Ur

Here’s a virtual reconstruction of the city of Ur around 2500 BC or so, or upwards of five thousand years ago. This is based on the remarkably well preserved mud brick structures (due in part to the dry climate, and in part to the excellence of the construction), which gives a blue print of the city in exceptional detail. There is also an enormous quantity of documents—mud tablets baked hard by the sun and in ovens—written in cuneiform which give insight into almost every aspect of life, politics, war and commerce in the city’s 3,300 year history (which coincides neatly with the history of cuneiform, actually, the first cuneiform preceding the founding of the city by only a couple centuries.) Ur was perhaps the very first city, and certainly the very first great city in the modern sense. Take us back in time and put us atop the ziggurat that towers over it and we would take in the view and know we were looking at a city. The way the Chicago skyline seems to rise out of the fields a great distance away was how Ur’s towering ziggurat would have appeared to rise from the plains of Mesopotamia to a Sumerian farmhand. Ur was the model that most cities from Europe to Central and South Asia to the northern half of Africa followed, even though most never knew it. It became the ur meme, the fundamental urban design concept, like how an alphabet invented in the Sinai by a handful of literate turquoise miners became the conceptual model for nearly all the world’s alphabets thereafter. Thus was the urban design deliberately laid out by the planners of Ur over five thousand years ago imprinted upon civilization. Only cities in the Far East and the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa were founded and conceptualized independently. It was in Ur where humans first figured out how to create an urban civilization. Crime, epidemic disease, slums, crowding, pollution, repression and extremes of wealth and poverty followed the idea as it spread, sure, but so did the glamour, excitement, inspiration and thrill of life in the big city, which is why so many of us live in one five millennia later. Ur itself, though, was abandoned about twenty seven hundred years ago, forgotten, it’s bones covered with blowing sand and dust till all that remained was a few odd hillocks, as if it never were.

A virtual recreation of Ur about four thousand years ago. That’s the Euphrates River, Ur then was near where it spilled into the Persian Gulf, making Ur a coastal city. Sedimentation carried in the current of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has long since left the site of Ur far from the sea. The water table was eight or nine feet higher then, too, the land would’ve been well watered, even marshy, so much so that the city planners had canals like thoroughfares crossing the city, carrying goods and people. Alas, six thousand years of civilization and climate change have taken their toll on the landscape of Mesopotamia, and Ur now stands in the desert, silent and still, dust devils swirling over the long forgotten canals.
(Unfortunately I don’t know the source of the digital image.)

Ordinary Roman footwear

Shoe of an ordinary Roman soldier, a legionary, discovered while excavating a Roman fort in Germany. These were just workday shoes, perhaps not worn on campaign but certainly when tooling around the camp in the long months between. Just ordinary Roman footwear. The workmanship and detail look like something you’d pick up at Target today. It’s so easy to underestimate the day to day sophistication of Roman civilization, which makes the plunge into several centuries of the Dark Ages all the more stunning. The Roman Empire in the west, the part ruled from Rome, was swept away in the space of a century (the empire in the east, ruled from Constantinople, hung on another thousand years, till 1453), and with it disappeared so many skills, from running water sewage systems to the cobbling of comfortable shoes, and it took nearly a thousand years to remember how to do it again. Now, two thousand years later, we can make shoes just like this, and out of plastic, and in a riot of colors. And if that ain’t progress, I don’t know what is.

Photo from the Saalburg Museum, posted by the excellent Classical Compendium on Twitter .

A pair of dice

Here’s a technology that hasn’t changed much in at least 4000 years. The Indus Civilization was astonishing, with beautifully laid out cities, running water and waste drainage systems and a complex economy, alas, we can’t seem to crack the writing, so what we know is mostly deduction. In neighboring Mesopotamia archeologists have dug up a half million cuneiform tablets (baked in an oven they lasted a long time, and if the palace they were stored in was burned down when the city fell, they become hard as rock) and it’s guesstimated there could be a million more still in the ground, so we know incredible amounts of information about Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, the nearby Hittites and, all the other peoples who recorded their thoughts, commands, gossip, prayers, transactions, histories, whatever. And what we do know of the games the mysterious Indus Civilization people were playing with these dice we might know from some Sumerian trader—probably complaining in a cuneiform tablet about being cleaned out by some Indian hustler with a pair of dice.

Terra cotta dice excavated at the site of Harappa in modern day Pakistan, 2600-1900 BC. They’re each 3.2 cm by 3.2 cm (about an inch and a quarter per side.) Currently in the Lahore Museum, Lahore, Pakistan. Unfortunately I can’t find a photo credit.

Unguentarium

From archaeologist Dr. Nina Willburger on Twitter about this two thousand year old unguentarium and also a great excuse to write unguentarium three times, and I’d never even heard of an unguentarium before. “This delicate Roman blue and white marbled glass unguentarium,” the good doctor begins, “a vessel to hold oil/perfume, was made from translucent dark blue glass with trails in opaque white, dating 1st century AD.” Almost telegraphically terse, but she nails it. Let your eyes loll over the picture, it’s such a beautiful thing. Romans were absolutely masters of glassware, and they mass produced the stuff, glass blowers huffing and puffing all day long creating things like this. Theirs was was the world created by Caesar Augustus and his Antonine Dynasty, the very apogee of Rome, the world of I Claudius, the Antonines and the three emperors of the Flavian Dynasty who filled out the rest of that glorious century. Those were the years you probably visualize when you think of the Roman Empire, when delicate things like this could be found from Scotland to Mesopotamia and traded far beyond, and sometimes, somehow, they survived the two thousand years since, and we can gaze upon them, looking as if they were blown from molten glass only yesterday.

Pershing Square, 1944

There probably wasn’t much to do in L. A. on a warm day in early June of 1944 if you were a senior citizen, there were only so many night watchmen gigs and air raid wardens were no longer in demand. And it certainly wouldn’t have been easy to get around, not with rationing and the buses and trains and red cars packed with younger people coming and going to work—all the plants ran three shifts, 24/7–so the benches are packed downtown in Pershing Square. The headlines are screaming about the Invasion just unleashed on the beaches of Normandy, which is certainly what these gentlemen are all talking about thinking about and worrying about, and reminiscing about how it was back in ‘17 when it was their turn over there. They’re talking about the war, this war and theirs, and their telling tales of their youth, some even true, and they’re talking about their aches and pains. Meanwhile the War gets won without them.

Garum

And then this from the esteemed Dr. Willburger on Twitter:

“Roman flask in the form of a fish was found in La Dent, Meyzieu, Rhône, France. The neck is in the place of the dorsal fin. We don’t know what the flask was used for, maybe the shape relates to the content (garum – fish sauce), maybe it was used to hold oil or perfume.” It’s from the Third Century (that is, between AD 200 and 300), she adds.

Those were rough years for the Roman Empire. The “Crisis of the Third Century” saw invasions from Germany and points east that were incredibly destructive. By the time Roman arms were able to restore order towards the end of the century, great swathes of the Gaul and the Balkans had been laid waste, you can just imagine how many fine pieces like this were shattered. So it’s nice to see this one quite intact.

Oh—that garum, or fish sauce. The Romans empire-wide were mad about garum. They produced it on a nearly industrial level, in huge vats on sites that could cover acres, basically fish sauce factories. The stink of rotting fish must have been astonishing. It was poured into shipping containers and sent via sea or river all o er the 3mpire, and nearly every wreck of a Roman vessel discovered lying on the sea bottom is full of jars of the stuff. I’d always thought garum must’ve been the most revolting thing imaginable till it occurred to me my beloved bottle of Worchester Sauce is a nineteenth century English recipe for garum. When I sauté a mess of veggies (always lots of green onions) in olive oil splashed liberally with Worchester sauce I’m preparing a simple meal almost as old as Western Civilization itself, right down to the bread torn from the loaf and glass of red wine.

Things were cooking on Delos

From a tweet from the Archaeological of Delos: “A 2,500 year old ancient Greek ‘cooker’: three (or four) stoves, oven and a grill. Found on the Greek island of Delos.” That’s all it said, plus the fabulous picture below.

But 2500 years ago Delos was going through some changes, as they say. It was a major Greek religious center (I know Apollo was worshiped there), and right about this time the island tyrant got into a purification thing and ordered all gravesites within view of the temple to be moved. A century later in the midst of the Peloponnesian War it was ordered that all human remains be moved off the island, then dying on the island itself was prohibited, and giving birth on the island as well. Finally all the people were removed, and Delos was sat there in the Aegean sun, empty of everything but birds and temples and the shadowy movements of the gods. It had to the most purified island ever. Not sure how long that lasted. By the time the Romans took the place a couple centuries later, people were back, living and dying and being born just like they were on any other Greek island. But right about the time people were serving up meals on this tiny kitchenette, it was getting weird for the locals.

From King Tut’s tomb

From Tutankhamen’s tomb, a 3,350 year old board game. I’ve no idea if archeologists or historians know how it was played (it was probably a lot more complex than it looks), but damn, what a beautiful 3,350 year old thing. The not so beautiful but ginormous pyramids at Giza are 4,500 or so year old things. Egyptian civilization got a little more intricate and delicate with age, it seems. 1200 years ago was just as long ago and different to people 3,350 years ago than it is to us now, when 1200 years ago was 970. Eek. And not to change the subject, but those gorgeous hieroglyphs all over this object had reached their apogee about this time, really been perfected into a technology that could express stories. The spoken language had changed dramatically from the language spoken 1200 years earlier by the pyramid builders, as all languages do, but I imagine the written language of the pyramid builder’s time could be read by thise who could read in Tutankhamen’s court (though not vice versa, as hieroglyphics by King Tut’s time had all kinds of things still undeveloped 1,200 years earlier.) But I’m digressing from the whole point of this post, which is what a beautiful thing this is. And was, as I’m sure it was just as lovely 3,350 years ago as it is now.

From EgyptToday.com

Orange groves, cows and strawberry fields

A photo from Compton, California, a now completely urbanized community on the city limits of Los Angeles, back in 1910. Indeed, most of flatland LA and environs was farms, orchards, vineyards and cattle pasture well into the 20th century. As farmers sold out to developers the city would often end on one side of the road and fields begin on the other side. When I was a kid in Orange County in the sixties and seventies, the entire area was a patchwork of intense development and farmland. One year there’d be strawberry fields and orange groves, a year later there’d be a new housing tracts, a shopping center, a freeway, a mini-mall (I don’t think they called them mini-malls yet, though), an amusement park. Disneyland still had strawberry fields across the street. My folks finally bought a place way the hell out in Brea, which was like the edge of the world in 1971, and our tract had been cow pasture—maybe cattle land would be a better description—just a year or two earlier. The cows were gone, but the flies remained. There were still lots of cattle across the road, we’d pass by herds of the beasts on the way to Brea Olinda High School. All the kids had stories about running for their lives chased by an angry snorting bull. A few years later not even the flies remained. It was solid suburban tract homes. In the early seventies, though, Brea Olinda High was still rural enough thst it had a farm right on campus, and the Future Farmers of America kids drove their cows and hogs, goats and sheep across campus, the long haired suburban kids jeering and laughing. They got the last laugh, too, those jeering suburban kids, the farm was closed a few years later as the last pastures and groves in the area were plowed up and houses and a new mall put up in their place. Last time I was in Brea I got lost. I was going to show Fyl where we’d first lived in a rental across from a park, and sometimes we’d walk home from Brea Junior High through downtown Brea, a stretch of Midwest farmtown on the fringes of Orange County suburbia, a world away from Surf City USA. But the two lane road between pastures was now a six lane river of asphalt, and every last thing I remembered was gone. Only the street names remained.

A wagon load of sugar beets in Compton, 1910. Source: California State University, Dominguez Hills, Archives and Special Collections. Thanks to Los Angeles Relics on Facebook for posting this picture and inspiring this essay.

Hollywood in 1903

Hollywood in 1903. The picture is looking from Whitley Heights, which is the hilly section you pass through on the Hollywood Freeway on your way into the Cahuenga Pass, just before you see the Hollywood Bowl. If you’re coming south on the Hollywood Freeway (the 101) this is the view that opens up a moment (or an hour on a bad traffic day) after passing by the Hollywood Bowl. It’s just that almost nothing you see now was there in 1903. The wider road running horizontally across the picture would be Hollywood Blvd (called Prospect Avenue then) which already had street car tracks running down its center. I’m not sure what street it is running diagonally through the picture, the beginnnings of Cahuenga Blvd? And did that road running along the base of the hill become Franklin Ave? Sunset Blvd is just discernible beyond. Even this early you can see that Hollywood Blvd (Prospect Ave doesn’t quite have the same ring) was more crowded with bigger buildings than Sunset Blvd. It’s a discombobulating view here, as so little of pre-studios Hollywood still stands and aside from Hollywood Blvd itself nothing is familiar in this photograph. Within twenty years this would be dramatically transformed, though, and within thirty it would look like a city.

Saw this posted at the wonderful Los Angeles Relics page on Facebook.