4406 entries. 94 themes. Last updated December 26, 2016.

Archaeology Timeline


2,800,000 BCE – 8,000 BCE

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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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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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 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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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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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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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 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 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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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 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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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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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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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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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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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 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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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 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 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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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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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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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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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 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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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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8,000 BCE – 1,000 BCE

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 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 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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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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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 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 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 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 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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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 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 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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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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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 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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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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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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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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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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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 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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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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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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1,000 BCE – 300 BCE

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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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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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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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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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

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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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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 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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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 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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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 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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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 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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300 BCE – 30 CE

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 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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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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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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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 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 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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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[hitfield] 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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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.

In June 2106 an international team of archaeologists, astronomers and historians published the results of 10 years of researches on the mechanism in the first 2016 issue of the journal Almagest. Most significantly they were able to read texts preserved in the remains of the mechanisms by innovative imaging techniques.

"This special edition of the Almagest journal investigates the surviving text inscriptions on the Antikythera Mechanism. The structure of the mechanism and the history of the reading of the inscriptions are briefly reviewed. The methods used by the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project to image the inscriptions - computed tomography and polynomial textual mapping - are outlined. The layout of the inscriptions is described, and the dimensions of the mechanism deduced to allow the space available for inscriptions to be estimated. General conventions and notations are provided for the presentation of the inscriptions.

" Table of Contents

The Inscriptions of the Antikythera Mechanism

 1. General Preface to the Publication of the InscriptionsAuthors: : M. Allen , W. Ambrisco , M. Anastasiouc, D. Bate , Y. Bitsakis, A. Crawleyf, M.G.Edmunds, , D. Gelb, R. Hadland, , P. Hockley, A. Jones, T. Malzbender, X. Moussas, A. Ramsey, J.H. Seiradakis, J. M. Steele, A.Tselikas, and M. Zafeiropoulou.

 2. Historical Background and General Observations

Author: A. Jones

 3. The Front Dial and Parapegma Inscriptions

Authors: Y. Bitsakis and A. Jones

 4. The Back Dial and Back Plate Inscriptions

Authors: M. Anastasiou, Y. Bitsakis, A. Jones, J. M. Steele, and M. Zafeiropoulou

 5. The Back Cover Inscription

Authors: Y. Bitsakis and A. Jones

6. The Front Cover Inscription

Authors: M. Anastasiou, Y. Bitsakis, A. Jones, X. Moussas, A.Tselikas, and M. Zafeiropoulou."



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The Oldest Surviving Manuscript of Latin Poetry Circa 50 BCE – 25 CE

The Roman poet, orator and politician Gaius Cornellus Gallus, prefect of Egypt from 30 to 26 BCE, enjoyed a high reputation among his contemporaries as a man of intellect, and was considered by the poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) to be the first of the elegiac poets of Rome. He is known to have written four books of elegies chiefly on his mistress Lycoris (a poetic name for Cytheris), a notorious actress, and he is thought to have been an inspiration for the Latin elegiac poet Sextus Propertius, and the Latin poet Albius Tibullus as well as Ovid. Yet his literary reputation is entirely based on heresay since until the late 20th century only one pentameter of his had survived.

In 1978 excavations at Qasr Ibrim yielded a papyrus fragment containing nine lines by Gallus. Qasr Ibrim was originally a major city perched on a cliff above the Nile, but the flooding of Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan High Dam transformed it into an island, which remains a major site for archaeological investigations. The Gallus papyrus is designated PQasrIbrîm inv. 78-3-11/ (L1/2). It consists of five fragments of papyrus which join to make a single piece 19.4 cm wide by 16.3 cm high. The papyrus was published with very extensive analysis by R. D. Anderson, P. J. Parsons and R.G.M. Nisbet in "Elegiacs by Gallus from Qasr Ibrîm," Journal of Roman Studies 69 (1979) 125-55, including color reproductions of portions of the papyrus.

Among some of their observations:

"At all events, we have here the remains of a Roman book, very probably of the reign of Augustus, quite possibly of the lifetime of Gallus himself. It is, with PHerc 817 (Carmen de bello Aegypticaco), by far our oldest MS of Latin poetry." (p. 128) [PHerc 817 is not later than 79 CE.]

"The text is written in a small formal upright bilinear bookhand. This is among the earliest examples (very possibly is the earliest example) of the style, which in many features anticipates the 'canonized' (that is, ossified) Rustic Capital of iv A. D. and after.

"The book can be dated from its archaeological context, more precisely (c.50-20 B.C.) or less precisely (c.50 B.C.- A.D. 25). It therefore provides one of the few fixed points in the early history of Latin literary scripts." (P. 135)

"Given the rarity of early Latin books, it is not easy to assess this one. The script is small and neat and deftly executed, less gawky than PHerc 817, less ostentatiously stylish than in PHer 1475; despite wide inconsistences of ornament, letter-shape and even ductus (which indeed may have been the norm before canonization set in), an elegant calligraphic performance. This, with wide margins, certainly suggests a good professional copy. On the other hand, the apex is not written, in contrast to some other early MSS, and a clear mistake is not corrected, although the employment of a corrector was—for scholars at least—an essential part of proper book production. This mixture of features may be a matter of date, of quality or of both. We cannot even tell whether the book was imported from Italy, or copied (under Gallus' prefecture) in Egypt." (p. 138).

"Scholars used to believe, in the absence of any surviving poetry by Gallus and on the basis of his high reputation among his contemporaries, that his poetical gifts were little short of those of Virgil. A nineteenth-century British classicist famously asked, 'What would we not barter of all the epics of empire for ten lines of Gallus?' The discoveries at Qasr Ibrim have now given us nine lines of Gallus. Coincidentally, one of them mentions Lycoris, ('saddened, Lycoris, by your wanton behaviour'), confirming their authorship. Possibly atypical, these surviving lines are of disappointing quality. They are written in a Latin more Lucretian and Catullan than Virgilian, and a certain roughness in the composition recalls Quintilian's judgment that Gallus's style was durior (rather harsh). Their sentiments are conventional, and show little trace of originality" (Wikipedia article on Cornelius Gallus, accessed 03-01-2014). 

According to Anderson, Parsons and Nisbet, PQasrIbrîm in. 78-3-11/1 (L1/2) (case 7, item 84) is preserved in the Cairo Museum.

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Humorous Inscriptions on Lead Sling-Bolts (Sling Bullets; Slingshot) Reflect a Roman War of Words 41 BCE

Sling-bolts, or bullets, engraved with a winged lightning-bolt on one side, and the words 'take that' on another. Circa fourth century BCE Athens. (View Larger)

Evidence of wide-ranging military literacy in the Roman Empire can be of a very ephemeral kind:

"In 41 BC during the civil war that followed the death of Julius Caesar, Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) trapped Lucius Antonius and Fulvia (the brother and the wife of Mark Antony) within the walls of the central Italian town of Perugia. A number of lead sling-bolts (roughly the size of hazelnuts), manufactured during the seige that followed, have been recovered in Perugia; they bear short inscriptions, which both sides carved into their moulds, so that the bolts [also called sling bullets or slingshot] could be used in a war of words, as well as to inflict death or injury. Some of these inscriptions are fairly tame, wishing victory to one or other side, or commenting on Lucius Antonius' receding hairline (which is also known from his coinage). Others are rather richer in flavour, like the one, fired from Octavian's side, which bluntly asks: Lucius Antonius the bald, and Fulvia, show us your arse [L. [uci] A[antoni] calve, Fulvia, culum pan[dite] ]. Whoever composed this refined piece of propaganda and had it cast into a sling-bolt certainly expected some of the soldery on the other side to be able to read" (Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization [2005] 157-58).

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The Portland Vase: Classical Connoisseurship, Influence, Destruction & Conservation 30 BCE – 25 CE

The Portland Vase. Shown is the first of two scenes. (View Larger)

A Roman cameo glass vase, the Portland Vase, created between 30 BCE and 25 CE, and known since the Renaissance, served as an inspiration to many glass and porcelain makers from about the beginning of the 18th century onwards. It is about 25 centimeters high and 56 in circumference, made of violet-blue glass, and surrounded with a single continuous white glass cameo depicting seven figures of humans and gods. "On the bottom was a cameo glass disc, also in blue and white, showing a head, presumed to be of Paris or Priam on the basis of the Phrygian cap it wears. This roundel clearly does not belong to the vase, and has been displayed separately since 1845. It may have been added to mend a break in antiquity or after, or the result of a conversion from an original amphora form (paralleled by a similar blue-glass cameo vessel from Pompeii) - it was definitely attached to the bottom from at least 1826."

"The meaning of the images on the vase is unclear and controversial. Interpretations of the portrayals have included that of a marine setting (due to the presence of a ketos or sea-snake), and of a marriage theme/context (i.e. as a wedding gift). Many scholars (even Charles Towneley) have concluded that the figures do not fit into a single iconographic set."

"Cameo-glass vessels were probably all made within about two generations as experiments when the blowing technique (discovered in about 50 BC) was still in its infancy. Recent research has shown that the Portland vase, like the majority of cameo-glass vessels, was made by the dip-overlay method, whereby an elongated bubble of glass was partially dipped into a crucible (fire-resistant container) of white glass, before the two were blown together. After cooling the white layer was cut away to form the design."

"The work towards making a 19th century copy proved to be incredibly painstaking, and based on this it is believed that the Portland Vase must have taken its original artisan no less than two years to produce. The cutting was probably performed by a skilled gem-cutter. It is believed that the cutter may have been Dioskourides, as gems cut by him of a similar period and signed by him."

Traditionally the vase was believed to have been discovered by Fabrizio Lazzaro in the sepulchre of the Emperor Alexander Severus, at Monte del Grano near Rome, and excavated some time around 1582.

The first documented reference to the vase is a 1601 letter from the French scholar Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc to the painter Peter Paul Rubens, where it is recorded as in the collection of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte in Italy. It then passed to the Barberini family collection (which also included sculptures such as the Barberini Faun and Barberini Apollo) where it remained for some two hundred years, being one of the treasures of Maffeo Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII.

In 1778 Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador in Naples, purchased it from James Byres. "Byres, a Scottish art dealer, had acquired it after it was sold by Donna Cornelia Barberini-Colonna, Princess of Palestrina. She had inherited the vase from the Barberini family. Hamilton brought it to England on his next leave, after the death of his first wife, Catherine. In 1784, with the assistance of his niece, Mary, he arranged a private sale to Margaret Cavendish-Harley, widow of William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland and so dowager Duchess of Portland. She passed it to her son William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland in 1786.

"The 3rd Duke loaned the original vase to Josiah Wedgwood (see below) and then to the British Museum for safe-keeping, at which point it was dubbed the "Portland Vase". It was deposited there permanently by the fourth Duke in 1810, after a friend of his broke its base. The original Roman vase has remained in the British Museum ever since 1810, apart from three years (1929-32) when William Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland put it up for sale at Christie's. It failed to reach its reserve. It was purchased by the Museum from William Cavendish-Bentinck, 7th Duke of Portland in 1945 with the aid of a bequest from James Rose Vallentin. . . .

"The 3rd Duke lent the vase to Josiah Wedgwood, who had already had it described to him as 'the finest production of Art that has been brought to England and seems to be the very apex of perfection to which you are endeavouring' by the sculptor John Flaxman. Wedgwood devoted four years of painstaking trials at duplicating the vase - not in glass but in jasperware. He had problems with his copies ranging from cracking and blistering (clearly visible on the example at the Victoria and Albert Museum) to the reliefs 'lifting' during the firing, and in 1786 he feared that he could never apply the Jasper relief thinly enough to match the glass original's subtlety and delicacy. He finally managed to perfect it in 1790, with the issue of the "first-edition" of copies (with some of this edition, including the V&A one, copying the cameo's delicacy by a combination of undercutting and shading the reliefs in grey), and it marks his last major achievement.

"Wedgwood put the first edition on private show between April and May 1790, with that exhibition proving so popular that visitor numbers had to be restricted by only printing 1900 tickets, before going on show in his public London showrooms. (One ticket to the private exhibition, illustrated by Samuel Alkin and printed with 'Admission to see Mr Wedgwood's copy of The Portland Vase, Greek Street, Soho, between 12 o'clock and 5', was bound into the Wedgwood catalogue on view in the Victoria and Albert Museum's British Galleries.) As well as the V&A copy (said to have come from the collection of Wedgwood's grandson, the naturalist Charles Darwin), others are held at the Fitzwilliam Museum (this is the copy sent by Wedgwood to Erasmus Darwin which his descendants loaned to the Museum in 1963 and later sold to them) and the Department of Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum.

"The Vase also inspired a 19th century competition to duplicate its cameo-work in glass, with Benjamin Richardson offering a £1000 prize to anyone who could achieve that feat. Taking three years, glass maker Philip Pargeter made a copy and John Northwood engraved it, to win the prize. This copy is in the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York.

Vandalism and Reconstruction

"On February 7, 1845, the vase was shattered by William Lloyd, who drunkenly threw a nearby sculpture on top of the case smashing both it and the vase. The vase was pieced together with fair success, though the restorer was unable to replace all of the pieces and thirty-seven small fragments were lost. It appears they had been put into a box and forgotten. In 1948, the keeper Bernard Ashmole received thirty-seven fragments in a box from Mr. Croker of Putney, who did not know what they were. In 1845 Mr. Doubleday, the first restorer, did not know where these fragments went. A colleague had taken these to Mr. Gabb, a box maker, who was asked to make a box with thirty seven compartments, one for each fragment. The colleague died, the box was never collected, Gabb died and his executrix Miss Revees asked Croker to ask the museum if they could identify them. The Duke's descendants finally sold the vase to the museum in 1945.

"By 1948, the restoration appeared aged and it was decided to restore the vase again, but the restorer was only successful in replacing three fragments. The adhesive from this weakened, by 1986 the joints rattled when the vase was gently tapped. The third and current reconstruction took place in 1987, when a new generation of conservators assessed the vase's condition during its appearance as the focal piece of an international exhibition of Roman glass and, at the conclusion of the exhibition, it was decided to go ahead with reconstruction and stabilisation. The treatment had scholarly attention and press coverage. The vase was photographed and drawn to record the position of fragments before dismantling; the BBC filmed the conservation process. All previous adhesives had failed, so to find one that would last, conservation scientists at the museum tested many adhesives for long term stability. Finally, an epoxy resin with excellent ageing properties was chosen. Reassembly of the vase was made more difficult as the edges of some fragments were found to have been filed down during the restorations. Nevertheless, all of the fragments were replaced except for a few small splinters. Areas that were still missing were gap-filled with a blue or white resin.

"The newly conserved Portland Vase was returned to display. Little sign of the original damage is visible and except for light cleaning, the vase should not require major conservation work for many years." (Wikipedia article on Portland Vase, accessed 11-10-2009)

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The Oldest Sculptural Group Found in France Circa 25 CE

The Pillar of the Boatmen (Pilier des nautes), a square-section stone bas-relief with depictions of several deities, both Gaulish and Roman. and dated by imperial inscription, is the oldest sculptural group ever found in France. It dates to about 25 CE.

The pillar, which originally stood in a temple in the Gallo-Roman civitas of Lutetia (Paris, France), is one of the earliest pieces of representational Gaulish art to carry a written inscription.

"It is composed of four blocks that were discovered in 1710, reused in a Late Roman wall found beneath Notre Dame. Their origin remains a mystery-however, all other Early Roman stone blocks discovered on the Île de la Cité came from monuments originally on the city's left bank.

"There have been a number of attempts to reassemble the blocks; the bas-reliefs and inscriptions on all four sides make it certain that they were arranged vertically. Not all of the pieces of the pillar have been found, but we may imagine that it stood on a base, and it is possible that the pillar was topped by some sort of statue.  

"This group is particularly noteworthy because it mixes images from the Greco-Roman pantheon, Celtic divinities and inscriptions highlighted in red ocher. The Boatmen's Pillar is one of the rare testaments to Gallic mythology that has come down to us" (http://www.paris.culture.fr/en/ow_pilier.htm, accessed 06-17-2011).

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30 CE – 500 CE

The Ostia Synagogue: the Oldest Synagogue in Europe 41 CE – 54 CE

Dating from the reign of the emperor Claudius (41-54 CE), the Ostia Synagogue located in ancient Ostia Antica, the seaport of Imperial Rome, is the oldest synagogue in Europe and one of the oldest synagogues in the world.

"There is a scholarly debate about the status of the synagogue building in the 1st century CE, with some maintaining that the building began as a house only later converted to use as a synagogue, and others arguing that it was in use as a synagogue from the 1st century.

"In its earliest form, the synagogue featured a main hall with benches along three walls; a propyleum or monumental gateway featuring four marble columns; and a triclineum or dining room with couches along three walls. There was a water well and basin near the entryway for ritual washings. The main door of the synagogue faces the southeast, towards Jerusalem.

"An aedicula, to serve as a Torah Ark added in the 4th century CE. A donor inscription implies that it replaced an earlier wooden platform donated in the 2nd century CE, which itself had been replaced by a newer Ark donated by one Mindus Faustus in the 3rd century CE" (Wikipedia article Ostia Synagogue, accessed 01-04-2014).

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Probably the Earliest Surviving Image of the Crucifixion: A Graffito Circa 50 CE – 250 CE

The Alexamenos Grafitto. (View Larger)

The earliest surviving image of the Crucifixion appears to be an anti-Christian graffito discovered in 1857 carved in plaster on a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome, now in the Palatine Antiquarium Museum. A Greek inscription, translated as "Alexamenos worshipping his God," is scratched on the graffito causing it to be known as the "Alexamenos Grafitto." The date of this graffito has been estimated as between 50 and 250 CE.

"It is assumed that the comment is sarcastic: in what appears to be an attitude of prayer, the smaller figure stands before a crucified man with the head of an ass. Contemporary Christian writers remark that pagans accuse Christians of worshiping an ass.  

"In its discussion of the graffito (under 'Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix'), the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that the graffiti artist may have seen actual Christian worship involving a crucifix, because the figure on the cross is wearing the perizoma, the short loincloth which is commonly used in Christian images of the crucifixion. (In actual crucifixions, the victim is naked)" (http://www.aug.edu/augusta/iconography/2003additions/alexamenosGraffito.html,accessed 10-14-2010).

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The Role of the "Ordinator" and "Sculptor" in Producing Roman Stone Inscriptions Circa 50 CE

"The making of a major Roman inscription was the business of highly efficient and professionalized guilds. The significant document in this connection is an advertisement in the form of an inscription of the first century A.D. This inscription (C.I.L. x. 7296) was in Palermo in 1885 . . . . In Latin and Greek, the advertiser says that in his premises titles were laid out and cut: Tutuli heic ordinantur et sculpuntur.  Here as M. Jean Mallon suggests, the verb ordinare must mean the advertiser had an 'ordinator' who undertook the responsibility for the mise-en-page of the text, and the designation of the type of letter, and it was he who traced on the stone the ordinatio of the text, which the sculptor exerted himself to follow with exactitude.

"There were two main types of capital, that made geometrically, and that drawn freehand. A plurality of tools was involved in the process of cutting both scripts, as may be seen from certain surviving inscriptions described by Hübner, Cagnat, and others, which include representations of the square chisel, compass, rule, curve, hammer and plumb. All this organization lay behind the inscriptions which then included the largest capitals the world had ever seen" (Morison, Politics and Script. . .Barker ed. [1972] 38).

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The Mensa Isiaca or Bembine Table of Isis Circa 50 CE

An elaborate bronze tablet with enamel and silver inlay mimicking Egyptian style, the Mensa Isiaca or Bembine Tablet or Bembine Table of Isis was probably created in Rome during the first century CE. It was discovered after the sack of Rome in 1527, soon after which Cardinal Pietro Bembo acquired it at an exhorbitant price.

"After Bembo's death in 1547 the Tablet was acquired by the House of Mantua, remaining in their museum until the capture of Mantua in 1630 by Ferdinand II's troops. The Tablet eventually came into the hands of Cardinal Pava, who presented it to the Duke of Savoy, who in turn presented it to the King of Sardinia. With the French conquest of Italy in 1797 the Tablet came to Paris, and Alexandre Lenoir wrote in 1809 that it was on exhibition in the Bibliothèque Nationale. It was later returned to Italy after peace was established. Karl Baedeker in his Guide to Northern Italy mentions that the tablet was a central exhibit in Gallery 2 in the Museum of Antiquities at Turin, where it is today."

In the seventeenth century the fame of the Bembine Tablet was such that Athanasius Kircher used it as the primary source for his attempt to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, reproducing an engraving of the table in his misconceived Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652-55).

The first scholarly study of the table was by the Padovan scholar and antiquarian Lorenzo Pignoria in Vetustissimae tabulae aeneae sacris Aegyptiorum simulachris coelatate accurata explicatio descriptio (Venice, 1605). This was the first detailed printed account of the table. In his description Pignoria compared the table to other known archeological objects, particularly Egyptian amulets and engraved gems. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who saw the table as a mystical relic from the dawn of creation, Pignoria concluded that the table was a Roman work of the Augustan period. The large folding plates of this edition were engraved by the Venetian engraver and publisher Giacomo Franco in 1600 to replicate the various parts of the Table, and were included, variously assembled and folded, in a handful of copies of the first edition, published by Franco in 1605. In later editions the large woodcuts were reproduced as copperplate engravings.

"Egypt held great appeal for the Romans, who eagerly absorbed the Isis cult. However, after, the battle of Actium (31 BC) and the deaths of Cleopatra and Mark Antony (30 BC), the cult was persecuted until later in the first century AD When the Emperor Caligula (AD 12-41), descendant of Augustus and of Mark Antony, built a great temple to Isis Campus Martius: the Iseum Campense. Also it was sometime in the first century AD When this remarkable table was produced, probably in Rome. The hieroglyphs are nonsense and the cult scenes are Egyptianising, but do not depict true Egyptian rites. Some of the bizarre attributes make it unclear Whether the figures are divinities or kings and queens, and Whether or not a god, instead of the king, is depicted making an offering to another god. Egyptian motifs Appear helter-skelter throughout. Nevertheless, the central figure in a chapel can be Recognised as Isis, suggesting That the table comes from a place where the Isis cult was Celebrated, possibly even the Iseum Campensis. The table is an important example of metallurgical knowledge in the ancient world, with its surface decoration of different colored precious (silver, gold, copper and gold with much) and base metals. Perhaps the most interesting color on the table is the black, usually incorrectly as described on niello. In fact, analysis on similarly inlaid black-Roman objects reveal That this was made by alloying copper and tin with small amounts of gold or silver (about 2%) and then 'pickling' the object in organic acid. Pliny (Natural. History) and Plutarch (Moralia) both described on a prestigious black bronze alloy, 'Corinthian bronze', Which contained gold and silver" (http://www.museoegizio.org/pages/isiaca_en.jsp, accessed 02-19-2013).

James Stevens Curl, Egyptomania. The Egyptian Revival: a Recurring Theme in the History of Taste  (1994) 57-58.

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Roman Inscriptions on Lead Pipes Were Made from Common Text Stamps 69 CE – 79 CE

Lead water pipes from the Roman Empire sometimes contain inscriptions on their surfaces. For example, a section of pipe from the reign of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79 CE) preserved in the Grosvenor Museum in Chester, England, and illustrated in the Wikipedia article on Roman lead pipe inscriptions, contains an inscription one meter long. The technology of creating these inscriptions was only recently understood.

"A recent investigation by the typesetter and linguist Herbert Brekle, however, concludes that all material evidence points to the use of common text stamps. Brekle describes the manufacturing method as follows:

"A stamp (punch) which has the text carved in high-relief and in right reading is pressed into the slightly moist sand or clay of the mould, thus producing a reverse image of the text (matrix) in bas-relief. After the molten lead is poured out in the mould, the inscription appears raised in high-relief on the surface of the lead pipe. This is today considered the most plausible hypothesis for the creation of such inscriptions (full text stamp).

"Brekle lists the following reasons for the employment of stamps and against that of movable type: for printing on lead sheets the way the Romans created them, it would be much more practical to use single stamp blocks than sets of individual letters, since the latter would be unstable and would have required a clamp or some similar mechanism to maintain the necessary cohesion. Neither impressions of such clamps nor of the fine lines between the individual letters typical for the use of movable type are discernible in the inscriptions. By contrast, the outer rim of one examined stamp block left a raised rectangular edge running around the inscription text, thus providing positive evidence for the use of such a printing device.

"In addition, evidence of the poor positioning of movable type, such as individual letters tilting to the right or left or deviating from the baseline – something which could have been expected to occur at least in a few extant specimens – is notably absent. In those inscriptions where the letters are not properly aligned, the entire text is blurred, which clearly points to the use of full text stamps. Finally, it needs to be considered that archaeological excavations have never unearthed ancient sets of movable type, whereas moulds with reversed inscription texts for stamp printing have indeed been recovered" (Wikipedia article on Roman lead pipe inscription, accessed 10-31-2012).

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Roman Portraits Celebrating Literacy Circa 75 CE

A fresco of a Pompein couple with stylus, wax tablets, and papyrus scroll, preserved in the Museuo Archeologico Nazionale. (View Larger)

A fresco of a Pompeian couple with stylus, wax tablets, and papyrus roll from about 75 CE, shows a man holding a papyrus scroll and a woman holding a stylus to her lips for writing on the wax tablets that she holds in her other hand. It is one of several surviving Roman portraits depicting the symbols of literacy.

"This couple, who did not come from the very highest ranks of the Pompeian aristocracy, probably chose to be depicted in this way as a mark of their status—they belonged to the ranks of those who were literate, and they wished to display the fact. In this sense, the portrait is evidence that literacy was far from universal in Roman Pompeii. But it is none the less an impressive fact, typical of the Roman world and difficult to parallel before modern times, that a provincial couple should have chosen to be painted in a way that very specifically celebrated a close relationship with the written word, on the part of both the man and his wife" (Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization [2005] 162-63, plate 7.10).

The fresco is preserved in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.

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Over 11,000 Wall Inscriptions Survived from Pompeii 79 CE

An inscription depicting a contemporaneous politician. (View Larger)

The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius over two days in 79 CE buried the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii in lava, destroying life, but preserving buildings in a remarkable way.

From the ruins of Pompeii over 11,000 inscriptions have been recorded—of many different kinds—carved, painted  or scratched into walls, formal, humorous, erotic, and scatological. They reflect wide use of writing and comparatively wide availability of literacy in Roman society.

"Some of them [the inscriptions] are very grand and formal, like the dedications of public buildings and the funerary epitaphs, similar to others found all over the Roman world. Inscriptions such as these are not necessarily good evidence of widespread literacy. The enormous numbers that were produced in Roman times could reflect a fashion for this particular medium of display, rather than a dramatic spread of the ability to read and write.

"Other Pompeian inscriptions are perhaps more telling, because they display a desire to cummunicate in a less formal and more ephemeral way with fellow citizens. Walls on the main streets of Pompeii are often decorated with painted messages, whose regular script and layout reveal the work of professional sign-writers. Some are advertisements for events such as games in the amphitheatre; others are endoresements of candiates for civic office, by individuals and groups within the city. . . .

"Graffiti offer even more striking evidence of the spread and use of writing in Pompeian society. These are found all over the city, scratched into stone or plaster by townspeople with time on their hands and a message to convey to future idlers. . . .

"Even though we cannot estimate the proportion of Pompeians who were literate (was it 30 per cent, or more, or perhaps on 10 per cent ?) we can say with confidence that writing was an essential, and a day-to-day part of the city's life" (Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization [2005] 153-54, & 155-57).

Because graffiti such as those preserved in Pompeii were intended to be widely shared some have called these evidence of early social media. 

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Discoveries of Greek & Roman Papyri in the Library of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, the Only Library Preserved Intact from Graeco-Roman Times 79 CE – 2015

In 79 CE the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed the Roman coastal city of Herculaneum together with Pompeii and Stabiae. Among the vast ruins preserved in lava was the library of papyrus rolls in the so-called “Villa of the Papyri” at Herculaneum— a magnificent home thought to have been built by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. Discovery of this library in 1752, nearly seventeen centuries after the eruption, was the first and only discovery of ancient papyri in Europe.

On October 19, 1752 Neopolitan "cavamonti", who had been digging at Herculaneum since 1738 by order of Charles III of Spain (who through conquest was also Charles VII of Naples), excavated the first papyrus rolls from a large suburban villa. Over the next two years several hundred papyrus rolls were excavated from the site, and the villa from which they were excavated became known as the Villa dei Papiri (Villa of the Papyri) or Villa dei Pisoni, after its original owner. This library was the only library that survived "intact" since Graeco-Roman times.

Discovery of the Herculaneum papyri was a landmark not only in archaeology, and in the recovery of classical texts, but also in book history because until the discovery of papyrus rolls at Herculaneum no one in early modern Europe had seen the actual roll form of books from the ancient world, or even a fragment written on papyrus. When Mabillon described papyri in his De re diplomatica (1681) he had not seen an actual example.

Papyrus rolls did not survive in humid environments, and for this reason information on rolls that might have survived into the early Middle Ages had either been lost through the decay of the rolls, or had been copied onto parchment codices for preservation before the rolls were lost or discarded. By about 1200, when paper was introduced into Europe, the precise nature of ancient papyrus as a writing surface had been for the most part forgotten. Without a medieval Latin word for paper, which was new to Europeans, scholars reapplied the old word papyrus to paper. Papyrus remained the Latin word for paper until the early seventeenth century. This double usage of the word, as Christopher de Hamel pointed out, sometimes led scholars to confuse the comparatively modern material (paper) with the material referred to by ancient Christian writers, who wrote on papyrus. 

The papyrus rolls discovered at Herculaneum had been carbonized by lava, and all were deformed to some extent because of the weight of the lava that had covered them over the centuries. Paradoxically, the carbonization process had preserved the rolls and their content, but made unrolling them and reading them exceptionally difficult. In spite of the state in which the papyrus rolls were found they were examples of the Roman papyrus roll and the form in which the rolls were stored in a Roman library. Besides the libary at the Villa of the Papyri,  frescos also discovered at Herculaneum showed how the Roman books were kept.

The first account of the Herculaneum papyri to reach the scientific world was a brief mention in a letter from the artist, sculptor and art restorer Camillo Paderni, director of the Museum Herculanense, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.  The first of these, an extract of a letter to Richard Mead, was written on November 18, 1752, only a month after the discovery, and read to the Royal Society on February 8, 1753. This letter contained a brief extract of what was then the earliest surviving manuscript of Latin poetry, P.Herc 817. In this letter Paderni reported:

"it is not a month ago [specifically October 19, 1752] that there have been found many volumes of papyrus, but turn'd to a sort of charcoal, so brittle, that, being touched, it falls readily into ashes. Nevertheless, by his Majesty's orders, I have made many trials to open them, butt all to no purpose, excepting some words which I have picked out intire, where they are divers bits, by which it appears in what manner the whole was written. The form of the characters, made with very black tincture, that overcomes the darkness of the charcoal. . . ."

Paderni's letter contained portions of two continguous hexameters from P.Herc.817P.Herc. 817, containing the text of Carmen de bello actiaco, sometimes known as the Carmen de Bello Aegyptiaco, was the most substantial Latin papyrus discovered in 1752 in the library of the Villa dei Papiri. Written in Italy between 31 BCE, the date of the battle of Actium, and 79 CE, when Herculaneum was destroyed, this is one of the two earliest manuscripts of Latin poetry, the other being the slightly earlier fragment of the poetry of Gaius Cornellus Gallus discovered in 1978 at Qasr Ibrim, Egypt. The twenty-three papyrus fragments of the poem Carmen de Bello Actiaco preserved in Naples at the Biblioteca Nazionale, and in Paris at the Louvre, represent the earliest surviving dated examples of rustic capitals

"Latin Rustic probably began its career as a rationalized version of official and popular writing, fused with a loosening version of the Square Capitals, the whole written with a pen cut specially for speed. It secured a measure of public approval in Rome during or before the first century B.C., though the evidence is slight" (Stanley Morison, Politics and Script . . . Barker ed. [1972] 43; see also 41-43, and pl. 34.

Two other letters by Paderni were also published in Philosophical Transactions. His second letter, to Thomas Hollis, was dated April 27, 1754 and read to the Royal Society on June 13, 1754, reported that excavators had discovered an entire library:

"In one of these buildings there has been found an entire library, compos'd of volumes of the Egyptian Papyrus, of which there have been taken out about 250; and the place is not yet clear'd or emptied, it having been deem'd necessary to erect props first, to keep the earth, which lies above it, from falling in upon it. These volumes of Papyrus consist of Latin, and Greek manuscripts, but from their brittleness, occasion'd by the fire and time, it is not possible to unroll them, they being now decay'd and rotten. His majesty however has done his part; having sent for a certain monk from Rome [Padre Antonio Piaggio], who belong'd to the Vatican library; in hopes, by his means, to have unfolded them; but hitherto in vain.

'Your servant Paderni alone can shew some fragments of several lines, and more than this he is much afraid will never been seen. Of these there are many in my custody, which I suppose you will have the pleasure of observing in the intended catalogue. There have been found those small tables [i.e. wax tablets] which they are cover'd with what was called the palimpseston, then wrote on them with the stylus; but all these are become a kind of cinder, and have likewise suffer'd by the damps; from both which circumstances they are now so tender, that they break with the touch."

Paderni's third letter, also to Hollis, was dated October 18, 1754 and read to the Royal Society on December 12, 1754. In this letter he explained what he meant by a library, as up to this time no one in Europe had a clear idea of what the interior of an ancient Roman library would look like:

"As yet we have only entered into one room, the floor of which is formed of mosaic work, not unelegant. It appears to have been a library, adorned with presses, inlaid with different sorts of wood, disposed in rows; at the top of which were cornices, as in our own times. I was buried in this spot for more than twelve days, to carry off the volumes found there; many of which were so perished, that it was impossible to remove them. Those, which I took away, amounted to the number of three hundred thirty-seven, all of them at present incapable of being opened. These are all written in Greek characters. While I was busy in this work, I observed a large bundle, which, from the size, I imagined must contain more than a single volume. I tried with the utmost care to get it out, but could not, from the damp and weight of it. However I perceived, that it consisted, of about eighteen volumes, each of which was in length a palm and three Neapolitan inches; being the longest hitherto discovered. They were wrapped about with the bark of a tree, and covered at each end with a piece of wood. All these were written in Latin, as appears by a few words, which broke off from them. I was in hopes to have got something out of them, but they are in a worse condition than the Greek. From the latter the public will see some intire columns, having myself had the good fortune to extract two, and many other fine fragments. Of all these an account is drawing up, which will be published together with the other Greek characters, now engraving on copper-plates and afterwards make separate work by themselves. . . At present the monk, who was sent for from Rome, to try to open the former manuscripts, has begun to give us some hopes in respect to one of them. Those which I have opened, are philosophical tracts the subjects of which are known to me; but I am not liberty to be more explicit. When they are published they are to be immediately conveyed to you. That first papyri, of which I formerly acquainted you, were in a separate room, adjoining to the beforementioned palace." 

Because of the difficulty in reading the carbonized documents, the first publication of the texts of Herculaneum papyri occurred forty years after their discovery, in 1793 with the issue of the first volume of Herculanensium voluminum quae supersunt in Naples. Because of the fragility of the papyrus burned and preserved in lava, Paderni did not attempt to unroll P.Herc. 817  until 1805, at which time apographs were drawn by Carlo Orazi. The first coherent publication of its text appeared in the second volume of Herculanensium Voluminum (Naples, 1809) without facsimiles or reproductions of the papyrus. Orazi's apographs were taken to Palermo before the French occupation of Naples in 1806, but facsimiles of P.Herc. 817 were not published until nearly 80 years later. Efforts to read the remainder of the papyri proceeded very gradually; this series was completed in 11 volumes in 1855. Two hundred years after their discovery many of the Herculaneum papyri remained illegible to scholars, even after sophisticated imaging techniques were applied.

In 1800 the Prince of Wales (later George IV) decided to support the unrolling and deciphering of the papyri found at Herculaneum in 1752, and sent his chaplain in ordinary John Hayter to Naples, who was an expert on antiquities, to take charge of the "Officina" and direct the work. By this time, perhaps out of appropriate caution, or because of the difficulty involved, only 18 of the approximately 1800 manuscripts found in the Villa dei Papiri had been unrolled. It is thought that Padierni opened only the rolls that he thought were most promising from the textual standpoint.

Discussing the background of the project, in 1800 Hayter issued a few copies of a 22-page pamphlet entitled the Herculanean and Pompeian Manuscripts. This was written in the form of a letter to the Prince of Wales. By this time the papyri had been moved to Palermo. Hayter began operations in 1802 at Portici, near Naples. He had charge of the papyri from 1802 to 1806. In four years about two hundred rolls were opened, and nearly one hundred copied in lead-pencil facsimiles under Hayter's superintendence.

In 1802 Ferdinand IV, King of Naples and the Two Sicilies, in a diplomatic move, offered six rolls of Herculaneum papyrus as a gift to First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. Eager to discover the contents of these artefacts — some of the most impressive examples — Bonaparte handed them over to the Institut de France in Paris. There the mathematician and keen archaeologist Gaspard Monge, and Vivant Denon, the "founder" of the Louvre, were put in charge of unrolling the rolls. When the French invaded southern Italy in 1806, Hayter followed King Ferdnand into exile in Palermo, Sicily, and the original papyri fell into the hands of the French. The lead-pencil facsimiles also passed out of Hayter's hands, but were recovered from the Neapolitan authorities through the influence of William Drummond of Logiealmond, the British minister. Between 1807 and 1808 copperplates were incised at Palermo under Hayter's direction, and shipped to England where, instead of being published as Hayter had planned, they were archived at Oxford's Bodleian Library. Meanwhile, during the last illness of George III, the Prince of Wales became the Prince Regent, and would ascend to the throne in 1820 at the death of his father. In 1811 Hayter issued a rather grand volume on the project, printed in unusually large type, and illustrated with fine color mezzotint plates, entitled, A Report upon the Herculaneum Manuscripts, in a Second Letter, Addressed, by Permission to his Royal Highness the Prince Regent. The volume discusses Hayter's experience with the papyri in detail, and includes some beautiful color images of the papyrus plant, but no reproductions of papyri. It also reprints the text of Hayter's first (1800) letter to the Prince. My copy is bound in the original pink boards with its title printed in large boldface letters on the upper cover. Hayter's series of reproductions of P.Herc 817 and other papyri were mostly not published until 1885, in an appendix to Fragmenta Herculanensia: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oxford Copies of the Herculanean Rolls by Walter Scott. The first photographs of any of the fragments were published by Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores III (1938) 385.

In 1816 some of the Herculaneum papyrus fragments which had been brought to Paris and London were entrusted to the German polymath and archaeologist Friedrich Carl Sickler who attempted to unroll them, but in the process destroyed several. As a record of this experience Sickler published a pamphlet entitled Herculaneum Rolls. Correspondence Relative to a Proposition Made by Dr. Sickler of Hildberghausen Relative to Their Development (London, 1817).

Following this the chemist Sir Humphrey Davy travelled to the museum at Naples, reported on the state of the papyri found there, and attempted to unroll some of them in Naples, and to use chlorine to unroll some of those in London. Even though he employed scientific care some destruction occurred. Davy published his results as "Some Observations and Experiments on the Papyri Found at Herculaneum," Philosophical Transactions, III (1821) 191-208, plates XI-XVIII, include some of Hayter's reproductions published for the first time. These were probably the earliest reproductions of papyrus fragments published in England. When historian of libraries Edward Edwards published his Memoirs of Libraries I (1859) he was able to get permission from the Royal Society to reproduce Davy's plates from the original copperplates which were still preserved. These he reproduced in his account of Davy's work facing facing p. 72.


In 1999 researchers at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, began to apply multispectral imaging, a technique originally designed for the study of extraterrestrial planetary surfaces, to the study of ancient documents that were difficult to read. One of the successes of this project was the revelation of the texts of the documents from Herculaneum.

♦ On December 19, 2013 BBC News published an article by Robin Banerji entitled Unlocking the scrolls of HerculaneumThis contained the best illustrated summary that I had seen to date of the history of the problems in unrolling and deciphering the Herculaneum papyri. (Thanks to my friend William P. Watson for directing my attention to this, and the following paper.)

♦ On January 20, 2015 in an article entitled X-ray technique 'reads' burnt Vesuvius scroll Jonathan Webb reported on bbc.com that a 3D X-ray imagining technique sometimes used in breast scans had been successful in reading some of the Herculaneum papyri without unrolling them. Webb's article summarized a paper by Vito Mocella and colleagues: "Revealing letters in rolled Herculaeum papyri by X-ray phase-contrast imaging," Nature Comunications, January 20, 2015. In the United States The New York Times published an equally interesting article by Nicholas Wade, with different illustrations entitled "Unlocking Scrolls Preserved in Eruption of Vesuvius, Using X-Ray Beams." On January 21, 2015 further information and a photograph of the researchers was available from artdaily.org at this link.


The most useful modern study of the library is David Sider's The Library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum (2005).

The classic study of the excavation of Herculaneum through 1908, which impressed upon its readers the necessity for further excavation, was Waldstein & Shoobridge, Herculaneum Past Present and Future (1908). This includes a very useful historical bibliography. In 2011 Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, issued the most beautiful large-format full color book entitled Herculaneum, Past and Future. The volume included hundreds of color photographs, numerous full color maps and charts, and several double-foldout 360 degree views. Reading this book truly gives one the feeling of being in the ancient place.

 (This entry was last revised on 01-21-2015.)

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The Oldest Surviving Handwritten Documents in Britain Circa 100 CE

Vindolanda Tablet 309, an inventory of wooden goods dispatched dispatched by and to civilians working for the military. (View Larger, with translation.)

The Vindolanda Writing Tablets, excavated from the Roman fort at Vindolanda, one of the main military posts on the Northern frontier of Britain before the building of Hadrian's Wall, were written in carbon ink on wafer-thin slices of wood around 100 CE. The tablets were excavated in 1973 near the modern village of Bardon Mill from waterlogged conditions in rubbish deposits in and around the commanding officer's residence. Experts have identified the handwriting of hundreds of different people in these documents. They confirm that the officers of Vindolanda were most certainly literate, and that some soldiers in the ranks may also have been literate.

"These, and hundreds of other fragments which have come to light in subsequent excavations, are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain.

"Most of the tablets are official military documents relating to the auxiliary units stationed at the fort. However, others are private letters sent to or written by the serving soldiers. The content is fascinating, giving us a remarkable insight into the working and private lives of the Roman garrison. They also display a great variety of individual handwriting, which adds to our knowledge of Roman cursive writing around AD 100.

"The tablets are not made of wood and wax, previously thought to be the most popular medium for writing in the Roman world apart from papyrus. Instead they are wafer thin slices of wood, written on with carbon ink and quill-type pens. Even after specialised conservation the exacavated tablets are fragile and require a carefully controlled environment" (British Museum, Our Top Ten British Treasures, accessed 05-10-2009).

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The Most Famous Example of Roman Square Capitals 113 CE

Completion of the inscription incised at the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome occurred in 113 CE. The inscription, which was set at the top of the column's 15-foot  (4.5 m) pedestal, was defaced in the 9th or 10th century to accomodate a V-shaped gable placed over a door.

“This is perhaps the most famous example of Roman square capitals, a script often used for stone monuments, and less often for manuscript writing. As it was meant to be read from below, the bottom letters are slightly smaller than the top letters, to give proper perspective. Some, but not all, word divisions are marked with a dot, and many of the words, especially the titles, are abbreviated. In the inscription, numerals are marked with a titulus, a bar across the top of the letters” (Wikipedia article on Trajan's Column, accessed 08-09-2009).

According to Stan Knight, Roman inscriptions were usually completed with a layer of minium (red lead) painted in the incised letters. Minium can range in color from light to vivid red and may contain brown to yellow tints, such as burnt sienna. Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance (2009) A2 (pp. 16-17, with excellent images)

♦ After the invention of printing by movable type in Europe in the mid-15th century, Roman letters from stone inscriptions became a major source of inspiration for punch-cutters and type designers. The fifteenth century Roman typeface designed by Nicolas Jenson, and the Roman typeface commissioned by Aldus Manutius and cut by Francesco Griffo, both of which are known as Antiqua, or "Venetian oldstyle", have been called syntheses of Roman stone inscriptions and Carolingian minuscule.

(This entry was last revised on 08-18-2014.)


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The Library of Celsus at Ephesus Circa 115 CE – 125 CE

The library of Celsus was completed circa 115-125 CE in Ephesus, Anatolia in memory of Roman Senator Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus. A Greek Roman citizen who became a Roman consul in 92 and governor of Asia from 105-107, Celsus bequeathed a large sum of money for construction of the library, and for its stock of books. The facility, which incorporated Greek and Roman architectural elements, was designed both as a crypt containing Celsus's sarcophagus and as sepulchral monument. It was also designed to hold 12,000 book rolls in an expansive reading room.

The interior of the library and all its books were destroyed in 262 when a devastating earthquake struck the city. Thus we have no record of the contents of the library, as is the case for all libraries of the period. The front fascade of the library was restored during the 1960s and 1970s, and now serves as a model of Roman public architecture.

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The Finest Surviving Example of Roman Monumental Lettering in Britain 130 CE

Fragments of a sandstone inscription from the entrance to the Forum Viroconium Cornoviorum, part of a Roman settlement at present-day Wroxeter, near Shrewsbury, England, were discovered by archaeologist Donald Atkinson during his excavation of the Forum in 1923-24. The inscription records that the Forum was erected by the Cornovii community during the fourteenth year of the reign of the Emperior Hadrian. The exceptional quality of the writing has been used by some as evidence that Hadrian visited the city during his brief visit to Britain in 121-22 CE; it was argued that only a mason travelling in Hadrian's entourage would have been able to carve to such a high standard. This argument has since been disputed.

The inscription, which measures 107 x 345 cm, is preserved in Rowley's House Museum, Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery, Shrewsbury.

"Athough damaged, it is the largest and undoubtedly the finest surviving example of Roman monumental lettering in Britain" (Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance (2009) A4 (pp. 20-21, with excellent images).

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In the "Cave of Letters" Discovery of Papyri Recording Israel's Second Century Revolt Against Roman Rule 132 CE – 135 CE

In 1953 the "Cave of Letters" was discovered by Bedouin of the Ta`amireh tribe in the desert near the border of Israel and Jordan on the west shore of the Dead Sea. The cave is in a ravine called the Nahal Hever, about 20 km south of the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. This cave eventually yielded papyri recording Israel's second century revolt against Roman rule, as well as a unique cache of business documents of, Babatha, an upper middle class woman in Israel at the time.

The location came to the attention of Israeli authorities after the sale in 1953 of some letters written by Simon Bar-Kokhba, the Jewish leader of the Bar Kokhba Revolt against the Roman Empire in 132 CE. These letters were found in the caves of a canyon called Wadi Murraba. At the time the Israel Department of Antiquities conducted a preliminary exploration, but did not take further action until more documents from the Bar-Kokhba Revolt were sold to scholars in Jordan. On March 23, 1960 four groups of scientists and qualified experts began their exploration of the desert region with the assistance of the Israeli Defense Forces. Former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces and archaeologist Yigael Yadin led a team that found the "Cave of Letters."

This cave included very significant finds of artifacts and textiles, including a complete set of clothes worn by Jews of the 1st and 2nd century. Letters found in the cave included very detailed letters and orders by Simon bar Kokhba. In a second search of the cave in 1961 artifacts and objects of everyday living were found in a hidden crevice, along with a bundle of documents and six reeds containing papyri rolled inside them. Discovered in a leather pouch along with two other documents, these documents record various land transactions, some being dealt with by Bar-Kokhba’s administrators during his first year as President of Israel. Another one described the terms in which the lands of En-gedi, an oasis in Israel, would be leased. Another larger bundle of documents would be known as Barbatha's (Barbata's) cache. This group is of particular significance for the light it sheds on the business life and legal rights of an upper middle class Jewish woman at the time. 

"Babatha was a Jewish woman who lived in the port town of Maoza in modern-day Jordan at beginning of the 2nd century CE. . . . The documents found include such legal contracts concerning marriage, property transfers, and guardianship. These documents, ranging from CE 96 to 134, depict a vivid picture of life for an upper-middle class Jewish woman during that time. They also provide an example of the Roman bureaucracy and legal system under which she lived.

"Babatha was born in approximately 104 CE in Maoza. Most likely the only child or the eldest daughter, she inherited her father’s date palm orchard upon her parents’ deaths. By 124 CE, she had been married and widowed with a young son, Jesus. She was remarried by 125 CE to Judah, owner of three date palm orchards in Ein Gedi, who had another wife and teenage daughter. It is uncertain whether Babatha lived in the same home as the first wife or if Judah traveled between two separate households, as polygamy was still allowed in the Jewish community.

"The documents concerning this marriage offer insight to her status in the relationship. In their marriage contract, Judah’s debts become part of her liability, indicating a financial equality. In 128 CE, a legal document shows that Judah took a loan without interest from Babatha, showing that she had control of her own money despite the union. Upon Judah’s death in 130 CE, she seized his estates in Ein Gedi as a guarantee against his debts which she had covered as stated in the marriage contract.

"Another document of importance concerns the guardianship of Babatha’s son. In 125 CE, Babatha brought a suit to court against the appointed guardians of her orphaned son, citing their insufficient disbursement of funds. The document contains Babatha’s petition that full guardianship responsibility of her son and his property be transferred to her control.

"The latest documents discovered in the pouch concern a summons to appear in an Ein Gedi court as Judah’s first wife, Miriam, had brought a dispute against Babatha regarding their late husband’s property. Therefore, it is assumed that Babatha was near Ein Gedi in 132 CE, placing her in the midst of the Bar Kokhba's revolt. It is likely that Babatha fled with Miriam and her family from the imminent violence of the revolt. Because the documents were never retrieved and because twenty skeletal remains were found nearby, historians have suggested that Babatha perished while taking refuge in the cave" (Wikipedia article on Babatha, accessed 02-23-2014).

"Many of the papyri in the Babatha archive, including the marriage contract . . .were what are called 'double documents.' The text would be written twice on the same papyrus, with one copy written about the other. The upper (inner) portion of the papyrus [roll], with the first copy, was rolled up and fastened with string to protect the text and prevent tampering with it. The second copy, on the lower (outer) portion [of the roll], would be accessible, and its veracity could be checked, if necessary by comparison with the upper text. 'Double documents' are rare in Egypt. . . but evidently more common further east, as they are found also at Dura Europos . . . " (Grubbs, Women and the Law in the Roman Empire: A Sourcebook. . . . [2002] 131).

The story of the discovery of the the "Cave of the Letters" was vividly retold in a fine illustrated book by Yigael Yadin entitled, Bar-Kokhba. The rediscovery of the legendary hero of the second Jewish Revolt against Rome (1971). In his book Yadin reproduced the letters from Simon Bar-Kokhba that were discovered, along with the large number of other artifacts. In chapter 16 he described the life and trials of Babtha (Babata) based on her documents. The chapter includes excellent photographs of the documents showing how the original bundle of documents looked, how the documents looked when the bundle was opened, and the problems of opening and reading the individual documents. 

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The "Hawara Homer" Circa 150 CE

Recto of papyrus containing lines from Homer's Illiad, found at Hawara. (View Larger)

The ten frames of the so-called "Hawara Homer," preserved at the Bodleian Library (MS. Gr. class. a. 1 [P]) and dated about 150 CE, were discovered lying rolled up under the head of a mummified woman by W. M. Flinders Petrie in the cemetery at Hawara, Egypt.

"William Flinders Petrie excavated at Hawara in 1888. After working in Medinet el-Fayum (Arsinoe) and Biahmu, he moved on to the site south of Arsinoe and took the 60 workers he had already employed at the former sites with him. The results of his excavations at Hawara were published in 1889 in his "Hawara, Biahmu, and Arsinoe". The papyrological material said to have been found at Hawara was studied by Prof. Sayce and published on pages 24 to 37 of that volume. Sayce gave a general description of the great papyrus roll which contains parts of books 1 and 2 of the Iliad (the "Hawara Homer"), emphasizing the importance of the variants, and edited the texts of the most complete documents, some of them in a very preliminary way.

"J. G. Milne undertook a new edition of 37 of these papyri in the Archiv für Papyrusforschung 5, 1913, 378-397. He did not work on the Hawara Homer but concentrated on the smaller literary texts and gave a proper publication of some more documents. The texts which were not reconsidered in Milne's publication were reprinted in Sammelbuch I (nos. 5220, 5223, 5224).

"When Flinders Petrie brought his finds back to England, the material was divided between several institutions. The Hawara Homer was given to the Bodleian Library in Oxford (where it still is today), while all the other papyrological material stayed in London and was given to the Department of Egyptology at University College London. In 1948, the young professor of Papyrology, Eric Turner received permission from the then Professor of Egyptology, J. Czerny, to take the Hawara papyri to the Department of Greek and Latin at UCL and to keep them there in his custody. A letter from 16 June 1949 confirms the transfer of the papyri. They were kept in a secret place in the department for more than 50 years.

"As usual, Flinders Petrie did not give precise indications, as to where the papyri were found on the site. He just mentions that the region north of the pyramid "was the usual place for burials in the early Roman period , when gilt cartonnage busts were used. Papyri from the Ist and IInd cent. AD are also usual in the soil here, and for some way north" (p. 8, no. 11; cf. the map on plate XXV in the book)" (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/GrandLatMisc/hawara/, accessed 04-27-2014.)

"The script is a fine rounded capital hand of large size. In the left-hand margin of frame 10 there are some critical signs of the type developed by the Alexandrian scholars. There are also some brief scholia in which Aristarchus (216-144 B.C.), the greatest of the Hellenistic critics, is named." (Hunt, R.W., The Survival of the Classics, Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1975, No. 3).

Illustrated in Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 3rd ed., 1991, plate 1.

(This entry was last revised on 04-27-2014.)

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The Forma Urbis Romae, Monumental Stone Map of Ancient Rome 203 CE – 211 CE

A reconstruction of a portion of the Forma Urbis Romae, showing a section of the Theater of Pompey. (View Larger)

The Forma Urbis Romae, or Severan Marble Plan, a huge map of ancient Rome, was created under emperor Septimius Severus between 203 and 211 CE, and originally measured 18.10 meters (60ft) high by 13 meters (43ft) wide, carved in 150 marble slabs mounted on an interior wall of the Templum Pacis. Only about 10-15% of the map survives, broken into 1,186 pieces. Of these, 712 fragments have been catalogued, many composed of several pieces, but in 1996 less than 50 of the fragments had been positively identified and located. What is left of the map is preserved in the Palazzo dei Conservatori of the Capitoline Museums.

"Created at a scale of approximately 1 to 240, the map was detailed enough to show the floor plans of nearly every temple, bath, and insula in the central Roman city. The boundaries of the plan were decided based on the available space on the marble, instead of by geographical or political borders as modern maps usually are.

"The Plan was gradually destroyed during the Middle Ages, with the marble stones being used as building materials or for making lime. In 1562, the young antiquarian sculptor Giovanni Antonio Dosio excavated fragments of the Forma Urbis from a site near the Church of SS. Cosma e Damiano, under the direction of the humanist condottiere Torquato Conti, who had purchased excavation rights from the canons of the church. Conti made a gift of the recovered fragments to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who entrusted them to his librarian Onofrio Panvinio and his antiquarian Fulvio Orsini. Little interest seems to have been elicited by the marble shards" (Wikipedia article on Forma Urbis Romae, accessed 12-23-2009).

♦ In 1999 Marc Levoy and members of his team at Stanford University began the Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project as a way of solving the jigsaw puzzle of the 1,186 marble fragments and 87 fragments known only from Renaissance drawings:

"First, we digitized the shape and surface of every known fragment of the Severan Marble Plan using laser range scanners and digital color cameras; the raw data collected consists of 8 billion polygons and 6 thousand color images, occupying 40 gigabytes. These range and color data have been assembled into a set of 3D computer models and high-resolution photographs - one for each of the 1,186 marble fragments. Second, this data has served in the development of fragment matching algorithms; to date, these have resulted in over a dozen highly probable, new matches. Third, we have gathered the Project's 3D models and color photographs into a relational database and supported them with archaeological documentation and an up-to-date scholarly apparatus for each fragment. This database is intended to be a public, web-based, research and study tool for scholars, students and interested members of the general public alike. Fourth, these digital and archaeological data, and their availability in a hypertext format, have the potential to broaden the scope and type of research done on this ancient map by facilitating a range of typological, representational and urbanistic analyses of the map, some of which are proposed here. In these several ways, we hope that this Project will contribute to new ways of imaging Rome" (http://graphics.stanford.edu/papers/forma-williams/, accessed 12-23-2009).

Nancy Thomson de Grummond, ed., An Encyclopedia of the History of Classical Archaeology I (1996)  451.

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The Earliest Christian House Church, With the Most Ancient Christian Paintings Circa 232 CE

Dura-Europos church.

The Dura-Europos church, located in Dura-Europos in Syria about 232, is the earliest identified Christian house church and one of the earliest surviving Christian churches. For the first three centuries of the church, known as Early Christianity, Christians typically met in homes because of intermittent persecution before Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313 proclaimed religious toleration throughout the Roman Empire. At many points in subsequent history, various Christian groups worshipped in homes, often due to persecution by the state church or the civil government.

The surviving frescoes in the baptistry room of the Dura-Europos church may be the most ancient Christian paintings.

"We can see the "Good Shepherd" (this iconography had a very long history in the Classical world), the "Healing of the paralytic" and "Christ and Peter walking on the water". These are considered the earliest depictions of Jesus Christ. A much larger fresco depicts three women (the third mostly lost) approaching a large sarcophagus. This most likely depicts the three Marys visiting Christ's tomb. The name Salome was painted near one of the women, who is often considered the same person as Mary Mother of James. There were also frescoes of Adam and Eve as well as David and Goliath. The frescoes clearly followed the Hellenistic Jewish iconographic tradition, but they are more crudely done than the paintings of the nearby Dura-Europos synagogue " (Wikipedia article on Dura-Europos church, accessed 12-24-2011).

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Possibly the Earliest Record of Rabbinic Texts & the Earliest Continuous Cycle of Biblical Narrative Paintings 244 CE – 256 CE

A Frescoe found in Dura Europos depicting scenes from the Book of Ester. (View Larger)


The Dura Europos synagogue, discovered in eastern Syria in 1932, was dated from an Aramaic inscription to 244. It is unique in that it was preserved virtually intact. It was preserved, ironically, when it had to be infilled with earth to strengthen the city's fortifications against a Sassanian assault in 256. The synagogue contains a forecourt and house of assembly with frescoed walls depicting people and animals, and a Torah shrine in the western wall facing Jerusalem. The synagogue paintings, the earliest continuous surviving biblical narrative cycle, are conserved at Damascus.

"The painted scenes of stories include Moses receiving the Law, Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, and many others. It is thought that the Synagogue was used in part as an instructional display to educate and teach the history and laws of the religion. Some think that this synagogue was painted in order to compete with the many other religions practiced in Dura Europos. The large-scale pictorial art in the synagogue helps to dispel narrow interpretations of historically prohibited visual images" (Wikipedia article on Dura-Europos synagogue, accessed 12-10-2008).

A parchment fragment discovered in the Dura Europos synagogue containing texts highly reminiscent of rabbinic prayer texts, may be the earliest surviving record of rabbinic texts. Reference: Goldstein & Mintz, Printing the Talmud from Bomberg to Schottenstein [2006] no. 1, p. 170.

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A Sarcophagus Showing a Greek Physician in His Library Circa 320 CE

A Roman sarcophagus from Ostia, Italy, dating from about 320 and preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, depicts a Greek physician in his library reading a papyrus roll with a book cabinet in which other rolls are visible. On top of the book cabinet an open case depicts surgical instruments.

A warning inscribed on the sarcophagus in Greek may be translated as:

"If anyone shall dare to bury another person along with this one, he shall pay to the treasury three times two thousand [whatever the unit was]. This is what he shall pay to [the city of] Portus, but he himself will endure the eternal punishment of the violator of graves."

"The tomb's owner is shown seated with an open scroll, the pose of a philosopher, demonstrating that he is a learned man. His profession can be identified by the open case containing surgical tools on the cabinet top. Other scrolls and a basin for bleeding patients within the cabinet offer further proof of his profession. The style of his dress and the language of the inscription indicate that he was one of the many Greeks living in Italy. Beginning in the 300s, Christians would adopt in their art the philosopher pose and the undulating motifs, or strigils, that appear on the sides of the sarcophagus" (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/48.76.1, accessed 10-25-2011).

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The Latest Known Inscription Written in Egyptian Hieroglyphs August 24, 394 CE

The latest known inscription written in Egyptian hieroglyphs is The Graffito of Emset-Akhom (or Philae 436) inscribed in the temple Isis at Philae, formerly an island in the First Cataract of the Nile. Having been relocated as a result of the Aswan dam, it is now on an island in Lake Nasser, in southern Egypt. It includes a relief of a ptolemaic or Roman period pharaoh. 

The inscription, written in both hieroglyphs and demotic, is dated to the Birthday of Osiris, year 110 (of Diocletian), equivalent to August 24, 394. It was added to a temple gateway erected earlier by the emperor Hadrian, leading towards the supposed tomb of Osiris (the Abaton). 

"The figure and inscription were carved in connection with the visits of the pagan Blemmye tribe from the Red Sea hills to the south-east in order to pay homage to the goddess Isis. These visits forced the Byzantine emperors to allow the temple to remain open despite the Christianization of Egypt and the earlier edict of Theodosius [in 392 CE closing all Egyptian temples.] In the fifth century AD demotic was still occcasionally written in the temple, and it is uncertain exactly when the last person to use, or at least read, the ancient scripts would have lived. There were by now Christian churches on the island, and the final centuries of pagan Philae passed into Christian legend. A later Coptic history of he first monk bishops of Philae tells how Bishop Apa Macedonius once deviously gained access to a sacred falcon in the temple and burned it. Between AD 535 and 537 the emperor Justinian ordered the temple's closure, the imprisonment of priests and the removal of its statues to Constantinople. The temple was rededicated to Saint Stephen, further churches were erected on the sacred island. . . ." (Parkinson, The Rossetta Stone [2005] 19-20).

(This entry was last revised on 08-02-2014.)


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A Diptych Depicting Roman Orators Holding Papyrus Rolls Circa 400 CE

There appear to be very few surviving depictions in ancient art of how papyrus rolls were actually used in daily life. One that might be more symbolic and ceremonial than "realistic" in our sense is the ivory diptych of Rufius Probianus, which celebrates his installation in Rome as Vicarius urbis Romae. According to Berger's Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law, Vol. 43, 764, the Vicarius in urbe (Roma) was the "head of the administration of the southern part of the dioecesis Italia. . . ." 

In the diptych Probianus appears with his right hand lifted in an oratorical gesture to indicate that he is either speaking or has the right to speak. However, from the perspective of book history what may be more significant about this diptych is not the large seated depiction of Probianus, but the depiction to his left and right of secretaries recording his speech on polyptica, or groups of wax tablets tied together like codices, and of orators in the panel below him pointing with their right hands while they hold open papyrus rolls in their left hand with their fingers used as place markers. This shows how orators held papyrus rolls open for reference while they spoke.

A clearer image of the Probianus diptych than that in Wikipedia commons appears in Wright, The Roman Vergil and the Origins of Medieval Book Design (2001) 8. Quality images of both covers, each subtly different, with commentary are reproduced in Weitzmann (ed) Age of Spirituality. Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century (1979) no. 53.

The diptych is preserved in the Staatsbibliothek, Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, Ms. theol. lat. fol. 323.

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500 CE – 600

The Earliest, Most Significant Rabbinic Texts Are Preserved in Stone Circa 500 CE – 600

The theater at Bet She'an. (View Larger)

The most significant archaeological evidence for the textual history of rabbinic literature, and particularly of its halakhic component, was uncovered between 1974 and 1980 in the ancient synagogue of Rehov, a site located five kilometers south of the Decapolis city of Scythopolis, called in Hebrew, Beit Shean. Stone and mosaic inscriptions found at Rehov contain extensive passages of legal material relating to biblical agricultural law that are well known from rabbinic sources. The Rehov inscriptions reformulate and apply these classical rabbinic texts to life in the Beit Shean Valley during the Byzantine period, the closing years of the redaction period of the Mishnah and the Talmud.

"The synagogue of Rehov was built in three phases, consisting of a fourth-century basilica enlarged in the fifth-sixth centuries and destroyed (apparently by an earthquake) during renovation and enlargement the following century. The fifth-sixth century synagogue contained a variety of unpublished inscriptions. The excavator notes that 'the columns bore large inscriptions in red paint, some of them in a tabula ansata and a wreath. The inscriptions, in Hebrew and Aramaic on white plaster, included a variety of texts: benedictions, dedications, a list of the priestly courses and a copy of a letter dealing with the laws of tithes in the Sabbatical year.' The so-called 'letter' is of particular interest, as it is the earliest preserved halakhic text yet discovered. According to the excavator, this inscription begins with the word 'Shalom' and contains texts that directly parallel classical rabbinic traditions in Tosefta Shevi’it 4:8–11, Sifre Deuteronomy 51, and Jerusalem Talmud Demai 2:1, 22c–d and Shevi’it 6:1, 36c. The inscription concludes with the phrase: אטרכ ינבלכלע םולש (“peace upon all the people of the town”). S. Lieberman suggests that this text may be a transcription of a letter sent by a beit din (rabbinical court) to Rehov adjudicating practical matters of biblical agricultural law" (Goldstein & Mintz, Printing the Talmud from Bomberg to Schottenstein [2006] no. 1, p. 170.)

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600 – 700

The Earliest Known Star Atlas 649 – 684

A depiction of a constellation from the Dunhuang Chinese Sky. (View Larger)

(View Larger)

The Dunhuang Chinese Sky, a set of sky maps drawn on a roll of thin paper, displaying the full sky visible from the Northern hemisphere, included in the medieval Chinese manuscript (Or. 8210/S.3326) preserved in the British Library, is the oldest known star atlas. It was discovered in 1907 by the archaeologist Aurel Stein in the Mogao Caves, also known as The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, in Dunhuang, a town on the northern Silk Road, in Gansu province, China.  The earliest later star atlases in China date from the eleventh century.

The Dunhuang star atlas, drawn in two inks on fine paper and remarkably well preserved,  represents more than 1300 individual stars in the total sky as could be seen with the naked eye from the Chinese imperial observatory along with an explanatory text. It displays the sky "as in the most modern charts with twelve hour-angle maps, plus a North polar region."

"It was discovered by the British-nationalised but Hungarian-born archaeologist Aurel Stein in 1907 among the pile of at least 40,000 manuscripts enclosed in the so-called Library Cave (Cave 17) in the Mogao ensemble, also known as the ‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’ near Dunhuang (Gansu). The Mogao caves are a set of several hundred Buddhist temples cut into a cliff and heavily decorated with statues and murals. The site was active from about +3602 to the end of the Mongol period. In about +1000, one cave was apparently sealed (Rong Xinjiang, 1999) to preserve a collection of precious manuscripts and some printed material including the world’s earliest dated complete printed book . The sealed cave was rediscovered by accident and re-opened only a few years before the arrival of Stein in 1907. He was therefore the first European visitor to see the hidden library" (Bonnet-Bidaud, Praderie & Whitfield, The Dunhuang Chinese Sky: A Comprehensive Study of the Oldest Known Star Atlas [2004] 2).

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800 – 900

A Studio for Royal Mayan Scribes in the Ninth Century Circa 825

In 2011 a small painted room was excavated at the extensive ancient Maya ruins of Xultun in the Petén lowlands of northeastern Guatemala, dating to the early 9th century CE. The walls and ceiling of the room were painted with several human figures, and scientists concluded that the room was a studio for royal scribes with "a taste for art and a devotion to the heavens as the source of calculations for the ancient culture’s elaborate calendars." Two walls also displayed a large number of delicate black, red, and incised hieroglyphs. Many of these hieroglyphs, written on the walls like we might write on a blackboard, howed astronomical computations, including at least two tables concerning the movement of the Moon, and perhaps Mars and Venus. Calculations of this type were central to Mayan astrology and rituals, in which astronomy was driven by religion. These writings, which are the earliest writing preserved in the Western hemisphere, may shed light on tables preserved in the Dresden Codex which dates from the 11th century.

"David Stuart, professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas at Austin, who deciphered the glyphs, said, 'This is tremendously exciting,' noting that the columns of numbers interspersed with glyphs inside circles was 'the kind of thing that only appears in one place — the Dresden Codex.'  

"Some of the columns of numbers, for example, are topped by the profile of a lunar deity and represent multiples of 177 or 178, numbers that the archaeologists said were important in ancient Maya astronomy. Eclipse tables in the Dresden Codex are based on sequences of multiples of such numbers. Some texts 'defy translation right now,' he said, and some writing is barely legible even with infrared imagery and other enhancements" (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/11/science/archaeologists-unearth-ancient-maya-calendar-writing.html?hp, accessed 05-10-2012).

William A. Saturno, David Stuart, Anthony F. Aveni, Franco Rossi, "Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables from Xultun, Guatemala," Science  11 May 2012: Vol. 336 no. 6082 pp. 714-717 DOI: 10.1126/science.1221444

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900 – 1000

The Oldest Book in Rus', a "Hyper-Palimpsest" of Three Bound Wooden Wax Tablets 998 – 1030

On July 13, 2000 the Novgorod Codex (Новгородский кодекс) was discovered in Novgorod (Veliky Novgorod), Russia. More early Russian manuscripts survived in Novgorod than any other Russian city, probably because Novgorod was not occupied by the Mongols. The earliest surviving book of the Rus' people, the Novgorod Codex is a palimpsest consisting of three bound wooden tablets containing four pages filled with wax, on which its former owner wrote down dozens, probably hundreds of texts during two or three decades, each time wiping out the preceding text. The tablets measure 19 x 15 x 1 cm, and have a 15 x 11.5 cm indentation filled with wax. The two exterior tablets have one wax layer and one blank wooden side, and the third interior tablet has two wax sides. The boards have round holes at one edge, through which wooden pegs were inserted, holding the tablets together as a four-page book.

"The tablets were discovered in a stratum 50 cm away and 30 cm below a wooden walkway dendrochronologically dated to the year 1036. As the strata in Novgorod are estimated to have grown at about 1 cm per year, the document was estimated to have been placed there around 1015-1020. Subsequent radiocarbon dating of the wax at the Uppsala University in Sweden gave the range of 760 AD to 1030 AD with a 95.4% certainty. Due to the Christian text on the tablets, dates earlier than the Christianization of Kievan Rus' in 988 are considered unlikely, and as such, the wax tablets are reliably dated to a very narrow 42-year window between 988 and 1030 AD."

"The wax of the codex itself contains psalms 75 and 76 (and a small fragment of psalm 67). This is the so-called basic text of the Novgorod Codex. Consequently, the book is alternatively known as the Novgorod Psalter. This text can be read as easily as any other document on parchment and could be examined at once. The Psalter translation exhibits a somewhat different translatory tradition than the Slavonic translations of the Psalter known so far (especially the Psalterium Sinaiticum)."

"Preservation of the tablets presented unique challenges, as the usual preservation method for wood would have destroyed the wax layer, and vice versa. The method eventually decided on called for careful separation of the wax layer, and preserving each material separately. The newly exposed wood under the removed wax was found to have been extensively scratched by the stylus cutting through the thin wax. It took the research team several weeks to realize that some symbols could be discerned in the scratches.

"Famed Russian linguist Andrey Zaliznyak, one of the foremost experts on the early medieval Novgorod dialect, has taken tremendous effort to reconstruct so far only a small portion of the texts preceding the basic text. The main difficulty with this task is the fact that the feeble traces of dozens of thousands of letters left by the stylus, often hardly discernible from the natural shading of the soft lime wood, have been superimposed on each other, producing an impenetrable labyrinth of lines (Zaliznyak speaks of a “hyper-palimpsest”). Consequently, ‘reading’ a single concealed text of one page can take weeks" (all quotations from Wikipedia article on Novgorod Codex, accessed 01-19-2013).

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1000 – 1100

The First Conclusive Proof that Norsemen Reached North America Circa 1000

The reconstructions of three Norse buildings are the focal point of this archaeological site, the earliest known European settlement in the New World. The archaeological remains at the site were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

Examples of objects found at L'Anse aux Meadow.

Timeline of occupation of L'Anse aux Meadows.

In 1960 Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine, discovered the remains of a Norse village in at L'Anse aux Meadows on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. This was the first conclusive proof that Greenlandic Norsemen had found a way across the Atlantic Ocean to North America, roughly 500 years before Christopher Columbus and John Cabot.

"Archaeologists determined the site is of Norse origin because of definitive similarities between the characteristics of structures and artifacts found at the site compared to sites in Greenland and Iceland from around CE 1000.

"Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad carried out seven archaeological excavations from 1961 to 1968, investigating eight complete house sites as well as the remains of a ninth.

"The L'Anse aux Meadows area was originally inhabited by Native peoples as far back as 6000BP. The area was probably sought due to its abundance of marine life and close proximity to Labrador. The most prominent of early Native inhabitants were the Dorset Eskimo; however, during the centuries of Norse exploration of the area there were thought to be no inhabitants in the immediate area" (Wikipedia article on L'Anse aux Meadows, accessed 10-24-2012).

"L'Anse aux Meadows remains the only widely accepted instance of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact and is notable for its possible connection with the attempted colony of Vinland established by Leif Ericson around the same time period or, more broadly, with Norse exploration of the Americas. . . .The settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows has been dated to approximately 1,000 years ago, an assessment that tallies with the relative dating of artifact and structure types.The remains of eight buildings were located. They are believed to have been constructed of sod placed over a wooden frame. Based on associated artifacts, the buildings were variously identified as dwellings or workshops. The largest dwelling measured 28.8 by 15.6 m (94.5 by 51 ft) and consisted of several rooms. Workshops were identified as an iron smithy containing a forge and iron slag, a carpentry workshop, which generated wood debris, and a specialized boat repair area containing worn rivets. Besides those related to iron working, carpentry, and boat repair, other artifacts found at the site consisted of common everyday Norse items, including a stone oil lamp, a whetstone, a bronze fastening pin, a bone knitting needle, and part of a spindle. The presence of the spindle and needle suggests that women were present as well as men. Food remains included butternuts, which are significant because they do not grow naturally north of New Brunswick, and their presence probably indicates the Norse inhabitants travelled farther south to obtain them.Archaeologists concluded that the site was inhabited by the Norse for a relatively short period of time.  

"Norse sagas are written versions of older oral traditions. Two Icelandic sagas, commonly called the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Eric the Red, describe the experiences of Norse Greenlanders who discovered and attempted to settle land to the west of Greenland, identified by them as Vinland. The sagas suggest that the Vinland settlement failed because of conflicts within the Norse community, as well as between the Norse and the native people they encountered, whom they called Skrælingar.

"Recent archaeological studies suggest that the L'Anse aux Meadows site is not Vinland itself but was within a land called Vinland that spread farther south from L'Anse aux Meadows, extending to the St. Lawrence River and New Brunswick. The village at L'Anse aux Meadows served as an exploration base and winter camp for expeditions heading southward into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The settlements of Vinland mentioned in the Eric saga and the Greenlanders saga, Leifsbudir (Leif Ericson) and Hóp (Norse Greenlanders), have both been identified as the L'Anse aux Meadows site (Wikipedia article on Helge Ingstad, accessed 10-24-2012).

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1100 – 1200

Jewish Bodies Found in Medieval Well in Norwich, England Circa 1150 – 1250

In 2004 the skeletons of 17 bodies were found at the bottom of a medieval well during the excavation of a site in the center of Norwich, England ahead of the construction of a shopping center. The remains were put into storage and investigated in 2011 by a team led by Scottish forensic anthropologist Sue Black.

Using DNA sequencing, molecular palaeobiologist Ian Barnes determined that the skeletons, which date to the 12th or 13th century, were probably remains of Jews. Eleven of the 17 skeletons were those of children aged between two and 15. The remaining six were adult men and women. It is likely that they were murdered or forced to commit suicide.

"Pictures taken at the time of excavation suggested the bodies were thrown down the well together, head first.

"A close examination of the adult bones showed fractures caused by the impact of hitting the bottom of the well. But the same damage was not seen on the children's bones, suggesting they were thrown in after the adults who cushioned the fall of their bodies.

"The team had earlier considered the possibility of death by disease but the bone examination also showed no evidence of diseases such as leprosy or tuberculosis.

"Giles Emery, the archaeologist who led the original excavation, said at first he thought it might have been a plague burial, but carbon dating had shown that to be impossible as the plague came much later.

"And historians pointed out that even during times of plague when mass graves were used, bodies were buried in an ordered way with respect and religious rites.

"Norwich had been home to a thriving Jewish community since 1135 and many lived near the well site. But there are records of persecution of Jews in medieval England including in Norwich.

"Sophie Cabot, an archaeologist and expert on Norwich's Jewish history, said the Jewish people had been invited to England by the King to lend money because at the time, the Christian interpretation of the bible did not allow Christians to lend money and charge interest. It was regarded as a sin.

"So cash finance for big projects came from the Jewish community and some became very wealthy - which in turn, caused friction" (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-13855238, accessed 01-07-2014). This article contains a dramatic image of the way the skeletons were found in the well.

In June and July 2011 the BBC televised a one hour episode of the series History Cold Case, Series 2, entitled The Bodies in the Well. In January 2014 this show was downloadable from iTunes for a fee. 

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1300 – 1400

Routine Everyday Messages Inscribed on Rune-Sticks Circa 1350

Since 1955 670 runic inscriptions on wood dating from the fourteenth century were excavated from the medieval city at Bryggen, Bergen, Norway. Excavation took place after a disastrous fire swept through a historic waterfront district. Many of the Bryggen inscriptions are letters and everyday messages cut into small wooden sticks or tablets which were easily transported. 

Before these inscriptions were excavated there was doubt whether the runes were ever used for anything else than inscriptions of names and solemn phrases. The Bryggen find showed that runes were used for routine, everyday messages in this area, and presumably also in other parts of Scandinavia. Another important aspect of the find was that many of the inscriptions dated as recently as the 14th century. Prior to the discoveries at Bryggen it was believed that the use of runes in Norway had died out long before. Since these findings, many more runic inscriptions of this type have been found in Norway.

"There is some evidence for rune-stick letters in Scandinavian contexts as far back as the ninth century. It is possible that the early Anglo-Saxons made extensive use of rune-sticks for practical communications, bu the absence of even one surviving example makes it difficult to proceed beyond speculation. We do have some evidence for familiarity with the runic alphabet among the educated classes of society. For instance, the solution to certain Anglo-Saxon riddles depends upon knowledge of runes . . . ." (Kelly, Anglo-Saxon lay society and the written word," IN: Mckitterick (ed) The Uses of Literarcy in Early Mediaeval Europe [1990] 37).

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1400 – 1450

The Aztec Calendar Stone 1427 – 1479

The Aztec Calendar Stone. (View Larger)

The Aztec calendar stone or Aztec Sunstone Calendar, carved in basalt, is 3.6 meters (12 feet) in diameter and weighs about 24 metric tons. Containing images representing Aztec measurement of days, months, and cosmic cycles, the stone was completed during the 52 year period between 1427 and 1479 CE. It was originally placed atop the main temple in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, facing south in a vertical position and was painted a vibrant red, blue, yellow and white.

When the Spaniards conquered Tenochtitlan in 1521 they buried the stone, and built the cathedral of Mexico City on the site. For over 250 years the stone was lost until December of 1790 when it was excavated by accident during repair work on the cathedral. Today it is located in the  Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City.

"The stone was first described by the Mexican astronomer, anthropologist and writer, Antonio de León y Gama in Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras: que con ocasión del empedrado que se está formando en la plaza Principal de México, se hallaron en ella el año de 1790. Impr. de F. de Zúñiga y Ontiveros, 1792. "In it Leon y Gama described the discovery in 1790 of two of the most important pieces of aztec art in the Zócalo, main plaza of the city of Mexico: the sun stone and a statue of Coatlicue, an aztec goddess. Leon y Gama also included in it most of his knowledge and theories on how Aztecs measured time. The work, as opposed to authors of previous centuries, praised Aztec society and their scientific and artistic achievements in line with the growing Mexican nationalism in the late 18th century. It was published by Felipe de Zúñiga y Ontiveros, [scientist and cartographer and] owner of one of the most important printing establishments in America at the time. In addition to print the book had three folded manuscript watercolor drawings [presumably hand-colored engravings.] Thanks to the publication of the book Leon y Gama is considered by many the first Mexican archeologist" (Wikipedia article on Antonio de León y Gama, accessed 01-01-2010).

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Flavio Biondo Writes the First Guidebook to the Ruins of Ancient Rome, Launching the New Archaeology of the Renaissance 1444 – 1471

Between 1444 and 1446 humanist and historian Flavio Biondo (Flavius Blondus) of Rome wrote and published Roma instaurata, the first systematic and well documented guide book to the ruins of ancient Rome, or any other ancient ruins, launchingh the new archaeology of the Renaissance. 

". . . Roma instaurata launched a new archaeology. No one before Biondo had attempted so comprehensive and through a survey of ancient Rome nor tried to explain so much nor did it so acutely. Digressions are by no means rare in Biondo's treatise and some of them are really short dissertations on some antiquarian point. His section on the 'Velabrum', for instance, strives to explain this rather obscure name. This he starts to do by rejecting the medieval  corruption 'velum aureum', whence he passes on to examine and discuss the evidence offered by Varro, Ovid, Livy, Tacitus and the inscriptions still left in the locality. The whereabouts of the 'Aerarium' gave him an excuse for a historical dissertation on Roman coinage, mainly drawn from the Elder Pliny. Naturally enough Biondo relied constantly upon the ancient writers, but this did not mean that he accepted them invariably as infallible witnesses. Thus when faced with a statement of Cassiodorus that Pompey had been the first builder of theatres in Rome, he set against it one of Pliny, sayiing that the first had been Marcus Scaurus, while against another remark of Cassiodorus, attributing to the Emperor Titus the building of the first amphitheatre in Rome, he set a passage of Tacitus, showing that this was not so.

"Altogether, with the Roma instaurata, it was now possible to have a reasonable idea of ancient Rome, not only from a topographical standpoint, but also as far as its growth and the functions of its buildings were concerned. Here, in this work, the historian reveals himself side by side with the archaeologist, the student of ancient institutions with the humanist who has the classics at his fingertips, though without the help of the Teubner series and Pauly-Wissowa's encyclopaedia" (Weiss, The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity [1969] 69-70).

Roma instaurata was first published in print with additions by Franciscus Barbarus, Porcellius, and Petrus Oddus Montopolitanus, and De Romana locutione in Rome by the "Printer of Statius," before 26 July 1471. The city in which it was printed, the unidentified printer, and the date of the first edition were all inferred by bibliographers. The edition is printed in Roman type that appears in only one other known book, an undated edition of Statius, Thebais et Achilleis. The date is based on a purchase note in the Bibliothèque nationale de France copy dated August 6, 1471, and a contemporary marginal note in the Cambridge copy stating that Pope Paul II was currently reigning (making the date prior to the Pope's death on July 26.

ISTC No. ib00701000. In January 2013 a digital facsimile was available from the Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek at this link. The second edition was published in Verona by Boninus de Boninis, de Ragusia, 1481-82.

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The First Historical Geography 1448 – 1458

Between 1448 and 1458 Italian humanist, historian and proto-archaeologist Flavio Biondo (Flavius Blondus) of Rome published Italia illustrata. Based on Biondo's personal travels through eighteen Italian provinces, this was the first historical geography.

"Unlike medieval geographers, whose focus was regional, Biondo, taking Strabo for his model, reinstated the idea of Italy to include the whole of the peninsula. Through topography, he intended to link Antiquity with modern times, with descriptions of each location, the etymology of its toponym and its changes through time, with a synopsis of important events connected with each location. This first historical geography starts with the Roman Republic and Empire, through 400 years of barbarian invasions and an analysis of Charlemagne and later Holy Roman Emperors. He gives an excellent description of the humanist revival and restoration of the classics during the first half of the fifteenth century." (Wikipedia article on Flavio Biondo, accessed 02-02-2013).

Italia illustrata was edited by Gaspar Blondus and first published in print by Johannes Philippus de Lignamine of Rome "[not before 10] December 1474." ISTC No. ib00700000.

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1450 – 1500

"La edifichation de molti pallazi & tempii & altri gradissimi edificii de roma", an Early Printed Guidebook to Rome, Known from a Single Surviving Copy 1480

An early printed guidebook to Rome, known for a single surviving copy preserved in the British Library, was issued in Venice in 1480. Its unnamed printer was later identified by bibliographers as Antonio di Alessandria della Paglia et Socii. The anonymous pamphlet, which consists of 12 unnumbered leaves, has no separate title. It's title begins the text: La edifichation de molti pallazi & tempii & altri gradissimi edificii de roma.

"Presumably, the author is a clergyman who was close to the margrave of Ancona, Giovanni Visconti da Ollegio (1304 ca. - 1366). According to the author himself he compiled the guide for a visit of the margrave's wife Antonia degli Benzoni to Rome in 1363. According to Ludwig Schudt [Le guide di Roma: Materialien zu einer Geschichte der römischen Topographie (1930)] it is a compilation of three works: The author translated and revised the Graphia auerae urbis Romae, the basic Mirabilia Romae and the Descriptio plenaria.

"However, the treatise is characterised by a strong personal touch. The author appears as first-person narrator and accompanies the reader on an imaginary trip through ancient Rome. The individuality of the account is provided by the sometimes ocurring emotional views on historical incidents, monuments, persons and deities as well as on quotations by Latin authors.

"In some passages the author adopts the systematic cataloguing of monuments from his sources. Individual inaccuracies concerning descriptions of monuments and quotations from the sources of classical and medieval authors can however be observed. Fiction and reality are closely linked here" (http://telota.bbaw.de/census/fulltext/Edificazione_Intro_en.html, accessed 11-30-2014).

In November 2014 the full text of the guidebook was available at this link.

ISTC No. ir00305200. A facsimile reproduction of the 1480 printed text is available in Five Early Guides to Rome and Florence with an Introduction by Peter Murray (1972).

Interestingly from the history of collecting standpoint, Pierre Charles Deschamps & Pierre Gustave Brunet were aware of the title, publishing a note about it in Vol.1 of their Supplement to Jean-Ch. Brunet's Manuel du Libraire (1878). Their entry, which appears on column 438 refers to copy catalogued by M. Tross in 1874 for 200 fr. Possibly this is the copy in the British Library.

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"A Horse, A Horse, My Kingdom for a Horse." August 1485

In August 1485 Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, 20 miles north of Leicester. Richard, who was characterized by Shakespeare as a hunchback, was perhaps the most reviled king in the history of England.

In the sixteenth century Tudor historian John Rouse identified Richard's burial place as a corner of the chapel in the Greyfriars priory in Leicester. However, during the Reformation the church was demolished and its exact location was eventually forgotten.

In 2012 Richard's bones were located when archaeologists from the University of Leicester used ground-penetrating radar on the site of the former priory and discovered that it was not underneath a 19th-century bank where it was presumed to be, but under a parking lot across the street. Excavation began in August, and the remains were located within days of the start of digging. 

On February 4, 2013 archaeologist Richard Buckley of the University of Leicester reported that DNA testing confirmed that the bones were those of Richard III. Finding a DNA match among Richard's descendents after so many generations was extremely difficult.

"Despite this, a team of enthusiasts and historians traced the likely area - and, crucially, also found a 17th-generation descendant of Richard's sister with whose DNA they could compare any remains recovered.  

"Genealogical research eventually led to a Canadian woman called Joy Ibsen. She died several years ago but her son, Michael, who now works in London, provided a sample.  

"The researchers were fortunate as, while the DNA they were looking for was in all Joy Ibsen's offspring, it is only handed down through the female line and her only daughter has no children. The line was about to stop.  

"But the University of Leicester's experts had other problems.  

"Dr Turi King, project geneticist, said there had been concern DNA in the bones would be too degraded: "The question was could we get a sample of DNA to work with, and I am extremely pleased to tell you that we could."  

"She added: "There is a DNA match between the maternal DNA of the descendants of the family of Richard III and the skeletal remains we found at the Greyfriars dig" (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-21063882, accessed 02-04-2013).

The bones showed signs of severe scholiosis, which would account for Richard's hunched-over appearance. Although around 5ft 8in tall (1.7m), the condition meant King Richard III would have stood significantly shorter, and his right shoulder may have been higher than the left. The skeleton had suffered 10 injuries, including eight to the skull, and other "humiliation" wounds. The individual had unusually slender, almost feminine, build for a man - in keeping with contemporaneous accounts. Radiocarbon dating reveals that the individual had a high protein diet - including significant amounts of seafood - meaning he was likely to be of high status.

The decision was made to rebury Richard III's remains in Leicester's Anglican cathedral, which is about 100 yards from where Richard's remains were found.

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1500 – 1550

Francesco Albertini Issues the First Guidebook to Ancient and Modern Rome: a New "Mirabilia Romae" 1510

Since the early Middle Ages guide-books were written for the use of pilgrims to Rome. The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue maintained by the British Library cites over 100 different printed editions of the medieval guide known as Mirabilia Romae issued before 1501. Opusculum de mirablis novae & veteris urbis Roma first issued in 1510 by Francesco Albertini, a pupil of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio who became canon of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence and chaplain of Cardinal Fazio Santoro in Rome, was the first guidebook to both ancient and modern Rome. It was well designed as a guidebook with a detailed table of contents of its three parts in the beginning and running heads relating to each section, making it easy to find specific sections of the guide.

Besides an account of ancient Rome, with information about excavations and archaeological discoveries, Albertini discussed the churches and buildings commissioned by Julius II and the artists who decorated them. In connection with the Sistine Chapel we learn about Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Lippi, and Michelangelo. This latter reference, together with another in Albertini’s Memoriale of the same year, represents the earliest printed notice of that artist. In the third section there is one of the earliest description of the Vatican Library in qua sunt codices auro et argento sericinisque tegminibus exornati, and mentioning the Codex Vergilianus (probably the Vergilius Vaticanus,) among other notable works. Albertini also refers to the Library’s collections of astronomical and geometrical instruments.

The final portion of the work is a laudatory account of the cities of Florence and Savona (the birthplace of Pope Julius II, to whom the book is dedicated). Here we also find mention of many eminent literary and artistic persons such as Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci, et al. In this section Albertini refers to Amerigo Vespucci and his New World discoveries: Albericus Vespulcius of Florence, sent by the most Christian King of Portugal, but lastly by the Catholic King of Spain, first discovered new islands and unknown countries, as is plainly set forth in his book, where he describes the stars, and the new islands, as is also seen in his Letter upon the New World, addressed to Lorenzo de Medici the Younger. 

"By the begnning of the sixteenth century the collecting of statuary, inscriptions, and other antiques was being regarded with greater interest than hitherto. This is evident from the literary remains of Francesco Albertini. . ., which are also of some interest in showing how by this time the Mirabilia were no longer satisfying even those who were not professional antiquarians. Albertini himself cannot be consdiered a real scholar. He was in fact a gifted amateur with a flair for vulgarisation and an eye for works of art; not for nothing had been a pupil of Ghirlandaio in Florence, which makes one wonder whether he may have been the author of the drawings of Rome and Roman antiquities not at the Escorial, which clearly betray a hand trained by that painter. . . .

" It was in the household of Cardinal Fazio Santoro in Rome that Albertini composed his Opusculum novae et verteris Urbis Romae. But the suggestion to write it had actually come from Cardinal Galeotto della Rovere, who had expressed the wish to see a reliable and up-to-date guide of the city. While the Opusculum is invaluable for the information it supplies on contemporary Rome, it certain constitutes no landmark in the development of antiquarian science. Even its avowed aim to replace the Mirabilia had really been anticipated a couple of generations earlier by Biondo. What Albertini really achieved was a new Mirabilia, a handbook meant for the cultured visitor to Rome, where medieval legend was replaced by the new knowledge resulting from about a century of humanist investigation. Its structure is still that of the old Mirabilia with the subject matter still subdivided in the traditional way, its chapters dealing with the walls, the 'viae', the theatres, etc. It is in fact a kind of swollen catalogue, nor is such an arrangement abandoned in the second part, where Albertini dealt with the Rome of his own time. But here similarities with the Mirabilia cease. For Albertini did not hesitate to summon to his aid all the sources on which could lay his hands, thus relaying the considerable range of his reading. Classical texts used by him included not only the better known authors and the catalogues of the regions, naturally in the text revised by Pomponio Leto, but also Festus, Vitruvius and Frontinus, on whom he of course relied for his section on aqueducts. He was obviously at home with inscriptions, and besides relying on the evidence they supplied, he often quoted them in full, not hestiating to include some discovered only very recently. Like other antiquarians, he did not ignore the evidence offered by ancient coins. But perhaps what shows most clearly the range of his interest is his references to humanist writings. For here besides Petrarch, Biondo, Leto, and Poggio, we also find appeals to the authority of Alberti, Landino, Petro Marsi, Beroaldo, and Raffaele Maffei. Like so many of his contemporaries, he too was taken in by Annion da Viterbo's outrageous forgeries of ancient texts and antiquities, just as he did not escape the usual mistakes, such as the identification of the small temple by the Tiber with that of Vesta, or the attribution of the well-known Dioscuri to Pheidias and Praxiteles.

"Albertini's account of ancient Rome is certianly valuable, It is so particularly because of what he tells us about excavations and recent archaeological discoveries, and also because of the information he gives about the Roman collections of antiques in his time. It certainly proved something of a best-seller during the first quarter of the sixteenth century, as is brought home to us by its no less than five editions between 1510 and 1523" (Roberto Weiss, The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity [1969] 84-86).

In November 2014 I could not find a digital facsimile of the 1510 or 1515 Rome editions, but a digital facsimile of the Basel, 1519 edition was available from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek at this link, and a digital facsimile of the Lyon, 1520 edition was available from the Internet Archive at this link.  

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1550 – 1600

Ulisse Aldrovandi's Guide to Ancient Statuary in Rome 1556

A guidebook to the topography and antiquities of Rome, Le antichita de la citta di Roma, first issued in Rome in 1556 by Lucio Mauro, is best-known for its supplementary survey of antique sculpture in the region by the young Ulisse Aldrovandi. This survey, entitled Delle statue antiche che per tutta Roma in diversi luoghi . . . si veggono, which occupies about two-thirds of the volume, was Aldrovandi's first publication. It has been called the first lengthy and detailed guidebook to the antiquities of the city of Rome, and a landmark in the scientific recording and documentation of works of art.

Though primarily remembered for his studies of natural history, Aldrovandi was also classical scholar, well versed in the literature and archaeology of antiquity. His Delle statue antiche is one of the earliest works on statuary and sculpture in general, a topic treated by relatively few treatises, and it has been essential for documenting the sculpture gardens and collections of antiquities that existed in Rome in the mid-16th century, for reconstructing the contents and the appearance of individual collections, and for establishing the provenance and tracing the history of individual statues. 

As the only publication of the Bolognese naturalist to deal with antiquities, Delle statue antiche is an anomaly among Aldrovandi's published works. However, among the great mass of Aldrovandi’s unpublished manuscripts are extensive records of his investigations of ancient art and artefacts, and also of his studies of the habits and customs of daily life in antiquity. This broad knowledge of many aspects of the ancient world is reflected in Aldrovandi's Delle statue antiche. 

Aldrovandi's work on statuary was written in Rome between 1549 and 1550 during an unplanned sojourn. While he was studying medicine in Bologna, in June 1549, Aldrovandi was accused of heresy, as a presumed follower of the anti-Trinitarian beliefs of Camillo Renato. Arrested along with other suspected individuals, Aldrovandi publicly renounced the heretical views, but he was nevertheless transferred to Rome to await a formal review. He remained in Rome, partly in custody, and partly at liberty, for at least eight months until absolved in April 1550. During this time he was befriended by many Roman scholars, and he undertook the investigation of Roman collections of ancient statues. And it was during this sojourn, in 1550, that Aldrovandi, according to his own account, wrote the Delle statue antiche. In it he included every signficant Roman collection of ancient sculpture, including:

"statues, torsos and fragments, but also reliefs and some inscriptions as well as minor antiqutieis in the studios of such connoiseurs as Cardinal Carpi or Gerolomo Garimberto. He frequently gives find spots, and his predispoition to logical order aids in recovering iconographic programs that often governed the installation of antique sculptures in vigne and staue gardens.

"Even without the drawings that seem to have been planned originally, Aldvrovandi's guide to ninety-odd private collections is unqiuely valuable to archaeologists and art historians" (Phyllis Pary Bober, in N.T. de Grummond (ed) An Encyclopedia of the History of Classical Archaeology,  I [1996] 31).

In Empire without End, Antiquities Collections in Renaissance Rome, C. 1350-1527 (2010) Kathleen Wren Christian frequently drew upon Aldrovandi's Delle statue antiche as one of her mostly extensively used primary sources.

Gilhofer & Ranchburg, The Sixteenth Century, Part XII, (2013 or 2014) no. 10.

Margaret Daly Davis, Ulisse Aldrovandi: Tutte le statue antiche. . . . Part I. Introduction and Full Text (2009).

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Fulvio Orsini Issues the First Critically Assembled Collection and Edition of Ancient Portraiture 1569 – 1570

Imagines et elogia virorum illustrium et eruditor ex antiquis lapidibus et nomismatib expressa cum annnotationib ex bibliotheca Fulvi Ursini, issued in Rome in 1570 by librarian, collector, epigrapher and classical scholar Fulvio Orsini, was the first critically assembled collection and edition of ancient portraiture. An expert on ancient coins, gems, inscriptions, and statues, Orsini was most advantageously positioned to make the first critical collection of ancient portraiture. In the Imagines et elogia he combined portraits with brief biographies of subjects drawn from ancient history and literature. Unlike previous works such as Paolo Giovio's Vitae virorum illustrium (1549‑57) and Guillaume Rouillé's Promptuarium iconum insigniorum (1553), Orsini emphasized the original physical state of the portraits illustrated rather than modifying his reproductions of the portraits to fit them into a uniform format. He also illustrated the marbles and coins as objects, sometimes presenting one or more examples of each subject. A special feature of Orsini's work was the large number of headless herm (ἑρμῆς) portraits illustrated with inscriptions on their pedestals, making the work first a corpus of epigraphical testimonia to famous and not so famous Greeks and Romans, and secondly a repertory of portraits. 

"Not only did Orsini have access to the most extensive epigraphical and iconographic collections in Rome but, more importantly, the critical method he employed in editing texts of classical authors and inscriptions served him well in the authentication of portraits. In making an identification, Orsini sought the evidence of an ancient inscription either directly on the marble or on a coin or medal that could be associated with a marble. He also collected ancient literary sources relating to the physical appearance or to the existence of ancient portraits of individual subjects. He did not hesitate to reject modern inscriptions whether on marble statuary or on gems, and he similarly rejected numismatic forgeries which by the late sixteenth century had flooded the Roman antiques market."

"In the majority of cases, Orsini (or his patron) owned the ancient coins, gems, busts, and statues that served his identifications. Hence, unlike virtually all of his predecessors, Orsini relied on 'autopsy' or first-hand experience as a critical method, anticipating the rigorous method of nine- teenth-century epigraphers like Theodor Mommsen. Orsini has been called the 'father of ancient iconography,' and, indeed, a glance at Gisela Richter's authoritative Portraits of the Greeks suffices to demonstrate the modern archaeologist's indebtedness to Orsini for the identification of a surprising number of heads of famous Greeks and Romans. Nevertheless, the documentary value of Orsini's earlier work is somewhat compromised by the fact that information about provenance is not presented consistently but, when offered, is usually buried near the end of the elogium" (Dwyer, "André Thevet and Fulvio Orsini: The Beginnings of the Modern Tradition of Classical Portrait Iconography in France," The Art Bulletin, 75, No. 3 (Sept. 1993), 467-480, quoting from 469).

Pierre de Nolhac, "Les collections d'antiquités de Fulvio Orsini," Mélanges d'archéologie et d'histoire," 4 (1884) 139-231.

de Nolhac, La bibliothèque de Fulvio Orsini (1887).

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François de Belleforest Describes Paintings in Rouffignac Cave 1575

In his translation of the Cosmographia of Sebastian Münster called La Cosmographie universelle de tout de monde published in 1575 French author, poet, and translator François de Belleforest described explorations of Rouffignac Cave, within the French commune of Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin-de-Reilhac in the Dordogne département, and mentioned "paintings and animal traces."  Rouffignac Cave contains over 250 engravings and animal paintings dating back to the Upper Paleolithic. Though De Belleforest wrote centuries before there was any understanding of prehistory, his comment is one of the earliest references to cave exploration.

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Agustín's Study of Ancient Coinage: Probably the Earliest Book with Illustrations by a Woman 1587 – 1592

In 1592 Dialoghi . .. intorno alle medaglie inscrittioni et altre antichita. . . by archaeologist, humanist, jurist and Archbishop of Aragon Antonio Agustín y Albanell (Agostín, Augustino, Augustinus) was posthumously issued in Rome, from the press of Guglielmo Faciotto. This volume on ancient coins included over 1200 woodcut depictions of coins, and six half page woodcuts of arches and buildings. Agustín's work had previously been published as Dialogos de medallas in his native Spanish in Tarragona, 1587, just after his death. The book was written in the form of eleven dialogues between an experienced antiquarian and a pair of beginners eager to learn about coins, inscriptions, and other antiquities. Agustín began his book with an introduction on identifying medals and coins, and a discussion of their usefulness to historians. He also explained the function of ancient coins, confirming that they were meant to be circulated as currency. The next four dialogues he dedicated to what is found on the reverse of Roman coins by subject: deities, cities, rivers, buildings, animals, and other symbols. Agustín then moved on to discuss the medals of Africa, France, and Spain, with special focus on Andalucia, Lusitania (Portugal), and Barcelona. In his final chapter he discussed how to identify fakes. In the original Spanish edition there were 51 engraved plates, illustrating only dialogues 1 and 2, possibly because Agustín was unable to arrange for more illustrations before his death.

Agustín had gained fame as a jurist and humanist with the publication in 1543 to great aclaim of his edition and commentary on the sixth century Florentine codex of the Digesta or Pandectae portion of Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis. Appointed auditor of the Rota, the papal court, he became the center of an informal academy in Rome devoted to studying antiquities, along with Fulvio Orsini and Pirro Ligorio

Augustín wrote his Dialogos for a general audience, and because it was widely appreciated, two competing Italian translations were issued in Rome in 1592: that of Faciotto with over 1200 woodcuts inserted throughout the text, and Discorsi sopra le medaglie illustrated with 72 engraved plates issued by Ascanio and Girolamo Donangeli. Probably because the woodcuts in Faciotto's edition were easier to print and reprint than copperplates which could only withstand a limited number of impressions, the Faciotto edition became more widely distributed, and was reprinted and revised up to 1736.

The Faciotti edition of 1592 is also notable because of some of its woodcuts were cut by Geronima Parasole:

"Some of the large woodcuts bear the monograms P.M.F. (e.g. on the title border) or G.A.P. (e.g. on p. 124) attributed to Geronima [Cagnaccia] Parasole (fl. end of the 16th century), a Roman artist, cousin of Isabetta Parasole, who was with Vinciolo and Cesare Vecellio, the most important lace designer of the late 16th century. Apart from Geronima's contribution to the present work, only a few woodcuts by her after designs of Antonio Tempesta are known (cf. G.K. Nagler, Die Monogrammisten, München, 1919, II p. 968, no. 2715; IV, p. 926, no. 3141). It seems very likely that this is the earliest known book in which illustrations by a woman are found. In the sixteenth century only thirty-five women are known to have been artists, and according to our researches Geronima and Isabetta Parasole were the only women who contributed to book illustration in that period (cf. W. Slatkin Woman Artists in History, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1958, p. 38)" (My Gracious Silence 130).

Benezit, Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs VIII, 122.

Cunnally, Kagan, Scher, Numismatics in the Age of Grolier (2001) 61-63. 

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1600 – 1650

Johannes Meursius Issues the First Guidebook to Athens 1624

Though guidebooks to Rome and its antiquities were published in manuscript during the Middle Ages and in print during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and onward, the first guide to Athens did not appear until 1624 with the publication of Athenae Atticae. Sive, De pracipuis Athenarum Antiquitatibus Libri III by the Leiden classical scholar and antiquary Johannes Meursius (van Meurs). 

I first learned of Meursius's book when I read The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity (1969) by Roberto Weiss. Remarkably, the copy of the first edition of Meursius's book that I acquired for my collection turned out to be Weiss's personal copy, bound in contemporary paneled calf, which I had rebacked. On the front pastedown endpaper is the very neat penciled inscription reading "Liber Roberti Weiss / Ex dono P. Cecil/ die 2ndo Junii a.d. mcmxlv." The copy is also signed by Weiss in pencil with the date 1945 on the front free endpaper, and it has the elegant armorial bookplate of Sr. Thomas Seabright, Bart. From the appearance of the bookplate that would probably be Sir Thomas Saunders Seabright, 5th Baronet (1723–1761).

Here is what Weiss had to say with respect to the context of Meursius's book. As usual the links are my additions:

"Our knowledge of Greek antiquity began rather late. By the middle of the fiteenth century Roman antiquity had already been the object of study for nearly a century and of indiscrimate admiration for much longer. On the other hand, despite Crusades and trade, Latin rule and missionary effort, the archological study of the Greek world during the Renaissance practically began and ended with Ciraiaco d'Ancona, and by 1455 Ciriaco was dead. After him the Turkish conquest of Byzantine lands put an end to antiquarian travel in Greek territories for about a century; and when Pierre Gilles went to Constantinople in 1546 as an antiquary to the French ambassador, the Renaissance was nearly over. Gilles's two treatises appeared in print only in 1561 and deal with the topography of Constantinople and the Bosporus. No account of the topography of Athens, which is shown as a typically German city in the great Nuremberg chronicle of 1493, was published until 1624, when the Athenae Atticae of Johannes Meursius was issued for the first time. This Leiden professor had deemed it more comfortable to rely on literary sources than to go over to Greece to see for himself. His handbook remained the indispensable guide of every cultivated traveller to Athens for over a century" (Weiss, op. cit. 131).

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Ole Worm Issues the First Study of Runestones and Runic Inscriptions 1641

In 1641 Danish physician and antiquarian Ole Worm (Olaus Wormius) published Danicorum monumentorum libri sex: e spissis antiquitatum tenebris et in Dania ac Norvegia extantibus ruderibus eruti in Copenhagen (København). This was the first published study of the Runestones of Denmark and Norway, and one of the few surviving sources for many runic inscriptions now lost. 

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1750 – 1800

Jean-Jacques Barthélemy Achieves the First Significant Decipherment of an Ancient Script: Palmyrene 1754

The first significant decipherment of an ancient script was that of Palmyrene, a West Aramaic dialect spoken in the city of PalmyraSyria in the early centuries CE. This was known from the church fathers to be similar to Syriac. "Copies" of Palmyrene script were available in print since 1616 but these were not helpful for decipherment. It was only after the British clergyman and orientalist John Swinton published accurate copies of paired inscriptions in Greek and Palmyrene in his paper, "An Explication of All the Inscriptions in the Palmyrene Language and Character Hitherto Publish'd," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 48/2 (1755) 690-756 that French writer, numismatist and linguist Abbé Jean-Jacques Barthélemy could correlate the two. The first word in one of the inscriptions was the name Septimios. Barthélemy was able to match the Palmyrene letters with the Greek, and he also discovered that they were recognizably similar to both Hebrew and Syriac. Swinton's paper was read to the Royal Society in a series of letters beginning on June 20, 1754. Barthélemy pubished his results in a 32-page pamphlet entitled Réflexions sur l'alphabet et sur la langue dont on se servoit autrefois à Palmyre issued in Paris in 1754. From the Approbation of the pamphlet dated July 18, 1754 it is evident that the reading of Swinton's initial letter, and the inscriptions made available, provided key information for Barthélemy, who reproduced  on the three plates published with his pamphlet inscriptions initially brought to light by Swinton with referencing Swinton in any way. Barthelemy's pamphlet was reprinted in Mémoires de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres 26 (1759) 577-97.

Parkinson, Cracking Codes. The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment (1999) 16. Daniels & Bright, The World's Writing Systems (1996) 145ff.

(This entry was last revised on 08-29-2014.)

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Barthélemy Deciphers the Phoenician Language 1758

Four years after deciphering Palmyrene, the first ancient script to be deciphered, in 1758 French writer, numismatist and linguist Abbé Jean-Jacques Barthélemy deciphered Phoenician on the basis of blingual Phoenician and Hebrew inscriptions found in Malta and two bilingual Phoenician and Hebrew inscriptions found in Cyprus by Richard Pococke. Bathélemy confirmed his reading with bilingual coins of from Tyre and Sidon, and a set of Sicilian-Punic tetradrachms.

Barthélemy published his discovery in "Réflexions sur quelques monuments phéniciens, et sur les alphabets qui en résultent," Memoires de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres 30 (1764) 405-26. In this paper Barthélemy postulated four rules of decipherment which withstood the test of time.  

My copy of Barthélemy's paper is a preprint paginated 1-23, with 5 plates. According on a note published in the margin of p. 1, Barthélemy read his report to the Académie des Inscriptions on April 12, 1758. It was not formally published until six years later, and from a setting of type different from my copy. The first of his plates reproduced the Malta inscriptions, the second reproduced recto and verso of 10 bilingual coins, the third reproduced the inscriptions found on Cyprus, and his fourth plate set out his understanding of the Phoenician alphabet. A fifth plate in my copy reproduces an inscription on a pitcher.

Daniels & Bright, The World's Writing Systems (1996) 144, 155.

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Barthélemy Discovers the Relationship of Egyptian Hieroglypics to Phoenician and Greek 1761 – 1763

Having deciphered Palmyrene in 1754 and Phoenician in 1758, Abbé Jean-Jacques Barthélemy directed his attention toward Egyptian hieroglyphs. He is considered the first to suggest that the cartouches or oval-shaped framed sections of hieroglyphic inscriptions contained the names of gods and kings. The date he made this observation is unclear; Murray, Milestones in Archaeology. A Chronological Encyclopedia (2007) page 177 set the date of that key observation at 1761. I have also seen the year 1762 associated with this observation, and where it was first published was unclear in August 2014.

On April 12, 1763 Barthélemy read a report to the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres entitled "Reflexions générales sur les rapports des langues egyptienne, phenicienne & grecque." This was not formally published until it appeared in Vol. 32, pp. 212-233, of the Mémoires of the society issued in 1768. The printing that I own of this report is paginated 1-22 and was printed from a different setting of type than the journal. Because this was bound in a volume containing other separate printings and preprints by Barthélemy, I think that it is logical to assume that what I have is a preprint in view of the five year delay between the time the paper was read and its eventual journal publication.

Regarding this paper historian Martin Bernal wrote in Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization Volume 3, p. 171:

"In 1763 the brilliant Abbé Barthélemy, decipherer of Palmyrene and Phoencian, presented a paper entitled 'General reflections on the relations between the Egyptian, Phoenician and Greek languages'. In this his first correct assumption, based on Kircher—whose other work he considered fantastic—was that Coptic was a form of Ancient Egyptian. He also recognized the language family later known as Semitic, which he called 'Phoenician'. On these two bases, he established that Egyptian, although not a Semitic language, was related to the Semitic family. It is true that some of his lexical evidence can now be seen to have been faulty, as some Coptic words derive from Semitic loans into Late Egyptian. However, the main lines of his argument, based on similarities between pronouns and grammatical features, are irreproachable. In this sense, then, Barthélemy was a pioneer of what we should now call Afroasiatic studies.

"Barthélemy admited that he could see no such grammatical parallels between Coptic and Greek. Nevertheless he believed in the Egyptian colonization and civilizing of Greece and maintained that 'It is impossible that in this echange of ideas and goods, the Egyptian language did not participate in the formation of Greek. He then gave a list of etymologies from Egyptian into Greek, several of which - such as the Coptic hof, Demotic hf to the Greek ophis (snake) - would seem plausible today."

David, "En marge du mémoire de l'abbé Barthélemy sur les inscriptions phéniciennes (1758)", Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres  105 (1961) 30-42.

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Richard Payne Knight Records Early Archaeological Explorations of Ancient Fertility Rites 1786

In 1786 Classical scholar, collector, connoiseur, and member of the Society of Dilettanti, Richard Payne Knight  privately issued from London, in an edition supposedly of about eighty copies, and with twelve engravings of phallic objects, An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus, Lately Existing at Isernia, in the Kingdom of Naples. . . to which is Added, a Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, and its Connexion with the Mystic Theology of the Ancients.

The first and most explicit purpose of Knight's treatise was to provide a comparison of ancient (pagan) and modern (Christian) religious rituals, based on the archeological discoveries related in Sir William Hamilton's essay Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus Lately Existing at Isernia, in the Kingdom of Naples, with which Knight's work begins.  Knight's second and less obvious purpose was to use his dissertation to attack the Christian church as bigoted, corrupt, and categorically opposed to the enlightened paganism that Knight wished to revive— a male-centered ethic based on phallic fertility which he believed would liberate modern man from the oppressions of an increasingly industrialized environment. 

Knight's major contribution to history and anthropology was his recognition of the fundamental religious significance of the sexually explicit fertility rites practiced in the ancient world, a recognition that restored Priapus to his rightful place as the symbolic principle of fertility, and opened new pathways for anthropological research.  Unfortunately, the nature of Knight's subject matter caused him to be wrongly condemned as a libertine and pornographer both by his contemporaries (except for an open-minded few) and the strait-laced Victorians who followed; it was not until the late nineteenth century that Knight's work began to lose its pornographic stigma and gain recognition as a valuable source for the student of ancient religions.

The first edition of Knight's Priapus was restricted to approximately eighty copies printed for the Society of Dilettanti, "a group of enthusiasts especially concerned with the study of Grecian antiquity" (Messman, p. 41), of which Knight was a member.  Upon the work's publication, the Society voted "that the copies be lodg'd in the custody of the Secretary & one of them deliverd to each member of the Society, & that except these he do not on any Pretence whatever part with any other copy without an order made at a regular meeting.  [And] that each member be allowd once & no more to move the Society recommending by name a Friend to whom he wishes the Society to present a copy" (3 March 1787 minutes of the Society, quoted in Messmann, p. 43).

Knight was, perhaps ironically, best known as an arbiter of aesthetic taste. In his lifetime An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805) was Knight’s most influential work. "This book sought to explain the experience of ‘taste’ within the mind and to clarify the theorisation of the concept of the picturesque, following from the writings of William Gilpin and Uvedale Price on the subject. Knight's views on the aesthetics of the picturesque are also formed in engagement with Edmund Burke's emphasis on the importance of sensation, which Knight partly rejects in favour of a modified associationism. The philosophical basis of Knight's theories have implications for his account of the relationship between the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘picturesque’ " (Wikipedia article on Richard Payne Knight, accessed 12-20-2008). 

Messmann, Richard Payne Knight: The Twilight of Virtuosity (1974) 41-43.  Rousseau, "The sorrows of Priapus," in Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment, ed. Rousseau & Porter, 101-153. Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine (1991) no. 1226.

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1800 – 1850

Champollion Deciphers Egyptian Hieroglyphs September 22, 1822

Having studied the three texts on the Rosetta Stone, as well as other texts brought back from Egypt from Napoleon's Egyptian campaigns, on September 22, 1882 French scholar, philologist and linguist Jean-François Champollion announced his depherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs in a report to Bon-Joseph Dacier, Perpetual Secretary of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres. This was published in Paris as Lettre à M. d'Acier relative à l'alphabet des hiéroglyphes phonétiques. In this 55-page report read to the Académie on September 27,

"Champollion described the alphabet that was used to write non-Egyptian names, and in the concluding pages he tentatively announced that he was certain that the phonetic signs were an integral part of 'pure hieroglyphic writing'. Among the select audience was the great Prussian natural scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and also Thomas Young, whose initial reaction is recorded in a letter written to W.R. Hamilton on the Sunday after the reading:

" 'I have found here, or rather recovered, Mr. Champollion, junior, who has been living for these ten years on the Inscription of Rosetta, and who has lately been making some steps in Egyptian literature, which really appear to be gigantic. It may be said that he found the key in England which has opened the gate for him, and it is often observed that c'est le premier pas qui coûte [it's the first step that takes the effort]: but if he did borrow an English key, the lock was so dreadfully rusty, that no common arm would ahve strength enough to turn it. . . .' (Parkinson, The Rosetta Stone [2005] 43-44).

Two years after his preliminary report of the discovery Champollion published a fuller exposition as Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens égyptiennes, marking the decisive step in the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. 

"His decipherment opened up the millennia of human history and resolved the pharaonic chronology that had been a major concern of the period. It also showed that human history went back much further than was accepted in the Church's chronology based on the Bible" (Parkinson, op. cit., 45).

(This entry was last revised on 08-04-2014).


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The Contributions of Thomas Young Toward Deciphering Egyptian Hieroglyphs 1823

In response to French linguist Jean-François Champollion's 1822 report of the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, in 1823 English physician, scientist and polymath Thomas Young published An Account of Some Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphical Literature, and Egyptian Antiquities. Young believed that his discoveries were the basis for Champollion's system. In this book Young emphasized that many of his findings had been published and sent to Paris in 1816. Although Young had correctly found the sound value of six signs, he had not deduced the grammar of the language, and had therefore not deciphered the entire written language.

"Young was also one of the first who tried to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, with the help of a demotic alphabet of 29 letters built up by Johan David Åkerblad in 1802 (15 turned out to be correct), but Åkerblad wrongly believed that demotic was entirely alphabetic. 'Dr Young however showed that neither the alphabet of Akerblad, nor any modification of it which could be proposed, was applicable to any considerable part of the enchorial portion of the Rosetta inscription beyond the proper names.'  By 1814 Young had completely translated the "enchorial" (demotic, in modern terms) text of the Rosetta Stone (he had a list with 86 demotic words), and then studied the hieroglyphic alphabet but initially failed to recognise that the demotic and hieroglyphic texts were paraphrases and not simple translations. Some of Young's conclusions appeared in the famous article "Egypt" he wrote for the 1818 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica" (Wikipedia article on Thomas Young, accessed 07-28-2009).

(This entry was last revised on 08-04-2014).

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Rafinesque Deciphers the Mayan System of Counting 1832

Because of the destruction of most of the Maya codices in the sixteenth century, scholars had extremely limited access to the original texts. It was not until 1810 that the first reproduction of any Mayan codex— five pages from the Dresden Codex— were reproduced by Alexander von Humboldt in his Vues de cordillères, et monuments des peuples indigènes de l'Amérique. From this very limited reproduction in 1832 European-American autodidact polymath, mathematician, botanist, zoologist, and malachologist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, while working in Philadelphia, deciphered the Maya's system of numerals.

In 1832 Rafinesque published his discovery in his periodical, the Atlantic Journal, and Friend of Knowledge: A Cyclopedic Journal and Review of Universal Science and Knowledge: Historical, Natural, and Medical Arts and Sciences: Industry, Agriculture, Education, and Every Useful Information. He announced it in a three-part article addressed to Jean-François Champollion, whose name he misspelled, "on the Graphic systems of America, and the Glyphs of Otolum or Palenque, in Central America." In the second part of this article, on page 42, Rafinesque briefly explained his discovery of the meaning of the Maya bar and dot system in which a dot equals one and a bar equals five. 

 "Later findings proved him right and also revealed that the Maya even had a symbol for zero, which appeared on Mesoamerican carvings as early as 36 B.C. (Zero didn't appear in Western Europe until the 12th century)"  (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/mayacode/time-flash.html, accessed 10-10-2009).

Like most of Rafinesque's numerous other publications, his Atlantic Journal enjoyed very limited success, and folded after only eight issues.  Copies of the original edition are extremely rare.  My copy is a facsimile reprint issued by the Arnold Arboretum, Boston, in 1946.

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Christian Thomsen Founds the "Three-Age" System in Archaeology 1836

Danish archaeologist, Christian Jurgensen Thomsen, the first curator of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, edited and published in Copenhagen a guidebook to the national museum entitled Ledetraad til Nordisk Oldkyndighed. In this small book Thomsen formulated a method of classifying the museum’s archeological collections according to whether the artifacts were made of stone, bronze or iron. He claimed that these three groupings represented three chronologically successive archeological ages; this was the genesis of the Three-Age system, “the basic chronology that now underpins the archaeology of most of the Old World” (Rowley-Conway, From Genesis to Prehistory. The Archaeological Three Age System and its Contest Reception in Denmark, Britain, and Ireland [2007] 1).

The second chapter of the guide, contributed by Thomsen, described his dating scheme and applied it to the monuments and antiquities of the North. Thomsen defined the three ages as follows:

"The Age of Stone, or that period when weapons and implements were made of stone, wood, bone, or some such material, and during which very little or nothing at all was known of metals....

"The Age of Bronze, in which weapons and cutting implements were made of copper or bronze, and nothing at all, or but very little was known of iron or silver....

"The Age of Iron is the third and last period of the heathen times, in which iron was used for those articles to which that metal is eminently suited, and in the fabrication of which it came to be employed as a substitute for bronze" (Thomsen, Guide to Northern Archaeology [1848], pp. 64–68).

Thomsen was a scholar with a background in the history of numismatics rather than a field archaeologist. He based his study of artifacts on the associations between stylistic change, decoration and context, topics which may have interested him initially through his numismatic researches. Thomsen recognized the importance of examining objects from "closed finds," allowing him to determine the common associations of artifacts for various periods which he divided into his Three-Age system. Thomsen’s assistant. archaeologist Jens J. A. Worsaae, later demonstrated the stratigraphic succession of the stone, bronze and iron ages in Denmark through archeological fieldwork.

An English translation of Ledetraad til Nordisk Oldkyndighed, by the Earl of Ellesmere, was published in 1848. Spencer, Ecce homo (1986) no. 3.488.

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Boucher de Perthes' Pioneering Treatise on the Antiquity of Man 1846 – 1849

French writer, archeologist, and antiquary Jacques Boucher de Perthes privately published in Abbeville De l'industrie primitive ou des arts à leur origine in 1846. This was his first work on the ancient stone implements discovered at Abbeville where he was Director of customs. In 1837, following the lead of Casimir Picard, Boucher de Perthes began investigating Abbeville’s rich archeological and paleontological sites. He donated some of the products of his early excavations to the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris, directed by the geologist Pierre-Louis Cordier. It was in response to a request by Cordier in a letter dated July 12, 1840 that Boucher de Perthes made his first discovery of an “antediluvian” stone tool, a biface Paleolithic axe found in 1840 in the Menchecourt quarry outside of Abbeville. The layer of sand in which the stone axe was found also contained the bones of extinct mammalian species, indicating that the axe was coeval with these species. The Menchecourt axe, and other “antediluvian” artifacts found in nearby sites, convinced Boucher de Perthes that humanity was very much older than had previously been supposed.  

Boucher de Perthes attempted to alert the scientific community to his findings via correspondence with Cordier and other prominent scientists, but was ignored. Undiscouraged, he kept up with his excavations, and also began writing De l’industrie primitive, in which he described and illustrated with simple line drawings the results of his first decade of excavation, and made the case for the antiquity of the human species based on the stratigraphic relationship between “antediluvian” stone tools and the bones of extinct mammals. In 1846 he had a very small edition of this work printed, which must have been intended mostly for presentation to colleagues such as Cordier. In that same year Boucher de Perthes sent the manuscript of De l’industrie primitive to the Académie des Sciences in the hope of a favorable review. The Académie appointed a five-man commission, headed by Cordier, to prepare an evaluation of Boucher de Perthes’ work; in the end, however, the Académie declined to issue a report.

Boucher de Perthes had intended to publish De l’industrie primitive in 1847, but held up publication pending approval of the Académie. After receiving Cordier’s polite but negative response in 1849 Boucher went ahead and re-issued the volume with a new title, Antiquités celtiques et antédiluviennes, referencing the ancient age of to which the antiquities belonged—a time before the Biblical flood. The printed title page was dated 1847, but a pasted-in printed note opposite stated that “this work, printed in 1847, could not, because of circumstances, be published until 1849.” 

Until about 1860 Boucher de Perthes faced enormous opposition to his views of prehistoric man. In his 1860 paper reviewing Boucher de Perthes’ discoveries, the English archaeologist and geologist John Evans summarized the difficulties that beset Boucher de Perthes in gaining the acceptance for his discoveries by the scientific establishment:

"It is now some years since a distinguished French antiquary, M. Boucher de Perthes, in his work, entitled ‘Antiquités Celtiques et Antédluviennes’ called attention to the discovery of flint implements fashioned by the hand of man in the pits worked for sand and gravel in the neighbourhood of Abbeville, in such positions, and at such a depth below the surface of the ground, as to force upon him the conclusion that they were found in the very spots in which they had been deposited at the period of the formation of beds containing them. The announcement by M. Boucher de Perthes, of his having discovered these flint implements under such remarkable circumstances, was, however, accompanied by an account of the finding of many other forms of flint of a much more questionable character, and by the enunciation of theories which by many may have been considered as founded upon too small a basis of ascertained facts. It is probably owing to this cause that, neither in France nor in this country, did the less disputable nor completely substantiated discoveries of M. de Perthes receive from men of science in former years the attention to which they were justly entitled" (Evans, "Flint Implements in the Drift,” Archaeologia XXXVIII [1860] 2).

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1850 – 1875

Isaiah Deck Describes the Production of Mummy Paper in Nineteenth Century America 1855

In 1855  Anglo-American physician, geologist, archaeologist and explorer Isaiah Deck (the younger) published  “On a Supply of Paper Material from the Mummy Pits of Egypt,” Transactions of the American Institute of the City of New-York, for the year 1854. (Albany, 1855) 83-93.

"On an earlier copper prospecting trip to Jamaica, Deck had evaluated other sources for paper including aloe, plantain, banana and dagger-grass, but none were acceptable. Thus, already preoccupied with paper and paper sources, Deck set out on a trip to Egypt in 1847 to search for Cleopatra’s lost emerald mines. Deck’s father, also named Isaiah, had known Giovanni Belzoni, a famous Italian robber of Egyptian tombs; Deck the younger thus inherited from his father some Egyptian artifacts, including a piece of linen from a mummy.

"While searching for the lost mines, Deck couldn’t help but notice the plethora of mummies and mummy parts that turned up in communal burial sites called 'mummy pits.' He wrote, 'So numerous are they in some localities out of the usual beaten tracks of most travelers, that after the periodical storms whole areas may be seen stripped of sand, and leaving fragments and limbs exposed in such plenty and variety.' Deck did some calculations: assume two thousand years of widespread embalming, an average life span of thirty-three years and a stable population of eight million. This would leave you with about five hundred million mummies. Add to that the number of mummified animals including cats, bulls and crocodiles, and the number drastically rises. Deck also states, 'it is by no means rare to find above 30 lbs. weight of linen wrappings on mummies…A princess from the late Mr. Pettigrew’s collection was swathed in 40 thicknesses, producing 42 yards of the finest texture.' Deck further calculated that the average consumption of paper in America is about 15 lbs. per person per year. This meant that the supply from Egyptian mummies would be able to keep up with the American demand for about 14 years, by which point a substitute supply source or material would likely have been discovered, rendering the need for rags unnecessary" (Wikipedia article on Mummy Paper, accessed 01-10-2013).

Confirmation that American paper was actually made from rags or papyrus taken from mummies is scarce. One proof is a broadside preserved in Brown University Libraries entitled Hymn for the bi-centennial anniversary of the settlement of Norwich, Conn published in connection with the Bi-Centennial Celebration of Norwich, CT, September 7-8, 1859. At the foot of this broadside we read:

"Chelsea Manufacturing Company. This paper is made by the Chelsea Manufacturing Company, Greeneville, Conn. The largest paper manufactory in the world. The material of which it is made, was brought from Egypt. It was taken from the ancient tombs where it had been used in embalming mummies. A part of the process of manufacturing is exhibited in the procession. The daily production of the Company's mills is about 14,000 pounds."

Wolfe & Singerman, Mummies in Nineteenth Century America. Mummies as Artifacts (2009).

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Constantin von Tischendorf Discovers and Acquires the Codex Sinaiticus: Controversial and Disputed February 4, 1859

The complicated story of how German biblical scholar Constantin von Tischendorf discovered the Codex Sinaiticus, and acquired it for Russia in 1859, is tinged with romance, and has often been retold. The adventure is compatible in character with other nineteenth century acquisitions of priceless historical treasures—acquisitions that could probably never happen today— yet the story remains disputed and controversial.

While a Privatdocent at the University of Leipzig in 1845 Tischendorf made his first visit to the extremely remote Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt, one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world. This meant traveling hundreds of miles through the Egyptian desert from Cairo to Mt. Sinai on the back of a camel, so a scholar like Tischendorf had to be somewhat of an adventurer even to undertake the journey. The monastery was built in the mid-6th century by order of Emperor Justinian I, enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush (also known as "Saint Helen's Chapel") ordered to be built by Helena, the mother of Constantine I, at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush. The living bush on the grounds is purportedly the one seen by Moses. The site is sacred to Christianity and Islam.

At the monastery Tischendorf saw some leaves of parchment in a waste-basket. He retrieved from the basket 129 leaves in an early Greek uncial majuscule hand, which he identified as coming from a manuscript of the Septuagint. According to his account, the monks indicated that they had already used a number of similar leaves to stoke their fires. To which Tischendorf responded that the leaves were too valuable to be burned. Whether the monks had actually burned any of the leaves is seriously disputed by the current occupants of the Monastery of Saint Catherine. Unfortunately, there is no way for us to know whether or not Tischendorf's assertion was accurate. He asked if he might keep the leaves he pulled out of the wastebasket, but the monks, having been made aware of their value and significance, permitted Tischendorf to take only 43 leaves. These leaves contained portions of 1 Chronicles, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, and Esther. Tischendorf later deposited them in the Leipzig University Library, where they remain. In 1846 Tischendorf published the content of the 43 leaves, naming them the Codex Frederico-Augustanus in honor of the his patron and sovereign, Frederick Augustus, the king of Saxony.

Eight years later, hoping to find more leaves from the same codex, in 1853 Tischendorf made another expedition to the monastery, but after the excitement which he had displayed in his first visit, the monks were cautious and let him leave with nothing, even after his arduous journey. Never one to concede easily, Tischendorf undertook a third journey to Saint Catherine's in 1859, this time under the auspices of tsar Alexander II of Russia. Tischendorf reached the remote monastery on January 14, and once again found nothing. On February 4, the day before he was scheduled to return to Cairo by camel, he presented to the steward of the monastery a copy of the edition of Septuagint that he had recently published in Leipzig. In response the steward remarked that he too had a copy of the Septuagint, and produced from the closet of his cell a manuscript wrapped in red cloth. Amazingly, this was the Codex Sinaiticus

This time being careful to conceal his enthusiasm, Tischendorf asked to borrow the manuscript to study it later that evening. His wish was granted, and, according to his own account, Tischendorf spent the entire night studying the manuscript, too excited to sleep. ("It really seemed a sacrilege to sleep.") This next morning Tischendorf offered to buy the manuscript, but his offer was rejected. Then he asked if he could take the manuscript to Cairo to study it. This request was also rejected.

In Cairo Tischendorf visited a small monastery in the city that was also operated by the monks on Sinai. There he impuned the abbot of the monastery of St. Catherine, who happened to be in Cairo, to send for the manuscript. To this the abbot agreed and sent Bedouin messengers to fetch the manuscript and deliver it to Cairo. Once the manuscript was in Cairo it was agreed that Tischendorf could examine one quire of eight leaves at a time for the purposes of copying the text. With the help of two Germans who happened to be in Cairo and knew Greek, and an apothecary, and a bookseller, all 110,000 lines of text in the manuscript were transcribed in two months, and carefully revised by Tischendorf.

A well-documented summary of Tischendorf's discovery is in Metzger & Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament. Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration. 4th ed (2005) 62-67. From this I quote from pp. 64-64:

"The next stage of the negotiations involved what may be called euphemistically 'ecclesiastical diplomacy.' At that time, the highest place of authority among the monks of Sinai was vacant. Tischendorf suggestioned that it would be to their advantage if they made a gift to the czar of Russia, whose influence, as protector of the Greek Church, they desired in connection with the election of the new abbot—and what could be more appropriate as a gift than this ancient Greek manuscript! After prolonged negotiations, the precious codex was delivered to Tischendorf for publication at Leipzig and for presentation to the czar in the name of the monks. In the east a gift demands a return (see Genesis 23, where Ephron 'gives' a Abraham a field for a burying plot but nevertheless Abraham pays him 400 shekels of silver for it). In return for the manuscript the czar presented to the monastery a silver shrine for St. Cartherine, a gift of 7,000 rubles for the library at Sinai, a gift of 2,000 rubles for the monastery in Cairo, and several Russian decorations (similar to honorary degrees for the authorities of the monastery. In 1862, on the thousandth anniversary of the founding of the Russian Empire, the text of the manuscript was published in magnificent style at the expense of the czar in four folio volumes, being printed at Leipzig with type cast for the purpose so as to resemble the characters of the manuscript, which it represents line for line with the greatest possible accuracy." 

Metzer and Ehrman qualified their account of the transaction with a long footnote, indicating that "certain aspects of the negotiations leading to the transfer of the codex to the czar's possession are open to an intepretation that reflects adversely upon Tischendorf's candor and good faith with the monks at St. Catherines's." In particular they cite Erhard Lauch, "Nichts gegen Tischendorf," Bekenntnis zur Kirche: Festgabe für  Ernst Sommerlath zum 70 Geburtstag (Berlin, c. 1961) pp. 15-24 "for an account that includes a hitherto unknown receipt given by Tischendorf to the authorities at the monastery promising to return the manuscript from St. Petersburg "to the Holy Confraternity of Sinai at its earliest request."  A more popular, but scholarly account is is James Bentley's Secrets of Mount Sinai. The Story of Finding the World's Oldest Bible—Codex Sinaiticus (1986). This well-illustrated study reflects bias against Tischendorf.

♦ As kind of a side show, in 1862 Constantine Simonides, a forger of manuscripts who had been exposed by Tischendorf, by way of revenge made the claim in print in The Guardian that he had written the codex himself as a young man in 1839. Simonides claims were refuted by bibliographer Henry Bradshaw. This incident I deal with in an entry for 1862-63.

Book Trade notes:

♦ "In 1931 Ernest Maggs had travelled to the Soviet Union with a colleague, Maurice Ettinghausen, who was both a bookseller and a scholar. When they saw the priceless Codex Sinaiticus, Ettinghausen remarked to his hosts, “If you ever want to sell it, let me know." Some time later, Maggs received a postcard saying that the Soviet government would be prepared to sell the Codex Sinaiticus for 200,000 pounds. The British group countered with 40,000 pounds. Finally, a price of 100,000 pounds was agreed upon. This was the largest price that had ever been paid for a book. It was an enormous sum at the time. [In 1933] The British government agreed to pay half the amount and guaranteed the remainder if it were not raised by public subscription." (Wikipedia article on Maggs Bros., accessed 08-02-2009).

♦ From Rosenbach: A Biography by Wolf & Fleming (1960) 367-68:

"Some preliminary negotiations were under way with Amtorg [in 1932] for the Codex Sinaiticus, the fourth-century manuscript of the Bible which had been in Russia since its discoverer, Tischendorf, acquired it for the Czar in 1869, and which the Communists, interested in neither its contents nor its provenance, wanted to sell. It was a volume before which the the Doctor's flow of words was inadequate. It was simply the most important, exciting, and valuable book in existence; except for fragments, it was one of the three oldest manuscripts of the Bible known. To have handled it would have added luster to any reputation. In the dickering stage, Dr. Rosenbach told the Russians that the asking price of $1,600,000 was too high, but he hung on the fringes of the deal by assuring them in confidence, 'that I might interest some of our wealthy clients in its purchase for presentation purposes, if the price could be lowered considerably.'

"Ah, perfidious Moscow! Before the end of the next year Ramsay MacDonald announced the purchase of the Codex by the British Museum for £100,000. The news found the Doctor astonished and disappointed. It had been offered to him for $1,250,000, he told the Herald Tribune, and he could not understand how the British Museum had obtained it for less than half that figure. . . ."

[In July 2008 it was stated on the Codex Sinaiticus website that the "recent" history of the manuscript would be revised in light of previously unavailable documents.]

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Edouard Lartet & Henry Christy Issue Probably the Earliest Paper on Paleolithic Mobiliary Art 1861 – 1864

In 1864 French lawyer archaeologist and paleontologist Edouard Lartet and English banker ethnologist Henry Christy published "Cavernes du Périgord. Objets gravés et sculptés des temps pré-historiques dans l’Europe occidentale" in Revue archéologique. The previous year Lartet and Christy began systematically examining the caves in the Périgord region of France, and found incontrovertible evidence for the existence of Paleolithic mobiliary art. Their 37-page paper with two lithographed plates and numerous illustrations within the text, describing the results of those researches, was the founding work on Upper Paleolithic art, and one of the earliest publications to illustrate Paleolithic mobiliary art. It was also the only joint publication of Lartet and Christy issued before Christy’s premature death in 1865 at the age of 55.

In two papers published in 1861 Lartet had illustrated two prehistoric bones with carved representations of animals that had for many years been considered “Celtic”. In those papers, which reflect Lartet’s earliest interest in this topic, he argued that these carvings, which had been previously discovered by others, were indeed examples of prehistoric art. The first of Lartet's papers was "Sur une ancienne station humaine, avec sépulture contemporaine des grands mammifères fossiles réputés caractéristiques de la dernière période géologique," L’Institut, journal universel des sciences et des Sociétés savantes en France et à l’étranger, 1st section, no. 1432 (12 June 1861). 6pp. 

Lartet's second and much longer paper was "Nouvelles recherches sur la coexistence de l’homme et des grands mammifères fossiles réputés caractéristiques de la dernière période géologique," Annales des sciences naturelles, 4th series, Zoologie, 15 (1861) 177–253; plates 10–13. In this paper Lartet proposed “the first chronological framework into which both human skeletal and cultural remains could be fitted, based on fossil animal bones recovered from French cave sites” (Spencer, History of Physical Anthropology [1997] 606). Cultural remains included flints and bone carvings. The first figure in plate 10 shows Lartet’s original concept of how the human skeletons in the Aurignac had been arranged in the chamber; he subsequently altered his opinion based on discoveries made in 1862. In the final plate of this paper Lartet republished from his previous paper an illustration of two deer carved on a reindeer bone which had been found between 1834 and 1845 by Pierre-Amédée Brouillet in the cave of Chauffaud in the Vienne. Brouillet and others had thought the engraving was Celtic, but Lartet declared it be much earlier; his appreciation of the significance and true date of the finds from Chaffaud, Aurignac and Massat was “the first clear statement of what we now call Franco-Cantabrian Upper Palaeolithic art.” (Daniel 1981, 62). An English translation of the first part of this paper, including a reproduction of Lartet’s reconstruction of the burial chamber, was published as "New Researches Respecting the Co-existence of Man with the Great Fossil mammals, regarded as characteristic of the latest geological period," The Natural History Review 2, no. 5 (January 1862) 53–71. 

(This entry was last revised on 05-31-2014.)

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John Lubbock's "Pre-Historic Times" is Published 1865

In 1864 English banker, politician, naturalist and archaeologist John Lubbock publised Pre-Historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages. After delivering a series of lectures at the Royal Institution on “The Antiquity of Man” in the summer of 1864, Lubbock organized his material into a book that addressed not only the topic of human antiquity but the larger issues of the lives and cultures of people in the Stone Age. A masterpiece of scientific exposition, Pre-historic Times became his best-known work, in which he coined the terms “Paleolithic” and “Neolithic” to distinguish between the earlier and later Stone Age periods. He wrote:

"From the careful study of the remains which have come down to us, it would appear that Pre-historical Archaeology may be divided into four great epochs.

"First, that of the Drift; when man shared the possession of Europe with the Mammoth, the Cave bear, the Wooly-haired rhinoceros, and other extinct animals. This we may call the ‘Paleolithic’ period.

"Secondly, The later or polished Stone age; a period characterized by beautiful weapons and instruments made of flint and other kinds of stone, in which, however we find no trace of the knowledge of any metal, excepting gold, which seems to have been sometimes used for ornaments. This we may call the ‘Neolithic ‘period.

"Thirdly The Bronze age, in which bronze was used for arms and cutting instruments of all kinds.

"Fourthly, The Iron age, in which that metal had superseded bronze for arms, axes, knives, etc; bronze, however still being in common use for ornaments, and frequently also for the handles of swords and other othersm, but never for the blades. Stone weapons, however, of many kinds were still in use during the age of Bronze, and even during that of Iron. So that the mere presence of a few stone implements in not in itself sufficient evidence, that any given ‘find’ belongs to the Stone age" (p. 3).

In contrast to some of the other early researchers in these fields who focused on the geology of the prehistoric sites, in finding the artifacts, and in studying the artifacts themselves, Lubbock studied the artifacts of Stone Age cultures in order shed light on the function of ancient implements as part of an overall attempt to reconstruct what life might have been like in the Stone Age. In order to gain further insight into life in prehistoric times he also studied the lives of a wide variety of non-western peoples, some of whose lives and cultures appeared to him to provide strong analogs to life during the Stone Age.

His book incorporates five earlier published papers, all of which appeared in The Natural History Review: “On the Kjökkenmöddings: Recent geological-archaeological researches in Denmark” (October 1861); “On the evidence of the antiquity of man, afforded by the physical structures of the Somme Valley” (January 1862); “On the ancient lake habitations of Switzerland” (July 1862); “North American archaeology” (January 1863); and “Cave-men” (July 1864). To these previously published papers Lubbock added three chapters devoted to the customs and beliefs of primitive races. In a final chapter he summed up his conclusions on the origins of man and of civilization.

Pre-Historic Times may be the most influential work on archaeology of the nineteenth century. It remained a standard work for over 50 years, with the seventh and final edition appearing just after Lubbock’s death in 1913.

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Heinrich Schliemann Discovers the Ancient City of Troy 1871 – 1873

Although many scholars believed that events in the Trojan War, as recorded in the Iliad, were non-historical, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann disagreed. From 1871 to 1873 he excavated a hill, called Hisarlik (Hissarlik) by the Turks, near the town of Chanak in north-western Anatolia. There he discoversed the ruins of a series of ancient cities, dating from the Bronze Age to the Roman period.

From this excavation and another in 1878-79, Schliemann declared one of these cities—at first Troy I, later Troy II—to be the city of Troy. This identification became widely accepted. Later excavations showed that at least nine cities were built, one on top of the other, at this site.

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1920 – 1930

Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamum November 4, 1922

On November 4, 1922 British Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th dynasty Tutankhamum underneath the remains of workmen's huts built during the Ramesside Period. Nearly intact, this was the only virtually undisturbed tomb of an Egyptian pharoah ever found. Known as KV62, the tomb of Tutankhamum in the Valley of the Kings became world famous for the treasure it contained. Excavation was not completed until November 1930.  

The great majority of the incomparable treasures from Tutankhamum's tomb are preserved in Cairo's Egyptian Museum. Through loan exhbitions in other museums, many have been viewed by millions of people around the world.  However, various treasures from the tomb also somehow made their way into other museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, leading some to suggest that Carter, who was also an agent for building museum collections, stole certain items from the tomb before turning over all the finds to the Egyptian government.

In 1923, 1927, and 1933 Carter published a three-volume account of the discovery entitled The Tomb of Tut·Ankh·Amen Discovered by the late Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter.

On June 12, 2012 a significant portion of Carter's personal papers concerning the discovery remaining with his descendents were offered for sale at auction by Bonham's in London with an estimate of £100,000-150,000.

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1970 – 1980

UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 November 14, 1970

On November 14, 1970 UNESCO, meeting in Paris, created the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property

"The 1970 Convention requires its States Parties to take action in these main fields:  

"Preventive measures:

"Inventories, export certificates, monitoring trade, imposition of penal or administrative sanctions, educational campaigns, etc.

"Restitution provisions:

"Per Article 7 (b) (ii) of the Convention, States Parties undertake, at the request of the State Party "of origin", to take appropriate steps to recover and return any such cultural property imported after the entry into force of this Convention in both States concerned, provided, however, that the requesting State shall pay just compensation to an innocent purchaser or to a person who has valid title to that property. More indirectly and subject to domestic legislation, Article 13 of the Convention also provides provisions on restitution and cooperation.

"International cooperation framework:

"The idea of strengthening cooperation among and between States Parties is present throughout the Convention. In cases where cultural patrimony is in jeopardy from pillage, Article 9 provides a possibility for more specific undertakings such as a call for import and export controls" 

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1980 – 1990

The 1970 UNESCO Convention is Implemented in U.S. Law January 1983

"In 1972, the United States Senate gave its unanimous advice and consent to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. However, because the Convention did not have a basis in U.S. law, special legislation was required to allow the U.S. to implement it. In 1982, Congress passed the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (the "Act"), and President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in January 1983. The Act enables the U.S. government to implement Articles 7(b)(1) and 9 of the Convention. (See the Act as Public Law 97-446 (PDF); or as 19 U.S.C. 2601 et seq. (PDF))  

"Briefly, pursuant to Article 7(b)(1), States that are party to the Convention undertake to prohibit the importation of documented cultural property stolen from museums or religious or secular public monuments in another State Party to the Convention. Article 9 of the Convention allows any State Party whose cultural patrimony is in jeopardy from pillage to request assistance from other States Parties to carry out measures such as the control of exports, imports, and international commerce in the specific cultural materials concerned."

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1990 – 2000

The First Use of Virtual Reality in a Museum or Archaeological Context 1994

The first use of virtual reality in a museum or archaeological application occurred in 1994 when a museum visitor interpretation provided an interactive virtual "walk-through" of a 3D reconstruction of Dudley Castle in England as it was in 1550. The presentation consisted of a computer controlled laserdisc-based system designed by British based engineer Colin Johnson. The system was featured in a conference held by the British Museum in November 1994, and in the 1996 book entitled Imaging the Past - Electronic Imaging and Computer Graphics in Museums and Archaeology. One of the first users of the Virtual Heritage production was Queen Elizabeth II, when she officially opened the visitor center in June 1994. Because the Queen's officials had requested titles, descriptions and instructions of all activities, the system was named 'Virtual Tour', being a cross between Virtual Reality and Royal Tour.

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Rome is Reborn on Google Earth 1997

In 1997 the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) of the University of Virginia, the UCLA Cultural Virtual Reality Laboratory (CVRLab), the UCLA Experimential Technologies Center (ETC), the Reverse Engineering (INDACO) Lab at the Politecnico di Milano, the Ausonius Institute of the CNRS at the University of Bordeaux-3, and the University of Caen, lower Normandy, began collaboration on a project to create a digital model of ancient Rome as it appeared in late antiquity. The notional date of the model is June 21, 320 A.D.

"The primary purpose of this phase of the project was to spatialize and present information and theories about how the city looked at this moment in time, which was more or less the height of its development as the capital of the Roman Empire. A secondary, but important, goal was to create the cyberinfrastructure whereby the model could be updated, corrected, and augmented. Spatialization and presentation involve two related forms of communication: (1) the knowledge we have about the city has been used to reconstruct digitally how its topography, urban infrastructure (streets, bridges, aqueducts, walls, etc.), and individual buildings and monuments might have looked; and (2) whenever possible, the sources of archaeological information or speculative reasoning behind the digital reconstructions, as well as valuable online resources for understanding the sites of ancient Rome, have been made available to users. The model is thus a representation of the state of our knowledge (and, implicitly, of our ignorance) about the urban topography of ancient Rome at various periods of time. Beyond this primary use, the model can function in other ways. It can be used to teach students or the general public about how the city looked; it can be used to gather data not otherwise available, such as the alignment of built features in the city with respect to each other or to natural features and phenomena; and, it can be used to run urban or architectural experiments not otherwise possible, such as how well the city or the buildings within it functioned in terms of heating and ventilation, illumination, circulation of people, etc. Finally, a digital model can be easily updated to reflect corrections to the model or new archaeological discoveries."

"Starting on June 11, 2007, when the model of ancient Rome was first shown publicly at a ceremony in Rome, a number of video fly-throughs and static images of the model were posted for free public viewing online. In August, 2008, the alpha version of Rome Reborn 2.0 was demonstrated at SIGGRAPH held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. In November, 2008, the latest version of Rome Reborn 1.0 was published to the Internet as in Google Earth." (quotations from the Rome Reborn website of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia, accessed 01-21-2009)

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The Digital Michelangelo Project 1998

Marc Levoy and team began The Digital Michelangelo Project at Stanford University in 1998 using laser scanners to digitize the statues of Michelangelo, as well as 1,163 fragments of the Forma Urbis Romae, a giant marble map of ancient Rome.

The quality of the scans was so high that the Italian government would not permit the release of the full data set on the Internet; however, the Stanford researchers built a system called ScanView that allowed viewing of details of specific parts of the statue, including parts that would be inaccessible to a normal museum visitor. In December 2013 Scanview could be downloaded at this link.

The laser scan data for Michelangelo's David was utilized in its cleaning and restoration that began in September 2002. This eventually resulted in a 2004 book entitled Exploring David: Diagnostic Tests and State of Conservation.

"In preparation for this restoration, the Galleria dell'Accademia undertook an ambitious 10-year program of scientific study of the statue and its condition. Led by Professor Mauro Matteini of CNR-ICVBC, a team of Italian scientists studied every inch of the statue using color photography, radiography (i.e. X-rays), ultraviolet fluorescence and thermographic imaging, and several other modalities. In addition, by scraping off microsamples and performing in-situ analyses, the mineralogy and chemistry of the statue and its contaminants were characterized. Finally, finite element structural analyses were performed to determine the origin of hairline cracks that are visible on his ankles and the tree stump, to decide if intervention was necessary. (They decided it wasn't; these cracks arose in 1871, when the statue briefly tilted forward 3 degrees due to settling of the ground in the Piazza Signoria. This tilt was one of the reasons they moved the statue to the Galleria dell'Accademia.)  

"The results of this diagnostic campaign are summarized in the book Exploring David . . . . The book, written in English, also contains a history of the statue and its past restorations, a visual analysis of the chisel marks of Michelangelo as evident from the statue surface, and an essay by museum director Franca Falletti on the difficulties of restoring famous artworks. . . .  

"Aside from its sweeping scientific vision, what is remarkable about this book is that many of the studies employed a three-dimensional computer model of the statue - the model created by us during the Digital Michelangelo Project. Although we worked hard to create this model, and we envisioned 3D models eventually being used to support art conservation, we did not expect such uses to become practical so soon. After all, our model of the David is huge; outside our laboratory and a few others in the computer graphics field, little software exists that can manipulate such large models. However, with help from Roberto Scopigno and his team at CNR-Pisa, museum director Franca Falletti prodded, encouraged, and cajoled the scientists working under her direction to use our model wherever possible. We contributed a chapter to this book, on the scanning of the statue, but we take no credit for its use in the rest of the book. In fact, to us at Stanford University, the timing of our scanning project relative to the statue's restoration and the creation of this book seems merely fortuitious. However, Falletti insists that she had this use of our model in mind all along! In any case, this is a landmark book - the most extensive use that has ever been made of a 3D computer model in an art conservation project" (http://graphics.stanford.edu/projects/mich/book/book.html, accessed 12-23-2009).

On July 21, 2009 the team announced that they had a "full-resolution (1/4mm) 3D model of Michelangelo's 5-meter statue of David", containing "about 1 billion polygons."

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2000 – 2005

Over 500,000 Egyptian Papyri Survive 2002

In spite of the immense loss of information over the centuries, in 2002 there were about 45,000 Egyptian papyri, including fragments, in six institutional libraries and museums in the United States. (Athena Review, 2, no. 2). The main U.S. holders of papyri were Duke University, University of California at Berkeley, University of Michigan, Columbia, Yale, and Princeton. It was estimated that there are about 500,000 unpublished papyri preserved elsewhere. Other major institutional collections of papyri were the University of Heidelberg, University of Oxford, University of Lecce, and the University of Copenhagen.

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Looting of the National Museum of Iraq April 6 – April 12, 2003

The National Museum of Iraq

Mushin Hasan, the deputy director of the National Museum of Iraq, sits on artifacts detroyed following the looting in April 2003

Between April 6 and April 12, 2003 The National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad lost an estimated 15,000 artifacts, including priceless relics of Mesopotamian civilization. The relics were stolen by looters in the days after Baghdad fell to U.S. forces in the Iraq War. Of the objects looted, about 5,000 were still missing in 2003, 4,000 were returned and 6,000 were recovered, according to Lawrence Rothfield, author of Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection After the Iraq War (2008).

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The Site of the Original Library of Alexandria is Located May 12, 2004

An artist's rendition of the Library of Alexandria

On May 12, 2004 archaeologists announced finding what they believed to be the remains of the building site of the ancient Library of Alexandria.

The 13 lecture halls at the building site could have housed as many as 5000 students, raising the possibility that the Library of Alexandria might have been the world's first university.

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2005 – 2010

The First Intelligible Word from an Extinct South American Civilization? August 12, 2005

Gary Urton with some khipu

Carrie Brezine studying khipu

An example of khipu

On August 12, 2005 anthropologists Gary Urton and Carrie Brezine published "Khipu Accounting in Ancient Peru," Science 309(2005)1065 - 1067.

"Khipu [quipu] are knotted-string devices that were used for bureaucratic recording and communication in the Inka [Inca] Empire. We recently undertook a computer analysis of 21 khipu from the Inka administrative center of Puruchuco, on the central coast of Peru. Results indicate that this khipu archive exemplifies the way in which census and tribute data were synthesized, manipulated, and transferred between different accounting levels in the Inka administrative system" (Science).

"Researchers in the US believe they have come closer to solving a centuries-old mystery - by deciphering knotted string used by the ancient Incas.

"Experts say one bunch of knots appears to identify a city, marking the first intelligible word from the extinct South American civilisation.

"The coloured, knotted pieces of string,known as khipu, are believed to have been used for accounting information.

"The researchers say the finding could unlock the meaning of other khipu.

"Harvard University researchers Gary Urton and Carrie Brezine used computers to analyse 21 khipu.

"They found a three-knot pattern in some of the strings which they believe identifies the bunch as coming from the city of Puruchuco, the site of an Inca palace.

" 'We hypothesize that the arrangement of three figure-eight knots at the start of these khipu represented the place identifier, or toponym, Puruchuco,' they wrote in their report, published in the journal Science.

" 'We suggest that any khipu moving within the state administrative system bearing an initial arrangement of three figure-eight knots would have been immediately recognisable to Inca administrators as an account pertaining to the palace of Puruchuco.' (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4143968.stm, accessed 04-28-2009).

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The Finest Roman Cameo Glass Vase Discovered October 13, 2009

On October 13, 2009 Bonhams auctioneers announced that they identified a Roman cameo glass vase, which may be the most important of its kind in the world. Strikingly similar to the Portland Vase, it is larger, in better condition and with superior decoration  

"The vase dates from between late First Century B.C. to early First Century A.D and stands 13in (33.5cm) high. Only 15 other Roman cameo glass vases and plaques are known to exist today. These very rare vessels were highly artistic, luxury items, produced by the Roman Empire’s most skilled craftsmen. They are formed from two layers of glass – cobalt blue with a layer of white on top – which is cut down after cooling to create the cameo-style decoration.  

"Items of this kind were produced, it is thought, within a period of only two generations. They would have been owned by distinguished Roman families.  

"Until now, the most famous example has been the Portland Vase, held by the British Museum. This is smaller, standing at only 9in (24cm) high. It is also missing its base and has been restored three times.

"The recently identified vase is also more complex than others of its kind, being decorated with around 30 figures and a battle scene around the lower register. By comparison, the Portland vase has just seven figures. Bonhams’ experts believe that this magnificent artefact could rewrite the history books on cameo vases. Unlike the Portland Vase, it still has its base and lower register and will therefore add significantly to the archaeological understanding of these vessels.  

"The vase is thought to have resided in a private European collection for some time. The collector is a long-term client of Bonhams.  

"In co-operation with leading experts in the field and with the present owner of the vase, Bonhams say they will be carrying out detailed research over the coming months into the historical background of the vase and its miraculous survival as well as into its more recent history and chain of ownership.  

"The vase was presented publicly for the first time at a the 18th Congress of the International Association for the History of Glass at Thessaloniki in Greece in September, where it was viewed by around 200 of the world’s leading glass specialists" (http://www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/7312.aspx).  

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2012 – 2016

"Unlooting the Iraq Museum": A Summary February 25, 2014

Regarding objects looted from Iraq's National Museum, on February 25, 2014 I received the foillowing email from Stewart Brand and the Longnow Foundation. via the SALT (Seminars About Long-term Thinking) mailing list  The email, titled "Unlooting the Iraq Museum," reported on a lecture previously given in San Francisco by Col. Matthew Bogdanso, who was instrumental in recovering many of the looted objects. Because the letter presented a meaningful concise summary of the context and extent of the looting and the extent of recovery, I decided to quote it in full: 
"Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad had been closed to the public by Saddam Hussein for over two decades when his regime fell in April 2003.  Iraquis felt no connection to the world renowned cultural treasures inside.  Like every other government building, it was trashed and looted.
Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, then in Basra leading a counter-terrorism group, volunteered part of his team to attempt recovery of the lost artifacts.  He arrived at the museum with 14 people to protect its dozen buildings and 11 acres in a still-active battle zone.  Invited by the museum director, they took up residence and analyzed the place as a crime scene.
Missing were some of civilization’s most historic archeological treasures.  From 3200 BC, the Sacred Vase of Warka, the world’s oldest carved stone ritual vessel.  From 2600 BC, the solid gold bull’s head from the Golden Harp of Ur.  From 2250 BC, the copper Akkadian Bassetki Statue, the earliest known example of lost-wax casting.  From 3100 BC, the limestone Mask of Warka, the first naturalistic depiction of a human face.  From 800 BC, the Treasure of Nimrud— a fabulous hoard of hundreds of pieces of exquisite Assyrian gold jewelry and gems.  Plus thousands of other artifacts and antiquities, including Uruk inscribed cylinder seals from 2500 BC.
Bidding on the international antiquities black market went to $25,000 for Uruk cylinder seals, $40 million for the Vase of Varka.

Since the goal was recovery, not prosecution, Bogdanos instituted a total amnesty for return of stolen artifacts—no questions asked, and also no payment, just a cordial cup of tea for thanks.  Having learned from duty in Afghanistan to listen closely to the locals, Bogdanos and his team walked the streets, visited the mosques, played backgammon in the neighborhoods, and followed up on friendly tips (every one of which turned out to be genuine).  3,000 items had been taken from the museum by random looters.  Local Iraquis returned 95% of them.  
The prime pieces stolen by professional thieves took longer to track down.  Raids on smuggler’s trucks and hiding places turned up more items.  The Bassetki Statue was found hidden in a cess pool; the Mask of Warka had been buried in the ground.  Some pieces began turning up all over the world and were seized when identified. (Bogdanos noted that Geneva, Switzerland, is where that kind of contraband often rests in warehouses that law enforcement is not allowed to search.)
It turned out Saddam himself had looted the museum of the Treasure of Nimrud and the gold bull’s head back in 1990.  Tips led to a flooded underground vault in the bombed-out Central Bank of Iraq, and the priceless items were discovered.  
Everything found was returned to the Iraq National Museum, where the great antiquities are gradually being restored to public display.  Iraq, and the world, is retaking possession of its most ancient heritage.
Bogdanos quoted Sophocles: “Whoever neglects the arts… has lost the past and is dead to the future.”
—Stewart Brand (sb@longnow.org)
(This talk was neither recorded nor filmed, because material presented in it is part of a still on-going investigation.  You can get the full story from Bogdanos’ excellent book, Thieves of Baghdad.)"
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