My Son – Temples in the Jungle

During a recent holiday in Vietnam I visited the temple precinct of My Son, the principal religious center of the Champa. The following are a few photos (read many) of this day trip with a bit of background for good measure.

Who were the Champa?

Essentially the Champa were a collection of independent polities who ruled central and southern Vietnam from around the second century AD. The independent states became united in the fourth century under the rule of King Bhadravarman of Indrapura during the 4th century. Between the 7th and 10th centuries the Cham controlled the trade in spices and silk out of the South China Sea. Hoi An was the main port of the principality of Indrapura and whilst the capital of the Champa was in the area of the modern village of Dong Duang – both are situated near to My Son.

Map of Vietnam – Hoi An and Da Nang are roughly central on the coast.

From around the fourth century the Cham adopted Hinduism as their principle religion although many were eventually converted to Islam from the 10th century onwards. Today whilst the majority are Muslim there are still some that retain the Hindu faith and traditions.

The name Champa comes from the Sanskrit word ‘campaka’ which refers to species of flowering tree similar to a magnolia.

By 1832 the northern Vietnamese Emperor Minh Mang had annexed and absorbed the Cham polities

My Son

My Son is situated in a valley near the village of Duy Phu approximately 69km from DaNang and was the site of religious ceremonies for the HIndu Cham rulers between the 4th and 14th centuries. It also served as a royal burial place. There are in excess of seventy temples in addition to many stele containing important inscriptions in both Sanskrit and Cham.

An aerial view of the now jungle covered valley, the bare patches are some of the temples accessible to the visitor.

The Hinduism of the Champa was Shaiva with elements of local religious cults such as that of the earth goddess Lady Po Nagar. A number of the features at My Son are the linga – a black stone pillar representing Shiva and the yoni representing the mother.

Unfortunately the valley was carpet bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam war and many of the temples were severely damaged and in some cases totally destroyed. In recent years efforts have been made to rebuild the temples (the work is ongoing).

The hollows are indeed bomb craters – this part of the site has been left untouched – as awful as the bombing of such an important site is, the act is part of the history of My Son and as such needs to be remembered and preserved if we are to learn anything from it.

All but one of the temples are constructed from red brick (the only stone built temple is in the area known as B1). The decorative carvings which adorn the temple exteriors were cut directly into the bricks themselves. Although there has been some discussion about the type of mortar used in construction of the temples, it is now generally accepted that the mortar consisted of a sticky clay solution similar to the brick clay.

There are four types of buildings –

  1. Kalan – the brick sanctuary used to house the diety.
  2. Mandapa – the entry hallway associated with a sanctuary.
  3. Kasagrha – ‘fire-house’ usually with a saddle shaped roof and used to house valuables or to cook for the diety.
  4. Gopura – the gate tower leading into a walled temple complex.

In addition to the many sculptures and statues there are numerous stele (32 known in total) dating between the 5th and 12th century. The stelae can refer to a foundation of a temple, altar or pedestal. As historical documents they are very useful as they list names of kings, cities and occasionally describe important historical events such as the wars between Champa and Cambodia in the 12th century. The statues and carvings are usually representations of Shiva, also there are guardian statues found outside the temples.


The monuments of the My Son sanctuary are the most important constructions of the My Son civilization. The tower temples have a variety of architectural designs symbolizing the greatness and purity of Mount Meru, the mythical sacred mountain home of Hindu gods at the center of the universe, now symbolically reproduced on Earth in the mountainous homeland of the Cham people. They are constructed in fired brick with stone pillars and decorated with sandstone bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. Their technological sophistication is evidence of Cham engineering skills while the elaborate iconography and symbolism of the tower-temples give insight into the content and evolution of Cham religious and political thought.  

From the UNESCO world heritage centre website
https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/949

Myths and Colonisation of the Pacific.

This article was originally written several years ago for the ‘Mythology Magazine’ which is now defunct. My intention when writing this was to look at some of the myths and legends associated with the colonisation of the Pacific so please do bear in mind this is not an academic treatise on this subject (that is a far too large a subject for a simple blog…).

The islands of the Pacific Ocean were one of the last places in the world to be colonised by people.  The how, when and why has occupied archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and historian for decades.  For the European scientist these questions need to be answered with solid evidence backing them.  For the indigenous populations tradition told them all they needed to know, the myths and legends providing all that was needed by the way of explanation. 

Map of Oceania

New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island were the last landmasses to be colonised in the Pacific.  These first peoples were at the end of a long line of ancestors whose collective knowledge fuelled their ability and desire to travel across vast tracts of ocean.  The Pacific region is made up of three distinct areas – Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.  The first area to have been settled by people was Melanesia; it consists of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago and New Caledonia.  Dates for the first colonisation range between some 50-30,000 years ago their ancestors originating from South East Asia.  Micronesia is situated north of the Melanesian group and is made up of groups of islands including Kiribati, Nauru, Marshall Islands (to name a few) and the US territories of Guam, Northern Mariana Island and Wake Island.  Evidence for the settlement of this region is difficult to pin down; the earliest archaeological evidence comes from the island of Saipan and is dated to around 3500 years ago.  The third group of islands is Polynesia which covers a wide part of the Pacific.  Generally speaking New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island form the corners of a triangle within which all other islands sit and are referred to as Polynesia.

The ancestors of the Polynesians migrated from South East Asia a little later than the settlers of Micronesia, passing through some parts of Micronesia and Melanesia, but rarely settling for long.  Fiji is an interesting case, as in many ways it straddles the line between Melanesia and Polynesia.  When the ancestors of the Polynesians arrived in Fiji there was already a decent sized population and had been for millennia.  Yet today the visitor to Fiji will see a multitude of faces, some are distinctly Melanesian looking (mainly in the eastern islands) and others look more Polynesian.  Fiji in many ways was a jumping off point for the exploration further west, the next islands to be settled were Samoa and Tonga, both of which are not a great distance from Fiji.  These early explorers are known as Lapita people based on a distinctive type of pottery found on the archaeological sites.

The distinctive pottery of the Lapita Culture – this is a plaster reproduction photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“All island groups in island Melanesia and West Polynesia that lie in a south-east direction have Lapita settlements.  None of these settlements have been found on other islands.” (G. Irwin. Pacific Migrations – ancient voyaging in Near Oceania. Te Ara: The Encylcopedia of New Zealand.) 

These people were exploring the region from as early as 3500 years ago (evidence found at the Bismarcks) and by 3000 years ago were already as far as Samoa and Tonga.  The archaeology tells us these were small groups who travelled fast and light, they established only a few permanent villages on each major island group and then they moved on.  At this time the distinctive Polynesian culture began to emerge in the west and by 2000 years ago people had begun to move into the eastern part of the region.  By 700AD the majority of Polynesia had been settled with the last migrations being to New Zealand, Hawaii, Easter Island and South America (the only evidence for South America is the presence of the ‘kumara’ or sweet potato, radiocarbon dates from kumara found in the Cook Islands indicate that Polynesians had reached South America and returned by 1000AD at the latest).

Kumara (or sweet potato) a staple food source.

All well and good you might say, but what has this to do with the mythology of the region?  To study the past of this region it is important to not only use all those scientific tools we have at our disposal but also use the traditional knowledge, stories and myths to provide a greater depth of understanding.  In Polynesia there are many stories which have a commonality suggesting a shared ancestry.

In much of eastern Polynesia Hawaiki (the Maori name) does not refer to the islands we know as Hawaii but to a mythical land where the ancestors journeyed from – an ancient homeland.  In New Zealand nearly all the Maori have traditions of such a voyage, in the Marquesas it called Havai’i, in the Tuamotus it is Havaiki and in the Cook Islands the ancient homeland is referred to as Avaiki.  Not only is Hawaiki the ancient homeland but it is also a place where a persons spirit would go after death.  The main island of the Hawaii group is so named because it is the site of two volcanoes which were regarded as a place of great supernatural importance and the home of the gods.  Similarly the island of Ra’iatea in the Society Islands was previously known as Havai’i and it too has a volcano on it (albeit a extinct one) believed to be the entrance to the underworld and the home of the gods.

In Maori myth Hawaiki is in the east – the direction of the rising sun and the stars which bring the changing seasons.  Thus it is not surprising that Hawaiki was associated with life, fertility and success.  It is said that the first human life was created from the soil of Hawaiki by Tane (or sometimes Tiki).  It is the place of highly valued resources such as the kumara which is said to grow wild there – this is interesting in itself because if you travel directly eastwards from New Zealand you will (eventually) land in South America, the homeland of the sweet potato.

“When the ancestors arrived in their waka, they brought with them many treasured plants and birds, also important atua and ritual objects such as mauri.  In one way and another, Hawaiki was the ultimate source of the mana of all these.  The crops flourished, the gods exerted their powers, the mauri ensured continuing fertility of the resources they protected, because of their origin in Hawaiki.” (M.Orbell 1995 Maori Myth and Legend)

The veneration of the east – many rituals are conducted facing east – is unusual for Polynesia and has led some to make the dubious suggestion that New Zealand was settled by people from South America.  More recent studies have demonstrated that the first voyagers would have taken a south-west trajectory from either the Cook Islands or the Society Islands in order to land on the east coast of New Zealand.  Over time it would seem this navigational knowledge was amalgamated with the traditions of an ancient homeland.

In other parts of eastern Polynesia Hawaiki is in the west or sometimes even in the sky and in western Polynesia it is called by another name – Pulotu, a word that can be linguistically traced into Micronesia.  It is interesting to note that the largest island that forms part of Samoa (western Polynesia) is called Savai’i and is a land associated in tradition with many supernatural goings on.  Hawaiki was not only the land where the ancestors came from but also a place of spirits, a place where the myths came into being.

As time went on many of these stories would become absorb into local tradition with familiar places becoming the setting to the story.  Thus the story of Maui who fished up the islands can be found everywhere in Polynesia.  In New Zealand it is said that the North Island was a giant stingray fished up out of the sea by Maui using his magic hook (the hills and valleys of the land are a result of his brothers greed when they hacked at the fish). On the tiny atolls of Manikihi and Rakahanga it is believed that these islands are all that remains of a single land which broke apart when Maui leapt from it into the heavens.  In Hawaii tradition tells of the islands being a shoal of fish and how Maui enlists the help of Hina-the-bailer to bring the shoal together with his magic hook to form one mass.  Maui hauled on the line, instructing his brothers to row without looking back, which of course they did, this resulted in the line breaking and the islands become separated for all time.   In the Tuamotaus Maui and his brothers are once more fishing far from land, once more he has a magic hook and once more he pulls up an island but because his brothers did not listen to Maui the giant fish/island broke apart and became the land the Tuamotua people refer to as Havaiki, where Maui and his family reside.

Fish hooks represented more than just a means of procuring fish, they also had a symbolic meaning and it is possible that some of the larger more ornate types were representative of the ancestral stories.

Maui is one of the most well known of Polynesian deities, found in the stories throughout the region he is often known as a trickster, part god and part human.  He was of a time when the world was still new and there much to do to make it bearable for people.  Maui is said to be responsible for raising the skies, snaring the sun, fishing up lands, stealing fire, controlling the winds and arranging the stars.  On the island of Yap in Micronesia a demi-god figure called Mathikethik went fishing with his two elder brothers, he also had a magic hook and on his first cast brought up all sorts of crops, in particular taro, an island staple.  On his second cast he brought up the island of Fais.  The similarities here with Polynesian Maui are obvious and once again we can get a tantalising glimpse of past movements of people.

Other characters common to the stories of the Polynesia from Samoa in the west to Hawaii in the east include Hina, said to be both the first woman and a goddess who is the guardian of the land of the dead; Tinirau whose pet whale was murdered by Kae; Tawhaki who visited the sky and Rata whose canoe was built by the little people of the forest and was a great voyager and Whakatau the great warrior. 

“…on every island the poets, priests and narrators drew from the same deep well of mythological past which the Polynesians themselves call the The Night of Tradition.  For when their ancestors moved out from the Polynesian nucleus they carried with them the the knowledge of the same great mythological events, the names of their gods and of their many demi-gods and heroes.  As time passed the Polynesian imagination elaborated and adapted old themes to suit fresh settings, and new characters and events were absorbed into the mythological system.” (R. Poignant 1985 Oceanic and Australasian Mythology).

Of course none of this addresses the question of why.  Why did the first people leave their homelands and explore into the vast ocean, particularly to places like New Zealand, South America, Easter Island and Hawaii?  What motivated them?  The myths do in some way suggest possible reasons, these are stories people would have heard over and over again as they grew into adulthood.  Stories of great adventurers, of those who dared to do the impossible and it does seem that much of the early migration was a result of simple human curiosity.  Prestige and mana could be gained by person willing to find new lands.  In the places they originally came from there was no food shortage and in some instances even once they had discovered a new island, they would move on leaving but only a small population behind.  In the traditions there are also stories told of people being banished and having to find new places to live, in addition there are stories of battles lost and people fleeing retribution.  These too could well be another window into the motivation behind Oceanic migration. 

Ocean going craft as suggested in “The History of Mankind” (1896)

On their own the mythologies of the Pacific cannot provide us with more than a unique insight into the mindset of the peoples considered to be some of the greatest explorers of the past but when combined with genetics, linguistics and archaeology it gives us the ability to answer those questions of how, when and why.

Sources

Irwin G (2012) ‘Pacific Migrations – Ancient Voyaging in Near Oceania’ Te Ara: The Enclyclopedia of New Zealand.

Ratzel F & Butler A J (1869) History of Mankind

Poignant R (1985) Oceanic and Australasian Mythology

Orbell M (1996) Maori Myth and Legend

The First Archaeologists

People have always been interested in the past, as far back as Nabonidus who ruled Babylon from 555 – 539BC who had a keen interest in antiquities to such an extent he even excavated down into a temple to recover the foundation stone which had been laid some 2200 years prior.  Nabonidus also had a museum of sorts where he stored his collection.  During the Renaissance those with the wealth to travel and collect began to keep cabinets of curios.  In these you would find ancient artefacts displayed alongside minerals and natural history pieces. 

“…the Renaissance attitude to the examination of the past…involved travel, the study of buildings and the collection of works of art and manuscripts.” (K. Greene 1983).

Initially it was classical antiquity which grabbed the attention of the well-to-do but after awhile eyes began to turn towards relics of their own past. The great stone monuments of North-western Europe became the immediate focus, places such as Carnac in Brittany and Stonehenge in Britain.  Some of these gentlemen scholars would make systematic and accurate surveys of the monuments, which are still useful today, even if there were the less scrupulous who dressed up treasure hunting as scholarly research.  These antiquarians were in essence the first archaeologists and their contributions can still be useful today.

In Britain several antiquarians stood out between the 16th and 18th centuries.  John Leland (1503-1552) held the post of Keeper of the Kings Library and such travelled extensively throughout Britain.  Even though his main interest was in genealogy and historical documents he also recorded non-literary evidence as part of his wider researches, one of the first to do so. 

William Camden (1551-1623) learnt not only Latin but also Welsh and Anglo-Saxon in order to study place-names.  At the age of 35 he published ‘Britannia’ a general guide to the antiquities of Britain.  His descriptions of the ancient monuments are very detailed and he was one of the first to make a note of cropmarks and their possible links to sites no longer visible – an important part of aerial photography today.  Camden was also interested in other forms of material culture such as pottery as a source of information on the past, a concept regarded eccentric at the time.

William Camden (portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger)

In the mid 17th century John Aubrey was one of the earliest writers to assign a pre-Roman date to sites such as Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill.  His belief that such places were built and used by the Celts and Druids was so revolutionary there are still some who won’t let it go.  Following in Aubrey’s footsteps was William Stukeley (1687-1765) who although trained as a physician spent a great deal of time conducting extensive fieldwork in Wessex during the 1720s.  His highly accurate and detailed surveys of Avebury, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill are still used today.  Stukeley’s recording of the avenue of stones (now destroyed) leading from Stonehenge to the Avon aided present day archaeologists in their search for them.  However, in 1729 he was ordained and then attempted to use his fieldwork to establish a theological connection between the Druids and Christianity.

William Stukeley’s drawing of the Kennet Avenue – sensible and accurate fieldwork…
And then there is the more fantastical of Stukeley’s drawings – his interpretation of the Avebury landscape and it’s Druidical temple…

“Just as Dr Stukeley may be said to be the patron saint of fieldwork in archaeology, so can the Rev. William be held to be the evil genius who presides over all crack-brained amateurs whose excess of enthusiasm is only balanced by their ignorance of method.” (K. Greene 1983)

At the same time, across Britain, lesser well known antiquarians were busy studying and recording their own local areas.  In the county of Cornwall this was no different.  The earliest known antiquarian was Richard Carew (1555-1620) of East Antony, he was a member of the “The Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries” and in 1602 published his county history, “Survey of Cornwall”.  Perhaps the most well known and often cited antiquarian was William Borlase (1695-1772) who like so many began collecting natural rocks and fossils found in the local copper works in Ludgvan where he was the local pastor.  In 1750 he was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society and by 1754 he had published “Antiquities of Cornwall” which he then followed with “Observations on the Ancient and Present State of the Islands of Scilly and their importance to the Trade of Great Britain” in 1756. 

Zennor Quoit as drawn by William Borlase (1769)
Zennor Quoit as seen today (photo from wikicommons – geography.co.uk – 902) This highlights why early antiquarian researchers should be dismissed immediately as having nothing to contribute to our understanding of the past.

Borlase’s great great grandson – William Copeland Borlase (1848-1899) – continued with the tradition of antiquarianism conducting some of the first excavations in Cornwall at Carn Euny in 1863.  Copeland Borlase published many articles and books on the antiquities of Cornwall, including a two volume book titled “Ancient Cornwall” in 1871 and a year later “Naenia Cornubiae: a decscriptive essay, illustrative of the sepulchres and funereal customs of the early inhabitants of the county of Cornwall”.  There were also a lecture on the tin trade and a monography on the Saints of Cornwall, not to mention a piece on the dolmens of Ireland and one on the mythologies of the Japanese.

William Copeland Borlase (1848-1899)

William Copeland Borlase also spent a great deal of time getting his hands dirty excavating large numbers of barrows in Cornwall.  He has been criticised for poor archaeological practice in only writing up a small percentage of those he excavated.  Nothing makes an archaeologist bury their face in their hands then the lack of a written record for an excavation.  Copeland Borlase often employed the services of John Thomas Blight (1835-1911) as an archaeological illustrator, although Blight was a well known antiquarian in his own right.  He published two books regarding the crosses and antiquities of Cornwall, one for the west and the other for the east of the county. 

Blight’s drawings of Carwynnen Quoit were recently rediscovered by the lead archaeologist, Jacky Nowakowski, during her researches prior to the excavation and restoration of the quoit.  In particular, the pencil drawing which had actual measurements was very useful in the interpretation of a stone pavement discovered during the excavation when combined with modern techniques.  The archaeologists were able to get a better understanding of the positioning of the quoit within the Neolithic landscape.

Throughout the country there have been numerous societies which promoted the work of antiquarians beginning with the prestigious Royal Society.  Even Cornwall had its own Royal Institute of Cornwall which is still operating today and currently manages the Royal Cornwall Museum as well as the Courtney Library which holds all manner of documents dating back into the 1700s.  These early scholarly societies however, did not focus on one aspect of research, natural history, geology, botany and other gentlemanly pursuits were all encouraged.  This attitude of open discourse across a variety of disciplines is one of the hallmarks of good archaeological research today. 

Archaeology is defined as the “study of the past through the systematic recovery and analysis of material culture” (The Penguin Archaeology Guide).  It is the recovery, description and analyse of material culture with the purpose of understanding the behaviour of past societies.  Material culture is defined as anything which has been altered or used by humans – it can be as small as shark tooth with a hole drilled into it for a pendant or as large as a European cathedral.  To study archaeology in general is to be a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ – as a subject it borrows from history, anthropology, geology, chemistry, physics, biology, environmental sciences, ethnography to name but a few.  Archaeologists have never been afraid of pilfering theories, methodologies and techniques from other disciplines.

The value of the early antiquarians does not necessarily lie in the outdated interpretations but in the production of often accurate and highly descriptive illustrations, field surveys and texts that are the basis of many manuscripts.  Some of these ancient sites are now lost and/or destroyed, and the antiquarian illustrations are all we have as a record.  Fieldwork will always be a fundamental part of archaeological work and the antiquarians of the past where the very first fieldworkers and the societies they belonged to provided the basis for the discipline of archaeology.

Green K. (1985) Archaeology – an Introduction. Routledge.

http://www.giantsquoit.org   A website detailing the excavations and restoration of Carwynnen Quoit.

The Terracotta Warriors – An Exhibition of Immortality.

The Terracotta Warriors are famed throughout the world and have been on my bucket list for quite some time. So imagine my excitement when I heard that a handful were to visit New Zealand.  The following is just a few photos of the exhibition on at Te Papa, Wellington until April

But first some background

Like many of the great archeoloagical discoveries the terracotta army and the mausoleum of the first emperor Qin was really quite accidental. It was in the spring of 1974 that the local villagers decided to sink a new well a good couple of kilometres from the already well known mausoleum of Emperor Qin. After digging down for about five metres through numerous archaeological layers they eventually began to bring up bronze objects and parts of the warriors themselves.

The importance of the villagers finds was eventually realised and it was this discovery which was to form a catalyst for further extensive research and excavation in the area. The First Emperor’s Mausoleum refers to the complex of funerary remains which pertain to the burial of the First Emperor, it is a massive area with a vast complex of structures.

“…the most important remains of the tomb complex include the cemetary’s architectural structures, tomb tunnels, tomb burial chambers, the gate watchtowers, walls, roads and coffins, as well as accompanying tombs, pits and mausoleum villages. The mausoleum is also the product of supreme engineering and architectural efforts, including the construction of massive dykes and channels to prevent flooding, underground sluice walls, drainage channels, man-made lakes and ponds and so on. There are also a large number of facilities that are protective of, and associated with, these mausoleum structures, such as the remains of factories and workplaces, kilns and the tombs of those working on the mausoleum. There would o be fording places, wharfs and the like.” (Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality – edited by Rebecca Rice)

With that one paragraph we realise that there is so much more to a site, a place than just the sensational. A fact which is important to remember when dealing with any archaeological site…

Whilst the terracotta warriors are the main attraction for this travelling exhibition there are also a wide range of artefacts on display from many burial sites and dated over a wide period of time. Please excuse the poor quality of some of the photos, flash photography was not allowed, (all photos are my own).

Just a few of the bronze items found in the burials of the Qin and Han Dynasty.  These are three legged cauldrons – the one the front is Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE), the one at the rear belongs to the Warring States (before the Qin) 475-221CE.
Pottery will always have a part to play in deciphering the past – these examples belong to the Han Dynasty. The tubular one in the middle was for storing grain and the other two are simply described as pottery bowls.
These delightful pottery fish are from the Qin Dynasty (221-206BCE) and are believed to be childrens toys, they were thought to originally contain a small stone causing them to rattle.
Not the best photograph…but this jade and agate pendant is from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771BCE).  “The sound of tinkling that accompanied the wearing of such pendants both regulated the wearers pace and kept evil thoughts at bay”.
These seemingly plain and uninteresting discs of jade actually have a far greater meaning than their appearance might suggest. 
The ancient Chinese fashioned jade in the circular shape they imagined Heaven to be. Jade discs like these were used to worship Heaven, and were placed on the bodies of the dead to ensure immortality”. 
Here we have examples of belt buckles. The object to the front is gold inlaid with agate, 
hematitie, turquoise and shell – it is dated to the Western Han dynasty (206BCE – 9CE).  It is made from a single sheet of gold and hammered into design that includes animals both real
and mythical. The belt buckle to the rear is made from bronze and is dated to the Han dynasty.
Again excuse the photo quality – described as ‘sword blade with inlaid openwork hilt’, it is a very mundane description for what is 
an impressive artefact.  The blue decoration are inlaid turquoise. The sword is dated to the Spring and Autumn
period (771-475BCE).
The display of bronze arrowheads reminds us that whilst many of the atefacts speak of great artisanal skill 
and a culture rich in meaning it was also one where martial rule was equally important.  These arrows are dated to the Qin dynasty (221-206BCE) and were for use with the crossbow and instrumental weapon in the defeat of the nomadic tribes.  
“Over 40,000 arrowheads have been excavated from the Terracotta Army Pit 1. Each archer would have carried sets of 70, 100 or 114 arrows in hemp quivers on their back”.
Decoration was everywhere in ancient China – the above is one of many roof tile-ends, I particularly liked the deer motif. These objects protected the rooflines and eaves of a building. The deer symbolises longevity. It is dated to the Warring States period (475-221BCE).
This is a much larger roof tile end and was excavated from the site of the Qin Yellow Mountain Palace. It is thought that the abstract pattern represents two dragons in mirror image. It is a pattern/imagery associated the most with the First Emperor.

As soon as the First Emperor became King of Qin excavations and building started at Mt Li (the location of the tomb), while after he won the empire more than 700,000 consripts from all parts of the country worked there…they dug through three subterrnean streams and poured molten copper nd bronze to make the outer coffin, and the tomb was file with models of palaces, pavilions and offices as well as fine vessels, precious tones and rarities. Artisans were ordered to fix up crossbows so that any theif breaking in would be shot. All the country’s rivers, the Yellow River and the yangtze were reproduced in quicksilver and by some mechanical means made to flow into a miniature ocean. The heavenly constellations were shown above and the regions of the Earth below. The candles were made of whale oil to ensure their burning forever.


(Sima Qian – Records of the Grand Historian)

At this stage in time the First Emperor’s actual tomb has yet to be excavate but the high levels of mercury recorded might suggest that the above quote was not an exageration…Sima did not mention the terracotta army in his description of the Emperor’s burial. The army occupies four large pits and it is estimated there are 8000 soldiers with only 3000 excavated. On average each soldier stands 180cm tall and weigh around 100-300 kilograms. There are foot soldiers, archers, armoured officers, wooden carriages and horses. All face east and it has been suggested that they are there to protect the Emperor in the spirit world from those he killed during his conquest of China…

Armoured military officer
Armoured General
The kneeling archer
The chariot horses – the hole visible on the side show where a wooden chariot would have been attached.


A modern replica in bronze of a chariot – the detail even down to the all the individual reins and straps was fascinating to see.

After the Qin Dynasty the Han Dynasty rose to prominence and whilst their style of rule was quite different from the the First Emperor they did continue with the tradition of large scale mausoleums. The following photos are from the tomb of Emperor Jing of Han (157-141BCE); a Han general’s tomb at Yangjiawan (also of the Western Han – 206BCE-9C).

These small figures are the Han version of the First Emperor’s army – orignally they would have had wooden movable arms and have been clothed. There purpose was also to protect the Emperor Jing in the afterlife.
One of pair on isplay these two lion like mythological creatures date to the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220CE). It is thought the may have been placed in front of a nobles tomb.

The above are the remains of a tomb gate from the Eastern Han dynasty. These were regarded as doorways between Heaven and Earth, the iconography suggests a celestial journey needed to reach Heaven after death. The battle scenes on the horizontal lintel hint at possible challenges on that journey.

And Now For Some Humour…

I originally wrote this article for Hubpages but over the last couple of years I have seriously neglected that writing avenue.  Anyway, I thought I would republish here might amuse some of you lovely readers.

Can Archaeology Be Funny?
It would depend on who you spoke to but in short, yes! It is often a humour born out of discomfort, sunburn, blistered hands, sitting through lectures that can test even the most ardent follower of archaeological theory. And lets not forget the constant need to defend ones subject choice. Whatever you do never ask an archaeologist about dinosaurs or worse – aliens…it is often hard to judge their reaction…

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All of that aside, here is a short article with a few funny bits just to lighten the moment before we head into another (more serious) article. Have fun, don’t take it seriously and feel free to add your own funny moments in the comments.

An Alternative Glossary
Activity Area – Scatter of artefacts where archaeologists like to imagine something happened.
Artefact – (UK spelling) Any object that looks as if people made or used it.
BP – Nothing to do with petrol, simply an abbreviation for ‘Before Present’. As archaeologists tend to live in the past, their ‘Present’ is actually 1950 (the year radiocarbon dating was invented).
Barrow – A tumulus.
Culture – Archaeological term for regional groups of similar artefacts, often equated with different peoples, it is also the thing which grows on mugs and plates found in the excavation hut.
Dating Methods – Courtship rituals adopted by archaeologists who want to dig together…
Gender Archaeology – Feminist archaeology.
Hypothesis – A guess.
Lecturer – One who talks in someone else’s sleep.
Living Floor – Floor on which archaeologists think people lived.
Megalith – A big stone.
Microlith – A small stone.
Necropolis – An area of tombs; a kind of city set apart for the dead…think Cheltenham (UK)…
Posthole – Any hole too small to be a storage pit.
Ritual – All-purpose explanation used when nothing else comes to mind.
Spoilheap – Mound of discarded dirt resulting from an excavation, usually placed in the exact spot the dig director decides to excavate in the last two day of the dig…
Storage Pit – Any hole to big to be a posthole.
Theoretical Archaeology – Last resort of the desperate; those who can’t dig or just don’t like getting dirty/have an aversion to fresh air.
Theory – A series of hypotheses.
Tumulus – A barrow.

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This Is Important…
There are a few basic rules everyone about to embark on their first excavation needs to remember and they are as follows.
1.  The most interesting part of the site will be under your spoilheap, or at least outside   the area you are digging in.

2.  The most important find will turn up on the last day or when you are pressed for times and funds (have you ever excavated a cremation burial by the light of a jeeps headlights?).

3.  Finding anything worthwhile will involve extending your dig and in any case it will not be what you are looking for.

4.  If in doubt, hack it out.

5.  Only falsify data where absolutely necessary: every site is unique, excavation destroys it, so nobody can ever redo your work and prove your wrong.

6.  Painted potsherds are always found face down.

7.  The number potsherds rises the longer you sit on the box they are stored in.

8.  The number of mutates (big grindstones) recovered at the site depends on the distance to the excavations vehicle.
(From: Bahn P. 1989 Bluff Your Way In Archaeology)

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How to Read Archaeological Texts

It takes a special kind of person who happily reads archaeological reports without falling asleep – that is true dedication. The problem arises with the language used by those who write, designed to bamboozle, often causing the reader to glaze over. This is deliberate, the true aim is not to disseminate their knowledge but in effort to fool their bosses and keep their jobs (because as we all know working archaeologists are rare breed).
Below you will find a list of some of these phrases and what they mean in reality – hope it helps keep you awake!

‘Just possible’ – I’m pretty certain but I can’t actually prove it; the reader will see how cautious and clever I am being.
‘There is some evidence pointing towards…’ – There isn’t any but it would be nice if there were.
‘The evidence suggests that…’ – If it were twisted beyond recognition.
‘It would be premature to suggest’ – But wouldn’t it be fun.
‘All the evidence taken together points to…’ – It all points in different directions.
‘No right thinking scholar can doubt’ or ‘the discerning reader will observe…‘ – These are my final trump cards.
‘Further research may indicate…’ – Mine certainly doesn’t.
‘Adverse excavation conditions…’ – the recording was terrible.
‘There was no evidence of…’ – if there was, we didn’t see it.
‘The object crumbled to dust on exposure to air’ – Joe sat on it.
‘The relationship between the layers was uncertain…’ – Joe dug it away when we weren’t looking.
‘It was not possible…‘ – We didn’t think of it until afterwards.
‘A flimsy structure’ – Moira planned the postholes.
(From: Rahtz P. 1985 Invitation to Archaeology)

 

Hope this has given you a giggle – do keep in mind though it is entirely ‘tongue-in-cheek’- except the alien and dinosaur thing…seriously don’t mention it…

Thanks for reading!

 

The Superstitions of All Hallows Eve

Its October (surprise!) and with it comes the inevitable Halloween displays in the shops (followed closely by the Christmas decorations…) and although here in the Southern Hemisphere we should be celebrating Spring and the coming of Summer, those good old Northern Hemisphere traditions have a firm hold.  So in the mode of ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ I have compiled a wee list of some strange but true superstitions associated with Halloween.  But first a bit of history…

In the northern hemisphere the first of November marks the beginning of winter and on the Christian calender is referred to as All Hallows Day when all the saints would be celebrated (‘hallows’ = very holy).  Thus the day before became All Hallows Eve which in turn was eventually shortened to Halloween.  Originally, the Western Christian Church observed All Saints/Hallows Day on May the first but in the ninth century AD it was moved to November the first.

A seemingly much older tradition says that it is a time when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, when it is possible for the spirits of the ancestors to walk the earth.  Referred to as Samhain – a term mentioned often in Irish mythology when many important and heroic events happen.  Such traditions may well have a long pedigree.  There is some evidence that the Neolithic passage tombs were aligned with the sunrise at the time of Samhain.  In early Irish literature it is often seen as a liminal time when Aos Si (spirits/fairies) could come into our world more easily and offerings of food and drink were left out for them to ensure the people and their livestock survived the winter.

As an extension of this it was later believed that the souls of the dead would visit homes seeking hospitality and so feasts were held with a place being set for them at the table.  Increasingly, this tradition is being adapted for the modern age with families now using Halloween as a time to remember loved ones who have passed away.

As a time between the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter it also became a time when people would take stock of food supplies, cattle would be brought down from summer pastures and animals would be chosen for slaughter.  As part of the rituals associated with this time bonfires would be lit, sometimes two bonfires would be lit and people (plus livestock) would pass through the middle as a cleansing ritual.  In parts of Scotland torches from the bonfire would be carried sunwise around the homes and fields to protect them.

Strange but True

Many of the superstitions associated with Halloween are often connected with the tradition of the spirits walking the earth and the assumption that some of these may have an evil intent. Thus, it was said if you wanted to keep evil spirits away you should walk three times around your house backwards before the sun sets. Or spend the evening with your pockets inside out and no evil spirit will accost you (and most likely neither will the living…).  If you are lucky enough to be born on Halloween you will forever be protected from evil spirits.

Then there are those superstitions aimed at the overactive imagination – so if you hear footsteps behind you on Halloween night…DO…NOT…TURN AROUND…Furthermore, if you are out and about in the evening and the moonlight casts a shadow do not look at your own.  Both of these only make me want to look.

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There are some Halloween superstitions which are not so bad (depending on your perspective) – if you stand at a crossroads and listen to the wind you might here your future…just make sure it’s not a busy crossroads or your future might be rather short…For the unmarried make a dish of mashed potatoes and bury a ring in it, whoever gets the ring will be the first to marry.  However, if that fails you can eat a salted herring on that night and you will dream of your future lover.  Traditionally games such as apple bobbing all have their origins in divination traditions of Halloween – the first person to get a bite of the apple will be the next to get married…or you could peel an apple in one long strip and throw it over your shoulder, the shape it forms is said to be your future spouse whilst eggwhites dropped in water foretold the number of children you would have.

Spiders on All Hallows Eve get a reprieve from broom welding maniacs  for it is considered bad luck to kill a spider on this day – it could be the soul of dead person from your family visiting.

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Although this one might be okay…

Traditions associated with Halloween which we are more familiar with such as trick or treating, dressing up and pumpkin carving all have their origins in much earlier superstitions.

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A Canadian school girls Halloween costume. (1928 – wikimedia.commons)

Thus dressing up was a way to confound the evil spirits who might wish you harm whilst pumpkin carving began as turnip carving.  In the United Kingdom a turnip would be hollowed out and a crude face carved into it, then a candle would be placed inside and the whole scary apparition would be positioned in a window – a declaration to all potential ghouls that this house was already haunted.  It was also considered a wise course of action to carry said turnip when travelling out and about on this night as a warning to the spirits to keep away.  The proliferation of pumpkin jack o lanterns in North America essentially comes down to a lack of turnips…

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A Cornish turnip carved for Halloween. (photo courtesy of wikimedia.commons)

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The well known face of Halloween (with a demonic imp for company).

Trick or treating (every childs reason for celebrating Halloween) is a much evolved version of the earlier tradition of ‘guising’, ‘mumming’ and ‘souling’.  Guising was were ordinary folk would dress up in bizarre costumes and then would wander door to door singing and performing for wealthier people (mumming).  Often the wealthy would share sweetmeats or a cake known as a soul cake in exchange for their prayers for dead relatives (souling).  Guising and mumming were not restricted to Halloween.  Even today, in the far west of Cornwall guising and mumming are carried out during the midwinter festival of Montol.

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An illustration depicting Souling – the verse at the bottom says “Soul, soul, for a soul-cake: Pray you, good mistress, a soul-cake!”

 

 

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St Breaca – A Saintly Conundrum.

Amidst the chaos of house building I have been researching early medieval Cornwall as the backdrop to the new Sarah Tremayne novel.  One question which arose was – exactly how Christian were the locals?  At what point did Christianity take a firm hold?  And how were those who did not adhere to the new religion treated?  As a result I have been investigating early medieval Christianity with a great deal of frustration…the following blog serves to highlight a few of the issues using one of the more obscure Saints as an example.

In the small parish of Germoe partway between the Penwith peninsula and the Lizard is the village of Breage. It is an easy village to miss, the main road skirts its edges and unless you have done your research any ordinary person might just drive on by. However, there are several good reasons to stop and visit. The church is the focal point of the village and it is here you will find a number of medieval scenes painted on the walls of the church, a Roman waymarker dedicated to the Emperor Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus dated to between 258-268AD. (see an earlier post ‘The Frescoes of Breage’)

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The Church in Breage.

There are also several interesting stone crosses within the walls of the churchyard. The earliest is situated near to the front door and is likely to date between the late ninth and early tenth centuries. Carved from red sandstone it would have been highly decorated when first erected. Today only a little of this elaborate carving can be seen furthermore it is not in its original position, the cross was found buried in the churchyard and placed where it currently stands. The use of sandstone is very unusual, as the majority of Cornish crosses are carved from local granite. The cross has been described as a “four holed wheel cross with Hiberno-Saxon decoration” (N. Pevsner 1951 The Buildings of England: Cornwall).

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The early sandstone cross.

The church yard is also of interest, it is easy to discern its round shape, a feature often regarded as an indication of antiquity. Early Celtic missions would construct an enclosure around their settlement and in Cornish the prefix “Lan” is often found in conjunction with such sites.
Meaning church enclosure, it normally described an Early Christian foundation of the Celtic Church within a round or oval earthwork, usually a re-used prehistoric site. Parish churches still occupy many of these sites…” (C. Weatherhill 1998 Cornish Placenames and Language).
The church you see today was dedicated to St Breaca on the 26th December 1456 completely replacing the earlier Norman church. The earliest mention of Breage in documents is just prior to 1066 when the village was called “Eglosbrek” or “Eglospenbro” (the latter refers to the farm of Penbro) and was part of the large manor of Winnianton. By 1264 the church was being referred to St Breaca’s.

St Breaca is one of the many saints’ names which litter the Cornish landscape, however very little is known about her. A hagiography written in the late fourteenth century and which is now lost, recorded the lives of many Cornish saints. John Leland during his itinerary of 1540 did record parts of this lost hagiography as was pertinent to his travels.
According to Leland Breaca was born in the region of Lagonia and Ultonia in Ireland and she became a nun at the oratory founded by St Brigid of Kildare. At around the 460AD she travelled to Cornwall with seven other Irish saints – Germoe, Senanus (Sithney), Mavuanus (Mawgan), Elwen, Crowan, Helena and Tecia. They settled at Revyar on the River Hayle but some were killed by the tyrant king Tewdwr Mawr of Penwith. Breaca then travelled onwards visiting Castle Pencaire and establishing a church at Chynoweth. When she died the church was moved to its present location and many miracles occurred at her tomb.

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A view of the harbour at Hayle – one of only a few safe anchorages on the north coast of Cornwall. (from wikicommons -geograph.co.uk 179114)

On the face of it this is a good story but closer inspection reveals that a number of the story elements can be found elsewhere in other local saintly stories. Conflict with a local pagan tyrant, establishment of a hermitage in a remote part of the land, an Irish origin and connection with a more well known Saint. Simply read and compare the stories of St Ia or St Gwinear and you begin to get a feel for the standard hagiography, many of which were written some thousand years after the Saint concerned had lived and died. It is not surprising that the more obscure saints such at Breaca ended up with a mash up story for her life.

So is there any hope in finding out the real story behind St Breaca? Possibly. But first we need to look at the much wider picture.

Cornwall during the Roman period appears to be semi autonomous and although the Romans were in complete control of trade, life in Cornwall went on much as it had during the Iron Age. The impact of the Roman Legions leaving Britain in 410AD would have had a minimal effect on Cornwall even if the repercussions in other parts of the country were felt keenly for several decades. Political manoeuvring (and warfare) in the mid fifth century resulted in Cornwall becoming part of the kingdom of Dumnonia which spread from the far west of Cornwall up into south Somerset. Into this seemingly unsettled time the Irish missionaries appear.

There is some conflict on how many Irish came to Cornwall, some accounts say few as seven others seven hundred and seventy seven. In 1899 Sabine Baring-Gould wrote about the Cornish saints, he believe that it was a much greater number which arrived on the Cornish shores but with a less than peaceful mission. For Baring-Gould this was an invasion, hence the bloody reaction from Tewdwr in slaughtering, thus martyring, a number of the Irish (St Ia being the most well known). Interestingly St Germoe who was said to be one of St Breaca’s companions was according to legend a king in Ireland – a claim not yet substantiated.

The invasion theory may sound a little far-fetched but given that the Cornish as a rule over the centuries were more than amicable with all their neighbours along the Atlantic seaboard an outright slaughter of a peaceful mission of Christians seems also far-fetched. Tewdwr is often portrayed as a pagan tyrant and this comes to us from a time when our pagan past was seen as a dark time, he becomes the demon which our Christian saints have to triumph over. Afterall, who triumphed in the end? Who wrote the hagiographies?

It is believed that later Tudor era writers used Tewdwr (who was not a king, more a local chief/lord) to lampoon and criticise Henry VII in the wake of his crushing defeat of the Cornish Rebellion of 1497. If this is the case it is perhaps necessary to take much of what is said about the “tyrant” with a grain of salt.

Those who escaped the battle (irrespective of who started it) would have fled to remoter parts of Cornwall perhaps seeking protection from local and more sympathetic chiefs.
This may be where St Breaca’s story has a ring of truth about it. She is said to have visited Castle Pencaire before setting up home at Chynoweth on the lower slopes of Tregonning Hill. Castle Pencaire is situated on the summit of Tregonning Hill and was originally an Iron Age hillfort. Although there is no current evidence (much later mining works have almost completely destroyed the inside of the hillfort) for its reoccupation during St Breaca’s time it is strong possibility. Other Iron Age hillforts were temporarily reoccupied at this time, such as Chun Castle in West Penwith, and why would Breaca visit an ‘abandoned’ antiquity? If Breaca wished to establish a mission in the local area she would have realised the importance of asking permission from the local chieftain/lord, his goodwill would have been important to the success of her mission.

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An ordnance survey map of the area around Breage (bottom right) from the late 1800s.  Tregonning Hill (Castle Pencaire) is the area of open moorland above and to the left of Breage.

The question does remain when did she arrive and was she actually Irish? The date of her arrival will never be satisfactorily agreed upon, it will have to be enough to say she arrived sometime in the late fifth but not later than the early sixth centuries AD. Was she with that first flux of Irish? This we will never know, the later successes of Irish saints would suggest there were several voyages to the Cornish coast.

The presence of the early cross with its “Hiberno-Saxon” decoration might point towards a later commemoration of an Irish saint, the use of sandstone rather than granite could be explained by one of two ways. Either the stone was carved elsewhere and then brought to Breage or the stonemason was not from Cornwall and did not have the skills needed to carve in granite.

Breaca is occasionally mentioned in writings from other parts of the county. In 1478 William Worcester refers to her feast day as being May 1st even though in later times her feast day is celebrated on June 4th and is appears to be quite an important festival. An idiom recorded in the village of Germoe in the 18th century refers to their patron saint – Germoe – as a king but Breaca was a midwife. The 19th century residents of St Leven believed Breaca to be the sister to the villages’ patron saint – Selevan or Salaman.
In all likelihood we will never know the truth of St Breaca but it has been fun trying to find out…

 

 

Archaeology, History, Myths and Stories…oh… and a little bit of time travel…