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.


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.


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

Gilgamesh would nod knowingly

[I’m not sure when I wrote this, actually.]

A lot of Iranian foreign policy is driven by the history of the various Persian empires that have existed in a continuous arc for three thousand years. Iranian civilization today is the direct descendant of Persian civilization three millennia ago. Persian civilization never disappeared, was never destroyed and reborn, it’s perhaps the oldest continuous civilization in the world. Persia has been playing this game in Iraq and Syria for thousands of years and are very aware they have been doing so.

We are not. We will never. We can’t even begin to fathom what is going on. Iraq is a lattice of grudges going back to the very dawn of civilization, grudges that last for centuries, for eons, grudges so old people’s don’t even know why they hate other peoples except that their ancestors did, and those ancestors never questioned why either. Civilization doesn’t mean everyone gets along. Put a few thousand years of lots of civilizations in one relatively small area and you get quite a beautiful mess. Humanity thrives on conflict. Otherwise we’d be like the Neanderthals, scarcely changing in a hundred thousand years, peacefully using the same flint tools for 5,000 generations. But look what Homo sapiens have achieved in a mere 500 generations of civilization in the Middle East. A lot of rich history, a lot of extraordinary cultures, a lot of endless fighting. But with drones now, no stone tools.

In the long sweep of the history of the Middle East, our Iraqi intervention will scarcely be noted. We we there and then we were gone a couple decades later, and we made no difference whatsoever.


A Roman glass bowl found perfectly preserved in Nijmegen, Netherlands. I doubt it was produced locally, though who knows. There might well have been Roman glass workers there. Batavia (as they called the Netherlands then) was on the northern fringe of the Roman Empire when the empire was at its apogee, and was a trading center, and Roman items reached all the way there via trading vessels, that is aboard ships, which is difficult to imagine now, traveling from the Mediterranean to the North Sea in those ancient ships. Even getting to Holland from the Atlantic coast of France seems extraordinary. They’d trade Roman finery and jars of rancid fish sauce (the ancients loved their rancid fish sauce) for timber and furs and amber. (The exciting things you learn when you read too many big, dull books….) Unfortunately the source document is in Dutch so I’ve no idea of the details, and the Twitter thread quickly degenerated into a series of jokes about the box, and so I haven’t a clue how such a gorgeous thing was preserved in perfect condition since at the latest the 300s although if I had to guess I’d say it was found in a bog. Otherwise not much Roman glassware survived the inebriated depredations of hirsute barbarians who never bathed. Oddly enough, though, I’m looking at a bowl we received as a wedding present not quite in the 300s that bears a remarkable similarity to the design of this one. I‘d no idea it was based on a Roman design, I assume the pattern has survived into modernity via the Byzantines. Now it’s hidden under the coffee table full of assorted junk. How it’s survived all the decades of increasingly less hirsute inebriated depredations in our pad is almost as much of a mystery as the two thousand year old Roman bowl. Such is the fate of civilization.

Roman numerals

It’s taken a millennium for Arabic numbers—actually Indo-Arabic numbers—to replace Roman numerals, which cling to use in the Anglo-American world, but just barely. Roman numerals we still call them, because numbers were numerals a century ago. But numerals became numbers since then, while Roman numerals remained numerals, stuck a century ago, when they still retained some of their long dead glory and were used everywhere, on buildings, in footnotes, on clock faces, in the years movies were released. They get harder for us to read each year, too, harder for us to convert them to Arabic numbers in our head. Thus do the vestiges of ancient civilizations disappear.

It was just the opposite when Arabic numbers began to seep into the west in the late Medieval. They confused people, those who could read and write anyway. (You didn’t need to be literate at all to use the rather extraordinary fingering computation method used in the Middle Ages, though it’s certainly beyond me.) They couldn’t quite get the hang of what seems so perfectly natural to us now. There were bastard forms, like MCCCC92, or M4C92, or 14XC92. Worse yet was the creepily mysterious zero, which made no sense at all to most Medieval Europeans—how can something represent nothing?—thus rendering 1390 as, say, X3C1C. Unlike the introduction of the alphabet, which rendered entire literatures written in cuneiform and hieroglyphics unreadable within a couple generations, the switch to Arabic numbers took many centuries. Incredibly it was well into the 19th century that you could find Roman numerals still in daily use throughout the Anglo-American world, which is why, I suppose you can still see them affixed to old buildings or in chapter headings or the fine print of movie credits from the first half of the twentieth century. People refusing to budge from the style guides they learned in college fifty years before. You can just imagine them outraged at kids using Arabic numbers instead of the Roman numerals that had been good enough for Cicero.

But those people retired and died, and Roman numerals began to disappear from just about everything by our time (including time itself, or clock faces anyway.) Just about. The NFL, if not quite reviving the the two thousand and some year old numbers system (with origins in Etruscan numbers several hundred years earlier), has over the last half century managed to put Roman numerals into the consciousness of a couple hundred million viewers every year. Indeed, were it not for the Super Bowl—the Super Bowl, ferchrissakes, that bastion of classicism—the god damned things might have been gone and forgotten by now, except in musty academic circles or on the occasional monument. But everyone can read Roman numerals now, at least up to two Arabic number figures, which I believe would be at maximum six Roman numbers, XXXIII. This year was what, Super Bowl LV? Or as a confused Medieval football fan might have written it, X5V. Go figure.

Converting Roman into Arabic numbers in 1582.