Sunday 27 November 2016

Classical Mayan Period

Various advanced cultures flourished simultaneously in the Americas between the 1st century BC and c.400-600 CE - a period that includes part of the great Mesoamerican "Classic" eras. Perhaps the best known of these cultures was that of the Maya people, who with their stunning temples and scientific knowledge created one of the most extra ordinary early American Civilizations.

Calakmul was one of the most important Classic period cities

The early Maya civilization developed in an area that encompasses southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. This region consists of the northern lowlands encompassing the Yucatán Peninsula, and the highlands of the Sierra Madre, running from the Mexican state of Chiapas, across southern Guatemala and onwards into El Salvador, and the southern lowlands of the Pacific littoral plain.

The Classic period is largely defined as the period during which the lowland Maya raised dated monuments using the Long Count calendar. This period marked the peak of large-scale construction and urbanism, the recording of monumental inscriptions, and demonstrated significant intellectual and artistic development, particularly in the southern lowland regions. The Classic period Maya political landscape has been likened to that of Renaissance Italy or Classical Greece, with multiple city-states engaged in a complex network of alliances and enmities.

Long Count Calender

During the Classic Period, the Maya civilization achieved its greatest florescence.The Maya developed an agriculturally intensive, city-centred civilization consisting of numerous independent city-states – some subservient to others. During the Early Classic, cities throughout the Maya region were influenced by the great metropolis of Teotihuacan in the distant Valley of Mexico.

A temple in Valley of Mexico

At its height during the Late Classic, the Tikal city polity had expanded to have a population of well over 100,000. Tikal's great rival was Calakmul(see above), another powerful city polity in the Petén Basin. Tikal and Calakmul both developed extensive systems of allies and vassals; lesser cities that entered one of these networks gained prestige from their association with the top-tier city, and maintained peaceful relations with other members of the same network.

Temple complex in Tikal 

Tikal and Calakmul engaged in the manoeuvering of their alliance networks against each other; at various points during the Classic period, one or other of these powers would gain a strategic victory over its great rival, resulting in respective periods of florescence and decline.

In the southeast, Copán was the most important city. Its Classic-period dynasty was founded in 426 by K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo'.Copán reached the height of its cultural and artistic development during the rule of Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, who reigned from 695 to 738. His reign ended catastrophically in April 738, when he was captured by his vassal, king K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat of Quiriguá(see below). The captured lord of Copán was taken back to Quiriguá and, in early May 738, he was decapitated in a public ritual.


Capital cities of Maya kingdoms could vary considerably in size, apparently related to how many vassal cities were tied to the capital. Overlords of city-states that held sway over a greater number of subordinate lords could command greater quantities of tribute in the form of goods and labour. The most notable forms of tribute pictured on Maya ceramics are cacao, textiles and feathers.

The social basis of the Classic Maya civilization was an extended political and economic network that reached throughout the Maya area and beyond into the greater Mesoamerican region. The dominant Classic period polities were located in the central lowlands; during this period the southern highlands and northern lowlands can be considered culturally, economically, and politically peripheral to this core area. Those loci that existed between the core and the periphery acted as centres of trade and commerce.

The most notable monuments are the pyramid-temples and palaces they built in the centres of their greatest cities. At this time, the use of hieroglyphic script on monuments became widespread, and left a large body of information including dated dynastic records, alliances, and other interactions between Maya polities. The sculpting of stone stelae spread throughout the Maya area during the Classic period, and pairings of sculpted stelae and low circular altars are considered a hallmark of Classic Maya civilization.

Stela representing king K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat.

The Maya civilization participated in long-distance trade, and important trade routes ran from the Motagua River to the Caribbean Sea, then north up the coast to Yucatán. Another route ran from Verapaz along the Pasión River to the trading port at Cancuen; from there trade routes ran east to Belize, northwards to central and northern Petén, and onwards to the Gulf of Mexico and the west coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. Important elite-status trade goods included jade, fine ceramics, and quetzal feathers. More basic trade goods may have included obsidian, salt and cacao.

Sunday 20 November 2016

Han Dynasty of China

The Han Dynasty, founded by Liu Bang in 202 BC, created a powerful centralized state with a highly efficient civil service that would serve as a model for future Chinese emperors over the next two millennia.

Gentlemen in conversation
Qin Shi Huang's son, the second emperor Qin Er Shi, fell under the influence of the eunuch Zhao Gao, who persuaded him to execute Li Si, his father's first minister, by having him cut into two at a market place at Xianyang. The emperor was forced to commit suicide in 207 BC.

Qin Er Shi

Upon this, Ziying, a nephew of Qin Er Shi, ascended the throne, and immediately executed Zhao Gao. Ziying, seeing that increasing unrest was growing among the people and that many local officials had declared themselves kings, attempted to cling to his throne by declaring himself one king among all the others. He was undermined by his ineptitude, however, and popular revolt broke out.

Liu Bang rose to prominence as a leader of a rebel band. In 206 BC, he captured  Xianyang, the Qin capital, negotiated the surrender of the last Qin ruler. In 202 BC he assumed the style of sovereign ruler naming himself Gaozu and used Han as the title of the new dynasty.

Emperor Gaozu(Liu Bang)

The coinage issued by the central government mint in 119 BC remained the standard coinage of China until the Tang dynasty(618–907 AD). The period saw a number of limited institutional innovations. To pay for its military campaigns and the settlement of newly conquered frontier territories, the government nationalized the private salt and iron industries in 117 BC.

Han China Coin

Science and technology during the Han period saw significant advances, including papermaking, the nautical steering rudder, the use of negative numbers in mathematics, the raised-relief map, the hydraulic-powered armillary sphere for astronomy, and a seismometer employing an inverted pendulum.

Paper from Han Period

Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 BC) launched several military campaigns against Xiongnu, a nomadic steppe confederation. The ultimate Han victory in these wars eventually forced the Xiongnu to accept vassal status as Han tributaries. These campaigns expanded Han sovereignty into the Tarim Basin of Central Asia, divided the Xiongnu into two separate confederations, and helped establish the vast trade network known as the Silk Road, which reached as far as the Mediterranean world.

Emperor Wu of Han
Following the death of Emperor Ling(r. 168–189 AD), the palace eunuchs suffered wholesale massacre by military officers, allowing members of the aristocracy and military governors to become warlords and divide the empire. In 208 AD, Cao Cao(Chinese warlord and the penultimate Chancellor of the Eastern Han dynasty),  assumed power over the emperor.

After Cao's defeat at the naval Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 AD, China was divided into three spheres of influence, with Cao Cao dominating the north, Sun Quan (182–252 AD) dominating the south, and Liu Bei (161–223 AD) dominating the west. Cao Cao died in March 220 AD. By December his son Cao Pi (187–226 AD) had Emperor Xian relinquish the throne to him and is known posthumously as Emperor Wen of Wei. This formally ended the Han dynasty and initiated an age of conflict between three states: Cao Wei, Eastern Wu, and Shu Han. It was known as the Three Kingdom Period.

Cao Cao

The early Western Han court simultaneously accepted the philosophical teachings of Legalism, Huang-Lao Daoism, and Confucianism in making state decisions and shaping government policy. However, the Han court under Emperor Wu gave Confucianism exclusive patronage. He abolished all academic chairs not dealing with the Confucian Five Classics in 136 BC and encouraged nominees for office to receive a Confucian-based education at the Imperial University that he established in 124 BC.


The most common staple crops consumed during Han were wheat, barley, foxtail millet, proso millet, rice, and beans. Commonly eaten fruits and vegetables included chestnuts, pears, plums, peaches, melons, apricots, strawberries, red bayberries, jujubes, calabash, bamboo shoots, mustard plant and taro. Domesticated animals that were also eaten included chickens, Mandarin ducks, geese, cows, sheep, pigs, camels and dogs.

The types of clothing worn and the materials used during the Han period depended upon social class. Wealthy folk could afford silk robes, skirts, socks, and mittens, coats made of badger or fox fur, duck plumes, and slippers with inlaid leather, pearls, and silk lining. Peasants commonly wore clothes made of hemp, wool, and ferret skins.

Han Dynasty Palace Model

A pottery model of a palace from a Han-dynasty tomb; the entrances to the emperor's palaces were strictly guarded by the Minister of the Guards; if it was found that a commoner, official, or noble entered without explicit permission via a tally system, the intruder was subject to execution.

Saturday 12 November 2016

Celtic Tribes

Fierce warriors and skilled iron workers with a love of feasting, the Celts swept across much of Europe during the 1st millennium BC. Their advance brought them into contact with many of the cultures that shaped history, including the Greeks and Romans. Later, they played a part in the rise of Christianity.

The Gundestrup cauldron detail

Although diverse tribes the ancient Celts spoke the same language and maintained the same artistic tradition which is characterised by the use of idiosyncratic flowing lines and forms. Celtic languages are still spoken today in parts of the British Isles and northern France.

They were a group of peoples loosely tied by similar language, religion, and cultural expression. They were not centrally governed, and quite as happy to fight each other as any non-Celt. They were warriors, living for the glories of battle and plunder. They were also the people who brought iron working to the British Isles.

Celtic Shield

During the later Iron Age the Gauls generally wore long-sleeved shirts or tunics and long trousers. Clothes were made of wool or linen, with some silk being used by the rich. Cloaks were worn in the winter. Brooches and armlets were used, but the most famous item of jewellery was the torc, a neck collar of metal, sometimes gold.

Reconstruction of Celtic clothes

Celtic art is generally used by art historians to refer to art of the La Tène period across Europe, while the Early Medieval art of Britain and Ireland, that is what "Celtic art" evokes for much of the general public, is called Insular art in art history. Much of the surviving material is in precious metal, which no doubt gives a very unrepresentative picture, but apart from Pictish stones and the Insular high crosses, large monumental sculpture, even with decorative carving, is very rare; possibly it was originally common in wood.

Celtic Art at back side of a mirror

Like other European Iron Age tribal societies, the Celts practised a polytheistic religion. Many Celtic gods are known from texts and inscriptions from the Roman period. Rites and sacrifices were carried out by priests known as druids. The Celts did not see their gods as having human shapes until late in the Iron Age. Celtic shrines were situated in remote areas such as hilltops, groves, and lakes.

The Romans knew the Celts then living in what became present-day France as Gauls. The territory of these peoples probably included the Low Countries, the Alps and present-day northern Italy. Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars described the 1st-century BC descendants of those Gauls.

The dying Gaul

Eastern Gaul became the centre of the western La Tène culture. In later Iron Age Gaul, the social organisation resembled that of the Romans, with large towns. From the 3rd century BC the Gauls adopted coinage. Texts with Greek characters from southern Gaul have survived from the 2nd century BC.

Boudica was a queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. The crisis caused Roman Emperor Nero to consider withdrawing all Roman forces from Britain, but his general Suetonius' eventual victory over Boudica confirmed Roman control of the province. Boudica then either killed herself to avoid capture, or died of illness.


Archaeological evidence suggests that the pre-Roman Celtic societies were linked to the network of overland trade routes that spanned Eurasia. Archaeologists have discovered large prehistoric trackways crossing bogs in Ireland and Germany. Due to their substantial nature, these are believed to have been created for wheeled transport as part of an extensive roadway system that facilitated trade.

Celtic Wagon

While the regions under Roman rule adopted Christianity along with the rest of the Roman empire, unconquered areas of Ireland and Scotland began to move from Celtic polytheism to Christianity in the 5th century. Ireland was converted by missionaries from Britain, such as Saint Patrick. Later missionaries from Ireland were a major source of missionary work in Scotland, Anglo-Saxon parts of Britain, and central Europe.

Saturday 5 November 2016

Yayoi Period of Japan

The Yayoi period is an Iron Age era in the history of Japan traditionally dated 300 BC to AD 300. It is named after the neighborhood of Tokyo where archaeologists first uncovered artifacts and features from that era. Distinguishing characteristics of the Yayoi period include the appearance of new Yayoi pottery styles and the start of an intensive rice agriculture in paddy fields. The Yayoi followed the Jōmon period (13,000–400 BC).

Recreation of Yayoi period settlement

Techniques in metallurgy based on the use of bronze and iron were also introduced to Japan in this period. Yayoi pottery was simply decorated and produced on a potter's wheel,as opposed to Jōmon pottery, which was produced by hand. Yayoi craft specialists made bronze ceremonial bells (dōtaku), mirrors, and weapons. By the 1st century AD, Yayoi farmers began using iron agricultural tools and weapons.

Unfortunately, metal ore supply was quite limited in Japan at the time, and so having metal items was indicative of higher status. Other materials that signified higher status were silk and glass which was produced in Kyushu, the southernmost island in Japan. Men of high status usually had more wives than those of lower rank.

With the introduction of farming, the diet and lifestyle of the Yayoi people drastically changed since they were now permanently settled and most of their food - rice, millet, beans, and gourds - was grown locally, with any hunting and gathering that occurred acting more as a supplement.

A Yayoi period jar

As the Yayoi population increased, the society became more stratified and complex. They wove textiles, lived in permanent farming villages, and constructed buildings with wood and stone. They also accumulated wealth through land ownership and the storage of grain. Such factors promoted the development of distinct social classes.

It was in the Yayoi that a class system based society appeared with around 100 clans forming by 100 CE, which would fight each other for dominance throughout the rest of the period. Though the clans were fighting one another, there would occasionally be alliances which would form small kingdoms for the purpose of military power or mutual economic success. 

Yoshinogari reconstruction

The earliest written records about people in Japan are from Chinese sources from this period. Wa, the Japanese pronunciation of an early Chinese name for Japan, was mentioned in 57 AD; the Na state of Wa received a golden seal from the Emperor Guangwu of the Later Han dynasty. This event was recorded in the Hou Han Shu compiled by Fan Ye in the 5th century. The seal itself was discovered in northern Kyūshū in the 18th century.

Golden seal from Han emperor

Third-century Chinese sources reported that the Wa(Japanese) people lived on raw fish, vegetables, and rice served on bamboo and wooden trays, clapped their hands in worship (something still done in Shinto shrines today), and built earthen-grave mounds. They also maintained vassal-master relations, collected taxes, had provincial granaries and markets, and observed mourning. Society was characterized by violent struggles.

A Yayoi period dōtaku bell, 3rd century AD

The Wei Zhi, which is part of the San Guo Zhi, Queen Himiko in the 3rd century. According to the record, Himiko assumed the throne of Wa, as a spiritual leader, after a major civil war. Her younger brother was in charge of the affairs of state, including diplomatic relations with the Chinese court Kingdom of Wei. When asked about their origins by the Wei embassy, the people of Wa claimed to be descendants of the Grand Count Tàibó of Wu, a historic figure of the Wu Kingdom around the Yangtze Delta of China.

Queen Himiko

The Yayoi would mark the transition of Japanese society from bands of hunter-gatherers with little contact with others to an agrarian, metalworking, political, and militarized society. The Yayoi set the foundations for what would now be known as medieval Japan with the introduction of rice-growing and metalworking, which allowed for a population expansion and weapons and armor production for military purposes.
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