding that even today, some people find multilevel operations difficult. On-the-spot compensations have to be made for the capricious character of natural ingredients. Viscosity of Acacia gums varies, demanding different quantities of loading agent. Powdered ochres are also inconsistent: even when they are visually similar because of red staining by minute quantities of hematite, which has pervasive pigmenting capacity, they can be dissimilar with respect to Fe and Si percentages, particle size, pH, and ZP. Thus, ongoing evaluation and control of texture, viscosity, plasticity, and temperature is required; no set recipe or routine can guarantee a satisfactory adhesive product.  

"Mental flexibility is not the only complex attribute implied by our experiments. Artisans living in the MSA must have been able to think in abstract terms about properties of plant gums and natural iron products, even though they lacked empirical means for gauging them. Qualities of gum, such as wet, sticky, and viscous, were mentally abstracted, and these meanings counterpoised against ochre properties, such as dry, loose, and dehydrating. Simultaneously, the artisan had to think about the correct position for placing stone inserts on the hafts. Successful mental rotation requires advanced working memory capacity  and, in turn, complex cognition. Capacity for multilevel operations, abstract thought, and mental rotation are all required for the process of compound adhesive manufacture. Although fully modern behavior is presently recognizable relatively late in the MSA, the circumstantial evidence provided here implies that people who made compound adhesives in the MSA shared at least some advanced behaviors with their modern successors."

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Computational Micro-Biomechanical Analysis of Neanderthal's Fossilized Hyoid Bone Suggests that Neanderthals Could Speak Circa 60,000 BCE

A computational micro-biomechanical analysis of a Neanderthal hyoid bone found in Kebara Cave, Israel, suggests that Neanderthals could speak. This was suspected since discovery in 1989 of a Neanderthal hyoid that looked like that of humans. A study published in December 2013 suggests that not only did the bone resemble that of humans but it was also used in a similar way.

"Stephen Wroe, from the University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia, said: 'We would argue that this is a very significant step forward. It shows that the Kebara 2 hyoid doesn't just look like those of modern humans - it was used in a very similar way.'

"He told BBC News that it not only changed our understanding of Neanderthals, but also of ourselves.

"' Many would argue that our capacity for speech and language is among the most fundamental of characteristics that make us human. If Neanderthals also had language then they were truly human, too.' "

Ruggero D'Anastasio, Stephen Wroe et al, "Micro-Biomechanics of the Kebara 2 Hyoid and Its Implications for Speech in Neanderthals," Plos One, December 18, 2013, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.008226. The Abstract of the article:

"The description of a Neanderthal hyoid from Kebara Cave (Israel) in 1989 fuelled scientific debate on the evolution of speech and complex language. Gross anatomy of the Kebara 2 hyoid differs little from that of modern humans. However, whether Homo neanderthalensis could use speech or complex language remains controversial. Similarity in overall shape does not necessarily demonstrate that the Kebara 2 hyoid was used in the same way as that of Homo sapiens. The mechanical performance of whole bones is partly controlled by internal trabecular geometries, regulated by bone-remodelling in response to the forces applied. Here we show that the Neanderthal and modern human hyoids also present very similar internal architectures and micro-biomechanical behaviours. Our study incorporates detailed analysis of histology, meticulous reconstruction of musculature, and computational biomechanical analysis with models incorporating internal micro-geometry. Because internal architecture reflects the loadings to which a bone is routinely subjected, our findings are consistent with a capacity for speech in the Neanderthals." 

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The Earliest Sewing Needle, Made of Bone Circa 59,000 BCE

In 2008 Lucinda Backwell, Francesco d'Errico, and Lyn Wadley discovered bone implements in Middle Stone Age (MSA) deposits at Sibudu Cave, South Africa, confirming the existence of a bone tool industry for the Howiesons Poort (HP) technocomplex, circa 63,000 BCE to circa 57,000 BCE. The bone tools included two points, one of which is consistent with sewing needles, and the end of a polished spatula-shaped piece of the type used to work leather. When I wrote this entry in 2013 the sewing needle found at Sibudu Cave was the earliest known.

Backwell L, d'Errico F, Wadley L.. "Middle Stone Age bone tools from the Howiesons Poort layers, Sibudu Cave, South Africa," Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (2008)1566–1580. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2007.11.006

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Neanderthals Made the First Specialized Bone Tools in Europe Circa 49,000 BCE – 43,000 BCE

A bone tool known as a lissoir, possibly used to prepare animal skins. Image courtesy of the Abri Peyrony and Pech de l'Azé I Projects. (Click on image to view larger.)


In August 2013 archaeologist Marie Soressi from Leiden University and colleagues published a paper describing the oldest specialized bone tools found in Europe, from the Pech-de-l'Azé I excavation site in southwestern France in 2005 and a nearby site called Abri Peyrony (Haut de Combe-Capelle). Notably these tools were created by Neanderthals (Neandertals) before modern humans are thought to have arrived in Europe (circa 42,000-38,000 BCE).

"Modern humans replaced Neandertals ∼40,000 y ago. Close to the time of replacement, Neandertals show behaviors similar to those of the modern humans arriving into Europe, including the use of specialized bone tools, body ornaments, and small blades. It is highly debated whether these modern behaviors developed before or as a result of contact with modern humans. Here we report the identification of a type of specialized bone tool, lissoir, previously only associated with modern humans. The microwear preserved on one of these lissoir is consistent with the use of lissoir in modern times to obtain supple, lustrous, and more impermeable hides. These tools are from a Neandertal context proceeding the replacement period and are the oldest specialized bone tools in Europe. As such, they are either a demonstration of independent invention by Neandertals or an indication that modern humans started influencing European Neandertals much earlier than previously believed. Because these finds clearly predate the oldest known age for the use of similar objects in Europe by anatomically modern humans, they could also be evidence for cultural diffusion from Neandertals to modern humans" (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/08/08/1302730110, accessed 08-14-2013).

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Proof that Neanderthals Ate Vegetables as Well as Meat, in the Earliest Dated Human Faeces Circa 48,000 BCE

Readers of this database will have observed that entries tend to focus on "firsts" of various kinds. This entry describes a very special kind of first: the discovery of the earliest dated human faeces, and conclusions drawn from their analysis.

On June 25, 2014 Ainara Sistiaga, a PhD student at the University of La Laguna on the Canary Islands, and colleagues, reported that Neanderthal faeces collected from the remnants of a campfire dating to about 48,000 BCE at the El Salt archaeological site near Alicante on Spain's Mediterranean coast, contained traces of digested vegetables as well as meat. Prior to this find the only evidence that Neanderthals might have eaten meat was plant matter found in the dental tartar of Neanderthals—some of it cooked and some of it medicinal.

Sitiaga, Mailol, Galván, Summons, "The Neanderthal Meal: A New Perspective Using Faecal Biomarkers," PLOS | ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0101045

"Neanderthal dietary reconstructions have, to date, been based on indirect evidence and may underestimate the significance of plants as a food source. While zooarchaeological and stable isotope data have conveyed an image of Neanderthals as largely carnivorous, studies on dental calculus and scattered palaeobotanical evidence suggest some degree of contribution of plants to their diet. However, both views remain plausible and there is no categorical indication of an omnivorous diet. Here we present direct evidence of Neanderthal diet using faecal biomarkers, a valuable analytical tool for identifying dietary provenance. Our gas chromatography-mass spectrometry results from El Salt (Spain), a Middle Palaeolithic site dating to ca. 50,000 yr. BP, represents the oldest positive identification of human faecal matter. We show that Neanderthals, like anatomically modern humans, have a high rate of conversion of cholesterol to coprostanol related to the presence of required bacteria in their guts. Analysis of five sediment samples from different occupation floors suggests that Neanderthals predominantly consumed meat, as indicated by high coprostanol proportions, but also had significant plant intake, as shown by the presence of 5β-stigmastanol. This study highlights the applicability of the biomarker approach in Pleistocene contexts as a provider of direct palaeodietary information and supports the opportunity for further research into cholesterol metabolism throughout human evolution" (Abstract).

Webb, Jonathan, "Oldest human faeces show Neanderthals ate vegetables," BBC.com/news/science-environment-27981702.

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Genome of the Oldest Human Fossil Found Outside of Africa and the Near East Shows that Humans and Neanderthals Interbred 50,000-60,000 Years Ago Circa 43,000 BCE

In 2008 Nikolai V. Peristov, a fossil collector from the Siberian Cultural Center Omsk, Russia, was traveling along the Irtysh River in Siberia, searching for mammoth tusks in the muddy banks. Near a settlement called Ust'-Ishim, he noticed a thighbone in the water. Mr. Peristov fished it out and brought it to scientists at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The Russian researchers identified the bone as a modern human, not a Neanderthal. To determine its age, they sent samples to the University of Oxford. Scientists there measured the breakdown of radioactive carbon and determined the bone was about 45,000 years old — making it the oldest modern human fossil ever found outside of Africa and the Near East. The genome extracted from this fossil supports the theory that early humans interbred with Neanderthals.

The discovery, published in the journal Nature on October 22, 2014, was reported by Carl Zimmer in The New York Times also on October 22:

“ 'It’s irreplaceable evidence of what once existed that we can’t reconstruct from what people are now,' said John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin who was not involved in the study. 'It speaks to us with information about a time that’s lost to us.'

"Early on, the scientists were able only to retrieve tiny snippets of ancient genes. But gradually, they have invented better methods for joining the overlapping fragments together, assembling larger pieces of ancient genomes that have helped shed light on the evolution of humans and their relatives.

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Discovery of the Cro-Magnons, the First European Early Modern Humans Circa 41,000 BCE

Cro Magnon skull. (Click on image to view larger.)

Abri de Cro-Magnon - rock shelter of Cro Magnon. (Click on image to view larger.)

After workmen stumbled across extinct animal bones, flint tools and a human skull in a rock shelter near the French village of Les Eyzies, French geologist and prehistorian Louis Lartet was asked to conduct excavations. In March 1868 Lartet discovered the first five skeletons of early modern humans at the Abri de Cro-Magnon (rock shelter of Cro-Magnon), near the commune of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in southwestern France. He discovered the partial skeletons of four prehistoric adults and one infant along with perforated shells used as ornaments, an object made from ivory, and worked reindeer antler. These Cro-magnon humans were soon identified as a new prehistoric human race distinct from the Neanderthal fossils discovered in Germany in 1856.

Lartet, L. “Mémoire sur une sepulture des anciens troglodytes du Périgord.” Annales des sciences naturelles: Zoologie et paléontologie ser 5, 10 (1868) 133-45.

Lartet, L. “Une sépulture des troglodytes du Périgord,” Bulletins de la Société d’Anthropologie de Paris 3 (1868) 335-349.

(This entry was last revised on April 16, 2014.)

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The First Specimen to be Recognized as an Early Human Fossil Circa 40,000 BCE

Fossilized scullcap of Neanderthal 1. (Click on image to view larger.

Drawing of fossilized scullcap of Neanderthal 1. (Click on image to view larger.)

Map showing range of Neanderthals. From Science Magazine. (Click on image to view larger.)

Map showing location of Neander Valley in Germany. (Click on image to view larger.)

In August 1856, laborers in a mining operation discovered human bones in the Kleine Feldhofer Grotte in the Neandertal (Neanderthal), a small limestone valley in northern Germany. This finding, consisting of a partial skull, pelvis and assorted long bones, which later became known as Neanderthal 1, became the first specimen to be recognized as an early human fossil. The oval shaped skull with a low, receding forehead and distinct browridges, the thick, strong bones were distinctly different from modern humans.

The bones were sent to Johann Carl Fuhlrott, a science teacher in Elberfeld, who immediately recognized that the bones were a previously unknown type of human. This conclusion was borne out by Hermann Schaaffhausen, a physician and anthropologist in Bonn to whom Fuhlrott sent a cast of the cranium. Over the winter of 1856–57 Schaaffhausen examined the Neanderthal bones in detail, and in 1857 he and Fuhlrott published preliminary announcements of the discovery in the Verhandlungen. des naturhistorischen Vereines des preussischen Rheinlande und Westphalens.XIV (1857) xxxviii-xlii, l-lii.  Fuhlrott’s account appears on page l (Roman numeral pagination).

In 1864, Neanderthal 1 became the first fossil hominin species to be named. Geologist William King suggested the name Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal Man). Several years after Neanderthal 1 was discovered, scientists realized that prior fossil discoveries, by Philippe-Charles Schmerling in 1829 at Engis, Belgium, and in 1848 at Forbes Quarry, Gibraltar (Gibralter 1)—were also Neanderthals. Even though they weren’t recognized at the time, these earlier discoveries, and that of the so-called "Red Lady of Paviland" by William Buckland at Paviland Cave (Goat's Hole) South Wales in 1823, were among the first early human fossils ever found.

♦ As recently as March 1999 archaeologists Ralf Schmitz and Jurgen Thissen pinpointed the site where Neanderthal 1 was discovered in 1856, and dug up missing parts of the original skeleton that had been passed over in the original excavation. They found 20 bone fragments— a molar, a vertebra, ribs, a toe, and a bit of pelvis; one of the fragments exactly fit the left knee joint of the specimen found in 1856. Continuation of the excavation in 2000 recovered thousands of artefacts. Mitochondrial DNA of two samples fresh from the ground were fully sequenced, and completed in 2009, finally allowing an objective biological means of comparison between Neanderthals and modern humans.


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The Denisova Hominin, a Third Kind of Human Circa 39,000 BCE

Molar found in Denisova Cave of the Altay Mountains in Southern Siberia. (Click on image to view larger.)

The Family Tree - Neanderthals and Denisovans were closely related. DNA comparisons suggest that our ancestors diverged from theirs some 500,000 years ago. (Click on image to view larger.)


 A Tale of Three Humans

A third kind of human, called Denisovans, seems to have coexisted in Asia with Neanderthals and early modern humans. The latter two are known from abundant fossils and artifacts. Denisovans are defined so far only by the DNA from one bone chip and two teeth—but it reveals a new twist to the human story.

Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.

On March 24, 2010 scientists announced the discovery of a finger bone fragment of an eight year old girl who lived about 41,000 years ago, found in the remote Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, a cave which was also inhabited by Neanderthals and modern humans. Discovery of two teeth and a toe bone belonging to different members of the same population were later reported.These three objects are the only specimens from which the Denisova hominins are known. The average annual temperature of Denisova Cave remains at 0°C (32°F), a factor which contributed to the preservation of archaic DNA among the diverse prehistoric remains discovered, in addition to the Denisova hominin remains. 

Using a new technique for sequencing ancient DNA from bone, in August 2012 scientists from the Max Planck Institute reconstructed the genome of the Denisova hominins and announced that they were a new species, that they interbred with our species, and that the DNA results suggest that they had dark hari, eyes, and skin.  

"Analysis of the mtDNA of the finger bone showed it to be genetically distinct from the mtDNAs of Neanderthals and modern humans [Katsnelson 2010]. However, subsequent study of the genome from this specimen suggests this group shares a common origin with Neanderthals. They ranged from Siberia to Southeast Asia, and they lived among and interbred with the ancestors of some present-day modern humans, with up to 6% of the DNA of Melanesians and Australian Aboriginies deriving from Denisovans.

"It was in 2008 when Russian archaeologists discovered the finger bone fragment, and nick-named it 'X Woman'. Artifacts, including a bracelet, excavated in the cave at the same level were carbon dated to approximately 40,000 BP.

"A team of scientists led by Johannes Krause and Svante Paabo from the Max Planck Institute in Germany sequenced mtDNA from the fragment. The analysis indicated that modern humans, Neanderthals and the Denisova hominin last shared a common ancestor around 1 million years ago [Katsnelson 2004].

"The mtDNA analysis further suggested this new hominin species was the result of an early migration out of Africa, distinct from the later out-of-Africa migrations associated with Neanderthals and modern humans. Some argue it may be a relic of the earlier African exodus of Homo erectus, because of the tooth size, although this has not been proved. The conclusions of both the excavations and the sequencing are still debatable because the evidence shows that the Denisova Cave has been occupied by all three human forms" (http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/origins/denisova_hominin.php, accessed 07-07-2013).

For images and a very readable account of these discoveries see "The Case of the Missing Ancestor," nationalgeographic.com, July, 2013.


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Lyuba: The Best Preserved Mammoth Mummy Circa 39,000 BCE

In May 2007 a Nenets reindeer breeder and hunter Yuri Khudi and his sons discovered a female woolly mammoth calf (Mammuthus primigenius) in the Arctic Yamal Peninsula of Siberia, Russia, washed out from the permafrost along the Yuribey River. This specimen, later named Lyuba after Khudi's wife, was 30-35 days old at the time of death. It weighed 50kg (110 lb) and is about the size of a large dog. Preserved in the Shemanovskiy Museum and Exhibition Center in Salekhard, Russia, it is by far the best preserved mammoth mummy.

"At the time of discovery, the calf was remarkably well-preserved; her eyes and trunk were intact and some fur remained on her body. Lyuba's organs and skin are in perfect condition.The mammoth was transferred to Jikei University School of Medicine in Japan for further study, including computer tomography scans. Lyuba is believed to have suffocated by inhaling mud as she struggled while bogged down in deep mud in the bed of a river which her herd was crossing. Following death, her body may have been colonized by lactic acid-producing bacteria, which "pickled" her, preserving the mammoth in a nearly pristine state. Her skin and organs are intact, and scientists were able to identify milk from her mother in her stomach, and fecal matter in her intestine. The fecal matter may have been eaten by Lyuba to promote development of the intestinal microbial assemblage necessary for digestion of vegetation.Lyuba appears to have been healthy at the time of her death. By examining Lyuba's teeth, researchers hope to gain insight into what caused Ice Age mammals, including the mammoths, to become extinct at the end of the Pleistocene era around 10,000 years ago" (Wikipedia article on Lyuba, accessed 01-25-2014).

Fisher, D.; Tikhonov, A., Kosintsev, P., Rountrey, A., Buigues, B., van der Plicht, J., "Anatomy, death, and preservation of a woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) calf, Yamal Peninsula, northwest Siberia," Quaternary International 255 (March 2012) 94–105. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2011.05.040.

Kosintsev, P; Lapteva, E., Trofimova, S., Zanina, O., Tikhonov, A., van der Plicht, J. (March 2012). "Environmental reconstruction inferred from the intestinal contents of the Yamal baby mammoth Lyuba (Mammuthus primigenius Blumenbach, 1799)," Quaternary International 255 (March 2012) 231–238. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2011.03.027


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The Earliest Known Examples of Figurative Art Circa 38,000 BCE – 33,000 BCE

The Venus of Schelklingen.

"Despite well over 100 years of research and debate, the origins of art remain contentious. In recent years, abstract depictions have been documented at southern African sites dating to approx 75 kyr [75,000 years] before present (bp) and the earliest figurative art, which is often seen as an important proxy for advanced symbolic communication, has been documented in Europe as dating to between 30 and 40 kyr [30-40,000 years before present]. Here I report the discovery of a female mammoth-ivory figurine in the basal Aurignacian deposit at Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany during excavations in 2008. This figurine was produced at least 35,000 calendar years ago, making it one of the oldest known examples of figurative art. This discovery predates the well-known Venuses from the Gravettian culture by at least 5,000 years and radically changes our views of the context and meaning of the earliest Palaeolithic art" (Nicholas J. Conard, "A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany," Nature, 459, 248-252 (14 May 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature07995).

The small figurine has been called The Venus of Schelklingen (Venus of Hohle Fels). was found near Schelklingen, Germany.  Belonging to the early Aurignacian, at the very beginning of the Upper Paleolithic and the earliest presence of Homo sapiens (Cro-Magnon) in Europe, "the discovery of the Venus of Schelklingen pushes back the date of the oldest prehistoric sculpture, and the oldest known figurative art altogether, by several millennia, establishing that works of art were being produced throughout the Aurignacian.

"The figurine was discovered in September 2008 in a cave called Hohle Fels (Swabian German for "hollow rock") near Schelklingen, some 15 kilometres (9 mi) west of Ulm, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, by a team from the University of Tübingen led by Prof. Nicholas Conard, who reported their find in Nature.

"The figurine, made of a mammoth tusk, is a representation of the female body, putting emphasis on the vulva and the breasts, and is consequently assumed to be an amulet related to fertility. In place of the head, the figurine has a perforation so that it could be worn as a pendant. Archaeologist John J. Shea suggests it would have taken "tens if not hundreds of hours" to carve. The figurine was found in the cave hall, about 20 metres (66 ft) from the entrance, and about 3 metres (10 ft) below the current ground level. It was broken into fragments, of which six have been recovered, with the left arm and shoulder still missing" (Wikipedia article on Venus of Schelklingen, accessed 05-14-2009).

• In 2003 Nicholas Conard reported the discovery of a carved waterbird looking something like a diving cormorant, and a carved horse head from the same Hohle Fels cave. These are thought to date from 31,000 to 28,000 BCE:

N.J. Conard, "Palaeolithic ivory sculptures from southwestern Germany and the origins of figurative art," Nature 426 (2003) 830–832.

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The First Sturdy Shoes are Invented 38,000 BCE

The introduction of sturdy shoes led weaker toes.

Basing his conclusions on the small toes of humans from prehistoric periods, physical anthropologist Erik Trinkaus concluded that because humans' small toes had become smaller by this time, sturdy shoes may have become the norm. 

"He [Trinkaus] found Neanderthals and early moderns living in Middle Palaeolithic times (100,000 to 40,000 years ago) had thicker, and therefore stronger, lesser toes than those of Upper Palaeolithic people living 26,000 years ago.  

"A shoe-less lifestyle promotes stronger little toes, says Professor Trinkaus, because "when you walk barefoot, you grip the ground with your toes as a natural reflex". Because hard-soled shoes improve both grip and balance, regularly shod people develop weaker little toes.  

"To test the theory that the more delicate toes resulted from shoe use, the Washington University researcher compared the foot bones of early Native Americans, who regularly went barefoot, and contemporary Alaskan Inuits, who sported heavy sealskin boots.  

"Again, he identified chunkier toes in the population that routinely went without shoes. The research suggests shoe-wearers developed weaker toes simply because of the reduced stresses on them during their lifetime; it was not an evolutionary change" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4173838.stm, accessed 01-16-2011).

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The Oldest Known Hand Stencil & One of the Earliest Dated Figurative Depictions: Both Discovered in Maros, Sulawesi, Indonesia Circa 38,000 BCE

Cave paintings on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi were discovered  in the 1950s; however, they were thought to be no more than 12,000 years old, dating to a hunter-gatherer migration to the island. On October 8, 2014 archaeologist Maxime Aubert of Griffith University, Queensland, Australia, and colleagues from Australia and Indonesia reported that uranium-series dating of coralloid speleothems directly associated with 12 human hand stencils and two figurative animal depictions from seven cave sites in the Maros karsts of Sulawesi, proved that rock art traditions on this Indonesian island are at least comparable in age with the oldest European cave art. In addition, a painting of a babirusa (‘pig-deer’) made at least 35.4 thousand years ago is among the earliest dated figurative depictions worldwide, if not the earliest one.

Aubert et al, "Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia," Nature 514 (October 8, 2014)223-227. 

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The Oldest Cave Painting Circa 37,000 BCE

Detail of the "Panel of Hands" from the El Castillo Cave. Photo Courtesy of the University of Bristol. (Click on image to view larger.)

Section of the "Panel of Hands" from the El Castillo Cave. Photo Courtesy of the University of Bristol. (Click on image to view larger.)

In June 2012 a team led by Alistair W. G. Pike of the University of Bristol in England dated the cave painting, "The Panel of Hands," which shows the outline of hands on the walls of the Cueva de El Castillo (Cave of El Castillo) in Puenta Viesgo, Cantabria, Spain, at a minimum of 40,800 years old, making it the oldest dated cave painting,  perhaps 4000 years older than paintings in Chauvet Cave in France, which were previously thought to be the oldest cave paintings. The outlines of hands were made by blowing paint onto the wall using hands as stencils.

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Possibly the Earliest Art Created by a Neanderthal Circa 37,000 BCE

An engraving in stone discovered in 2014 deep inside Gorham’s Cave, on the southeastern face of the Rock of Gibralter, may be the first art created by a Neanderthal. A team led by zoologist, paleoanthropologist and paleontologist Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, which has been excavating the cave since the late 1980s, found that the Neanderthals who called the cave home ate fish, shellfish and birds, and perhaps survived later than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. . . .

Clive Finlayson et al, "A rock engraving made by Neatherthals in Gibralter," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111 no. 3, September 16, 2014.

ABSTRACT: "The production of purposely made painted or engraved designs on cave walls—a means of recording and transmitting symbolic codes in a durable manner—is recognized as a major cognitive step in human evolution. Considered exclusive to modern humans, this behavior has been used to argue in favor of significant cognitive differences between our direct ancestors and contemporary archaic hominins, including the Neanderthals. Here we present the first known example of an abstract pattern engraved by Neanderthals, from Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar. It consists of a deeply impressed cross-hatching carved into the bedrock of the cave that has remained covered by an undisturbed archaeological level containing Mousterian artifacts made by Neanderthals and is older than 39 cal kyr BP. Geochemical analysis of the epigenetic coating over the engravings and experimental replication show that the engraving was made before accumulation of the archaeological layers, and that most of the lines composing the design were made by repeatedly and carefully passing a pointed lithic tool into the grooves, excluding the possibility of an unintentional or utilitarian origin (e.g., food or fur processing). This discovery demonstrates the capacity of the Neanderthals for abstract thought and expression through the use of geometric forms."
 "Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, UK, says that the engravings, if made by Neanderthals, represent a very important find. “It adds permanent rock engraving to the sparse but significant evidence for Neanderthal symbolic behaviour.” Ochre pigment, shell beads and other adornments have also been used to back the idea that Neanderthals possessed the sorts of symbolic cognitive powers that underlie language and religion" (http://www.nature.com/news/neanderthals-made-some-of-europe-s-oldest-art-1.15805, accessed 12-13-2014).
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Neanderthal Genome Reveals Interbreeding with Humans Circa 36,000 BCE

Svante Pääbo

In May 2010 paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig published a draft genome sequence of DNA obtained from Neanderthal bones recovered from Vindija Cave that were around 38,000 years old. Neanderthal fossils found in this cave near the city of VaraždinCroatia, are among the best preserved in the world.

In their preliminary draft of the Neanderthal genome announced in February 2009 the scientists indicated that

"Previous mitochondrial analysis of Neanderthal DNA has uncovered no sign that Neanderthals and humans interbred sufficiently to leave a trace. A preliminary analysis across the new genome seems to confirm this conclusion, but more sequence data could overturn this conclusion" (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16587-first-draft-of-neanderthal-genome-is-unveiled.html#.UnKcfFCsim4. accessed 10-31-2013). 

However, comparison in 2010 of the full Neanderthal sequence with that of modern humans suggested that there was some interbreeding between Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.

"Bone contains DNA that survives long after an animal dies. Over time, though, strands of DNA break up, and microbes with their own DNA invade the bone. Pääbo's team found ways around both problems with 38,000 and 44,000-year-old bones recovered in Croatia: they used a DNA sequencing machine that rapidly decodes short strands and came up with ways to get rid of the microbial contamination.

"They ended up with short stretches of DNA code that computers stitched into a more complete sequence. This process isn't perfect: Pääbo's team decoded about 5.3 billion letters of Neanderthal DNA, but much of this is duplicates, because – assuming it's the same size as the human genome – the actual Neanderthal genome is only about 3 billion letters long. More than a third of the genome remains unsequenced. . . .

"Any human whose ancestral group developed outside Africa has a little Neanderthal in them – between 1 and 4 per cent of their genome, Pääbo's team estimates. In other words, humans and Neanderthals had sex and had hybrid offspring. A small amount of that genetic mingling survives in "non-Africans" today: Neanderthals didn't live in Africa, which is why sub-Saharan African populations have no trace of Neanderthal DNA" (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18869-neanderthal-genome-reveals-interbreeding-with-humans.html#.UnKfSFCsim4, accessed 10-31-2013).

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The Oldest Known Mathematical Artifact 35,000 BCE

Lembobo bone or tally stick. (Click on image to view larger.)


The Lebombo bone, the oldest known mathematical artifact, is a tally stick with 29 distinct notches that were deliberately cut into a baboon's fibula. It was discovered within the Border Cave in the Lebombo Mountains of Swaziland.

The Lebombo bone resembles the calendar sticks still used by Bushmen in Namibia.

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The Earliest Musical Instruments Circa 33,000 BCE

A flute, found in the hills west of Ulm Germany, that is believed to be 35,000 years old.

 A bone flute with five finger holes, carved from the hollow bone of a gryphon (griffon) vulture, and found in 2009 at Hohle Fels Cave in the hills west of Ulm, Germany, is the most complete of the musical instruments so far recovered from the caves in the region. A three-hole flute carved from mammoth ivory was uncovered from another cave in the area, as well as two flutes made from the wing bones of a mute swan.

"In an article published online by the journal Nature, Nicholas J. Conard of the University of Tübingen, in Germany, and colleagues wrote, 'These finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe.'

"Although radiocarbon dates earlier than 30,000 years ago can be imprecise, samples from the bones and associated material were tested independently by two laboratories, in England and Germany, using different methods. Scientists said the data agreed on ages of at least 35,000 years old.

"Dr. Conard, a professor of archaeology, said in an e-mail message from Germany that 'the new flutes must be very close to 40,000 calendar years old and certainly date to the initial settlement of the region.'

"Dr. Conard’s team said that an abundance of stone and ivory artifacts, flint-knapping debris and bones of hunted animals were found in the sediments with the flutes. Many people appeared to have lived and worked there soon after their arrival in Europe, assumed to be around 40,000 years ago and 10,000 years before the native Neanderthals were to become extinct" (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/25/science/25flute.html?scp=1&sq=nicholas%20j%20conard&st=cse).

You can listen to a melody played on a replica of a prehistoric flute at The New York Times link.

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The Earliest Known Carving of a Mammoth Circa 33,000 BCE

37mm long, 7.5 gram figurine, made from mammoth ivory is some 35,000 years old. It is one of the oldest pieces of art ever found.  Photo: Universität Tübingen. (Click on image to view larger.)

Southern entrance (on left) to the big Vogelherd Cave.  Photo:  Jochen Duckeck. (Click on image to view larger.)

Mammoth carving as found at site.  Photo: Universität Tübingen. (Click on image to view larger.)

The mammoth carving was found in 2007 in the spoil from a dig in 1931 by Riek.  Photo: Universität Tübingen. (Click on image to view larger.)

In 2007 Nicholas J. Conard of the University of Tübingen reported that his team discovered an intact carving of a woolly mammoth from the excavations collected from Vogelherd Cave, about 1 km northwest of Stetten-ob-Lontal, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. The cave was known to contain primitive artifacts since it was excavated by Tübingen archaeologist Gustav Reik in 1931. The mammoth carving, dated to roughly 33,000 BCE was found among 7,000 sacks of sedment dug out of the cave by Reik and his crew about eighty years earlier.

"The figure of the woolly mammoth is tiny, measuring just 3.7 cm long and weighing a mere 7.5 grams, and displays skilfully detailed carvings. It is unique in its slim form, pointed tail, powerful legs and dynamically arched trunk. It is decorated with six short incisions, and the soles of the pachyderm's feet show a crosshatch pattern. The miniature lion is 5.6 cm long, has a extended torso and outstretched neck. It is decorated with approximately 30 finely incised crosses on its spine.

"The geological context of the discoveries and radiocarbon dating indicate that the figurines belong to the Aurignacian culture, which refers to an area of southern France and is associated with the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe. Multiple radiocarbon dates from sediment in the Vogelherd Cave yielded ages between 30,000 and 36,000 years ago, the University of Tübingen reports. Some methods give an even older date" (http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/ice-age-art-35-000-year-old-mammoth-sculpture-found-in-germany-a-489776.html, accessed 01-22-2013).

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Probably the Earliest Extensive Collection of Paintings Circa 32,000 BCE – 30,000 BCE

Fighting rhinos and horses. Detail from one of the most important panels of Chauvet.  It contains twenty animals including rhinoceroses and horses. (Click on image to view larger.)

Detail from a panel at Chauvet showing a pride of lions hunting bioson. (Click on image to view larger.)

Much of the earliest recorded information consists of paleolithic cave paintings and Cro-Magnon mobiliary art, including bones with talley marks. The purposes of this art may never be fully understood.

Until the dating of the "Panel of Hands" in the Cueva de El Castillo in Spain in 2012 the oldest cave paintings confirmed by radiocarbon dating were in the Chauvet Cave discovered in the Ardèche region of France in December 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire. Paintings in the Chauvet Cave date as early as 30,000 BCE. In 1995 Chauvet, Deschamps and Hillaire published a splendid illustrated monograph on the cave: Grotte Chauvet à Vallon-Pont-d'Arc.  In 1996 this was translated into English as Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave. The Oldest Known Paintings in the World. Epilogue by Jean Clottes. Foreword by Paul. G. Bahn. The spectacular color images in this book showed most of the paintings, the bones found on the cave floor, and the hand prints done in red ochre.  Some of the paintings appear to show the animals in motion.

Almost immediately after the discovery of the Chauvet cave the French government sealed it with a bank vault style door, had the cave guarded, and allowed extremely limited access only by the most qualified scientists. In 2010 director Werner Herzog was able to obtain permission to film a documentary in the cave under very restricted conditions. This documentary he released in April 2011 under the title Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It was my pleasure to view this documentary in June 2011. The film also includes interviews with Nicolas Conard regarding the recent discovery of the earliest known mobiliary art in German caves. Notably, Herzog shot his documentary in 3-D, thus enabling the viewer to have a far more accurate sense of the depth of the cave, and of the shapes of the rocks on which the paintings were made, than would have been possible with conventional filming.

Because many cave paintings are deep inside caves, often in inaccessible locations, it is evident that they were painted in darkness lit by small oil lamps or torches.  It has been suggested that the paintings may not have been for public display, but might have been revealed to cognoscenti by elders of a tribal community. 

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Making Materials from Flax Fibers Circa 32,000 BCE – 28,000 BCE

Wild flax fibers discovered in Dzudzuana Cave. (View Larger)

Eliso Kvavadze, Ofer Bar-Yosef and 5 co-authors published "30,000-Year-Old Wild Flax Fibers," Science 11 September 2009, 325, no. 5946, 1359; DOI: 10.1226/Science.1175404.

The abstract read:

"A unique finding of wild flax fibers from a series of Upper Paleolithic layers at Dzudzuana Cave, located in the foothills of the Caucasus, Georgia, indicates that prehistoric hunter-gatherers were making cords for hafting stone tools, weaving baskets, or sewing garments. Radiocarbon dates demonstrate that the cave was inhabited intermittently during several periods dated to 32 to 26 thousand years before the present (kyr B.P.), 23 to 19 kyr B.P., and 13 to 11 kyr B.P. Spun, dyed, and knotted flax fibers are common. Apparently, climatic fluctuations recorded in the cave’s deposits did not affect the growth of the plants because a certain level of humidity was sustained."

The flax fibers were discovered following examination of clay extracted from the cave deposits, leading the archaeologists to speculate that they were the remains of manufactured items which long since disintegrated:

"Some of the fibers were twisted, indicating they were used to make ropes or strings. Others had been dyed. Early humans used the plants in the area to color the fabric or threads made from the flax.

"The items created with these fibers increased early humans chances of survival and mobility in the harsh conditions of this hilly region. The flax fibers could have been used to sew hides together for clothing and shoes, to create the warmth necessary to endure cold weather. They might have also been used to make packs for carrying essentials, which would have increased and eased mobility, offering a great advantage to a hunter-gatherer society

" 'This was a critical invention for early humans. They might have used this fiber to create parts of clothing, ropes, or baskets—for items that were mainly used for domestic activities,' says Bar-Yosef.

" 'We know that this is wild flax that grew in the vicinity of the cave and was exploited intensively or extensively by modern humans.'

"The items created with these fibers increased early humans chances of survival and mobility in the harsh conditions of this hilly region. The flax fibers could have been used to sew hides together for clothing and shoes, to create the warmth necessary to endure cold weather. They might have also been used to make packs for carrying essentials, which would have increased and eased mobility, offering a great advantage to a hunter-gatherer society" (http://www.physorg.com/news171811682.html, accessed 09-12-2009).

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The First Genuine Human Fossil Skeleton Discovered by a Scientist Circa 31,000 BCE

Bones of the "Red Lady of Paviland", who was actually male. (Click on image to view larger.)

Entrance to Paviland Cave. (Click on image to view larger.)

In 1823 British paleontologist the Very Reverend William Buckland published Reliquiae diluvianae; or, Observations on the Organic Remains Contained in Caves, Fissures, and Diluvial Gravel, and on Other Geological Phenomena, Attesting the Action of an Universal DelugeAmong the most notable aspects of this elegant pioneering work on the exploration of so-called "bone caves," was Buckland's report with illustrations, of the discovery of a human skeleton in Paviland Cave (Goat's Hole Cave), one of the limestone caves between Port Eynon and Rhossili, on the Gower Peninsula, south Wales. The skeleton was associated with the bones of extinct animals. Though Buckland initially presumed that the skeleton was male, he later revised his presumption to female because of a bracelet found with the skeleton then thought to be made of ivory, but since recognized to have been made from the bones of a mammoth. Since the skeleton's bones were stained with ochre, the skeleton became known as the "Red Lady of Paviland." This incomplete skeleton Buckland considered “anterior to, or coeval with, the Roman invasion of this country” (p. 92). Because of the prevailing religious/scientific views of his time, Buckland did not recognize its ancient age, and could not accept the idea of human fossils. Much later, the skeleton was recognized as the first genuine human fossil skeleton discovered by a scientist. In 2013 it remained the oldest ceremonial burial of a modern human discovered in Western Europe.

“Decades before the establishment of human antiquity or evolutionary theory, it suggested questions about human origins to science. In fact, Aldhouse-Green has playfully pointed out that our Paleolithic European forebears should be called Pavilandians instead of Cro-Magnons because the Red Lady has priority of nearly forty years over the discoveries made in France” (Sommer, Bones and Ochre. The Curious Afterlife of the Red Lady of Paviland [2007] 2-3).

(This entry was last revised on 04-16-2014.)

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The Earliest Zoomorphic / Anthropomorphic Sculpture Circa 30,000 BCE

The 'Lion Man,' preserved in the Ulmer Museum in Ulm, Germany. (View a full-scale image.)

 The so-called Lionheaded Figurine, a zoomorphic /anthropomorphic sculpture 29.6 cm high, 5.6 cm wide and 5.9 cm thick. carved out of mammoth ivory, was discovered in 1939 in a cave named Stadel-Höhle im Hohlenstein in the Lonetal, Swabian Alps, Germany.

"Due to the beginning of the Second World War, it was forgotten and only rediscovered thirty years later. The first reconstruction revealed a humanoid figurine without head. During 1997 through 1998 additional pieces of the Sculpture were discovered and the head was reassembled and restored."

"The sculpture shares certain similarities with French cave wall paintings, which also show hybrid creatures. The French paintings, however, are several thousand years younger than the German sculpture.

"After this artifact was identified, a similar, but smaller, lion-headed sculpture was found, along with other animal figures, in another cave in the same region of Germany. This leads to the possibility, that the lion-figure played an important role in the mythology of humans of the early Upper Paleolithic"(Wikipedia article on Lion man, accessed 05-14-2009).

The figurine is preserved in the Ulmer Museum in Ulm, Germany, which maintains a website for the figurine

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The Advantages of Orally Transmitted Traditions Circa 30,000 BCE

Dependent as we are on written culture we should not lose sight of the advantages of orally transmitted traditions:

"Some might argue that, without writing, the same beliefs could not have prevailed over such a long period of time, but in reality, oral traditions are far more faithfully passed on than the written word. A written account can be open to multiple interpretations, distortions, and transformations, depending on the time and situation, economic imperatives, or the whims of political or religious leaders. Orally transmitted traditions, in contrast, must be rigorously and accurately passed on in order to survive in all their subtlety, and in the smallest of details. Furthermore, the written word, thought to be the surer and safer means of communication, is not only less reliable but also more permeable to outside aggression than are the more secret codes of an oral system. During the time of the Roman Empire, for instance, the fact that the Celts were still 'prehistoric'—meaning that they hadn't recorded their history, ways, and beliefs— made it much harder for the conquering Romans to devise an appropriate strategy to subjugate them" (Desdemaines-Hugon, Stepping-Stones. A Journey Through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne [2010] 75).

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The Earliest Sculpture of a Horse Circa 30,000 BCE – 29,000 BCE

The "Wild Horse" of the Vogelherd Cave is one of oldest carvings made by humans. The carving is in the Museum Schloss Hohentübingen, Tübingen, Germany. (Click on image to view larger.)

Southern entrance (on left) to the big Vogelherd Cave.  Photo: Jochen Duckeck. (Click on image to view larger.)

Discovered in the Vogelherd cave about 1 km northwest of Stetten-ob- Lontal, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, the Wild Horse from Vogelherd, carved from mammoth ivory, is the earliest sculpture of a horse.

The Vogelherd cave is understood to have been a place where humans gathered to eat animals they had hunted. The Wild Horse is part of a collection of ivory carvings that depict mammoths, bison and lions, and a snow leopard found in the cave that date from the Middle Aurignacian period.

"It is exceptionally accurately shaped, perfect in form and remarkably expressive. Due to the curved neck, it is usually thought to represent a stallion with an aggressive or imposing bearing. Only the head is completely preserved. Due to the flaking of external ivory layers, the width has been reduced and the legs have broken off. There are engraved symbols, including cross marks and angular signs, on the back of the neck, as well as on the back and the left chest. Length: 4,8 cm Height: 2,5 cm Width: 0,7 cm Site: Vogelherd, Stetten The original carving is in the Museum Schloss Hohentübingen, Tübingen, Germany" (http://www.ice-age-art.de/anfaenge_der_kunst/vogelherd/pferd.php, accessed 01-22-2013).

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The Oldest Known Ceramic Figurine 29,000 BCE – 25,000 BCE

The Venus of Dolní Věstonice. (View Larger)

The Venus of Dolní Věstonice (Czech: Věstonická Venuše), a ceramic Venus figurine, found at a Paleolithic site in the Moravian basin south of Brno,  is, together with a few others from nearby locations,  the oldest known ceramic in the world, predating the use of fired clay to make pottery. It is 111 millimeters (4.4 inches) tall, and 43 millimeters (1.7 inches) at its widest point, and is made of a clay body fired at a relatively low temperature.

"The palaeolithic settlement of Dolní Věstonice in Moravia, then Czechoslovakia, now Czech Republic has been under systematic archaeological research since 1924, initiated by Karel Absolon. In addition to the Venus figurine, figures of animals - bear, lion, mammoth, horse, fox, rhino and owl - and more than 2,000 balls of burnt clay have been found at Dolní Věstonice.

"The figurine was discovered on July 13, 1925 in a layer of ash, broken into two pieces. Once on display at the Moravian Museum in Brno, it is now protected and only rarely accessible to the public. Last time it was exhibited in the National Museum in Prague from 2006-10-11 till 2007-09-02 as a part of the exhibition Lovci mamutů (The Mammoth Hunters).  Scientists periodically examine the statuette. A tomograph scan in 2004 found a fingerprint of a child estimated at between 7 and 15 years of age, fired into the surface; the child who handled the figurine before it was fired is considered by Králík, Novotný and Oliva (2002) to be an unlikely candidate for its maker" (Wikipedia article on Venus of Dolní Vestonice, accessed 05-14-2009).

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Some of the Earliest Tools for Sewing Garments Circa 28,000 BCE – 21,000 BCE

Photocredit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

Bone and ivory needles found in  Xiaogushan, Liaoning Province, China, were used to sew warm, closely fitted garments.

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The Ishango Bone, Possibly One of the Oldest Calendars 25,000 BCE – 20,000 BCE

The Ishango Bone, a notched talley stick discovered at Ishango in the Congo (Zaire) in 1960 by Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt, and now preserved in the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, is one of the oldest known objects that may contain logical or mathematical carvings. It may be simply a talley stick.

Alexander Marschak, an independent scholar, argued that it represents a six-month lunar calendar. In 1970 Marshack published his innovative Notation dans les gravures du Paléolithique Supérieur. He argued that talley marks on certain bones represented a system of proto-writing, and proposed the controversial theory that notches and lines carved on certain Upper Paleolithic bone plaques were notation systems, specifically lunar calendars notating the passage of time. Using microscopic analysis, Marshack showed that seemingly random or meaningless notches on bone were sometimes interpretable as structured series of numbers. Marshack expanded upon these ideas in his book, The Roots of Civilization (1972). If Marshack's interpretation is correct, notched bones such as these may be, in the words of John Eccles, the earliest "conceptual performance of homo sapiens." Alternatively they may be a yet to be understood method of recording information, or something else.

Other supposed "lunar calendars" from about the same date have been discovered on ojbects such as the Isturitz Baton, the Blanchard bone, and possibly in cave paintings in Lascaux and elsewhere.

Eccles, Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self (1989) reproducing the Blanchard bone on the cover; discussion on 135-36.

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The Earliest Representation of Spun Thread Circa 25,000 BCE

A modern replica of the Venus of Lespugue. (View Larger)

The Venus of Lespugue, an ivory Venus figurine discovered by René de Saint-Périer in 1922 in the Rideaux cave of Lespuge (Lespugne) in the Haute-Garonne, is approximately 6 inches (150 mm) tall. It is preserved at the Musée de l'Homme, Paris.

"Of all the steatopygous Venus figurines discovered from the upper Paleolithic, the Venus of Lespugue, if the reconstruction is sound, appears to display the most exaggerated female secondary sexual characteristics, especially the extremely large, pendulous breasts.

"According to textile expert Elizabeth Wayland Barber, the statue displays the earliest representation found of spun thread, as the carving shows a skirt hanging from below the hips, made of twisted fibers, frayed at the end" (Wikipedia article on Venus of Lespugue, accessed 06-04-2014). 

Pétillon, Historique des fouilles de R. de Saint-Périer dans les sites paléolithiques des gorges de la Save (Lespugue, Haute-Garonne). Préhistoire du Sud-Ouest, 20 (2012) no. 2, 213-219.

Barber, Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (1994) 44.

(This entry was last revised on 06-04-2014.)


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The Venus of Willendorf Circa 24,000 BCE – 22,000 BCE

The Venus of Willendorf. (View Larger)

The Venus of Willendorf, an 11.1 cm (4 3/8 inches) high statuette of a female figure, was discovered in 1908 by archaeologist Josef Szombathy at a paleolithic site near Willendorf, a village in Lower Austria near the city of Krems. It is preserved in the Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna.

For a long time this sculpture, carved from an oolitic limestone not local to its area, and tinted with red ochre, was thought to be the earliest sculpture of a human.

Since the figure's discovery and naming, several similar statuettes and other forms of art have been discovered, including earlier examples. They are collectively referred to as Venus figurines, although they pre-date the mythological figure of Venus by thousands of years. The purposes of these carvings have been subject to much speculation.

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The Earliest Portrait 24,000 BCE

The oldest known portrait of a woman, sculpted from mammoth ivory during the last ice age around 26,000 years ago.  Photograph: Graeme Robertson for The Guardian. (Click on image to view larger.)

Smaller than a human thumb, an image of a woman's head delicately carved in mammoth ivory about 24,000 BCE is considered the earliest portrait of an individual. The portrait, found found in the Czech Republic at Dolní Věstonice, Moravia, shows a woman with her hair drawn up on the top of her head, with a fringe across her brow. Or possibly the woman is wearing a fur hat. Though earlier images of people survive, this is viewed as the first actual portrait of an individual because of the distinctiveness of the features depicted. When the portrait was exhibited at the British Museum in 2013 the curator Jill Cook said,

"The reason we say it is a portrait is because she has absolutely individual characteristics. She has one beautifully engraved eye; on the other, the lid comes over and there's just a slit. Perhaps she had a stroke, or a palsy, or was injured in some way. In any case, she had a dodgy eye. And she has a little dimple in her chin: this is an image of a real, living woman" (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/jan/24/ice-age-art-british-museum, accessed 09-02-2013).

The portrait is preserved in the Anthropos Institute at the Moravian Museum.

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One of the Earliest Known Realistic Representations of a Human Face Circa 23,000 BCE

The Venus of Brassempouy. (View Larger)

The Venus of Brassempouy or La Dame de Brassempouy,  a fragmentary ivory figurine from the Upper Palaeolithic, Gravettian industry, discovered in the Grotte du Pape at Brassempouy, France in 1892, by Édouard Piette, is one of the earliest known realistic representations of a human face. 

"She is 3.65 cm high, 2.2 cm deep and 1.9 cm wide. Her face is triangular and seems tranquil. While forehead, nose and brows are carved in relief, the mouth is absent. A vertical crack on the right side of the face is linked to the internal structure of the ivory. On the head is a checkerboard-like pattern formed by two series of shallow incisions at right angles to each other; it has been interpreted as a wig, a hood, or simply a representation of hair.

"Even though the head was discovered so early in the development of modern archaeology that its context could not be studied with all the attention it would have deserved, there is no doubt that the Venus of Brassempouy belonged to an Upper Palaeolithic material culture, the Gravettian (29,000–22,000 BP), more precisely the Middle Gravettian, with "Noailles" burins circa 26,000 to 24,000 BP.

"She is more or less contemporary with the other Palaeolithic Venus figurines, such as those of Lespugue, Dolní Věstonice, Willendorf, etc. Nonetheless, she is distinguished among the group by the realistic character of the representation" (Wikipedia article on Venus of Brassempouy, accessed 05-14-2009).

The Venus of Brassempouy is preserved in the Musée d'Archéologie nationale, Saint-Germain-En-Laye.

Randall White, "The women of Brassempouy: A century of research and interpretation," Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 13.4, December 2006:251ff.

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Perhaps the Oldest Surviving Architecture Circa 23,000 BCE – 12,000 BCE

Artist rendition of dwelling in Mezhirich, Poland, made of mammoth bones.  Source: Dolní Věstonice Museum. (Click on image to view larger.)

Inside protective structure in Mezhirich, Poland showing remnants of one of the huts made of mammoth bones. Source: Teesla. (Click on image to view larger.)



Huts built from mammoth bones found along the Dniepr river valley of Ukraine, at locations near Chernihiv, in Moravia, Czech Republic, and in southern Poland, that date between 23,000 BCE and 12,000 BCE, may be the earliest structures built by prehistoric man, and thus the earliest examples of architecture. Some of the most notable of these mammoth bone huts were found in Mezhyrich (Межиріч, Mezhirich), a village in central Ukraine located in the Kaniv Raion (district) of the Cherkasy Oblast, approximately 22 km from the region's administrative center, Kaniv, near the point where the Rosava River flows into the Ros'. Since 1966 at least four collapsed mammoth bone structures have been discovered in Mezhirich.

"They are composed of several hundred bones and tusks arranged in a rough circle, between 6 and 10 m (20 and 33 ft) in diameter. A hearth typically lies near the centre of the former dwelling, and stone tools and other debris are scattered within and outside the structure. Large pits filled with stone tools, bone fragements and ash have beenf ound near the houses.

"Considerable effort must have been required to assemble these structures. Even in a dry state, large mammoth bones weigh hundreds of pounds. It has been suggested that the bones and tusks were recovered from hunting episodes in which entire herds of adult mammoth and their young were slaughtered. A more likely explanation is that they were gathered from natural accumulations of bones perhaps at the mouths of streams and gullies near the sites. The primary purpose of the mammoth-bone dwellings which were presumably covered with animal skins, was probably shelter from extreme cold and high winds. Some archaeologists, impressed with the size and appearance of the structures, have argued that they also possess religious or social significance. The have been described as the earliest examples of 'monumental architecture' as as evidence of increased social complexity and status differentiation during the final phase of the Ice Age" (Paul G. Bahn (ed) 100 Great Archaeological Discoveries [1995] 54-55).

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The Oldest Fish Hooks and Evidence of Paleolithic Offshore Fishing Circa 21,000 BCE – 16,000 BCE

Fish hooks made of shell found in the Jerimalai Cave in East Timor. (Click on image to view larger.)

Excavation site in Jerimalai Cave in East Timor. (Click on image to view larger.)

Jerimalai Cave in East Timor contains the oldest evidence of occupation by modern humans on the islands that were the stepping stones from South-East Asia to Australia. In 2011 Sue O'Connor and colleagues from the Australian National University in Canberra found two broken fish hooks made from shells at Jerimalai cave. The hooks, which dated between 21,000 and 16,000 BCE are the earliest fish hooks known.

"The team also found more than 38,000 fish bones at the site, dating the oldest back to 42,000 years ago. Some were from inshore species, but almost half were from 'pelagic species' — fish that dwell in the open ocean, providing the oldest known evidence of humans fishing far from shore. The most commonly found pelagic species at the site were Tuna, but there was also evidence of humans eating sharks and rays, among others.

“ 'That these types of fish were being routinely caught 40,000 years ago is extraordinary,' says O'Connor. 'It requires complex technology and shows that early modern humans in island South East Asia had amazingly advanced maritime skills.' "

"Far older fish bones have been found at sites in southern Africa – those at the Blombos Cave in South Africa, for example, date from 140,000–50,000 years ago – but they have generally been from inshore species whose capture would require less complex technology2. A small number of tuna vertebrae have been found, but these can be attributed to scavenging of fish washed up on beaches, says Richard Klein, an archaeologist at Stanford University in California, who has worked extensively in the region. The oldest known fishing tackle from the vicinity dates from around 12,000 years ago, but it includes only bone gorges (straight hooks) and net sinkers, probably used exclusively inshore, he adds" (http://www.nature.com/news/archaeologists-land-world-s-oldest-fish-hook-1.9461#b1, accessed 01-18-2013).

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Discoveries in Brazil Could Predate the Arrival of the Clovis People in the Americas Circa 20,000 BCE

On March 27, 2014 Simon Romero, Brazil bureau chief of The New York Times, reported that researchers in Brazil unearthed stone tools which they believed offered proof that humans reached what is now northeast Brazil as early as 22,000 years ago (circa 20,000 BCE). These finds, excavated in the Serra da Capivara National Park (Parque Nacional Serra da Capivara), and reported in the March 4 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science by Christelle Lahaye of the University of Brodeaux 3 and Eric Boëda of the University of Paris X, challenged the longstanding view that the Clovis people were the first settlers of the Americas.

"Among other South American locations proposed as human settlements well before North America’s Clovis culture, the most controversial is Brazil’s Pedra Furada rock-shelter. There, archaeologists unearthed burned wood and sharp-edged stones and dated them to more than 50,000 years ago. Pedra Furada’s excavators regard the finds as evidence of ancient human hearths and stone tools. Critics, and especially many Clovis investigators, say the Brazilian discoveries could have resulted from natural fires and rock slides.

"The new discovery came at Toca da Tira Peia rock-shelter, which is in the same national park as Pedra Furada. It also has drawn skeptics. The site’s location at the base of a steep cliff raises the possibility that crude, sharp-edged stones resulted from falling rocks, not human handiwork, says archaeologist Gary Haynes of the University of Nevada, Reno. Another possibility is that capuchins or other monkeys produced the tools, says archaeologist Stuart Fiedel of Louis Berger Group, an environmental consulting firm in Richmond, Va.

"The age of Toca da Tira Peia artifacts has also drawn debate. Dating the artifacts hinges on calculations of how long ago objects were buried by soil. Various environmental conditions, including fluctuations in soil moisture, could have distorted these age estimates. . . ." (https://www.sciencenews.org/article/disputed-finds-put-humans-south-america-22000-years-ago, accessed 03-29-2014).

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Cylcons Circa 18,000 BCE

"There are no certain ways to date individual cylcons. The oldest cylcon/message stone found in a dateable archaeological context is about 20,000 years old. The simple line motifs of the oldest cylcons represent the earliest art of the Aborigines, from a very early period of occupation. In Australian nomenclature this is the colonizing period, or early Stone Age, ca. 50,000/40,000-3,000 BC. With the earliest rock-carvings and paintings, the cylcons represent the oldest form of communication and art; and they represent the oldest religion still observed. Only 2 Aborigines have been able to communicate their name of the cylcons: Yurda, and Wommagnaragnara (Heart of the snake), respectively. Other uses as tallies are possible, such as counting of dead people, warriors, emus, measures of nardo seeds, or mapping purposes counting day-marches in various directions. Later the use could also change to other magic rituals, some involving the chipping off smaller flakes, and the practical use for pounding and crushing. Much more research is needed before the cylcons' real age and significance can be properly understood and appreciated.

"The term cylcon is derived from the title of R. Ethridge's publication: The Cylindro-conical and Stone Implements of Western New South Wales and their significance. Ethnological Series No. 2, Memoirs of the Geological Survey of New South Wales, 1916:1-41" (http://www.schoyencollection.org/religionsLiving.html, accessed 03-06-2009)

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The Oldest Known Pottery Circa 18,000 BCE

Two of the 20,000 year-old pottery fragments found in the Xianrendong Cave in China.  Photo by AFP/Science/AAAS. (Click on image to view larger.)

Fragments of pottery 20,000 years old found in Xianrendong Cave in Jiangxi Province, southern China, in 2012 are the oldest known pottery. Archaeological studies of the cave indicate that it was inhabited by mobile foragers who hunted and gathered during the Last Glacial Maximum. The vessels, which may have been concave, were probably used for cooking food. The site in which the pottery fragments were found is one of the earliest kitchens.

Xiaohong Wu, Chi Zhang, Paul Goldberg, David Cohen, Yan Pan, Trina Arpin, Ofer Bar-Yosef, "Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China," Science 29, June 2012, 1696-1700.  

Images of the pottery were published in The New York Times on June 28, 2012.

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The Earliest Surviving Pottery From Japan Circa 16,000 BCE

Photocredit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

Early humans may have made bags from skin long ago. By around 24,000 BCE they were weaving plant fibers to make cords and perhaps baskets. Some of the oldest known pottery, from Japan’s Jomon culture, Lake Anenuma, Honshu, Japan, are about 18,000 years old.

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The "Sistine Chapel" of the Upper Paleolithic Circa 15,300 BCE

Painting of a dun horse from Lascaux Cave. (Click on image to view larger.)

On September 12, 1940 four teenagers, Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas—together with Marcel's dog Robot, discovered the Lascaux cave complex near the village of Montignac in Dordogne, France. A few days later the boys told M. Laval, a retired schoolmaster, and Maurice Thaon, a young acquaintance of Abbé Henri Breuil, of their discovery. Thaon made a few preliminary sketches of the cave art and brought them to Breuil, the leading authority on paleolithic or cave art.

Breuil arrived at Lascaux on September 21 and spent three days exploring the caves. In "La grotte de Lascaux. Rapport", published in the Bulletin de la Société historique et archéologique du Périgord later in 1940 Breuil announced the discovery and provided the first description of the Lascaux cave paintings. Illuatrations in the brief seven-page paper included reproductions of some of Thaon’s sketches.

Probably because of war publication of the dramatic discoveries at Lascaux proceeded slowly. Breuil published the first photographically illustrated description of the Lascaux cave paintings in a paper entitled "La cueva de Lascaux" in the Spanish journal Atlantis: Actas y memorias de la Sociedad española de antropologia, etnografia y prehistoria 16 (1941) 349-355, plates XXVI-XXXIX. The article reproduced thirteen photographs of the paintings in black and white.

Lascaux Cave Paintings - Virtual Tour from Vimeo Videos on Vimeo.

"The cave contains nearly 2,000 figures, which can be grouped into three main categories: animals, human figures and abstract signs. The paintings contain no images of the surrounding landscape or the vegetation of the time. Most of the major images have been painted onto the walls using mineral pigments, although some designs have also been incised into the stone. Many images are too faint to discern, and others have deteriorated entirely.

"Over 900 can be identified as animals, and 605 of these have been precisely identified. Out of these images, there are 364 paintings of equines as well as 90 paintings of stags. Also represented are cattle and bison, each representing 4 to 5% of the images. A smattering of other images include seven felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human. There are no images of reindeer, even though that was the principal source of food for the artists. Geometric images have also been found on the walls.

"The most famous section of the cave is The Great Hall of the Bulls where bulls, equines, and stags are depicted. The four black bulls, or aurochs, are the dominant figures among the 36 animals represented here. One of the bulls is 17 feet (5.2 m) long, the largest animal discovered so far in cave art. Additionally, the bulls appear to be in motion. A painting referred to as "The Crossed Bison", found in the chamber called the Nave, is often submitted as an example of the skill of the Paleolithic cave painters. The crossed hind legs create the illusion that one bison is closer to us than the other. This visual depth in the scene demonstrates a primitive form of perspective which was particularly advanced for the time" (Wikipedia article on Lascaux, accessed 08-21-2013).

Remarkably, near the village of Eyzies-de-Tayac Sireuil there are 37 decorated caves and shelters, as well as an even greater number of habitation sites from the Upper Paleolithic, located in the open, in a rock shelter, or at the entrance to one of the karst cavities. This is the highest concentration in western Europe. Lascaux is located some distance from the major concentrations of decorated caves and inhabited sites, most of which were discovered further downstream.

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The Venus Impudique: the First Discovery of a Venus Figurine Circa 14,000 BCE

In 1864 the Marquis Paul de Vibraye discovered the Venus impudique or Immodest Venus at Laugerie Basse, France. This was the first discovery of a Venus figurine in France, and probably the first anywhere. Eight centimeters in height, the figurine was carved from ivory, with a flat stomach and could be the figure of a young girl. The head of the figurine was lost.

Discovery of the Venus impudique was among the earliest discoveries of paleolithic mobiliary art and coincided with the first publication on the subject by Edouard Lartet and Henry Christie, also in 1864.

In naming the figurine, the Marquis playfully reversed the appellation Venus pudica ("modest Venus") used to describe a statue type of the Classical Venus which often shows the goddess attempting to conceal her breasts and pubic area from view. The inference the Marquis made was that this prehistoric Venus makes no attempt to hide her sexuality. When viewed in profile, the statuette is comparable to certain cave drawings.

The figurine is preserved in the Musée de l'homme, Paris

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Hunter-Gathers Were Living At Buttermilk Creek, Texas, as Early as 15,000 Years Ago Circa 13,500 BCE – 11,200

On March 25, 2011 archaeologist Michael R. Waters, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, and colleagues reported that excavations at the Buttermilk Creek Complex at the Debra L. Friedkin Paleo-Indian archaeological site in present day Salado, Texas, about 40 miles northwest of Austin, showed that hunter-gatherers were living at the Buttermilk Creek site and making projectile points, blades, choppers and other tools from local chert for a long time, possibly as early as 15,500 years ago (13,500 BCE) More than 50 well-formed artifacts as well as hundreds of flakes and fragments of chipping debris were embedded in thick clay sediments immediately beneath typical Clovis material. These discoveries predated the arrival of the Clovis people which were thought to have arrived from Asia circa 13,000 years ago (11,000 BCE). 

Waters, Michael R. et al, "The Buttermilk Creek Complex and the Origins of Clovis at the Debra L. Friedkin Site, Texas," Science 331, no. 6024 (March 25, 2011) 1599-1603.

"Compelling archaeological evidence of an occupation older than Clovis (~12.8 to 13.1 thousand years ago) in North America is present at only a few sites, and the stone tool assemblages from these sites are small and varied. The Debra L. Friedkin site, Texas, contains an assemblage of 15,528 artifacts that define the Buttermilk Creek Complex, which stratigraphically underlies a Clovis assemblage and dates between ~13.2 and 15.5 thousand years ago. The Buttermilk Creek Complex confirms the emerging view that people occupied the Americas before Clovis and provides a large artifact assemblage to explore Clovis origins" (Abstract).

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The Lourdes Horse Circa 13,000 BCE

Between 1886 and 1889 the scholar Léon Nelli discovered the Le cheval de Lourdes (Lourdes Horse statuette) in the Grotte des Espélugues (Lourdes, Hautes-Pyrénées). It is 7.3 cm long. The carving was done in exceptionally fine detail, and it was long assumed that like other carvings of this time, the carving was made from Mammoth bone.

In November 2013, Jean-Marc Pétillon, researcher at CNRS, University of Toulouse-Le Mirail, announced in  the "Journal of human evolution" that the little horse from Lourdes was actually carved from whale bone. The presumption is that the bone came from a carcass found on the coast or from barter with coastal people.

Though Léon Nelli intended to publish his discovery of the horse and other art objects found in the Grottes des Espéluges, he left an unpublished treatise on these objects on his death in 1934.  His son, René Nelli, first published his father's manuscript as Chef-d'Oeuvre de la Grotte des Espélugues (Lourdes Htes-Pyr.). Fouilles de Léon Nelli, 1889. This was issued in Toulouse by the Institut d'Etudes Occitanes in 1948 in an edition limited to 100 copies.

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North America's Earliest Rock Art Circa 12,800 BCE – 8,500 BCE

Winnemucca Lake petroglyphs. (Click on image to view larger.)

In August 2013 researcher Larry Benson of the University of Colorado at Boulder published reports of radiocarbon tests of petroglyphs on the west side of Nevada's dried-up Winnemucca Lake that indicating that the petroglyphs are between 14,800 and 10,500 years old, making them the earliest rock art known in North America.  The petroglyphs consist of large, deeply carved grooves and dots forming complex designs on several large limestone boulders. The designs include a series of vertical, chain-like symbols and a number of smaller pits deeply incised with a type of hard rock scraper.

Benson LV et al. 2013, "Dating North America’s oldest petroglyphs, Winnemucca Lake subbasin, Nevada," Journal of Archaeological Science 40, no. 12, pp. 4466–4476; doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.06.022

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"The Sorcerer" Circa 12,000 BCE

'The Sorcerer' is one name for this cryptic painting found in the Trois Frères in France by Henri Breuil. Photocredit: Encyclopaedia Britannica(View Larger)

The Sorcerer, an enigmatic therianthrope cave drawing, is thought to have been created about 12000 BCE. It was discovered in the cavern known as "The Sanctuary" in the Trois-Frères cave in Montesquieu-Avantès, Ariège, France. The cave was discovered by the three sons of comte Henri Bégouën in 1912-1914. Exploration of the cave was interrupted by World War I, resuming in 1918. Count Bégouën and Henri Breuil published the image of "The Sorcerer" for the first time in 1920: H. Bégouën and H. Breuil, "Un dessin relevé dans la grotte des Trois Frères à Montesquieu-Avantès (Ariège)," C. r. Ac. Inscr. (1920) p. 45, 303.

The image, which Breuil made famous, has been variously interpreted as some kind of great spirit or master of animals, or a shaman performing a ritual to ensure good hunting. Whatever its original meaning to prehistoric people, it is generally agreed that this was a cult object of great significance to the people who used the cave.

The cave contained so many images, many of them intricately intertwined, that their study took decades. In Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art, Transl. Mary E. Boyle (1952) Breuil indicated that Max Bégouën first saw and photographed the image. Breuil wrote:

"First of all, the 'God' first called the 'Sorcerer' by Count Bégouën and I, the only figure painted in black of all those engravings in the Sanctuary, four metres above the floor in an apparently inaccessible position, only to be reached by a secret corridor climbing upwards in a spiral. Evidently, he presides over all the animals, collected there in incredible numbers and often in a terribly tangled mass. He is 75 cms high and 50 cms wide, he is entirely engraved but the painting is unequally distributed; on the head there are only a few traces, on the eyes, nose, forehead and the right ear. This head is full face with round eyes with pupils, between the eyes runs a line for the nose, ending in a little arch. The pricked ears are those of a Stag. From a blacked painted band across the forehead rise two big thick antlers with no frontal tines but with a single short tine, fairly high above the base of each branch, bending left. This figure has no mouth, but a very long beard cut in lines and falling on the chest. The fore-arms, which are raised and joined horizontally, end in two hands close together, the short fingers outstretched; they are colourless and almost invisible. A wide black band outlines the whole body, growing narrower at the lumbar region, and spread out round the legs which are bent. A spot marks the left knee-joint. The feet and big toes are rather carefully made and show a movement similar to steps in a 'Cakewalk' dance. The male sex, emphasized but not erect, pointing backwards but well developed, is inserted under the bushy tail of a Wolf or Horse, with a little tuft at the end. Such is the Magdalenian figure considered to be the most important in the cavern and the Spirit controlling the multiplication of game and hunting expeditions" (Breuil, op. cit., 176). 

It may be impossible to put ourselves in the mindset of prehistoric man without projecting our worldview. One way is to study the rituals of present stone-age peoples such as Aborigines (Indigenous Australians), who also create rock paintings. A more recent study, devoid of Breuil's religious bias, that reviews prior or alternative theories and suggests that cave images were derived from trance and magic in shamamistic ritual is the beautifully illustrated book by Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory. Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves. Text by Jean Clottes, translated from the French by Sophie Hawkes (1996).

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More than 5000 Flint Tools Are Found in Biggar, Scotland Circa 12,000 BCE

On April 9, 2014 Culture254.org.uk reported that more than 5000 flint artefacts were excavated from a field at Howburn Farm, near Biggar in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, between 2005 and 2009. These finds were previously reported in Current Archaeology on June 25, 2010. The tools, which date from approximately 12,000 BCE, represent the earliest evidence of human occupation in Scotland. They were described as “strikingly similar” to tools produced in continental Europe during the same period.

“ 'These tools represent a real connection with archaeological finds in north-west Germany, southern Denmark and north-west Holland - a connection not seen elsewhere in Britain at this time,' says Alan Saville, a Senior Curator in Earliest Prehistory at the National Museums of Scotland who is also the President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and a specialist in the study of flaked flint and stone tools.

“This discovery is both intriguing and revolutionises our ideas about where humans came from in this very early period.

“In southern Britain, early links are with northern France and Belgium. Howburn is just one chance discovery and further such discoveries will no doubt emerge.”

"The climate had improved when the game hunters arrived, but the return of glacial weather is thought to have driven humans away until around 1,000 years later. A now-destroyed cave in Argyll had previously provided the earliest evidence of humans in Scotland.

"Detailing the findings, which will be fully published in a Historic Scotland report next year, Cabinet Secretary for Culture Fiona Hyslop also announced more than £1.4 million in funding for dozens of archaeological projects across Scotland during the next year" (http://www.culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/archaeology/megaliths-and-prehistoric-archaeology/art475720, accessed 04-10-2014).

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The Oldest Map is Discovered in Abauntz Cave, Navarre, Spain Circa 12,000 BCE

In August 2009 archaeologists reported that a stone found in Abauntz Cave, Araitz, Navarre, northern Spain contains the earliest known map. Engravings on the stone, which measures less than seven inches by five inches, and is less than an inch thick, appear to depict mountains, meandering rivers and areas of good foraging and hunting. A team from the University of Zaragoza spent 15 years deciphering the etched lines and squiggles after unearthing the artefact during excavation of the cave in 1993.

" 'We can say with certainty that it is a sketch, a map of the surrounding area," said Pilar Utrilla, who led the research team.

" 'Whoever made it sought to capture in stone the flow of the watercourses, the mountains outside the cave and the animals found in the area.'

" 'The landscape depicted corresponds exactly to the surrounding geography," she said. "Complete with herds of ibex marked on one of the mountains visible from the cave itself."

'The research, which is published in the latest edition of the Journal of Human Evolution, furthers understanding of early modern human capacities of spatial awareness, planning and organised hunting.

" 'We can't be sure what was intended in the making of the tablet but it was clearly important to those who populated the cave 13,660 years ago," said Ms Utrilla. "Maybe it was to record areas rich in mushrooms, birds' eggs, or flint used for making tools.' '

The researchers believe it may also have been used as a storytelling device or to plan a hunting expedition.

"Nothing like this has been discovered elsewhere in western Europe,' she said." (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/5978900/Worlds-oldest-map-Spanish-cave-has-landscape-from-14000-years-ago.html, accessed 08-01-2015.)

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Pre-Historic Art Created by Children at the Cave of a Hundred Mammoths, Rouffignac Circa 11,000 BCE

Flutings at Rouffignac.  Both children and adults created cave art known as finger flutings in the French caverns of Rouffignac roughly 13,000 years ago. Credit: Jessica Cooney / Leslie van Gelder. (Click on image to view larger.)

In 2006 Kevin Sharpe and Leslie van Gelder published "Evidence for Cave Marking by Paleolithic Children," Antiquity  (2006)  80:310, 937-947.  In this paper they presented evidence that the numerous finger flutings in Chamber A1 of Rouffignac Cave within the French commune of Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin-de-Reilhac in the Dordogne département were made by very young children, 2-5 years old.

"A wall in Gargas Cave, France, shows a baby’s hand held by that of an adult while color is blown over them. Footprints of youngsters have been immortalized into the floors of Pech Merle, Chauvet, Tuc d’Audoubert, and Niaux caves. All these sites also contain prehistoric art. Children were present in the caves, but did they actually produce art or at least deliberately create any of the markings (the corpus of which is called ‘art’ within quotation marks, to recognize the unanswered question as to whether it should count as art)? Whatever the minor impressions of Paleolithic children in caves, this image is often forgotten in favour of the popular image from the Charles R. Knight type of picture that shows the proverbial cave man painting beautiful images of animals – with women and children only looking on. 

"Some specialists of prehistoric parietal ‘art’ believe that children did participate in its creation. Bednarik argues that juveniles were responsible for some of the finger flutings (the lines that human fingers leave when drawn over a soft surface) made in caves in southern Australia at least 30,000 years ago (Bednarik 1986a; 1986b; 1987-88; 1990). (Paleolithic flutings occur in caves through southern Australia, New Guinea, and southwestern Europe.) As will be pointed out below, however, the case Bednarik makes is more suggestive than definitive, relying on a methodology that requires further refinement with forensics.  

"This report introduces a reliable methodology with which to ascertain children’s authorship of flutings, and then provides the results of a study using this. Unlike Bednarik’s, and Sharpe and Van Gelder’s (2004) earlier publications on the subject, definitive evidence is presented that children did indeed create prehistoric ‘art,’ in particular that young children fluted in Rouffignac Cave in the Dordogne, France. This conclusion leads to further questions and insight into the activities carried on in the fluted chamber. . . .


"Young children aged 2-5 made many of the flutings in the fluted subchamber of Chamber A1 in Rouffignac Cave. This is the first demonstrated case of young children creating Paleolithic parietal ‘art.’  

"Given that this can be ascertained with a high degree of probability based on the physical evidence of the flutings, further matters present themselves for research and other informtion may be learned about the fluters. For instance, an aspect of Chamber A1 to notice is the height of the ceiling above the floor. The ceiling flutings are now in places just reachable by a man of 1.8 m. stretching up. It is unreasonable to think that young children marked unaided at such heights, yet the fluting size in some such places is small. Was the height of the ceiling above the floor at the time of fluting much the same as now? If so, or if the height were greater than now, the children would have had to have been held up to flute. In what direction did the children face when held aloft? Were the children acting as ‘paint brushes’ for those holding them up? Were the people holding up the children moving in some prescribed manner, such as in a dance? If so, could their feet and body movements be reconstructed from the flutings?  

"Why did those holding up the children to flute do this? The youngsters could have fluted where they could reach and the holders (if older people) could have marked, not only these sections, but also sections where the youngsters could not reach. Here, however, they raised the children up to flute (and in some alcoves added their own flutings). Further, the low sections of the ceilings that young children could comfortably flute by themselves usually show few or no flutings. //While the archaeologist ought not to approach flutings with strident ideas as to what they mean, the flutings’ illusive meaning should not deter an examination of them. They can offer a rich source of information about the behaviors of the fluters – flutings tell about the fingers and hands that made them and these tell about the people – and the archaeologist ought to look in depth at the flutings as physical objects. Only then can questions be posed that the lines themselves might answer or that experimentation might elucidate. Such investigations logically come before subjective-interpretative and meaning-seeking approaches to flutings and may help support or disprove the various hypotheses as to their connotation or lay a solid foundation for seeking meaning.  

"Similar methodologies are being applied to other flutings in Rouffignac and elsewhere, relating information not only about the ages of the fluters, but also about such data as the fluters’ genders and the number of individuals involved. At least three other forms of flutings besides the Mirian Form exist in Rouffignac (Sharpe and Van Gelder To Appear) and work continues on them in Rouffignac and Gargas caves, to see if it is possible to elucidate further the behaviors and individuals behind their manufacture" (http://www.ksharpe.com/word/AR86.htm, accessed 12-17-2011).

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The Swimming Reindeer Circa 11,000 BCE

Ice age carving of two reindeer swimming.  It is carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk and shows a female reindeer swimming ahead of a male reindeer. (Click in image to view larger.)

In 1866 the Swimming Reindeer was found in two pieces by a French engineer, Peccadeu de l'Isle,  at a rock sheltter at Monastruc near Bruniquel,  in the Midi-Pyrénées region of southern France. It was carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk. In the early 20th century the Abbé Henri Breuil realized that the two pieces fit together to form a single sculpture of two reindeer swimming nose to tail.

"The sculpture shows a female reindeer closely followed by a larger male reindeer. The larger male is indicated by his size, antlers and genitals, whilst the female has her teats modelled. The reindeer are thought to be swimming in illustration of the migration of deer that would have taken place each autumn. It is known that it would be autumn as both reindeer are shown with antlers, and only during autumn do both male and female reindeer have antlers. At this time of year reindeer would be much easier to hunt, and the meat, skin and antlers would be at their best. Each of the reindeer has been marked with a burin to show different colouring and texture in the deer's coat. Oddly there are ten deeper cuts on each side of the back of the leading female reindeer. These may have been intended to indicate coloured markings, but their purpose is unclear. Further studies of Ice Age artifacts gives the hypothesis that the marks may have been made to keep track of how many animals, in this case reindeer, the owner of the carving killed during the hunt. It is thought that women would gather the animals in a rushed group setting. Cleaning and preparing it could not only be hectic but lead to quarrels about who gets what and how much. It could also mean that the owner made it through their 10th season of hunting during the migration, or any other counting related tracking system" (Wikipedia article on Swimming Reindeer, accessed 01-22-2013).

The Swimming Reindeer is preserved in the British Museum.

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The Mammoth Spear Thrower Circa 10,500 BCE

Spear thrower carved as a mammoth.  Source: The British Museum. (Click on image to view larger.)

Carved from a Reindeer antler, the Mammoth Spear Thrower was discovered at the rockshelter of Monastruc, Tarn-et Garonne near Bruniquel, in the Midi-Pyrénées region of southern France about 1866. 

"Spear throwers came into use about 18,000 years ago in western Europe. They consist of a straight handle with a hook at one end. The bottom of the spear fits against the hook and the spear shaft and spear thrower handle are held together with the hook end by the shoulder. Launching the spear in this way sends it with more force and speed and across a longer distance than if it was simply thrown by hand.  

"The hook ends of spear throwers are frequently decorated with an animal. This example from Montastruc shows a mammoth. It is the only known example which has a hole for an eye (which probably held an insert of bone or stone). The hook is also unusual because it is an ancient repair. The original hook carved from the antler broke off and was mended by cutting a slot on the back and inserting a bone or antler replacement. The mammoth's tusks appear on each side of the handle, most of which was broken off in ancient times." 

The Mammoth Speer Thrower is preserved in the Christie Collection in the British Museum.

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Perhaps the Oldest Map in the World 10,000 BCE

Map-making appears to predate written language. What may be the oldest map in the world, discovered in Ukraine in 1966, may date from about 10,000 BCE. Inscribed on a mammoth tusk, the map was found in Mezhirich, Ukraine. It has been interpreted to show dwellings along a river.

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The Holocene Interglacial Period Begins Circa 10,000 BCE

The Holocene interglacial, a geological interval of warmer global average temperature that separates glacial periods within an ice age, began circa 10,000 BCE.

"Human civilization, in its most widely used definition, dates entirely within the Holocene. The word anthropocene is sometimes used to describe the time period from when humans have had a significant impact on the Earth's climate and ecosystems to the present" (Wikipedia article on Holocene, accessed 07-10-2010).

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The Earliest Surviving Human-Made Place of Worship Circa 9,500 BCE

The Göbekli Tepe, Turkist for 'Potbelly Hill,' is the oldest discovered structure for religious worship. (View Larger)

Göbekli Tepe (Turkish for "Potbelly Hill"), a hilltop sanctuary erected on the highest point of an elongated mountain ridge some 15 km northeast of the town of Şanlıurfa (formerly Urfa / Edessa) in southeastern Turkey, is the earliest surviving human-made place of worship, and the earliest surviving religious site in general. It was discovered in 1964; excavations began in 1994.

The site was erected by hunter-gatherers in the 10th millennium BCE, before the advent of the transition from nomadic to permanent year-round settlement. Together with Nevalı Çori, a site dating from the ninth or tenth millenium BCE, but which was inundated by the dammed waters of the Euphrates, Göbekli Tepe has revolutionized understanding of the Eurasian Neolithic.

"Göbekli Tepe is regarded as an archaeological discovery of the greatest importance since it profoundly changes our understanding of a crucial stage in the development of human societies. It seems that the erection of monumental complexes was within the capacities of hunter-gatherers and not only of sedentary farming communities as had been previously assumed. In other words, as excavator Klaus Schmidt puts it: 'First came the temple, then the city.' This revolutionary hypothesis will have to be supported or modified by future research" (Wikipedia article on Göbekli Tepe, accessed 05-18-2011).

Spectacular renderings and photographs of the site are in Mann, "Göbekli Tepe," National Geographic 219, no. 6, 39-59.

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Food Storage Preceded Plant Domestication in the Jordan Valley Circa 9,300 BCE – 9,175 BCE

In July 2009 archaeologists Ian Kuijt and Bill Finlayson reported that recent excavations at the PPNA (Pre-Pottery Neolithic A) site at Dhra′ near the Dead Sea in Jordan provided strong evidence for sophisticated, purpose-built granaries in a predomestication context 9300-9175 BCE. This evidence supported arguments for the storage and cultivation of wild cereals before the domestication of plants.

"Designed with suspended floors for air circulation and protection from rodents, they are located between residential structures that contain plant-processing instillations. The granaries represent a critical evolutionary shift in the relationship between people and plant foods, which precedes the emergence of domestication and large-scale sedentary communities by at least 1,000 years....

"People in the PPNA were the first in the world to develop systematic large-scale food storage. In the Early Natufian period (≈15,000/14,500–12,800 cal B.P.), people used a remarkably wide range of wild plants and animals, lived in relatively large well-made semisubterranean buildings for much of the year, and undoubtedly had a detailed knowledge of the seasonality and availability of these resources. Certainly the apparent increased degree of sedentism in the Early Natufian period suggests that people were able to reduce seasonal food risks to the point where they could live in the same areas for 1 or more seasons of the year. There is, however, surprisingly little direct evidence for food storage. The strongest is from ′Ain Mallaha, where pits are often termed silos although their specific function is unclear. There is indirect evidence in the Natufian for plant food processing, including the presence of sickles, mortars, and pestles. Although Natufian people probably engaged in some form of low-level food storage, they also situated their settlements where they were able to use high-yield food resources from multiple natural ecotones in different seasons. With the onset of the climatic downturn of the Younger Dryas, people in the Late Natufian period (≈12,800–11,500 cal B.P.) returned to more mobile economic and subsistence strategies. Late Natufian people abandoned earlier settlements, adopted new systems seasonal residential movement, and rarely built residential structures that required significant investment of energy" (Kuijt & Finlayson,"Evidence for food storage and predomestication granaries 11,000 years ago in the Jordan Valley," Proceedings National Academy of Sciences," Published online before print June 22, 2009, doi:10.1073/pnas.0812764106). 

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The Eight Founding Crops of Domesticated Agriculture Circa 9,000 BCE – 8,000 BCE

Emmer wheat, one of the first domesticated crops. (View Larger)

Between 9000 and 8000 BCE the eight so-called founder crops of domesticated agriculture were domesticated by early Holocene (Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and Pre-Pottery Neolithic B) farming communities in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East, incorporating Ancient Egypt, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. The founder crops included flax, three cereals and four pulses (legumes). Together they formed the basis of systematic agriculture in the Middle East, North Africa, India, Persia and (later) Europe. 

First emmer wheat and einkorn wheat were domesticated, then hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch (an ancient grain legume crop), chick peas and flax. These eight crops occur more or less simultaneously on Pre-Pottery Neolithic B sites in the Levant, although the consensus is that wheat was the first to be sown and harvested on a significant scale.

(This entry was last revised on 04-30-2014.)

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The Ain Sakhri Lovers Figurine Circa 9,000 BCE

Oldest known representation of two people engaged in sexual intercourse. (Click on image to view larger.)

Found in one of the Ain Sakhri caves near Bethlehem, and preserved in the British Museum, the Ain Sakri lovers figurine, carved from a calcite cobble, is the oldest known representation of two people engaged in sexual intercourse.

"The natural shape of a calcite cobble has been used to represent the outline of two figures in coitus. Their heads, arms and legs appear as raised areas around which the surface has been picked away. The figures have no faces. The arms of one hug the shoulders of the other and its knees are bent up underneath those of the slightly smaller figure.

"This figurine was found by a Bedouin and sold to the French Fathers at Bethlehem . It was then acquired by the French consul and prehistorian René Neuville who attributed it to the cave of Ain Sakhri where he excavated and found Natufian material. Although the source area of the figurine is not in doubt, its association with Ain Sakhri is unproven. This image of a couple making love is also phallic in all aspects. Although unique in showing a couple, simple phallic carvings are known from other Natufian sites. These have been associated with fertility rites but the arguments have tended to be simplistic" (The British Museum Collection online, accessed 06-02-2013). 

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Genome of Child from Clovis Culture Confirms Asian Origin of North American Native Peoples Circa 9,000 BCE – 8,700 BCE

On February 13, 2014 a team of scientists headed by Morton Rasmussen, a postdoctoral fellow in genetics at Stanford University, published the genome of a child from the Clovis culture. The remains sequenced were discovered in 1969 at the Anzick Clovis site, a human burial site dated 11,000 to 10,700 years before present, near the town of Wilsall in southwestern Montana.

The genome sequence—the first completed of a prehistoric Native American— determined that the Anzick child was a boy, and that he, and Clovis people in general, were closely related genetically to Native American groups from Central and South America, but not to later migrations of Canadian and Arctic groups. The evidence supported the theory that the Americas were colonized in several waves of populations crossing the Bering Strait from Asia, and contradicted the Solutrean hypothesis, which suggests that Clovis people derived from Upper Paleolithic European migrations into the Americas. No connection to European Upper Paleolithic genetics was identified within the Anzick child's remains. 

Rasmussen et al, "The genome of a Late Pleistocene human from a Clovis burial site in western Montana," Nature 506 (13 Feburary 2014) 225-29.

"Clovis, with its distinctive biface, blade and osseous technologies, is the oldest widespread archaeological complex defined in North America, dating from 11,100 to 10,700 C years before present (BP) (13,000 to 12,600 calendar yearsBP). Nearly 50years of archaeological research point to the Clovis complex as having developed south of the North American ice sheets from an ancestral technology. However, both the origins and the genetic legacy of the people who manufactured Clovis tools remain under debate. It is generally believed that these people ultimately derived from Asia and were directly related to contemporary Native Americans. An alternative, Solutrean, hypothesis posits that the Clovis predecessors emigrated from southwestern Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum. Here we report the genome sequence of a male infant (Anzick-1) recovered from the Anzick burial site in western Montana. The human bones date to 10,705±35C yearsBP (approximately 12,707–12,556 calendar yearsBP) and were directly associated with Clovis tools. We sequenced the genome to an average depth of 14.4×and show that the gene flow from the Siberian Upper Palaeolithic Mal’ta population into Native American ancestors is also shared by the Anzick-1 individual and thus happened before 12,600 yearsBP. We also show that the Anzick-1 individual is more closely related to all indigenous American populations than to any other group. Our data are compatible with the hypothesis that Anzick-1 belonged to a population directly ancestral to many contemporary Native Americans. Finally, we find evidence of a deep divergence in Native American populations that predates the Anzick-1 individual." (Abstract). 

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Fort Rock Sandals: The Oldest Surviving Shoes Circa 8,500 BCE – 7,200 BCE

In 1938 American field archaeologist Luther Cressman of the University of Oregon found dozens of sandals below a layer of volcanic ash while excavating at Fort Rock Cave, located in a small volcanic butte approximately half a mile west of the Fort Rock volcanic crater in central Oregon. These sandals, named for the site where they were first found, were later reported from ancient deposits in several Northern Great Basin caves. They are the oldest surviving shoes.

"Most dated Fort Rock-style sandals are from Fort Rock Cave, but directly dated sandals of this type are also known from Cougar Mountain and Catlow Caves. Directly dated Fort Rock style sandals range in age from at least 10,500 BP to 9200 BP (based on dendrocalibrated radiocarbon ages). . . . Fort Rock sandals are stylistically distinct. They are twined (pairs of weft fibers twisted around warps), and have a flat, close-twined sole, usually with five rope warps. Twining proceeded from the heel to the toe, where the warps were subdivided into finer warps and turned back toward the heel. These fine warps were then open-twined (with spaces between the weft rows) to make a toe flap. Cressman surmised that a tie rope attached to one edge of the sole wrapped around the ankle and fastened to the opposite edge" (http://pages.uoregon.edu/connolly/FRsandals.htm,  accessed 06-24-2014).

Fort Rock sandals are preserved at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene, Oregon. In June 2014 a color image of one of the earliest Fort Rock Sandals was reproduced by the National Geographic from their September 2006 issue at this link. The article stated that the sandal illustrated was worn by a native North American who lived in caves during the winter months and hunted in marshes in summer.

Cressman, Luther S. The Sandal and the Cave: The Indians of Oregon (1981).

In May 2014 Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) aired a documentary entitled Luther Cressman, Quest for the First People. I could not find a way to embed the video in this entry; however, in June 2014 it could be viewed at this link.

My thanks to Lisa Midlam for drawing my attention to the Fort Rock Sandals and for supplying most of the references that I used for this entry.

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In Mesopotamia Neolithic Tokens are Developed for "Concrete" Counting Circa 8,000 BCE

According to the theory about the origins of counting and writing developed by Denise Schmandt-Besserat, around 8000 BCE the Palaeolithic notched tallies representing the simplest form of counting — in one-to-one correspondence — were superseded by Neolithic clay tokens in various geometric forms suited for concrete counting invented in Mesopotamia. The significance of these tokens "as an operational device in Mesopotamian bureaucracy," was first grasped by archaeologist Pierre Amiet, teacher of Schand-Besserat in 1972 with respect to tokens found in Nuzi, an ancient Mesopotamian city southwest of Kirkuk in modern Al Ta'amim Governorate of Iraq, located near the Tigris river. (Schmandt-Besserat, Before Writing I [1992] ix.) 

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The Earliest Known Fermented Beverage Circa 7,000 BCE

Chemical analyses of ancient organic compounds absorbed into pottery jars from the early Neolithic village of Jiahu in Henan province in China show that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit (hawthorn fruit and/or grape) was being produced about 7000 BCE. The rice was probably prepared for fermentation by mastication or malting,

"This prehistoric drink paved the way for unique cereal beverages of the proto-historic second millennium B.C., remarkably preserved as liquids inside sealed bronze vessels of the Shang and Western Zhou Dynasties. These findings provide direct evidence for fermented beverages in ancient Chinese culture, which were of considerable social, religious, and medical significance, and help elucidate their earliest descriptions in the Shang Dynasty oracle inscriptions.

"Throughout history and around the world, human societies at every level of complexity discovered how to make fermented beverages from sugar sources available in their local habitats. This nearly universal phenomenon of fermented beverage production is explained by ethanol's combined analgesic, disinfectant, and profound mind-altering effects. Moreover, fermentation helps to preserve and enhance the nutritional value of foods and beverages. Because of their perceived pharmacological, nutritional, and sensory benefits, fermented beverages thus have played key roles in the development of human culture and technology, contributing to the advance and intensification of agriculture, horticulture, and food-processing techniques. Among all strata of society, they have marked major life events, from birth to death, as well as victories, auspicious events, and harvests, etc. Rulers and “upper class” individuals with leisure and resources particularly were drawn to feasting on a grand scale, which often featured special fermented beverages served in and drunk from special vessels. In their most developed form, such celebrations were formalized into secular or religious ceremonies for the society at large.

"How does ancient China, one of the primal centers for the rise of human civilization, fit into this picture of fermented beverage production, conspicuous consumption, and celebratory and ritual activities that are so well documented archaeologically, historically, and ethnographically elsewhere? Based on the oracle inscriptions from the late Shang Dynasty [circa (ca.) 1200–1046 before Christ (B.C.)], the earliest texts from China, at least three beverages were distinguished: chang (an herbal wine), li (probably a sweet, low-alcoholic rice or millet beverage), and jiu (a fully fermented and filtered rice or millet beverage or “wine,” with an alcoholic content of probably 10–15% by weight). According to inscriptions, the Shang palace administration included officials who made the beverages, which sometimes were inspected by the king. Fermented beverages and other foods were offered as sacrifices to royal ancestors in various forms of bronze vessels, likely accompanied by elite feasting. Later documents, incorporating traditions from the Zhou period (ca. 1046–221 B.C.), describe another two beverages: luo (likely made from a fruit) and lao (an unfiltered, fermented rice or millet beverage or the unfermented wort).  

"A much earlier history for fermented beverages in China has long been hypothesized based on the similar shapes and styles of Neolithic pottery vessels to the magnificent Shang Dynasty bronze vessels, which were used to present, store, serve, drink, and ritually present fermented beverages during that period. By using a combined chemical, archaeobotanical, and archaeological approach, we present evidence here that ancient Chinese fermented beverage production does indeed extend back nearly nine millennia. Moreover, our analyses of unique liquid samples from tightly lidded bronze vessels, dated to the Shang/Western Zhou Dynasties (ca. 1250–1000 B.C.), reveal that refinements in beverage production took place over the ensuing 5,000 years, including the development of a special saccharification (amylolysis) fermentation system in which fungi break down the polysaccharides in rice and millet" (Patrick E. McGovern, Juzhong Zhang, et al, "Fermented beverages of pre-and proto-historic China," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Published online before print December 8, 2004, 101, no. 51, December 21, 2004, 17593-17598.)

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In China, Possibly the Earliest Attempt at Writing Circa 6,600 BCE

In April 2003 Dr. Garman Harbottle of the Brookaven National Laboratory in Upton,  New York, and a team of archaeologists at the University of Science and Technology of China, in Hefei, Anhui province, announced that signs carved into what appeared to be 8600 year-old-tortoise shells may be the earliest written words.

Other authorities urge caution regarding the dating of this material, and question whether it is actually written language. The symbols may have been recorded in the late Stone Age or Neolithic Age. The symbols also bear similarities to the oracle bone script used thousands of years later during the Shang dynastry, but it is unclear that these symbols were part of an actual writing system. The BBC reported:

"The archaeologists have identified 11 separate symbols inscribed on the tortoise shells.

"The shells were found buried with human remains in 24 Neolithic graves unearthed at Jiahu in Henan province, Western China.

"The site has been radiocarbon dated to between 6,600-6200 BC" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2956925.stm, accessed 07-11-2009).

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A Wallpainting that Could be a Landscape or a Map Circa 6,200 BCE

A  wallpainting, located in Catal Hoyuk, that might be the earliest landscape painting yet discovered, or a map. (View Larger)

In 1961 Catal Huyuk, or Çatalhöyük, a very large Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement in southern Anatolia (now Turkey) of which the lowest layers date from around 7500 BCE, was discovered.  It is the largest and best preserved Neolithic site found to date.

A wall painting radio carbon dated to approximately 6200 BCE, found in 1963 at this site by archaeologist James Mellaart, may be the earliest landscape painting known, or it may be a map.

"It appears to represent the town itself with eighty rectangular buildings of varying sizes clustered in a terraced town landscape. Mellaart noted the similarity of the representation of the houses to the actual excavated structures found at the site, that is, rows of houses built one beside the other with no space between them. The wall painting shows an active double-peaked volcano rising over the town, likely to be the 3,200 m stratovolcano Mount Hasan, which is visible from Catal Huyuk. Lava is depicted flowing down its slopes and exploding in the air above the town. A cloud of ash and smoke completes the scene" (Rochberg, "The Expression of Terrestrial and Celestial Order in Ancient Mesopotamia," IN: Talbert (ed) Ancient Perspectives: Maps and Their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece & Rome [2012] 10-11).

However, some archaeologists have suggested that the wall painting is more likely a painting of a leopard skin instead of a landscape including a volcano, or a decorative geometric design instead of a map. The painting is preserved in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, Turkey.

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Domestication of the Aurochs, Ancestors of Domestic Cattle Circa 6,000 BCE

Bos primigenius (auroch). (Click on image to view larger.)

Based on image in Van Vuure, C. (2005) Retracing the Aurochs: History Morphology and Ecology of an Extinct Wild Ox. Pensoft Publishers. Sofia-Moscow.  (Click on image to view larger.)


Illustration from Sigismund von Herberstein's book published in 1556 captioned: "I am 'urus', tur in Polish, aurox in German (dunces call me bison) [lit. (the) ignorant (ones) had given me the name (of) Bison"; Latin original: Urus sum, polonis Tur, germanis Aurox: ignari Bisontis nomen dederant. (Click on image to view larger.)

Mounted skeleton of a putative female auroch in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. (Click on image to view larger.)

Domestication of the aurochs (urus, Bos primigenius), a type of large wild cattle which evolved in India about two million years ago, and migrated to Asia, and North Africa, reaching Europe about 250,000 years ago, is thought to have occurred in several parts of the world about 6000 BCE. 

"The aurochs was regarded as a challenging hunting quarry animal, contributing to its extinction. The last recorded aurochs, a female, died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland, and her skull is now the property of the Livrustkammaren ("Royal Armory") museum in Stockholm, Sweden.

"Representations and descriptions of aurochs appear in prehistoric cave paintings, in Julius Caesar's The Gallic War, and as the national symbol of many European countries, states and cities such as Alba-Iulia, Kaunas, Romania, Moldavia, Turka, Mecklenburg, and Uri. The Swiss canton Uri was named after this animal species" (Wikipedia article on Aurochs, accessed 12-25-2011).

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The Earliest Evidence of Cheese-Making in Europe Circa 5,500 BCE – 5,000 BCE

Fragment of clay sieve from central Europe.  Credit: Mélanie Salque. (Click on image to view larger.)

A sketch of a sieve reconstructed from ancient potsherds that may have been used in early cheese-making. Credit: Mélanie Salque. (Click on image to view larger).

Traces of dairy fat in unglazed ceramic strainer fragments about 7000 years old found in Kuyavia, Poland provided the first unequivocal evidence that neolithic humans made cheese. 

"The introduction of dairying was a critical step in early agriculture, with milk products being rapidly adopted as a major component of the diets of prehistoric farmers and pottery-using late hunter-gatherers. The processing of milk, particularly the production of cheese, would have been a critical development because it not only allowed the preservation of milk products in a non-perishable and transportable form, but also it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmers. The finding of abundant milk residues in pottery vessels from seventh millennium sites from north-western Anatolia provided the earliest evidence of milk processing, although the exact practice could not be explicitly defined. Notably, the discovery of potsherds pierced with small holes appear at early Neolithic sites in temperate Europe in the sixth millennium BC and have been interpreted typologically as ‘cheese-strainers’, although a direct association with milk processing has not yet been demonstrated. Organic residues preserved in pottery vessels have provided direct evidence for early milk use in the Neolithic period in the Near East and south-eastern Europe, north Africa, Denmark and the British Isles, based on the δ13C and Δ13C values of the major fatty acids in milk. Here we apply the same approach to investigate the function of sieves/strainer vessels, providing direct chemical evidence for their use in milk processing. The presence of abundant milk fat in these specialized vessels, comparable in form to modern cheese strainers, provides compelling evidence for the vessels having being used to separate fat-rich milk curds from the lactose-containing whey. This new evidence emphasizes the importance of pottery vessels in processing dairy products, particularly in the manufacture of reduced-lactose milk products among lactose-intolerant prehistoric farming communities" (Mélanie Salque, Peter Bogucki, et al, "Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millenium bc in northern Europe," (Nature [2012] doi:10.1038/nature11698, accessed 12-12-2012).

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The Earliest Prehistoric Town in Europe Circa 4,700 BCE – 4,200 BCE

The remains of the settlement made of two-story houses near the town of Provadia. (Click on image to view larger.)

Solnitsata, a prehistoric town unearthed in eastern Bulgaria near the town of Provadia, has been estimated to date between 4,700 and 4,200 B.C. The town walls, 3 meters (6 feet) high and 2 meters (4 ½ feet) thick, are believed to be the earliest and most massive fortifications surviving from prehistoric Europe.

The inhabitants of the town boiled brine from salt springs in kilns, then baked it into bricks and used it for trading. The high value of salt may explain why ancient caches of gold jewellery and ritual objects have been unearthed in the region.

"A collection of 3,000 gold objects found 40 years ago at a necropolis near Varna represented the oldest trove of ancient gold treasure in the world.

" 'At a time when people did not know the wheel and cart, these people hauled huge rocks and built massive walls. Why? What did they hide behind them? The answer was salt,' Vasil Nikolov, a researcher with Bulgaria's National Institute of Archeology, told AFP. 'Salt was an extremely valued commodity in ancient times, as it was both necessary for people's lives and was used as a method of trade and currency starting from the sixth millennium BC up to 600 BC,' he said.

"The 'town', known as Provadia-Solnitsata, was small by modern standards and would have had around 350 inhabitants" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/bulgaria/9646541/Bulgaria-archaeologists-find-Europes-most-prehistoric-town-Provadia-Solnitsata.html, accessed 11-2-2012).

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The First Settlements in the Paris Basin Circa 4,200 BCE

Balloy, Paris Basin. Plan of the central part of the settlement with long houses of the Villeneuve-Saint-Germain culture superimposed by graves and long barrows of the Cerny culture. (Click on image to view larger.)

The earliest surviving signs of permanent neolithic settlement in the Paris basin, known as the La culture de Cerny, date from approximately 4200 BCE.  Cerny culture is characterized by monumental earth mounds.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Prehistory

The Earliest Known Winery Circa 4,000 BCE

From National Geographic. (View Larger)

Between 2007 and September 2010 archaeologists found the earliest known wine press for stomping grapes, fermentation and storage vessels, drinking cups, and withered grape vines, skins and seeds--the earliest, most reliable evidence of wine production--in the Areni-1 cave near the village of Areni, Armenia.

"The cave has also offered surprising new insights into the origins of modern civilizations, such as evidence of a wine-making enterprise and an array of culturally diverse pottery. Excavations also yielded an extensive array of Copper Age artifacts dating to between 6,200 and 5,900 years ago. The new discoveries within the cave move early bronze-age cultural activity in Armenia back by about 800 years. Additional discoveries at the site include metal knives, seeds from more than 30 types of fruit, remains of dozens of cereal species, rope, cloth, straw, grass, reeds and dried grapes and prunes.

"In January 2011 archaeologists announced the discovery of the earliest known winery, seven months after the world's oldest leather shoe, the Areni-1 shoe, was discovered in the same cave. The winery, which is over six-thousand years old, contains a wine press, fermentation vats, jars, and cups. Archaeologists also found grape seeds and vines of the species Vitis vinifera. Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, commenting on the importance of the find, said, 'The fact that winemaking was already so well developed in 4000 BC suggests that the technology probably goes back much earlier' " (Wikipedia article on Areni, accessed 01-16-2011).

An image of the "wine press" and "fermentation vat" found at Areni was illustrated in the following article in National Geographic Newshttp://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/01/110111-oldest-wine-press-making-winery-armenia-science-ucla/, accessed 01-16-2011)

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The Earliest Precursors to Writing in Egypt are Rock Drawings Circa 3,750 BCE

"Rock drawings constitute the earliest of the presursors to writing in Egypt. Drawings date from the earliest habitation of the Nile valley to the Islamic period, but the most salient early examples date to the Naqada I period (ca. 3750-3500 BC). They are located in the Eastern Desert along principle routes to the Red Sea (e.g., the Wadi Hammamat), and in the Western Desert along important land routes (e.g., the Theban Desert Road). Among the more popular motifs displayed are boats, animals and humanoid figures with feathers. Their composition is seemingly narrative, but their meaning is difficult to ascertain.

"There are rare examples of rock art of the late Predynastic period that can be interpreted. The 1936-1938 expeditions of Hans Winkler yielded a serekh (rectangular enclosure with the king's Horus name and a niched facade, surmounted by a falcon) of King Narmer (before ca. 3150 BC) at the site of Wadi el-Qash, in the Eatern Desert. This inscription is composed of an abbreviated version of King Narmer's name (only the nar-catfish is written; the mr-chisel has been left out) within a serekh, and constitue the only definite example of writing from this corpus at such an early date in Egyptian history.

"In general, during the Predynastic period the distinction between purely pictorial rock drawings and hieroglyphic writing is very hard to make. Although the motifs foreshadow those of subsequent periods of Egyptian history, aside from the example at Wadi-el-Qash there are no clear attempts at writing during the Predynastic period presently known to scholars. Instead, these spectacular scenes, carved into living rock, remain frustratingly ambiguous" (Elise V. Macarthur, "The Concept and Development of the Egyptian Writing System," IN: Woods (ed), Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 116-117, illustrating the drawing with serekh of King Narmer).

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One Theory of the Origins of Egyptian Hieroglyphs Circa 3,600 BCE – 3,200 BCE

One theory  of the origin of writing in Egypt proposes that Egyptian hieroglyphs evolved from symbols drawn on pottery produced by the Gerzeh culture (Gerzean, Girza, Jirzah), which was excavated from a predynastic Egyptian cemetery located along the west bank of the Nile and today named after al-Girza, the nearby present day town in Egypt.

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Horse Domestication Revolutionizes Transportation, Communication, and Warfare Circa 3,500 BCE

The Botai culture originated from the Akmola province of Kazakhstan, highlighted in green. (View Larger)

Horse domestication revolutionized transportation, accelerated communication, and transformed warfare in prehistory.  Yet the identification of early domestication processes has been problematic.

In a paper published in the journal Science on March 6, 2009 archaeologist Alan K. Outram and seven co-authors published "three independent lines of evidence demonstrating domestication in the Eneolithic Botai Culture of Kazakhstan, dating to about 3500 B.C.E. Metrical analysis of horse metacarpals shows that Botai horses resemble Bronze Age domestic horses rather than Paleolithic wild horses from the same region. Pathological characteristics indicate that some Botai horses were bridled, perhaps ridden. Organic residue analysis, using δ13C and δD values of fatty acids, reveals processing of mare's milk and carcass products in ceramics, indicating a developed domestic economy encompassing secondary products" (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/323/5919/1332, accessed 03-06-2009).

Prior to discovery of this evidence horse domestication was thought to have occurred around 2500 BCE.

♦ Before horses were domesticated it appears that prehistoric people mainly killed horses for food.  One of the most celebrated collections of horse and reindeer bones was found beneath the precipice at the paleolithic site of Solutré in France.  Though prehistoric people primarily hunted the reindeer for food and other necessities of life, an explanation for the immense deposit of bones at Solutré is that prehistoric people stampeded reindeer and horses over the cliff as a means of killing them.

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The Oldest Known Well-Preserved Leather Shoe Circa 3,500 BCE

The Areni-1 shoe. (View Larger)

The Areni-1 shoe, a 5,500-year-old leather shoe, found in 2008 in excellent condition in the "Areni-1" cave located in the Vayots Dzor province of Armenia, is a one-piece leather-hide shoe that has been dated as a few hundred years older than the one found on Ötzi the Iceman, making it the oldest piece of leather footwear in the world known to contemporary researchers.

"Much older footwear, 10,000 year old sandals made of sagebrush fiber, has been discovered in the United States at Fort Rock Cave in Oregon. By evidence found to date, the use of shoes arose between 40,000 and 26,000 years ago. The discovery was made by a team led by archaeologist Ron Pinhasi of University College Cork in Ireland.

"The shoe was found in near-perfect condition due to the cool and dry conditions in the cave and a thick layer of sheep dung which acted as a solid seal. Large storage containers were found in the same cave, many of which held well-preserved wheat, barley, and apricots, as well as other edible plants. The shoe contained grass and the archaeologists were uncertain as to whether this was because the grass was used as insulation to keep the foot warm, or used to preserve the shape of the shoe while not being worn. Lead archaeologist Ron Pinhasi could not determine whether the shoe belonged to a man or a woman. While small, approximately a woman's U.S. and Canada size 7, European size 37, or UK size 6, he stated that "the shoe could well have fitted a man from that era". The shoe laces were preserved as well.

"Major similarities exist between the manufacturing technique and style of one-piece leather-hide shoes discovered across Europe and the one reported from Areni-1 Cave, suggesting that shoes of this type were worn for millennia across a large and environmentally diverse geographic region. According to Pinhasi, the Areni-1 shoe is similar to the Irish pampooties, a shoe style worn in the Aran Islands up to the 1950s. The shoes are very similar to the traditional shoes of the Balkans, still seen today in festivals, known as Opanci (Opanke)." (Wikipedia article on Areni-1 shoe, accessed 01-16-2011).

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The Earliest Images of a Wheeled Vehicle Circa 3,500 BCE – 3,350 BCE

Bronocice clay pot showing wheeled cart. (Click on image to view larger.)

Drawing showing detail of bronocice clay pot images including wheeled cart. (Click on image to view larger).

Drawing of wheeled cart. (Click on image to view larger.)

Evidence of wheeled vehicles appears from the mid 4th millennium BCE in Mesopotamia, the Northern Caucasus (Maykop culture) and Central Europe, so the question of which culture originally invented the wheeled vehicle remains unresolved.

The earliest well-dated image of a wheeled vehicle, radiocabon dated to 3500-3350 BCE, is on the Bronocice pot, a Funnelbeaker culture ceramic vase discovered in 1976 during the archaeological excavation of a large Neolithic settlement in Bronocice by the Nidzica River, circa 50 km north-east of Kraków.  The vase is preserved in the Archaeological Museum in Kraków.

Images on the Bronice pot include five rudimentary representations of what seems to be a wagon. They represent a vehicle with a shaft for a draught animal, and four wheels. The lines connecting them probably represent axles. The circle in the middle possibly symbolizes a container for harvest. These images suggest the existence of wagons in Central Europe as early as in the 4th millennium BCE. The wagons were presumably drawn by aurochs, ancestors of domestic cattle, whose remains were found with the pot. Their horns were worn out as if tied with a rope, possibly a result of using a kind of yoke,

Other images on the pot include a tree, a river and what may be fields intersected by roads or ditches or the layout of a village.

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The Earliest Known Egyptian Writing Circa 3,320 BCE – 3,150 BCE

Ivory tags from tomb U-j.

Tomb U-j at Abydos. The Burial chamber is the broad room at the rear (southwest end) of the tomb.

Plan of tomb U-J.

Bone and ivory tags, pottery vessels, and clay seal impressions bearing hieroglyphs unearthed at Abydos, one of the most ancient cities of Upper Egypt, 300 miles south of Cairo, have been dated between 3320 and 3150 BCE, making them the oldest known examples of Egyptian writing.

The tags, each measuring 2 by 1 1/2 centimeters and containing between one and four glyphs, were discovered in the late 20th century in Tomb U-j of Umm el Qu'ab, the necropolis of the Predynastic and Early Dynastic kings by excavators from the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo led by Günter Dreyer. Tomb U-j may hold the remains of predynastic ruler Scorpion I (Serket I). The discoveries in Tomb U-j were first published by Dreyer, Ulrich Hartung, and Frauke Pupenmeier in Umm el-Qaab. Volume 1: Das prädynastische Königsgrab U-j und seine frühen Schriftzeugnisse (1998).

"Tomb U-j is best known for three distinctive forms of administrative record keeping in the form of ink-inscribed vessels, sealings, and tags. The size of the tomb, its contents, and the amount of labor its construction and assemblage would have required has led many scholars to propose that this tomb belonged to a proto-ruler who reigned over a sizable territory by the Naqada III period. . . .

"The written evidence from Tomb U-j, in particular the tags, probably denotes quantities of good, and localities in Egypt and beyond. The Egyptian writing system had already undergone a number of important developments by the time of Tomb U-j, which have not yet been recovered, or have not survived to modern times. Linguistic terminology makes it psosible to identify the various units of language that helped to transform communication in early Egypt from merely pictorial expression to speech writing, which is important in identifying the nature of early graphic material:

"1) Logograms: symbols representing specific words

"2) Phonograms: symbols representing specific sounds

"3) Determinatives: symbols used for classifying words

"Moreover, writing on the tags shows that the Egyptian writing system had adopted the rebus principle, which broadened the meaning of symbols to include their homophones—words with the same sound but different definitions. . . ." (Elise V. Macarthur, "The Concept and Development of the Egyptian Writing System" IN: Woods (ed), Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Middle East and Beyond [2010] 120; the book illustrates many of the objects from Tomb U-j; see also 138-143).

"Prior to the proper scientific excavation of Tomb U-j and its publication in 1998, the earliest clear instances of Egyptian writing dated back to the late Dynasty o (ca. 3200-3100 BC), a few centuries later than in southern Mesopotamia. It had long been known that later fourth-millenium Egypt witnessed sustained cultural contract with southern Mesopotamia and Susiana, tokens of which are found in elements of foeign iconography on Egyptian prestige objects, the adoption of the cylinder seal, and niched brick architecture. This led to the —always controversial— hypothesis that Egyptian writing may have originated as a result of cultural infleunce from Mesopotamia, whether through general awareness that writing was present elsewhere, or possibly through some actual knowledge of the workings of the Mesopotamian system. The distinctively indigenous nature of the Egyptian repertoire of signs was interpreted as a case of cultural adaptation of a foreign technology to local purposes. The hypothesis of a Mesopotamian influence on the emergence of Egyptian writing was at times embedded into a broader frame arguing that the original invention of writing, conceived of as a dramatic cultural achievement, would have occurred only once in human history, subsequently to spread elsewhere.

"As to the latter issue, the decipherment of Mayan glyphs and other New World scripts, and the realization that these represent actual writing rather than pictography, now proves otherwise. Simultaneously, a more refined understanding of the working of early writing in general demonstrates that writing may develop gradually, rather than dramatically, a good case in point being, pr-ecisely, the stage witnessed by Tomb U-j" (Andréas Stauder, "The Earliest Egyptian Writing" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 142).

http://archive.archaeology.org/9903/newsbriefs/egypt.html, accessed 01-13-2013).

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The First Prehistoric Human Ever Found with his Everyday Clothing and Equipment Circa 3,300 BCE

Model of Ötzi the Iceman in exhibit at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.

Mummified corpse of Ötzi the Iceman.

The most important item of the Iceman’s equipment is his copper-bladed axe.

The two separate leggings, which the Iceman was still wearing when he was discovered, are made of several pieces of domestic goat hide carefully cross-stitched together with animal sinew.

In September 1991 Ötzi, also called Ötzi the Iceman, the Similaun Man, the Man from Hauslabjoch, Homo tyrolensis, and the Hauslabjoch mummy, was discovered  in the Ötztal Alps near the Mt. Similaun and Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. Radiocarbon tests consistently dated the body and associated objects within a range of 3365-2940 BCE. Because the body was preserved in ice for over 5000 years it had only partially deteriorated when it was discovered. 

"Anthropologists are particularly interested in the items found with him, which constitute a unique time-capsule of the stuff of everyday life, may of them made of organic materials that were preserved by the cold and ice. An astonishing variety of woods, and a range of very sophsticated tecyniques of work with leather and grasses can be seen in the collection of seventy objects that have added a new dimension to our knowledge of the period.

The axe, 60 cm (24 in) in length, has a head of copper that was bound to the yew-wood handle with leather thongs. The bow, of yew wood, was almost 180 cm. (6 ft) long. One side is flat, the other rounded. Its odour at room temperature suggests it was smeared with blood or fat to keep it pliable. A quiver of deerskin contained fourteen arrows, only two of which were ready for use. Their 75 cm (30 in) shafts, made of two pieces, were of dogwood and viburnum wood, and had points of stone or bone fixed to them by pitch. The two finished arrows had double-side points of flint and triple feathering whose placement meant the missiles would spin in flight and indicates an advanced ballistic design. The quiver also contained an untreated sinew (possibly for use as a bowstring), a ball of fibrous cord ,bone or antler spines tied togehter with grass, and various objects of flint and bone, together with pitch - it may ahve constituted some kind of repair kit.

"The dagger or knife has a sharp flint blade, only about 4 cm (1.5 in) long set into an 8 cm (3 in) ash-wood handle. Polish on the blade indicates that it was used to cut grass. A woven grass sheath was also found. What was orignally assumed to be a stone-pointed fire-striker was found to be a thick 'pencil' of linden wood with a central spine of bone, probably used for retouching and sharpening flint objects. A U-shaped stick of hazel and two cross-boards of larch are thought to be the frame of a backpack that may have contained some animal bones and residues of the skin of chamois and other small animals, found nearby: blood residues from chamois, ibex and deer have been found on some of the implements" (Paul G. Hahn (ed) 100 Great Archaeological Discoveries [1995] 85).

Ötzi's body and belongings are preserved in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy.

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Cuneiform Writing in Mesopotomia Begins at Uruk in Association with the Development of Urban Life Circa 3,200 BCE – 2,900 BCE

Cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia began as a system of pictographs written with styli on clay tablets. The earliest cuneiform tablets. written in proto-cuneiform, were discovered in excavations of periods IV-III of the Eanna (Eana) district of Uruk (Warka) an ancient city of Sumer and later Babylonia, situated east of the present bed of the Euphrates river, some 30 km east of modern As-Samawah, Al-Muthannā, Iraq.

Between 1928 and 1976 approximately 5000 proto-cuneiform tablets were excavated at Uruk by the German Archaeological Institute.

"But these are not the only witnesses to the archaic script. Proto-cuneiform texts corresponding to the Uruk III [circa 3100 BCE] tablets have been found in the northern Babylonian sites of Jemdet Nasr, Khafajah, and Tell Uquair, testifying to the fact that the new technology spread quickly throughout Babylonia soon after its invention (in ancient Iran proto-cuneiform possibly inspired the proto-Elamite script ca. 3100 BC.) Illicit excavations since the 1990s account for several hundred additional texts, which possibly originate from the ancient Babylonian cities of Umma, Adab, and Kish. These texts have the advantage of being generally in better condition than those from Uruk, which, . . . represented discarded rubbish and thus are frequently fragmentary. To date the proto-cuneiform corpus numbers approximately six thousand tablets and fragments" (Christopher Woods, "The Earliest Mespotamian Writing," Chapter 2 of Woods, Teeter, Emberling (eds) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 35-36).

"The formation of an urban society and the innovations that came with it and which occurred for the first time in Uruk – a regional and supraregional centre – had an enormous impact on the entire Near-Eastern world. Very quickly, impressive temples and palaces sprung up, overshadowing the early grand architectural monuments in Uruk’s centre. A striking feature of these new buildings was their form, the ziggurat or stepped tower, which went on to become a defining element of ancient Near-Eastern temple architecture. The use of writing as an administrative tool also laid the foundations for science and learning in the ancient Near East. Very early on, lexical lists of terms and objects began to emerge – the first of their kind – and these were passed down the generations. Some of these records contain lists of city officials and specialist terms for occupations that provide an insight into a highly stratified society. Other records bear lexical lists of everyday objects, providing an insight into material culture. Particular importance was given very early on to observing the stars as a means to read the future. The ancient Babylonian palace of the ruler Sin-Kashid, built in the 2nd millennium BCE, exemplifies Uruk’s role as part of the ancient Near-Eastern empire. The palace served as both the seat of the ruler and as a commercial and administrative centre. It was here that diplomatic correspondence, legal contracts, surety bonds, and various court documents were set in writing. The site also served as a lively trading centre. Deliveries of raw materials were processed into valuable goods that denoted the owner’s status. The palace was also a place where writers were educated. The writers played a vital role in everyday life, as they compiled the correspondence and contractual agreements on behalf of the largely illiterate population" (http://www.uruk-megacity.de/index.php?page_id=6, accessed 01-13-2013).

"Writing emerged in the context of temple bureaucracy in the cities of the southern Iraqi marshes some time in the late fourth millennium BC. A tiny number of accountants used word signs (usually pictograms) and number signs to account for institutional assets — land, labor, animals — and their secondary products. They wrote on refined clay tablets, about the size of a credit card but around 1 cm thick, incising the signs for the objects they were recording with a pointed stylus and impressing the numbers with a cylindrical one. The front surface of the tablet was marked out into boxes, each one containing a single unit of accounting, logically ordered, with the results of calculations (total wages, predicted harvests, and so on) shown on the back. This writing was barely language-specific — it represented concrete nouns, numbers and little else, with only occasional clues to pronunciation and none at all to word order — and was known only to a handful of expert users. Its functionality was as yet so limited that it was used only to keep accounts, or to practice writing the words, numbers, and calculations needed for accountancy" (Robson, "The Clay Tablet Book in Sumer, Assyria, and Babylonia," Elliot & Rose [eds.] A Companion to the History of the Book [2007] 67-68.)

"Indeed that the vast majority of the earliest texts [discovered at Uruk and elsewhere in Mesopotamia] are administrative in nature suggests that the invention of writing was a response to practical social pressures—simply put, writing faciliated complex bureaucracy. It is important to stress in this connection that literature plays no role in the origins of writing in Mesopotomia. Religious texts, historical documents and letters are not included among the archaic text corpus either. Rather, these text genres arise relatively late, beginning in the middle of the third millennium, some seven hundred or more years after the first written evidence" (Woods, op. cit, 34). 

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One of the Earliest Surviving Examples of Narrative Relief Sculpture and Egyptian Hieroglyphs Circa 3,200 BCE

The Narmer Palette, one of the earliest surviving examples of narrative relief sculpture, was found during excavations at Nekhen (Greek: Ἱεράκων πόλις 'city of hawks', Strabo xvii. p. 817, transliterated as Hierakonpolis, Hieraconpolis, or Hieracompolis; Arabic: الكوم الأحمر‎ Al-Kom Al-Aħmar) in the 1890s. It is also one of the earliest surviving records of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Narmer Palette is preserved in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (Egyptian Museum) Cairo.

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One of the Earliest Surviving Works of Narrative Relief Sculpture, Looted in the Iraq War Circa 3,200 BCE – 3,000 BCE

A side-view of the Warka Vase, before the invasion of Iraq. (View Larger)

The Warka Vase, also called the Uruk Vase, a carved alabaster stone vessel, is one of the earliest surviving works of narrative relief sculpture. It was found in the temple complex of the Sumerian goddess Inanna in the ruins of the ancient city of Uruk, located in the modern Al Muthanna Governorate, in southern Iraq.

"The vase was discovered as a collection of fragments by German Assyriologists in their sixth excavation season at Uruk in 1933/1934. The find was recorded as find number W14873 in the expedition's field book under an entry dated 2 January 1934, which read "Großes Gefäß aus Alabaster, ca. 96 cm hoch mit Flachrelief" ("large container of alabaster, circa 96 cm high with flat-reliefs"). The vase, which showed signs of being repaired in antiquity, stood 3 feet, ¼ inches (1 m) tall. Other sources cite it as having been a slightly taller 106cm, with an upper diameter of 36cm. . . .

"The vase has three registers - or tiers - of carving. The bottom register depicts the vegetation in the Tigris and Euphrates delta, such as the natural reeds and cultivated grain. Above this vegetation is a procession of animals, such as oxen and sheep presented in a strict profile view. The procession continues in the second register with nude males carrying bowls and jars of sacrificial elements, such as fruit and grain. The top register is a full scene, rather than a continuous pattern. In this register, the procession ends at the temple area. Inanna, one of the chief goddesses of Mesopotamia and later known as Ishtar in the Akkadian pantheon, stands, signified by two bundles of reeds behind her. She is being offered a bowl of fruit and grain by a nude figure. A figure in ceremonial clothing - presumably a chieftain/priest - stands nearby with the procession approaching him from behind.

A comparison of the Warka Vase before (left) and after (right) it sustained damage as a result of the invasion of Iraq. (View Larger)

"The Warka Vase was one of the thousands of artifacts which were looted from the National Museum of Iraq during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. In April 2003 it was forcibly wrenched from the case where it was mounted, snapping at the base (the foot of the vase remaining attached to the base of the smashed display case. The vase was later returned during an amnesty to the Iraq Museum on June 12, 2003 by three unidentified men in their early twenties, driving a red Toyota vehicle. As reported by a correspondent for The Times newspaper, “ As they struggled to lift a large object wrapped in a blanket out of the boot, the American guards on the gate raised their weapons. For a moment, a priceless 5,000-year-old vase thought to have been lost in looting after the fall of Baghdad seemed about to meet its end. But one of the men peeled back the blanket to reveal carved alabaster pieces that were clearly something extraordinary. Three feet high and weighing 600lb intact, this was the Sacred Vase of Warka, regarded by experts as one of the most precious of all the treasures taken during looting that shocked the world in the chaos following the fall of Baghdad. Broken in antiquity and stuck together, it was once again in pieces.

"Soon after the vase's return, broken into 14 pieces, it was announced that the vase would be restored. A pair of comparison photographs, released by the Oriental Institute, Chicago, showed significant damage (as of the day of return, 12 June 2003) to the top and bottom of the vessel.

"The current condition of the Warka Vase (museum number IM19606) is not known. In June 2007, The Guardian newspaper reported that widespread looting of antiquities is ongoing in Iraq and that the director of the Iraq Museum, Donny George, fled in August 2006 after receiving death threats. The museum's entrances have been bricked up, the building surrounded by concrete walls, and the museum's staff do not have access" (Wikipedia article on Warka Vase, accessed 07-11-2009).

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The Oldest-Known List of Titles and Occupations Circa 3,200 BCE

A proto-cuneiform clay tablet (VAT 15003) from the Eana (Eanna) district, Uruk IV period, preserved in The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, records the oldest-known version of a list of titles and occupations, known as the Standard Occupations List. 

"Such lists, known as 'lexical lists,' were used to train scribes and also served to organize knowledge. This scribal exercise from the early Uruk IV writing stage represents what was apparently a favorite version of such compilations. it content was copied many times in the subsequent Uruk III period (about 180 frams of it are preserved), and it was the model for numerous mofied and exapned forms of such lists. The popularity of such standardized lists is indicated by  the fact that they were repeatedly copied and recopied down through the Akkadian dynasty (twenty-third century BC) nearly a millennium after their creation" (Woods, Teeter, Emberling (eds) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] No. 46, with color images of obverse, reverse and a composite drawing of the archaic lexical list).

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The Earliest Inscription Written in Hieratic 3,200 BCE

Seal impression with the name of Narmer from Tarkhan.

The earliest known hieratic inscription, dating from about 3200 BCE, is the royal name Scorpion found on jars excavated at Tarkhan, just south of Cairo.

"The appearance of hieratic so early suggests that it was not a later adaptation of hieroglyphs but was developed alongside it. These early inscriptions were very brief and are found on vessels from burials. Typically they list only royal names and information about the contents of the vessels, frequently the place of origin" (Katheryn E. Bandy, "Hieratic" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 159).

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The Word Bibliography is Derived from a Greek Word for Papyrus Circa 3,100 BCE – 3,050 BCE

The pith of the papyrus plant was used in Egypt at least as far back as the First dynasty, for boats, mattresses, mats and as a writing surface. The Egyptian word papyrus, meaning "that of the king," may indicate a Pharonic monopoly in the period.

"The English word papyrus derives, via Latin, from Greek πάπυρος papyros. Greek has a second word for papyrus, βύβλος byblos (said to derive from the name of the Phoenician city of Byblos). The Greek writer Theophrastus, who flourished during the 4th century BC, uses papuros when referring to the plant used as a foodstuff and bublos for the same plant when used for non-food products, such as cordage, basketry, or a writing surface. The more specific term βίβλος biblos, which finds its way into English in such words as bibliography, bibliophile, and bible, refers to the inner bark of the papyrus plant. Papyrus is also the etymon of paper, a similar substance" (Wikipedia article on Papyrus, accessed 01-03-2010).

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The Earliest Autograph Signatures Circa 3,100 BCE

A pictographic list of titles and professions in ancient Sumeria (top), with the scribe's signature on the reverse side (bottom.) (View Larger)

Pictographic lexical lists written in ancient Sumerian pictographic script on clay tablets are the earliest literature known, and also the earliest known evidence of school and learning.

An example preserved in the Schøyen Collection (MS 2429/4 MS 2429/4) is a lexical list of 41 titles and professions, starting: Nam Gist Sita (Lord of the Mace), signed by the scribe Gar.Ama. 

The scribal signatures on this tablet and other lexical lists are the earliest autograph signatures extant.

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The Oldest Non-Clonal, Acknowledged Living Organism Circa 3,051 BCE

Bristlecone pinetree nickednamed Methuselah.

The oldest non-clonal, acknowledged living organism is the Great Basin bristlceone pine Pinus longaeva located in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of Inyo County in eastern California. One member of this species, the location of which has not been specifically identified, is estimated to have germinated in 3051 BCE, making it 5064 years old in 2014.

In 1964 Donald R. Currey, a student of the University of North Carolina taking core samples of bristlecone pines, discovered "Prometheus" in the Snake Range of eastern Nevada, in a cirque below Wheeler Peak. Currey's coring tool broke and, regrettably the U.S. Forest service granted permission to cut down "Prometheus." 4,844 rings were counted on a cross-section of the tree, making "Prometheus" at least 4,844 years old, and the oldest known non-clonal living thing.

"A specimen of this species, located in the White Mountains of California was measured by Tom Harlan to be 5,062 years old in 2012. The identity of the specimen is being kept secret by Harlan. This is the oldest known tree in North America, and the oldest known individual tree in the world, although a clonal individual, nicknamed "Old Tjikko", a Norway spruce in Sweden is 9,550 years old.

"The previously oldest named specimen of this species, "Methuselah", is also located in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains. Methuselah is 4,844 years old, as measured by annual ring count on a small core taken with an increment borer. Its exact location is also kept secret.

"Among the White Mountain specimens, the oldest trees are found on north-facing slopes, with an average of 2,000 years, as compared to the 1,000 year average on the southern slopes. The climate and the durability of their wood can preserve them long after death, with dead trees as old as 7,000 years persisting next to live ones" (Wikipedia article on Pinus lagaeva, accessed 11-09-2014).


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Education in the Bronze Age in the Middle East Circa 3,000 BCE – 1,200 BCE

Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE), the most famous of the early Babylonian kings. (View Larger)

"In the Bronze Age (c. 3000-1200 BC in the Middle East) the production and transmission of literate knowledge was cited in scribal schools. No doubt temples, courts and other places were also centers of intellectual and cultural exchange at this time, but they have not yet been identified and analyzed as such through the archaeological record. Second-millennium schools, on the other hand, have been carefully studied in recent years, enabling us to look at them in the light of book history. For instance, in the early 1950s over a thousand tablets, mostly in fragments, were excavated from 'House F," a small urban house in Nippur near modern Najaf. According to the datable household documents found in it, House F was used as a scribal school in the 1750s BC, immediately after the reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) the most famous of the early Babylonian kings.

"About half of the tablets in House F are the by-products of an elementary scribal education. They take the trainee from learning how to use a stylus to make horizontal, vertical, and diagonal wedges on the tablet to writing whole sentences in literary Sumerian. The students doubless learned to make their own tablets too, because in the corner of the tiny courtyard was a bitumen-lined basin filled with a mixture of fresh tablet clay and crumpled up tablets waiting to be recycled. Both the elementary exercises and the tablets themselves were standardized, with format and content closely related to pedagogical function" (Robson, "The Clay Tablet Book in Sumer, Assyria, and Babylonia," Eliot & Rose [eds.], A Companion to the History of the Book [2007] 71).

It is thought that the tablets from House F survived because they were reused as building material.

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The Oldest Known Papyrus Roll - Blank Circa 2,900 BCE

The hieroglyphic name of Hemaka, highlighted in red.

"The ancient Egyptians had used rolls made of papyrus from the early days of the Old Kingdom. The oldest known papyrus roll was found in the tomb of Hemaka in Saqqara, and dates to the 1st dynasty, around 2900 BC. The hieroglyph for 'papyrus roll' existed already in inscriptions from this period. The 1st dynasty roll was blank; the oldest examples with writing dated from the 4th and 5th dynasties" (Roemer, "The Papyrus Roll in Egypt, Greece, and Rome," Eliot & Rose (eds) A Companion to the History of the Book [2007] 84).

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Pavlopetri: the Oldest Submerged Town Site 2,800 BCE

Discovered in 1967 by Nicolas Flemming and first mapped in 1968, the city of Pavlopetri, underwater off the coast of southern Laconia in Peloponnesos, Greece, is the oldest submerged archeological town site, and though the buildings were eroded over the millenia, the city is unique in having an almost complete town plan, including streets, buildings, and tombs. It is now believed that the town was submerged around 1000 BCE, and because the area never reemerged from the sea, it was neither built-over nor disrupted by agriculture. It has at least 15 buildings submerged in 3 to 4 metres (9.8–13 ft) of water. The ancient name of the city is unknown; the name Pavlopetri ("Paul's and Peter's", or "Paul's stone") is the modern name for the islet and beach, presumably named for the two Christian saints that are celebrated together.

Earlier, the ruins of Pavlopetri were dated to the Mycenaean period, 1600-1100 BC. Later studies showed an older occupation date starting no later than 2800 BCE, so it also includes early Bronze Age middle Minoan and transitional material.

The site is under threat of damage by boats dragging anchors, as well as by tourists and souvenir hunters. In 2009 John C. Henderson from the University of Nottingham and team began archeological work on Pavlopetri, to map the site in great detail using the latest technology. As a result, Pavlopetri became the first submerged town to be digitally surveyed in three dimensions using sonar mapping techniques developed by military and oil prospecting organizations.  Because the archeologists collected 3D digital information in the survey process their data allowed a 3D digital reconstruction of the site by computer graphics professionals.

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"The Seated Scribe" or "Squatting Scribe" Circa 2,620 BCE – 2,500 BCE

The Seated Scribe or Squatting Scribe, a painted limestone sculpture of a seated scribe at work, was discovered by French archaeologist Auguste Mariette in 1850 at Saqqara, a vast burial ground in Egypt. It has been dated to the 4th Dynasty, 2620–2500 BCE. The sculpture is preserved in the Louvre.

"The figure is dressed in a white kilt stretched to its knees. It is holding a half rolled papyrus. Perhaps the most striking part aspect of the figure is its face. Its realistic features stand in contrast to perhaps more rigid and somewhat less detailed body. Hands, fingers, and fingernails of the sculpture are delicately modeled. The hands are in writing position. It seems that the right hand was holding a brush, now missing. The body is sturdy with a broad chest. The nipples are marked with two wooden stubs. . . .The dating itself remains uncertain; the period of the 6th dynasty has also been suggested. One additional fact in favor of the earlier date is that the statue is represented in writing' position while it seems that scribes from the period after the 5th dynasty have been portrayed mainly in 'reading' position' (Wikipedia article on The Seated Scribe, accessed 10-10-2013).

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The First Securely Datable Mathematical Table in World History Circa 2,600 BCE

The world’s oldest datable mathematical table, from Shuruppag, c. 2600 BCE.  The first two columns contain identical lengths in descending order from 600 to 60 rods (c. 3600–360 m) and the final column contains the square area of their product.

The sequence continues on the reverse, and probably finished at 1 rod (6m).

Tablet from Shuruppag, now in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.

"The first securely datable mathematical table in world history comes from the Sumerian city of Shuruppag, c. 2600 BCE. The table is ruled into three columns on each side with ten rows on the front or obverse side. The first columns of the obverse list length measures from c. 3.6km to 360 m in descending units of 360 m, followed by the Sumerian word sa ('equal' and/ or 'opposite') while the final column gives their products in area measure. Only six rows are extant or partially preserved on the reverse. They continue the table in smaller units, from 300 to 60 m in 60 m steps, and then perhaps (in the damaged and missing lower half) from 56 to 6 m in 6 m steps. While the table is organized along two axes, there is just one axis of calculation, namely, the horizontal multiplications. Around a thousand tablets were excavated from Shuruppaq, almost all of them from houses and buildings which burned down in a city-wide fire in about 2600 BCE, but sadly we have no detailed context for this table because its excavation number was lost or never recorded." (Eleanor Robson, "Tables and tabular formatting in Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria, 2500 BCE-50," Campbell-Kelly et al [eds]. The History of Mathematical Tables from Sumer to Spreadsheets [2003] 27-29).

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The Wooden Panels of Hesy-Ra: Government Official, Physician, and Scribe Circa 2,600 BCE – 2,500 BCE

The wooden panels of Hesy-Ra (Hesire, Hesira), a government official, physician, and scribe who lived in the Third Dynasty of Egypt, and served under the pharaoh Djoser, were excavated from his tomb or mastaba in Saqqara (Sakkara, Saqqarah).  Hesy-Ra bore titles such as "Chief of Dentists and Physicians," and "Chief of the King's Scribes." He may be the earliest physician whose identity is known.

One of the wooden panels shows Hesy-Ra seated before the offering table. Slung over his shoulder are his writing utensils consisting of palette, ink bag and brush holder. 

"The Egyptian scribes used brushes made of stems of reeds 1.5 to 2.5 millmetres thick cut to a length of 16 to 25 centimetres. They were beaten or chewed to pulp at one end and kept in a tubular receptacle. Ink, which has retained its pitch black colour surprisingly well over thousands of years, was made of carbon mixed with gum. For rubrics they also had red ink made of ochre and gum. Since the ink was in the form of a powdered pigment kept in a bag or on a palette, a small pot containing water for disolving the ink also belonged to the scribe's equipment. The holder for the brushes, bag and palette were tied together. The scribe either carried his writing utensils in his hands or—if he needed his hands for other things—slung over his shoulder in such a way that the palette lay on his chest, ink bag and brush holder on his back" (Hussein, Origins of the Book. Egypt's contribution to the development of the book from papyrus to codex [1970] 10, plate 25).

The panels are preserved in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. 

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The Abu Salbikh Tablet Lost in the Iraq War Circa 2,500 BCE

The Instructions of Shuruppak, one of the earliest surviving literary works, is a Sumerian "wisdom" text. This was a genre of literature common in the Ancient Near East intended to teach proper piety, inculcate virtue and preserve community standing.

The text was set in great antiquity by its incipit: "In those days, in those far remote times, in those nights, in those faraway nights, in those years, in those far remote years." The precepts were placed in the mouth of a king "Shuruppak, son of Ubara-Tutu." Ubara-Tutu was the last king of Sumer before the universal deluge.

The oldest known copy of the Instructions of Shuruppak is the Abu Salabikh Tablet found at Abu Salabikh, near near the site of ancient Nippur in Central Babylonia (now southern Iraq). Abu Salabikh marks the site of a small Sumerian city of the mid third millennium BCE. It was excavated by an American expedition from the Oriental Institute of Chicago in 1963 and 1965, and was a British concern for the British School of Archaeology in Iraq (1975–89), after which excavations were suspended with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

"The city, built on a rectilinear plan in Early Uruk times, revealed a small but important repertory of cuneiform texts on some 500 tablets, of which the originals were stored in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, and were largely lost when the museum was looted in the early stages of the Second Iraq War; fortunately they had been carefully published."

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The Origins of Glassmaking Circa 2,500 BCE – 1,250 BCE

Archaeological evidence and the analysis of ancient sources point to a Mesopotamian origin for glassmaking around 2500 BCE. This craft and its makers migrated to Egypt around 1400 BCE where glassmaking soon developed as an independent technology.

"Glass beads are known from the 3rd millennium BC but it is only in the late 2nd millennium that glass finds start occurring more frequently, primarily in Egypt and Mesopotamia. This is not to say that it was a widespread commodity, quite the contrary. It was a material for high-status objects with archaeological evidence for the Late Bronze Age (LBA) also showing an almost exclusive distribution of glass finds at palace complexes such as that found in the city of Amarna - Egypt. Texts listing offerings to Egyptian temples would start with gold and silver, followed by precious stones (lapis lazuli) and then bronze, copper and other not so precious stones with glass mentioned together with the lapis lazuli. In this period it was rare and precious and its use largely restricted to the elite.

"Production of raw glass occurred at primary workshops of which only 3 are known, all in Egypt: Amarna, Ramesside [place?] and Malkata. At the first two sites cylindrical ceramic vessels with vitrified remains have been identified as glass crucibles where the raw materials (quartz pebbles and plant ash) would be melted together with a colourant. Interestingly the two sites seem to show a specialisation in colour, with blue glass, via the addition of cobalt, being produced at Amarna and red, through copper, at Piramesse. The resulting coloured glass would then be fashioned into actual objects at secondary workshops - far more common in the archaeological record. It seems certain that glass making was not exclusive to Egypt (in fact current scholarly opinion resides with the industry having originally been imported into the country) as there are Mesopotamian cuneiform texts which detail the recipes for the making of glass. Further supporting this hypothesis are the Amarna Letters, a contemporaneous diplomatic correspondence detailing the demand and gift giving from vassal princes in Syro-Palestine to the Egyptian King, in these the most asked for item is glass.

The evidence then points to two regions that were making and exchanging glass. It seems logical to believe that at an initial stage it was glass objects, as opposed to raw glass, that were exchanged. The major element composition of glass finds from Mesopotamia and Egypt is indistinguishable with as much variation found within a specific assemblage than between different sites. This is indicative of the same recipe being used in both regions. As analytical techniques develop the presence of trace elements can be more accurately determined and it has been found that glass is compositional identical within each region, but it is possible to discriminate between them. This could be a huge step in uncovering trade patterns, however at present no Egyptian glass has been found in Mesopotamia, nor have any Mesopotamian glasses been found in Egypt.

"Across the sea, Mycenaean glass beads were found to have been made with glass from both regions. The fact that the beads are stylistically Mycenaean would imply an import of raw glass. Archaeological evidence for this trade comes from the Uluburun shipwreck, dated to the 14th century BC. As part of its cargo it carried 175 raw glass ingots of cylindrical shape. These ingots match the glass melting crucibles found at Amarna and Piramesse [Pi-Rammesse] " (Wikipedia article on Ancient Glass Trade, accessed 01-12-2012).

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The Sitting Posture of Egyptian Scribes and How They Stored Papyrus Rolls. Circa 2,500 BCE

Detail from wall of tomb of Prince Kaninisut showing scribes in seated position. Please click on image to view larger image.

The Group of Scribes, the lower Range of Representations on the Northern Wall of the Tomb of Prince Kaninisut, excavated from Giza, shows 4 scribes sitting in the characteristic scribal posture on the floor, writing.  

"If writing was not done in a standing position, it was done sitting down with crossed legs, and the papyrus was laid without any support on the stretched kilt. The roll was held at right angles to the body and was unrolled with the left hand and rolled up with the right. The beginning was thus on the right-hand side and writing was done from the right to the left. Until the Twelfth Dynasty writing was done from the right to left in vertical lines, horizontal lines being only used for dates, headings or signatures. After the Twelfth Dynasty writing was done (from right to left) in horizontal lines, but one page was divided up into several columns. In certain texts writing was done backwards, i.e. single signs were written from right to left, but vertical lines (or columns) followed each other from left to right. In other manuscripts two columns were written alongside each other in such a way that in one the signs were written from left to right and in the other from right to left so that they 'looked at each other'. Adminstrative documents formed an exception; it was customary to hold them perpendicularly so that the lines ran parallel to the narrow side of the papyrus. The only known exception is thus all the more interesting. Since a Moscow papyrus containing an account of the voyage of Wenamum, i.e. a literary text, is wrriten in this way, it can be assume that it is an official report which the traveller wrote for some chancellery" (Hussein, Origins of the Book. Egypt's contribution to the development of the book from papyrus to codex (1970) 17-18, reproducing a drawing of the full Kaninisut relief on p. 11, caption p. 22).

Included in the image are receptacles for papyrus rolls, including bags and corded boxes. This limestone carving is from The Offering Room of Prince Kaninisut as preserved in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

"The postures and equipment of the scribes are very remarkable. Crouching on the ground, they seize the half-open papyrus with their left hand and hold the palette between the thumb and forefinger. With only one exception, the palettes are shells. Two round spots on the inside of the shells mark the places where they prepared the black and red used for the summary. Two spare reed pens stick behind the ear of each scribe. The boxes, destined to contain the papyri, show interesting forms" (Junker, The Offering Room of Prince Kaninisut [1951] 35 and plate 12).

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The Palace Archive of Ebla, Syria 2,500 BCE – 2,250 BCE

Ebla Tablet

Ebla tablets in situ.

Ebla tablets in situ.

Distribution of tablets on room shelves.

Between 1974 and 1975 Italian archaeologist Paolo Matthiae from the University of Rome La Sapienza and his team discovered up to 1800 cuneiform tablets and 4700 fragments, and many thousand minor chips, representing the palace archives of the ancient city of Ebla, Syria. The city of Ebla, long known from Egyptian and Akkadian inscriptions, had been discovered by Matthiae in 1968.

Collectively, the tablets discovered at Ebla have come to be known as the Ebla tablets. Found in situ on collapsed shelves, the tablets retained many of their contemporary clay tags, by which they could be referenced by original users. 

"About 80% of the tablets are written using the usual Sumerian combination of logograms and phonetic signs, while the others exhibited an innovative, purely phonetic representation using Sumerian cuneiform of a previously unknown Semitic language, which was called Eblaite. Bilingual Sumerian/Eblaite vocabulary lists were found among the tablets, allowing them to be translated. Giovanni Pettinato and Mitchell Dahood believed the Eblaite language was West Semitic, however I. J. Gelb and others believed it was an East Semitic dialect, closer to the Akkadian language. Now it is commonly accepted that Eblaite is part of the East Semitic branch of Semitic, and very close to the Akkadian language."

"It now appears that the building housing the tablets was not the palace library, which may yet be uncovered, but an archive of provisions and tribute, law cases and diplomatic and trade contacts, and a scriptorium where apprentices copied texts. The larger tablets had originally been stored on shelves, but had fallen onto the floor when the palace was destroyed. The location where tablets were discovered where they had fallen allowed the excavators to reconstruct their original position on the shelves: it soon appeared that they were originally shelved according to subject" (Wikipedia article on Ebla, accessed 01-12-2013).

The Ebla tablets are preserved in Syrian museums in Aleppo, Damascus, and Idlib.

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One of the Oldest, Largest & Best Preserved Vessels from Antiquity Circa 2,500 BCE

Measuring 43.67 m (143 ft.) long and 5.9 m (19.5 ft) wide, the funerary boat of King Cheops (Khufu, Khêops), the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, is one of the oldest, largest, and best-reserved vessels from antiquity. Around 2500 BCE the boat was sealed into a pit in the Giza Necropolis at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

"The ship was one of two rediscovered in 1954 by Kamal el-Mallakh – undisturbed since it was sealed into a pit carved out of the Giza bedrock. It was built largely of Lebanon cedar planking in the 'shell-first' construction technique, using unpegged tenons of Christ's thorn. The ship was built with a flat bottom composed of several planks, but no actual keel, with the planks and frames lashed together with Halfah grass, and has been reconstructed from 1,224 pieces which had been laid in a logical, disassembled order in the pit beside the pyramid" (Wikipedia article on Khufu ship, accessed 01-18-2013)

Though the Khufu ship is categorized as a solar barge or sun boat, intended for use in the afterlife, perhaps to allow the king to cross the sky every day with Re (Ra), the sun-god, it seems to have been used at least once—perhaps to carry the funeral cortêge of the king by river or canal to the pyramid complex for burial.

Having been restored over many years, the Khufu ship is preserved in the Giza Solar Boat Museum.

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The Earliest Known Egyptian Papyri 2,500 BCE

One of many papyrii found at Wadi al Jarf.  Thought to be the oldest known papyrii from Egypt.

Map showing location of Wadi al-Jarf.  Please click on image to view and resize larger image.


Between 2011 and 2013 a French-Egyptian archaeological mission from the French Institute of Archaeological Studies (IFAO) headed by Pierre Tallet, an Egyptologist at the University of Paris, discovered the earliest known Egyptian papyri at the site of the most ancient harbor ever found, on the shore of the Red Sea at Wadi al-Jarf 119 km (74 mi.) south of Suez. Along with numerous stone food and water storage jars, textile and wood fragments, hundreds of papyrus fragments were also found at the site, of which ten papyri are especially very well preserved.

The majority of these documents date to the 27th year of the reign of Khufu, and describe how the central administration sent food and supplies to Egyptian travelers. One document is of special interest: the diary of Merer (Merrer, Mererer), an official involved in the building of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, often called the Great Pyramid of Giza. Using the diary, researchers were able to reconstruct three months of Merer's life, providing new insight into everyday lives of people of the Fourth Dynasty.

(This entry was last revised on 09-26-2015.)

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The World's Oldest Harbor Circa 2,500 BCE

Photo of wharf at low tide, Wadi al-Jarf

Diagram of Harbour at Wadi al-Jarf.

Location of Wad al-Jarf.

Old Kingdom anchor at Wadi al-Jarf.

Between 2011 and 2013 a French-Egyptian archaeological mission from the French Institute of Archaeological Studies (IFAO) headed by Pierre Tallet, an Egyptologist at the University of Paris, discovered the most ancient harbor ever found on the shore of the Red Sea at Wadi al-Jarf 119 km (74 mi.) south of Suez. The harbor dates to the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt. Also discovered at the site were more than 100 anchors— the first Old Kingdom anchors found in their original context— and numerous storage jars. The jars have been linked with those of another site across the Red Sea, indicating trade between the two sites. Among products traded were copper and other minerals from Sinai. 

"The harbor complex consists of a 280 m (920 ft) long mole or jetty of stone that is still visible at low tide (28.8888°N 32.6815°E), an alamat or navigational landmark made of heaped stones, a strange 60 m × 30 m (200 ft × 98 ft) building of unknown function that is divided into 13 long rooms, and a series of 25 to 30 storage galleries carved into limestone outcrops. The building of unknown function is the largest pharaonic building discovered along the Red Sea coast to date. The storage galleries are between 16 and 34 m (52 and 112 ft) long, and are usually 3 m (9.8 ft) wide and 2.5 m (8.2 ft) tall.

"Inside the galleries, the archeological team discovered several boat and sail fragments, some oars, and numerous pieces of ancient rope. Twenty-five stone anchors were found under water, and 99 anchors were found in an apparent storage building. The discovery of anchors in their original context is a first in Old Kingdom archeology. Many of the anchors bear hieroglyphs, likely representing the boat's names from which they came.

"The port is to have been the starting point for voyages from mainland Egypt to South Sinai mining operations. Tallet speculates that the harbor may have also been used to launch voyages to "the mysterious Land of Punt", a known trading partner of Egypt. The archeologists who excavated the site believe that the harbor dates to the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu (2589–2566 B.C.), whose name is inscribed on some of the heavy limestone blocks at the site. That means the harbor predates the second-oldest known port structure by more than 1,000 years. There is some trace evidence of use during the early part of Fifth Dynasty, after which the harbor was likely abandoned" (Wikipedia article on Wadi-al-Jarf, accessed 04-25-2013).

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The Pyramid Texts: The Oldest Known Religious Texts Circa 2,400 BCE – 2,300 BCE

Pyramid texts located in Teti I's pyramid. (View Larger)

 A collection of ancient Egyptian religious texts inscribed within royal tombs from the time of the Old Kingdom, the Pyramid Texts are the oldest known religious texts. Written in Old Egyptian, they were carved on the walls and sarcophagi of the pyramids at Saqqara (Sakkara, Saqqarah; Arabic: سقا ) during the 5th and 6th Dynasties of the Old Kingdom.

The Pyramid Texts provide the earliest comprehensive view of the way in which the ancient Egyptians understood the structure of the universe, the role of the gods, and the fate of human beings after death. Their importance lies in their antiquity and in their endurance throughout the entire intellectual history of ancient Egypt. In the Middle Kingdom, many texts were borrowed from the pyramid chambers and mingled with new spells; this new form, called Coffin Texts, were usually written inside coffins. These eventually gave way to what we now know as the Book of the Dead.

"The oldest of the texts date to between 2400-2300 BCE. Unlike the Coffin Texts and Book of the Dead into which parts of the pyramid texts later evolved, the pyramid texts were reserved only for the pharaoh and were not illustrated. The pyramid texts mark the first written mention of the god Osiris, who would become the most important deity associated with afterlife.

"The spells, or "utterances", of the pyramid texts are primarily concerned with protecting the pharaoh's remains, reanimating his body after death, and helping him ascend to the heavens, which are the emphasis of the afterlife during the Old Kingdom. The spells delineate all of the ways the pharaoh could travel, including the use of ramps, stairs, ladders, and most importantly flying. The spells could also be used to call the gods to help, even threatening them if they did not comply" (Wikipedia article on Pyramid Texts, accessed 01-20-2009).

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The Earliest Known Dictionaries Circa 2,300 BCE

The Urra=hubullu, currently preserved at the Louvre Museum in Paris. (View Larger)

The oldest known dictionaries are cuneiform tablets from the Akkadian empire with biliingual wordlists in Sumerian and Akkadian discovered in Ebla in modern Syria.

The Urra=hubullu glossary, a major Babylonian glossary or encyclopedia from the second millenium BCE, preserved in the Louvre, is an outstanding example of this early form of wordlist. 

"The canonical version extends to 24 tablets. The conventional title is the first gloss, ur5-ra and ḫubullu meaning "interest-bearing debt" in Sumerian and Akkadian, respectively. One bilingual version from Ugarit [RS2.(23)+] is Sumerian/Hurrian rather than Sumerian/Akkadian.

"Tablets 4 and 5 list naval and terrestrial vehicles, respectively. Tablets 13 to 15 contain a systematic enumeration of animal names, tablet 16 lists stones and tablet 17 plants. Tablet 22 lists star names.

"The bulk of the collection was compiled in the Old Babylonian period (early 2nd millennium BC), with pre-canonical forerunner documents extending into the later 3rd millennium" (Wikipedia article on Urra=hubullu, accessed 05-08-2009).

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Wael Sherbiny Rediscovers the Oldest & Longest Egyptian Leather Roll Circa 2,300 BCE – 2,000 BCE

In September 2015 Egyptologist Wael Sherbiny of Brussels announced his rediscovery of the oldest and longest Egyptian leather roll in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Dating from the late Old Kingdom to the early Midddle Kingdom (2300-2000 BCE), the roll measures about 8.2 feet (2.5 meters). The manuscript, which had been lost in the museum for about 70 years, was purchased by the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo from a local antiquities dealer sometime after the WWI. It was later donated to the Egyptian Museum, where it was unrolled shortly before the outbreak of the WWII. After it was stored in the museum it seems to have been completely forgotten until it was rediscovered by Sherbiny.

Though a relatively large number of Egyptian papyrus rolls or fragments survived in Egypt because of the dry desert climate, very few ancient Egyptian leather rolls survived. According to Sherbiny, leather was considered a very precious writing material in ancient Egypt, and it was the principal medium for recording religious texts and great historic events, as it was more practical than papyrus due to its flexibility and durability. Leather rolls, kept in the libraries and archives of temples, were also used as master copies from which cheaper copies were reproduced on papyrus. However, leather had a low rate of survival in the deseart. The Cairo roll was no exception: part of it was fragmented into very tiny pieces. Like in a jigsaw puzzle, Sherbiny pieced them together.

"The pieces formed a large pictorial-textual segment from the so-called Book of Two Ways, which is an illustrated composition containing temple rituals later adapted for the funerary use.

"This composition is known to Egyptologists as it occurs on the floorboard of Middle Kingdom coffins (2055-1650 B.C.) from the necropolis of Hermopolis in Upper Egypt.

“ 'Amazingly, the roll offers an even more detailed iconography than the Hermopolitan coffins in terms of texts and drawings,' Sherbiny said" (http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/oldest-and-longest-ancient-egyptian-leather-manuscript-found-150914.htm, accessed 10-01-2015).

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The Earliest Printing was Stamped into Soft Clay in Mesopotamia Circa 2,291 BCE – 2,254 BCE

MS 5106 of the Schoyen Collection, a brick printing block with a large loop handle from the period of Naram-Sîn. (View larger)

The earliest printing was the stamping of inscriptions into the soft clay of bricks before firing, done under the rule of the Sumerian king Naram-Sîn of Akkad  (Narām-Sîn, Naram-Suen), ruler of the Akkadian Empire, who built the Temple of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare. Prior to Naram-Sîn the inscriptions on the bricks were written by hand.

MS 5106 in the Schøyen Collection is a brick printing block, 13x13x10 cm, 3 lines in a large formal cuneiform script with large loop handle from the period of Naram-Sîn.

Only two other brick printing blocks of Naram-Sîn are known: one intact with a cylindrical handle in Istanbul, and a tiny fragment in British Museum.

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One of the Oldest Known Ancient Mesopotamian Medical Texts 2,112 BCE – 2,004 BCE

A reproduction of one of the oldest known Mesopotamian medical texts, dating from the Ur III period. (View Larger)

One of the oldest known ancient Mesopotamian medical texts is a collection of 15 prescriptions, written in Sumerian, on a clay tablet, which dates from the Ur III period, or Sumerian Renaissance. It was excavated at the site of the ancient city of Nippur in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), and is preserved in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum).

On May 29, 2009 a reproduction of this tablet, illustrated at this link, was available from the museum shop. The description of that reproduction dated the tablet to 2400 BCE.   

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The Oldest Known Tablet Containing a Legal Code 2,100 BCE – 2,050 BCE

The Code of Ur-Nammu.

"The Code of Ur-Nammu is the oldest known tablet containing a law code surviving today. It was written in the Sumerian language ca. 2100-2050 BC. Although the preface directly credits the laws to king Ur-Nammu of Ur (2112-2095 BC), some historians think they should rather be ascribed to his son Shulgi.

"The first copy of the code, in two fragments found at Nippur, was translated by Samuel Kramer in 1952; owing to its partial preservation, only the prologue and 5 of the laws were discernible. Further tablets were found in Ur and translated in 1965, allowing some 40 of the 57 laws to be reconstructed. Another copy found in Sippar contains slight variants.

"Although it is known that earlier law-codes existed, such as the Code of Urukagina, this represents the earliest legal text that is extant. It predated the Code of Hammurabi by some three centuries.

"The laws are arranged in casuistic form of if-(crime), then-(punishment) — a pattern to be followed in nearly all subsequent codes. For the oldest extant law-code known to history, it is considered remarkably advanced, because it institutes fines of monetary compensation for bodily damage, as opposed to the later lex talionis (‘eye for an eye’) principle of Babylonian law; however, the capital crimes of murder, robbery, adultery and rape are punished with death.

"The code reveals a glimpse at societal structure during the 'Sumerian Renaissance'. Beneath the lu-gal ('great man' or king), all members of society belonged to one of two basic strata: The 'lu' or free person, and the slave (male, arad; female geme). The son of a lu was called a dumu-nita until he married, becoming a 'young man' (gurus). A woman (munus) went from being a daughter (dumu-mi), to a wife (dam), then if she outlived her husband, a widow (nu-ma-su) who could remarry" (Wikipedia article on Code of Ur-Nammu, accessed 02-04-2009).

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The Garsana Archive of Cuneiform Tablets is Returned to Iraq 2,031 BCE – 2,024 BCE

On November 2, 2013 it was announced that Cornell University planned to forfeit and return to Iraq the archive of about 1400 cuneiform tablets known as the Garšana archive (Garsana), which was donated to Cornell beginning in the year 2000. The archive was returned under the assumption that the tablets were looted in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War

The Garšana archive represents the records of a rural estate at or near the town of Garšana located somewhere in the territory of the Sumerian city of Umma, probably in the vicinity of ancient Zabalam (Zabala) and Karkar. The tablets date from an eight year period, 2031-2024 BCE, during the Third Dynasty of Ur.  

"The estate was owned by Šu-Kabta, a physician and general, and his wife, the princess Simat-Ištaran. These documents record many of the daily functions of the estate and provide for the first time a comprehensive picture of life on such an estate. Detailed information on the construction and maintenance of the many buildings on the estate that included a brewery, textile and flour mills, leather working shop, and kitchen; the hiring and supervision of builders and laborers coming from various towns near and far; management of orchards; canal travel and trade between the estate and the cities of Sumer; and numerous other details of daily life. Particularly noteworthy are the funerary records of the family and the role of the princess Simat-Ištaran who assumed the control of the estate upon the death of her husband" (http://cuneiform.library.cornell.edu/collections/garsana, accessed 11-03-2013).

"Among the tablets is the private archive of a 21st century BC Sumerian princess in the city of Garsana that has made scholars rethink the role of women in the ancient kingdom of Ur. The administrative records show Simat-Ishtaran ruled the estate after her husband died.

"During her reign, women attained remarkably high status. They supervised men, received salaries equal to their male counterparts' and worked in construction, the clay tablets reveal.

" 'It's our first real archival discovery of an institution run by a woman,' said David Owen, the Cornell researcher who has led the study of the tablets. Because scholars do not know precisely where the tablets were found, however, the site of ancient Garsana cannot be excavated for further information.

"Other tablets provide detailed administrative records of ancient life, including the procedures for temple rituals, the resettlement of refugees and the output of agricultural lands.

"The source of the Garsana tablets was the subject of a 2001 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, according to records obtained by Harvard researcher Benjamin Studevent-Hickman under the Freedom of Information Act. Buying and possessing antiquities illegally removed from countries such as Iraq, which claim them as government property, can be a violation of U.S. law" (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-iraq-tablets-cornell-university-20131103,0,7036026.story#axzz2jav6tYSE, accessed 11-03-2013).

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One of the Earliest Surviving Documents Written on Papyrus Circa 2,000 BCE

A section of the Prisse Papyrus, which is believed to be the earliest known document written on papyrus. (View Larger)

The Prisse Papyrus, dating from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, was often considered the earliest known document written on papyrus until the discovery of papyri from the 27th year of Khufu's reign at Wadi al-Jarf. It contains the last two pages of the Instruction addressed to Kagemni, who purportedly served under the 4th Dynasty king Sneferu, and is a compilation of moral maxims and admonitions on the practice of virtue. The conclusion of the Instruction addressed to Kagemni is followed by the only complete surviving copy of the Instruction of Ptahhotep.

The papyrus was obtained by the French orientalist Achille Constant Théodore Émile Prisse d'Avennes at Thebes in 1856. It is preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft (1947) 464.

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"The World's First Typewritten Document" - James Chadwick Circa 2,000 BCE – 1,700 BCE

Sides A (left) and B (right) of the Phaistos Disc. (View Larger)

The Phaistos Disc, a disc of fired clay from the Minoan Palace of Phaistos on the island of Crete, was discovered in 1908 by the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier, and remains the most famous document found in Crete.

"It is about 15 cm (5.9 in) in diameter and covered on both sides with a spiral of stamped symbols. Its purpose and meaning, and even its original geographical place of manufacture, remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of archaeology. This unique object is now on display at the archaeological museum of Heraklion in Crete" (Wikipedia article on Phaistos Disc, accessed 07-26-2009).

Because of the unique features of the disc, and the mysteries surrounding its origin, many people have doubted its authenticity, but no one has yet been able to prove conclusively that it is a forgery.

"The disk has the distinction of being the world's first typewritten document. It was made by taking a stamp or punch bearing the sign to be written in a raised pattern, and impressing this on the wet clay. The maker therefore needed to have as many stamps as there were signs in the script. It has the advantage that even complicated signs can be quickly written, and every example of the same sign is identical and easy to read. The disadvantage is that a considerable outlay of time and effort is required to make the set of stamps before any document can be produced. It is therefore evident that the system was not created solely for a single document; its maker must have intended to reproduce a large number of documents, though it remains some way from being an anticipation of printing.

"It is therefore all the more remarkable that after more than eighty years of excavation not another single scrap of clay impressed with these stamps had been found at Phaistos, or at any other site in Crete or elsewhere. It would be very surprising if there were not somewhere more examples of the script waiting to be found, but the disk remains so far unique, and the suspicion must arise that it was an isolated object brought from some other area.

"This impression of foreign origin can be supported by two arguments. The work of cutting the stamps, whether made directly or perhaps more likely by making moulds into which metal was poured, is a technique very similar to gem-engraving. We might therefore expect the signs to bear a stylistic resemblance to those engraved on seal-stones. In fact the style of art is noticeably different. Secondly, some of the objects depicted by the signs have a distinctly foreign appearance to those familiar with Minoan art" (Chadwick, Linear B and Related Scripts  [1987]  57-58).

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The Older of the Two Best-Known Mathematical Papyri Circa 2,000 BCE

Several problems from the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus. (View Larger)

The Moscow Mathematical Papyrus, the older of the two best-known mathematical papyri along with the larger Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (noticed in this database), is also called the Golenischev Mathematical Papyrus after its first owner, Egyptologist Vladimir Goleniščev, who in 1909 sold his huge collection of Egyptian artifacts to  Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, where the papyrus is preserved today.

"Based on the palaeography of the hieratic text, it probably dates to the Eleventh dynasty of Egypt. Approximately 18 feet long and varying between 1 1/2 and 3 inches wide, its format was divided into 25 problems with solutions by the Soviet Orientalist Vasily Vasilievich Struve in 1930" (Wikipedia article on Moscow Mathematical Papyrus, accessed 09-11-2009).

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One of the Earliest Medical and Mathematical Documents Circa 2,000 BCE

The Berlin Papyrus 6619, commonly known as the Berlin Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian papyrus document from the Middle Kingdom, was found at the ancient burial ground of Saqqara in the early 19th century CE.

"The papyrus is one of the primary sources of ancient Egyptian mathematical and medical knowledge, including the first known documentation concerning pregnancy test procedures, and is thus part of the medical papyri.

"The Berlin Papyrus contains a problem stated as "the area of a square of 100 is equal to that of two smaller squares. The side of one is ½ + ¼ the side of the other."[4] The interest in the question may suggest some knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem, though the papyrus only shows a straightforward solution to a single second degree equations in one unknown. In modern terms, the simultaneous equations x2 + y2 = 100 and x = (3/4)y reduce to the single equation in y: ((3/4)y)2 + y2 = 100, giving the solution y = 8 and x = 6" (Wikipedia article on Berlin Papyrus, accessed 12-29-2010).

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The Earliest Surviving Literary or Library Catalogues Circa 2,000 BCE

Two cuneiform tablets found at Nippur, (Mesopotamia; now Iraq) are inscribed with a list of Sumerian works of literature in no apparent order.  One has 68 titles, the other 48 works.  These represent the earliest surviving literary or library catalogues. 

Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World (2001) 4. 

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Execration Texts: Ceremonial Writing and Sympathetic Magic in Ancient Egypt Circa 2,000 BCE – 1,800 BCE

Most often written upon statuettes of bound foreigners, bowls, or blocks of clay or stone, which were subsequently destroyed, Execration Texts, also referred to as proscription lists, were ancient Egyptian hieratic  texts, listing enemies of the Pharaoh, enemies of the Egyptian state or troublesome foreign neighbors. The ceremonial process of breaking the written names and burying them was believed to be sympathetic magic that would affect the persons or entities named in the texts. This magical practice, in which Execration Text framents were usually placed near tombs or ritual sites, was most common during times of conflict with Egypt's Asiatic neighbors. 

"The Execration texts are an important resource for researchers in the field of ancient Near Eastern history of the 20th-18th centuries BCE and Bible studies. The first group of Execration Texts were published by Kurt Sethe in 1926, known as the Berlin texts. Georges Posener published a second group of texts in 1957, known as the Brussels texts.

"The first collection are inscribed on pottery sherds, and contain the names of approximately 20 places in Canaan and Phoenicia, and over 30 rulers of the period. These texts contain what is possibly the first known mention of Jerusalem, from the beginning of the second millennium BCE, the end of the Eleventh dynasty to the Twelfth dynasty.

"The second group of texts are inscribed on figurines of bound prisoners discovered in Saqqara. This group contains the names of 64 places, usually listing one or two rulers. Seven known Asian countries are listed. This group has been dated to the end of the Twelfth dynasty.

"An additional group of texts, the Mirgissa texts, was published by Yvan Koenig in 1990" (Wikipedia article on Execration texts, accessed 07-12-2014).


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The Earliest Representation of an Organized Fighting System Circa 2,000 BCE

A fresco from tomb 15 of the Middle Kingdom at Beni Hassan (Beni Hasan) Egypt, dating from circa 2000 BCE, remains the earliest representation of an organized fighting system, or system of wrestling. 

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The Oldest Surviving Illustrated Papyrus Roll Circa 1,980 BCE

Fragments of the Ramesseum Papyrus.

The Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus (also called the Ramesseum Papyrus) is the oldest known surviving illustrated papyrus roll. It measures about 7 feet by about 10 inches, and was found in 1895-96 by the English Egyptologist James E. Quibell, excavating on behalf of the Egyptian Research Account in the Ramesseum, the memorial temple (or mortuary temple) of Pharaoh Ramesses II ("Ramesses the Great" (Ramses, Rameses). The Ramesseum is located in the Theban necropolis in Upper Egypt, across the Nile from the modern city of Luxor.

"It contains a ceremonial play written to celebrate the accession to the throne of Senusret I of the Twelfth Dynasty . . . . The text of the roll is in linear hieroglyphs written in narrow, vertical columns. The text occupies the top four-fifths of the scroll and the illustrations the bottom. the scenes are arranged in a manner similar to a modern comic strip with the Pharaoh, in the role of Horus, appearing multiple times. Scenes are divided from each other by vertical lines. The drawing style is so simple that the figures are little more than enlarged hieroglyphs" (Wikipedia article on Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus, accessed 01-20-2009).

"This hieroglyphic figure style, as one might call it, suggests that we are not too far away in time from the beginning of papyrus roll illustration as a new branch of art, although it must be remembered that this roll is unique both as to its text and as to the period in which it was made" (Weitzmann, Illustrations in Roll and Codex. A Study of the Origin and Method of Text Illustration [1970] 58).

Diringer, The Illuminated Book: Its History & Production (1967) 27.

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The Most Famous Document of Babylonian Mathematics Circa 1,900 BCE – 1,700 BCE

Plimpton 322 (View Larger)

The most famous original document of Babylonian mathematics is Plimpton 322, a partly broken clay tablet, approximately 13cm wide, 9cm tall, and 2cm thick. New York publisher George A. Plimpton purchased the tablet from archaeological dealer, Edgar J. Banks in 1922 or 1923, and bequeathed it with the rest of his collection to Columbia University in 1936. According to Banks, the tablet came from Senkereh, a site in sourthern Iraq, corresponding to the ancient city of Larsa

This tablet has a table of four columns and 15 rows of numbers in cuneiform script, and has been called the only true mathematical table surviving from the period.

"The most renowned of all mathematical cuneiform tablets since it was published in 1945, Plimpton 322 reveals that the Babylonians discovered a method of finding Pythagorean triples, that is, sets of three whole numbers such that the square of one of them is the sum of the squares of the other two. By Pythagoras' Theorem, a triangle whose three sides are proportional to a Pythagorean triple is a right-angled triangle. Right-angled triangles with sides proportional to the simplest Pythagorean triples turn up frequently in Babylonian problem texts; but if this tablet had not come to light, we would have had no reason to suspect that a general method capable of generating an unlimited number of distinct Pythagorean triples was known a millennium and a half before Euclid.  

"Plimpton 322 has excited much debate centering on two questions. First, what was the method by which the numbers in the table were calculated? And secondly, what were the purpose and the intellectual context of the tablet? At present there is no agreement among scholars about whether this was a document connected with scribal education, like the majority of Old Babylonian mathematical tablets, or part of a research project" (http://www.nyu.edu/isaw/exhibitions/before-pythagoras/items/plimpton-322/, accessed 11-23-2010).

Though the consensus may be that the tablet contains a listing of Pythagorean triples, Eleanor Robson pointed out that historical, cultural and linguistic evidence reveal that the tablet is more likely "a list of regular reciprocal pairs": Robson, "Words and Pictures. New Light on Plimpton 322," American Mathematical Monthly 109 (2001) 105-121.

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Illustrating the Pythagorean Theorem and the Square Root of Two Circa 1,900 BCE – 1,700 BCE

The obverse and reverse sides of YBC 7289. Images by Image by West Semitic Research.(View Larger)

Yale YBC 7289, one of the few cuneiform tables to consist entirely of a geometrical diagram, shows that Babylonian scribes knew the Pythagorean Theorem and possessed a method of calculating accurate estimates of square roots. 

On the obverse, the scribe drew a square and its diagonals.

"According to Pythagoras' Theorem the length of the diagonal is the length of the side multiplied by the square root of 2. An accurate approximation of this quantity in sexagesimal notation is written along one diagonal. One side is labelled with its length, and the product of this number by the square root of 2 is also written along the diagonal" (http://www.nyu.edu/isaw/exhibitions/before-pythagoras/items/ybc-7289/, accessed 11-23-2010).

The tablet was acquired by 1944  by the Yale Babylonian Collection.

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Probably the Most Ancient Surviving Fermented Beverages Circa 1,900 BCE – 700 BCE

In 2004 tightly lidded bronze vessels from the city of Anyang and elite burials excavated at major urban centers along the Yellow River or its tributaries in Hebei, Henan, and Shanxi provinces of northern China, including Erlitou, Zhengzhou, Taixi, and Tianhu, dating to the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, were shown from archaeochemical analysis by University of Pennsylvania archaeochemist Patrick E. McGovern to contain samples of fermented beverages in their liquid state. 

"Most often, they [the fermented liquids] have been recovered from the elite burials of high-ranking individuals. The shapes of many of the bronze vessels [ornate tripod vessels (jue and jia), stemmed goblets (gu), vats (zun), and jars (hu, lei, and you)] imply that they were used to prepare, store, serve, drink, and ceremonially present fermented beverages, which is supported by textual evidence. Besides serving as burial goods to sustain the dead in the afterlife, the vessels and their contents also can be related to funerary ceremonies in which intermediaries communicated with the deceased ancestor and gods in an altered state of consciousness after imbibing a fermented beverage

"The fragrant aroma of the liquids inside the tightly lidded jars and vats, when their lids were first removed after some 3,000 years, suggests that they indeed represent Shang/Western Zhou fermented beverages. The Changzikou Tomb vessels, one of which is reported on here, exemplify this phenomenon: of more than 90 bronze vessels in the tomb, 52 lidded examples were still a quarter- to half-full of liquid (15). Most recently (early 2003), an excavation of an upper-class tomb in Xi'an yielded a lidded vessel holding 26 liters of what was described as a liquid with a “delicious aroma and light flavor” (G.C., unpublished data). What accounts for such amazing preservation of liquids, which would be anticipated to have evaporated and disappeared? Chinese bronze-making technology assured that the lids were tightly fitted to the mouths of vessels. Then, over time, the lids corroded and cut off further exchange with the outside atmosphere, hermetically sealing off any liquid remaining inside the vessels.  

"Previous attempts to identify the compounds responsible for the aromas of the liquids contained in the Shang/Western Zhou lidded bronze vessels, as well as other basic ingredients, have been largely inconclusive or are unpublished. Positive evidence for yeast cells was obtained from an 8.5-kg solid white residue inside a weng jar at Taixi, probably the lees of a fermented beverage. Habitation contexts at Taixi also yielded specific pottery forms, including a funnel and a deep vat with a pointed and recessed bottom (“general's helmet”), which were likely used in beverage-making (3, 5). Several jars at this site also contained peach, plum, and Chinese date (jujube) pits, as well as seeds of sweet clover, jasmine, and hemp, suggesting that an herbal fruit drink was prepared.  

"Our analyses of the liquids inside lidded jars from Anyang and the Changzikou Tomb can be summarized briefly. Beeswax and epicuticular wax compounds were absent, implying the absence of honey or a plant additive. Tartaric acid and its salts were present at a very low level only in the Changzikou Tomb, consistent with mold saccharification of rice. Although the Changzikou Tomb sample gave a δ13C value of –25.3‰ in accord with a C3 plant such as rice (Table 1), the stable isotope determination for the Anyang liquid (–15.9‰) indicated that a C4 plant was used as a principal ingredient. Millet, which is well represented in the Anyang archaeobotanical corpus, is the most likely candidate" (Patrick E. McGovern, Juzhong Zhang, et al, "Fermented beverages of pre-and proto-historic China," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Published online before print December 8, 2004, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0407921102 PNAS December 21, 2004 vol. 101 no. 51 17593-17598, accessed 01-11-2013)

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Discovery of the "Ark Tablet": Decoding the Story of the Flood Circa 1,900 BCE – 1,700 BCE

In 2009 British Museum curator Irving Finkel, an expert on cuneiform inscriptions on clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia, received for examination and translation what came to be known as the "Ark Tablet" from its owner Douglas Simmonds. This is the only cuneiform tablet with precise instructions as to how to build the Ark described in the early accounts of the flood, best known through later accounts in literature, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Ark Tablet provided instructions for building the Ark in the form of a very large round boat called a coracle.

According to Finkel, the tablet dates from 1900-1700 BCE, though the tablet was not dated by the scribe. However, comparatively precise dating can be done from the character and composition of the cuneiform signs and from grammatical forms and usages. The tablet measures 11.5 x 6.0 cm and contains exactly 60 lines of cuneiform script written out ably and without error. In The Ark Before Noah. Decoding the Story of the Flood (2014) Finkel illustrated the tablet and translated its contents on pp. 107-110. Incidentally Finkel's well-illustrated book is a masterpiece of writing about relatively abstruse subjects for the general public. So geared to a non-scholarly audience is this book that footnotes are not even mentioned in the text. One has to search for them at the back of the book.

In the British Museum blog announcing his book on January 23, 2014 Finkel summarized his conclusions in this way:

"When the gods decided to wipe out mankind with a flood, the god Enki, who had a sense of humour, leaked the news to a man called Atra-hasis, the ‘Babylonian Noah,’ who was to build the Ark. Atra-hasis’s Ark, however was round. To my knowledge, no one has ever thought of that possibility. The new tablet also describes the materials and the measurements to build it: quantities of palm-fibre rope, wooden ribs and bathfuls of hot bitumen to waterproof the finished vessel. The result was a traditional coracle, but the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 sq. metres (equivalent to two-thirds the area of a football pitch), and six-metre high walls. The amount of rope prescribed, stretched out in a line, would reach from London to Edinburgh!

"To anyone who has the typical image learnt from children’s toys and book illustrations in mind, a round Ark is bizarre at first, but, on reflection, the idea makes sense. A waterproofed coracle would never sink and being round isn’t a problem – it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat. Palm-and-pitch coracles had been seen on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers since time immemorial: they were still a common sight on Iraq’s great waterways in the 1950s."

In an article in The Guardian published on January 24, 2014 Finkel was quoted as saying, "I am 107% convinced the ark never existed."

"Finkel describes the clay tablet as 'one of the most important human documents ever discovered', and his conclusions will send ripples into the world of creationism and among ark hunters, where many believe in the literal truth of the Bible account, and innumerable expeditions have been mounted to try to find the remains of the ark.

"The clay tablet is going on display at the British Museum, loaned by Simmons, beside a tablet from the museum's collection with the earliest map of the world, as seen from ancient Babylon. The flood tablet helped explain details of the map, which shows islands beyond the river marking the edge of the known world, with the text on the back explaining that on one are the remains of the ark.

"Finkel said that not only did the ark never exist, but ark hunters were looking in the wrong place – the map shows the ark in the direction of, but far beyond the mountain range later known as Ararat."

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The Oldest Known Medical Papyrus Circa 1,800 BCE

The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus (also Kahun Papyrus, Kahun Medical Papyrus, or UC 32057) is the oldest known medical text on papyrus. It was found at El-Lahun, Egypt (Faiyum, Kahun, كاهون‎) by Flinders Petrie in 1889  and first translated by F. Ll. Griffith in 1893 and published in The Petrie Papyri: Hieratic Papyri from Kahun and Gurob.

The papyrus concerns women's complaints—gynaecological diseases, fertility, pregnancy, and contraception. "The text is divided into thirty-four sections, each section dealing with a specific problem and containing diagnosis and treatment, no prognosis is suggested. Treatments are non surgical, comprising applying medicines to the affected body part or swallowing them. The womb is at times seen as the source of complaints manifesting themselves in other body parts."

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Thousands of Cuneiform Tablets Document Babylonian Mathematics 1,800 BCE – 1,600 BCE

YBC 7287, a Babylonian mathematical tablet preserved at Yale, circa 1800-1600 B.C.E. (View Larger)

In contrast to the scarcity of original sources for Egyptian mathematics, preserved on the relatively fragile medium of papyrus, our knowledge of Babylonian mathematics is derived from several thousand extremely durable clay tablets written in Cuneiform script excavated since the beginning of the nineteenth century.  "The majority of recovered clay tablets date from 1800 to 1600 BC, and cover topics which include fractions, algebra, quadratic and cubic equations, the Pythagorean theorem, the calculation of Pythagorean triples and possibly trigonometric functions."

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Probably the Earliest Surviving Recipe for Making Beer Circa 1,800 BCE

Evidence for brewing beer in Mesopotamia dates back to 3500-3100 BCE at the Sumerian settlement of Godin Tepe, an archaeological site in western Iran In 1992, archaeologists discovered chemical traces of beer in a fragmented jar dating to the mid-fourth century BCE. The same site also yielded evidence for early wine-making.

The Hymn to Ninkasi, the ancient Sumerian matron goddess of beer and alcohol, is probably the earliest surviving recipe for making beer. It's date is estimated at 1800 BCE. It is believed that recording the recipe in song or poetry may have served as a mnemonic for a people that was primarily illiterate. An English translation of the Hymn from the University of Oxford Electronic Text Corpus (ETCSLtranslation: t.4.23.1) reads as follows: 

"A hymn to Ninkasi (Ninkasi A)

"1-4. Given birth by the flowing water ……, tenderly cared for by Ninḫursaĝa! Ninkasi, given birth by the flowing water ……, tenderly cared for by Ninḫursaĝa!

"5-8. Having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you. Ninkasi, having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you.

"9-12. Your father is Enki, Lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu. Ninkasi, your father is Enki, Lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu.

"13-16. It is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics. Ninkasi, it is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics.

"17-20. It is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain. Ninkasi, it is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain.

"21-24. It is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?). Ninkasi, it is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?).

"25-28. It is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall. Ninkasi, it is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall.

"29-32. It is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes ……. Ninkasi, it is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes …….

"33-36. It is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine. Ninkasi, it is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine.


"1 line fragmentary You …… the sweetwort to the vessel. Ninkasi, ……. You …… the sweetwort to the vessel.

"41-44. You place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat. Ninkasi, you place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat.

"45-48. It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ninkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates" (accessed 01-12-2013).

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Ancient Babylonian Algorithms: The Earliest Programs Circa 1,800 BCE – 1,600 BCE

In 1972 computer scientist and mathematician Donald E. Knuth published "Ancient Babylonian Algorithms," in which he provided the first English translations of various cuneiform mathematical tablets, with commentary. The tablets he studied ranged in date from 1800-1600 BCE. As a reflection of how comparatively little prestige computer science had as an academic subject at the time, Knuth began his paper with the statement:

"One of the ways to help make computer science respectable is to show that is deeply rooted in history, not just a short-lived phenomenon. Therefore it is natural to turn to the earliest surviving documents which deal with computation, and to study how people approached the subject nearly 4000 years ago."

From his paper I offer a few selections:

" 'Babylonian Programming'

"The Babylonian mathematicians were not limited simply to the processes of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division; they were adept at solving many types of algebraic equations. But they did not have an algebraic notation that is quite as transparent as ours; they represented each formula by a set-by-step list of rules for its evaluation, i.e. by an algorithm for computing that formula. In effect, they worked with a 'machine language' representation of formulas instead of a symbolic language.

"The flavor of Babylonian mathematics can best be appreciated by studying several examples. The translations below attempt to render the words of the original texts as faithfully as possible into good English, without extensive editorial interpretation. Several remarks have been added in parentheses, to explain some of the things that were originally unstated on the tables. All numbers are presented Babylonian-style, i.e. without exponents, so the reader is warned that he will have to supply an appropriate scale factor in his head; thus, it is necessary to remember that I might mean 60 and 15 might mean 1/4.

"The first example that we shall discuss is excerpted from an Old-Babylonian tablet which was originally about 5 x 8 x 1 inches in size. Half of it now appears in the British Museum, about one-fourth appears in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, and the other fourth has apparently been lost or destroyed over the years....

" A (rectangular) cistern.
The height is 3,20, and a volume of 27, 46, 40 has been excavated.
The length exceeds the width by 50. (The object is to find the length and the width.)
You should take the reciprocal of the height, 3, 20, obtaining 18.
Multiply this by the volume, 27, 46, 40, obtaining 8, 20. (This is the length times the width; the problem has been reduced to finding x and y given that x - y = 50 and xy = 8, 20. A standard procedure for solving such equations, which occurs repeatedly in Babylonian manuscripts, is now used.)
Take half of 50 and square it, obtaining 10, 25.
Add 8, 20, and you get 8, 30, 25. (Remember that the radix point position always needs to be supplied. In this case, 50 stands for 5/6 and 8,20 stands for 8 1/2, taking into account the sizes of typical cisterns!)
The square root is 2, 55.
Makes two copies of this, adding (25) to the one and subtracting from the other.
You find that 3,20 (mainly 3 1/2) is the length and 2, 30 (namely 2 1/2) is the width.
This is the procedure.

" The first step here is to divide 27, 46, 40 by 3,20; this is reduced to muliplication by the reciprocal. The multiplication was done by referring to tables, probably by manipulating stones or sand in some manner and then writing down the answer. The square root was also computed by referring to tables, since we know that many tables of n vs. existed. Note that the rule for computing the values of x and y such that x - y =d and xy = p ≠ (d/2).

"The calculations described in Babylonian tablets are not merely the solutions to specific individual problems; they are actually general procedures for solving a whole class of problems. The numbers shown are merely included as an aid to exposition, in order to clarify the general method. This fact is clear because there are numerous instances where a particular case of the general method reduces to multiplying by 1; such a multiplication is explicity carried out, in order to abide by the general rules. Note also the stereotyped ending, 'This is the procedure,' which is commonly found at the end of each section on a table. Thus the Babylonian procedures are genuine algorithms, and we can commend the Babylonians for developing a nice way to explain an algorithm by example as the algorithm itself was being defined.... (pp. 672-73).

Knuth, Ancient Babylonian Algorithms, Communications of the ACM 15, no. 7 (July 1972) 671-77.

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The Code of Hammurabi Circa 1,760 BCE

The upper part of the stele containing the Code of Hammurabi. (View Larger)

The Code of Hammurabi  is the best-preserved ancient law code. It was enacted by the sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi, and inscribed on stelae displayed in temples around the Babylonian Empire. Of these only one example survives, inscribed on a seven foot, four inch tall basalt stone slab or stele, preserved in the Louvre.

"The stele containing the Code of Hammurabi was discovered in 1901 by the Egyptologist Gustav Jéquier, a member of the expedition headed by Jacques de Morgan. The stele was discovered in what is now Khūzestān, Iran (ancient Susa, Elam), where it had been taken as plunder by the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte in the 12th century BC. . . .

"At the top of the stele is a bas-relief image of a Babylonian god (either Marduk or Shamash), with the king of Babylon presenting himself to the god, with his right hand raised to his mouth as a mark of respect.[1] The text covers the bottom portion with the laws written in Akkadian language cuneiform script. The text has been broken down by translators into 282 laws, but this division is arbitrary, since the original text contains no divisional markers" (Wikipedia article on Code of Hammurabi, accessed 02-04-2009).

The Code of Hammurabi applied to medical practice as it mentioned "fees payable to a physician following successful treatment; these varied according to the station of the patient. Similarly, the punishment for the failure of an operation is set out. At least this shows that in Babylon 4000 years ago the medical professional had advanced far enough in public esteeem to warrant the payment of adequate fees" (J. Norman [ed], Morton's Medical Bibliography 5th ed [1991] no. 1).

On 02-04-2009 I was able to access a special video and sound presentation in English on the Code of Hammurabi stele from the Louvre website at this link.

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The Earliest Surviving Recipes Circa 1,700 BCE

YBC 4644, one of three tablets in Yale's collection inscribed with ancient recipes.

We have a general knowledge of the foodstuffs that comprised the diets of the Egyptians, Hittites, Phoenicians, and Hebrews, but lack recipes from those ancient cultures.

Among Yale University’s collection of cuneiform tablets are three tablets, each containing a recipe collection—a total of 35 recipes. Composed in the middle of the Old Babylonian period, fhey are the world’s oldest cookbooks. The tablets were deciphered and translated by Jean Bottéro and Teresa Lavender Fagan in The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia (2004). The recipes are difficult to understand for several reasons:

"broken and damaged passages, obscure colloquial Akkadian, unknown vocabulary and technical language. In fact, some of the cooking ingredients are still completely unknown to us; and others, which have been identified, have passed from modern use, so we cannot appreciate what they really are. Add to this the fact that the cooking procedures are not precise, and neither cooking times nor quantities of ingredients are given, then one can appreciate the obstacle of reproducing the recipes accurately and faithfully. Nevertheless, the lack of specificity provides some leeway and leaves room for interpretation, without, hopefully, sacrificing authenticity.

"All of the recipes have one thing in common: every one of the finished dishes relies on combinations of meat, fowl, vegetables, or grain cooked in water. Cooking in water was an enormous innovation. From other kinds of evidence, we know that before this time entirely different cooking methods were used, like the use of radiant heat in an oven; indirect heat in hot ashes; and direct exposure to flame, as in broiling, grilling, or spit roasting. Cooking in liquid represented a giant step forward in terms of taste and sophistication. It created a richness and diversity of flavor that could not be achieved in the more ancient roasted, grilled, and broiled food" (http://homepage.mac.com/toke_knudsen/cuneiform_cuisine/Personal84.html, accessed 06-15-2009).

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The Rigveda Circa 1,700 BCE – 1,100 BCE

One of the oldest extant texts in any Indo-European language, the Rigveda (Rig Veda) (Sanskrit: ऋग्वेद ṛgveda, a compound of ṛc "praise, verse" and veda "knowledge"), an ancient Indian sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, was composed in the north-western region of the Indian subcontinent. 

"It is counted among the four canonical sacred texts (śruti) of Hinduism known as the Vedas. Some of its verses are still recited as Hindu prayers, at religious functions and other occasions, putting these among the world's oldest religious texts in continued use. The Rigveda contains several mythological and poetical accounts of the origin of the world, hymns praising the gods, and ancient prayers for life, prosperity, etc." (Wikipedia article on Rigveda, accessed 07-10-2011).

The date of composition of the Vedas is controversial. Some argue that the Rigveda was composed circa 3000 BCE, which would make it the oldest surviving literary work.

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“Accurate Reckoning for Inquiring into Things, and the Knowledge of All Things, Mysteries . . .All Secrets” Circa 1,650 BCE

The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. (View Larger)

Dating from the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt, the Rhind Mathematial Papyrus is the most significant document of Egyptian mathematics. It was copied by the scribe Ahmes from a now-lost text from the reign of Amenemhat III (12th dynasty). The manuscript  is 33 cm tall and over 5 meters long, and is written in hieratic script. It is dated  Year 33 of the Hyksos king Apophis and also contains a separate later Year 11 on its verso likely from his successor, Khamudi.

"In the opening paragraphs of the papyrus, Ahmes presents the papyrus as giving 'Accurate reckoning for inquiring into things, and the knowledge of all things, mysteries...all secrets'."

Alexander Henry Rhind, a Scottish antiquarian, purchased the papyrus in 1858 in Luxor, Egypt.  It was apparently found during illegal excavations in or near the Ramesseum. The British Museum acquired it in 1864 along with the Egyptian Mathematical Leather Roll, also owned by Rhind.

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The Oldest Surgical Treatise Circa 1,600 BCE

The Edwin Smith Papyrus, the most detailed and sophisticated of the extant medical papyri, is the only surviving copy of part of an ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery, and the world's oldest surgical treatise. Written in the hieratic script of the ancient Egyptian language,  it is based on material from a thousand years earlier. It consists of a list of 48 traumatic injury cases, with a description of the physical examination, treatment and prognosis of each. When the papyrus was discovered it was about 15 feet long in roll or scroll form.  In 1862 it was purchased in Luxor, Egypt by Edwin Smith, an American Egyptologist and collector and dealer in antiquities. Sometime in the 19th century it was cut into 17 columns. Coincidentally, Smith was born in Connecticut in 1822 – the same year Egyptian hieroglyphic was decoded by Champollion. After Smith's death in 1906 his daughter donated the papyrus to New York Historical Society. From 1938 through 1948, the papyrus was at the Brooklyn Museum. In 1948, the New York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Museum presented the papyrus to the New York Academy of Medicine, where it is preserved today. 

"The text begins by addressing injuries to the head, and continues with treatments for injuries to neck, arms and torso, where the text breaks off. Among the treatments are closing wounds with sutures (for wounds of the lip, throat, and shoulder), preventing and curing infection with honey and mouldy bread, and stopping bleeding with raw meat. Immobilisation was often advised for head and spinal cord injuries, which is still in practice today in the short-term treatment of some injuries. The use of magic for treatment is resorted to in only one case (Case 9).

"The papyrus also describes anatomical observations in exquisite detail. It contains the first known descriptions of the cranial sutures, the meninges, the external surface of the brain, the cerebrospinal fluid, and the intracranial pulsations. The papyrus shows that the heart, vessels, liver, spleen, kidneys, ureters and bladder were recognized, and that the blood vessels were known to be connected to the heart. Other vessels are described, some carrying air, some mucus, while two to the right ear are said to carry the breath of life, and two to the left ear the breath of death. The physiological functions of organs and vessels remained a complete mystery to the ancient Egyptians."

♦ You can scroll through a virtual scroll of the Edwin Smith papyrus on the website of the National Library of Medicine at http://archive.nlm.nih.gov/proj/ttp/flash/smith/smith.html. When you click on the text button on the site you see the new translation of that portion of the papyrus made by James P. Allen of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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The Largest Surviving Medical Treatise from Ancient Mesopotamia Circa 1,600 BCE

Sumerian medical tablet (2400 BC), ancient city of Nippur.  Lists 15 prescriptions used by a pharmacist.  Library of Ashurbanipal.

Because clay tablets, especially those baked in fires, were more durable than papyrus rolls, more original source material regarding medicine survived from Mesoptomia than from ancient Greece or Rome. Even though the amount of surviving medical textual information from Mesopotamia may be greater than what survived from Egypt, comparing the quantities of the two sources of ancient medical information is complicated since, in addition to the medical papyri which survived in the hospitable climate of Egypt, Egyptian mummies represent a unique source of paleopathological information that is not textual.

The surviving Mesopotamian medical records consist of roughly 1000 cuneiform tablets, of which 660 medical tablets from the library of Ashurbanipal are preserved in the British Museum. About 420 tablets from other sites also survived, including the library excavated from the private house of a medical practitioner (an asipu) from Neo-Assyrian Assur, and some Middle Assyrian and Middle Babylonia texts.

Most of these Mesopotamian medical tablets were not discovered until the nineteenth century, and because of difficulties with translation of cuneiform script, many of these tablets were not understood by scholars until recently. Another factor that must be taken into consideration is that since these tablets survived by unintended burial rather than by manuscript copying, and they were not preserved until comparatively recently in conventional libraries or museums, the medicine they record did not necessarily play a conventional role in the Western medical tradition. What influence their contents might have had on the practice of later physicians remains unclear.

The medical texts from Ashurbanipal's library were first published in facsimile by Reginald Campbell Thompson as Assyrian Medical Texts. From the Originals in the British Museum (1923). Franz Kocher later published six volumes called Die babylonisch-assyrische Medizin in Texten und Untersuchungen (1963-1980), the first four volumes of which contain the tablets found from sites other than Assurbanipal's library.

"The remaining two volumes of Kocher's work augment Campbell Thompson, providing new joins of broken fragments and much material uncovered in the British Museum. At least one more volume of Nineveh texts has been announced. In addition, the series Spaet Babylonische Texte aus Uruk contains some 30 medical texts not included in Kocher's work. The vast majority of these tablets are prescriptions, but there are a few series of tablets that contained entries that were directly related to one another, and these have been labeled 'treatises' " (Nancy Demand, The Asclepion, accessed 05-30-2009).

More recently the texts of many of the Mesopotamian medical tablets were translated and analyzed from the medical point of view by  Assyriologist/cuneiformist, JoAnn Scurlock and physician/medical historian Burton R. Anderson as Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine (2005).

•The largest surviving medical treatise from ancient Mesopotamia is known as the Treatise of Medical Diagnosis and Prognoses.

"The text of this treatise consists of 40 tablets collected and studied by the French scholar R. Labat. Although the oldest surviving copy of this treatise dates to around 1600 BCE, the information contained in the text is an amalgamation of several centuries of Mesopotamian medical knowledge. The diagnostic treatise is organized in head to toe order with separate subsections covering convulsive disorders, gynecology and pediatrics. It is unfortunate that the antiquated translations available at present to the non-specialist make ancient Mesopotamian medical texts sound like excerpts from a sorceror's handbook. In fact, as recent research is showing, the descriptions of diseases contained in the diagnostic treatise demonstrate a keen ability to observe and are usually astute. Virtually all expected diseases can be found described in parts of the diagnostic treatise, when those parts are fully preserved, as they are for neurology, fevers, worms and flukes, VD and skin lesions. The medical texts are, moreover, essentially rational, and some of the treatments, as for example those designed for excessive bleeding (where all the plants mentioned can be easily identified), are essentially the same as modern treatments for the same conditions" (Nancy Demand, The Aesclepion, accessed 05-30-2009).

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The Nebra Sky Disk 1,600 BCE

The Nebra Sky Disk. (View Larger)

The Nebra Sky Disk, attributed to a site near Nebra, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, is a bronze disk about 30 cm in diameter, with a blue-green patina inlaid with gold symbols which have generally been interpreted as a sun or full moon, a lunar crescent, and stars, including a cluster interpreted as the Pleiades. The disk is associated with Bronze Age Unetice Culture.

"Two golden arcs along the sides, making the angle between the solstices, were added later. A final addition was another arc at the bottom surrounded with multiple strokes (of uncertain meaning, variously interpreted as a Solar Barge with numerous oars, as the Milky Way or as a rainbow)" (Wikipedia article on Nebra sky disk, accessed 11-04-2010).

When it appeared on the antiquities market in 2001 the disk was widely suspected to be a forgery. Scientific research summarized in the Wikipedia article provided evidence for its authenticity that was widely accepted in 2010.

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The Most Extensive Record of Ancient Egyptian Medicine Circa 1,550 BCE

Papyrus Ebers (View Larger)

Written in Hieratic, the 110 page Papyrus Ebers is the most extensive surviving record of ancient Egyptian medicine.  "It contains many incantations meant to turn away disease-causing demons and there is also evidence of a long tradition of empirical practice and observation.

"The papyrus contains a treatise on the heart. It notes that the heart is the center of the blood supply, with vessels attached for every member of the body. The Egyptians seem to have known little about the kidneys and made the heart the meeting point of a number of vessels which carried all the fluids of the body — blood, tears, urine and sperm.

"Mental disorders are detailed in a chapter of the papyrus called the Book of Hearts. Disorders such as depression and dementia are covered. The descriptions of these disorders suggest that Egyptians conceived of mental and physical diseases in much the same way.

"The papyrus contains chapters on contraception, diagnosis of pregnancy and other gynaecological matters, intestinal disease and parasites, eye and skin problems, dentistry and the surgical treatment of abscesses and tumors, bone-setting and burns."

Edwin Smith, who also owned the Edwin Smith Papyrus, bought the Ebers Papyrus in 1862. It was said to have been found between the legs of a mummy in the Assassif district of the Theban necropolis. It remained in Smith's collection until at least 1869 when it was offered for sale in the catalog of an antiquities dealer, described as "a large medical papyrus in the possession of Edwin Smith, an American farmer of Luxor." It was purchased in 1872 by the German Egyptologist and novelist Georg Ebers, and is preserved in the University of Leipzig Library.

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Egyptian Scribal Palettes with Ink Wells and Brushes Circa 1,550 BCE – 1450

Two Egyptian scribal palettes preserved in the British Museum. (View Larger)

The Egyptian hieroglyphic sign for 'write' was formed from an image of the scribal palette and brush case. Statues of scribes are sometimes shown with a papyrus across their knees and a palette—the scribe's trademark—over one shoulder. Two examples of the scribal palettes are preserved in the British Museum (EA 12784, EA 5512).

"From the late Old Kingdom on, the basic palette was made of a rectangular piece of wood, with two cavities at one end to hold cakes of black and red ink. Carbon was used to make the black ink and iron-rich red ochre to make the red. Both pigments were mixed with gum so that they congealed rather than turned to dust when they dried. The cakes of ink were moistened with a wet brush, rather like modern watercolours or Chinese ink. Brush-pens were made of rushes, the tip cut at an angle and chewed to separate the fibres. These were kept in a slot in the middle of the palette.

"Black was the normal colour for writing. Red was used to mark the start of a text, or to highlight key words and phrases, like quantities in medicines, or for the names of demons in religious papyri. More colours were needed for illustrations, such as those in the Book of the Dead" (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/t/two_scribal_palettes_with_ink.aspx, accessed 07-11-2009).

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In Ancient Egypt Only the "Book of the Dead" Papyri Were Commercially Produced Circa 1,550 BCE – 50 BCE

Detail from the Papyrus of Ani, showing Ani and his wife entering at left.  Please click to see complete image.

Detail of image showing cursive hieroglyphs.  Please click to see complete image.

Detail from plate 6 showing the name "Ani, The Scribe." Please click to view entire image.

Detail from plate 12 showing the name "Ani, The Scribe" in a different hand.  Please click to view entire image.

It is doubtful whether any book trade, as we understand the term, existed in ancient Egypt because literacy was limited to an elite group, chiefly scribes and priests. Instead information was transmitted by oral tradition or proclamation. It is believed that a small number of literate people may have personally copied texts that they needed. Only copies of the Book of the Dead, a funerary text used from the beginning of the New Kingdom, around 1550 BCE to around 50 BCE, were written for sale.  Some copies of this work have the place for the name left blank, to be filled in later.  Close study shows that the name of the owner was sometimes written in by a later scribe with different handwriting, suggesting that these funeral papyri were maintained in inventory before sale.  It is thought that illiterate people also wanted to possess the Book of the Dead, which guaranteed protection against the dangers of the afterlife, in order to add it to their tomb furnishings.

"A Book of the Dead papyrus was produced to order by scribes. They were commissioned by people in preparation for their own funeral, or by the relatives of someone recently deceased. They were expensive items; one source gives the price of a Book of the Dead scroll as one deben of silver, perhaps half the annual pay of a labourer. Papyrus itself was evidently costly, as there are many instances of its re-use in everyday documents, creating palimpsests. In one case, a Book of the Dead was written on second-hand papyrus.

"Most owners of the Book of the Dead were evidently part of the social elite; they were initially reserved for the royal family, but later papyri are found in the tombs of scribes, priests and officials. Most owners were men, and generally the vignettes included the owner's wife as well. Towards the beginning of the history of the Book of the Dead, there are roughly 10 copies belonging to men for every one for a woman. However, during the Third Intermediate Period, 2/3 were for women; and women owned roughly a third of the hieratic paypri from the Late and Ptolemaic Periods.

"The dimensions of a Book of the Dead could vary widely; the longest is 40m long while some are as short as 1m. They are composed of sheets of papyrus joined together, the individual papyri varying in width from 15 cm to 45 cm. The scribes working on Book of the Dead papyri took more care over their work than those working on more mundane texts; care was taken to frame the text within margins, and to avoid writing on the joints between sheets. The words peret em heru, or 'coming forth by day' sometimes appear on the reverse of the outer margin, perhaps acting as a label.

"Books were often prefabricated in funerary workshops, with spaces being left for the name of the deceased to be written in later. For instance, in the Papyrus of Ani, the name "Ani" appears at the top or bottom of a column, or immediately following a rubric introducing him as the speaker of a block of text; the name appears in a different handwriting to the rest of the manuscript, and in some places is mis-spelt or omitted entirely.

"The text of a New Kingdom Book of the Dead was typically written in cursive hieroglyphs, most often from left to right, but also sometimes from right to left. The hieroglyphs were in columns, which were separated by black lines - a similar arrangement to that used when hieroglyphs were carved on tomb walls or monuments. Illustrations were put in frames above, below, or between the columns of text. The largest illustrations took up a full page of papyrus.

"From the 21st Dynasty onward, more copies of the Book of the Dead are found in hieratic script. The calligraphy is similar to that of other hieratic manuscripts of the New Kingdom; the text is written in horizontal lines across wide columns (often the column size corresponds to the size of the papyrus sheets of which a scroll is made up). Occasionally a hieratic Book of the Dead contains captions in hieroglyphic.

"The text of a Book of the Dead was written in both black and red ink, regardless of whether it was in hieroglyphic or hieratic script. Most of the text was in black, with red used for the titles of spells, opening and closing sections of spells, the instructions to perform spells correctly in rituals, and also for the names of dangerous creatures such as the demon Apep. The black ink used was based on carbon, and the red ink on ochre, in both cases mixed with water.

"The style and nature of the vignettes used to illustrate a Book of the Dead varies widely. Some contain lavish colour illustrations, even making use of gold leaf. Others contain only line drawings, or one simple illustration at the opening. Book of the Dead papyri were often the work of several different scribes and artists whose work was literally pasted together. It is usually possible to identify the style of more than one scribe used on a given manuscript, even when the manuscript is a shorter one. The text and illustrations were produced by different scribes; there are a number of Books where the text was completed but the illustrations were left empty" (Wikipedia article on Book of the Dead, accessed 05-06-2012).


In 1842 Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius named this class of papyrus when he edited papyrus Turin 1791 as an exemplar, and had it published in Leipzig in 1842 as Das Todtenbuch der Ägypter nach dem hieroglyphischen Papyrus in Turin mit einem Vorworte zum ersten Male Herausgegeben. This was the first printed edition of The Book of the Dead. The modern numbering of the Book of the Dead spells (BD 1-165) is derived from Lepsius's edition of this papyrus.

(This entry was last revised on April 4, 2014.) 

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How the Inca Quipu System of Mathematical Record-Keeping Worked Circa 1,500 BCE – 1912

In 1912 anthropologist Leslie Leland Locke published "The Ancient Quipu, A Peruvian Knot Record," American Anthropologist, New Series I4 (1912) 325-332. This was the first work to show how the Inca (Inka) Empire and its predecessor societies used the quipu (Khipu) for mathematical and accounting records in the decimal system. Locke stated his conclusions as follows:

"1. These knots were used purely for numerical purposes.

"2. Distances from the main cord were used roughly to locate the orders, which were on a decimal scale.

"3. The quipu was not used for counting or calculating but for record keeping. The mode of tying the knots was not adapted to counting, and there was no need of its use for such a purpose, as the Quichua language contained a complete and adequate system of numeration.

"4. Other specimens examined contain the same types of knots there being but ten variations in all, two forms for the single knot and eight long knots. These eight differ from each other and from the single knot only in the number of turns taken in tying. There is nothing about any specimen examined to give the slightest suggesion that it was used for any other than numerical purposes.

"5. If the hypothesis that this quipu is a record of the same classes of objects be correct, it would seem to indicate the colors in this case have no special significance, but were taken according to the fancy or convenience of the maker. This does not signify that there was not a rough color scheme in sue for some purposes.

"6. These specimens confirm in a remarkable way the accuracy with which [the Inca] Garcilasso [de la Vega] described the manners and customs of his people."

In 1923 Locke published an expanded version of his research in a monograph entitled The Ancient Quipu or Peruvian Knot Record.

According to "The "Storage Engine" website of the Computer History Museum, the quipu numerical record keeping system was in use by the Tiwanaku people, precursors of the Incas, perhaps as early as 1500 BCE:

"The Tiwanaku people lived in the Andes Mountains of South America around Lake Titicaca in today’s Bolivia from circa 1500 BCE until circa 1200 CE. Evidence suggests a sophisticated culture adept at astronomical timekeeping, architecture, agriculture, and social order. Shards of Tiwanaku pottery dated to around 400 CE bear artwork depicting a tribal elder or shaman with his arm extended horizontally. A series of knotted strings that today is known as a quipu dangles from the arm. Predating the Tiwanaku society, archeologists discovered the oldest known quipu made about 4,600 years ago at Caral on the Peruvian coast.

"The Inca civilization that emerged in the region in the 13th century adopted the quipu to record and transmit tax records, census data and other information across the great distances of the Inca Empire. “Quipu” means “knot” in the Peruvian Quechua language. Europeans learned of the quipu when Spanish colonizers arrived in the Inca capital of Cuzco in 1532. Suspicious of the purpose of these assemblies of knotted, colored cotton and wool cords, the conquistadors destroyed most of them. Less than 300 remain."

The first Spanish historian of Peruvian culture, conquistador Pedro Cieza de Léon, wrote in Parte Primera dela Crónica del Perú (1553) that “Each ruler of a province was provided with accountants, and by these knots they kept account of what tribute was to be paid … and with such accuracy that not so much as pair of sandals was missing.” However, the exact way that quipu were used was not understood until Locke's work in the 20th century.

Research on this topic was further advanced by mathematician Marcia Ascher and anthropologist Robert Ascher in Code of the Quipu. A Study of Media, Mathematics, and Culture (1981).

(This entry was last revised on 11-27-2015.)

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A Wooden Writing Board Containing Text of the Words of Khakheperresoneb Circa 1,500 BCE

EA 5645 of the British Museum: the Words of Khakheperresoneb written on a wooden writing board. (View Larger)

In addition to papyrus, wood was used as a writing medium in the ancient world, though far fewer examples have survived than writing on papyrus, clay, or stone. An example of an ancient Egyptian wooden writing board is that containing text of the words of Khakheperresoneb preserved in the British Museum (EA 5645).

"The main uses of writing boards in ancient Egypt included writing practice. This board is made from wood overlaid with gesso to provide a surface for writing, which could then be easily erased when required. Fortunately, this board was not erased, since it is the major source for one of the literary texts of the Middle Kingdom (2040-1750 BC): the Words of Khakheperresoneb.

"The name of the author, Khakheperresoneb, is based on one of the royal names of King Senwosret II of the Twelfth Dynasty (about 1844-1837 BC). This suggests that the original text was composed in the late Twelfth Dynasty some two hundred years earlier than this copy. It was common for works of literature that were considered to be classics to be repeatedly copied in their entirety or in sections in the New Kingdom (about 1550-1-70 BC). The small red dots in the text are termed 'verse points' and mark the ends of lines of verse" (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/w/wooden_writing_board_and_text.aspx, accessed 07-11-2009).

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The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions, the Earliest Evidence for Alphabetic Writing Circa 1,500 BCE

The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, first discovered at Serabit el-Khadem (Serabit el-Khadim), an ancient Egyptian turquoise mining site in the Sinai Peninsula, by W. M. Flinders Petrie in 1905, and supplemented by additional finds in subsequent decades, represent the earliest evidence for alphabetic writing. They consist of linear pictographic symbols inscribed on statuettes, stone panels, and rock faces. In the 1994-95 John Coleman Darnell and Deborah Darnell, who started searching along caravan trails in the Western Desert west of Luxor in the Theban Desert Road Survey, discovered two single-line rock inscriptions at Wadi el-Hol, near Thebes in Upper Egypt. Those inscriptions are written in a script that closely resembles the Proto-Sinaitic texts from Serabit el-Khadem. 

Joseph Lam, "The Invention and Development of the Alphabet," IN: Wood (ed) Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond (2010) 189-95, illustrating one of the inscriptions as No. 89 on p. 196.

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Survey of Ancient Libraries and Archives in the Near East 1,500 BCE – 300 BCE

Olof Pedersén, Archives and Libraries in the Ancient Near East 1500-300 B.C. (1998), remains the most comprehensive survey of the earliest western archives and libraries that I have seen, as of February 2013. It contains numerous schematic diagrams of ancient building layouts on which it identifies the location of each library or archive found. With a few exceptions, it does not discuss or attempt to summarize the contents of any archive or library covered.

1. Pedersén's study describes 253 archives and libraries from 51 different cities, of which 125 archives and libraries date from 1500-1000 BCE and 128 to 1000-300 BCE. "Since many of the very early excavations did not properly document the find-spots of tablets, it is probable that some additional archives or libraries from this period have been unearthed. . . ." (p. 238)

2. "Most of the cities or towns where archives or libraries have been unearthed were cities of medium or major size. Only rarely has material been found in smaller towns. . . ; it is unclear whether this is due to lack of written documentation in rural areas or only a consequence of a limited number of excavations of smaller settlements.

3. "Several of the archives and libraries, expecially the larger ones, were apparently placed upon wooden shelves. Evidence of wooden shelves is proposed to exist for a limited number of official archives (Tapigga 1, Harbe1), and has been assumed elsewhere (e.g., Nineveh 2). There is, however, a lack of evidence in many sites indicating the use of wooden shelves, probably due to the perishable nature of wood and a lack of sounder achaeological methodology during the earlier excavations. Sometimes the shelves were constructed of brick or designed as niches in the walls. Such imperishable shelves have been preserved in the some libraries  (Dur-Sarrukin 1 and 2, Sippar 2). The temple library in Sippar is the oldest library in history found with literary texts still standing in their original position on the shelves" (p. 244).

4. "The largest archives and libraries consist of between 1,000 and 30,000 texts. There are at least 16, perhaps even 21, archives or libraries of such size. They represent six or eight percent of the total number of 253 archives and libraries discussed here. The largest archive is the Neo-Babylonian administrative archive from the Samas temple (Sippar 1), comprising about 30,000 texts." (pp. 244-45).

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One of the Earliest Known Examples of Writing in Europe Circa 1,490 BCE – 1,390 BCE

On April 2, 2011 Michael Cosmopoulos of the University of Missouri-St. Louis reported the discovery at Ilaina, Greece of a clay tablet written in Linear B script. This tablet, 2 x 3 inches in size, was preserved when someone discarded it in a trash pit, burned the trash, and inadvertently fired the clay. 

When the tablet was discovered it was the one of the earliest examples of writing found on the mainland of Europe.

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Wooden Drawing Board with a figure of Thutmose III Circa 1,450 BCE

An ancient Egyptian wooden drawing board inscribed with a picture of Thutmose III. It is preserved in the British Library as EA 5645. (View Larger)

A wooden drawing board from ancient Egypt with a figure of Thutmose III, preserved in the British Museum (EA 5601), documents how Egyptian artists used various media for practicing or creating their designs.

"The most common [surviving examples] are ostraka (flakes of stone or potsherds used as drawing or writing pads), but several wooden drawing boards have survived. The surface was coated with gesso and then smoothed; it could then be cleaned and reused. The figure of Thutmose III on this board was perhaps a preliminary drawing that was later to be transferred to a tomb or temple wall, while the other drawings were presumably practice hieroglyphs.

"This object is significant because the design has been laid out on a grid. From the Old Kingdom (about 2613-2160 BC) onwards, a system of guidelines, later developed into a squared grid, was used to ensure the correct proportions of the figures. Before the Late Period, standing figures were generally laid out on a vertical grid of eighteen squares measured to the figure's hairline, and seated figures on one of fourteen. The horizontal lap of the seated figure accounts for the missing four squares. Grids were drawn onto the walls and even onto the stone of statues. When the scene was finished the lines were either cut away or painted out. Hence unfinished walls and practice sketches where the grid remains intact, like this one, are of immense value" (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/w/wooden_drawing_board_with_a_fi.aspx, accessed 07-11-2009).

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Linear B and its Decipherment: Records of Mycenaean Civilization Circa 1,450 BCE – 1953

"Before the advent of the Greek alphabet, the written records of Mainland Greece, Crete, and Cyprus were recorded using a family of five related scripts. The earliest of these was Cretan Hieroglyphic, devised by the Minoans on Crete at the end of the 3rd millennium BCE; their later script, Linear A, is based on Cretan Hieroglyphic. Linear A in turn served as the model for two more scripts near the end of the Bronze Age: Cypro-Minoan, the script of the pre-Greek inhabitants of Cyprus; and Linear B, the script of the Mycenaeans, used for writing Mycenaean Greek. Finally, in the early Iron Age, the Greek-speaking peoples of Cyprus used Cypro-Minoan as the model for a new script, the Cypriot Syllabary, and employed it to write in their own dialect of Greek" (Brent Davis, Introduction to the Aegean Pre-Alphabetic Scripts [2010]).

About 1450 BCE, during or shortly after the period in which Cypro-Minoan was created on Cyprus, the Mycenaeans devised their own script based on the still undeciphered script known today as Linear A, and began using it to create administrative records. This syllabic script, different from Linear A, and first found in the discovery of Knossos on Crete in 1878, was called Linear B by archaeologist Arthur Evans

"Mycenaean artifacts have been found well outside the limits of the Mycenaean world: namely Mycenaean swords are known from as far away as Georgia in the Caucasus, an amber object inscribed with Linear B symbols has been found in BavariaGermany and Mycenaean bronze double axes and other objects dating from the 13th century BC have been found in Ireland and in Wessex and Cornwall in England" (Wikipedia article on Mycenaean Greece, accessed 10-13-2014).

During 1952 and 1953 English architect and classical scholar Michael Ventris deciphered Linear B without the aid of a bilingual document—the use of which was so instrumental in the decipherment of other ancient languages such as PhoenicianEgyptian hieroglyphs and cuneiform script. Ventris's remarkable achievement proved that Linear B is an early form of Greek (Mycenaean Greek) used from about 1450 to 1200 BCE.

During the Bronze Age Collapse, from circa 1200-1150 BCE Linear B, found mainly in the palace archives  at Knossos, Cydonia, Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae, disappeared with the fall of Mycenaean  civilization. The succeeding period, known as the Greek Dark Ages, left no evidence of the use of writing. With the collapse of the palatial centers at Knossos and elsewhere—one possible but no longer widely accepted explanation for which was the eruption of the volcano on the island of Thera (Santorini)—no more monumental stone buildings were built and the practice of wall painting may have ceased. Writing in Linear B also ceased, vital trade links were lost, and towns and villages were abandoned. The population of Greece was reduced, and the world of organized state armies, kings, officials, and redistributive economies disappeared. Most of the information concerning the Greek Dark Ages comes from burial sites and artifacts contained within the graves. To what extent the earliest Greek literary sources, the Iliad and Odyssey— products of the oral tradition— and Hesiod's Works and Days written after writing was reintroduced to Greece, describe life in the Greek Dark Ages or earlier remains an issue debated by scholars.

Ventris & Chadwick, Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956), chapters 1-2. Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B (1958).

In February 2014 a very useful anonymous illustrated historical summary of "The Decipherment Process" was available from the classics department at the University of Cambridge at this link. The latest bibliographical reference in this PDF was dated 2013.

In 2013 attention was drawn to the work of the American classicist Alice Kober, who worked for years on the decipherment of Linear B, but died of lung cancer in 1950 at the early age of 43. It was suggested that Ventris may have been assisted in his discovery by work done by Kober. 

(This entry was last revised on October 13, 2014.)

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The Proto-Canaanite Alphabet 1,450 BCE – 1,050 BCE

The Ostracon from ‘Izbet Sartah (1200–1000 BCE) showing characters of the Proto-Canaanite alphabet.

"The Proto-Canaanite alphabet is a consonantal alphabet of twenty-two acrophonic glyphs, found in Levantine texts of the Late Bronze Age (from ca. the 15th century BC), by convention taken to last until a cut-off date of 1050 BC, after which it is called Phoenician. About a dozen incriptions written in Proto-Canaanite have been discovered in modern-day Israel and Lebanon.

"While a descendant script from the Egyptian hieroglyphs, it is also the parent script of Phoenician, itself the ancestor of nearly every alphabet in use today, from Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Roman, and Berber in the West to Thai, Mongol, and perhaps Hangul in the East. The Hebrew alphabet remains the closest to its predecessor, as only the form of the letters has been modified—unsurprising, since Hebrew is a Canaanite language and had, in its original pronunciation, roughly the same set of consonants as the dialect that the alphabet was devised for."

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The Oldest Surviving Water Clock or Clepsydra 1,417 BCE – 1,379 BCE

Water clocks, along with sundials, are, with the exception of the vertical gnomon and the day-counting tally stick, the oldest time-measuring instruments. Where and when water clocks were first invented is not known. Until the development of the pendulum clock (1656), water clocks were the most accurate timekeeping devices.

"The oldest water clock of which there is physical evidence dates to c. 1417-1379 BC, during the reign of Amenhotep III where it was used in the Temple of Amen-Re at Karnak. The oldest documentation of the water clock is the tomb inscription of the 16th century BC Egyptian court official Amenemhet, which identifies him as its inventor. These simple water clocks, which were of the outflow type, were stone vessels with sloping sides that allowed water to drip at a nearly constant rate from a small hole near the bottom. There were twelve separate columns with consistently spaced markings on the inside to measure the passage of "hours" as the water level reached them. The columns were for each of the twelve months to allow for the variations of the seasonal hours. These clocks were used by priests to determine the time at night so that the temple rites and sacrifices could be performed at the correct hour. These clocks may have been used in daylight as well" (Wikipedia article on water clock, accessed 12-25-2011).

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The Earliest Surviving Detailed Bibliographical Entries Circa 1,400 BCE

Collection catalogue tablet from the Hattusas Palace Archives. Hattusa, Turkey


Cuneiform tablets discovered at Hattusas (Hattusa), capital of the Hittite Empire in the Bronze Age, near modern Boğazkale, Turkey, contain detailed bibliographical entries.

"Each entry begins by giving the number of tablets that made up the work being recorded, just as modern catalogues give the number of volumes in a mult-volume publication. The entry identifies the work itself by giving the title, which may take the form of citing its first line, or by giving a capsule description of the contents. Then it tells whether the table marked the end of the work or not. At times the entry includes the name of the author or authors, or adds other useful information. . . . 

"In addition to noting missing tablets, the entries now and then provide information about shelving. There is an entry, for example, which in listing a work that happens to be in two tablets notes that 'they do not stand upright'; presumably, in the part of the palace holdings represented by this catalogue, most tablets were stored on edge while these two, exceptionally, lay flat. . . . The catalogue, it would seem, was of one particular collection that, to judge from the contents, was for use by the palace clergy. It would have been an invaluable tool: any priest who needed a ritual for a given problem, instead of picking up tablet after tablet to read the colophon if there was one, or some lines of text if there was not, had only to run an eye over the entries in the catalogue. It was a limited tool; the order of the entries is more or less haphazard (alphabetization, for example, lay over a millennium and a half in the future) and they give no indication of location. But it was, no question about it, a significant step beyond the simple listing of titles of the Nippur tablets. 

"The finds at Hattusas, in short, reveal the development of procedures for organizing a collection of writings. The palace holdings were certainly extensive enough to require them; the catalogue alone, representing as we have seen, just the clergy's working library, lists well over one hundred titles. . . ." (Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World [2001] 5-8).

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The Earliest Bookplates, or Ex-Libris 1,391 BCE – 1,353 BCE

The earliest recorded bookplates or ex-libris are small enameled ceramic plaques representing the ownership of pharaoh Amenhotep III (Amenophis III) and Queen Tiy (Teie), dating from 1391 to 1353 BCE, probably excavated from Amarna. One example with dark blue text on light blue enamel is in the British Museum (EA 22878. 62mm. x 38mm., 4.5 mm. thick. The hieroglyphs measure 7mm. in height on average.) Another example (incomplete) is at Yale (YUG 1936.100. The size is identical to the bottom part of the BM plaque; the color is said to be the same. See G. Scott, Ancient Egyptian Art at Yale.) A different plaque is in the Louvre (E 3043. 43 mm. x 20.4 mm.)

"Substantial analysis of the British Museum plaque was first carried out by both British and German archaeologists in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but the definitive study is by H. R. Hall, published in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology eighty years ago. The text in the upper part of the plaque, with the two royal cartouches, reads 'The Good God, Nimba-at-Re, given life, beloved of Ptah, king of the two lands, and the king's wife Teie, living'. There was substantial discussion as to the text at the bottom of the tablet (which is absent in the Louvre plaque) and Hall gives good argumentation that is reads 'Book of the Sycomore and the Olive'. At the top of the plaque, within the thickness of the pottery, there is a hole for passing a wire; it would seem that it was fixed with either to a papyrus directly, or perhaps to a box containing a papyrus or a cuneiform tablet. The latter seems a distinct possibility, as there are many heroic legends about trees in Assyrian literature" (Benoit Junod, Origins and early days of ex-libris, http://www.fisae.org/originstxt.htm, accessed 05-06-2012). 

H. R. Hall, "An Egyptian royal bookplate: the ex-libris of Amenophis III and Teie," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology XII (1926), 30-33, plate XI.

Hussein, Origins of the Book. Egypt's contribution to the development of the book from the papyrus to codex (1970) 24, plate 44.

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The Uluburun Shipwreck 1,375 BCE

The Uluburun shipwreck, a Late Bronze Age shipwreck discovered off Uluburun (Grand Cape) about 6 miles southeast of Kas in south-western Turkey, contained one of the most extensive surviving cargos excavated from the Mediterranean sea. As a result of 22,413 dives from 1984 to 1994 a multitude of items of raw material used in trade were excavated. Prior to the discovery of this shipwreck most of these items had been known primarily from ancient texts or Egyptian tomb paintings. The cargo matches many of the royal gifts listed in the Amarna letters.

The cargo, preserved in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Bodrum Castle, Bodrum, Turkey, included the following:

"♦ Copper and tin ingots

Raw copper cargo totaling ten tons, consisting of a total of 354 ingots of the oxhide (rectangular with handholds extending from each corner) type. Out of the total amount of ingots at least 31 unique two-handled ingots were identified that were most likely shaped this way to assist the process of loading ingots onto specially designed saddles or harnesses for ease of transport over long distances by pack animals. 121 copper bun and oval ingots. The oxhide ingots were originally stowed in 4 distinct rows across the ship’s hold, which either slipped down the slope after the ship sank or shifted as the hull settled under the weight of the cargo. Approximately one ton of tin (when alloyed with the copper would make about 11 tons of bronze). Tin ingots were oxhide and bun shaped.

"♦ Canaanite jars and Pistacia resin

At least 149 Canaanite jars (widely found in Greece, Cyprus, Syria-Palestine, and Egypt). Jars are categorized as the northern type and were most likely made somewhere in the northern part of modern-day Israel. One jar filled with glass beads, many filled with olives, but the majority contained a substance known as Pistacia (terebinth) resin. Recent clay fabric analyses of Canaanite jar sherds from the 18th-Dynasty site of Tell el-Amarna have produced a specific clay fabric designation, and it is seemingly the same as that from the Uluburun shipwreck, of a type that is exclusively associated in Amarna with transporting Pistacia resin.

"♦ Glass ingots

Approximately 175 glass ingots of cobalt blue turquoise and lavender were found (earliest intact glass ingots known). Chemical composition of cobalt blue glass ingots matches those of contemporary Egyptian core-formed vessels and Mycenaean pendant beads, which suggests a common source.

"♦ Miscellaneous cargo

Logs of blackwood from Africa (referred to as ebony by the Egyptians), Ivory in the form of whole and partial elephant tusks, More than a dozen hippopotamus teeth Tortoise carapaces (upper shells), Murex opercula (possible ingredient for incense),Ostrich eggshells, Cypriot pottery, Cypriot oil lamps. Bronze and copper vessels (four faience drinking cups shaped as rams’ heads and one shaped as a woman’s head), Two duck-shaped ivory cosmetics boxes, Ivory cosmetics or unguent spoon, Trumpet, More than two dozen sea-shell rings, Beads of amber (Baltic origin), Agate, Carnelian, Quartz, Gold, Faience, Glass

"♦ Jewelry, gold, and silver

Collection of usable and scrap gold and silver Canaanite jewelry. Among the 37 gold pieces are: pectorals, medallions, pendants, beads, a small ring ingot, and an assortment of fragments. Biconical chalice (largest gold object from wreck). Egyptian objects of gold, electrum, silver, and steatite (soap stone). Gold scarab inscribed with the name of Nefertiti. Bronze female figurine (head, neck, hands, and feet covered in sheet gold).

"♦ Weapons and tools

Arrowheads, Spearheads, Maces, Daggers, Lugged shaft-hole axe, A single armor scale of Near Eastern type, Four swords (Canaanite, Mycenaean, and Italian(?) types), Large number of tools: sickles, awls, drill bits, a saw, a pair of tongs, chisels, axes, a ploughshare, whetstones, and adzes.

"♦ Pan-balance weights

19 zoomorphic weights (Uluburun weight assemblage is one of the largest and most complete groups of contemporaneous Late Bronze Age weights) 120 geometric-shaped weights

"♦ Foodstuffs

Almonds, Pine nuts, Figs, Olives, Grapes, Safflower, Black cumin,  Sumac, Corianderm Whole pomegranates, A few grains of charred wheat and barley" (Wikipedia article on Uluburn shipwreck, accessed 01-12-2012).

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Archive of Egyptian Diplomatic Correspondence Written in the Diplomatic Language, Akkadian Cuneiform Circa 1,360 BCE – 1,330 BCE

ME E29785 of the British Museum: A letter from Burnaburiash, a king of the Kassite dynasty of Babylonia, to Amenhotep IV. The tablet is one of the Amarna Letters. (View Larger)

The Amarna Letters, or Correspondence, an archive of mostly diplomatic correspondence between the Egyptian administration and its representatives in Canaan and Amurru during the New Kingdom, written on clay tablets, was found around 1887 in Upper Egypt at Amarna, the modern name for the Egyptian capital of Akhetaten (Akhetaton), founded by pharaoh Akhenaten (Akhnaton), during the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt.  

"The Amarna letters are unusual in Egyptological research, being mostly written in Akkadian cuneiform, the writing system of ancient Mesopotamia rather than ancient Egypt. The known tablets currently total 382 in number, 24 further tablets having been recovered since the Norwegian Assyriologist Jørgen Alexander Knudtzon's landmark edition of the Amarna correspondence, Die El-Amarna-Tafeln in two volumes (1907 and 1915).

"These letters, consisting of cuneiform tablets mostly written in Akkadian – the regional language of diplomacy for this period – were first discovered by local Egyptians around 1887, who secretly dug most of them from the ruined city (they were originally stored in an ancient building archaeologists have since called the Bureau of Correspondence of Pharaoh) and then sold them on the antiquities market. Once the location where they were found was determined, the ruins were explored for more. The first archaeologist who successfully recovered more tablets was William Flinders Petrie in 1891–92, who found 21 fragments. Émile Chassinat, then director of the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo, acquired two more tablets in 1903. Since Knudtzon's edition, some 24 more tablets, or fragments of tablets, have been found, either in Egypt, or identified in the collections of various museums.

"The tablets originally recovered by local Egyptians have been scattered among museums in Cairo, Europe and the United States: 202 or 203 are at the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin; 80 in the British Museum; 49 or 50 at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo; seven at the Louvre; 3 at the Pushkin Museum; and 1 is currently in the collection of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

"The full archive, which includes correspondence from the preceding reign of Amenhotep III as well, contained over three hundred diplomatic letters; the remainder are a miscellany of literary or educational materials. These tablets shed much light on Egyptian relations with Babylonia, Assyria, the Mitanni, the Hittites, Syria, Canaan, and Alashiya (Cyprus). They are important for establishing both the history and chronology of the period. Letters from the Babylonian king Kadashman-Enlil I anchor the timeframe of Akhenaten's reign to the mid-14th century BC. Here was also found the first mention of a Near Eastern group known as the Habiru, whose possible connection with the Hebrews remains debated. Other rulers include Tushratta of Mittani, Lib'ayu of Shehchem, Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem and the quarrelsome king Rib-Hadda of Byblos, who in over 58 letters continuously pleads for Egyptian military help" (Wikipedia article on Amarna letters, accessed 09-01-2009).

In July 2014 digital facsimiles and transliterations of the Amarna tablets in the Vorderasiatisches Museum were available from CDLI (Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative) at this link.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh, Probable Source of Aspects of Biblical and Homeric Literature Circa 1,300 BCE – 1,000 BCE

One of the twelve tablets--of the 1200 discovered by Austen Henry Layard in Ninveh--upon which the Epic of Gilgamesh was recorded. (View larger)

The most complete and "standard" Akkadian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of literary fiction, was written in standard Babylonian, a dialect of Akkadian that was only used for literary purposes, and compiled out of older legends by the Mesopotamian incantation/exorcist priest Sîn-lēqi-unninni, sometime between 1300 and 1000 BCE. Various themes, plot elements, and characters in the Epic of Gilgamesh have counterparts in the book of Genesis, notably the accounts of the Garden of Eden and Noah's Flood.

"Gilgamesh, we can be sure, was a real man. he was an early king of Uruk who founded a short-lived dynasty at the beginning of the historical period. All the surviving literary traditions about Gilgamesh point to a figure of power and charisma that long-outlasted his own lifetime. The cycle of stories that came to circulate about his name testify to this, and the impression that he was a man out of the same box as Alexander the Great, the impact of whose death led to narratives far beyond the sober scope of the historians who first tackled his life and times" (Irving Finkel, The Ark Before Noah. Decoding the Story of the Flood [2014] 82).

The standard version of the epic was recorded on twelve cuneiform tablets, of which the ark story appeared in tablet 11. These were discovered in 1853 by the Assyrian and Christian Assyriologist Hormuzd Rassam in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Rassam, the protegé of British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who had accompanied Layard in his second expedition to iraq from 1849 to 1851, discovered the tablets after Layard left archaeology and began a political career. The deciphering of the twelve tablets in 1872 by George Smith at the British Museum, where the tablets are preserved, caused this epic to be rediscovered by the world. Smith's first published account of the tablets appeared in Chaldean Account of the Deluge. Terra Cotta Tablets Found at Nineveh, and Now in the British Museum. Two Photographs. Translation and Text by Geo. Smith. . . , Photographed by Stephen Thompson, London: Mansell, 1872.

"The parallels between the stories of Enkidu/Shamhat and Adam/Eve have been long recognized by scholars. In both, a man is created from the soil by a god, and lives in a natural setting amongst the animals. He is introduced to a woman who tempts him. In both stories the man accepts food from the woman, covers his nakedness, and must leave his former realm, unable to return. The presence of a snake that steals a plant of immortality from the hero later in the epic is another point of similarity.

"Andrew R. George submits that the flood myth in Genesis 6–8 matches that in Gilgamesh so closely that 'few doubt' that it derives from a Mesopotamian account. What is particularly noticeable is the way the Genesis flood story follows the Gilgamesh flood tale "point by point and in the same order", even when the story permits other alternatives.

"In a 2001 Torah commentary released on behalf of the Conservative Movement of Judaism, rabbinic scholar Robert Wexler stated: 'The most likely assumption we can make is that both Genesis and Gilgamesh drew their material from a common tradition about the flood that existed in Mesopotamia. These stories then diverged in the retelling.'

"Matthias Henze suggests that Nebuchadnezzar's madness in the biblical Book of Daniel draws on the Epic of Gilgamesh. He claims that the author uses elements from the description of Enkidu to paint a sarcastic and mocking portrait of the king of Babylon.[22]

"Many scholars note an influence on the book of Ecclesiastes.The speech of Sidhuri in an old Babylonian version of the epic is so similar to Ecclesiastes 9:7–10 that direct influence is a possibility. A rare proverb about the strength of a triple-stranded rope is common to both books.

"Numerous scholars have drawn attention to various themes, episodes, and verses, that indicate a substantial influence of the Epic of Gilgamesh on both of the epic poems ascribed to Homer. These influences are detailed by Martin Litchfield West in The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. According to Tzvi Abusch of Brandeis University, the novel "combines the power and tragedy of the Iliad with the wanderings and marvels of the Odyssey. It is a work of adventure, but is no less a meditation on some fundamental issues of human existence" (Wikipedia article on Epic of Gilgamesh, accessed 03-09-2014).

(This entry was last revised on 12-27-2014.)

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Self-Portrait of an Egyptian Scribe with his Autograph Signature Circa 1,292 BCE – 1,069 BCE

A self-portrait of the scribe Sesh, arms raised in the presentation of a papyrus scroll and possibly a writing palette. Preserved in the Schoyen Collection as MS 1695. (View Larger)

A sketch in rust-red drawn on a limestone ostracon represents the self-portrait of the scribe, Sesh, wearing a knee-length kilt, his arms raised to present a papyrus roll and possibly a writing pallette. The sketch is signed with the hieroglyph of "scribe", consisting of a palette with wells for red and black ink, shoulder strap, water pot and reed pen. Measuring 11 x 12 cm, it was created in Deir-el-Medina, Western Thebes, 19th or 20th dynasty, and excavated there, circa 1975. It is preserved in the Schøyen Collection (MS 1695).

Deir-el-Medina was occupied by the community of workmen who constructed and decorated the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Many pieces, mostly dating from the 19th and 20th Dynasties were recovered from this site—mostly detailed drafts for specific details of a tomb's decoration.

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The Papyrus of Ani Circa 1,275 BCE – 1,250 BCE

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Ani.

The Papyrus of Ani was written in cursive hieroglyphs and illustrated with color miniatures in the 19th dynasty of the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt, c. 1275-1250 BCE, for the scribe Ani. It is among the most richly illustrated of all surviving copies of the Book of the Dead, which was also called the "Book of Going Forth by Day". The text usually contained declarations and spells to help the deceased in their afterlife.  

The papyrus excavated from the tomb of Ani in Thebes, and was purchased in 1888 by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge for the collection of the British Museum where it remains today. Before shipping the manuscript to England Budge cut the seventy-eight foot scroll into thirty-seven sheets of nearly equal size, damaging the scroll's integrity.  In 1890 the British Museum issued a large folio color facsimile of the thirty-seven sheets entitled The Book of the Dead: Facsimile of the Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum, with an introduction by Peter le Page Renouf. This was followed in 1895 by E. Wallis Budge's The Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum, the Egyptian Text, with interlinear transliteration and translation, a running translation, introduction etc. 

More recent scholarship is: The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day, The First Authentic Presentation of the Complete "Papyrus of Ani", Introduction and commentary by Dr. Ogden Goelet, Translation by Dr. Raymond O. Faulkner (1998).

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Analysis of Pollen Grains Proves that Drought Caused the Collapse of Civilization in the Soutern Levant 1,250 BCE – 1,100 BCE

In the October 2013 issue of Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University palynologist (pollen researcher) Dafna Langgut and archaeologist Israel Finkelstein published "Climate and the Late Bronze Collapse: New Evidence from the Southern Levant." Using cores drilled from the Dead Sea, the researchers were able to study pollen counts an intervals of 40 years--the highest resolution yet in the region. From this evidence they were able to demonstate that a devastating drought from 1250 to 1100 BCE caused the collapse of civilization in the Southern Levant during the Late Bronze Age.

"A core drilled from the Sea of Galilee was subjected to high resolution pollen analysis for the Bronze and Iron Ages. The detailed pollen diagram (sample/~40 yrs) was used to reconstruct past climate changes and human impact on the vegetation of the Mediterranean zone of the southern Levant. The chronological framework is based on radiocarbon dating of short-lived terrestrial organic material. The results indicate that the driest event throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages occurred ~1250–1100 BCE—at the end of the Late Bronze Age. This arid phase was identified based on a significant decrease in Mediterranean tree values, denoting a reduction in precipitation and the shrinkage of the Mediterranean forest/maquis. The Late Bronze dry event was followed by dramatic recovery in the Iron I, evident in the increased percentages of both Mediterranean trees and cultivated olive trees.

"Archaeology indicates that the crisis in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age took place during the same period—from the mid-13th century to ca. 1100 BCE. In the Levant the crisis years are represented by destruction of a large number of urban centres, shrinkage of other major sites, hoarding activities and changes in settlement patterns. Textual evidence from several places in the Ancient Near East attests to drought and famine starting in the mid-13th and continuing until the second half of the 12th century. All this helps to better understand the 'Crisis Years' in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the quick settlement recovery in the Iron I, especially in the highlands of the Levant" (http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/maney/tav/2013/00000040/00000002/art00002, accessed 10-22-2013). 

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The Only Ancient Egyptian Document that Mentions Israel 1,209 BCE – 1,208 BCE

The Merneptah Stele (View Larger)

In 1896 W. M. Flinders Petrie discovered the Merneptah Stele -- also known as the Israel Stele or Victory Stele of Merneptah -- in the first court of Merneptah's mortuary temple at Thebes. It is inscribed on the reverse of a large granite stele originally erected by the Ancient Egyptian king Amenhotep III, but later inscribed by Merneptah who ruled Egypt from 1213 to 1203 BC. The black granite stele primarily commemorates a victory in a campaign against the Libu and Meshwesh Libyans and their Sea People allies, but its final two lines refer to a prior military campaign in Canaan in which Merneptah states that he defeated Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam and Israel among others. It is preserved in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.

"The stele has gained much fame and notoriety for being the only Ancient Egyptian document generally accepted as mentioning "Isrir" or "Israel". It is also, by far, the earliest known attestation of Israel. For this reason, many scholars refer to it as the "Israel stele". This title is somewhat misleading, however, because the stele was clearly not focused on Israel per se— in fact, it mentions Israel only in passing. There is only a single line about Israel: "Israel is wasted, bare of seed" or "Israel lies waste, its seed no longer exists" and very little about the region of Canaan. Israel was simply grouped together with three other defeated states in Canaan (Gezer, Yanoam and Ashkelon) in the stele. Merneptah inserts just a single stanza to the Canaanite campaigns but multiple stanzas to his defeat of the Libyans. The line referring to Merneptah's Canaanite campaign reads:

Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed
(Wikipedia article on the Merneptah Stele, accessed 11-29-2008).
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The Earliest Chinese Inscriptions that are Indisputably Writing Circa 1,200 BCE – 1,050 BCE


The oldest Chinese inscriptions that are indisputably writing are the Oracle bone script (Chinese: 甲骨文; pinyin: jiǎgǔwén; literally 'shell-bone-script') of the late thirteenth century BCE. It is not until the oracle-bone inscriptions that we find grammatically connected marks that certainly record language. Lack of archaeological evidence prevents addressing the related questions of how long before that time writing developed and in what contexts, or whether writing in China developed gradually or rapidly, and whether it developed exclusively in a religious context or, as in the ancient Middle East, it was tied to court adminstration.

Oracle bone script was

"first identified by scholars in 1899 on pieces of bone and turtle shell being sold as medicine, and by 1928, the source of the oracle bones had been traced back to modern Xiǎotún (小屯) village at Ānyáng in Hénán Province, where official archaeological excavations in 1928–1937 discovered 20,000 oracle bone pieces, about 1/5 of the total discovered. The inscriptions were records of the divinations performed for or by the royal Shāng household. The oracle bone script is a well-developed writing system, attested from the late Shang Dynasty (1200–1050 BC). Only about 1,400 of the 2,500 known oracle bone script logographs can be identified with later Chinese characters and thus deciphered by paleographers."

"The late Shāng oracle bone writings, along with a few contemporary characters in a different style cast in bronzes, constitute the earliest significant corpus of Chinese writing, which is essential for the study of Chinese etymology, as Shāng writing is directly ancestral to the modern Chinese script. It is also the oldest member and ancestor of the Chinese family of scripts.

"The oracle bone script of the late Shāng appears archaic and pictographic in flavor, as does its contemporary, the Shāng writing on bronzes. The earliest oracle bone script appears even more so than examples from late in the period (thus some evolution did occur over the roughly 200-year period). Comparing oracle bone script to both Shāng and early Western Zhōu period writing on bronzes, oracle bone script is clearly greatly simplified, and rounded forms are often converted to rectilinear ones; this is thought to be due to the difficulty of engraving the hard, bony surfaces, compared with the ease of writing them in the wet clay of the molds from which the bronzes were cast. The more detailed and more pictorial style of the bronze graphs is thus thought to be more representative of typical Shāng writing (as would have normally occurred on bamboo books) than the oracle bone script forms, and it is this typical style which continued to evolve into the Zhōu period writing and then into the seal script of the Qín state in the late Zhōu period.

"It is known that the Shāng people also wrote with brush and ink, as brush-written graphs have been found on a small number of pottery, shell and bone, and jade and other stone items, and there is evidence that they also wrote on bamboo (or wooden) books just like those which have been found from the late Zhōu to Hàn periods, because the graphs for a writing brush (聿 yù) and bamboo book (冊 cè, a book of thin vertical slats or slips with horizontal string binding, like a Venetian blind turned 90 degrees) are present in the oracle bone script. Since the ease of writing with a brush is even greater than that of writing with a stylus in wet clay, it is assumed that the style and structure of Shāng graphs on bamboo were similar to those on bronzes, and also that the majority of writing occurred with a brush on such books. Additional support for this notion includes the reorientation of some graphs, by turning them 90 degrees as if to better fit on tall, narrow slats; this style must have developed on bamboo or wood slat books and then carried over to the oracle bone script. Additionally, the writing of characters in vertical columns, from top to bottom, is for the most part carried over from the bamboo books to oracle bone inscriptions. In some instances lines are written horizontally so as to match the text to divinatory cracks, or columns of text rotate 90 degrees in mid stream, but these are exceptions to the normal pattern of writing, and inscriptions were never read bottom to top. The vertical columns of text in Chinese writing are traditionally ordered from right to left; this pattern is found on bronze inscriptions from the Shāng dynasty onward. Oracle bone inscriptions, however, are often arranged so that the columns begin near the centerline of the shell or bone, and move toward the edge, such that the two sides are ordered in mirror-image fashion" (Wikipedia article on Oracle bone script, accessed 07-11-2009).

Edward L. Shaughnessy, "The Beginnings of Writing in China" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Middle East and Beyond (2010) 215-24.

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Diseases of the Anus and Headaches 1,200 BCE

The Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus. (View Larger)

A fragment of a papyrus on diseases of the anus and magical incantations against headaches, The Chester Beatty Medical papyrus was written in the 13th-12th centuries BCE in hieratic script. It is preserved in the British Museum (Papyrus VI of the Chester Beatty Papyri 46; Papyrus no. 10686, British Museum.)

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Imperial Purple Was First Produced by the Phoenicians 1,200 BCE – 1453

Tyrian Purple.

Tyrian Purple, or royal purple, imperial purple or imperial dye — a purple-red dye made from the mucus of one of several species of Murex snail — was first produced by the Phoenicians in the city of Tyre (now Lebanon) for use as a fabric dye around 1200 BCE. The pigment was expensive and complex to produce, and items colored with it became associated with power and wealth. The Greek historian Theopompus, writing in the 4th century BCE, reported that "purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver at Colophon [in Asia Minor]." It's production was continued by the Greeks and Romans until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. 

"The name Phoenicians, like Latin Poenī (adj. poenicus, later pūnicus), comes from Greek Φοίνικες (Phoínikes), attested since Homer and influenced by phoînix "Tyrian purple, crimson; murex" (itself from phoinós "blood red"). The word stems from Mycenaean po-ni-ki-jopo-ni-ki, ultimately borrowed from Ancient Egyptian fnḥw (fenkhu) "Asiatics, Semites". The folk-etymological association of phoiniki with phoînix mirrors that in Akkadian which tiedkinaḫnikinaḫḫi "Canaan; Phoenicia" to kinaḫḫu "red-dyed wool". The land was natively known as knʿn (cf. Eblaite ca-na-na-umca-na-na), remembered in the 6th century BC by Hecataeus under the Greek form Chna(χνα), and its people as the knʿny (cf. Punic chananiHebrew kanaʿani)" (Wikipedia article Phoenicia, accessed 03-20-2014).


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The Earliest Chinese Inscriptions in Bronze Circa 1,200 BCE – 1,045 BCE

A bronze guang, or ritualistic wine vessel, of the Shang dynasty. (View Larger)

The earliest Chinese inscriptions in bronze date from the late Shang period (c. 1200-1045 BCE), the same period in which the oracle bone inscriptions were produced.

"Discovered at Anyang in Henan province and at sites in the central Yangzi region, Shang bronze objects belonged to members of the royal family and the political elite. Under Zhou rule (104-221 BC) this social level of ownership continued and even widened. In existence today are probably over ten thousand inscribed vessels, weapons, bells and other bronze objects made before the Qin unification of 221 BC.

"Inscriptions on most weapons are prominent and easily visible. By contrast, inscriptions on vessels of the Shang, and the following Western Zhou period (1045-770 BC) were usually placed on the vessels' interior surfaces, where they are much less clearly seen. . . .

"Precise practices at different bronze foundries varied, but nearly all inscriptions were prepared on a clay mould and cast from this on to the metal surface of an object. Most inscriptions are countersunk and positive. That is, characters do not rise above the surrounding metal surface, and the text is not a form of mirror-writing (a negative inscription). Inscriptions in relief were occasionally cast, but they became widespread only in association with ironwork in a much later period. Negative inscriptions are extremely rare. Texts were usually arranged in columns reading from right to left.

"In order to obtain a positive inscription the surface of the mould had to be prepared with the text in a negative form. To do this, the text was written with a stylus on the surface of wet clay. When hardened, this positive version could be pressed into a new supply of wet clay to provide a negative relief. Next, the hardened clay of the second version in negative could be trimmed and fitted as a block into an excavation on the mould core of the whole vessel. The mould and this fitting were then ready to receive the molten metal, which would re-form the inscription back into positive appearance. This method comprises the fewest transfer operations needed to cast a countersunk, positive inscription and allows for the text to be written out freehand in the same form that it will assume in metal.

"Bronze inscriptions are thus preservations of calligraphy in the medium of clay. Writing in wet clay offered a wide range of possibilities for variation and liveliness, and even quite early inscriptions show a concern for style" (Oliver Moore, Chinese [2000] 33, 36).

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The Longest Known Egyptian Papyrus Circa 1,186 BCE – 1,155 BCE

A papyrus of the 'Discourse of the Gods' section of the Great Harris Papyrus, showing Ramesses III before the Triad of Thebes. (View Larger)

Papyrus Harris I, also known as the Great Harris Papyrus, and officially designated as Papyrus British Museum 9999, extends to a length of 41 meters. It is the longest papyrus ever found in Egypt, and includes 1500 lines of text.

The Great Harris Papyrus was found in a tomb near Medinet Habu, across the Nile river from Luxor, Egypt. It was purchased by collector and merchant Anthony Charles Harris in 1855.  The hieratic text of the papyrus consists of a list of temple endowments and a brief summary of the entire reign of king Ramesses III, second Pharaoh of the Twentieth dynasty.

The papyrus entered the collection of the British Museum in 1872.

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The Oldest Known Evidence of the Phoenician Alphabet Circa 1,000 BCE

The Ahiram Sarcophagus, discovered by the French archaeologist Pierre Montet in 1923 in Jbeil, Lebanon (the historic Byblos), is the oldest known evidence of the Phoenician alphabet. It is preserved in the National Museum of Beirut

"Phoenician became one of the most widely used writing systems, spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean world, where it was assimilated by many other cultures and evolved. Many modern writing systems thought to have descended from Phoenician cover much of the world. The Aramaic alphabet, a modified form of Phoenician, was the ancestor of the modern Arabic and Hebrew scripts, as well as the Brāhmī script, the parent writing system of most modern abugidas in India, Southeast Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia. The Greek alphabet (and by extension its descendants such as the Latin, the Cyrillic and the Coptic), was a direct successor of Phoenician, though certain letter values were changed to represent vowels"(Wikipedia article on Phoenician alphabet, accessed 08-06-2009).

The low relief carved panels of the Ahiram Sarcophagus

"make it 'the major artistic document for the Early Iron Age' in Phoenicia. Associated items dating to the Late Bronze Age either support an early dating, in the thirteenth century BC or attest the reuse of an early shaft tomb in the eleventh century BC. The major scene represents a king seated on a throne carved with winged sphinxes. A priestess offers him a lotus flower. On the lid two male figures confront one another with addorsed [back to back] seated lions between them, read by Glenn Markoe as a reference to the father and son of the inscription. Egyptian influence that is a character of Late Bronze Age art in northwest Canaan is replaced here by Assyrian influences in the rendering of figures and the design of the throne and a table" (Wikipedia article on Ahiram, accessed 08-062009).

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Possibly the Earliest Hebrew Inscription Circa 1,000 BCE

A shard of ancient pottery found in the Elah Fortress, bearing Proto-Canaanite script which might compose the earliest known Hebrew inscription. (View Larger)

An ostracon shard found in October 2008 about 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem at the Elah Fortress in Khirbet Qeiyafa, the earliest known fortified city of the biblical period of Israel, and written in ink in Proto-Canaanite script, could be the earliest known Hebrew inscription, according to biblical archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel. Other scholars urge caution in accepting that interpretation. The shard is one of only a dozen or so examples of Proto-Canaanite that have survived.

"The Israelites were not the only ones using proto-Canaanite characters, and other scholars suggest it is difficult - perhaps impossible - to conclude the text is Hebrew and not a related tongue spoken in the area at the time. Garfinkel bases his identification on a three-letter verb from the inscription meaning to do, a word he said existed only in Hebrew.

" 'That leads us to believe that this is Hebrew, and that this is the oldest Hebrew inscription that has been found,' he said.

"Other prominent Biblical archaeologists warned against jumping to conclusions.

"Hebrew University archaeologist Amihai Mazar said the inscription was very important, as it is the longest proto-Canaanite text ever found. But he suggested that calling the text Hebrew might be going too far" (http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1032929.html, accessed 08-30-2009).

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The Gezer Calendar Circa 950 BCE

A tablet of soft limestone inscribed in a paleo-Hebrew script, the Gezer Calendar is one of the oldest known examples of Hebrew writing, dating to the 10th century BCE. It was discovered in excavations of the Biblical city of Gezer, 30 miles northwest of Jerusalem, by R.A.S. Macalister in his excavations between 1902 and 1907, and it is preserved in the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul.

"The calendar describes monthly or bi-monthly periods and attributes to each a duty such as harvest, planting or tending specific crops.

"It reads:

"Two months of harvest

"Two months of planting

"Two months are late planting

"One month of hoeing

"One month of barley-harvest

"One month of harvest and festival

"Two months of grape harvesting

"One month of summer fruit

"Scholars have speculated that the calendar is either a schoolboy's memory exercise or perhaps the text of a popular folk song, or child's song. Another possibility is something designed for the collection of taxes from farmers."

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The Cascajal Block, the Earliest Precolumbian or Mesoamerican Writing Yet Discovered Circa 950 BCE – 600 BCE

On September 15, 2006 María del Carmen Rodríquez Martínez, Ponciano Ortiz Ceballos, and colleagues described the Cascajal Block, a serpentine slab about the size of a writing tablet dated to the early first millenium BCE. The block or slab is incised with characters previously unknown that may represent the earliest writing system in the New World. The block was named for its find spot in the village of Cascajal, municipality of Lomas de Tacamichapa, Jáltipan, Veracruz, Mexico.

"The Cascajal Block was discovered by road builders in the late 1990s in a pile of debris in the village of Lomas de Tacamichapa in the Veracruz lowlands in the ancient Olmec heartland. The block was found amidst ceramic shards and clay figurines and from these the block is dated to the Olmec archaeological culture's San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán phase, which ended c. 900 BCE, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BCE. Archaeologists Carmen Rodriguez and Ponciano Ortiz of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico examined and registered it with government historical authorities. It weighs about 11.5 kg (25 lb) and measures 36 cm × 21 cm × 13 cm."

"The Olmec flourished in the Gulf Coast region of Mexico, ca. 1250–400 BCE. The evidence for this writing system is based solely on the text on the Cascajal Block.

"The block holds a total of 62 glyphs, some of which resemble plants such as corn and ananas, or animals such as insects and fish. Many of the symbols are more abstract boxes or blobs. The symbols on the Cascajal block are unlike those of any other writing system in Mesoamerica, such as in Mayan languages or Isthmian, another extinct Mesoamerican script. The Cascajal block is also unusual because the symbols apparently run in horizontal rows and 'there is no strong evidence of overall organization. The sequences appear to be conceived as independent units of information'. All other known Mesoamerican scripts typically use vertical rows" (Wikipedia article on Cascajal Block, accessed 01-16-2013).

"Writing [in Mesoamerica] was more than likely invented in the Early or Middle Formative period (ca. 1200-600 BC) with the evolution of politically complex societies of the Olmec in the Gulf Coast region of Mexico, in addition to Guerrero, Oaxaca, central Mexico, and Central America. Olmec civilization had large settlements, herditary elites, interregional trade, and elite art, all of which provided important pre-conditions for the development of writing. Numerous greenstone plaques and celts owned by elites, such as the 'Humboldt Celt' and Tlaltenco Celt,' exhibit iconography and short inscriptions. Unfortunately all early writing in Mesoamerica remains undeciphered, but the signs probably include noble titles, god names, and calendar dates" 

"A few years ago, scholars reported an inscription on a serpentine block discovered during modern construction at Cascajal, Veracruz, near the Olmec site of San Lorenzo. Recent studies of the stone support its antiquity, and it may be associated with Middle Formative-period pottery and iconography. But the stone's exact provenance and date are unknown. The incised signs resemble other Olmec hieroglyphs, they repeat in obvious patterns, and the text possibly has a top-down, left to right reading order similar to other Mesoamerican scripts. Ceramic figurines found by archaeologists at the site of Canton Corralito, Chiapas, Mexico, dated to about 1300-1000 BC exhibit similar writing" (Joel W. Palka, "The Development of Maya Writing" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 226).

María del Carmen Rodríquez Martínez, Ponciano Ortiz Ceballos, et al "Oldest Writing in the New World," Science  313 no. 5793 (September 15, 2006), 1610-1614 

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The "Chicago Syllabary" Circa 900 BCE

The "Chicago Syllabary," a cuneiform lexical list of unknown provenance, dating from the first millennium BCE, is thought to contain content compiled earlier in the second millenium. 

"The text gives the Sumerian and Akkadian pronunciations of various cuneiform signs along with their names. As such, the text provides unique insights into how the ancients understood and analyzed their languages and the cuneiform script. The list is organized by sign shape. The table consists of two halves, with each half divided into four columns. The first column gives the pronunciations of a given sign and the second column gives the corresponding graph. The third column gives the name of the sign as given by the Babylonian compilers (in some cases a descriptive designation that blends Sumerian and Akkadian), while the fourth column gives the corresponding Akkadian pronunciation. In addition to the importance of its content, the text examplies the development of the cuneiform script in the first millenium BC" (Woods, Teeter, Emberling (eds) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] No. 60).

 The Chicago Syllabary is preserved in The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

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Perhaps the Oldest Surviving Tablet with a European Alphabet Circa 800 BCE

A writing tablet in Greek/Phoenician dating from this time may be:

"the oldest European alphabet, the oldest writing tablet extant, and part of the world's oldest book in codex form. The other old writing tablets are 2 from Nimrod [Nimrud], one ivory, the other walnut wood, dated 707 - 705 BC., in addition to a 8th c. BC Neo-Hittite wood tablet. (Roberts/Skeat: The Birth of the Codex, pp. 11-12.) Apart from the present MS the oldest Greek inscription of any length is the Dipylon oinochoe from Athens, ca. 740 BC. The oldest short inscriptions are dated ca. mid 8th c. BC. A tablet originally bound with the present ones is: "The Würzburger Alphabettafel", published by A. Henbeck: Würzburger Jahrbücher für Altertumswissenschaft, 12, pp. 7-20, 1986. The codex originally consisted of at least 5 tablets. . . .The Alphabet is repeated over and over, and contains the North Semitic (Phoenician) number of letters (22), ayin/aleph to taw/tau in Phoenician and Greek order, written in continuous retrograde lines. It represents the earliest and most complete link between Greek letter forms and the North Semitic parent forms. . . ." (Schøyen Collection MS 108, accessed 02-19-2014).

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A Pulley Depicted in a Bas-Relief from Nimrud, Assyria Circa 800 BCE

In Nineveh and its Remains: with an Account of a Visit to tile Chaldaean Christians of Kurdistan, and the Yezidis, or Devil-worshippers; and an Inquiry into the Manners and Arts of the Ancient Assyrians (2 vols., 1848–1849) British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard illustrated on Vol. II, p. 32 a bas-relief "originally in the most ancient palace of Nimroud," showing a bucket that appeared to be attached to a rope passing over a pulley, revolving on an iron or wooden pin, and "precisely similar in form to those now in common use."

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The First Olympic Games Take Place 776 BCE

According to ancient Greek records, which also represent the adoption in Greece of the Phoenician alphabet, from which all other Western alphabets are descended, the first Olympic games took place in 776 BCE. The date is based on inscriptions, found at Olympia, of the winners of a foot race held every four years, starting in 776 BCE.

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Standardization of the Homeric Texts Possibly Begins Circa 750 BCE


Many scholars believe that the Iliad is the oldest extant work of literature in the ancient Greek language, making it one of the first works of ancient Greek literature. It is believed that the Odyssey, sequel to the Iliad, was composed after the Iliad. Both epic poems, products of the oral tradition, may have undergone a process of standardization and refinement out of older material around 750 BCE. The standardization of the Homeric texts may have been caused by the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos (d. 527/8 BCE) who reformed the recitation of Homeric poetry at the Panathenaic festival, which he initiated. This reform may have involved the production of a canonical written text. A tradition concerning the role of Peisistratos in the standardization of Homer was current in the ancient world; however, T. W. Allen, in his classic work, Homer: The Origins and Transmission (1924) refuted this theory in his chapter "Pisistratus and Homer."  

When the Homeric poems would have taken on a fixed written form is debatable. According to the traditional 'transcription hypothesis', a non-literate 'Homer' dictated his poem to a literate scribe in the 6th century or earlier. However, in view of the way that texts were written on papyrus before the Hellenistic period, a canonical text would probably have been impossible at this time. Reynolds & Wilson wrote:

"Finally it should be emphasized that the text as arranged on the papyrus was much harder for the reader to interpret than in any modern book. Punctuation was usually rudimentary at best. Texts were written without word-division, and it was not until the middle ages that a real effort was made to alter this convention in Greek or Latin texts (in a few Latin texts of the classical period a point is placed after each word). The system of accentuation, which might have compensated for this difficulty in Greek, was not invented until the Hellenistic period, and for a long time after its invention it was not universally used; here again it is not until the early middle ages that the writing of accents becomes normal practice. In dramatic texts throughout antiquity changes of speaker were not indicated with the precision now thought necessary; it was enough to write a horizontal stroke at the beginning of a line, or two points one above the other, like the modern English colon, for changes elsewhere; the names of the characters were frequently omitted. . . . Another and perhaps even stranger feature of books in the pre-Hellenistic period is that lyric verse was written as if it were prose; the fourth-century papyrus of Timotheus (P. Berol. 9875) is an instance, and even without this valuable document the fact could have been inferred from the tradition that Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 257-180 BCE) devised the colometry which makes clear the metrical units of the poetry (Dion. Hal. de comp.verb. 156, 221). It is to be noted that the difficulties facing the reader of an ancient book were equally troublesome to the man who wished to transcribe his own copy. The risk of misinterpretation and consequent corruption of the text in this period is not to be underestimated. It is certain that a high proportion of the most serious corruptions in classical texts go back to this period and were already widely current in the books that eventually entered the library of the Museum of Alexandria" (Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 3rd ed. [1991] 4-5).

"Though evincing many features characteristic of oral poetry, the Iliad and Odyssey were at some point committed to writing. The Greek script, adapted from a Phoenician syllabary around 800 BCE, made possible the notation of the complex rhythms and vowel clusters that make up hexameter verse. Homer's poems appear to have been recorded shortly after the alphabet's invention: an inscription from Ischia in the Bay of Naples, ca. 740 BCE, appears to refer to a text of the Iliad; likewise, illustrations seemingly inspired by the Polyphemus episode in the Odyssey are found on Samos, Mykonos and in Italy in the first quarter of the seventh century BCE. We have little information about the early condition of the Homeric poems, but Alexandrian editors stabilized the text in the second century BCE, from which all modern texts descend" (Wikipedia article on Homer, accessed 11-27-2008).

(This entry was last revised on 05-03-2014.)

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The "Fatal Letter" in the Iliad: Introduction of Written Language to the Greeks Circa 750 BCE


In the mid-eighth century BCE the Greeks are thought to have developed their own writing system based on the Phoenician alphabet, along with the use of wax tablets, and the leather roll for writing. The Phoenicians, whose culture was at its peak from circa 1200-800 BCE, were the first state-level society to make extensive use of the alphabet; the Phoenician phonetic alphabet is generally considered the ancestor of almost all modern alphabets. However, it did not contain any vowels; those were added by the Greeks. From a traditional linguistic perspective, the Phoenicians spoke Phoenician, a Canaanite dialect. However, due to the very slight differences in language, and the insufficient records of the time, whether Phoenician formed a separate and united dialect, or was merely a superficially defined part of a broader language continuum, is unclear. Through their maritime trade, the Phoenicians spread the use of the alphabet to North Africa and Europe, where it was adopted by the Greeks. The Greeks later passed it on to the Etruscans, who in turn transmitted it to the Romans. In addition to many stone inscriptions, the Phoenicians are believed to have left numerous other types of written sources, but most have not survived.

The earliest surviving examples of writing in Greek are on tablets made of metal. The first reference in written Greek literature to writing tablets appears in Homer, and in one place in the Iliad only: the narrated tale of Bellerophon (Iliad vi.155–203), which introduced the trope of the "fatal letter," with its message sealed within the folded tablets that read "Kill the bearer of this." As Homer was the product of the oral tradition, the reference to written tablets was an anachronism in a narrative of an event that had transpired generations before the Trojan War, and long before the Greeks had a written language. However, the "fatal letter" story helps date the earliest possible recension of the epic to the mid-eighth century, when writing was introduced to Greece. 

In his Histories Herodotus wrote:

"So these Phoenicians, including the Gephyraians, came with Kadmos and settled this land, and they transmitted much lore to the Hellenes, and in particular, taught them the alphabet which, I believe, the Hellenes did not have previously, but which was originally used by all Phoenicians. With the passage of time, both the sound and the shape of the letters changed. Because at this time it was mostly Ionians who lived around the Phoenicians, they were the ones who were first instructed in the use of the alphabet by them, and after making a few changes to the form of the letters, they put them to good use; but when they spoke of them, they called them 'Phoenician' letters, which was only right since these letters had been introduced to Hellas by Phoenicians. Furthermore, the Ionians have called papyrus scrolls 'skins,' since long ago, when papyrus was scarce, they used the skins of goats and sheep instead. In fact, even in my time many barbarians still write on such skins" (Strassler [ed] The Landmark Herodotus [2007] 5.58, 391).

(This entry was last revised on 03-19-2014.)

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Using Carrier Pigeons to Communicate the Results of the Olympic Games Circa 750 BCE

"By the eighth century B.C., Greeks were using pigeons to send the results of Olympic Games from town to town" (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/science/pigeons-a-darwin-favorite-carry-new-clues-to-evolution.html?hpw, accessed 02-04-2012).

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One of the Two Oldest Records of the Greek Alphabet Circa 740 BCE

The ancient Greek wine jug bearing the Dipylon inscription.

The Dipylon inscription, a short text written on an ancient Greek pottery vessel, is, along with the  Cup of Nestor from Pithikoussai, one of the two oldest known examples of the use of the Greek alphabet.

"The text is scratched on a wine jug (oenochoe), which was found in 1871 and is named after the location where it was found, the ancient Dipylon Cemetery, near the Dipylon Gate on the area of Kerameikos in Athens. The jug is attributed to the Late Geometrical Period (750-700 BCE), and it has been dated to ca. 740 BCE. It is now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (inv. 192)" (Wikipedia article on Diplyon inscription, accessed 04-25-2009).

(This entry was last revised on April 13, 2014.)

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One of the Two Oldest Known Examples of Writing in Greek Circa 740 BCE – 720 BCE

The Cup of Nestor. (View Larger)

The so-called Cup of Nestor from Pithikoussai, a clay drinking cup (kotyle) was found in 1954 at excavations in a grave in the ancient Greek site of Pithikoussai on the island of Ischia in the Tyrrhenian Sea, at the northern end of the Gulf of Naples. It bears a three-line inscription that was scratched on its side at a later time. This inscription, and the so-called Dipylon inscription from Athens, are the oldest known examples of writing in the Greek alphabet.

The inscription is fragmented, as some shards of the cup are lost. It is written in the early Euboean form of the Western Greek alphabet, written from right to left in three separate lines. The text runs:


This is usually transcribed (in later classical orthography, with the missing parts in brackets) as:

Νέστορος [εἰμὶ] εὔποτ[ον] ποτήριο[ν]·
ὃς δ’ ἂν τοῦδε π[ίησι] ποτηρί[ου] αὐτίκα κῆνον
ἵμερ[ος αἱρ]ήσει καλλιστ[εφάν]ου Ἀφροδίτης.
Nestor’s cup I am, good to drink from.
Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway
the desire of beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize.

Pithikoussai was one of the earliest Greek colonies in the West. The cup is dated to the Geometric Period (c.750-700 BCE) and is believed to have been originally manufactured in Rhodes. It is preserved in the Villa Arbusto museum in the village of Lacco Ameno on the island of Ischia, Italy.

Both the Cup of Nestor and the Dipylon inscription have been linked to early writing in the island of Euboea.

Meiggs & Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (1969) No. 1.

(This entry was last revised on April 13, 2014.)

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The Marsiliana Tablet Abecedarium 700 BCE

The earliest Estruscan abecedarium, the Marsiliana d'Albegna tablet, which dates to c. 700 VCE. (View Larger)

It is not clear whether the process of adaptation of the Old Italic or Etruscan alphabet from the Greek alphabet took place in Italy in the city of Cumae, the first Greek colony on the mainland of Italy, or in Greece/Asia Minor. The Etruscan alphabet was a precursor of the Old Latin alphabet, the basis of the Latin alphabet.

"It was in any case a Western Greek alphabet. In the alphabets of the West, X had the sound value [ks], Ψ stood for [kʰ]; in Etruscan: X = [s], Ψ = [kʰ] or [kχ] (Rix 202-209).

"The earliest Etruscan abecedarium, the Marsiliana d'Albegna (near Grosseto) tablet which dates to c. 700 BCE, lists 26 letters corresponding to contemporary forms of the Greek alphabet which retained san and qoppa but which had not yet developed omega.

 In transliteration: "A B G D E V Z H Θ I K L M N Ξ O P Ś Q R S T Y X Φ Ψ"

"21 of the 26 archaic Etruscan letters were adopted for Old Latin from the 7th century BCE, either directly from the Cumae alphabet, or via archaic Etruscan forms, compared to the classical Etruscan alphabet retaining B, D, K, O, Q, X but dropping Θ, Ś, Φ, Ψ, F (Etruscan U is Latin V, Etruscan V is Latin F).

In translieration: "A B C D E F Z H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X"

(Wikipedia article on Old Italic alphabet, accessed 08-02-2009).

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The Babylonian Map of the World, the Oldest Usable Map Circa 700 BCE – 500 BCE

The Babylonian Mappa mundi or world map (British Museum 92687), a diagrammatic labeled depiction of the world, was probably created between 700 and 500 BCE, in Sippar, southern iraq, where it was discovered. It was first published in 1899. The map was written in cuneiform script on a clay tablet, of which only the major portions survive, measuring 12.2 x 8.2 cm.

"Babylon is shown in the centre (the rectangle in the top half of the circle), and Assyria, Elam and other places are also named. The central area is ringed by a circular waterway labelled 'Salt-Sea'. The outer rim of the sea is surrounded by what were probably originally eight regions, each indicated by a triangle, labelled 'Region' or 'Island', and marked with the distance in between. The cuneiform text describes these regions, and it seems that strange and mythical beasts as well as great heroes lived there, although the text is far from complete.

"The regions are shown as triangles since that was how it was visualized that they first would look when approached by water.

"The map is sometimes taken as a serious example of ancient geography, but although the places are shown in their approximately correct positions, the real purpose of the map is to explain the Babylonian view of the mythological world"(http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/m/map_of_the_world.aspx, accessed 03-08-2014).

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The Taylor Prism and the Sennacherib Prism 689 BCE – 691 BCE

The Taylor Prism, ME 91032 of the British Library. (View Larger)

The Taylor Prism, a six-sided baked clay document (or prism) was discovered at the Assyrian capital Nineveh, in an area known today as Nebi Yunus, now Iraq. It was acquired by Colonel R. Taylor, British Consul General at Baghdad, in 1830, after whom it is named. The British Museum purchased it from Taylor's widow in 1855.

One of the first major Assyrian documents discovered, the Taylor Prism played an important part in the decipherment of cuneiform script.

"The prism is a foundation record, intended to preserve King Sennacherib's achievements for posterity and the gods. The record of his account of his third campaign (701 BC) is particularly interesting to scholars. It involved the destruction of forty-six cities of the state of Judah and the deportation of 200,150 people. Hezekiah, king of Judah, is said to have sent tribute to Sennacherib. This event is described from another point of view in the Old Testament books of 2 Kings and Isaiah. Interestingly, the text on the prism makes no mention of the siege of Lachish which took place during the same campaign and is illustrated in a series of panels from Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh" (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_taylor_prism.aspx, accessed 12-26-2009).

♦ Another version of the same text, produced in the same prism format, and known as the Sennacherib Prism, was purchased by James Henry Breasted from a Baghdad antiques dealer in 1919 for the Oriental Institute of Chicago, where it is preserved. The two known complete examples of Sennacherib's inscription are nearly identical, although the dates on the prisms show that they were written sixteen months apart, the Taylor Prism in 691 BCE and the Oriental Institute prism in 689 BCE. There are also at least eight other fragmentary prisms preserving parts of this text, all in the British Museum, and most of them containing just a few lines.

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Knowledge as Power: King Ashurbanipal Forms the Earliest Systematically Collected Library as Distinct from an Archive 668 BCE – 627 BCE

In an effort to collect all knowledge, Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria from 668 to 627 BCE, collected a library at his capital city Nineveh, containing, it has been estimated, 20,000–30,000 clay tablets written in cuneiform script

"Ashurbanipal was one of the few Assyrian kings to have been trained in the scribal arts—by one Balasî , a senior royal scholar " (Robson, "The Clay Tablet Book," Eliot & Rose (eds) A Companion to the History of the Book [2007] 75).

"Recent cataloguing in the British Museum has enumerated some 3,700 scholarly tablets from Ashurbanipal's Library written in Babylonian script and dialect—about 13 percent of the entire library. Ashurbanipal's obsession with Babylonian books did not, then, completely overwhelm indigenous production, but he did view them as highly valuable cultural capital; their forced removal to Nineveh undermined Babylonian claims to the intellectual heritage of the region and thus pretensions to political hegemony, while reinforcing Ashurbanipal's own self-image as guardian of Mesopotamian culture and power" (Robson, op. cit., 77).

The library was discovered at Nineveh by archaeologist/explorer Austen Henry Layard in 1849, and is considered the earliest systematically collected library, as distinct from a government archive. Clay tablets such as those in Ashburbanipal's library, or other cuneiform archives, were not typically fired in kilns for preservation. However, it is thought that a significant portion of Ashurbanipal's library survived to the present because the clay tablets were baked in fires set during the Median sack of Nineveh in 612 CE. Layard published an account of his discovery of the library in Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon (2 vols., 1853) from which Clark, The Care of Books, page 2, reproduced the floor-plan of Ashurbanipal's record room:

"The tablets have been sorted under the following heads: History; Law; Science; Magic; Dogma; Legends: and it has been shewn (1) that there was a special functionary to take charge of them; (2) that they were arranged in series, with special precautions for keeping the tablets forming a particular series in their proper sequence; (3) that there was a general catalogue and probably a class-catalogue as well" (Clark, p. 4). 

To deter thieves, Ashurbanipal had the following curse written on many or all of his tablets. It is the earliest known book curse, and because it was also a means of identifying his property it might also be considered an early ex-libris, albeit a verbose one:

“I have transcribed upon tablets the noble products of the work of the scribe which none of the kings who have gone before me had learned, together with the wisdom of Nabu insofar as it existeth [in writing]. I have arranged them in classes, I have revised them and I have placed them in my palace, that I, even I, the ruler who knoweth the light of Ashur, the king of the gods, may read them. Whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land" (Drogin, Anathema! [1983] 52-53).

In 1872 English Assyriologist George Smith of the British Museum edited the surviving records of Ashurbanipal's life on clay cylinders and tablets and issued cuneiform transcriptions with interlinear translations as History of Assurbanipal, Translated from the Cuneiform Inscriptions (1872).

The surviving portion of Ashurbanipal's library includes 660 cuneiform tablets that concern medicine. These were published in facsimile for the first time, but without translation, by Reginald C. Thompson as Assyrian Medical Texts. From the Originals in the British Museum (1923).

Menant, La bibliothèque du palais de Ninive (1880). 

(This entry was last revised on 12-27-2014.)

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The Constitutional Law of Dreros: The Earliest Surviving Greek Law on Stone Circa 650 BCE – 600 BCE

The Constitutional Law of Dreros was carved on a block of grey schist at the temple of Apollo Delphinios at Dreros (Δρῆρος, Driros), a post-Minoan site near Neapoli in the regional unit of Lasithi, Crete, around 650-600 BCE. Apollo Delphinios was a sea-god especially worshiped in Crete and in the Greek islands; his name indicates his connection with Delphi, and the holy serpent Delphyne ("womb"). The inscription may be the earliest surviving Greek law on stone, and, it is certainly the earliest which survived complete. The law is one of a group of eight, of which one was written in Eteocretan, excavated from the same temple. It may provide evidence of the existence within the ancient Greek world of non-Athenian experiments in government by assembly.

Meiggs & Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (1969) No. 2 (pp. 2-3 provide the following translation of the law:

"May God be kind (?). The city has  thus decided; when a man has been kosmos, the same man shall not be kosmos again for ten years. If he does act as kosmos, whatever, judgements he gives, he shall owe double, and he shall lose his rights to office, as long as he lives, and whatever he does as kosmos shall be nothing. The swearers shall be the kosmos (.e. the body of kosmoi) and the damioi, and twenty of the city."

Meiggs & Lewis p. 3 provide the following technical commentary on the law:

"The ratification formula with its use of πóλις against the normal Cretan ethnic may reasonably be claimed as an early piece of evidence for the concept of the polis. The word does not appear elsewhere epigraphically until the late sixth century Kyzikos, Thasos, Arkesine, Poseidonia. . . .We have no means of telling whether the word implies the participation of the assembly as Willetts claims, or merely the authority of the city's officials (Ehrenberg).

"The law forbids the repeated tenure of the office of kosmos, presumably, as elsewhere in Crete, the chief magistracy, before ten years have elapsed. The provision is paralleled at Gortyn. . . sixth century, and it has generally been explained there by the need to make a break in the financial and legal immunity of a magistrate. The length of time which has to elapse in Dreros, however, suggests strongly that the motive was rather to limit the possibilities of using the office as a stepping-stone to tyranny (the first editors) or to bolster the power of an individual family (Ehrenberg, Willets). How severe the penalty involved was depends on whether ακρηστος implies total deprivation of civic rights or deprivation merely of the right to hold certain magistracies. Dispute over the implications of the word involves the interpretation of the phrase χρηστους ποîεν in the archaic treaty between Sparta and Tegea (Plutarch, Greek Questions, 5. . . . ).

"The list of those who swear the oath, presumably every year, includes two unknown offices. The δαμιοι have been generally identified with the Gortynian τιται as financial supervisors. 'The twenty of the city' have been identified as a committee of the assembly (Willetts) a committtee of the council (the first editors), the council itself (Ehrenberg).The last seems the most probable."

 According to Maria Fout and John Keane of thelifeanddeathofdemocracy.org, the inscription, which was formerly preserved in the Dreros Museum, was, as of 2009, preserved in the  Archaeological Museum of Agios Nikolaos in Agios Nikolaos, Crete.

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The Skytale: An Early Greek Cryptographic Device Used in Warfare Circa 650 BCE

The skytale (scytale, σκυτάλη "baton"), a cylinder with a strip of parchment wrapped around it on which was written a message, was used by the ancient Greeks and Spartans to communicate secretly during military campaigns. It was first mentioned by the Greek poet Archilochus (fl. 7th century BCE), but the first clear indication of its use as a cryptographic device appeared in the writings of the poet and Homeric scholar, Apollonius of Rhodes, who also served as librarian at the Royal Library of Alexandria. 

Plutarch, writing in the first century CE, provided the first detailed description of the operation of the skytale:

The dispatch-scroll is of the following character. When the ephors send out an admiral or a general, they make two round pieces of wood exactly alike in length and thickness, so that each corresponds to the other in its dimensions, and keep one themselves, while they give the other to their envoy. These pieces of wood they call scytalae. Whenever, then, they wish to send some secret and important message, they make a scroll of parchment long and narrow, like a leathern strap, and wind it round their scytale, leaving no vacant space thereon, but covering its surface all round with the parchment. After doing this, they write what they wish on the parchment, just as it lies wrapped about the scytale; and when they have written their message, they take the parchment off and send it, without the piece of wood, to the commander. He, when he has received it, cannot otherwise get any meaning out of it,--since the letters have no connection, but are disarranged,--unless he takes his own scytale and winds the strip of parchment about it, so that, when its spiral course is restored perfectly, and that which follows is joined to that which precedes, he reads around the staff, and so discovers the continuity of the message. And the parchment, like the staff, is called scytale, as the thing measured bears the name of the measure.
—Plutarch, Lives (Lysander 19), ed. Bernadotte Perrin (quoted in Wikipedia article on Scytale, accessed 04-05-2014).

From Plutarch's description we might draw the conclusion that the skytale was used to transmit a transposition cipher. However, because earlier accounts do not confirm Plutarch's account, and because of the cryptographic weakness of the device, it was suggested that the skytale was used for conveying messages in plaintext, and that Plutarch's description is mythological. Another hypothesis is that the skytale was used for "message authentication rather than encryption. Only if the sender wrote the message around a scytale of the same diameter as the receiver's would the receiver be able to read it. It would therefore be difficult for enemy spies to inject false messages into the communication between two commanders" (Wikipedia article on Scytale, accessed 08-05-2014).

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The God of Writing. . . . Circa 646 BCE

ABout 646 BCE King Ashurbanipal recorded his rebuilding of Ezida, the temple of Nabû, the god of writing in Nineveh, on a limestone slab in Neo Assyrian cuneiform script:


(Schøyen Collection MS 2180, accessed 02-19-2014).

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Construction of the Etemenanki Ziggurat, Later Known as The Tower of Babel 604 BCE – 562 BCE

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The tower of Babel, ca. 1556

Under King Nebuchadnezzar II, the king who is named more than 90 times in the Old Testament, the restoration and enlargement of the Etemenanki ziggurat in Babylon was completed after 43 years of labor. The ziggurat was originally built around the time of Hammurabi. It has been calculated that for its construction at least 17 million bricks had to be made and fired.

Some of these bricks were stamped with inscriptions in cuneiform. Eventually the ziggurat became known as the Tower of Babel, and the few bricks from this that survive are known as "Tower of Babel bricks" or Nebuchadnezzar II bricks. In his Typographia: an historical sketch of the origin and progress of the Art of Printing (1825) 2-7 printer and historian of printing Thomas Curson Hansard called these bricks "the first step toward the art of printing." 

“Babylon with the ziggurat was captured by Kyros 538 BC, Dareios I 519 BC, Xerxes ca. 483 BC, and entirely destroyed by Alexander I the Great in 331 BC. It is this tall stepped temple tower which is referred to in Genesis 11:1-9, and became known as ’The Tower of Babel’. The bricks are specifically mentioned in Genesis 11:3: ’Come, let us make bricks and bake them in the fire. — For stone they used bricks and for mortar they used bitumen’. The black bitumen is still visible on the back of the present baked brick. These bricks are considered so important and interesting that British Museum had their copy on exhibit with special handout descriptions, from where parts of the present information is taken. For a stele illustrating The Tower of Babel, see MS 2063. Nebuchadnezzar II was the founder of the New Babylonian empire. He captured Jerusalem in 596 and 586 BC, burnt down the temple and all of Jerusalem, carried its treasures off to Babylon, and took the Jews into captivity (2 kings 24-25). Nebuchadnezzar II is the king who is named more than 90 times in the Old Testament. Daniel 1-4 is almost entirely devoted to the description of his greatness and reign, his rise and fall, and submission to God” (Schøyen Collection MS 1815/1).

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The Tower of Babel Stele 604 BCE – 562 BCE

(View larger)

Nebuchadnezzar II completed the restoration of the Etemenanki ziggurat which was originally built around the time of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE). The Tower of Babel Stele, of which two of the original three parts are preserved in the Schøyen Collection (MS 2063), presents an image of the Etemenaki ziggurat contemporary with Nebachadnezzar's restoration, along with a simple building plan.

"The missing part of the stele's back, was in a religious institution in U.S.A., the present whereabouts unknown. The stele was found in a special hiding chamber, broken into 3 parts in antiquity, at Robert Koldewey's excavations of the site of the Tower of Babel in 1917. Its importance was immediately recognised. A photograph was taken with 3 archaeologists standing next to the stele. With the imminent danger of war breaking out in the area, they decided to rescue it, and each archaeologist carried one part out of the war zone. One part was taken to Germany, one part to Jordan and then London, the third part to U.S.A." (http://www.schoyencollection.com/babylonianhist.htm, accessed 02-19-2010).

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A Nebuchadnezzar II Babylonian Cylinder Sets an Auction Record Circa 604 BCE – 562 BCE

On April 9, 2014, Doyle New York auctioned a Nebuchadnezzar II (Nabu-kudurri-usur) Babylonian cuneiform cylinder that described the rebuilding of the temple of Shamash in Sippar (modern Tell Abu Habbah in Iraq) by Nebuchadnezzar II, and dated to the Neo-Babylonian Period, circa 604-562 BCE. Measuring 8 1/4 inches (20.8 cm) in length, it was the largest example to come to market in recent times. The cylinder was described as, "double-tapered barrel-shaped cylinder of baked clay, 8 1/4 inches (20.8 cm) in length, tapering from 3 1/4 inches (8 cm) at center to 2 1/4 inches (6 cm) at the ends. Text in two columns, approximately 35 lines. Very light wear to the surface but with no apparent loss of legibility; a short and minor fissure, apparently created at the time of forming or firing, visible on a blank area of the cylinder, overall in sound condition." 

It was customary for the kings of Babylon to cement their relationship with the gods by restoring their temples. These accomplishments were then recorded in cuneiform on clay cylinders prepared by a court scribe, which were buried in the foundations of the restored temples. The cylinders were enduring commemorations of the king's fealty to the gods. This very public act also helped to create the appearance of legitimacy for the ruler. For example, the Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum, extols Cyrus as a benefactor. He had attained the throne by deposing the Babylonian king Nabonidus, and he apparently believed that this and similar ritual acts would legitimize his standing with both the gods and his subjects.

The cuneiform cylinder sold by Doyle came from Sippar, a great complex of temples, the cult site of the Akkadian sun god Shamash, and the home of his temple E-babbara. The text was in two columns, and followed text number 16, published both in Babylonian and German, in Langdon, Die neubabylonischen Konigsinschriften (1912) 141 et seq. Berger, in Die neubabylonischen Konigsinchriften (1973) listed seven extant examples of this cylinder, of which five are in the British Museum, and two in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. The specimen auctioned by Doyle was slightly larger than any others recorded.

The auction house published this approximate translation of the text of the cylinder:

"Column I. 
"NEBUCHADNEZZAR, King of Babylon, the Wise, the Provider, Favorite of Marduk, Sakkanakku of the lands of Sumer and Akkad, who established the foundation of the lands; the Venerated Ruler whom Marduk, the Great Lord, has chosen to renew the Holy Sanctuaries and maintain the cities as his calling: into whose hands Nebo, the Victorious Son gave the scepter of prosperity to extend the lands for Man's guidance; the understanding and reverent, the maintainer of E-sagila and E-zida; the first-born Son of Nabopolassar, King of Babylon am I. 
When Marduk, the Great Lord, joyfully created me and called me into the Kingship with an eternal name, I thought reverently of Him and of His Divinity. But I continue humbly to worship Nebo, His legitimate Son, patron of my kingdom; I praise his glory. 
I endowed E-Sagila and E-zida, their favored palaces, with gold, silver, precious jewels and tall cedars, and made them shine forth like the innermost heavens. I beautified in splendor the holy sanctuaries of the great Gods, according to the wish of their hearts. E-barra, the radiant abode of the Gods, the dwelling-place of Samas, the Judge, which had long ago fallen into disrepair in Sippar; which no previous king had built, Samas the Lord ordered me, the Ruler, His favorite, to rebuild. I found its old cornerstone, and took notice of it. Over its old cornerstone I laid its foundation. I erected E-barra as it was of yore and completed it. I caused it to shine like the bright day, I caused Samas and Ai to return in gladness and rejoicing to their exalted dwelling. At that time, since time immemorable little had been left at E-ulla, the temple of Ninkarrak in Sippar. 

"Column II. 
"The temple building was in disrepair, the outer walls had crumbled, the foundation was no longer recognizable; it was buried in the dust; it was no longer numbered among the Holy Sanctuaries of the Gods; the tithes had ceased; they had vanished from the speech of the peoples; the offerings were no longer being made. 
Because I held the hem of the garment of Marduk, My Lord, and he was gracious unto me, He entrusted unto my hands the renewal of the Holy Sanctuaries, the restoring of the Edifices. 
During my legitimate reign, the merciful Marduk chose to look with favor upon that temple, and Samas, the exalted Judge, ordered its renewal. They ordered me, the shepherd who worships them, to build; I found its old cornerstone and took notice of it. The name of Nikarrak, whose throne is in E-ulla, was inscriped on the image of a dog and was there plainly to be seen. Over the old cornerstone I established the foundation for Ninkarrak, my beloved Mistress, Guardian of my soul, who brings prosperity to my kinsmen; for her I rebuilt E-ulla, her temple in Sippar. Its tithes I enriched and its offerings I restored. O Ninkarrak, Exalted Mistress, look graciously upon the work of my hands. May my acts of devotion be made known to Thy lips. Grant unto me long life, many descendants, good health, and a joyful heart. Present my deeds favorably unto Samas and Marduk; speak in my behalf." 

Provenance being essential for the authenticity and title of archaeological artifacts, this cylinder had belonged to Ellen Shaffer, Rare Book Librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and had been sold to Archie P. Johnston in 1953. The hammer price was $500,000, which with the buyer's premium, meant that the price realized was $605,000. This was the highest price realized for a Babylonian Cylinder to date.

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The Oldest Surviving Texts from the Hebrew Bible Circa 600 BCE

The larger of the two silver scrolls, discovered in 1979 at Ketef Hinnom, which have been deemed the oldest suriving texts from the Hebrew bible. (View Larger)

In 1979 two tiny silver scrolls, inscribed with portions of the well-known apotropaic Priestly Blessing of the Book of Numbers, and apparently once used as amulets, were found in one of a burial chambers at Ketef Hinnom,  an archaeological site near Jerusalem. The delicate process of unrolling the scrolls, while developing a method that would prevent them from disintegrating, took three years. Even though very brief, the two tiny silver scrolls are the oldest surviving texts from the Hebrew Bible.

"The scrolls were found in 1979 in Chamber 25 of Cave 24 at Ketef Hinnom, during excavations conducted by a team under the supervision of Gabriel Barkay, professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University. The site appeared to be archaeologically sterile (the tomb had last been used for storing rifles during the Ottoman period), but a chance discovery by a 13-year-old "assistant" revealed that a partial collapse of the ceiling long ago had preserved the contents of Chamber 25.

"The chamber contained approximately 60 cm. of material with over a thousand objects: many small pottery vessels, artifacts of iron and bronze (including arrowheads), needles and pins, bone and ivory objects, glass bottles, and jewelry including earrings of gold and silver. The tomb had evidently been in use for several generations towards the end of the First Temple period, and continued to be used after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587/6 BCE. KH1 was found in Square D, the middle of the repository, 7 cm above the floor, while KH2 was found while sifting dirt from the lower half of the deposits in Square A, the innermost portion of the repository. Both amulets were separated from Hellenistic artifacts by 3 meters of length and 25 cm of depth, and embedded in pottery and other material from the 7th/6th centuries BCE.

"Barkay initially dated the inscriptions to the late-7th/early-6th centuries BC (later revised downward slightly to the early 6th century) on palaeographic grounds (the forms of the delicately-incised paleo-Hebrew lettering) and on the evidence of the pottery found in the immediate vicinity. This dating was subsequently questioned by Johannes Renz and Wolfgang Rollig (Handbuch der Althebraischen Epigraphik, 1995), who argued that the script was in too poor a condition to be dated with certainty and that a 3rd/2nd century BCE provenance could not be excluded, especially as the repository, which had been used as a kind of "rubbish bin" for the burial chamber over many centuries, also contained material from the fourth century BCE.

"A major re-examination of the scrolls was therefore undertaken by the University of Southern California's West Semitic Research Project, using advanced photographic and computer enhancement techniques which enabled the script to be read more easily and the paleography to be dated more confidently. The results, published in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) in 2004, confirmed a date immediately prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586/7 BCE.](An innovation in the report was the simultaneous publication of an accompanying "digital article," a CD version of the article and the images). Dr Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University, a specialist in ancient Semitic scripts, has said the study should "settle any controversy over [the date of] these inscriptions" (Wikipedia article on Ketef Hinnom, accessed 09-01-2009).

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The Diolkos Paved Trackway for Ships Across the Isthmus of Corinth Circa 600 BCE – 50 CE

Between about 600 BCE and 50 CE the Diolkos, a paved trackway for ships, or rutway, was in operation across the Isthmus of Corinth, enabling ancient vessels to avoid the long and dangerous navigation of the Peloponnesos.  As the Diolkos was open to all boats upon receipt of payment, the 6 km (3.7 mi) to 8.5 km (5.3 mi) long roadway, which used cut stone tracks to haul boats pulled by animals, has been viewed by historians as a kind of public railway.

The main function of the Diolkos was the transfer of goods, although in wartime it also became a preferred means of speeding up naval campaigns.

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Filed under: Transportation

More than 10,000 Stone Inscriptions Were Excavated from the Ancient Agora of Athens 600 BCE – 267 CE

During twentieth century excavations of the Ancient Agora of Athens more than 10,000 stone inscriptions were identified and inventoried. The texts included diplomatic agreements, commemorative plaques for athletic victories, records of court judgments, boundary stones identifying different buildings, and fragmentary inscriptions featuring names of over 30,000 individual Athenians. 

Thompson & Wycherley, The Agora of Athens: The History, Shape, and Uses of an Ancient City Center (1972).

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Destruction of Solomon's Temple 586 BCE

Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews were exiled into the Babylonian Captivity

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One of the Earliest Latin Inscriptions in Rome Circa 570 BCE – 550 BCE

A Latin inscription on a stone block found in excavations of the Lapis Niger, an ancient shrine in the Roman Forum, is one of the earliest Latin inscriptions in Rome. Since it is chronologically closer to the original borrowing of the Greek alphabet by peoples of Italy from Italian Greek colonies, such as Cumae, the lettering on the stone block is closer to Greek letters than any known Latin lettering. The inscription is also written boustrophedon — alternating between right to left and left to right. Many of the oldest Greek and Latin inscriptions are written in this style. The meaning of the inscription is unclear, as the beginning and end are missing, and only one-third to one-half of each line survives. However, it appears to dedicate the shrine to a king, and to level grave curses at anyone who dares disturb it.

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The Duenos Inscription Circa 550 BCE

The DUENOS inscription, found by Heinrich Dressel in 1880 on a vase on Quirnal Hill in Rome, is the second earliest known Old Latin text. It is inscribed on the sides of a kernos, in this case a trio of small globular vases adjoined by three clay struts. The kernos is preserved in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin (inventory no. 30894,3).

Old Latin, the precursor of classical Latin, is known from non-book writing, such as stone inscriptions.

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The Oldest Known Work on Military Strategy Circa 550 BCE

The Yinqueshan bamboo strips, the earliest manuscript of Sun Tzu's 'Art of War,' on exhibition in a Chinese museum. (View Larger)

About 550 BCE it is believed that the Chinese general and military strategist Sun Wu ( 孙武, 孫武, Sūn Wǔ), style name Changqing (長卿), better known as Sun Tzu (孙子, 孫子, Sūn Zǐ]) wrote The Art of War (孫子兵法; Sūn Zǐ Bīng Fǎ). Later called one of the Seven Military Classics of ancient China, The Art of War is the oldest and most influential work on military strategy.

"Sun Tzu suggested the importance of positioning in strategy and that position is affected both by objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective opinions of competitive actors in that environment. He thought that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through an established list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions. Planning works in a controlled environment, but in a changing environment, competing plans collide, creating unexpected situations" (Wikipedia article on The Art of War, accessed 01-30-2010).

Sun Tzu's work was first published in a European language in the French translation of French Jesuit in China Jean Joseph Marie Amiot as Art militaire des Chinois, ou recueil d'ancients traités sur la guerre ... on y a joint dix préceptes addressés aux troupes parl'Empereur Young-Techeng (Paris, 1772). That edition was illustrated with 33 plates. The text was first translated into English by British officer Everard Ferguson Calthrop in 1905, and by Andrew Giles in 1910. Since then there have been many different English translations. In French translation the work probably influenced Napoleon. Since then it has continued to influence military and political leaders of many nationalities, and its precepts have also been applied to business and managerial strategies.

Because of the destruction of information that took place in 213 BCE at the instigation of the Qin Emperor, the earliest known manuscript of Sun Tzu's text consists of 13 fragments of chapters among the 4942 bamboo strips known as the Yinqueshan Han Slips, which were discovered in April 1972 in Yinqueshan Tombs no. 1 and 2 at the foot of Yinqueshan (Sliver Sparrow Mountain) southeast of the city of Linyi in the province of Shandong, China. Each bamboo strip is about 28 centimeters long, 0.7 centimeter wide and 0.2 centimeter thick. The characters on the bamboo slips were written in lishu, a clerical script from the Han Dynasty.

"The time of burial for both tombs had been dated to about 140 BC/134 BC and 118 BC, the texts having been written on the bamboo slips before then. After restoration and arrangement, the slips were organised into a sequential order of nine groups and 154 sections. The first group included 13 fragment chapters from Sunzi's The Art of War, and 5 undetermined chapters; the second group were the 16 chapters of Sun Bin's Art of War, which had been missing for at least 1,400 years; the third included the 7 original and lost chapters from the Six Strategies (before this significant find only the titles of the lost chapters were known); the fourth and fifth included 5 chapters from the Wei Liaozi and 16 chapters from the Yanzi; the rest of the groups included anonymous writings" (Wikipedia article on Yinqueshan Han Slips, accessed 01-30-2010).

(This entry was last revised on 06-13-2015.)

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The Greek Origin of Monumental Roman Stone Inscriptions Circa 550 BCE

In his classic series of lectures, Politics and Script, delivered in 1957, typographer and historian of typography and calligraphy Stanley Morison traced the monumental stone inscriptions of the Romans, from which many of the classic Roman typefaces descend, to a gravestone from Melos (Milos), Greece.  He wrote concerning an inscription carved in marble on a gravestone from Melos preserved in the Staatliches Museum, Berlin (I.G. xii. 3. 1130) that

"the shapes of its letters are those upon which all others depend. It will be seen that they are 'square'. That is not to say that the letters are all perfectly square, but they may be said to be generally 'square' in comparison with handwriting. This is the only sense in which it can be said that Greek, and for that matter Latin, letters are 'quadrate'. It must be noted that, although in the still earlier inscriptions this could not be said, from the sixth century and throughout the classical period it became the rule.

"There are four primary characteristics of early Greek letter design in the classical period. First, the apparent squareness of the shapes; secondly, the unformity of the stroke; thirdly, the consistence of the complete structure; lastly, the rationality of the shapes in having no unnecessary parts and nothing supurfluous. Thus the script is square, unform, rational, and perfectly functional. . . .

"In describing the scripts and letterings of later periods, different places and other languages, reference will be made to relative plainness of design and equality of width of stroke. If the stroke in the Melos inscriptions appears to us as 'thin' it must be considered that it looks so to us because we are accustomed to a thicker stroke. Among Greeks of the sixth or fifth century B.C. the stroke that we may consider thin was normal. The Latins, as will be seen, used a different method of stroking. This does not yet concern us except to remember constantly that is the Latin stroke that is normal to us in the West. The main element in the design, however, is not the stroke's width but its uniformity. The Greek stroke is not merely thin (for it can be thickened) but it is invariably uniform. This is the first great distinction of fundamental importance to the criticism and classification of Graeco-Roman scripts" (Morison, Politics and Script. Aspects of authority and freedom in the development of Graeco-Latin script from the sixth century B.C. to the twentieth century A.D. The Lyell Lectures 1957. Edited and Completed by Nicolas Barker [1972] 5-7, plate 1 ).

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A Block Printed Gold Magic Amulet from Ancient Greece or Asia Minor Circa 550 BCE

MS 5236 in the Schøyen Collection in Oslo, Norway, is the only known ancient Greek magic amulet printed with a text that was stamped rather than incised. It is also the only extant specimen of Ephesia grammata made of gold. It contains a partially comprehensible invocation of the god Phoebus Apollo, and may have been composed in central Greece or Asia Minor.

"The special significance of MS 5236 lies in the way the inscription was created. A close examination shows that a blind-stamping process was used to reproduce the Greek text on the lamella, with a single matrix carrying the whole text. In this, MS 5236 differs fundamentally from other amulets of the time, where the magic formulas were incised by hand, such as with a stylus, into the metal foil.

"The entire process is reconstructed by [Herbert] Brekle as follows: First, the inscription's text was engraved with an iron stylus into an even copper or bronze block, with its letters facing the opposite direction and running from right to left. The displaced material rose up on both sides of the letter grooves forming two sharp, parallel ridges. In the second step, the inscribed side of the stamp block was placed on the plane gold sheet and sufficient pressure, either manually or by hammering onto a plate laid on top, was exerted from above to transmit the text. What produced the print image were the ridges caused by the material displacement; these left shallow double lines in the foil, thus creating the text. The actual, sunken letter lines were not transferred during the imprinting procedure, since they did not enter the surface of the foil.

"It is the existence of these fine double grooves on the gold lamella which provides the key for identifying MS 5236 as being stamped and not written. Because it is a matter of mechanical necessity that the engraved letters appear with their raised double edges on the substrate as parallel, sunken lines when being printed, as can be observed on the amulet. Thus, the inscription is a bas-relief, which was produced by a bas-relief stamp.

If the text had been carved directly into the foil as with other amulets, the stylus could have left only simple lines. According to Brekle, the applied printing technique has much in common with the later method of drypoint etching, by which an image is incised into a copper plate; however, unlike drypoint, MS 5236 is a colourless blind print.

"A further indication for the use of a printing technique is the varying strength of the letters, which suggests that the surface of the lamella was not completely flat during printing. Thus, the outline of the letters, as to be expected with a print, appear in the slightly more elevated regions of the sheet (darker areas in the photo), more distinct than in the slightly deeper regions (lighter areas) that were not affected by the full force of the stamp. This can be observed particularly along the folds and in the last line where the edge of the foil was apparently slightly bent downwards while being printed. Consequently, the impressions of the letters appear less marked here. If the text had been directly inscribed with a stylus into the foil, these variations would not have occurred.

"Regarding the stroke order of the letters on the stamp, it can be said that the Hasta, the mostly vertical main line, was normally executed before the Coda figures. MS 5236 is an overall rare and possibly unique print from the early Greek era. Despite this, the widespread use of magical amulets indicates that such block prints were, at least from the present prototype, mass-produced at that time" (Wikipedia article on MS 5236, accessed 01-19-2013)

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The Cyrus Cylinder, the Earliest Known Document in the History of Religious Toleration 539 BCE

The front side of the Cyrus Cylinder. (View Larger)


In 539 BEC, after conquering Babylonia, Cyrus II of Persia (Cyrus the Great) permitted various religious groups, including perhaps 40,000 Jews, to return to their native land. Cyrus also issued a declaration inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform on a clay cylinder. The cylinder, which has become known as the Cyrus Cylinder, was discovered in March, 1879 in the foundation of the Ésagila temple in Babylon by the Assyrian Christian Assyriologist and archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam

"The Assyro-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam discovered the Cyrus Cylinder in March 1879 during a lengthy programme of excavations in Mesopotamia carried out for the British Museum. It had been placed as a foundation deposit in the foundations of the Ésagila, the city's main temple. Rassam's expedition followed on from an earlier dig carried out in 1850 by the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who excavated three mounds in the same area but found little of importance. In 1877, Layard became Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Mesopotamia at the time. He helped Rassam, who had been his assistant in the 1850 dig, to obtain a firman (decree) from the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II to continue the earlier excavations. The firman was only valid for a year but a second firman, with much more liberal terms, was issued in 1878. It was granted for two years (through to 15 October 1880) with the promise of an extension to 1882 if required. The Sultan's decree authorised Rassam to "pack and dispatch to England any antiquities [he] found ... provided, however, there were no duplicates." A representative of the Sultan was instructed to be present at the dig to examine the objects as they were uncovered. 

With permission secured, Rassam initiated a large-scale excavation at Babylon and other sites on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum. He undertook the excavations in four distinct phases. In between each phase, he returned to England to bring back his finds and raise more funds for further work. The Cyrus Cylinder was found on the second of his four expeditions to Mesopotamia, which began with his departure from London on 8 October 1878. He arrived in his home town of Mosul on 16 November and travelled down the Tigris to Baghdad, which he reached on 30 January 1879. During February and March, he supervised excavations on a number of Babylonian sites, including Babylon itself" (Wikipedia article on Cyrus Cylinder, accessed 03-08-2014).

On the cylinder Cyrus announced a number of reforms that he made after conquering the country. These include arranging for the restoration of temples and organizing the return to their homelands of a number of people who had been held in Babylonia by the Babylonian kings. For these reasons the Cyrus Cylinder has been called the earliest known document in the history of religious toleration. It is preserved in the British Museum. (BM 90920).

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Ezra Introduces Public Reading of the Torah Circa 536 BCE

Ezra the Scribe

After the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian captivity abpit 536 BCE Ezra the Scribe introduced public reading of the Torah.

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Disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments 535 BCE

Having taken 4 months to walk from Babylon to Jerusalem, the Jews began construction of the Second Temple. Missing from the Second Temple was the Ark of the Covenant which, according to legend, contained the Ten Commandments. The loss eventually resulted in extensive speculations concerning the Ark's disappearance and archaeological efforts to locate the Ark. Some of these efforts were caricatured in: 

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The "Rosetta Stone" of Cuneiform Script 522 BCE – 486 BCE

The Behistun Inscription. (View Larger)

The Behistun Inscription (also Bisitun or Bisutun, Modern Persian: بیستون ; Old Persian: Bagastana, meaning "the god's place or land"),  a multi-lingual stone inscription approximately 15 meters high and 25 meters wide, located on Mount Behistun in  Kermanshah Province, near the city of Kermanshah in western Iran, was written by Darius I, the Great sometime between his coronation as Zoroastrian king of kings of the Achaemenid, or Persian, Empire in the summer of 522 BCE and his death in autumn of 486 BCE.

" . . . the inscription begins with a brief autobiography of Darius I, the Great including his ancestry, lineage etc. Later in the inscription, Darius provides a lengthy sequence of events following the death of Cyrus the Great and Cambyses II in which he fought nineteen battles in a period of one year (ending in December of 521 BC) to put down multiple rebellions throughout the Persian Empire. Darius' inscription states in detail that the rebellions, which had resulted from the deaths of Cyrus the Great and his son Cambyses II, were orchestrated by several impostors and their co-conspirators in various cities throughout the empire, each of whom falsely proclaimed kinghood during the upheaval following Cyrus the Great's death. Darius the Great proclaimed himself victorious in all battles during the period of upheaval, attributing his success to the "grace of Ahuramazda (God)".

"The inscription includes three versions of the same text, written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian. Babylonian was a later form of Akkadian: unlike Old Persian, they are Semitic languages. In effect, then, the inscription is to cuneiform what the Rosetta Stone is to Egyptian hieroglyphs: the document most crucial in the decipherment of a previously lost script.

"Translation of the text was a multi-step and multi-national effort based on earlier work done on the decipherment of the Old Persian script by Georg Friedrich Grotefend in the late 1700's when Grotefend discovered that, unlike Elamite and Babylonian texts, Old Persian text is alphabetic. In the following years, the efforts of [Eugène] Burnouf, [Christian] Lassen, and [Henry] Rawlinson (who had the remainder of the inscription transcribed in two parts, in 1835 and 1843) contributed to translating the Old Persian cuneiform text using the Zoroastrian book Avesta as a key, in addition to cross referencing with modern Persian and Vedic languages. With the Old Persian text deciphered, Rawlinson and others were able to then translate the Elamite and Babylonian texts (both of which were ancient translations of the Old Persian text) after 1843.

"The Inscription is . . . 100 metres up a limestone cliff from an ancient road connecting the capitals of Babylonia and Media (Babylon and Ecbatana, respectively). The mountainside was removed to make the inscription more visible after its completion. The Old Persian text contains 414 lines in five columns; the Elamite text includes 593 lines in eight columns, and the Babylonian text is in 112 lines. The inscription was illustrated by a life-sized bas-relief of Darius I, the Great, holding a bow as a sign of kingship, with his left foot on the chest of a figure lying on his back before him. The prostrate figure is reputed to be the pretender Gaumata. Darius is attended to the left by two servants, and ten one-metre figures stand to the right, with hands tied and rope around their necks, representing conquered peoples. Faravahar floats above, giving his blessing to the king" (Wikipedia article on Behistun Inscription, accessed 12-27-2009).

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The Earliest Surviving Athenian Decree: The Cleruchy on Salamis, Written on Stone 510 BCE – 500 BCE

The earliest surviving Athenian decree concerns the status and obligations of men living on Salamis, an ancient Greek city-state on the east coast of Cyprus. The "Salaminian Decree" may be the earliest example of the stoichedon style of epigraphy. This style, named from στοιχηδόν, a Greek adverb meaning "in a row", was the practice of engraving ancient Greek inscriptions in capitals with the letters aligned vertically as well as horizontally. Texts in this form were composed as if in a grid with the same number of letters in each line and each space in the grid filled with a single letter. There were no spaces between words, and no spaces or punctuation between sentences. This was the dominant style of inscription in Athens during the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, and was the preferred style for official state proclamations. 

In translation the Greek text reads:

"Decided by the demos. Th[ose in S]alam[is who are cleruch]s
shall be allowed to reside on Salamis [-15- to the Athe]ni-
ans to pay taxes and provide milit[ary service]. [But] what is theirs [on Salamis] shall not
be leased, unless a kinsmen(?) is the lessor. [I]-
f someone should lease it, [the lessee and the] l-
essor shall pay a penalty, each [of them -19-]
to the public treasury. [And the transaction shall be handled by the a]-
rchon, if [not, he shall be held accountable at his euth]y[na. The]-
ir weapons they shall f[urnish themselves]; the cost is th]-
irty dr[achmas. Having been armed]
the archon [shall review their weapons.]
The B[ou]le, [in] the year [- c.11 -]"

"In the aftermath of the reforms of Cleisthenes of 508/7 BCE, the new Athenian democracy sought to establish a presence in the Saronic Gulf against its Peloponnesian (led by Sparta) and Isthmian (led by Corinth) opponents. The nearby island of Aegina and the city-state of Corinth adjacent to the Isthmus, the narrow land that connects mainland Greece to the Peloponnese was controlled by Corinth, both had spheres of interest in the Saronic Gulf. These and other poleis or city-states were active members of the Peloponnesian League, which was led by Sparta and included Athens. The island of Salamis, which Athens had seized from Corinth's neighboring polis Megara in the age of Pisistratus the tyrant ca. 560 BCE (Paus1., provided the ideal base for such a presence. This, the earliest extant decree of the Cleisthenic demos, addresses the rights and responsibilities of kleruchoi or cleruchs (Athenian citizens dwelling outside of Athens who retain their citizenship) settled by Athens on the island: cleruchs must pay taxes and provide military services to Athens, they may lease the land only to kinsmen (the text here is fragmentary and may refer instead to a dweller) on penalty of a fine, and they must provide their own weapons. Athenian citizens transplanted to Salamis ensured a visible, physical manifestation of Athenian control of the western entrance to the northern Saronic Gulf" (http://www.skidmore.edu/academics/classics/stoa/salamisdecree.html, accessed 04-15-2014.)

"The main evidence for the date of this important decree lies in the letter forms and the arrangement of the text. The stoichedon character ll. 1-6 shows an early stage in the development of the style, which by 485-4 was mature in Athens. . . . The letter forms might be found at any time between c. 520 and c. 480. They are probably cut by the same craftsman as a dedication on the Acropolis of a statue by Hegias . . ., who is presumably the teacher of Pheidas. This does not, however, compel a date after 490, and, if Salamis is the first Athenian cleruchy, the decree should be dated before the cleruchy sent to Chalkis after the Athenian victory of 506. . . . The period immediately following the reforms of Cleisthenes offers a good context. Athens had broken with Sparta; it would have been a sound precaution to establish a permanent garrison on the island which Megara, with Spartan support, might attempt to recover" (Meiggs & Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (1969) No. 14, p. 27).

Excavated from the Acropolis, the stone fragments are preserved in the Epigraphic Museum in Athens.

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The Persepolis Administrative Archives 509 BCE – 457 BCE

Between 1933 and 1934 excavations directed by Ernest Herzfeld for the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago discovered the administrative archives of the Persian city of Persepolis, consisting of the Persepolis Fortification Archive and the Persepolis Treasury Archive. Persepolis (Old Persian: Pārśa, New Persian: پرسپولیس) literary meaning "city of Persians", was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. The modern name of the location is Takht-e Jamshid in Fars near Shiraz in southwestern Iran. 

The thousands of clay tablets, fragments and seal impressions in the Persepolis archives are a part of a single administrative system, representing continuity of activity and flow of data over more than fifty years from 509 to 457 BCE. These records contain information on the geography, economy, administration, religion and social conditions of the Persepolis region, the heartland of the Persian Great Kings from Darius I the Great to Artaxerxes I.

The Persepolis Fortification Archive was found at the northeastern corner of the terrace of Persepolis, in two rooms in the fortification wall in March 1933. The entrance to the rooms were bricked up in antiquity. The tablets had been stored in a small space near the staircase in the tower in the fortification wall, arranged in order, as if in a library. The upper floor of the fortification wall may have collapsed at the time of the Macedonian invasion, in the process partially destroying the order of the tablets while protecting them until 1933. Paradoxically, the burning of Persepolis by Alexander the Great in 330/329 BCE contributed to the preservation of the Achaemenid administrative archives that might have been lost due to passage of time by natural and manmade causes. Herzfeld estimated that the find included about 30,000 or more inscribed and sealed clay tablets and fragments.

"Persepolis Fortification Archive (PFA), also known as Persepolis Fortification Tablets (PFT, PF), is a fragment of Achaemenid  administrative records of receipt, taxation, transfer, storage of food crops (cereals, fruit), livestock (sheep and goats, cattle, poultry), food products (flour, breads and other cereal products, beer, wine, processed fruit, oil, meat), and byproducts (animal hides) in the region around Persepolis (larger part of modern Fars), and their redistribution to gods, royal family, courtiers, priests, religious officiants, administrators, travelers, workers, artisans, and livestock.

"But before Persepolis archives could have offered any clues to the better understanding of the Achaemenid history, the clay tablets, mostly written in a late dialect of Elamite, an extremely difficult language still imperfectly understood, had to be deciphered. So, in 1935, Iranian authorities loaned the Persepolis Fortification Archive to the Oriental Institute for research and publication. The archive arrived in Chicago in 1936 and has been under studies since 1937. It was not until 1969 when Richard Hallock published his magisterial edition of 2087 Elamite tablets [in] Persepolis Fortification Tablets leading to the renaissance of Achaemenid studies in 1970s. The long term project spanning over seven (7) decades is far from completion.

"153 tablets, approximately 30,000 fragments and an unknown number of uninscribed tablets were returned to Iran in the 1950s. So far about 450 tablets and tens of thousands of fragments have already been returned to Iran in total" (Wikipedia article on Perepolis Administative Archives, accessed 04-26-2014.)

The Persepolis Treasury Archive was found on the southeastern part of Persepolis terrace in the block of buildings identified as the "Royal Treasury" where small pieces of gold leaves were found. The find consisted of 746 clay tablets and fragments, covering 35 years from 492 to 457 BCE, from regnal year 30th of Darius I the Great, to regnal year 7th of Artaxerxes I, with the largest concentration from regnal years 19th and 20th of Xerxes

In April 2014 a history of the excavations and study of the Persian Achaemenid Administative Archives entitled Persian.ology. Gate-keepers of (clay) dinosaur bones by A. J. Cave was available from academia.edu at this link. The book was presented in an imaginative illustrated and typographic format.

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The Earliest Known Work on Descriptive Linguistics Circa 500 BCE

An Indian postage stamp, released in 2004, in honor of Pannini.

About 500 BCE Panini, an Indian grammarian from Pushkalavati (Sanskrit: पुष्कलावती), an ancient site situated in the Peshawar valley in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly NWFP) of Pakistan (then Gandhara), composed his formulation of 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology known as Ashtadhyayi. This was the earliest known work on descriptive linguistics. It included the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme, and the root, and metarules, transformation, and recursion.

"Sometime around 500 B.C., the ancient scholar Panini analyzed the Sanskrit language at a level of complexity that has never been matched since, for any language. His grammar, the Ashtadhyayi, comprises some 4,000 rules meant to generate all the possible sentences of Sanskrit from roots of sound and meaning — phonemes and morphemes. The rules include definitions; headings; operational rules, including “replacement, affixation, augmentation and compounding”; and “metarules,” which call other rules recursively. Sound familiar? Panini’s grammar of Sanskrit bears more than a family resemblance to a modern programming language. As Chandra says, the grammar is itself “an algorithm, a machine that consumes phonemes and morphemes and produces words and sentences.” This is not a coincidence. American syntactic theory, Chomsky channeling Panini, formed the soil in which the computer languages grew" (James Gleick, "A Unified Theory. [Review of] 'Geek Sublime' by Vikram Chandra," The New York Times, August 22, 2014, Accessed 08-21-2014).

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The First Known Description of a Binary Numerical System Circa 500 BCE

In Chandaḥśāstra (also Chandaḥsūtra), the earliest known Sanskrit treatise on prosody,  “Pingala presented the first known description of a binary numeral system. He described the binary numeral system in connection with the listing of Vedic meters with short and long syllables. His work also contains the basic ideas of maatraameru (Fibonacci number) and meruprastaara (Pascal’s triangle.)”

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The Roman Census Circa 500 BCE

Servius Tullius. the sixth legendary king of ancient Rome, and the second king of the Etruscan dynasty, introduced the Roman census to determine taxes. Conducted every five years, it provided a register of citizens and their property.

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Paper in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica Circa 500 BCE

Around 500 BCE natives of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica manufactured Amatl (Nahuatl: āmatl, Spanish: amate or papel amate) during the first millenium BCE. This was a form of paper made by boiling the inner bark of several species of trees, particularly fig trees (genus Ficus) such as F. cotinifolia and F. padifolia. The resulting fibrous material was pounded with a stone to produce a stretchy and somewhat delicate paper, colored light brown with corrugated lines

"Iconography (in stone) dating from the period contains depictions of items thought to be paper. For example, Monument 52 from the Olmec site of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán illustrates a personage adorned with ear pennants of folded paper." (Wikipedia article on Amatl)

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The Pyrgi Tablets: Bilingual Etruscan and Phoenician Text Inscribed in Gold Circa 500 BCE

In 1964 during an excavation of ancient Pyrgi, the port of the southern Etruscan town of Caere on the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy (now Santa Severa), archaeologist Massimo Pallottino discovered three golden leaves bearing writing in Etruscan and Phoenician. Known as the Pyrgi Tablets, the leaves record a dedication made around 500 BCE by Thefarie Velianas, king of Caere, to the Phoenician goddess ʻAshtaret. Two of the tablets are inscribed in the Etruscan language, the third in Phoenician.

"These writings are important in providing both a bilingual text that allows researchers to use knowledge of Phoenician to interpret Etruscan, and evidence of Phoenician or Punici nfluence in the Western Mediterranean. They may relate to Polybius's report (Hist. 3,22) of an ancient and almost unintelligible treaty between the Romans and the Carthaginians, which he dated to the consulships of L. Iunius Brutus and L. Tarquinius Collatinus (509 BCE)" (Wikipedia article on Pyrgi Tablets, accessed 10-17-2014).

The tablets are preserved in the Museo Nazionale Etrusco in Rome. 

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The Royal Road Circa 450 BCE – 420 BCE

King Darius I

By the time of Herodotus (circa 484-425 BCE) the Persian Royal Road ran some 2,857 km from the city of Susa on the lower Tigris to the port of Smyrna (modern Izmir in Turkey) on the Aegean Sea.  A highway built by the Persian king of kings Darius I to facilitate rapid communication and intelligence gathering throughout the Persian Empire,  the Royal Road was protected by Persian rulers and later used by the Romans. On this road couriers, riding in relays, could travel 1,677 miles (2,699 km) in seven or nine days.

Herodotus wrote:

“There is nothing that travels faster, and yet is mortal, than these couriers; the Persians invented this system, which works as follows. It is said that there are as many horses and men posted at intervals as there are days required for the entire journey, so that one horse and one man are assigned to each day. And neither snow nor rain nor heat nor dark of night keeps them from completing their appointed course as swiftly as possible. The first courier passes on the instructions to the second, the second to the third, and from there they are transmitted from one to another all the way through, just as the torchbearing relay is celebrated by the Hellenes in honor of Hephaistos. The Persians call this horse-posting system the angareion" (Strassler [ed] The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories [2007] 8.98, p. 642). 

By having fresh horses and riders ready at each relay, royal couriers may have carried messages the entire distance in 7 to 9 days, though normal travelers, or an army on foot, might have taken about three months. This Royal Road linked into many other routes in the overall trade network known as the Silk Road. Some of these roads, such as the routes to India and Central Asia, were also protected, encouraging regular contact between India, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. There are accounts in the Old Testament Book of Esther of dispatches being sent from Susa to provinces as far out as India and Cush (Kush) during the reign of Xerxes (485-465 BCE).

"The postal system during the reign of Xerxes I is also described in the Biblical Book of Esther. While the historical details of the Book of Esther are difficult to verify, it would appear that a swift messenger system connecting all provinces of the Persian Empire was at the disposal of the ruler. In this case, the system was used not to gather information about provincial affairs but to send royal decrees throughout the realm. Thus, when Hāmān secured the King’s permission to kill the Jews of the empire, ‘Letters were sent by courier to all the King’s provinces with orders to destroy, slay and exterminate all Jews’ (Esther 3: 13). When, through the efforts of Mordecai and Esther, the King agreed to spare the Jews, ‘Letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on horses from the royal stable. By these letters the King granted permission to the Jews in every city to unite and defend themselves …’ (8: 10); thus ‘the couriers, mounted on their royal horses, were despatched post-haste at the King’s urgent command; and the decree was issued also in Susa the capital’ (8: 14).

"In this case, the Achaemenid postal system was employed to circulate royal decrees throughout the provinces of the empire, using riders ‘on horses from the royal stable’. The English translation of these verses is deceptively readable and cannot be seen as loyal to the complexities of the original Hebrew text. For instance, the term aḥashtranīm (Esther 8: 10, 14) used to describe the royal mounts has conveniently been ignored in the English version. In fact, this word is a hapax legomenon and has generated exegetical controversy" (Silverstein, Postal Systems in the Pre-Islamic World [2007] http://www.cambridge.org/us/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521858687&ss=exc, accessed 01-14-2010).

Until the development of effective optical telegraph systems at the end of the 18th century, messengers on horseback, riding over a good road system, remained the fastest method of sending a message overland.

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The Beginnings of the Book Trade in Greece Circa 450 BCE

"It is not until the middle of the fifth century or a little later that a book trade can be said to have existed in Greece: we find references to a part of the Athenian market where books can be bought  (Eupolis fr. 327 K.-A.) and Socrates is represented by Plato as saying in his Apology 26D that anyone can buy Anaxagorus' works for a drachma in the orchestra. All details of the trade, however, remain unknown" (Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 3rd. ed. [1991] 2).

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How Herodotus Used Writing and Messages in his Histories Circa 450 BCE – 420 BCE

As Herodotus (Ἡρόδοτος) was the founder of historical writing, references to written or archival records in his Histories (The History) are of particular interest. By the mid-fifth century BCE writing in Greece had existed for only about 300 years. Because writing was relatively new, and only a small portion of society was literate, it may not be surprising that Herodotus appears to have consulted few written sources in compiling his Histories. From Herodotus's own account it seems that most often he did not find it necessary, or perhaps practical, to verify information that he compiled from personal observation through the consultation of written records. Herodotus also expected his Histories to be read aloud, in which case citing written sources within the Histories might have been a kind of distraction.

Herodotus begins his Histories with a sentence that has been translated in various ways: "Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time."  Another translation of the same sentence reads, "What follows is a performance of the enquiries of Herodotus from Halicarnassus." According to Robert Strassler, editor of The Landmark Herodotus (2007) 3, Proem.b, "This almost certainly implies that Herodotus performed (read aloud) his text, in whole or in part, to an audience gathered to hear him."

Herodotus usually refers to records in the context of government, law, or communication. He often refers to dispatches sent by leaders as part of political or military negotiations, such as dispatches sent in the context of war. He describes attempts to send secret messages. He also refers to records used for the enforcement of laws, which were, of course, in written form. He is aware of both the advantages and disadvantages of writing over oral communication.

"Herodotus recognized the usefulness of writing for interpersonal communication, but he also knew that it could be problematic. Because writing fixed a message in time and space, a written document that seemed objective and straightforward could also be full of paradoxes. In the generation after Herodotus, Socrates would complain (in the dialogue Phaedrus, set down by Plato) that writing represented 'no true wisdom, . . . but only its semblance.' Written words 'seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent,' the philosopher said, 'but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you the same thing for ever.' Even worse, once something is put in writing it 'drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn't know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. '  

"Like Socrates, Herodotus knew that writing was full of ambiguities. Since a written document could not be cross-examined as a speaking person could, it might be used not to inform but to deceive. Themistocles, the Athenian general who led the resistance to the invasion of Xerxes. knew this too. Both sides in the war were vying for the help of the Ionians, descendants of Greek settlers who had colonized the Aegean islands and the adjacent mainland coastal areas of present-day Turkey. Most Ionians sided with the Persians, their powerful near-neighbours, but the Greeks sought their aid on the grounds of common ancestry. Themistocles used the ambiguity of writing to enlist their help, or at least to minimize the potential harm they might do to the Greek cause. He sent men to the "drinkable-water places" where Ionian ships put in for resupply, and he had them cut written messages into the rocks there, urging the Ionians to abandon Xerxes and join the Greek side. His plan was clever: either the Ionians who read the messages would be persuaded to rebel against the Persians, he reasoned, or Xerxes himself would see the messages and distrust his allies, withholding them from the order of battle (8.22). As it happened, only a few Ionians defected to the Greeks (see 8.85), but a more important point had been made: writing could send a deliberately confusing message as well as a direct one. Writing was not always so straightforward as it appeared to be.

"Writing could also be useful for sending messages in secret, and Herodotus provided several examples of how written records promoted secrecy. There was a danger in committing anything to writing since, if the document were intercepted, secrecy would be lost. Histiaeus, who had been made Despot of Miletus by Darius, learned this lesson when he sought through secret messages to stir up a revolt against his benefactor. The King's brother intercepted these letters, read them, and then sent them on to their original destination, having meanwhile profited from knowing what plans were afoot. When the revolt came, the loyal forces 'killed a great number ... when they were thus revealed' (6.4). Still, writing out a message and smuggling it to a confederate could be safer than entrusting it orally to a messenger, who could be bribed or tortured into talking if apprehended. Because of the possibility of such discovery, special care was needed over secret communications, and Herodotus found several instances of such security precautions.

"These stories present the historian at his anecdotal best, and we may well doubt whether any of them actually happened. Their very dramatic content, however, highlights the problem Socrates complained of; namely, writing drifting 'all over the place' and getting into the wrong hands. In one case, a Mede named Harpagus plotted with Cyrus to overthrow the King and install the young man in his place. 'Because the roads were guarded,' a secret message had to be smuggled through by some 'contrivance.' Harpagus took a hare and split open its belly, leaving the fur intact. Next, he inserted "a paper on which he wrote what he wanted," stitched the animal back together, and entrusted it to a servant, disguised as an innocuous huntsman. The servant made it past the guards along the road and delivered the message to its intended recipient (1.123; the text of the message itself is at 1.124)" (O'Toole, "Herodotus and the Written Record," Archivaria 33 [1991-92] 153-54).

Whatever Herodotus's ideas regarding the written record, his Histories survived because he wrote them down, and because they were re-copied. According to Roger Pearse, tertullian.org, 18 papyrus fragments of Herdotus survived, all fragments of a page, with little overlap. Most of these fragments date from the first or second centuries CE. Pearse cites nine medieval manuscript exemplars. The earliest, Laurentian 70, 3, known as Codex A, dates from the 10th century C.E. This was carefully written by two scribes in succession. The text contains marginal summaries and the remains of scholia, copied from its exemplar, as well as much later marginal notes, especially in book 1.

Pearse provides the following general comments on the surviving sources for Herodotus: "The manuscripts and papyri do not give us information on all the forms of the text of Herodotus that were known in antiquity. This we can see from the quotations of the text in other ancient authors. . . . Both the manuscripts and papyri appear to derive from a common ancient edition which was widely circulated in the early centuries AD. Who made this is unknown. . . ."

(This entry was last revised on 04-24-2014.)

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The Elephantine Papyri: One of the Most Ancient Collections of Jewish Manuscripts Circa 450 BCE

One of the oldest collections of Jewish manuscripts, dating from the fifth century BCE, the Elephantine papyri were written by the Jewish community at Elephantine (Arabic: جزيرة الفنتين‎, Greek: Ελεφαντίνη) , then called Yeb, an island in the Nile at the border of Nubia. The Jewish settlement of Elephantine was probably founded as a military installation about 650 BCE, during the reign of Manasseh of Judah, to assist Pharoah Psammetichus I in his Nubian campaign. The dry soil of Upper Egypt preserved documents from the Egyptian border fortresses of Elephantine and Syene (Aswan). Hundreds of these Elephantine papyri survived, written in hieratic and Demotic Egyptian, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and Coptic, and consisting of legal documents and letters, spanning a period of 1000 years. 

"Though some fragments on papyrus are much older, the largest number of papyri are written in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, and document the Jewish community among soldiers stationed at Elephantine under Persian rule, 495-399 BCE. The Elephantine documents include letters and legal contracts from family and other archives: divorce documents, the manumission of slaves, and other business, and are a valuable source of knowledge about law, society, religion, language and onomastics, the sometimes surprisingly revealing study of names...." (Wikipedia article on Elephantine papyri, accessed 12-09-2013).

Porten, Bezalel et al, The Elephantine Papyri in English. Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change (1996). 

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The Egyptians Reckon with Pebbles and Probably Use the Sandboard Abacus Circa 440 BCE

Herodotus of Halicarnassus. (View Larger)

Because the numbering systems of the Mesopotamians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans were not convenient for extensive calculation, it is believed that they used some sort of mechanical calculating device. The simplest form of calculating device was a kind of table or tablet on which calculation couls be written in sand or dust, and then easily erased. This is the "sandboard abacus". One derivation of the Latin word abacus comes from the Greek abakos from the Hebrew word abaq, meaning dust.

In his Histories Herodotus of Halicarnassus, written about 440 BCE stated that the Egyptians "write their characters and reckon with pebbles, bringing their hand from right to left, while the Greeks go from left to right." D.E. Smith, in his History of Mathematics II, p. 160 quotes this statement by Herodotus and writes, "Right to left order was that of the hieratic script and there is probably some relation between this script and the abacus. No wall pictures thus far discovered give any evidence of the use of the abacus, but in any collection of Egyptian antiquities there may be found disks of various sizes which may have been used as counters."

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One of the Earliest Images of Someone Reading a Papyrus Roll 440 BCE – 435 BCE

One of the earliest surviving images of anyone reading a papyrus roll, preserved in the Louvre. (View Larger)

A tondo, or circular work of art, from the inside base of an Attic red figure cup depicts the teacher Linos (named on the right) reading from a papyrus roll while his pupil Mousaios (named on the left) reads from writing tablets.

Preserved in the Louvre (G457), this school scene is one of the earliest surviving images of anyone reading a papyrus roll. The tondo shows Linos reading the roll vertically, perhaps because of the demands of the artistic composition; the usual method of reading a papyrus roll appears to have been in the horizontal position with the roll rolling to the right and left. To the left of Linos the boy, Mousaios, stands reading from the wood tablets he holds in his left hand. Behind Mousaios the chest depicted is thought to be a storage container for papyrus rolls.  The cup, attributed to the "Eretria Painter," is 9.9 cm high x 25.4 cm in diameter and 33.9 cm wide.  

Lewis, Papyrus in Classical Antiquity (1974) Plate 8 and caption 8 (p. 152).

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The Law Code of Gortyn, Crete: The Longest Extant Ancient Greek Stone Inscription in Greece Circa 440 BCE

Written in the Dorian dialect, the Law Code of Gortyn was the codification of the civil law of the ancient Greek city-state of Gortyn in southern Crete. It is a type of stone nscription called boustrophedron, in which alternate lines must be read in opposite directions rather than from left to right, or right to left as in Arabic. It derives from βους, "ox" + στρεφειν, "to turn" (cf. the etymology of strophe), because the hand of the writer goes back and forth, so that the resulting inscription resembles the path of an ox that draws a plow across a field and turns at the end of each row to return in the opposite direction.

Though only a major portion of the code survived, the twelve columns that remain are 30 feet in length and 5 feet in height and contain some 600 lines of text. The writing is uniform and is thought to have been carved by a single writer or sculptor. From the surviving code much concerning the civil law of Gortyn is known. Except for the inscription of Digoenes of Oenoanda in Lycia (now southwest Turkey) the Law Code of Gortyn is the longest extant Greek stone inscription.

Vasilakis, The Great Inscription of the Law Code of Gortyn (2007).

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The Derveni Papyrus, The Earliest Surviving European Manuscript Circa 420 BCE

On January 15, 1962 during the widening of the national road leading from Thessaloniki to Kavala in Greece workers discovered several large cist graves at Derveni, roughly 10 km to the north of Thessaloniki. Among the remains of the funeral pyre on top of the covering slabs of what was designated tomb A a charred papyrus roll was discovered. This ancient Greek papyrus roll, dating from around 420 BCE, is the earliest surviving European manuscript, as distinct from papyri found in Egypt or the Middle East. Designated the Derveni papyrus, it is "a philosophical treatise that is an allegorical commentary on an Orphic poem, a theogony concerning the birth of the gods, produced in the circle of the philosopher Anaxagoras in the second half of the 5th century BC." It has also been called "the most important new piece of evidence about Greek philosophy and religion to come to light since the Renaissance."  

Betegh, The Derveni Papyrus. Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation (2004).

In April 2014 the Greek text and English translation of the Derveni papyrus were available from the IMOUSEION Project at the Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard at this link.

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Possible Libraries in Ancient Greece Circa 410 BCE

"The increase of the book trade made it possible for private individuals to form libraries. Even if the tradition that sixth-century tyrants such as Pisistratus of Athens and Polycrates of Samos possessed large collections of books is discounted (Anthenaeus I.3A), it is clear that by the end of the fifth century private libraries existed. Aristophanes pokes fun at Euripides for drawing heavily on literary sources in composing his tragedies (Frogs 943), and his own work, being full of parody and allusion, must have depended to some extent on a personal book collection.

"There is no trace of any general library maintained at the public expense at Athens, but it is likely that official copies of plays performed at the leading festivals such as the Dionysia were kept at the theatre or in the public record office. Pseudo-Plurarch (Lives of the ten orators 841F) ascribes to the orator Lycurgus (c. 390-324 BCE) a proposal to keep official copies in this way, but the need would probably have arisen earlier. We know that after the original performance plays were revived from time to time. New copies of the text must have been needed for the actors, and if they had been obliged to obtain these by a process of transcription from private copies it would be surprising that an almost complete range of plays survived into the Hellenistic age" (Reynolds & Wilson, Texts and Transmission, 3rd ed. [1991] 5).

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Arabic Numerals are Invented in India by the Hindus Circa 400 BCE

Arabic numerals and their equivalents in the ancient Indian Brahmi. (View Larger)

What we call Arabic numerals were invented in India by the Hindus. Because the Arabs transmitted this system to the West after the Hindu numerical system found its way to Persia, the numeral system became known as Arabic numerals, though Arabs call the numerals they use “Indian numerals”, أرقام هندية, arqam hindiyyah.

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Filed under: Mathematics / Logic

The Pronomos Vase: Pictorial Evidence for Theatre in Ancient Greece Circa 400 BCE

The Pronomos Vase from Naples shows the performers of a Greek satyr play. (View Larger)

The Pronomos vase, a red-figure volute-krater was created circa 400 BCE. Depicting an entire theatrical chorus and cast along with the celebrated musician Pronomos, in the presence of their patron god, Dionysos, it is considered the single most important surviving piece of pictorial evidence for theatre from ancient Greece. It was discovered in Ruvo di Puglia, Italy in 1836, and is preserved in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

(This entry was last revised on April 13, 2014.)

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A Wooden Dove Automaton Circa 400 BCE

About 400 BCE Greek philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, statesman, and strategist Archytas (Ἀρχύτας ο Ταραντίνος or Archytus of Tarentum, now Taranto, Southern Italy) "was reputed to have designed and built the first artificial, self-propelled flying device, a bird-shaped model propelled by a jet of what was probably steam, said to have actually flown some 200 meters. This machine, which its inventor called The Pigeon, may have been suspended on a wire or pivot for its flight" (Wikipedia article on Archytas, accessed 12-25-2011).

Nocks, The Robot. The Life Story of a Technology (2008) 11.

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Export of Papyrus Rolls from Greece to the Euxine Coast 399 BCE

A bust of Xenophon. (View Larger)

In his Anabasis, describing events that occurred between 401 and 399 BCE, Greek historian and soldier Xenophon reported in Book Seven, Part V, line 14, that books (papyrus rolls) formed part of the cargo of ships wrecked off Salmydessus on the north coast of Thrace. This is evidence that books were exported from Athens (?) to the Euxine coast by this date, reflective of an international book trade.

Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars 3rd ed. (1991) 244.

(This entry was last revised on April 14, 2014.)

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The Gauls Sack Rome and Destroy Most Records 390 BCE – 387 BCE

A statue of Brennus by an unknown French artist. (View Larger)

Around 390 to 387 BCE the Gauls, under their chieftain Brennus or Brennos, defeated Roman armies in the Battle of the Allia and sacked Rome. With the exception of the Capitoline Hill, the Gauls plundered the city and destroyed nearly all records.

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The Library of Aristotle: Basis for the Royal Library of Alexandria? 384 BCE – 321 BCE

The library of Aristotle is the first private library concerning which there is considerable discussion among early commentators. Writing more than 300 years after Aristotle's death, in the first decades of the first century CE, the geographer Strabo provided one of the most detailed early accounts in his Geographia XIII, 1, 54-55, stating, among other things that Aristotle was "the first man, so far as I know, to have collected books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library." Strabo's account in English translation is below. The Egyptian kings were referred to were probably the Ptolemies in Alexandria. The translation is by H. L. Jones (London, 1929); the links are, of course, mine:

"From Scepsis came the Socratic philosophers Rastus and Coriscus and Neleus the son of Coriscus, this last a man who not only was a pupil of Aristotle and Theophrastus, but also inherited the library of Theophrastus, which included that of Aristotle. At any rate, Aristotle bequeathed his own library to Theophrastus, to whom he also left his school; and he is the first man, so far as I know, to have collected books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library. Theophrastus bequeathed it to Neleus; and Neleus took it to Scepsis [at the present site of the village of Kurşuntepe, near the town of Bayramiç in Turkey] and bequeathed it to his heirs, ordinary people, who kept the books locked up and not even carefully stored. But when they heard how zealously the Attalid kings to whom the city was subject were searching for books to build up the library in Pergamum, they hid the books underground in a kind of trench. But much later, when the books had been damaged by moisture and moths, their descendants sold them to Apellicon of Teos for a large sum of money, both the books of Aristotle and those of Theophrastus. But Apellicon was a bibliophile rather than a philosopher; and therefore, seeking a restoration of the parts that had been eaten through, he made new copies of the text, filling up the gaps incorectly, and published the books full of errors. The result was that the earlier school of Peripatetics who came after Theophrastus had no books at all, with the exception of only a few, mostly exoteric works, and were therefore able to philosophise about nothing in a practical way, but only to talk bombast about commonplace propositions, whereas the later school, from the time the books in question appeared, though better able to philosophise and Aristotelise, were forced to call most of their statements probabilities, because of the large number of errors. Rome also contributed much to it; for immediately after the death of Apellicon, Sulla, who had captured Athens carried off Apelicon's library to Rome, where Tyrannion the grammarion, who was fond of Aristotle, got it in his hands by paying court to the librarian, as did also certain booksellers who used bad copyists and would not collate the texts— a thing that also takes place in the case of the other books that are copied for selling both here [Rome] and at Alexandria.".

"Another account relates that Ptolemy II (285-246 B.C.) acquired Aristotle’s library directly from Neleus and brought it to Egypt to become a part of the great Alexandrian library. It is possible that both stories are partially correct, and it is quite probable that copies at least of Aristotle’s library reached Alexandria eventually” (Harris, History of Libraries in the Western World 4th ed. [1999] 41).

Blum, Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography, tr. by H. Wellisch (1991) 2.6."The Library of Aristotle," 53-64.

(This entry was last revised on 08-05-2014).

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Socrates on the Invention of Writing and the Relationship of Writing to Memory Circa 370 BCE

In the Phaedrus, written circa 370 BCE, Plato recorded Socrates's discussion of the Egyptian myth of the creation of writing. In the process Socrates faulted writing for weakening the necessity and power of memory, and for allowing the pretense of understanding, rather than true understanding.

From Plato's dialogue Phaedrus 14, 274c-275b:

Socrates: [274c] I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who [274d] invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters. 

Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved [274e] or disapproved.  

"The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, [274e] “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; [275a] and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.  

"For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem [275b] to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise." 

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Plato Compares Human Memory to Wax Tablets Circa 369 BCE


"Please assume, then, for the sake of argument, that there is in our souls a block of wax, in one case larger, in another smaller, in one case the wax is purer, in another more impure and harder, in some cases softer.


"I assume all that.


"Let us, then, say that this is the gift of Memory, the mother of the Muses, and that whenever we wish to remember anything we see or hear or think of in our own minds, we hold this wax under the perceptions and thoughts and imprint them upon it, just as we make impressions from seal rings; and whatever is imprinted we remember and know as long as its image lasts, but whatever is rubbed out or [191e] cannot be imprinted we forget and do not know.


"Let us assume that.


"Now take a man who knows the things which he sees and hears, and is considering some one of them; observe whether he may not gain a false opinion in the following manner. Theaetetus In what manner? Socrates By thinking that the things which he knows are sometimes things which he knows and sometimes things which he does not know. For we were wrong before in agreeing that this is impossible.


"What do you say about it now?" (Plato, Theaetetus, 191c-e)

Plato's complete discussion in the Theaetetus of false judgment as the inappropriate linkage of a perception to a memory – the mind as a wax tablet– appears in lines 191a–196c of the dialogue.

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Aeneas Tacticus Describes Methods of Encoding Messages Circa 360 BCE

Περὶ τοῦ πῶς χρὴ πολιορκουμένους ἀντέχειν (How to Survive Under Seige) written circa 360 BCE by Aeneas Tacticus, one of the earliest Greek writers on the art of war, was the first handbook on urban warfare. It also provided the first extensive guide to securing military communications. Humanist and philologist Isaac Casaubon, who issued the editio princeps of Aeneas Tacticus as an appendix to his Greek and Latin edition of Polybius, Historiarum libri qui supersunt (Paris, 1609), considered Aeneas Tacticus a contemporary of Xenophon and identical with the Arcadian general Aeneas of Stymphalos, whom Xenophon (Hellenika, VII.3.1) mentioned as fighting at the Battle of Mantineia (362 BCE).

From Aineiou Poliorketika = Aeneas On Siegecraft: A Critical Edition prepared By L.W. Hunter; Revised With Some Additions By S.A. Handford (1927) I quote chapter 31:

"Of Secret Messages

1. As regards secret messages, there are all sorts of ways of sending them: a private arrangement should be made beforehand between the sender and the recipient. I will give some of the most successful methods.

2. A message was once sent in the following manner. A book or some other document, of any size and age, was packed in a bundle or other baggage. In this book the message was written by the process of marking certain letters of the first line, or the second, or the third, with tiny dots, practically invisible to all but the man to whom it was sent: then, when the book reached its destination, the recipient transcribed the dotted letters, and placing together in order those in the first line, and so on with the second line and the rest, was able to read the message.

3. Another, similar way of sending just a short message is this. Write an ordinary letter at some length on any subject, and employ the same device of marking letters, indicating by these whatever you wish, The marking should be made as inconspicuous as possible, either by placing dots at long intervals, or by strokes of unusual length: in this way the message will be intelligible to the recipient, without arousing the suspicions of anybody else.

4. Again, a man may be sent with a message or even a letter on some other subject, not anything private, while a letter is secretly inserted between the sole and the lining of the messenger’s shoes before he starts, and sewn up. In case the road is wet and muddy, the message should be written on a thin sheet of tin to prevent the letters from being obliterated by the water.

4a. When the messenger has reached his destination and is asleep at night, the person for whom the letter is intended must undo the stitches in his shoes, take out the letter, read it, write a reply unobserved while the man is still asleep, sew it up in the sole, and send him off, after giving him the answer to be delivered openly.

5. In this way, neither the messenger nor anyone else will know the secret: only take care to make the stitches in his shoes as inconspicuous as possible.

6. Again, a message was brought to Ephesus in the following way. A man was sent with a letter written on leaves, the leaves being bound on a wound in his leg.

7. Again, writing may be conveyed in women’s ears, wrapped in thin pieces of lead worn instead of earrings.

8. Again, a letter containing an offer of betrayal was once conveyed by a traitor into the enemy’s camp near at hand in the following manner. One of a troop setting out from the city for a foray had a note sewn up under the skirt of his cuirass, with orders, if the enemy came into view, to fall from his horse as if he had been thrown, and allow himself to be made a prisoner; on arrival in the enemy’s camp he was duly to deliver the note. In this case he was assisted by a brother trooper.

9. Another man sent out a trooper with a note sewn up in his bridle rein. Here is another story about a letter. During a siege the bearer of some letters arrived within the city, but, instead of delivering them to the traitor and those for whom they were intended, went and laid information before the governor, and offered the letters to him.

9a. On hearing his story, the governor bade him deliver the letters he already had to those for whom they were intended, but to bring the traitor’s reply to him, if there was any truth to his story. His informant did so; whereupon the governor, after receiving the replies, summoned the traitors and confronted them with the seals of their own signets, which they were forced to acknowledge, and then opened the letters and discovered the plot.

9b. He certainly convicted them very cleverly by not taking the original letters from the bearer: for the traitors might have denied complicity and asserted that it was a plot against them; but by getting hold of the replies he convicted them all beyond dispute.

10. Another way of conveying letters is to get a bladder to fit an oil-flask, the bladder being of whatever size you please, according to the length of the letter you wish to send: inflate this, tie it up and dry it thoroughly, then write your message on it in ink mixed with glue.

11. When the writing has dried, let the air out of the bladder, squeeze it and push it into the flask; but let its mouth project beyond the lid of the flask.

12. Then blow up the bladder to its fullest extent inside the flask, fill it with oil, cut of its projecting end and fit it to the mouth of the flask so that no-one will notice it; put a put a bung in the flask, and carry it about openly. The oil will now be plainly seen in the flask, and there will not appear to be anything else in it.

13. When the flask reaches the man for whom it was intended, he will empty out the oil, blow up the bladder and read the message; and after sponging off the writing he may write his reply on the same bladder and send it back.

14. Again, a man has before now poured wax on a writing tablet, after writing on the wooden part, and has written another letter on the wax: when it has come to its destination, the recipient has scratched off the wax, read the letter, written the reply in the same way, and sent it off. Another device recorded is to write on a boxwood tablet with the very best ink, let it dry, then whiten it over to conceal the writing. When the tablet reaches the man to whom it was sent, he must take it and put it in water: and in the water every word will come out clearly.

15. Again, you may write any message you wish on a votive tablet: then whiten it thoroughly, dry it, and draw on it a picture, say, of a horseman with a torch, or anything else you like; his dress and horse should be white, or, if not white, any colour but black. Then give it to someone to set it up in some temple near the city, as if you were paying a vow. 1

6. The man who is to read the message must come into the temple, identify the tablet by some prearranged mark, carry it home, and dip it in oil: then all the writing will become visible. The hardest method of all to detect, but the most troublesome, that without writing, I will now explain. It is as follows.

17. Take a good sized die [an astragalos or knuckle bone] and bore in it twenty-four holes, six on each side. These holes are to represent the twenty-four letters of the alphabet;

18. and be careful, too, to remember, counting from one side, whichever it is, on which the A comes first, the letters which follow on each side in turn. Afterwards, when you wish to place a message on this contrivance, pass a thread through. Suppose, for instance, that you wish to signify AINEIAS by the way in which the thread is passed through. Begin from the side of the die where the A is, and pass over the succeeding letters till you come to I; when you reach the side where the I is, pull the thread through again; then leave out the next letters, and do the same where N happens to be; then again leave out the next letters and pull the thread through at E; and in the same way copy the rest of the message on the die by passing the thread through the holes, as in the case of the letters AINE, which we have just placed on the die. 1

19. In this way, there will be a ball of thread wound round the die when it is dispatched, and the recipient must read the message by writing on a tablet the letters signified by the different holes, the thread being unwound from the holes in the reverse order to that in which was wound on. It does not make any difference that the letters are written on the tablet in the reverse order: they will be intelligible just the same. But the task of reading the message is really harder than the composition of it.

20. A handier method would be to get a piece of wood seven or eight inches long, and bore as many holes in it as there are letters in the alphabet; then pass the thread through the holes in the same way as before. When it happens that the thread has to go through the same hole twice, that is when the same letter occurs twice in succession, twist the thread once around the wood before passing it through the hole again.

21. Another plan would be this: instead of the die or the piece of wood, make a wooden disk and polish it; next bore twenty-four holes in a line round the circumference for the letters of the alphabet, and to disarm suspicion, bore holes in the middle as well. After this the thread must be passed through the different letters in the line.

22. When you have to repeat a letter, pass the thread through one of the holes in the middle before returning to the same letter – by ‘letter’ I mean of course hole.

23. Again, a note has been written on very thin papyrus, in long lines of fine characters, so as to make the packet as small as possible; it was then inserted into the shoulder of a tunic [chiton], and part of the tunic folded back on the shoulder. A good way of getting the letter through without suspicion would, I think, be for a man to put the tunic on and carry it in this way.

24. Here is the proof of the difficulty of thwarting plots for bringing things into a city. The men round Ilion, after all this time, and in spite of their efforts, are not yet able to prevent the Locrian maidens from coming into their city, for all their eager watching: a few men by studious precautions have managed to smuggle in women unobserved every year.

25. In earlier years the following trick was once played. Timoxenus wished to betray Potidaea to Artabazus: they therefore agreed upon a certain spot in the city chosen by Timoxenus, and one in the lines chosen by Artabazus, into which they used to shoot arrows carrying any information which they wished to communicate to each other, ; the following was the device they used: they wound the note round the grooved end of an arrow, which they then feathered and shot into the places agreed upon.

26. But Timoxenus’ treachery was discovered: for Artabazus shot in the usual direction, but owing to the wind and the bad feathering of the arrow missed his mark, and hit a Potidaean in the shoulder. As often happens in war, a crowd ran up to the wounded man: and they at once seized the arrow and took it to the generals, so that the plot was discovered.

27. Again, when Histiaeus wished to communicate with Aristagoras, and could find no other safe means of sending a message, as the roads were guarded and it was very difficult for a letter to get through without detection, he took his most trusty slave and shaved his head, then tattooed the message on it, and waited till the hair grew again. As soon as it had grown, he sent him to Miletus, with no other orders than to tell Aristagoras, when he reached Miletus, to shave his head and examine it. The marks told Aristagoras what to do.

28. Again, you may use the following cipher. Arrange beforehand to represent the vowels by dots, a different number of dots according to the order in which each vowels stands in the alphabet. For example:

DEAR DIONYSIOS D: . R D:. ::N:::S:. :: S

Or again:


29. And the messages in some place known by the recipient, to whom arrival of the man in the city to buy or sell something should be a signal that a letter has come for him, and has been deposited in the place agreed upon. In this way the messenger does not know for whom the letter was brought, nor will it be known that the recipient has it.

30. Dogs were often used in Epirus in the following way. They led them away from their homes on leashes, and fasted round their necks a strap in which a letter was sewn up. Then, either by night or by day, they let them go and find their way home, which they were sure to do. This method is used in Thessaly.

31. All letters that arrive should be opened at once. A letter was sent to Astyanax, tyrant of Lampsacus, containing information of the plot which proved fatal to him: since, however, he did not open it at once and read the contents, but took no notice and attended to other business first, he was murdered with the letter unopened in his fingers.

32. The same delay caused the capture of the citadel in Thebes, and something like it happened in Mytilene in Lesbos.

33. When Glous the Persian admiral went up to see the king, and found it impossible to carry his memoranda into the presence chamber (the matters of which he had to speak being numerous and important), he noted down in the spaces of his fingers the subjects he had to discuss. The sentry at the gates must keep a sharp lookout for such things as I have described, to see that nothing, whether arms or letters, enters the city unobserved."

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The Hydraulic Telegraph 350 BCE

Polybius (View Larger)

According to Polybius, a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period, Aeneas Tacticus, one of the earliest Greek writers on the art of war, invented the hydraulic telegraph about 350 BCE. It was a semaphore system used during the First Punic War to send messages between Sicily and Carthage.

"The system involved identical containers on separate hills; each container would be filled with water, and a vertical rod floated within. The rods were inscribed with various predetermined codes.

"To send a message, the sending operator would use a torch to signal the receiving operator; once the two were synchronized, they would simultaneously open the spigots at the bottom of their containers. Water would drain out until the water level reached the desired code, at which point the sender would lower his torch, and the operators would simultaneously close their spigots."

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The Earliest Example of Shorthand Writing Circa 350 BCE

The Acropolis stone.

The earliest known example of a shorthand writing system is the Acropolis stone (Akropolisstein) discovered in the Athenian Acropolis in 1884, and preserved in the British Museum (Brit. Mus. Add. Ms. 33270).  The marble slab shows a writing system using primarily based on vowels, using certain modifications to indicate consonants.

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The Lead Tablet Archives of the Athenian Cavalry Circa 350 BCE – 250 BCE

While information has survived concerning ancient Greek library and archive buildings from excavations of ruins, most information concerning library and archive holdings, and library and archive operation, is based on third party accounts, or is fragmentary or speculative. Dramatic exceptions to this overall lack of surviving archives from ancient Greece are the Archives of the Athenian Cavalry from the fourth and and third centuries BCE preserved on lead tablets. An Archive of the Athenian Cavalry was excavated in 1965 from a water well within the courtyard of the Dipylon, the double-gate leading into the city of Athens from the north. It included 574 lead tablets from the third century BCE. Six years later, in 1971, another hundred or so lead tablets from the fourth and third centuries BCE were excavated from a well at the edge of the excavated section of the Agora in Athens.

Historian of ancient archives Ernest Posner characterized these finds as

"by far the largest name file of ancient times. Tightly rolled or folded up, they contain the following information: the name in the genitive of the owner of a horse; the horse's color and brand, if any; and its value stated in drachmas, with 1,200 drachmas as the highest valuation given. Normally, only the name of the owner appears on the outside; the other data is relegated to the interior of the tablet and could not be read unless the tablet was unrolled or unfolded. A number of tablets are palimpsests; that is, the original entries were erased and replaced by new data"  (Posner, "The Athenian Cavalry Archives of the Fourth and Third Centures B.C.", The American Archivist (1974) 579-82).

The wide range of pottery as well as lead tablets excavated from the Dipylon were described by Karin Braun in "Der Dipylon-Brunne B¹ Die Funde," Mitteilungen des Deutschen archäologischen Instituts Athenische Abteilung, Band 85 (1970) 129-269, plates 53-93. Plates 83-93 illustrate lead tablets unfolded to show the writing and tablets rolled up.

From the extensive information available, John H. Kroll, author of the primary paper on the 1971 excavation, developed a theory of the purposes and operation of the Athenian Cavalry Archives, of which I quote a portion:

"The continual turnover of the horses explains, I think, why the records of the horses' values were kept as they were-individually on lead tablets. Official annual records at Athens were normally kept in list form on papyrus or whitened boards. But since a cavalryman was likely to have changed his horse at any time in the course of a year, a more flexible system of records was called for-the equivalent of the modern card-file system-whereby the record of a given horse could be pulled out and replaced if the horse itself was replaced. For such individual records, lead had obvious advantages over paper or wood, and, becatuse it was cheap and could be erased and re-used repeatedly, it would have been less costly in the long run. The re-use of the tablets, incidently, must surely be a factor in the low survival rate of tablets in most series and the loss of other entire series. There is one other respect in which the tablets stand apart from most annual records. I assume that they were rolled or folded simply to facilitate storage and not because the evaluations they contain were to be kept secret. But the fact that they were folded or rolled up, many of them as tightly as they could be, indicates that no one expected them to be referred to on a regular basis. Indeed, since all of the unbroken tablets were recovered from the Kerameikos and Agora wells in their original folded or rolled state, it appears doubtful that any of the extant tablets had ever been consulted. This of course does not mean that the evaluations were never consulted, merely that the records were made up annually and filed away to be consulted only in rare, though anticipated, cases. If the occasion did not arise in the course of the year, they expired, were replaced with the next year's evaluations, and were put aside, eventually to be erased and re-used" (Kroll, "An Archive of the Athenian Cavalry," Hesperia XLVI [1977] No. 2, 94-95). Kroll's extensive article occupies pp. 83-140 of the journal issue and includes numerous drawings and photographs.

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Writing on Lead Tablets in Antiquity Circa 350 BCE – 250 BCE

"Lead seems to have been employed for writing in antiquity more commonly than is usually recognized. Because of its baseness and assumed affinities with the underworld, it was the standard medium for curse tablets (A. Audollent, Defixionum Tabellae, Paris 1904, pp. xlviii-xlix). Otherwise its cheapness, permanence, and ease of inscribing made it suitable for private papers (e. g., Plutarch, De mul. virt. 254 D; Frontinus, Strategemata III, 3. 7= Dio, XLVI. 36. 4; SIG3, 1259, 1260; G. R. Davidson and D. B. Thompson, Hesperia, Suppl. VII, Small Objects from the Pnyx: I, Cambridge, Mass. 1943, pp. 10-11, no. 17; Zeitschrift fir Papyrologie und Epigraphik 17, 1975, pp. 157-162), for the writing out of queries to the oracle at Dodona (H. W. Parke, The Oracles of Zeus, Oxford 1967, pp. 100-102, 126, note 18, 259-273), and for public documents, such as the 6th century B.C. records of loans from a temple archive at Corcyra (BSA 66, 1971, pp. 79-93). Pausanias (IX. 31. 4) saw a text of Hesiod on lead on Mt. Helikon. Unspecified public lead documents are mentioned by Pliny, Nat. Hist. XIII. 68-69, and " lead paper " (plumbea charta) by Suetonius, Nero. 20. H. A. Thompson has called my attention to a series of lead strips of the 8th century B.C. from central Anatolia inscribed with various official records and published by T. Ozgiic in Kultepe and its Vicinity in the Iron Age, Ankara 1971, pp. 111-116; reference is there made to similar lead plaques found at Assur (Bibliotheca Orientalis 8, 1951, pp. 126-133). An exhaustive account of Greek inscriptions on lead has been compiled by Anne P. Miller in her University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Ph. D. dissertation, "Studies in Early Sicilian Epigraphy: An Opisthographic Lead Tablet," 1973 (Xerox University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, no. 73-26, 213), to which I owe several of the above references. A new private letter on lead, of the early 4th century B.C., was found in the same well as the present cavalry tablets. . . ." (Kroll, "An Archive of the Athenian Cavalry," Hesperia XLVI (1977) No. 2, 83-140, footnote 29).

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Probably the Earliest Surviving Papyrus of a Greek Text Circa 350 BCE

A papyrus fragment of The Persae by the Greek musician and dithyrambic poet, Timotheus (Timotheos) of Miletus, discovered in Abusir, Egypt, is probably the earliest surviving papyrus of a Greek text found in Egypt. It is preserved in the Staatliches Museum, Berlin (P. Berol. 9875).

The text was first edited and published by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff as Timotheos, Die Perser, aus einem Papyrus von Abusir im Aufrage der deutschen Orientgesellschaft (1903).

Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Barker ed. (1972) 11, pl. 8 describes the Greek writing on the papyrus as "Formal book-script; square; monoline; unserifed."

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The First Description of Book Scorpions, by Aristotle Circa 350 BCE

Among the many original descriptions in Aristotle's  De historia animalium, the founding work of descriptive zoology, was the first to description of pseudoscorpions. These Aristotle probably found among book rolls in a library where they would have been feeding on booklice. Pseudoscorpions are generally beneficial to humans since they prey on clothes moth larvae, carpet beetle larvae, booklice, ants, mites, and small flies. They are tiny and inoffensive, and are rarely seen due to their size. Aristotle wrote in Book V, Chapter 26 of his De historia animalium:

"1. There are also other minute animals, as I observed before, some of which occur in wool, and in woollen goods; as the moths, which are produced in the greatest abundance when the wool is dusty, as especially if a spider is enclosed with them, for this creature is thirsty, and dries up any fluid which may be present. This worm also occurs in garments. There is one which occurs in old honeycombs, like the creature which inhabits dry wood; this appears to be the least of all creatures, it is called acari, it is white and small. Others also are found in books, some of which are like those which occur in garments; others are like scorpions; they have no tails, and are very small. And on the whole, they occur in everything, so to say, which from being dry, becomes moist, or being moist, becomes dry, if it has any life in it" (Aristotle's History of Animals, In Ten Books, Translated by Richard Cresswell [London, 1862] 135). 

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The Oldest Map Clearly Marked with Distances 343 BCE – 313 BCE

A quarter-inch thick copper plate in the Hebei Provincial Museum at Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China, bears the world’s oldest map clearly marked with distances.

"The 2,300-year-old map marks the locations of buildings in the five mausoleums of Wang Cuo (344-313 BC), his queen, and his concubines. It is called the Zhao Yu Tu (“map of the area of the mausoleum”). “It is not only the oldest map ever found in China but the oldest numeral-bearing map in the world,” says Du Naisong, a researcher with the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Thirty-seven inches long and 19 inches wide, the map marks more than 70 locations, and symbols, numerals, and epigraphs are inlaid with gold and silver. Unlike modern maps, the Zhao Yu Tu has south on top and north on the bottom. One-half inch equals 16.5 feet on the map’s scale" (http://www.archaeology.org/9803/newsbriefs/map.html, accessed 12-27-2009).

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The Beginnings of Musicology 335 BCE

Ἁρμονικῶν στοιχείων (Elementa harmonica; Elements of Harmony, or Harmonics),an incomplete treatise by the Greek Peripatetic philosopher Ἀριστόξενος (Aristoxenos, Aristoxenus of Tarentum), a pupil of Aristotle, represents the earliest surviving treatise on musicology. According to the Suda, Aristoxenos wrote 453 works on philosophy, ethics and music. However, Harmonics remains his only surviving work. 

"Antiquity knew Aristoxenus [fl. 4th c. BCE] as  Μουσικός, THE authority on music. While he was not the first person to write whole books dedicated specifically to music, he is the earliest musical writer whose work has survived in bulk.

"I must clarify. Aristoxenus's surviving work, and this is especially true of his Harmonics, does not deal with actual music, but with the material of music -- not with the nature of sound but with the nature of musical intervals and scales. In our days, the investigation of such things comes under the rubric of musicology. Sophie Gibson in her excellent study makes a convincing case that Aristoxenus was the inventor of this discipline.

"For sheer abstruseness, Aristoxenus's writings must lie near the top in ancient Greek. Aristoxenus's subjects, the nature of the musical material and of rhythm, are of themselves difficult. Scientific investigation of them at the time he wrote was at its very beginning, speculative, and confused.1 Though Gibson demonstrates that Aristoxenus followed Aristotle in method, she makes it clear that in the musical sphere he was determined not to owe anything to anybody. He lashed his predecessors, and elsewhere even Aristotle, says the Suda, when the former passed him over as successor for leadership of the Lyceum. Intellectual perplexity and odium scholasticum give his books a double edge; irritation is added to difficulty, rather like the Clarke-Leibniz correspondence.

"Furthermore, the most substantial piece of Aristoxenus's work we have, the Harmonics, survives in three incomplete books, of which Book I appears written at hazard, and Book II is a recasting of the same material, though exhibiting contradictions with Book I. Book III breaks off just when we might have been getting to something to do with real melody. From Books I and II of his Rhythmics there survive chunks, and only much smaller fragments from the rest of Aristoxenus's work.

"Notwithstanding these problems of fragmentation and opaqueness, Aristoxenus is an extremely important source for the study of ancient Greek music, where the evidence is so scarce that we need to squeeze out all we can anywhere we find it. I was delighted to read Sophie Gibson's excellent discussion of Aristoxenus's work, and I am most grateful for her heroic labor in elucidating it. Lucid indeed her exposition is, though necessarily requiring constant and diligent attention. A secondary work such as Gibson's is vital to the study of Aristoxenus, for in many places in his text it is not in the least obvious what he is trying to do, and in such a technical subject we need plenty of context. . . ." (Otto Steinmayer, review of Sophie Gibson, "Aristoxenus of Tarentum and the Birth of Musicology," Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.10.20).

Aristoxenos was first published in print in Venice, 1562, in the Latin translation of Antonius Hermannius Gogava as Aristoxeni musici antiquiss. harmonicorum elementorum [with other works]. The standard edition and English translation appears to remain The Harmonics of Aristoxenus, Edited with Translation, Notes, Introduction and Index of Words by Henry S. Macran (1902). Macran p. 92 characterized Gogava's translation as "a worthless work crowded with errors." Macran p. 90 stated that the earliest surviving manuscript of Aristoxenos's text is a Codex Venetus in the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice written by "Zosimus" in Constantinople in the twelfth century.

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The Earliest Datable Appearance of the Serif in Stone Inscriptions 334 BCE – 330 BCE

The earliest datable stone inscription incorporating consistent thickening towards the ends of perpendiculars and horizontals in the lettering— later called serifs— is the Dedication of the Temple of Athena Polias in Priene, Asia Minor, by Alexander the Great (British Museum GR 1870.3-20.88 (Inscription 399 and 400).

"The distinctive feature of this consists of consistent thickening towards the ends of perpendiculars and horizontals. This thickening is often very slight in dimension but obviously always deliberate—despite the evidence in this example that the sculptor, though a first-class workman, was hurried in his execution. His deliberation is more clearly visible in a rubbing of certain characters which display this distinction (it may be rash to describe it as an innovation) to as clear a degree as possible. His speed is suggested in the lack of precision. In many respects the lettering has the appearance of a free hand rather than a geometrically regulated inscription" (Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Nicolas Barker ed. [1972] 7-8, pls. 2-3).

"In 336 BC Alexander the Great embarked on a programme of territorial expansion, which would eventually extend the boundaries of the Greek world to Egypt in the south and to India in the East. In 334 BC Alexander crossed the Hellespont, the narrow strait separating Europe and Asia, and went first to Troy. There he dedicated his armour to Athena and laid a wreath at the tomb of Achilles, the legendary hero and champion of the Greeks in the Trojan War. This act prefigured Alexander's role as a new Achilles liberating the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Asiatic rule.  

"That same summer of 334 BC, a successful engagement with the Persian army at the river Granicus, east of Troy, opened the gates of Asia Minor, and Alexander proceeded to tour the Greek cities of the west coast, expelling their Persian garrisons.  

"On reaching Priene, he made a further dedication to Athena. There the townspeople were laying out their new city and building a temple to its patron goddess. Alexander offered funds to complete the temple, and the inscription on this wall block, cut into a block of marble, records his gift. The inscription was found in the nineteenth century by the architect-archaeologist Richard Pullan leading an expedition on behalf of the Society of Dilettanti. It reads: 'King Alexander dedicated the Temple to Athena Polias' (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/d/dedication_by_alexander.aspx, accessed 08-18-2014).

Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance (2009) A1 b (p. 14).

(This entry was last revised on 08-18-2014.)


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The Earliest Surviving Letter Written in Greek Circa 325 BCE

The Greek historian Philochorus of Athens (Φιλόχορος) is credited with the invention of the "typically scientific letter and the polemical pamphlet." A letter by Philochorus written on lead plates, μολυβδινη επιστολη, survived from the early fourth century CE and was preserved in the Kgl. Museen, Berlin. 

Adolf Wilhelm, "Der älteste grieschische Brief," Jahreshefte des oesterreichen Archäologischen Institutes in Wien, 7 (1904) 94-105 (with illustrations of the original letter written on lead).

Jenö Platthy, Sources on the Earliest Greek Libraries with the Testimonia (1968) 29. 

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Euclid's Elements: "The Founding Document of Mathematics" 323 BCE – 283 BCE

Between 323 and 283 BCE mathematician Euclid of Alexandria, a teacher at the Alexandrian Library under the reign of Ptolemy I, wrote the Elements, in which he summarized and codified the preceding two centuries of mathematical research. Considered the founding document of mathematics, the Elements was the standard textbook for mathematical education in the ancient world, in the Islamic world, and in Europe through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and until almost the present time. "The system of thought presented by the Elements, in which knowledge was distilled in the form of theorems and then given a written proof, inspired fields as diverse as law and physics. Indeed, Newton’s Principia, which marked the beginning of modern physics, took Euclid’s work as its intellectual and stylistic model.”

♦ For numerous related entries in this database about the transmission and publication of Euclid, and its influence, please search under Euclid in the keyword search.

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The Royal Library of Alexandria: The Largest Collection of Recorded Information in the Ancient World Circa 300 BCE

The Royal Library of Alexandria, associated with the Museum or Mouseion at Alexandria (Μουσεῖον τῆς Ἀλεξανδρείας), was probably founded around 300 BCE under the reign of Ptolemy I Soter or Ptolemy II. Though it was the largest library in the ancient world, and the repository of so much Greek literature that was eventually passed down to us, and also so much that was eventually lost, the number of papyrus rolls preserved at Alexandria at its peak, or any other time, is unknown. At its peak, the number of rolls that it might have held has been estimated by numerous scholars, without any reliable evidence, from as many as 400,000 to 700,000 to as few as 40,000, or even less. A typical papyrus roll probably contained a text about the length of one book of Homer.

Writing in 2002, American classical scholar Roger Bagnall argued that very high numbers of rolls traditionally estimated by scholars to have been held by the Royal Library of Alexandria, such as 400,000 to 700,000 rolls, may reflect modern expectations rather than the extent of written literature that may have been produced by ancient Greek writers: 

"The computer databank of ancient Greek literature, the Thesurus Linguae Graecae, contains about 450 authors of whom at least a few words survive in quotation and whose lives are thought to have begun by the late fourth century. No doubt there were authors extant in the early Hellenistic period of whom not a line survives today, but we cannot estimate their numbers. Of most of these 450, we have literally a few sentences. There are another 175 known whose lives are placed, or whose births are placed in the third century B. C. Most of these authors probably wrote what by modern standards was a modest amount—a few book-rolls full, perhaps. Even the most voluminous authors of the group, like the Athenian dramatists, probably filled nor more than a hundred rolls or so. If the average writer filled 50 rolls, our known authors to the end of the third century would have produced 31,250 rolls. . . .

"To look at matters another way, just, 2,871,000 words of Greek are preserved for all authors known to have lived at least in part in the fourth century or earlier. Adding the third and second centuries brings the total to 3,773,000 words (or about 12,600 pages of 300 words each). At an average of 15,000 words per roll, this corpus would require a mere 251 rolls. Even at an average of 10,000 words per roll the figure would be only 377 rolls. It was estimated by one eminent ancient historian that the original bulk of historical writings in ancient Greece amounted to something like forty times what has survived. If so, our estimate would run to an original body of 10,000 to 15,000 rolls. This may be too low, but is it likely that it is too low by a factor of thirty or forty, and that only one word in 1,500 or 2,000 has survived? . . . (Roger S. Bagnall, "Alexandria: Library of Dreams," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 146 (2002) 348-62, quoting from 352-53).

Traditionally the Alexandrian Library is thought to have been based upon the library of Aristotle. By tradition it is also believed, without concrete evidence, that the much of the collection of rolls was acquired by order of Ptolemy III, who supposedly required all visitors to Alexandria to surrender rolls in their possession. These writings were then copied by official scribes, the originals were put into the Library, and the copies were delivered to the previous owners.

The Alexandrian Library was associated with a school and a museum. Scholars at Alexandria were responsible for the editing and standardization for many earlier Greek texts. One of the best-known of these editors was Aristophanes of Byzantium, a director of the library, whose work on the text of the Iliad may be preserved in the Venetus A manuscript, but who was also known for editing authors such as Pindar and Hesiod.

Though it is known that portions of the Alexandrian Library survived for several centuries, the various accounts of the library's eventual destruction are contradictory. The Wikipedia article on the Library of Alexandria outlined four possible scenarios for its destruction:

  1. Julius Caesar's fire in The Alexandrian War, in 48 BCE
  2. The attack of Aurelian in the Third century CE
  3. The decree of Theophilus in 391 CE. (Destruction of pagan literature by early Christians.)
  4. The Muslim conquest in 642 CE, or thereafter.

♦ Other factors in the eventual destruction of the contents of the Alexandrian Library might have included the decay of the papyrus rolls as a result of the climate. Most of the papyrus rolls and fragments that survived after the Alexandrian Library did so in the dry sands of the Egyptian desert. Papyrus rolls do not keep well either in dampness or in salty sea air, to which they were likely exposed in the library located in the port of Alexandria. Thus, independently of the selected library destruction scenario, because of decay of the storage medium, or as a result of fires, rodent damage, natural catastrophes, or neglect, it is probable that significant portions of the information in the Alexandrian library were lost before the library was physically destroyed.

Whatever the circumstances and timing of the physical destruction of the Library, it is evident that by the eighth century the Alexandrian Library was no longer a significant institution. 

(This entry was last revised on March 22, 2014.)

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The Dead Sea Scrolls 300 BCE – 68 CE

A column of the Copper Scroll found in Cave Three.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves near Khirbet Qumran, on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea have been dated between 300 BCE and 68 CE, on the basis of historical, paleographic, and linguistic evidence, as well as carbon-14 dating. Because they date from the late Second Temple Period, when Jesus of Nazareth lived, the Dead Sea Scrolls are older than any other surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures, except for the Nash Papyrus, by almost one thousand years. They are preserved in The Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

“Most of the scrolls were written in Hebrew, with a smaller number in Aramaic or Greek. Most of them were written on parchment, with the exception of a few written on papyrus. The vast majority of the scrolls survived as fragments—only a handful were found intact. Nevertheless, scholars have managed to reconstruct from these fragments approximately 850 different manuscripts of various lengths.

"The manuscripts fall into three major categories: biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian. The biblical manuscripts comprise some two hundred copies of books of the Hebrew Bible, representing the earliest evidence for the biblical text in the world. Among the apocryphal manuscripts (works that were not included in the Jewish biblical canon) are works that had previously been known only in translation, or that had not been known at all. The sectarian manuscripts reflect a wide variety of literary genres: biblical commentary, religious-legal writings, liturgical texts, and apocalyptic compositions. Most scholars believe that the scrolls formed the library of the sect (the Essenes?) that lived at Qumran. However it appears that the members of this sect wrote only part of the scrolls themselves, the remainder having been composed or copied elsewhere” (Shrine of the Book. Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls, accessed 12-24-2009).

In September 2011 The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls website, a partnership between the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and Google, made five of the scrolls searchable online as part of a project to provide searchable online facsimiles of all the scrolls.

In December 2012 the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library was launched by the Israel Antiquities Authority in partnership with Google Israel, making high resolution images of the scrolls freely available. The site was launched 11 years after the completion of the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, initiated and sponsored by the IAA, and 65 years after the first scrolls were unearthed in the Caves of Qumran.

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The Earliest Surviving Counting Board Circa 300 BCE

The Salamis Tablet. (View Larger)

Excluding counting on the fingers, counting boards are the earliest known counting device, and a precursor of the abacus. They were made from stone or wood and the counting was done on the board with beads or pebbles or or sand or dust.  These devices have also been called the "sandboard abacus." The earliest surviving example of a counting board or a gaming board may be a tablet found about 1850 CE on the Greek island of Salamis which dates back to about 300 BCE. It is preserved in the National Archaelogical Museum, Athens. 

"It is a slab of white marble 149 cm long, 75 cm wide, and 4.5 cm thick, on which are 5 groups of markings. In the center of the tablet is a set of 5 parallel lines equally divided by a vertical line, capped with a semi-circle at the intersection of the bottom-most horizontal line and the single vertical line. Below these lines is a wide space with a horizontal crack dividing it. Below this crack is another group of eleven parallel lines, again divided into two sections by a line perpendicular to them, but with the semi-circle at the top of the intersection; the third, sixth and ninth of these lines are marked with a cross where they intersect with the vertical line."  Three sets of Greek symbols (numbers from the acrophonic system) are arranged along the left, right and bottom edges of the tablet.

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The Beginnings of Latin Literature Circa 300 BCE

"Athough written records may have existed from very early times, Latin literature did not begin until the third century B.C. Inspired by Greek example, it was probably committed from its first beginnings to the form of the book which had long been standard in the Greek world, the papyrus scroll" (Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 3rd. ed. [1991] 8-19).

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The Guodian Chu Slips: "Like the Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls" Circa 300 BCE

Several of the Guodian Chu Slips. (View Larger)

The Guodian Chu Slips (Chinese: 郭店楚簡; pinyin: Guōdiàn Chǔjiǎn), comprising about 804 bamboos slips, or strips, containing "12072" Chinese characters, were discovered in 1993 in Tomb no. 1 of the Guodian tombs in Jingmen, Hubei, China. The tomb was dated to the latter half of the Warring States period, and it is thought that the texts were written on the bamboo strips before or close to the time of burial.

"The tomb is located in the Jishan District's tomb complex, near the Jingmen City in the village of Guodian, and only 9 kilometers north of Ying, which was the ancient Chu capital from about 676 BC until 278 BC, before the State of Chu was over-run by the Qin. The tomb and its contents were studied to determine the identity of the occupant; an elderly noble scholar, and teacher to a royal prince. The prince had been identified as Crown Prince Heng, who later became King Qingxiang of Chu. Since King Qingxiang was the Chu king when Qin sacked their old capital Ying in 278 BC, the Chu slips are dated to around 300 BC.

There are in total about 804 bamboo slips in this cache, including 702 strips and 27 broken strips with 12072 characters. The bamboo slip texts consist of three major categories, which include the earliest manuscripts of the received text of the Tao Te Ching, one chapter from the Classic of Rites, and anonymous writings. After restoration, these texts were divided into eighteen sections, and have been transcribed into standard Chinese and published under the title Chu Bamboo Slips from Guodian on May 1998. The slip-texts include both Daoist and Confucian works, many previously unknown, and the discovery of these texts in the same tomb has contributed fresh information for scholars studying the history of philosophical thought in ancient China. According to Gao Zheng from the Institute of Philosophy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the main part could be teaching material used by the Confucianist Si Meng scholars in Jixia Academy. Qu Yuan, who was sent as an envoy in State of Qi, might have taken them back to Chu (Wikipedia article on Guodian Chu Slips, accessed 01-31-2010).

" 'This is like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls,' says Tu Weiming, director of the Harvard Yenching Institute (HYI), who has played a key role in the preservation of, accessibility to, and research on the Guodian materials since 1996.  

"The 800 bamboo strips bear roughly 10,000 Chinese characters; approximately one-tenth of those characters comprise part of the oldest extant version of the Tao Te Ching (also known as Daodejing), a foundational text by the Taoist philosopher Laozi, who lived in the sixth century B.C. and is generally considered the teacher of Confucius. The remaining nine-tenths of the writings appear to be written by Confucian disciples, including Confucius' grandson Zisi, in the first generation after Confucius' death. (Confucius lived from 551 to 479 B.C.) These texts amplify scholars' understanding of how the Confucian philosophical tradition evolved between Confucius' time and that of Mencius, a key Confucian thinker who lived in the third century B.C.  

" 'With the discovery of these texts, I think you can say that the history of Confucianism itself will have to be rewritten,' says Tu. 'And by implication, the history of ancient Chinese philosophy in general will have to be reconfigured.' " (http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/2001/02.22/07-ancientscript.html, accessed 01-31-2010).

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The Earliest Known Examples of Maya Script Circa 300 BCE

A vertical, columnar stone inscription roughly six inches long. Image: Boris Beltrán/Science. (View Larger)

The earliest stone inscription which is identifiably in Maya script, (or Maya glyphs or Maya hieroglyphs) was found in in 2005 the pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site in San Bartolo in the Department of Petén in northern Guatemala, northeast of Tikal and roughly fifty miles from the nearest settlement. This vertical column of ten glyphic words roughly six inches long, dating from circa 300 BCE, "may be related to a nearby painted image of the maize god" (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/10/science/10maya.html?_r=1, accessed 03-23-2010). In 2010 this inscription had not been deciphered.

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Postal and Communication Infrastructure in Ancient India Circa 300 BCE

About 300 BCE the economic growth and political stability under the Maurya Empire in ancient India saw the development of civil infrastructure, including an early mail service. Common chariots called Dagana were sometimes used as mail chariots in ancient India.

"In ancient times the kings, emperors, rulers, zamindars or the feudal lords protected their land through the intelligence services of specially trained police or military agencies and courier services to convey and obtain information through runners, messengers and even through pigeons. The chief of the secret service, known as the postmaster, maintained the lines of communication ... The people used to send letters to [their] distant relatives through their friends or neighbors." (Wikipedia article on Postal System, accessed 12-17-2011)

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Filed under: Communication

The Musawwarat Graffiti Archive Circa 300 BCE – 350 CE

Thousands of graffiti— informal pictorial and inscriptional incisions— adorn the extensive sandstone walls of the Great Enclosure at Musawwarat es-Sufra (المصورات الصفراء al-Musawwarāt as-sufrāMeroitic: Aborepi, Old Egyptian: jbrp, jpbr-ˁnḫ), also known as Al-Musawarat Al-Sufra. This large Meroitic temple complex in modern Sudan, dates back to the 3rd century BCE. The site is located 190 kilometers northeast of Khartoum. Many of the graffiti stem from the Meroitic period (c. 300 BCE to c. 400 CE), but also from the more recent post-Meroitic, Christian and Islamic periods. The graffiti, which name and depict gods, humans, animals — sometimes arranged in scenes, and showing symbols, objects and others — may offer a method for the interpretation of the use of this site over the many centuries of its operation. For example, the graffiti allow a rare view into the interplay between state and folk religion and practices.

In 2011 the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and Humboldt University Berlin began development of the Musawwarat Graffiti Archive. In the "Graffiti in Place Database" a solution was developed for the integration of systematic graffiti-focussed information, and of data on the exact spatial contexts in which the pictorial and inscriptional graffiti were created and used. Such space-related data sets were difficult to publish in traditional paper format, and for this reason were often neglected in research and publication. In March 2014 database entries described 1542 graffiti on 1598 blocks of Temple 300 at the center of Complex 300, one of the most densely marked buildings at the site. The archive also contained more than 2,500 photographs, as well as 900 drawings of the graffiti of Temple 300. 

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The Earliest Surviving Example of a Greek Chronological Table Circa 298 BCE – 264 BCE

The Oxford fragment of the Parian Marble. (View Larger)

The earliest surviving example of a Greek chronological table, the Parian Marble (Marmor Parium) or Parian Chronicle, covers the years from 1581 BCE to 299/8 BCE, inscribed on a marble stele, of which two fragments are known. The first fragment was found on the island of Páros in two sections, and sold in Smyrna in the early 17th century to an agent for Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel. This inscription (ll. 1-45) was deciphered by the antiquarian John Selden and published among the Arundel Marbles, in Marmora Arundelliana (London, 1628-9) nos. 1-21, 59-119. The upper part of the first fragment (A) was later lost and is known only from the transcription published by Selden. The surviving portion of A (ll. 46-93) is preserved in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. A third fragment of Marmor Parium (B)comprising the base of the stele and containing the end of the text (ll. 101-133) with entries from 356-299/98 BCE, was found on Páros in 1897, and is preserved in a museum on that island.

The compiler of the chronology is unknown, but the date of composition can be fixed at 264/3 BCE because of the mention of the name of the Athenian archon Diognetus (l.3) who served during those years. The chronology  includes a list of events from the reign of the mythical king Cecrops to the archonship of Euctemon, with its main focus on Athenian history. Events are arranged in paragraphs which include a short description of the event, the name of the Athenian king or archon, and the number of years elapsing from 264/3 BC expressed in Attic or acrophonic numerals

"It combines dates for events we would consider mythic, such as the Flood of Deucalion (equivalent to 1528/27 BC) with dates we would categorize as historic. For the Greeks, the events of their distant past, such as the Trojan War (dated to 1218 in the Parian inscription) and the Voyage of the Argonauts were historic: their myths were understood as legends to the Greeks. In fact the Parian inscriptions spend more detail on the Heroic Age than on certifiably historic events closer to the date the stele was inscribed and erected, apparently in 264/263 BC. 'The Parian Marble uses chronological specificity as a guarantee of truth,' Peter Green observed in the introduction to his annotated translation of the Argonautica of Apollonios Rhodios: 'the mythic past was rooted in historical time, its legends treated as fact, its heroic protagonists seen as links between the 'age of origins' and the mortal, everyday world that succeeded it' "(Wikipedia article on Parian Chronicle, accessed 11-22-2010).

In December 2014 the Department of Digital Humanities at the University of Leipzig was in the process of producing a Digital Marmor Parium at this link.

(This entry was last revised on 12-21-2014.)

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Philology Probably Begins at the Royal Library of Alexandria Circa 280 BCE

Fragments of the Odyssey, most likely copied in Alexandria.

Commentaries on the Iliad and the Odyssey written during the Hellenistic period at Alexandria began exploring the textual inconsistencies of the poems which occurred as the result of different scribes writing down differing versions of poems passed down through the oral tradition. Examples of these variant readings have survived in Bodleian Library papyrus (MS. Gr. class. b.3 [P]). The process of comparing different manuscript texts— such as would have been preserved at the Alexandrian Library— to arrive at what might be the “canonical” text, was the beginning of philology

The first critical edition of Homer was made by Zenodotus of Ephesus, first superintendant of the Library of Alexandria, who lived during the reigns of the first two Ptolemies, and was at the height of his reputation about 280 BCE. His colleagues in librarianship were Alexander of Aetolia and Lycophron of Chalcis, to whom were allotted the tragic and comic writers respectively, Homer and other epic poets being assigned to Zenodotus.

"Having collated the different manuscripts in the library, he expunged or obelized doubtful verses, transposed or altered lines, and introduced new readings. It is probable that he was responsible for the division of the Homeric poems into twenty-four books each (using capital Greek letters for the Iliad, and lower-case for the Odyssey), and possibly was the author of the calculation of the days of the Iliad in the Tabula Iliaca" (Wikipedia article on Zenodotus, accessed 11-26-2008).

The most famous Greek manuscript of the IliadVenetus A (Marcianus Graecus Z. 454 [=822]), a tenth century codex preserved at the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, contains several layers of annotations, glosses, and commentaries known as the "A scholia." These are thought to preserve editorial comments made by scholars at the Royal Library of Alexandria, as well as scholia accumulated by late antique annotators and philologists until the manuscript was written at Constantinople during the Macedonian Renaissance.

(This entry was last revised on 12-20-2014.)

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A "Wild" or "Eccentric" Papyrus of the Iliad Circa 275 BCE

Fragments of the Iliad, Books XXI-XXIII, dating from circa 275 BCE, and preserved at the Bodleian Library (MS. Gr. class. b.3 [P]) were recovered from cartonnage, the material made of waste papyrus used to make mummy cases in Egypt. Cartonnage of this type has proven to be a rich source of fragments of literary texts on papyrus.

"Literary papyri of this early date are by no means common, and this one has the added interest of being one of the best examples of what are sometimes called 'wild' or 'eccentric' papyri of Homer. The text deviates substantially, e.g. by the omission or addition of whole lines, from the standard version later established by the Alexandrian scholars." 

"Bibl.: P. Grenf. II. 4 (bought from B. P. Grenfell in 1896) + P. Hibeh 22 (given by the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1909). Other fragments are in Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek (P. Heidelberg 1262-6) Pack 2 no. 979. For a full discussion see S. R. West, The Ptolemaic papyri of Homer (Papyriologica coloniensia, 3), Cologne 1967, 136-191" (Hunt, R.W., The Survival of Ancient Literature, Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1975, No. 1.)

(This entry was last revised on 04-29-2014.)

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Writing on Bamboo and Silk Circa 250 BCE

An example of Lishu, or Clerkly Script, developed by Chinese Bureaucrats to be written with a brush.

In China until the end of the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty (256 BCE), through China’s classical period, writing was done with a bamboo pen, with ink of soot, or lampblack upon slips of bamboo or wood, with wood being used mainly for short messages and bamboo for longer messages and for books.

“Bamboo is cut into strips about 9 inches long and wide enough for a single column of characters. The wood was sometimes in the same form, sometimes wider. The bamboo strips, being stronger, could be perforated at one end and strung together, either with silken cords or with leather thongs, to form books. . .   

“The invention of the writing brush of hair, attributed to the general Meng T’ien [Meng Tian] in the third century B.C., worked a transformation in writing materials. This transformation is indicated by two changes in the language. The word for chapter used after this time means ’roll’; the word for writing materials becomes ’bamboo and silk’ instead of ’bamboo and wood.’ There is evidence that the silk used for writing during the early part of the Han dynasty consisted of actual silk fabric. Letters on silk, dating possibly from Han times, have been found together with paper in a watchtower of a spur of the Great Wall.

“But as the dynastic records of the time state, ’silk was too expensive and bamboo too heavy.’. . .The emperor Chin’in Shih Huang [Qui Shi Huang]  set himself the task of going over daily a hundred and twenty pounds of state documents. Clearly a new writing material was needed.

“The first step was probably a sort of paper or near-paper made of raw silk. This is indicated by the character for paper, which has the silk radical showing material, and by the defintion of that character in the Shuo wen, [Shuowen Jiezi] a dictionary that was finished about the year A.D. 100” (Carter, The Invention of Printing in China and its Spread Westward, 2nd ed.  [1955] 3-4).

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The Septuagint Circa 250 BCE – 50 CE

The Septuagint (LXX), the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek, may have been produced at Alexandria, Egypt in stages, starting about 250 BCE. The Alexandrian community then included the largest community of Jews, including a group of scholars who prepared the translation.   

“The Septuagint derives its name (derived from Latin septuaginta, 70, hence the abbreviation LXX) from a legendary account in the Letter of Aristeas of how seventy-two Jewish scholars (six scribes from each of the twelve tribes) were asked by the Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the 3rd century BC to translate the Torah for inclusion in the Library of Alexandria. In a later version of that legend narrated by Philo of Alexandria, although the translators were kept in separate chambers, they all produced identical versions of the text in seventy-two days. Although this story is widely viewed as implausible today, it underlines the fact that some ancient Jews wished to present the translation as authoritative. A version of this legend is found in the Talmud, which identifies 15 specific unusual translations made by the scholars. Only 2 of these translations are found in the extant LXX.”

“The oldest witnesses to the LXX include 2nd century BC fragments of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Rahlfs nos. 801, 819, and 957), and 1st century BC fragments of Genesis, Exodus,Levitcus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the Minor Prophets (Rahlfs nos. 802, 803, 805, 848, 942, and 943). Relatively complete manuscripts of the LXX include the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus of the 4th century AD/CE and the Codex Alexandrinus of the 5th century. These are indeed the oldest surviving nearly-complete manuscripts of the Old Testament in any language; the oldest extant complete Hebrew texts date from around 1000” (Wikipedia article on Septuagint, accessed 11-29-2008).

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The First Truly Automatic Self-Regulatory Device Circa 250 BCE

A diagram of Ctesibius's water clock.

Greek inventor and mathematician Ctesibius (Ktesibios,Tesibius; Κτησίβιος), probably the first head of the Museum at Alexandria, invented the first artificial automatic self-regulatory system by designing an improved water clock or clepsydra (water thief) that required no outside intervention between the feedback and the controls of the mechanism. Ctesbius's clepsydra kept more accurate time than any clock invented until the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock, and studied the use of a pendulum to regulate a clock in the 17th century.

"During the first Alexandrian period, it [Ctesibius's clock] was adapted as a way for physicians to count the pulse. It was also used in law courts to time speeches. A long tube was plunged into the water and when it was full, the opening at the top was closed. When it was reopened, the water dripped through a small opening at the lower end. A person was free to speak until the tube was empty. Theoretically, the interval between drips marked a specified time; however, the rate of flow increased when there was more water in the trube. As it emptied, the decrease in pressure slowed the dripping. Ctesbius' objective was to regulate the clock so that the water level did not have to be continually tended. He used a three-tier system in which a large body of water emptied into the clepsydra to insure it remained full. A float and pointer set in a third container indicated the time elapsed. Ctesibus' clepsydra remained the most accurate clock until the fourteenth century when mechanical clocks using a system of leaded weights and levers replaced hydraulic ones.  The float in the clepsydra represents an early example of a feedback mechanism" (Nocks, The Robot. The Life Story of a Technology [2008] 12-13).

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The Earliest Surviving Monolingual Dictionary Circa 250 BCE

An edition of the Erya.(View Larger)

The earliest surviving monolingual dictionary is the Chinese dictionary called the Eyra, produced about 250 BCE.

"The Erya has been described as a dictionary, glossary, synonymicon, thesaurus, and encyclopaedia. Karlgren (1931: 46) explains that the book "is not a dictionary in abstracto, it is a collection of direct glosses to concrete passages in ancient texts." The received text contains 2094 entries, covering about 4300 words, and a total of 13,113 characters. It is divided into nineteen sections, the first of which is subdivided into two parts. The title of each chapter combines shi ("explain; elucidate") with a term describing the words under definition. Seven chapters (4, 8, 9, 10, 12, 18, and 19) are organized into taxonomies. For instance, chapter 4 defines terms for: paternal clan (宗族), maternal relatives (母黨), wife's relatives (妻黨), and marriage (婚姻). The text is divided between the first three heterogeneous chapters defining abstract words and the last sixteen semantically-arranged chapters defining concrete words. The last seven – concerning grasses, trees, insects and reptiles, fish, birds, wild animals, and domestic animals – describe more than 590 kinds of flora and fauna. It is a valuable document of natural history and historical biogeography" (Wikipedia article on Eyra, accessed 05-08-2008).

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The Beginning of Latin Literature Circa 250 BCE

Roman dramatist and epic poet Livius Andronicus translated Homer's Odyssey into Latin, and translated and staged Greek comedies and tragedies in Rome.

This is considered the beginning of Latin literature.

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The Foundation of Paris Circa 250 BCE

About 250 BCE a Celtic iron age tribe called the Parisii established a fishing village near the river Seine (present day France)  

Traditionally the original settlement known as Lutetia was thought to have been located on the Île de la Cité; however it is now believed that the largest pre-Roman settlement in what is now Paris may have been in the present-day suberb of Nanterre.

An interactive English language website on the early history of Paris is http://www.paris.culture.fr/en/, accessed 06-17-2011.

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The First Keyboard Musical Instrument 250 BCE

The Greek inventor and mathematician of Ctesibius (Ktesibios, Tesibius,  Κτησίβιος) of Alexandria, supposedly originally a barber, and also possibly the first head of the Museum of Alexandria, made several contributions to hydraulic engineering. He invented the hydraulis, a water organ that is considered the precursor of the modern pipe organ. This instrument was not an automaton since it required a human player.

Ctesibius described one of the first force pumps for producing a jet of water, or for lifting water from wells, examples of which have been found at various Roman sites, such as at Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) in Britain. The principle of the siphon has also been attributed to him. In his De architectura Vitruvius described the water organ and credited the force pump to Ctesbius.

"The hydraulis was the world's first keyboard instrument and was, in fact, the predecessor of the modern church organ. Unlike the instrument of the Renaissance period, which is the main subject of the article on the pipe organ, the ancient hydraulis was played by hand, not automatically by the water-flow; the keys were balanced and could be played with a light touch, as is clear from the reference in a Latin poem by Claudian (late 4th century), who uses this very phrase (magna levi detrudens murmura tactu . . . intonet, “let him thunder forth as he presses out mighty roarings with a light touch”) (Paneg. Manlio Theodoro, 320–22)" (Wikipedia article on Hydraulis [Water organ], accessed 12-25-2011).

An original hydraulis from the first century BCE was excavated at Dion, Pieria, Greece, and is preserved in the Museum of Dion.

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The Earliest Escapement Mechanism Circa 250 BCE

The earliest liquid-driven escapement was described by the Greek engineer and writer on mechanics Philo of Byzantium (Φίλων ὁ Βυζάντιος) in his technical treatise Pneumatica (πνευματικά; Pneumatics) chapter 31 as part of a washstand. Philo's Pneumatica was part of a larger work, Mechanike syntaxis (Compendium of Mechanics).

Philo's device worked as follows: a counterweighted spoon, supplied by a water tank, tipped over in a basin when full, releasing a spherical piece of pumice in the process. Once the spoon emptied, it was pulled up again by the counterweight, closing the door on the pumice by the tightening string. Philo's comment that "its construction is similar to that of clocks" indicates that such escapement mechanisms were already integrated in ancient water clocks.

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The Earliest Evidence of a Water-Driven Wheel Circa 250 BCE

The Greeks invented the two main components of watermills, the waterwheel and toothed gearing, and were, along with the Romans, the first to operate undershot, overshot and breastshot waterwheel mills.

The earliest evidence of a water-driven wheel is probably the Perachora wheel  excavated from Perachora, an inland settlement in the Loutraki-Perachoras municipality of the Corinthia prefecture in the periphery of Peloponnese in Greece. The earliest written reference to a water-driven wheel is in the technical treatises Pneumatica and Parasceuastica of the Greek engineer Philo of Byzantium (Φίλων ὁ Βυζάντιος).  

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The Only Extant Ancient Linen Book and the Longest Etruscan Text Circa 250 BCE

Preserved when it was used for mummy wrappings in Ptolemaic Egypt, the Liber Lenteus Zagrabensis (Linen Book of Zagreb), remains the longest extant Etruscan text and the only extant early book written on linen. Though the complete text remains untranslated because of lack of understanding of the Etruscan language, it is thought to be a ritual calendar. Certain local gods mentioned within the text allow its place of production to be narrowed to a small area in southeast Tuscany near Lake Trasimeno where four major Etruscan cities were located: modern day ArezzoPerugiaChiusi and Cortona.

The manuscript was purchased in Alexandria, Egypt in 1848, and preserved in Zagreb, Croatia since 1867; however it was not recognized as an Etruscan text until 1891.

"The book is laid out in twelve columns from right to left, each one representing a "page". Much of the first three columns are missing, and it is not known where the book begins. Closer to the end of the book the text is almost complete (there is a strip missing that runs the entire length of the book). By the end of the last page the cloth is blank and the selvage is intact, showing the definite end of the book.

"There are 230 lines of text, with 1200 legible words. Black ink has been used for the main text, and red ink for lines and diacritics.

"In use it would have been folded so that one page sat atop another like a codex, rather than being wound along like a scroll. Julius Caesar is said to have folded scrolls in similar accordion fashion while on campaigns" (Wikipedia article on Liber Linteus, accessed 10-17-2014).

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The Archive or Library in the Temple of Edfu 237 BCE – 57 BCE

The Temple of Edfu dedicated to the falcon god Horus, located on the west bank of the Nile in the city of Edfu, which was known in Greco-Roman times as Apollonopolis Magna after the chief god Horus-Apollo, was built in the Ptolemaic period between 237 and 57 BCE. Inscriptions on its walls provide information on language, myth and religion during the Greco-Roman period in ancient Egypt. 

In this temple "there is a small room near the court which was used as an archive. The walls show inscriptions concerning 'many chests of books and large leather rolls.' They included all the literature appertaining to a temple; liturgy for daily rites and feast days; manuscripts containing the building plans and instructions for the decorations on the walls of the temple; incantations and priestly lore but also documents relevant to the administration" (Hussein 21).

"Because of the great quantity of extant papyrus rolls, which nevertheless form only a fraction of these existing in ancient times, the question arises as to how and where the Egyptians collected and arranged their books. The texts indicate that papyri were kept because we read that copying was necessary when the original had become worm-eaten. Two institutions could have served as depositories: the 'mansion of books' and the 'mansion of life'. 'Mansion of books' was the designation both for the archives where books were kept and an adminstrative office. . . .The 'mansion of life' was more than a library—it was a kind of university. Here books of all kinds were not only collected and classified, they were also written and handed down to the younger generation. It was the place where all branches of knowledge were cultivated and taught. The term 'mansion of life' also indicated that its prupose was primarily the custodianship of religious texts and the celebration of rites connected with the preservation of the king's life and that of Osiris.

"We are not able to say according to which principles libraries in the 'mansion of books' and in the 'mansion of life' were arranged. But we know. nevertheless, that the collected rolls were listed in catalogues, according to their content, and kept in chests (or other receptacles) on which a tablet with the titles of the books could be fastened or whose covers bore paintings indicating the content of the rolls" (Hussein, Origins of the Book. Egypt's contribution to the development of the book from papyrus to codex [1970] 21-22).

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The Conics of Apollonius of Perga Circa 225 BCE

Like the works of Archimedes, the writings of the Greek geometer and astronomer Apollonius of Perga were not widely studied in the ancient world, and almost nothing is known of his life. Apollonius is believed to have lived in the second half of the third century BCE. From references to Archimedes in Apollonius' writings it is believed that the two men might have known one another. Apollonius is also thought to have spent time in Alexandria.

Apollonius' Conics was originally written in eight books, probably on
eight separate papyrus rolls. The Conics are famous for recognizing
and naming the ellipse, parabola and hyberbola, among other things.
Only books I-IV survived in the original Greek, from copies made on
parchment at the Royal Library of Constantinople. They were organized
early in the sixth century, probably at Alexandria, by the mathematician Eutochius of Ascalon who also edited, and thus probably preserved, the writings of Archimedes. Books V-VII of the Conics survived separately in Arabic translation, and Book VIII was lost, though some idea of its contents can be inferred from lemmas to it in the writings of the Greek mathematician Pappus of Alexandria, whose works survived in more complete form.

Books I-IV of the Conics were first published in print in the Latin
translation by Giovanni Battista Memo, a professor of mathematics at
Venice. The edition was published in Venice by Bernardino Bindoni in
1537, one year after Memo's death. The Greek manuscript that Memo used is unknown; his edition is very rare on the market.

In the first half of the 17th century the Medici family acquired an Arabic manuscript containing Books V-VII of the Conics, which had been lost up to that time. In 1658, with the help of the Maronite scholar Abraham Ecchellensis (Ibrahim ibn Daud al-Haqili), Giovanni Borelli prepared an edited Latin translation of the manuscript, which was published in print in Rome in 1661.

Traditionally, Books I-IV of the Conics were collected in the Latin
translation of the mathematician and humanist Federico Commandino
published in 1566. It was Commandino who also translated from Greek
into Latin the writings of Archimedes (after the editio princeps),
Pappus, the Pneumatics of Heron of Alexandria, and Euclid. 

Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science & Medicine (1991) Nos 57 & 58.

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The Terra Cotta Army, An Early Example of Assembly Line Production 215 BCE – 210 BCE

One of three excavation pits of the Terracotta Army. (View Larger)

About 215 BCE Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇; pinyin: Qín Shǐhuáng; Wade-Giles: Ch'in Shih-huang) (Ying Zheng) the first Emperor of China, who ruled a unified China from 221 BCE to his death in 210 BCE at the age of 50, ordered construction of the Terracotta Warriers and Horses, otherwise known as the Terracotta Army, near Xi'an, Shaanxi province, ostensibly to help him rule in the afterlife from his vast mausoleum. Varying in height from 183 to 195 cm (6ft–6ft 5in), according to their role, with generals being tallest, the terracotta figures include warriors, chariots, horses, officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians. It has been estimated that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits.

Creation of this vast collection of painted statuary involved one of the earliest implementations of assembly line production:

"The terracotta figures were manufactured both in workshops by government laborers and also by local craftsmen. The head, arms, legs and torsos were created separately and then assembled. Studies show that eight face moulds were most likely used, and then clay was added to provide individual facial features. Once assembled, intricate features such as facial expressions were added. It is believed that their legs were made in much the same way that terracotta drainage pipes were manufactured at the time. This would make it an assembly line production, with specific parts manufactured and assembled after being fired, as opposed to crafting one solid piece of terracotta and subsequently firing it. In those days, each workshop was required to inscribe its name on items produced to ensure quality control. This has aided modern historians in verifying that workshops that once made tiles and other mundane items were commandeered to work on the terracotta army. Upon completion, the terracotta figures were placed in the pits in precise military formation according to rank and duty" (Wikipedia article on Terracotta Army, accessed 06-01-2009).

"Qin Shi Huang remains a controversial figure in Chinese history. After unifying China, he and his chief adviser Li Si passed a series of major economic and political reforms. He undertook gigantic projects, including the first version of the Great Wall of China, the now famous city-sized mausoleum guarded by a life-sized Terracotta Army, and a massive national road system, all at the expense of numerous lives. To ensure stability, Qin Shi Huang outlawed and burned many books. Despite the tyranny of his autocratic rule, Qin Shi Huang is regarded as a pivotal figure" (Wikipedia article on Qin Shi Huang, accessed 12-30-2009).

The Emperor and the Assassin, a Chinese film directed by Chen Kaige based on a screenplay by Wang Peigong and Chen Kaige, depicted the life of Ying Zheng. 

(This entry was last revised on 11-11-2014.)

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Destroying Most Records of the Past Along with 460, or More, Scholars 213 BCE – 206 BCE

Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang.

Following the advice of his chief adviser Li Si, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China, ordered most previously existing books to be burned in order to avoid scholars' comparison of his reign with the past. Records which were allowed to escape destruction were:

"books on astrology, agriculture, medicine, divination, and the history of the Qin state. Owning the Book of Songs or the Classic of History was to be punished especially severely. According to the later Records of the Grand Historian, the following year Qin Shi Huang had some 460 scholars buried alive for owning the forbidden books. The emperor's oldest son Fusu criticised him for this act. The emperor's own library still had copies of the forbidden books, but most of these were destroyed later when Xiang Yu burned the palaces of Xianyang in 206 BCE (Wikipedia article on Qin Shi Huang, accessed 01-30-2010).

The Wikipedia article, Burning of books and burying of scholars, presents a different account, quoting the Records of the Grand Historian in footnotes, both in Chinese and English translation:

"According to the Records of the Grand Historian, after Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, unified China in 221 BCE, his chancellor Li Si suggested suppressing the freedom of speech, unifying all thoughts and political opinions. This was justified by accusations that the intelligentsia sang false praise and raised dissent through libel.

"Beginning in 213 BCE, all classic works of the Hundred Schools of Thought — except those from Li Ssu's own school of philosophy known as legalism — were subject to book burning.

"Qin Shi Huang burned the other histories out of fear that they undermined his legitimacy, and wrote his own history books. Afterwards, Li Ssu took his place in this area.

"Li Ssu proposed that all histories in the imperial archives except those written by the Qin historians be burned; that the Classic of Poetry, the Classic of History, and works by scholars of different schools be handed in to the local authorities for burning; that anyone discussing these two particular books be executed; that those using ancient examples to satirize contemporary politics be put to death, along with their families; that authorities who failed to report cases that came to their attention were equally guilty; and that those who had not burned the listed books within 30 days of the decree were to be banished to the north as convicts working on building the Great Wall. The only books to be spared in the destruction were books on medicine, agriculture and prophecy.   

"After being deceived by two alchemists while seeking prolonged life, Qin Shi Huang ordered more than 460 alchemists in the capital to be buried alive in the second year of the proscription, though an account given by Wei Hong in the 2nd century added another 700 to the figure. As some of them were also Confucius scholars Fusu counselled that, with the country newly unified, and enemies still not pacified, such a harsh measure imposed on those who respect Confucius would cause instability. However, he was unable to change his father's mind, and instead was sent to guard the frontier in a de facto exile.

"The quick fall of the Qin Dynasty was attributed to this proscription. Confucianism was revived in the Han Dynasty that followed, and became the official ideology of the Chinese imperial state. Many of the other schools had disappeared" (Wikipedia article on Burning of books and burying of scholars, accessed 01-30-2010).

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The Origins of Bibliography Circa 200 BCE

A digital recreation of the Library of Alexandria.

Around 200 BCE Kallimachos (Callimachus), a renowned poet and head of the Alexandrian Library, compiled a catalogue of its holdings which he called Pinakes (Tables or Lists). Supposedly extending to 120 papyrus rolls, this catalogue amounted to a systematic survey of Greek literature up to its time. It also represented the origins of bibliography. Only a few fragments survived the eventual destruction of the library, together with a scattering of references to it in other ancient works.

Callimachus’s bibliographical methods would not be out of place in a modern library; an analysis of the eight remaining fragments of the Pinakes shows that Callimachus

"1. divided the authors into classes and within these classes if necessary into subdivisions;

"2. arranged the authors in the classes or subdivisions alphabetically;

"3. added to the name of each author (if possible) biographical data;

"4. listed under an author’s name the titles of his works, combining works of the same kind to groups (no more than that can be deduced from the eight citations); and

"5. cited the opening words of each work as well as

"6. its extent, i.e., the number of lines" (Blum, p. 152).

"The Pinakes were neither an inventory nor an exhaustive catalog of the works in the library: they did not list all the copies of a work that the library owned and did not give an indication of how to locate a book in the library—actual access would have required consulting the librarian. The Pinakes built on preexisting practices of list making (including Aristotle's pinakes of poets), sorting (such as Theophrastus' doxographies sorted topically and chronologically), and alphabetizing, the principles of which were likely already understood although they had never been put to such extensive use before" (Blair, Too Much to Know. Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age [201] 17).

The surviving fragments of Kallimachos's Pinakes were first published in print in Hymni, epigrammata et fragmenta, edited by Theodor (Theodorus) J. G. F. Graevius et al. (2 vols, Utrecht, 1697). That edition included the first edition of the monumental 758-page commentary by Ezechiel Spanheim, and also incorporated the 420 fragments collected and elucidated by the English theologian, classical scholar and critic Richard Bentley, whose reading of these fragments represents “the earliest example of a really critical method applied to such a work" (Dictionary of National Biography). ". . . many even of his boldest conjectures have been completely confirmed by the papyri" (Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship 1300-1850, 154.) Among the other commentaries and notes assembled in Graevius's edition are those by Henri Estienne, Nichodemus Frischlin, Bonaventura Vulcanius, and Anne Dacier.

♦ Apart from his contributions to bibliography, Kallimachos is known in the history of books for his quip in Fragments (ed. Pfeiffer) 465 that a "big book is a big evil" (μεγα βιβλιον μεγα κακων), a statement that he made in defense of the short lyric and elegiac poems he wrote and favored over longer epic poems. This has also been translated as "A great book is a great evil."

Breslauer & Folter, Bibliography. Its History and Development (1984) no. 1.  Blum, Kallimachos. The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography. Translated by Hans H. Wellisch (1991).

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The Very Long Process of Canonization of the Hebrew Bible Circa 200 BCE – 200 CE

Evidence suggests that the process of canonization of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) occurred over several centuries, probably between 200 BCE and 200 CE.

"Rabbinic Judaism recognizes the twenty-four books of the Masoretic Text, commonly called the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. Evidence suggests that the process of canonization occurred between 200 BC and AD 200. A popular position is that the Torah was canonized circa 400 BC, the Prophets circa 200 BC, and the Writings circa AD 100  perhaps at a hypothetical Council of Jamnia—this position, however, is increasingly criticised by modern scholars. The book of Deuteronomy includes a prohibition against adding or subtracting (4:2, 12:32) which might apply to the book itself (i.e. a "closed book," a prohibition against future scribal editing) or to the instruction received by Moses on Mt. Sinai. The book of 2 Maccabees, itself not a part of the Jewish canon, describes Nehemiah (around 400 BC) as having "founded a library and collected books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings" (2:13-15). The Book of Nehemiah suggests that the priest-scribe Ezra brought the Torah back from Babylon to Jerusalem and the Second Temple (8-9) around the same time period. Both I and II Maccabees suggest that Judas Maccabeus (around 167 BC) likewise collected sacred books (3:42-50, 2:13-15, 15:6-9), indeed some scholars argue that the Jewish canon was fixed by the Hasmonean dynasty. However, these primary sources do not suggest that the canon was at that time closed; moreover, it is not clear that these particular books were identical in content to those that later became part of the Masoretic text. Today, there is no scholarly consensus as to when the Jewish canon was set" (Wikipedia article on Development of the Jewish Bible Canon, accessed 12-24-2009).

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The Library of Pergamum (Pergamon) is Founded 197 BCE – 159 BCE

The ruins of the Library.

Around 197-159 BCE rulers of Pergamum (Pergamon; now Bergama in Turkey) founded a major library. Whether this was in competition with the Alexandrian Library, or just a worthy independent effort, remains the subject of speculation. This project, and the vast buildings constructed for the purpose, is associated with the rule of king Eumenes II. The Library of Pergamum supposedly contained 200,000 papyrus rolls— the second largest library in the ancient world; however, we have no factual basis for calculating the number of rolls either at Alexandria or at Pergamum.

"Legend has it that Mark Antony later gave Cleopatra all of the 200,000 volumes at Pergamum for the Library at Alexandria as a wedding present, emptying the shelves and ending the dominance of the Library at Pergamum. No index or catalog of the holdings at Pergamum exists today, making it impossible to know the true size or scope of this collection.

"Historical accounts claim that the library possessed a large main reading room, lined with many shelves. An empty space was left between the outer walls and the shelves to allow for air circulation. This was intended to prevent the library from becoming overly humid in the warm climate of Anatolia and can be seen as an early attempt at library preservation. Manuscripts were written on parchment, rolled, and then stored on these shelves. A statue of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, stood in the main reading room" (Wikipedia article on Library of Pergamum, accessed 12-24-2009).

♦ Pergamum is sometimes associated with the invention of parchment (charta pergamena). However, writing on prepared animal skins had a long history. Some Egyptian Fourth Dynasty texts were written on parchment. Though the Assyrians and the Babylonians inscribed their cuneiform on clay tablets, they also wrote on parchment from the 6th century BCE onward, and Jews wrote on parchment rolls. It has been argued that the Pergamene authorities were forced to fall back on parchment when supplies of papyrus from Egypt were interrupted during the invasions of Egypt by Antiochus IV Epihanes. During this period scholars from Pergamum may have introduced parchment to Rome where the shortage of papyrus would have had an even greater impact. It has also been conjectured that the Pergamenes may have discovered that "by simplifying the composition of the pelt preparation bath, allied with a special mode of drying wet unhaired pelts (by stretching them as much as possible) smooth taut sheets of uniform opacity could easily be obtained" (Roberts & Skeat, The Birth of the Codex [1983] 9).

Clark, The Care of Books (1901) 9 reproduces a plan of the "temple and precinct of Athena, Pergamon; with that of the Library and adjacent buildings."

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The Rosetta Stone: Key to the Decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphs 196 BCE – 1822

Only July 15, 1799 French Capitaine Pierre-François Bouchard, with Napoleon in Egypt, discovered a dark stone 112.3 cm tall, 75.7 wide and 28.4 thick in the ruins of Fort St. Julien near the coastal city of Rosetta (Arabic: رشيد‎ Rašīd, French: Rosette), 65 kilometers east of Alexandria. This stone, which had been used in the construction of a fortress by the fifteenth century Mamluk ruler of Egypt, Al-Ashraf Sayf ad-Din Qa'it Bay (Sultan Qaitbay), was later understood to be a fragment of an ancient stela (stele)— a stone on which one of a series of Ptolemaic decrees issued over the reign of the Hellenistic Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled Egypt from 305 BCE to 30 BCE, were inscribed and put up in major temple complexes in Egypt. The decree, known as the third Memphis decree, passed by a council of priests from the Ptolemaic period in 196 BCE, affirmed the royal cult of the 13-year-old Ptolemy V as a living god on the first anniversary of his coronation. The decree was written in Egyptian hieroglyphs (the language of the priests, suitable for a priestly decree), in Egyptian Demotic script (the native script used for daily purposes), and in classical Greek (the language of the Hellenistic administration).

The stele found at Rosetta could not have originally been placed there because the land on which it was found did not exist at the time of its carving, but was the result of later sedimentation. Another decree, also written in the same languages, known as the Canopus Decree, was later discovered at Tanis in 1866 by Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius. A second Canopus Decree was found in 1881. A third decree in the same languages, known as the Decree of Memphis (Ptolemy IV) is known in two versions: the Raphia Decree, found 1902 at the site of ancient Memphis, and the Pithom Stele, No. II, found 1923, which has hieroglyphs on the front, 42 lines in Demotic on the back, providing an almos complete translation, and Greek on the side.   

Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt had been established by the first Ptolemy, known as Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander's generals. Ignorant of the Egyptian language, the Ptolemies required their officials to speak Greek and made Greek the language of their administration, a requirement that remained in effect throughout their dynasty, which lasted for a thousand years. During their rule the Ptolemies made their capital city Alexandria the most advanced cultural center in the Greek-speaking world, for centuries second only to Rome. Among their most famous projects were the Royal Library of Alexandria and the Pharos Lighthouse, or Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

Because of the Ptolemaic dynasty's replacement of hieroglyphics by Greek among the educated non-priestly class educated Egyptians outside of the priesthood lost the ability to read their ancient pictographic language. Later, on February 27, 380, emperors Theodosius IGratian, and Valentinian II made Nicene Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire by the Edict of Thessalonica, also known as Cunctos populos, stating that all their subjects should profess the faith of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria. In 392 CE Theodosius issued a decisive edict closing Egyptian temples. As a result, the latest known inscription written in Egyptian hieroglyphs is dated August 23, 394 CE.

During the centuries of Muslim rule one scholar in Egypt during the ninth to tenth centuries, Ahmad bin Abu Bakr ibn Washshiyah, wrote a treatise on scripts in which he not only interpreted hieroglyphs as pictorial images, but, by relating them to the Coptic language used by Coptic priests during his time, also provided an alphabet in which hieroglyphs represented single letters, though only occasionally correctly. This text, which was read in manuscript by seventeenth-century polymath Athanasius Kircher, was later translated into English by Joseph Hammer, Secretary of the Imperial Legation at Constantinople, and published in print in 1806 as Ancient Alphabets and Hieroglyphic Characters Explained, with an Account of the Egyptian Priests. Following Kircher's early but incorrect attempts to understand hieroglyphs, by the mid-18th century deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic language became one of the most challenging problems for European archeologists and linguists. Probably in 1761 Abbé Jean-Jacques Barthélemy was the first to suggest that the cartouches or oval-shaped framed sections of hieroglyphic inscriptions contained the names of gods and kings.

The Rosetta Stone was forfeited to the English in 1801 under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria. Following its arrival in England in 1801, the Rosetta stone was placed in The Society of Antiquaries, where casts were made and sent to the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Dublin and to scholars in France for incorporation in the Description de l'Égypt that was eventually published between 1809 and 1828. In June, 1802 the stone was placed in the British Museum, where it remains. The Society of Antiquaries issued full-size reproductions of the stone between 1802 and 1803. Once the texts were available to scholars the three approximately parallel texts on the Rosetta Stone became key pieces of evidence in the research on hieroglyphics by Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, Johan David Åkerblad and Thomas Young, culminating in Jean-François Champollion's translation of the hieroglyphic text on the stone in 1822.

The first scholarly publication on the Rosetta Stone was de Sacy's, pamphlet: Lettre au Citoyen Chaptal . . . au sujet de l'inscription Égyptienne du monument trouvé à Rosette (Paris, 1802). In this brief work illustrated with one transcription of a portion of the stone, the orientalist and linguist Sacy, a teacher of Champollion, made some progress in identifying proper names in the demotic inscription. Within the same year another student of Sacy, the Swedish diplomat and orientalist Johan David Åkerblad published another "lettre" which described how he had managed to identify all proper names in the demotic text in just two months.  

"He could also read words like "Greek", "temple" and "Egyptian" and found out the correct sound value from 14 of the 29 signs, but he wrongly believed the demotic hieroglyphs to be entirely alphabetic. One of his strategies of comparing the demotic to Coptic later became a key in Champollion's eventual decipherment of the hieroglyphic script and the Ancient Egyptian language" (Wikipedia article on Johan David Akerblad, accessed 12-27-2012).

"At some period after its arrival in London, the inscriptions on the stone were coloured in white chalk to make them more legible, and the remaining surface was covered with a layer of carnauba wax designed to protect the Rosetta Stone from visitors' fingers. This gave a dark colour to the stone that led to its mistaken identification as black basalt. These additions were removed when the stone was cleaned in 1999, revealing the original dark grey tint of the rock, the sparkle of its crystalline structure, and a pink vein running across the top left corner. Comparisons with the Klemm collection of Egyptian rock samples showed a close resemblance to rock from a small granodiorite quarry at Gebel Tingar on the west bank of the Nile, west of Elephantine in the region of Aswan; the pink vein is typical of granodiorite from this region. . . . (Wikipedia article on Rosetta Stone, accessed 06-10-2011).

♦ When I revised this database entry in October 2012 the Rosetta Stone was the most widely viewed object in the British Museum. Reflective of this intense interest, the British Museum shop then offered a remarkably wide range of products with the Rosetta Stone motif, ranging from facsimiles of the stone in various sizes to umbrellas, coffee mugs, mousepads, neckties, and iPhone cases. In their British Museum Objects in Focus series of booklets they also issued a very useful 64-page compact reference: The Rosetta Stone by Richard Parkinson (2005). Parkinson was the author of the more definitive work entitled Cracking Codes. The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment, with Contributions by W. Diffie, M. Fischer, and R.S. Simpson also published by the British Museum in 1999.

(This entry was last revised on August 12, 2014.)

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The Mawangui Silk Texts Circa 175 BCE

A Taoist text preserved on silk and discovered in Mawangui in 1973.

The Mawangdui Silk Texts (Chinese: 馬王堆帛書; pinyin: Mǎwángduī Bóshū), texts of Chinese philosophical and medical works written on silk, were found buried in Tomb no. 3 at Mawangdui, in the city of Changsha, Hunan, China in 1973. 

"They include the earliest attested manuscripts of existing texts such as the I Ching, two copies of the Tao Te Ching, one similar copy of Strategies of the Warring States and a similar school of works of Gan De and Shi Shen. Scholars arranged them into silk books of 28 kinds. Together they count to about 120,000 words covering military strategy, mathematics, cartography and the six classical arts of ritual, music, archery, horsemanship, writing and arithmetic" (Wikipedia article on Mawangdui Silk Texts, accessed 01-31-2010).

Most of the Mawangdui Silk Texts are preserved in the Hunan Provincial Museum.

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Invention of the Astrolabe Circa 150 BCE – 100 BCE

A portrait of Hipparchus from the title page of William Cunningham's Cosmographicall Glasse (1559). (View Larger)

The rudimentary astrolabe was invented in the Hellenistic world, and is often attributed to Hipparchus, who was probably born in Nicaea (now Iznik, Turkey) and probably died on the island of Rhodes. A combination of the planisphere and dioptra, the astrolabe was effectively an analog calculator capable of working out several different kinds of problems in spherical astronomy.

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The Earliest Surviving Analog Computer: the Antikythera Mechanism Circa 150 BCE – 100 BCE

The Antikythera Mechanism discovered off the island of Antikythera, Greece in 1900 or 1901, includes the only specimen preserved from antiquity of a scientifically graduated instrument. It may also be considered the earliest extant mechanical calculator. The device is displayed at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, accompanied by a reconstruction made and donated to the museum by physicist and historian of science Derek de Solla Price.

"The Antikythera mechanism must therefore be an arithmetical counterpart of the much more familiar geometrical models of the solar system which were known to Plato and Archimedes and evolved into the orrery and the planetarium. The mechanism is like a great astronomical clock without an escapement, or like a modern analogue computer which uses mechanical parts to save tedious calculation . . . . It is certainly very similar to the great astronomical cathedral clocks that were built. . . ." in Europe beginning in the fourteenth century.

Applying high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography, in 2008 experts deciphered inscriptions and reconstructed functions of the bronze gears on the mechanism. The results of this research, revealed details of dials on the instrument’s back side, including the names of all 12 months of an ancient calendar. Scientists found that the device not only predicted solar eclipses but also organized the calendar in the four-year cycles of the Olympiad, forerunner of the modern Olympic Games.

The new findings also suggested that the mechanism’s concept originated in the colonies of Corinth, possibly Syracuse, in Sicily. The scientists said this implied a likely connection with Archimedes, who lived in Syracuse and died in 212 BCE. It is known that Archimedes invented a planetarium which calculated motions of the moon and the known planets. It is also believed that Archimedes wrote a manuscript, which did not survive, on astronomical mechanisms. Some evidence had previously linked the complex device of gears and dials to the island of Rhodes and the astronomer Hipparchos, who had made a study of irregularities in the Moon’s orbital course.

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Probably the First Trigonometric Table Circa 150 BCE


Abut 150 BCE Hellenistic astronomer, geographer, and mathematician, Hipparchos of Rhodes, produced a table of chords— an early example of a trigonometric table. 

". . . some historians go so far as to say that trigonometry was invented by him. The purpose of this table of chords was to give a method for solving triangles which avoided solving each triangle from first principles. He also introduced the division of a circle into 360 degrees into Greece" (Mactutor biography of Hipparchus, accessed 11-27-2008).

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The Nash Fragment of the Ten Commandments: The Oldest Hebrew Manuscript Fragment before the Dead Sea Scrolls Circa 150 BCE – 100 BCE

The Nash Papyrus. (View Larger)

The Nash Papyrus, a collection of four papyrus fragments on a single sheet acquired in Egypt in 1898 by Walter Llewellyn Nash and subsequently presented to Cambridge University Library, was the oldest Hebrew manuscript fragment known before the discovery in 1947 of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The provenance of the papyrus is unknown; allegedly it is from Faiyum (Fayyum), Egypt.

The text was first described by Stanley A. Cook in "A Pre-Masoretic Biblical Papyrus,"  Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology 25 (1903): 34-56. Though Cook estimated the date of the papyrus as 2nd century CE, subsequent reappraisals have pushed the date of the fragments back to about 150-100 BCE.

"Twenty four lines long, with a few letters missing at each edge, the papyrus contains the Ten Commandments in Hebrew, followed by the start of the Shema Yisrael prayer. The text of the Ten Commandments combines parts of the version from Exodus 20:2-17 with parts from Deuteronomy 5:6-21. A curiosity is its omission of the phrase "house of bondage", used in both versions, about Egypt - perhaps a reflection of where the papyrus was composed.

"Some (but not all) of the papyrus' substitutions from Deuteronomy are also found in the version of Exodus in the ancient Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible. The Septuagint also interpolates before Deuteronomy 6:4 the preamble to the Shema found in the papyrus, and additionally agrees with a couple of the other variant readings where the papyrus departs from the standard Hebrew Masoretic text. The ordering of the later commandments in the papyrus (Adultery-Murder-Steal, rather than Murder-Adultery-Steal) is also that found in most texts of the Septuagint, as well as in the New Testament (Mark 10:19, Luke 18:20, Romans 13:9, and James 2:11, but not Matthew 19:18).

"According to the Talmud it was once customary to read the Ten Commandments before saying the Shema. As Burkitt put it, 'it is therefore reasonable to conjecture that this Papyrus contains the daily worship of a pious Egyptian Jew, who lived before the custom came to an end'.

"It is thus believed that the papyrus was probably drawn from a liturgical document, which may have purposely synthesised the two versions of the Commandments, rather than directly from Scripture. However, the similarities with the Septuagint text give strong evidence for the likely closeness of the Septuagint as a translation of a Hebrew text of the Pentateuch extant in Egypt in the second century BC that differed significantly from the texts later collated and preserved by the Masoretes (Wikipedia article on Nash Papyrus, accessed 12-24-2009).

Burkitt, F.C., "The Hebrew Papyrus of the Ten Commandments," The Jewish Quarterly Review, 15 (1903) 392-408.

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Acta Diurna: the First Daily Gazette Circa 130 BCE

Ruins of the Roman Forum, where the Acta Diurna was posted.

Copies of Acta Diurna ("Daily Events", or the "Daily Public Record"), were carved on stone or metal and presented in message boards in public places like the Roman Forum beginning about 130 BCE. They were also called simply Acta or Diurna or sometimes Acta Popidi or Acta Publica. These are thought to be the first daily gazettes.

"Their original content included results of legal proceedings and outcomes of trials. Later the content was expanded to public notices and announcements and other noteworthy information such as prominent births, marriages and deaths. After a couple of days the notices were taken down and archived, (though no intact copy has survived to the present day).

"Sometimes scribes made copies of the Acta and sent them to provincial governors for information. Later emperors used them to announce royal or senatorial decrees and events of the court.

"Other forms of Acta were legal, municipal and military notices. Acta Senatus were originally kept secret, until then-consul Julius Caesar made them public in 59 BCE. Later rulers, however, often censored them" (Wikipedia article on Acta Diurna, accessed 07-31-2009).

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The Great Isaiah Scroll, the Only Nearly Complete Biblical Book Surviving Among the Dead Sea Scrolls Circa 100 BCE

The Isaiah Scroll. (View Larger)

The Great Isaiah Scroll is the best-preserved and the only nearly complete biblical book in the cache of 220 biblical scrolls discovered in Qumran on the northwestern coast of the Dead Sea. It is one of the original seven scrolls discovered in Cave One at Qumran in 1947. Isaiah was the most popular prophet of the Second Temple period: 21 copies of the scroll were found in Qumran. The text includes the familiar unfulfilled prophecy:

“and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

In September 2011 the entire Great Isaiah Scroll was published online as part of the The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls project sponsored by the Israel Museum's Shrine of the Book and Google.

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The Earliest Bookbindings Circa 100 BCE

The craft of bookbinding originated in India. Religious sutra, meaning "a rope or thread that holds things together," were copied onto palm leaves cut in two, lengthwise, with a metal stylus. The leaf was then dried and rubbed with ink, which formed a stain in the stylus tracings in the leaf. The finished leaves were numbered, and two long twines were threaded through each end through wooden boards. When closed, the excess twine was wrapped around the boards to protect the leaves of the book. Buddhist monks took the idea of bookbinding through what we call Persia, Afghanistan, and Iran, to China in the first century BCE.

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The Earliest Treatise on Mnemonics Circa 90 BCE

Rhetorica ad Herennium, a treatise on rhetoric, persuasion, and mnemonics, was composed about 90 BCE. This treatise, of which over 100 medieval manuscripts survive, was formerly attributed to the Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, orator Cicero. Its authorship is now considered unknown.

During the Middle Ages Rhetorica ad Herennium was the most influential treatise on mnemonics. The techniques it expounded, known as the method of loci, or memory palace, were attributed to the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos (Kea). The Rhetorica is the only comprehensive discussion of Simonides' techniques that survived from the ancient world through the Middle Ages.  

"The techniques described in this book were widely practiced in the ancient and medieval worlds. Memory training was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic and rhetoric. Students were taught not just what to remember but how to remember it. In a world with few books, memory was sacrosanct" (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/02/20/magazine/mind-secrets.html, accessed 02-20-2011).

The section on mnemonics appears in Book III, pp. 205-213 of the Loeb Library edition.

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The Tabularium, Archives of Republican Rome, is Founded Circa 78 BCE

The Roman Tabularium. (View Larger)

In 87 BCE the archives of Republican Rome, the Tabularium, was constructed within the Forum Romanum.

"Except for a few isolated cases, the general archives is a product of the last two hundred years. Although the Tabularium, the archives of Republican Rome, showed a tendency to absorb records of various administrative orgiins, the idea of concentrating in one place the archives of different creators was alien to ancient and medieval times. The ancient world did not even have the concept of an archivio di deposito, for nowhere are there to be found arrangements revealing an intention to differentiate adminstratively between current records and those no longer regularly needed for the dispatch of business. It was only in the Middle Ages that a discriminating attitude toward the value of records developed. This was expressed in the practice of copying important records in cartularies so as to have them available for frequent use, while the originals were carefully protected in an inner sanctum, as for instance, the Byzantine skeuophylakion. By and large, however, it was the emerging recognition of the research value of records that led to the distinction between records of daily usefulness and others to be preserved because of their long-range importance.

An interior corridor of the Tabularium. (View Larger)

"In the ancient period, this distinction was not made; and this means that by archives we must understand all kinds of records. In fact, the term archives itself may be slightly inappropriate, for even in its broadest meaning the word suggests an intention to keep records in usable order and in premises suitable to that purpose. In the Near East, where great quantities of records have been found on excavation sites, only rarely could any part of the site be identified as an archives room. Most of the time we cannot tell whether we are dealing with an archival aggregate or with a collection of trash, the equivalent of a modern waste-paper basket. And yet we cannot exclude such disjecta membra from our consideration, because they may still reveal a pattern worth discovering. When Bernard P. Grenfell, Arthur S. Hunt, and J. Gilbart Smyly discovered the mummies of the "papyrus enriched" holy crocodiles in Eqyptian Tebtunis, they sensibly decided to include in the first volume of their publication a "classification of papyri according to crocodiles," for papyri in the belly of the same animal might reveal relationships reflecting their administrative provenance and an original arrangement" (Posner, Archives in the Ancient World [1972] 4-5).

♦ In February 2014 a slide show about the Tabularium was available at this link.

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The Book Trade in Cicero's Rome Circa 70 BCE

Marcus Tullius Cicero. (View Larger)

"We hear nothing of a book trade at Rome before the time of Cicero. Then the booksellers and copyists (both initially called librarii) carried on an active trade, but do not seem to have met the high standards of a discriminating author, for Cicero complains of the poor quality of their work (Q.f. 3-.4.5, 5.6). Most readers depended upon borrowing books from friends and having their own copies made from them, but this too demanded skilled copyists. It was perhaps for such reasons that Atticus, who had lived for a long time in Greece and there had some experience of a well-established book trade, put his staff of trained librarii at the service of his friends. It is not easy to see whether Atticus is at any given moment obliging Cicero as a friend or in a more professional capacity, but  it is clear that Cicero could depend on him to provide all the services of a high-class publisher. Atticus would carefully revise a work for him, criticize points of style or content, discuss the advisability of publication or the suitability of a title, hold private readings of the new book, send out complimentary copies, organize its distribution. His standards of excecution were of the highest and his name a guarantee of quality" (Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 3rd. ed. [1991] 23-24).

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Details of the Roman Book Trade Circa 70 BCE – 100 CE

"Bookdealers, like many businessmen in Rome, tended to be freedmen, men of low social status. We come across a few names: the Sosii, for instance, who worked with Horace; Dorus, who Seneca says handled Livy; and Pollio Valerianus, the freedman Secundus, and Trypho, who deal with the books of Martial. They were, in simple terms the owners of small shops that dealt in luxury items. Perhaps as significant, they apparently only handled current literature and did not sell older works.

"Their business was conducted at the retail level: each bookdealer made the copies he sold. There was little or no distribution system to support the individual shop-owner and therefore, virtually no broad-based geographical distribution except on the individual level. If a bookshop owner in a provincial city sold a copy of a book, it implies that he had made that copy, not that he had bought a large number of copies from a Rome-based distributor.

"Most of the copies bookdealers sold were probably made at the specific request of a customer. The shop-owner merely needed to have on hand or to acquire exemplars of various texts from which he could make copies as necessary. A stock might be maintained of some texts . . . .

"We have no idea at all how many copies of a work might be made. A famous letter of Pliny mentions that Regulus had one thousand copies made of his eulogy for his son, but that is an unusual kind of text and Pliny thinks the number excessive and in bad taste. The question is actually close to meaningless in a world of individually made copies, since the number of copies would increase directly in proportion to the number of readers who wanted one and was not related to the number made at any particular time.

"Nor do we know how the individual copies were made. The most common method was undoubtedly having slaves make one copy after another from a master copy, as probably happened with Regulus' one thousand copies of his eulogy of his son. Various other methods have also been suggested. To extrapolate the pecia system back in time, a text might be divided into sections which would then be passed out to a number of different copyists. Alternatively, one person mght dictate a text to several others, who would write it out, thus producing an economy of time. Our modern insistence on economies of speed and scale, however, makes it difficult for us to keep in mind that such economies did not necessarily motivate the Romans.

"Book prices in bookstores also elude conclusive discussion, since they appear only very occasionally in the surviving sources. For example, as we have seen, Martial mentions that a deluxe copy of one of his books costs five denarii. The basic points, however, reduce the importance of the question. First, book prices would not have concerned the large majority of the population of the Roman world for the simple reason that they could not read. Second, the economic structure of that population – with a very small number of very wealthy people, a very large number of very poor people, and no significant middle class in the modern sense – put books at any price out of most people's reach. Third, as we have seen, the booktrade was merely an ancillary system of circulation beside the private channels that probably supplied the vast majority of literary texts. In short, not many people owned books in the first place, and, of those who did, not many bought them at bookshops.

"More tantatlizing questions are who patronized bookdealers and why. The answer may lie in the fact that Roman bookdealers were not in competition with the private channels of circulation in which so much of roman literature moved. If a Roman could acquire a text through those private channels, there was no reason for him to buy from a bookdealer. Neither Cicero nor Pliny, for instance, two of our major sources for the circulation of literary texts, ever mentions going to a bookshop. This, of course, does not prove that they never visited such a shop, but it may suggest that they obtained any texts they wanted through their friends. if a reader's circle of friends included neither the author of the text nor someone who owned a copy, then a bookstore might provide a helpful service. Catullus, for example, says that he will torment a friend by buying books of bad poetry and giving them to him (14.1-20). The joke may be based not only on the low quality of the poetry but also on the implication that the poets he mentions were so terrible that no one in his circle would know them or own a copy of their poetry.

"Since even the elite used bookstores as gathering-places and since booksellers put up advertisements on their doorposts, the shop would expose the work of unknowns to the literary upper crust. That exposure might conceivably and eventually produce social contact, which at least theoretically, might provide a way to break into the concentric circules of circulation and friendship and might even result in the discovery of a patron. Monetary gain directly from the sale of copies was not a factor.

"Other advantages have been suggested by modern scholars but are overstated. First, a bookstore was a place to send people who wanted a copy, as Martial sends his obnoxious Quintus, to whom he does not want to give a gift copy and with whom he does not want to acknowledge the degree of friendship that would imply. This, however, would only be done in awkward situations, not as a common practice. Second, bookshops have been thought to provide some safeguard for the accuracy of the text, at least early in its circulation, although the relatively unregulated circulation of texts would substantially limit this advantage.

"The Booktrade appears to become more important during the first century A.D., so that by Pliny's time it appears to have become an accepted method for the circulation of literature, although by no means the only method. Martial, as we have seen, often mentions the dealers who handle his books. . . . By Pliny's time, at least some authors thought it appropriate to give a copy of a work to a bookseller, who could then make and sell copies if anyone wanted them. Even if bookshops did become more important, however, private channels did not lose their importance. Such channels wold have continued to serve the literary needs of the established literary and social élite and would also have continued to provide non-literary works such as commentaries and lexica.

"The increasing importance of bookshops may be due to several factors. First, authors in Pliny's time may have wanted to reach further beyond the narrow circles of their own friends and their friends' friends. It would be misleading to think of this as an increase in author's ambitions, since this might seem to imply that earlier writers were men of modest ambitions. Rather, the change may have represented a somewhat broader conception of the potential audience for a literary work. Even so, wider distribution does not imply an enormous increase in the number and diversity of the reading public, since the potential audience remains the intellectual aristocracy. The change would still be profound, nonetheless, since it implies the partial freeing of literature from the bonds of friendship.

Second, a larger role for bookshops may reflect the emergence of a relatively new type of Roman writer. For old Roman writers, literature was always seen as merely one facet of the life of an aristocrat, albeit a very important one. Althought writing and reading undoubtedly affected their social relationships, those relationships were also based on other ties such as politics, marriage alliances and family traditions. For the newer writers such as Martial, however, arriving in Rome from abroad, lacking the ties of politics and the other elements of aristocratic friendship, literature provided a point of access to the aristocracy, a way of making contact with the elite. From them ltierature played a functional role in addition to its earlier one. Any financial advantage, however, came from the well-established system of patronage.

"Third, since, as has been argued above, bookshops enjoyed no special status above that of any luxury shop, that very commonality of commercial status may hint that literature was becoming something that could be bought and sold like perfume or expensive fabric. Since literature had been and remained a symbol of social status, its reduction to a marketable commodity may indicate a weakening of the hold of the traditional aristocracy on the control of access to social status. In earlier Roman society, one had to be a member of an aristocratic group to acquire access to works that circulated primarily with that group. In this later period, bookstores made it at least theoretically possible for access to literature to precede and perhaps even to facilitate access to certain refined circles.

"Yet, for all these suggestions, Roman literature remained the preserve of the aristocracy except in oratorical events and public performances. If bookshops helped literature move out of the strict control of aristocratic groups of friends, they actually did so only to help outsiders gain access to those élite circles" (Raymond J. Starr,"The Circulation of Literary Texts in the Roman World," The Classical Quarterly 37, No. 1 [1987] 213-223, quoting from 219-23.) Note that I could not include the approximately 30 footnotes associated with this quotation.

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Possibly the Earliest System of Shorthand 63 BCE

Vindolanda Tablet 122 with Latin shorthand, possibly notae Tironianae, c.90-130 CE. (View Larger)

Plutarch records that in 63 BCE the system of shorthand known as Tironian notes was used to record Cato the Younger's denunciation against Catiline:

"This only of all Cato's speeches, it is said, was preserved; for Cicero, the consul, had disposed in various parts of the senate-house, several of the most expert and rapid writers, whom he had taught to make figures comprising numerous words in a few short strokes; as up to that time they had not used those we call shorthand writers, who then, as it is said, established the first example of the art."

"Tironian notes (notae Tironianae) is a system of shorthand said to have been invented by Cicero's scribe Marcus Tullius Tiro. Tiro's system consisted of about 4,000 signs, somewhat extended in classical times to 5,000 signs. In the Medieval period, Tironian notes were taught in monasteries and the system was extended to about 13,000 signs. The use of Tironian notes declined after A.D. 1100 but some use can still be seen through the 17th century" (Wikipedia article on Tironian notes, accessed 04-20-2009).

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Caesar's Gallic Wars 58 BCE – 51 BCE

Roman proconsul Julius Caesar waged a series of military campaigns called the Gallic Wars against several Gallic tribes. The Gallic Wars culminated in the decisive Battle of Alesia in 52 BCE, in which a complete Roman victory resulted in the expansion of the Roman Republic over the whole of Gaul. The battle of Alesia also marked marked the definitive conquest of the Continental Celtic people by the Roman Republic, and the end of Celtic dominance in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Northern Italy.

"In 52 BC another, larger revolt erupted in Gaul, led by Vercingetorix. Vercingetorix managed to unite the Gallic tribes and proved an astute commander, defeating Caesar in several engagements, but Caesar's elaborate siege-works at the Battle of Alesia finally forced his surrender. Despite scattered outbreaks of warfare the following year, Gaul was effectively conquered. Plutarch claimed that the army had fought against three million men during the Gallic Wars, of whom 1 million died, and another million were enslaved. The Romans subjugated 300 tribes and destroyed 800 cities.  However, in view of the difficulty in finding accurate counts in the first place, Caesar's propagandistic purposes, and the common exaggeration of numbers in ancient texts, the totals of enemy combatants are likely to be too high" (Wikipedia article on Julius Caesar, accessed 06-17-2011).

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The Earliest Bibliographical Classification System Circa 53 BCE – 23 CE

The Seven Epitomes is thought to have been compiled by the Chinese astronomer, historian and editor Liu Xin (Liu Hsin) during the Xin Dynasty, circa 53 BCE to 23 CE. A by-product of a collation project commissioned by the Emperor Ch'eng Ti of the Han Dynasty, it was the catalogue of all collated books housed in the libraries of the Inner Court at the time, initiated under the supervision of Liu Xiang (Liu Hsiang). These had been recovered after the burning of the books under the rule of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 213-206 BCE.

Although the original classification system no longer survives, Chinese bibliographers believe that the majority of its entries, in a much abridged form, and its original classification structure, have been preserved in the “Bibliographic Treatise” of the History of the [Former] Han Dynasty (Han shu “yi wen zhi”, compiled about a hundred years later. Scholars estimate that there were more than six hundred annotated entries in the Seven Epitomes arranged according to a carefully designed classification system. The title of the catalogue seems to suggest that the system consisted of seven epitomes (classes). However, the “Treatise” included only six classes (without “Ji lüe” or the Collective Epitome). Since the Seven Epitomes is no longer extant, scholars have not been able to reach a consensus regarding the nature and content of Ji lüe. One speculation that has been widely accepted is that Ji lüe was the collection of brief summaries now seen at the end of each of the six main classes and their divisions. Nevertheless, no one disputes that the classification in the Seven Epitomes was a six-fold scheme.

"There are six classes and divisions in the Seven Epitomes:

"1. Liu yi lüe (Epitome of the Six Arts) consisted of nine divisions, including one for each of the Six Classics (Odes, Documents, Rites, Music, Changes, and Spring and Autumn Annals), Analects of Confucius, Book of Filial Piety, and philology.

"2. Zhu zi lüe (Epitome of the Masters) consisted of ten divisions, including nine major affi liations of thought commonly known during the Warring States and an added affi liation