History Doesn’t Look Historical

It’s an unavoidable fact that when we look at historical artifacts, we’re looking at things that are many years old, sometimes centuries or millennia. Physical objects, even those made of enduring materials like metal or stone, are changed by the processes of time. Exposure to light, moisture, changing temperatures, air pollution, wind, water, and other effects works changes on artifacts that can range from subtle to drastic. Our sense of what history looks like is shaped by things that no longer look like what they were when they were first being made, admired, and used by people in their daily lives.

Take, for example, the sculptures and architecture of ancient Greece. Our perception of ancient Greek art is shaped by the white marble statues and temples that remain today, but the originals were not white. We know from ancient descriptions and a few pieces with surviving traces of paint that the stone buildings and sculptures of ancient Greece were brightly colored.

Examples like this statue of a woman, with traces of paint on her dress, suggest what such a statue might have originally looked like.

Statue of a woman (kore), photograph by Nemracc via Wikimedia (Keratea, Greece, currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 580-560 BCE; marble)

Evidence like this makes it possible to attempt to reconstruct what statues of this type looked like when first created. The two reconstructions on the right here offer two possible interpretations of what the original, on the left, may have looked like when it was new.

Statue of a woman (kore) and two reconstructions, composite of photographs by Marsyas, via Wikimedia (original: Acropolis, Athens; c. 530 BCE; marble; reconstructions: Acropolis Museum, Athens)

The striking colors of the past are not just a phenomenon of ancient Greece. At Stirling Castle, in Scotland, a recent restoration project has brought back the original rich yellow color of the walls of the medieval great hall, which was determined from traces of ochre mixed with the remains of the lime wash applied to the stone. You can see the striking contrast between the restored great hall in the background and the bare stone of the buildings in front.

Stirling Castle, photograph by dun_deagh via Flickr (Stirling, Scotland; c. 1500-1600; stone and lime wash)

Studying history requires an act of imagination. Just as we have to imagine ancient monuments are artifacts new and fresh, not as the worn-out relics we see today, we also have to imagine peoples of the past as vibrant, complicated, living societies, not the stilted, dry facts of textbooks. Fiction has a great value to the student of history, as it helps us imagine ourselves into the lives of people different from ourselves. Our history is always somebody else’s daily life.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

The Oldest Active Library in the World

The library attached to al-Qarawiyyin mosque and university (alternate western spellings include Al Karaouin and Al Quaraouiyine, among others) in Fez, Morocco, is not just the oldest active library in the world, it’s also exceptionally beautiful.

TheNewArab al-Qarawiyyin Library Courtyard 479

Al-Qarawiyyin was founded in 859 by Fatima Al Fihri. The architecture of the university reflects various past styles and ruling dynasties. The decorated interiors include calligraphic designs on the walls, ceramic patterns on the floors, and wooden carvings on the ceilings.

TEDcom al-Qarawiyyin Main Reading Room aziza_chaouni_img_2096

From 2012 to 2016, the library was completely renovated. The restoration was lead by architect Aziza Chaouni. She describes the starting point for her project at TED.com:

“When I first visited, I was shocked at the state of the place.

“In rooms containing precious manuscripts dating back to the 7th century, the temperature and moisture were uncontrolled, and there were cracks in the ceiling. […]

“Throughout the years, the library underwent many rehabilitations, but it still suffered from major structural problems, a lack of insulation, and infrastructural deficiencies like a blocked drainage system, broken tiles, cracked wood beams, exposed electric wires, and so on.”

TEDcom al-Qarawiyyin Entrance Main Reading Room aziza_chaouni_img_2100

One of Chaouni’s leading principles was respect to its authenticity. Her restoration team preserved and salvaged what they could, but when it wasn’t possible, features and details were created from scratch. This included using local materials and construction systems, like furniture by local craftsmen who used native wood. Says Chaouni:

“There has to be a fine balance between keeping the original spaces, addressing the needs of current users, including students, researchers and visitors, and integrating new sustainable technologies — solar panels, water collection for garden irrigation, and so on.”

TheBigStory al-Qarawiyyin Fountain Samia Ezzarrouki 460x

Currently a part of Morocco’s state university system, the library is now open to the public in addition to historians and students.

(Incidentally, the university’s famous alumni include the 16th-century Andalusian adventurer known as Leo Africanus, whose book Description of Africa was considered the most authoritative source for northern Africa until the beginning of European exploration and expansion in the African continent.)

More photos at The New Arab, TED.com, The Big Story, Tor.com and BookRiot.

Images: Courtyard via TheNewArab; main reading room and entrance to main reading room by Aziza Chaouni via TED.com; fountain by Samia Errazzouki via The Big Story.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

The Great Walls of China

The Great Wall is perhaps the most iconic piece of Chinese architecture and the best known outside of China. It is also widely misunderstood. Border walls like the Great Wall in China, Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, and the Great Wall of Gorgan in Persia do not function the same way as the walls of a city or fortress. These walls are less about keeping people out than they are about managing, observing, and sending a message to the people entering the country or already within it.

A view of the wall from near the eastern terminus, photograph by Jack Upland via Wikimedia
A view of the wall from near the eastern terminus, photograph by Jack Upland via Wikimedia

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Stave Churches

When we think of ancient architecture, we tend to think of stone and brick: the pyramids of Egypt, the amphitheatres of Rome, the Great Wall of China, the temples of the Aztecs and Maya. These are structures that have endured. We have many fewer models of wooden architecture from the distant past, even though wood—cheaper, lighter, and easier to work that stone or brick—was what most people built with in many parts of the world. Wooden buildings burn, rot, or just fall down if not maintained. Good examples of wooden buildings from more than a few centuries ago are very hard to find. One set of buildings that help fill that gap are the stave churches of Norway.

Heddal stave church, photograph by Micha L. Rieser via Wikimeida (Heddal, Norway; 13th c.)
Heddal stave church, photograph by Micha L. Rieser via Wikimeida (Heddal, Norway; 13th c.)

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Fantasy Religions: Religious Sites

So, you’re creating a fantasy religion for a story or game. When your characters need to interact with their gods, where do they go—if anywhere at all? Down the street to the local temple? To the top of a windswept mountain? To a corner of their kitchen? Today we look at religious sites in historical cultures to inspire our imaginations.

We can start by looking at religion in today’s world. Look at the religious life of a modern western community and you will find some people attending their local church, synagogue, or mosque, some people praying quietly in their own homes, some feeling inspired by solitary walks in the woods, some debating points of theology over the internet, some participating in celebrations of religious holidays, and some not involved at all. Many people will do more than one of the above. No culture or religious tradition is monolithic, and this is just as true in the past as the present. The history of religious expression is one of incredible variety both across and within cultures.

In this variety, though, there are some patterns that recur in varying forms. People use different kinds of religious sites for different  needs. Many different traditions have used similar kinds of religious sites, and within any given tradition different sites are used for different purposes. Today we will look at four common types of religious site out of the wide variety of possibilities: assemblies, temples, household shrines, and natural spaces.

Assembly

The “assembly” type of religious space will be recognizable to anyone familiar with major variants of the modern monotheistic religions. It is a space where a community of believers gathers to perform collective rituals such as praying, singing hymns, hearing sermons, feasting, and witnessing or participating in ritual enactments.

Grand Mosque, Djenne, photograph by BluesyPete via Wikimedia
Grand Mosque, Djenne, photograph by BluesyPete via Wikimedia

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Great Zimbabwe

Aerial view of part of the Great Zimbabwe complex. Photograph by Janice Bell
Aerial view of part of the Great Zimbabwe complex, photograph by Janice Bell via Wikimedia

Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in Zimbabwe (and in fact has given the modern country its name). Built over centuries beginning in the 9th century, the site was a center of power for the medieval Shona (or Kalanga) kingdom and part of the trade networks that spanned the Indian Ocean. It was abandoned in the 15th century and stands in ruins today, but even in its ruined state it is impressive.

Wall of the great enclosure. Photograph by Jens Klinzing.
Wall of the great enclosure, photograph by Jens Klinzing via Wikimedia

The remains of numerous stone enclosures spread over hundreds of hectares. At its height, Great Zimbabwe may have housed between 15,000 and 20,000 people. The surviving walls reach heights of five meters and are built of stone blocks assembled without mortar. Several different complexes occupy different positions ranging from hills to near the river. The significance of these different complexes remains unclear, but it may indicate that the center of settlement gradually moved over time, away from the more defensible hill sites to the more accessible valley sites, perhaps to better engage with the oceanic trade networks. Ivory and gold were Great Zimbabwe’s major international exports and trade goods from the Arabian peninsula and China have been found at the site.

Interior walkway showing the quality of the stonework. Uploaded by Vinz.
Interior walkway showing the quality of the stonework via Wikimedia

One noteworthy feature of the enclosures is their shape: neither rectangular nor circular but irregular curved shapes adapted to the forms of the landscape on which they sit.

In the colonial period, popular theories held that the site must have been built by ancient European or Asian colonizers. The biblical Queen of Sheba was often mentioned in connection with the site. Although archaeologists realized as early as the early twentieth century that Great Zimbabwe had been built by Africans, the colonial administration in what was then Rhodesia suppressed any such claim. The assertion that Africans were incapable of building such a complex site and needed European guidance to achieve any level of civilization was key to the justification of imperial domination. Colonial authorities could not tolerate any evidence that Africans were capable of creating sophisticated works of art and architecture on their own.

Part of the hill complex seen from the valley below. Photograph by Macvivo.
Part of the hill complex seen from the valley below, photograph by Macvivo via Wikimedia

Thoughts for writers

I have two reasons for sharing a little bit of Great Zimbabwe.

First, it is another example of architecture that does not depend on European examples. When doing our worldbuilding as writers, it is easy to fall back on the things that are familiar: European castles, Egyptian pyramids, Greek temples, and the other things we’ve seen before. Let yourself be inspired by the other amazing things people have built. I’d love to see a city inspired by Great Zimbabwe at its height turn up in a fantasy story, even one not set in an explicitly African-inspired world.

Second, this is another example of how politics can screw up good historical scholarship and so why you need to read broadly and get outside familiar frames of reference. Even today, while the Queen of Sheba is generally left out of it, claims that Great Zimbabwe was built by Arabs or Phoenicians still occasionally creep into popular histories.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Serpent Mound

Serpent Mound, located in Ohio in the United States, is an enormous earthwork built on a grassy plateau above Ohio Brush Creek. It is one of many large earthworks in North America, but it is unusual in representing an image when seen from above. This image has been interpreted as a snake swallowing an egg.

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Serpent Mound, photograph by Eric Ewing via Wikimedia

The date of construction is uncertain, but recent research suggests that Serpent Mound was created in the last few centuries CE when the river valleys west of the central Appalachian Mountains were occupied by a people known to modern archaeologists as the Adena culture. We have no way of knowing what they called themselves. The Adena were a sophisticated culture at the center of a trade network stretching north beyond the Great Lakes south to the Gulf of Mexico. One of the distinctive features of their culture was the construction of large earthworks, many of which served funerary purposes, but may also have marked ceremonial centers or areas for gathering and trade.

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I Want an Iwan

Well, no I don’t actually want one. I don’t have room for one to begin with, and I don’t live in the right climate anyway. That doesn’t change the fact that iwans are cool. Literally.

An iwan is a large room with a vaulted ceiling that has walls on three sides and the fourth side open to the air. They were built in the heat of Mesopotamia to create large shady spaces that were still open to light and air. The earliest iwans are thought to have been constructed under the Parthian empire in the first or second centuries CE. One of the earliest examples to survive into modern times was at Ctesiphon on the Tigris River, built by the Sasanian empire in the sixth century CE. Unfortunately, the building fell into poor repair over time and was destroyed by wars in the twentieth century, but in these old photographs you can still see enormous vaulted space.

 

Photograph of a Sasanian iwan at Ctesiphon, photograph 1864, Wonders of the Past vol. 2
Sasanian iwan, from Wonders of the Past vol. 2 via Wikimedia (photograph 1864). Note the people standing on top of the roof vault for a sense of scale.
Photograph of the same iwan from half a century later showing ongoing decay, currently San Diego Air and Space Museum
Photograph of the same iwan from half a century later showing ongoing decay via Wikimedia (photograph currently San Diego Air and Space Museum)

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Dún Aonghasa

Aerial view of Dún Aonghasa. Photograph by Ronan Mac Giollopharaic
Aerial view of Dún Aonghasa, photograph by Ronan Mac Giollopharaic via Wikimedia

While doing some research on northern European hillforts recently, I found myself looking at some pictures of Dún Aonghasa (also known as Dun Aengus). It’s an impressive site. The fort is a series of concentric half-rings backing up onto 100-meter cliffs on the island on Inishmore off the western coast of Ireland. The earliest construction on the site has been dated to around 1100 BCE. Later additions were made around 500 BCE. It is one of the largest well-preserved examples of a type of structure that was built throughout northern and western Europe, from Spain to Sweden, in the prehistoric era.

The "cheveaux de frise," a barrier of jagged stones set up to slow down attackers. Photograph by Herbert Ortner
The “cheveaux de frise,” a barrier of jagged stones set up to slow down attackers, photograph by Herbert Ortner via Wikimedia

There has been disagreement in the scholarship about the function of Dún Aonghasa and similar forts. While often identified as fortified settlements, some have suggested that they were actually sites of religious ritual. It has to be said that if Dún Aonghasa and sites like it were religious sanctuaries, they were amazingly well-defended ones. I think it is more likely that sites that were originally built for defense were centuries later repurposed as ceremonial sites, much like how medieval castles built for defense have centuries later become museums and tourist attractions.

The walls of Dún Aonghasa and the cliffs of Inishmore. Photograph by Jal74
The walls of Dún Aonghasa and the cliffs of Inishmore, photograph by Jal74 via Wikimedia

It may be hard to believe that such an enormous fortification was built in so remote a place, but forts like Dún Aonghasa were once fairly common across western and northern Europe. Most, however, have been lost to decay, erosion, and the reuse of stones. It is only in remote places like Inishmore that they still survive.

Thoughts for writers

Just a simple thought today: the world is full of interesting possibilities. Fortresses don’t have to look like medieval castles. Religious sites don’t have to look like cathedrals or Greek temples. History is huge and there are amazing things out there to inspire your imagination.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

The Billion-Dollar Pyramid

150817PyramidWe all know that the pyramids of Egypt were tombs for the pharaohs. (Yes, yes, and landing pads for Goa’uld spaceships; you can put your hands down now.) Thinking about what it took to build them, though, gives us an idea of what else they were.

The construction of the pyramids is a perpetual favorite subject of cranks and crackpots (Lost technologies of Atlantis! Sound waves!). Even among the more reality-bound, there is no end of theories ranging from the mundane (ramps and sledges) to the reasonably plausible (pulleys and levers) to the unlikely but not impossible (poured concrete). No matter what technique we imagine, however, one thing was definitely required: massive amounts of labor.

What most armchair pyramidologists miss about the problem of megalithic construction is that the physics of moving large stones are very simple. Apply enough force to a mass and it will move. Some things can make the application of force easier: ramps, pulleys, rollers, whatever you’ve got, but in the end it’s just a matter of force versus inertia. No matter how you go about building a pyramid, what you need in the end is the same: muscle power and time. With enough muscle power and time you can build pretty much anything, but labor is expensive. The real problem that would-be pyramid builders have to solve isn’t technological, it’s economic. The real question isn’t “How did they build the pyramids?” but “How did they afford the pyramids?”

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