Ancient History

In this group we aim to explore the beginnings of human societies and how the change from hunters/gatherers to settled agricultural communities took place and then affected the development of art and culture.
  Who were the key actors? What were the roles of women and men? Some historians claim that the change to agriculture was worse for women, but is that true? Often in written history the story of women tends to get missed out as an aspect of life that was ‘normal’ and not worth reporting, while battles led by men are key features.
  Much more is known these days about ancient cultures because the tools we can use to decipher old scripts or ancient bones are improved. So there is much new knowledge leading to new theories about the developments of societies.
  All participants are invited to contribute with their own explorations, leading to us all learning from each other.

  Group Convener : Greta Sykes

The Group meets in Crouch End, N8 on a Wednesday of every month, 2.30 – 4 p.m. The number of places available per meeting is 15.

Currently meeting via Zoom

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    Our Meetings

    April 2021
    Mark delivered another intriguing session on the Vandals, this time on their Africa campaign and their final demise. We learnt already that the word ‘vandals’ as we are used to, is a misnomer in relation to the Vandals, as they behaved neither better nor worse than other tribes who roamed around the Roman empire at the time. The Vandals’ crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar is today seen as a turning point in history. It was the first real barbarian invasion of the Roman provinces in Africa, a foundation of the Western Roman Empire and a region that had been untouched for centuries. It was the Roman breadbasket. The Vandal army under Gaiseric landed from Spain and moved east toward Carthage, which lay in what is today Tunisia. From the start, his army used their usual pillaging and slaughtering attacks as they moved along the coast of Northern Africa. Many of the aristocrats and wealthier citizens fled Africa, mostly to Italy, especially as they feared religious persecution. Although both the Vandals and Romans were Christians, the former were Arians and had great contempt for Nicene Christianity, which had been the formally accepted school of Christianity in Rome since 325. That resentment was partially caused by Roman persecution of the Arians as heretics in their own territories, which was fuelled by thoughts and works of Saint Augustine of Hippo, a Roman African and an early Christian theologian and philosopher. Thus, the Vandals’ attack also showed a sign of being a religious war, though it certainly was only a by-product of their attack, not its ultimate goal. The Romans, of course, tried to stop their advance through Numidia, which covered the modern-day coast of Algeria. Their army was led by Boniface, who had managed to patch up his relations with the imperial government as both feared the Vandal invasion.
    In 432, the combined army of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires suffered a substantial defeat by the Vandals. Rome had no other choice but to agree to a peace treaty. This peace treaty was signed in AD 435 after a period of prolonged ceasefire. The Vandals lasted until in AD 533 the Byzantines routed them completely, taking Carthage and Carrying their king captive to Constantinople.

    The talk was followed by a lively discussion on issues such as the languages spoken by the different tribes involved and whether people were able to communicate with each other. Also, whether families moved with the army. Mark thought that they did.

    March 2021
    Ancient History Group about the ancient civilisation of the Etruscans who are still puzzling researchers, because not much writing has survived. However, works of art and craft have, as well as burial sites. The Etruscans lived in central parts of Italy from about 600 BC to 100 BC. Ian tells us that during the bronze age they used urns for burials, while they made tumuli during the iron age. Much of what we know comes from archaeological excavations. The sanctuary at Pyrgi, discovered by Giovanni Colonna, is one of the most important sacred sites and reveals that the Etruscans had a sacred architecture that is unparalleled. Ian has visited many of the sites and read D H Lawrence’s book. He glorified the Etruscans as having a culture that, unlike the Greeks and other older cultures, did not have an underworld or hell as part of their narrative. Instead, it was a completed harmonious view of life and death. A famous sarcophagus with two reclining figures, husband and wife, illustrate this. They look happy and content and are surrounded by precious goods in their afterlife.
    The Etruscans League was a loose organisation of ten cities who traded with each other. It faded, as the Etruscans battled with Celts and arrivals of other tribes. However, Rome is said to have been built by Etruscans in their traditional style of building on top of a hill (the Palantine hill) and surround their buildings with a sacred wall. Customs that are said to come from the Etruscans are the Toga, drainage and terracotta tiles amongst other things. The word Tursci, from Greek and Latin means Tower builders, as they build tall cities on hills.
    This was a beginning of us looking at the Etruscans, and further sessions are planned for the future. For instance, we did not yet study the Piacenza liver, a bronze tool to prophesize the future. 

    February 2021
    The subject of the Ancient History Group‘s February Zoom session was the Sumerian civilization … Group Convener Greta Sykes focussed on particular areas, apart from a briefest of overviews on time and place of the area called Mesopotamia until the end of WW1, which led to its division into a number of Arab states which include Iraq and Syria. Richard Miles’ understanding of civilisation describes it through horticultural activity, irrigation, sowing and harvesting, which led to the surplus of grain, in turn leading to larger families, housebuilding and eventually cities. Trade and exchange followed. All of these activities needed good organisation, which was based in the temple of each city. The Sumerians spirituality was founded on many Gods and Goddesses in their understanding of nature. They saw themselves as close to the Gods and believing in them as if they were real people with extraordinary power. One Goddesses, called Inanna, stands out as having been one of the most important ones for about 4000 years. By 3000 BC the Sumerians had developed the art of writing on clay tablets. Thousands of them survive and can be seen in the British Museum today. At this time women had equal rights with men. They could own property, be politically active and play an important role as priestess or queen. In our discussion one question was if having equal rights was different from matriarchy. Another issue raised was the question of living in the city versus living on the land. It is sometimes proposed that if people had the choice they would want to live on the land with less dirt and illness. It begs the question of whether people had a choice thousands of years ago or in how far the building of cities was a natural, thus necessary next step in civilisation developing. It allowed for arts and crafts to be created, for instance.

    January 2021
    The year began with a group of Vandals! After exchanging news about those of us who were lucky to be in the age group to have their vaccinations already we focused on life before the year nought, when the feared Vandals are supposed to have ravaged various parts of Europe. It turns out that the word ‘vandal’ comes from wandering or wandern in German. All it means is that these people were wanderers or nomads moving from place to place. Their story appears to look more like those of other nomad tribes that make their way across European lands for various reasons, not least searching for land or food sources. Mark reported on their history up until their entry into Africa after crossing via Gibraltar. A second part of their story will be told at a later date. During this early history there appear to be a variety of tribes who have neither language nor history or culture in common. They happen to be moving in the same direction at similar times and thus congregate here in there. Originating from Scandinavia they moved to Poland, Silesia and Hungary. The Asding tribe of Vandals may have brought about the Marcomannic war with Rome in the second century AD. One of the other main groups of Vandals were the Silings. There were also the Swabians and finally the Huns. A group of Vandals tried to take on the Romans who were led by Stilicho, a staunch Roman, in spite of his Vandal background. They got beaten into withdrawal. Their next attempt to move south was a cunning plan, possibly through extra information. They marched to the east side of the river Rhein and managed to cross it without moving into Stilicho’s area This was in 405 BC. From the West side of the Rhein they gathered further tribes amongst themselves and marched south, reaching France, then Spain, where they settled for a few years. Many left to reach Africa via Gibraltar. Their story raised a lot of questions in our group, such as what are their archaeological footprints, why were peoples of these ages more cruel than we are nowadays and, if that is true, what stopped them becoming less cruel. Was it treaties, religion or an easier life? By the time the Vandals crossed through Europe they had adopted the Christian religion. Mark thinks possibly through the teachings of missionaries.

    December 2020
    The December meeting of the Ancient History Group had seven in attendance went flyingly after we solved the tech problems. Pat talked to us about the Hittites. Why were the Hittites forgotten or ignored for so long. Where they a warring type culture or not what was special about them? These and many other questions were discussed and presented to us with many fascinating pictures of their location, work and script. The Battle at Kadesh in 1271 BC was a decisive moment, made special in history by resulting in what is called the first peace treaty in history. The Hittites came from the Caucasus, Pat tells us. They spoke an Indo-European language, while much of their writing was in Cuneiform and probably came from Mesopotamia. In fact, they seemed to be rather good at using knowledge and inventions done by others for their own purposes, which relieved them of sort to speak, have to reinvent the wheel, Pat said. They were the dominant power in central Asia in the mid 14th century BC and had a complex network of political and commercial relationships. Their trade routes were all important to them. Stone carvings, sculptures and thousands of cuneiform tablets, found in the capital, Hattusa, tell us about their administration and organisation. Pat gave us references of resources she found useful, which can be gleaned from her written report. The talk led to a lively discussion around questions of war and peace, and their role as one of the great bronze age culture. Tulin reported that she had been to an underground building near Cappadocia, which was built by the Hittites. She said it was fascinating how it was laid out and contained bedrooms and living rooms as well as space for animals to be kept safely.


    November 2020
    This month the Group had another fascinating meeting on zoom. Margot studied the Indus Valley civilisation and provided us with detail of a people who have hardly featured in historical records. Why did they disappear so suddenly, she asked, when they had such a highly developed culture? This question remains, as their script has not been understood yet. Margot told us of the great achievements that took place over several thousand years around 3000 BC: Water management through enormous tiered reservoirs harnessing rivers and the annual monsoon flood, building cities along the rivers with populations tens of thousands of citizens and trading routes by boat with the Arabian Gulf, Southern India, Mesopotamia and Central Asia. The cities were laid out along grids with markets, gardens and craft quarters. Houses had toilets, bathrooms and sewage systems. Precious stones which they used to make beautiful beads with was one of their speciality.

    Margot’s talk was accompanied by wonderful photos of the archaeological finds and the location of this civilisation. No tombs or palaces were found. We speculated what that might mean. Did they cremate their dead or use some other method? Did they not have kings and queens to rule in a palace. No temples were found, so what was their religion?

    October 2020
    This month’s meeting was held via Zoom. Tulin presented a talk on the Minoans for which she had already sent splendid photos to us. The pictures were a guide to this extraordinary early civilisation, existing from about 3000 BC and ending in about 1100 BC. Colossal buildings were constructed, often four stories high. Legends were invented which became famous stories, like the one of the Minotaur. Sir Arthur Evans rediscovered the culture in the 20th century, when he visited Knossos, calling it the Minoans, after the mythical king Minos. The Minoans traded in saffron, copper, tin gold, silver artefacts. The most notable palace was Knossos on Crete, one of the most famous frescos is called the saffron-gatherers. The artefacts show men and women in similar sports, weapon bearing, hunting and archery. Their culture is considered one of the early matriarchic civilisations in which both men and women had similar rights. Some paintings depict women in beautiful clothes with make up and elaborate hairstyles, illustrating their prominent role in society.

    July 2020
    Luckily the weather was fine and we sat comfortably outdoors, although only three of us gathered due to the Corona situation. All the same we had a very fruitful conversation about the complex matter of women in history with a particular focus on how the change from matriarchal/matrilineal to patriarchal/patrilineal contexts may have happened. Members of the Group had received my two pieces of writing, one being a powerpoint with pictures, the other being a text based presentation. Pat and Margot joined me and had read it all. Pat had done some further research and brought a printed sheet with further details of current matriarchic settings.
    We felt that knowing that matriarchic settings, albeit quite varied ones, existed now, helped to feed the imagination about how things might have been a long time ago. One of the most telling pieces may be one of the picture pages which shows ‘matrilineal to patrilineal succession’ (Thompson, 1965). It illustrates how over time the rights of women diluted, so to speak, by females handing bits of power over to males, thus males gradually achieving a higher status for themselves. Further, the example of the Etruscans is helpful. It is in the text page 5. It indicates that Greek historians understood Etruscans to have ‘wives in common’ and their children did not know their fathers.
    We debated these matters, but there was not enough time to properly pursue something that has for such a long time been hidden from our awareness. It may require a further session, Pat suggested.

    June 2020
    Covid19 has stopped us for three months meeting and having discussions. However, we had our June meeting via Zoom and it was well attended. It was Mark’s turn to talk to us about the Roman/Persian wars, which actually have their own category with this name among the Wikipedia entries. We proceeded by Mark sending us his paper in advance, so that we could read it. Therefore, we were able to have a full discussion of it.
    The first thing that everyone was surprised about was that this group of wars lasted over 600 years in all. We also smiled at Mark’s quote from Edward Gibbon’s history:
    The voice of history…is often little more than the organ of hatred or flattery!
    Mark put the 600 years into context by positioning it next to the 100 year war and the 30 year war. That might suggest things have improved from the older days, however, that might be too optimistic, especially, as we had what is often called another thirty year war in Europe in the 20th century, if you put WW1 and WW2 together. Mark put a light at the end of the long tunnel of destruction by writing about Bishop Acacius who was impelled to act when he saw the sorry state of the soldiers. He sold the church silver and gold vessels and bought food and clothing for the poor souls. He furnished them with all they needed to return to Persia. In turn the Persian leader was so impressed that he ordered an end to the persecution of the Christians, it is said.
    There were many battles basically going on one after another with various perceived enemies, such as the Volgases, the Parthians, the Persians and many more. Many warrior heroes were reported to prefer to die in battle and become part of what they thought was a glorious past. We talked about how for the most time the battle front did not move much, so that in effect little was gained or lost over time – we concluded not much different from WW1.

    February 2020
    Our February meeting was entitled The Denisovan Cave.. David Lane showed us on slides how complex the work of scientists is who delve into the detail of DNA and nucleotides. There are 3 billion pairs of them and 99.9% are the same with other hominins. Only 0.1% is different. However, that still means three million possible differences! So plenty of chances for explorations. David mainly used the work of the Swedish Dr Svante Paabo who did much of this work. He compared DNA from Neanderthals with DNA from French, Chinese, Yoruba and Papua N Guinea people and found that 1 to 2% Neanderthal DNA is present.
    He then studied the DNA from Denisovans whose bones were found in a cave in Russia. This involves so far the finger of a child and a 13 year old girl. The DNA found was considered sufficiently different to give it the name Denisovan hominin. It was found that 50,000 years ago modern humans mingled with Denisovans. Additionally, a Tibetan monk found a mandible. Protein analysis suggests a similar DNA to Denisovans. These explorations continue to fascinate and appear with new discoveries often in the scientific press. With the help of population genetics it is possible to reconstruct past traits and see how they remain or change over time. Adaptive introgression is one of the terms now used to speak about old material turning up in modern DNA.

    January 2020
    We had a lively round table discussion after everyone in the group had gone to the Troy – Myth and Reality exhibition at the British Musuem. We found it raised many questions as well as offering a wonderful display of artefacts and comments. We particularly liked the glossy ancient vessels decorated with mythical stories about battles and intrigues and their descriptions, although some of the text we found was placed very low near the ground and therefore difficult to read. Some of us felt that the second part of the exhibition which focusses on the reality of Troy was lacking in detail. It offered some references to Calvert and Schliemann who began the digs in the Troy area which is in northern Turkey. It showed us some vessels from 2000 BC from the Minoean civilisation, one of which apparently had contained the jewels of Helena. There were useful comments relating that the Iliad and Odyssey were written hundreds of years after the battles had actually taken place. But little more was said on the context. It would have been good to have been offered a timeline illustrating the approximate dates of the Mycenean destruction of Troy and the resulting end of the Minoean culture in the context of other cultural developments including the shift from tribal life to chieftains and warrior groups. The British Museum article in their magazine states: ‘One reason why the story of Troy has lived on for so long is that it is simply a great story that has it all: love and loss, courage and passion, violence and vengeance …’. We wondered about the Trojan horse and if it could have been a real aspect, but Pat told us that it was probably just a poetic version of the ships’ hollow space and the waves seen as horses. We learnt that a city at that time could not have sustained a ten year war. Poetic licence was used to dramatize the former glorious events. We laughed about the gods who were so powerful and acted like human beings, getting angry and enjoying a sacrifice!

    December 2019
    Continuing our explorations into early humans Ian presented us with further fascinating stories of the migration out of Africa. He brought Chris Stringer’s theories to our attention. His work is on display at the Natural History Museum in London. More than twenty hominin species are known so far that are part of the human family tree. Many of them were found as fossils within the last thirty years, adding to our knowledge and understanding of our origins. Ian told us that it is thought that there were three major movements out of Africa, called L1, L2 and L3. L1 may have led to Neanderthals who were still around when L2 and L3 arrived. As the new arrivals did not differ much from the earlier groups they were able to intermarry which led to many of us carrying 2% of genes from Neanderthals.
    Chris Stringer is Co-director of the Pathways to Ancient Britain  (PAB) programme at the Natural History Museum. Their work involves archeological sites throughout Britain, such as Happisburgh in Norfolk, Barnham in Suffolk and on the island of Jersey.
    A lively discussion of the many interesting facets of this research was followed by some mulled wine and mince pies.

    November 2019
    David Pashley spoke about DNA. He told us he had read David Reich’s book and found it puzzling and at times not very clear. The book was familiar to at least another one of us, but all of us had talked and thought about the fascinating story of how humans became humans and how the difference between us and our nearest ape relatives is ever so small. David gave us a feel for the various branches of humanoids and showed us their geographical movements and origins. It was in the 70s, he said, that the first genetic assessments were made. These started with mitochondrial DNA. By now approximately 6,000 ancient peoples have been analysed. Neanderthals existed for a time at the same time as homo sapiens, and it is now assumed that they intermingled with each other. David mentioned the Denisovan teeth from 40,000 years ago and Heidelberg man from Spain 400,000 years ago. 10,000 years ago hunters and gatherers spread throughout Europe. It is suggested that farming which followed led to similar DNA in Europe. We discussed the arrival of nomadic tribes from the east, about 5,000 years ago, who rode on horseback. Did they really have such a huge impact on DNA through engagements with farming communities and their women. This story continues to fascinate and we agreed to have further sessions on the subject.

    October 2019
    At this meeting Pat focused on rock and cave art and had some fascinating examples to show us, some of them over 60 000 years old. She told us about the different theories as to why people started drawing and painting. She mentioned the many different sites where such works have so far been found. We concluded that much remains speculation, as we find it difficult to think ourselves into the thoughts and feelings of people so long ago. It was a very interesting session and we thanked Pat for it. Research from areas, such as anthropology, psychology and archaeology can, however, help to throw light on the distant past.

    August 2019
    Despite a lower than usual attendance (due to a change of date), we spent a lively and enjoyable hour and a half on the subject Ancient Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia. This is one of the topics Greta has done quite a lot of work about. She gave a talk two years ago on it, and still finds the changes that took place among those early civilisations fascinating, especially, when one looks a bit more deeply at the place of women and the role of gods and goddesses. Both ancient Egypt and ancient Greece believed in many gods and goddesses. The arrival of monotheism had a gradual effect on all the early cultures in the area. Byzantium became Christian. Greta referenced Professor Judith Herrin who has done much to enlighten people in her book Byzantium :The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (2007), about it.

    July 2019
    Our July meeting focused on the change from hunter gatherers to agriculture. This is, of course, an extremely fascinating ‘moment’ in human history, and one can talk and write about it for a long time, with few definite conclusions. Was the step from the freedom of the gatherers and hunters a result of climate changes, or was it due to human explorations or both? Was it a lucky development or was it a harder life than before? We can only guess at it. It certainly led to many more dramatic changes. Mark gave us a complete overview of the latest theories. Known facts are that the change to agriculture first took a foothold in the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia) and along the Yangtse river. An interesting aspect of the change was that women did not need to feed their babies for several years any more, because the new variety of foods, such as cereal, could be digested by much younger children than before. The changes took place over many thousands of years and arrived in Britain at about 5000 BC. Again, many questions were raised and we had a good discussion.

    June 2019
    We started our meeting with a splash. Margot talked to us about the latest findings regarding the human species and other similar creatures. It used to be easy to distinguish between us, homo sapiens, and the Neanderthals. We were at the top and could look down at a species that was far below ours in terms of intelligence. These times are gone, Margot showed. From the news that we mingled and mixed with the Neanderthals things have moved on to show that nothing is quite as straight forward as it appeared.There are many hominid species that all developed over the thousands of years close to us. There were hobbits for over a hundred thousand years, famous Lucy, probably, was one of those. Even the idea that we all came out of Africa is not simple. There may have been human species that developed in the Far East, and there were waves of those who left Africa.This was a very enlightening session with plenty of discussion and ideas for other research in the future.