Wednesday 31 July 2013

Ancient coins found in Northern Australia

Now some of you probably feel an Australian connection to the ancient trade routes is pretty unlikely, and, yes, if the Southern Continent had any participation in Classical-era shipping it was more about wrecks and castaways than Phoenician mines or lost Egyptian Pyramids. So did these ancient ship wrecks or occasional visits happen? The answer now appears almost certainly a resounding YES. In 1944 five 1000-year old copper coins were found on a Wessel Islands beach off the Northwest coast of Australia. An expedition is currently being undertaken by a Professor of Anthropology at the Indiana University, Ian McIntosh to conduct the first intensive search of the islands for more evidence of a wreck. The coins originated from the the Sultanate of Kilwa in modern day Tanzania - and a key player in the Trans-Indian ocean trade at the time. And while these coins confirm traders passing the Australian coast 1000-years ago, the point is, this unlucky ship or sailor was travelling along the same trade routes established by the ancient Egyptians, Tamils and Chinese perhaps 2000-years beforehand. So there's a chance Professor McIntosh might find some even older evidence during his search. Time, as usual, will tell.  For more on ancient ocean trade you can read 'Vagabond' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Tuesday 30 July 2013

Did Australia play a part in the Classical World...

I guess you're wondering where this post is going to go? How could Australia have played any part in Roman history - it wasn't discovered until 1770, right? Well...not really. The concept of a Terra Australis (the Southern Land) dates back to the mid-3rd-century BC and Aristotle. Fisherman from the Indonesian archipelago have been travelling to the northern coasts of the continent for at least a thousand years. During the 15th and 16th-centuries Portuguese and Dutch traders likewise explored and named much of northern Australia. And we shouldn't forget that the sea-borne ancestors of Australia's First peoples discovered the southern continent at least 60,000-years ago.

Yeah, yeah, I know, so what about the Romans? Well, the simple fact is those Portuguese and Dutch traders were following the same trade routes established by the Roman-era Tamil and Sri Lankan traders between India and China - in fact Australia has been on the southern edge of these trade routes for at least 2300-years, and perhaps much longer. So why would those Tamils and Sri Lankans come to Australia? The reasons hadn't changed when the Portuguese, Dutch and British came along - either by accident, or for money. By accident was pretty common - seafarers daring the tropical monsoon season could have ended up anywhere along the vast north Australian coast when the storms blew in. And then there's the money. Economic imperatives haven't changed since paleolithic Siberians began trading beads with Europe thirty thousand years ago. Just as the post-Renaissance traders came to northern Australia looking for money to be made, Roman-era traders could well have done the same.

Australia in 1583 - that's Cape York Penninsular on the right,
the Northern Territory and the Kimberlys are on the left.
The ancient Roman-era Spice Islands are to the north.

Okay, so why isn't there any evidence? Well, there's not a lot of evidence of the Portuguese and Dutch explorers from five-hundred years ago either. In fact most of their reports, maps and discoveries were jealously guarded by their governments and have already been lost to history. And the few expedition camps that might have been established were probably impossible to find a year or two later - let alone now. The simple fact is that Northern Australia was utterly uninviting to the 15th-century European explorers. There was little cultivatable land and little permanent freshwater. The First Australian's they met had little or nothing to trade. There was no mining - so there was no copper, gold or iron to buy. In other words there was no economic imperative to stay and establish trading communities.

The situation was identical when Roman-era traders were passing too - and with no surviving written evidence from that period, the only way a Roman-era contact might be proven is if some day someone finds some broken shards of pottery or a couple of coins on a beach somewhere along the seven thousand kilometres of the North Australian coastline - and as researchers have just begun looking for this evidence there's an increasing possibility Australia's Classical Connection could soon be proved. And even in the absence of such evidence that shouldn't necessarily mean someone employed by Roman traders didn't wash up on a North Australian beach. What we need to understand, is that if the Portuguese or the Dutch tried to trade in Northern Australia, then they probably weren't the first. The colour of money - and how to make some for yourself - hasn't changed since the first coin was minted. A lack of physical evidence for something happening doesn't mean it couldn't have happened, so long as you can find an economic reason for someone trying. I think that economic reason did exist 2000-years ago, so I guess it's time to pull out the metal detector and put on the Aerogard.

Tomorrow I'm going to let you in on a story that might actually back up these claims...For more on Roman-era ocean voyages you can read "Vagabond" - available from Amazon, just follow the links   

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Roman technology versus the Ritual Object

It's a pretty standard thing in archaeology, something is dug up in a farmer's field that doesn't quite fit in with the standard crockery of a particular era and suddenly it becomes a 'ritual object'. And, yes, a lot of the odd bits and bobs from early history probably do have some sort of ritual or religious connection...but of course, that's not to say they all do. Think about it, if someone digs up a cassette tape in two thousand years time, it might just as easily be described as a ritual object - I mean, geez, there's already a whole generation who don't know what a cassette tape is. So how many things dug up from the Roman-era - currently classified as a 'ritual object' - could be an example of everyday classical age technology?

The Baghdad batteries and the Dendera light bulb have both been largely dismissed as 'ritual objects' by the mainstream - and yes, perhaps they are, but we're not talking computer chips here, both contain pretty basic technology that could have been developed long before the Napoleonic wars. And then there's a long standing 19th & 20th-century attitude that "everything we've invented is brand new so nothing like it could have existed before." A good example of this was the excavation of Caligula's pleasure yachts in Lake Nemi during the 1930s. Several bronze water taps were recovered from the wrecks that so closely resembled modern day faucets they were dismissed as recently dumped rubbish. The fact is, a solution to an ancient problem is going to end up looking very similar to the solution for a modern problem - this is why ancient ship anchors look the same as modern ones and why the 2000-year old Antikythera clockwork computer looks identical to 19th-century mechanical calculators. In the end, mainstream archaeology needs to be more open minded - if a mystery object exhibits modern day characteristics, then there's a reasonable chance it is an ancient solution to the same modern day problem.

So where does this leave the Dendera light bulb? There's no way every Roman household was crammed with batteries and light bulbs...but that's not to say this technology didn't have some important alternatives to household lighting - and that could at least explain the lack of physical evidence for an ancient light bulb in Roman cities. Think tunnels. During the Roman-era more road and water tunnels were dug than at any time before the 1800s. Mining was booming and shafts were going ever deeper - and ever darker. Logically lighting these shafts was with oil lamps, but air quality would have been appalling - to the point where excavations may have become impossible. And, well, that would have cost money. The Dendera light bulb may have been a solution - and probably an expensive one. But was it? I don't know, maybe we should look more closely at Roman mines or tunnels for glass, copper rings and iron spikes. However, chances are, if these objects have been found, they have probably been described as...ritual objectsFor more on day to day Roman technology, you can read 'Mischance and Happenstance' available from Amazon, just follow the links

Monday 22 July 2013

The Roman light bulb

Okay, so it looks like the Romans may have had batteries and did a bit shock therapy or gold electroplating to mug the less wary jewellery shoppers, but as we know, there's a lot of different uses for electricity. And there's one thing that pretty much put electricity on the map for 19th-century society and gave every household the reason to invest in copper wires...this of course was Thomas Edison's light bulb. I mean, wow, what an invention, right? Well, here's where history gets a little bumpy. Edison didn't invent the light bulb, his patent for a carbon filament light bulb in 1880, was simply an improved filament for an existing light bulb design. In fact, the first vacuum glass light bulb was tested in 1820 by Warren De La Rue, but unfortunately his platinum filament made the bulb too expensive to produce commercially. Prior to that, the first carbon arc lamp was demonstrated by Humphrey Davy in 1809.

So, as it stands the carbon arc lamp has been around for a long time, and all it needs is a strip of carbon as a filament - Davy used a thin slice of charcoal, Edison used carbonised bamboo - which could burn for 1200-hours. The one thing you will notice is that the light bulb is pretty simple. Glass and various kinds of carbonised wood were available during and well before the Roman age, as was, it appears, batteries of similar power to those Davy used. Did these ingredients all end up with an ancient glowing filament? Well, it appears, just possibly, it did. Within the ancient Dendera Temple complex in Upper Egypt the walls of the 2nd or 1st-century BC Hathor Temple reveal something of a mystery. A long transparent vessel containing what appears to be a snake stretched lengthwise is held at one end by a man. Is it a mythological image? Or is it a very large carbon arc light bulb with wires running from it to a battery? The carving does date to a time just when glass blowing was becoming mainstream, it does date to the same era as the Baghdad batteries, and this was the age of classical invention by the Greek scholars living to the north in Alexandria. Does this make a light bulb? Well, I don't think it can be completely ruled out. For more on day to day Roman Technology, you can read 'Mischance and Happenstance', available from Amazon, just follow the links

Sunday 21 July 2013

The Roman battery

Electricity, it's a child of the 19th-century, right? The Romans might have been pretty clever but they never mastered putting a D cell in a torch...or did they? There does seem to be at least some evidence of wet-cell batteries being used on the peripheries of the Roman Empire. The famous Baghdad Battery is more closely related to the post-Persian Parthian Empire, but these two ancient super powers shared borders, Greek culture and technology.

Okay, so what was the Baghdad battery? Several five-inch tall clay jars have been found around Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) containing hollow copper cylinders and iron rods that appear to function as anodes and cathodes when the jar is filled with acid. Voltages of up to 0.5-volts have been recorded from modern copies of these vessels using vinegar, and their performance could certainly be boosted if a stronger acid were to be used - the Romans and Parthians would have been quite capable of manufacturing sulphuric and hydrochloric acids which should be able to boost these wet-cells into the region of 4 or 5 volts.

All right, so they had a battery...what was it used for? There's a couple of theories. During this period the Romans and the Egyptians were using bio-electric fish - such as the Torpedo Fish (the electric ray) - to numb severe pain; including gout, child birth and migraines. One could imagine an electric ray would be hard to find in the Mesopotamian deserts, so a 'clay ray' battery might have been a worthy alternative. Then there's the jewellers. Just as we dress up silver by electroplating it with gold, the ancients probably cottoned on pretty quickly to the same game. Importantly, both pain relief and fiddling the jewellery would have provided sufficient cash equity to experiment with battery technology if nothing else. But is that all? Well, maybe. These 'batteries' don't show up in Roman or Parthian rubbish dumps like an Eveready or Duracel would these days...but, maybe, just maybe, Thomas Edison wasn't the first guy to invent the light bulb...more on that later. For more on everyday Roman Technology you can read 'Mischance and Happenstance' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Thursday 18 July 2013

What was ancient to the Romans?

Founded in 1894BC, the place where Hammurabi's Code of Laws were first handed down - the old eye for an eye - where much of the Bible's Old Testament was written by imprisoned Judeans, and where on the 10th of June 323BC, Alexander the Great died. This was Babylon. By the time Pliny writes about this great city it is nearly 2000-years old. He describes a city ringed by two walls with circumferences of 60-miles, standing 200-feet high and 50-feet thick. This sounds like a city never meant to fall. But it was already in a fast decline when Pliny described it in 78AD. A victim of 'modern times' many Babylonians were moving to the much newer Greek city of Seleuceia as the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers pushed the Persian Gulf further and further south. With a population of 600,000 Seleuceia was fast becoming the new hub of eastern Mesopotamia. It went on to be destroyed in the sixth-century AD. Goes to show nothing stays the same. And to think, just as Pliny was writing about Babylon 2000-years after its founding, I'm writing this post 2000-years after Pliny. Makes you wonder who'll be writing about our present world in 2000-years...
For more on Roman history, you can read 'Ad Lib', available from Amazon, just follow the links

Sunday 7 July 2013

Was the Ninth legion wiped out by the Picts? Part III

Okay, so if the Pictones were most likely incapable of raising a force large enough to wipe out an entire Roman legion, then what's the story with the Ninth? Well, the problem for the Ninth is that after being listed in Trajan's legionary records in 108AD, the next listing of legions that survives to the present time is from 165AD - during the reign of Marcus Aurelius...and in the 165AD list, the Ninth Legion and the Twenty-Second Legion are both missing. So what's the story?

I'm tending to bureaucracy on this one, and thanks to Boudica we've got a good idea of the bureaucratic end of the Ninth. Remember the British uprising in 61AD wiped out the Ninth Legion? That means a new enlistment was undertaken the same year or 62AD. And this means the Ninth Legion was due for retirement and another enlisting in 86-87AD. Add another twenty-five years for the next enlistment and the Ninth Legion during Trajan's reign was due for retirement in 111-112AD, just three or four years after it's last mention in the 'official' records.

Is the year 111-112AD important? Well, we know several legions were retired during this period - including the Fifth, Eleventh and Fourteenth. So it appears that the entire Roman army was on the move during the 2nd-century 'teens'. The Sixth was moved from Spain to Britain to replace the Ninth, presumably upon its retirement, and with Trajan's military conquests at an end, his successor, Hadrian may have taken a more rationalist view of his forces and not raised another 'Ninth'. Is that what happened to the Ninth then, it was retired and never formed again? Well, it could be the case...but one thing is almost for sure, no matter what the movies say about the Ninth's disappearance, the Picts probably had very little to do with it.  For more on Roman legions you can read 'Vagabond' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Was the Ninth Legion wiped out by the Picts - Part II

All right, so if the Ninth Legion did march into the nether regions of the Scottish lowlands or highlands and disappeared, did the Picts actually have the capacity to destroy them? Thanks to the Vindolanda tablets found on the frontiers of pre-walled Britain, we can get a reasonable picture of life on the Pictones Border in the years leading up to the 'disappearance' of the Ninth Legion. The Ninth Cohort of Batavians (modern day Dutch) manned the Vindolanda fort between 95AD and 105AD and operated under the command of the Ninth Legion. The letters moving between Vindolanda and the Ninth Legion don't appear to indicate much in the way of violent border transgressions by the Picts, and the wives of officers moved freely on road trips between York and Vindolanda, so even small groups of raiders couldn't have been a big issue.

Is there a reason for this?

Well, geography has always impacted on the Scottish peoples. Throughout history the highlands have restricted the movement of locals and invaders. And the highlands have also restricted population. Even in modern times England's population is ten times that of Scotland, and it's very unlikely the Pictone population was more than 250,000 at the time of the Roman occupation...and it was possibly much less. The highlands also meant much of this population was disparate and isolated. The point is, it would have been just as difficult for the Picts to have assembled an offensive force against a legion as it was for the Scots when they first faced an English invasion.

The facts as they are, it seems unlikely that the Picts could assemble an army large enough to destroy an entire legion, just as there is little evidence for them ever raising an army to invade the Roman territories where most cities and towns didn't even have walls or fortifications and would have seemed very easy pickings.

So was the Ninth wiped out by the Picts? It's pretty unlikely. But we know it disappeared. And we probably also know where. Stay tuned for the next post. For more on the Roman legions you can read 'Vagabond' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Monday 1 July 2013

Was the Ninth Legion wiped out by the Picts?

It's one of those enduring narratives of Romano-British history - and has been made the stuff of legend in novels and movies for at least the last sixty years, with two feature films produced on the topic in 2010 and 2011. I'm sure you've heard the story...a Roman legion marches off into the wilds of Scotland and is never heard of again - and it's always the mysterious Ninth Legion, whose missing Eagle inspires heroic efforts by subsequent Romans to find the truth...

So what is the truth? Did the Ninth Legion actually go missing?

Well, first a bit about the Ninth. We come across the Ninth as one of Julius Caesar's Spanish Legions sent into Gaul in 58BC. It subsequently sees action during Caesar's civil war and later under the command of Octavian. During the early years of the Empire the Ninth returns to home-ground in Spain, but by 9BC is up in the Rhineland as the 'Ninth Hispania' dealing with the aftermath of the Varro disaster in the Tuetoburg forest. With the abandonment of the German province the legion heads to Pannonia (modern-day Hungary) and finally it reaches Britain in 43AD as one of the four legions used in Claudius' invasion.

This is where the Ninth gets itself a bad name. In 61AD, the legion is virtually wiped out during the Boudica Rebellion as it marched to relieve the siege of the Colchester. Ten years later and now mostly likely filled with recruits from Gaul, the Ninth settles down in a permanent fortress at York to garrison the northern borders. In 108AD, the legion is still there...and then it disappears.

What happened? Well, that's going to be my next post. For more on the Roman legions, you can read 'Vagabond' - available from Amazon, just follow the links