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Echoes from the Past: Reflecting on Gaza, First Americans, Making Borders
Ancient Origins Unleashed Debrief
Greetings The Unleashed!
Although perhaps not terribly pertinent to this newsletter subject matter, I’m compelled to a reflective post today. Indulge me, or skip straight to the best picks.
In 1990, I was a long-haired 17-year-old, who had decided to leave the shores of Britain, and explore the world. I had got myself settled on Kibbutz Dorot in Israel, where I spent 8 months of my life working hard and basking in the endless sunshine. My 18th birthday was spent in a bomb shelter, not because we were under attack, but because that’s where the sound system was, and where the other volunteers, kibbutzniks and I would gather on a Friday night for what we called ‘Shabat Sha-boogie’.
One day I noticed all the children were carrying boxes. When I enquired as to why, I was informed they contained gas masks, in case of a chemical attack. I asked if everyone would get one, but they were only for the children. I knew the Gaza strip was about ten kilometers away, but I didn’t really think of the risks again, and thankfully nothing came of the threat.
This week, of course, I’ve been devastated by the news coming in from the Gaza Strip and its surroundings, with Sderot being the town neighboring the kibbutz which left me with such fond memories.
I had worked alongside Palestinians who would be bussed in from Gaza each day, and shared their treacle thick coffee with me. I lived with Israelis, most of whom wished that whatever agreements could be made, should be made, and people could get on with their lives in peace.
That was 33 years ago, and the events of this week are a horrific reminder that still hasn’t happened, despite what I believe to be the overwhelming will of the people. Of course, conflict resolutions are never easy. Human history weaves a tangled web. Interests clash. Power competes. Family members are lost.
This week, my thoughts are with the many ordinary folk throughout the world, who live in fear for their lives due to conflicts that are out of their hands. Is this really the human condition, as history indicates?
And now to this week’s Editor’s Picks…
A topical find…
The Cave of Letters in Israel has yielded many artifacts from the famous Bar Kokhba revolt, offering deep insights into Jewish history. Recently, a 1,900-year-old child's nightgown with intriguing "knots" was discovered, prompting speculation regarding their protective significance within ancient Jewish practices and beliefs.
The Cave of Letters is situated in the Judean desert’s Nahal Hever Valley, on the western shore of the Dead Sea , approximately 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Qumran, in Israel. Ever since its discovery in the early 1960s, and its subsequent excavation by archaeologist Yigael Yadin, this famous archaeological site has provided deep insights into ancient Jewish history.
Papyrus letters and artifacts dating to the Jewish Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 AD), against Roman rule , have described the desperate circumstances faced by the Jewish rebels during the revolt, serving as a poignant reminder of their struggles and perseverance.
Now, in a recent exploration within the Cave of Letters, archaeologists have brought to light a nightgown hailing from 1,900-years-ago, and a unique historical narrative is encapsulated within the fabric of this ancient child's garment.
When and how humans first settled in the Americas is a subject of considerable controversy. In the 20th century, archaeologists believed that humans reached the North American interior no earlier than around 14,000 years ago.
But our new research found something different. Our latest study supports the view that people were in America about 23,000 years ago.
The 20th century experts thought the appearance of humans had coincided with the formation of an ice-free corridor between two immense ice sheets straddling what’s now Canada and the northern US. According to this idea, the corridor, caused by melting at the end of the last Ice Age, allowed humans to trek from Alaska into the heart of North America.
Gradually, this orthodoxy crumbled. In recent decades, dates for the earliest evidence of people have crept back from 14,000 years ago to 16,000 years ago. This is still consistent with humans only reaching the Americas as the last Ice Age was ending.
In September 2021, we published a paper in Science that dated fossil footprints uncovered in New Mexico to around 23,000 years ago – the height of the last Ice Age . They were made by a group of people passing by an ancient lake near what’s now White Sands. The discovery added 7,000 years to the record of humans on the continent, rewriting American prehistory.
If humans were in America at the height of the last Ice Age, either the ice posed few barriers to their passage, or humans had been there for much longer. Perhaps they had reached the continent during an earlier period of melting.
Our conclusions were criticized, however we have now published evidence confirming the early dates.
It’s a floater!
In the heart of Lepakshi, Andhra Pradesh, India, lies a marvel of ancient Indian architecture that has puzzled both historians and architects alike – a temple with a pillar that doesn’t completely touch the ground. This curious phenomenon has led to the temple becoming a focal point of both historical and architectural studies, raising questions about the methods and intentions behind its unconventional construction.
Veerbhadra Temple, located in the historical village of Lepakshi, is renowned for its rich tapestry of ancient murals, sculptures, and archaeological wonders dating back to the 16th century. Among its many fascinating features, the temple houses a ‘ hanging pillar ’ that seems to defy the laws of gravity .
This enigmatic pillar doesn’t rest fully on the ground, allowing visitors to slide a piece of cloth underneath it, leaving them in awe of this architectural anomaly. The so-called floating pillar has sparked intrigue, inspiring theories about ancient construction techniques and the purpose behind this seemingly impossible feat. The details surrounding its construction remain shrouded in mystery, inviting further exploration into this architectural wonder.
Who invented these borders anyway?
Everyone loves to travel abroad to discover new countries, new cultures, and new languages. Traveling is always fun and never fails to broaden your horizons. These days it’s virtually impossible to go anywhere without a valid passport, the most modern international identification that allows you to cross the borders of all nations. But do we ever stop to wonder where passports actually originated? When did the need for international documentation arise and who brought it all to fruition?
Passports certainly sound like a modern, 20th century invention - and they certainly are. But the origin of the passport actually reaches far back in time. The ancient origins of passports can be traced back to several civilizations where various forms of travel documents or ‘safe-conduct letters’ were used. These early documents served similar purposes to modern passports, such as ensuring the safety and protection of travelers in foreign lands.
In ancient Rome, officials issued documents known as tesserae hospitales and tesserae hospitalitatis to foreign diplomats and messengers. These documents provided safe passage and protection while traveling through Roman territories. They were typically written in Latin and carried the seal of the issuing authority. While not exactly the same as modern passports, these tesserae served a similar function in allowing individuals to travel safely. In the early history of Rome, outsiders could often enter the city only if they possessed such a document.
Another early historic mention of a travel document can actually be found in the Hebrew Bible. In the chapter of Nehemiah, dating to around 450 BC, we can read that one of the officials of King Artaxerxes I of Persia, called Nehemiah, asked the king's permission to travel to Judea. As a result, the king provided him with a letter “to the governors beyond the river.” This letter allowed safe passage as the man traveled through their lands.
During the Middle Ages, feudal lords, monarchs, and city-states in Europe issued various forms of safe-conduct letters or “letters of protection.” These documents were often written in Latin and provided travelers with written guarantees of safe passage through different territories. They were especially important for merchants, diplomats and pilgrims, as they protected them from being detained, robbed or harmed during their journeys.
In Europe, the concept of safe conduct evolved, with various rulers issuing letters of protection to foreign visitors. These documents played a crucial role in safeguarding travelers during a tumultuous era marked by frequent incidents of robbery and warfare, preventing them from being detained or harmed.
And this most ancient of traditions seems to have captured the imagination…
In the annals of history, we have witnessed a myriad of unique, and at times, bizarre traditions that have defined civilizations and their leaders. One such tradition that stands tall in its peculiar characteristics is the well-documented ‘ marital ritual’ of King Iddin-Dagan, who reigned in Isin (modern-day Iraq) around four millennia ago. This ritual involved public copulation with a priestess in front of the masses.
The enigmatic ritual, transcending mere symbolism, was rooted in the earnest belief of promoting fertility and securing a bountiful harvest through an elaborate ceremony that rivaled even the most extravagant of royal festivities seen in modern times. The ritual commenced with the meticulous preparation of the priestess, who would “bathe her loins,” not once but twice, followed by a soap bath to purify herself before the divine enactment.
In a performance brimming with mysticism and solemnity, the stage was set for Iddin-Dagan to assume the role of the Sumerian god Dumuzid, a deity associated with shepherds and fertility, juxtaposed with the priestess channeling the goddess Inanna, the deity of love, beauty, sex, and war, in a sacred theatrical display of divine copulation. A declaration of “O my holy thighs!” marked the initiation of the ritualistic intercourse, as the pair engaged in a reverential unison to please the heavens and ensure the fertility of the land.
Until next time, stay safe, hope for peace.
Gary Manners - Senior Editor, Ancient Origins