Connections: Denmark and Egypt

More than 3,500 kilometers separate the tombs of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt from the village of Ølby in Denmark, but thousands of years ago they were connected by trade.

160523mapRecent archaeological work has identified a blue glass bead found in a bronze age woman’s grave in Ølby as originally Egyptian. In fact, based on the composition of the glass, researchers have suggested that the glass bead was made in the same workshop that produced the blue glass inlay on Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s gold funerary mask. Similar beads are known from several other Danish burials. In an age when glass-making as a skill known only in a few regions, colorful glass beads were as precious as gemstones.

160523glassGlass beads like these could have come to Denmark in exchange for amber from the shores of the Baltic Sea. Amber was highly prized in the ancient Mediterranean and not just as jewelry. It was sometimes fashioned into amulets for warding away evil or burned like incense. (The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder complained about his fellow Romans’ superstitions about it; see: Pliny, Natural History 37.11.)

Amber has not been found in large quantities in Egypt, but it was used in some jewelry. In fact, one of the pectorals (pendants worn over the chest as amulets) wrapped up in the linen with Tutankhamun’s mummy is set with a piece of amber.

160523scarabIt’s unlikely that many Danes traveled to Egypt or Egyptians to Denmark in the bronze age. More likely both amber pieces and glass beads were carried short distances by chains of traders in between. Small, easily portable, but high-value objects like beads and gemstones are perfectly suited to this sort of down-the-line trade. A ship that was wrecked off the coast of Turkey around the same time as Tutankhamun’s burial (known as the Uluburun or Kaş Shipwreck) may have been part of that trade network. The ship, whose home port may have been in northern Syria or on Cyprus, was carrying both blue Egyptian glass and Baltic amber when it went down. Also in the ship’s cargo, interestingly, was a gold scarab inscribed with the name of Nefertiti, queen to Tutankhamun’s father Akhenaten (though she was not Tutankhamun’s mother).

Thoughts for writers

The evidence of archaeology is always a bit haphazard in nature. So much is unpredictable about what artifacts survive and what gets found. We are lucky to have the evidence from both the tombs of Tutankhamun and the woman in Ølby, as well as the Uluburun shipwreck, to help us trace out the lines of connection between Egypt and the Baltic. There is no question that connections between different peoples in the distant past were deeper and stronger than we know, but the evidence to document those connections has been lost.

Historians (at least those of the responsible sort) are limited by evidence, but fiction writers don’t have to be. When building your fictional worlds, let the fragments of evidence from our own inspire you to imagine far-flung connections and enterprising traders. Connections like these have always been important.

Images: Map by Erik Jensen based on Portable Atlas. Blue glass bead, detail of photograph by Roberto Fortuna and Kira Ursem via Haaretz (Ølby; 14th c. BCE; glass). Scarab pectoral, photograph by Jon Bodsworth via Wikimedia (tomb of Tutankhamun; 14th c. BCE; gold, glass, and precious stones)

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.

Travel: Water

160516junkTraveling over land is familiar. Many of us do it every day (even if we don’t do it as part of an army or with pack animals), but travel over water, though vital to the modern economy, isn’t part of daily life for most of us. Sometimes, though, the characters in your stories or games need to ride a raft downriver, strike out across the ocean in an outrigger canoe, or hoist the sails of a ship of the line. In this installment of the travel series, we look at types of pre-industrial water transport, the speeds and distances ships can travel, how much cargo ships can carry, and what it takes to make a successful voyage over water.


Ship speeds are conventionally measured in knots, equivalent to 1 nautical mile (1.151 statute miles or 1.852 km) per hour. 1 km/h is equal to 0.54 knots. In this post, I have given all speeds in terms of km/h for consistency with the other travel posts.

Types of transport

There are many different types of watercraft, from one-person rafts to massive cargo ships, but one essential way of distinguishing them is by means of propulsion. Pre-modern vessels had four basic options for propulsion: current, wind, paddles/oars, or draft.

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Hannibal’s Route Identified?

160407didrachm In 218 BCE, the Carthaginian general Hannibal led an army across the Alps into Italy, touching off the Second Punic War. On the question of exactly where Hannibal crossed the Alps, there’s always been a lot of, for lack of a better term, horse pucky. The ancient sources are vague and of dubious reliability. In the absence of solid evidence, numerous distinct schools of thought on the question have emerged. There are the military professionals who argue that Hannibal must have taken the easiest, most straightforward route open to him. There are the romantics who insist that Hannibal’s army must have taken a difficult and dangerous route befitting such a momentous expedition. The folklorists are persuaded by local legends in the Alps while the textualists wrangle over which of the literary sources is more reliable. Now some literal horse pucky may be getting us closer to an answer.

The whole route hangs on the identification of two specific points. One is an area called the “island” somewhere in the valley of the Rhone river. The other is the pass by which Hannibal’s army crossed the Alps. While the “island” is still uncertain, recent archaeological work may have identified the Alpine pass. As reported in Archaeometry in March, 2016, a large deposit of horse manure and disturbed soil near the Col de la Traversette indicates the passage of a large number of horses dated to the period of the Second Punic War. If this finding stands up to further scrutiny, it may allow us to pin down Hannibal’s Alpine crossing.

Identifying the Traversette as the pass Hannibal’s army took would have some interesting implications for our interpretation of the war as a whole. Although favored by some scholars (notably Sir Gavin de Beer), the Traversette has usually been dismissed as too high, narrow, and difficult for Hannibal’s army, especially when several lower, wider, easier passes were available within a few days’ march. The military-history school in particular has argued that Hannibal would not have set out on his march without good advance intelligence about the Alpine passes and that intelligence would have persuaded him never to attempt the Traversette. If Hannibal did indeed take his army by the Traversette, it suggests that his advance intelligence was not as good as modern historians imagine (whether because Hannibal didn’t know enough about the available passes or because he allowed his army to get into such desperate straits that he had to take a pass he knew was a bad choice).

If Hannibal’s intelligence-gathering was less than optimal, that would also help to explain the major strategic failure of his campaign: overestimating the central Italian cities’ readiness to cast off Roman hegemony. Hannibal’s strategy against Rome depended on stripping Rome of its allies and conquests. While he found ready support in the areas of northern and southern Italy that had only recently been conquered by Rome, very few cities in Rome’s core central Italian territory were willing to join him.

It’s always important to take new findings with caution. Further research may cast doubt on this new evidence. For now though, the poop looks promising.

Post edited for clarity

Image: Tarentine didrachm struck during the Second Punic War, photograph by Classical Numismatic Group via Wikimedia (c. 212-209 BCE; silver)

Connections: Rome and the Arctic

160314glassFrom the city of Rome to the Arctic circle is a distance of about 2,750 km. At its greatest extent, the northernmost tip of the Roman empire was more than 1,000 km from the Arctic. Even across such a distance, however, there were connections. A couple of little pieces of evidence show us how knowledge of Rome could reach the far north, and how knowledge of the far north could reach Rome.

In Føre, Nordland, on an island in far northern Norway, is an ancient burial site. Over several centuries in the late iron age around 10 mound burials were raised of earth and stone. (The number is uncertain because some of the mounds have been destroyed by erosion and farming.) Not all have been excavated, but those that have have yielded the evidence of extraordinary wealth by local standards, including a Roman drinking glass buried in the only female grave so far known at the site. (The glass pictured is of a similar type, but not from the same site.)

It is very unlikely that Føre had any direct connection to the Roman world. Rather it was at the northern extreme of a network of trade and alliances that spanned Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea region which used Roman imports as high-status trade goods and diplomatic gifts. The people of Føre may have had very little idea of what the Roman empire was, but they had some access to Roman goods and valued them as precious objects.

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Travel: Animals

160222reindeerFrom the grand howdah-backed elephant to the plodding pack pony, from the solitary stallion to the caravan of a thousand camels, animals are often a part of how our characters get around. In previous entries to the travel series we’ve considered small and large groups traveling on foot. This time we bring animals into the mix.

Animals can be useful for travel, but they also bring their own challenges with them. The first thing we need to consider is what kinds of animals are useful for long-distance travel. Then we’ll look at the three main ways of using animals for travel: riding, pack, and draft. Finally, a word on the care and feeding of transport animals. As usual in this series, we are looking at real-world history: no griffins or dragon-drawn chariots. Take the information here and adjust as necessary for whatever setting you happen to be writing.

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Travel: Large Groups on Foot

160118legionSometimes writing fiction means not just moving a few characters around the map but planning entire campaigns for massive armies. In previous entries in the travel series we looked at some basic issues and how small groups travel on foot. For large groups on foot, much of what we discussed in those entries is relevant, but large groups of people, like armies or mass migrations, bring with them their own set of problems. Today we’ll look at some basic questions in the movement of large groups: How large is “large?” What did it take to make the journey successfully? How far could they travel? And how fast?

This post is written with a particular focus on armies, since they are the best-studied large groups that traveled in the pre-industrial world, but any sufficiently large group of people traveling by foot would face the same basic problems.

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Travel: Small Groups on Foot

151214BoromirDespite what you may have heard from certain Gondorian captains, one does sometimes have to simply walk into Mordor.

In the first installment of the travel series we looked at some basic issues involved in travel in a pre-industrial world. Today we tackle the kind of travel that most people did most of the time in the pre-modern world: overland journeys by foot in small groups (or alone). We have a few basic questions to ask: How far could they go? How fast could they get there? How much stuff could they take with them? And what did it take to make the journey successfully?

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Travel: Some Basics

151116caravanWhether it’s carrying the One Ring to Mount Doom or sailing the Azure Sea, travel is an important part of a lot of fantasy stories and games. For those of us more accustomed to traveling by car, train, bus, and plane than by foot, horse, oxcart, or galleon, this poses a lot of practical problems. How far can your characters travel in a day? How long will it take them to get from point A to point B? And what do they need in order to make the journey successfully?

This is the introduction to a History for Writers series that looks at the evidence of history to help provide practical answers to your questions about travel in the pre-modern world. We’ll look at a few basic issues today. In future installments we’ll examine specific modes of travel, terrains, and problems.

Note that what we’re discussing here is based on real-world history, so it applies only to the extent that your world resembles historical conditions. If your characters travel by foot, horse, and sail, much of the information here will be directly applicable. If they have teleportation and magic carpets, adjust accordingly.

Here are a few basic issues that apply to just about any kind of travel in a pre-industrial world:

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