The Human Story – The Indus Valley Civilisation

Today we are going to take a close look at civilisation and a closer look at the oldest civilisation of them all, the Indus Valley Civilisation.

A civilisation is any complex society characterized by urban development, social hierarchy which is controlled by a social elite, symbolic systems of communication such as writing and a supposed separation from and command over the natural environment. You will recall from the last instalment of the Human Story series that the proto-cities of Jericho in the Levant and Jiahu in the far east had some of these characteristics but failed in possessing all of them: hence why they are not considered civilisations. Another way to look at the prerequisites for the status of civilisation is whether a society possess at least four of the following:

• Surplus of food
• Specialisation of labour
• Social stratification and centralised government
• Shared values (e.g. religion)
• Writing

Born of Water

IVC Map

The Indus Valley Civilisation, sometimes known as the Harappan, named after the first site of their discovery (Harappa), was a Bronze Age civilisation that lived and thrived in the flood plains of the north western regions of South Asia in what is modern north east Afghanistan, Pakistan and north west India. Along with Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (both of which we will cover soon) the Indus Valley Civilisation was one of the three early cradles of human civilisation and the most widespread of the three.

This was just about the best place in the world to set up an ancient civilisation. The rivers reliably flooded twice every year and provided the most calories available per acre of land of almost anywhere on the planet. The slow southward migration of the monsoons across Asia initially allowed the Indus Valley villages to develop by taming the floods of the Indus and its tributaries. This flood supported style of farming led to large agricultural surpluses which, in turn, accommodated the development and growth of cities. It is likely that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation did not develop irrigation technology as they did not need to, instead, relying mainly on seasonal monsoons leading to floods. This is what made the ancient Indus Valley region such a desirable piece of agricultural real estate: nutrient rich silt deposits were naturally spread across the flat, well-watered floodplains. Ironically, this reliance upon the monsoon and lack of irrigational knowledge may have led to the eventual downfall of the Harappan civilisation when the climate changed drastically, but we will come to that soon.

An Egalitarian Architectural Wonder

Everything that we know of the Indus Valley Civilisation has been discovered through archaeology. This culture did have a symbolic written system, however, no one, yet, has been able to decipher it and the secrets of the Harappan civilisation continue to remain a mystery. Want to make a name for yourself amongst the archaeo-linguistic scene? See if you can decipher the writing below:

IVC Language

What archaeologists and researchers have been able to uncover though is absolutely astonishing. The Indus Valley Civilisation created incredible cities, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa being the two most well-known. As of 2018, archaeologists have discovered over 1,000 sites and settlements belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. It is estimated that Mohenjo-daro alone could have been the home to 50,000 residents.

These sites indicate that the Indus Valley Civilisation knew about advanced urban planning. The cities were laid out in dense multi-storeyed homes using standardised bricks stretching along perpendicular streets, rather than the usual erection of buildings in a hodge podge fashion found throughout history the world over. This level of urban planning would have required some form of city civic planning. Perhaps even more incredible than the standardised layout of the cities was the orientation of the layout. The larger cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation were designed in such a way as to catch the wind and create a natural form of air-conditioning! It amazes me to think of the forward planning and ingenuity that must have gone into these cities at such an early stage of their development.

The advanced architecture of this civilisation is shown in the impressive dockyards, warehouses, granaries and protective walls. The massive walls of the Indus Valley Civilisation were most likely used to protect the people from floods and may also have dissuaded military conflict.

There is one huge cultural architectural anomaly of the Harappan that sets them in stark contrast to their Egyptian and Mesopotamian contemporaries. There is a serious lack of monumental structures to be found in the Indus Valley. There is no conclusive evidence of temples or palaces which suggests that there was possibly not even kings or priests and amazingly there is a lack of evidence for armies too.

The largest building discovered at Mohenjo-Daro is not a temple, nor was it a palace. It is a giant public bath known as the Great Bath and it is the earliest known water tank of the ancient world. No one knows for sure what the Great Bath was used for, but scholars generally agree that it was most likely the centre piece in religious functions where water was used to purify and renew the well being of the bathers. Perhaps it was some sort of large baptismal pool. Later Indian culture placed huge emphasis on ritual purity which is the basis of the caste system still in use today. I don’t think that it is a massive leap of faith to assume that this may have its origins in the Mohenjo-Daro Great Bath rituals…. although it probably does not.

Great Bath

Most city dwellers appear to have been traders or artisans living with others pursuing the same occupation in well defined neighbourhoods. Although some houses were larger than others, Indus Valley Civilisation cities are noteworthy for their apparent egalitarianism. It appears that almost every home had access to water and drainage facilities, including flushing toilets which were connected to a sophisticated sewage system that carried waste away from the cities using big sewer ditches that ran under the main streets. (The sewerage and drainage systems that developed in this region was far more advanced than any found in urban cities in the contemporary Middle-East and even more efficient than those found in many parts of modern Pakistan and India.) This gives the impression of a society with a relatively low wealth concentration, though there are clear signs of social levelling seen in personal possessions and decorations. Perhaps the wealthy of the Harappan were content to keep it to themselves and not flaunt it in the faces of the less well off.

Peaceful Traders

There is substantial evidence to suggest that the Harrapan traded far and wide. Archaeologists have discovered materials from distant regions used in the Indus Valley for constructing seals, beads and other objects. Soapstone seals with images of animals, people (perhaps deities), and other types of inscriptions (including writing that has yet to be deciphered). Some of these seals were used to stamp clay onto trade goods as identification markers and have been found as far afield as Mesopotamia in the Middle East. Bronze and the materials used for making bronze have been discovered in the Indus Valley region. So, what I hear you ask? Well, neither bronze, nor the materials used to manufacture it are native to the Indus Valley region, so they must have been traded for.

Cotton.jpg

What exactly did the Indus Valley Civilisation have to trade? Their main export was cotton cloth. The farmers of the Indus Valley were the first people to spin and weave cotton. In 1929 archaeologists recovered fragments of cotton textiles at the Harappan city of Mohenjo-Daro, dating to between 3250 and 2750 BCE. The Indus cotton industry was well developed and some of the methods used in cotton spinning and fabrication continued to be used until the industrialisation of India in the early nineteenth century. That’s over 5,000 years!! Well, I guess if it’s not broken then don’t try to fix it.

Toys IVC.jpg

The Indus Valley Civilisation, aside from being incredible city developers and cotton merchants, were an unbelievably peaceful society. Over 1,000 sites have been uncovered but very little evidence of warfare or even weaponry have been found. Archaeologists have discovered more children’s toys than swords or spears in the Indus Valley region. I think that there is a lesson for the whole world here.

What Happened?

Around 1900 BCE the Indus Valley Civilisation began to decline until it eventually faded into historical obscurity 200 years later. So, what happened to these peaceful people? Several theories have been put forward to explain the disappearance of the ancient Indus Valley people. The first is that they were conquered. It is possible that the Harappan were overrun by people invading east from the Caucasus and they had little weapons with which to fight back. The second theory is that an earthquake changed the course of the rivers so much that many of the tributaries dried up. Without the adequate water supply for irrigation the cities could not sustain themselves, so the people simply left. The third (and most probable) explanation is another type of environmental disaster: aridification. It is quite possible that aridification of the region in the third millennium BCE may have been the initial spur for urbanisation. However, this drying of the region never ceased and eventually reduced the water supply enough to cause the civilisation’s demise and forced the population to migrate further eastward in search of water supplies.

Whatever caused the eventual decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation, it is one of history’s great tragedies that such a peaceful, innovative, egalitarian and prosperous people succumbed at such an early stage of the human story.

The Rest is History

Next time we will be travelling west to the ancient lands of Mesopotamia where we will learn of the epic struggle between urban life and wild life. See you then.

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement

“Not One Step Back” – The Battle of Stalingrad

Considered by many historians to be the largest and bloodiest battle in history, the Battle of Stalingrad was undoubtedly hell on earth for those who fought it and the civilians who lived and died throughout the conflict. Fought between 23rd August 1942 and 2nd February 1943, it is estimated that between 1.8 and 2 million people lost their lives.

The battle is generally considered to be the turning point of World War II in Europe: the point at which the allies finally halted the unstoppable juggernaut that was the German Wehrmacht. The German army was bled dry at Stalingrad and German High Command was forced to pull troops from other theatres of the war to replace the manpower lost in the rubble of the ruined city. One of the great ironies of the war was that the German Sixth Army need not have gotten itself entangled in the city in the first place as other German forces were well on their way to the Caucasus and Caspian oilfields when Hitler gave the order to capture the city which bore the name of his ideological adversary.

During the opening stage of the war on the Eastern Front, the Soviets had experienced heavy losses along with mass retreat and desertion. Less than one month before the attack on Stalingrad on 28th July 1942 Joseph Stalin issued Order No. 227 to re-establish order and discipline in the Red Army. It is famous for the line “Not one step back!” which became a Soviet slogan of resistance.

Attack on the City

Despite the failure of Operation Barbarossa to decisively defeat the Soviet Union in a single campaign, the Wehrmacht had succeeded in capturing vast expanses of Soviet territory, including Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics. With the initial operations being very successful, the Germans decided that their summer offensive in 1942, codenamed Case Blue, would focus on the southern parts of the Soviet Union. The initial objectives were the region’s strategically important natural resources: the coalmines of the Donets Basin and the oilfields outside Maykop, Grozny and Baku.

En Route

On 23rd July, Hitler personally rewrote the operational objectives for the campaign, greatly expanding them to include the occupation of the city of Stalingrad and the destruction of its industrial capacities. This expansion of objectives was a substantial factor in Germany’s failure at Stalingrad, caused in no small part by Hitler’s hubris and German underestimation of Soviet reserves. Both sides began to attach propaganda value to the city simply because it bore Stalin’s name. It was assumed that the capture of Stalingrad would secure the northern and western flanks of the German armies as they advanced on Baku, with the aim of capturing the Caspian petroleum resources for the Third Reich.

The battle began with heavy bombing from the Luftwaffe. Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen’s (cousin of Manfred von Richthofen, the World War One aerial ace, also known as the Red Baron) Luftflotte 4 air fleet dropped 1,000 tons of bombs in 48 hours! Some 400,000 civilians were trapped inside the city as Stalin, in very characteristic fashion for lack of empathy and human suffering, had prevented the civilian population from evacuating in the belief that their presence would encourage greater resistance from the city’s defenders. Much of the city was quickly turned to rubble, although some factories continued production: incredibly, the Tractor Factory continued to produce T-34 tanks until the German troops were through the doors.

Soviet reinforcements were rushed to the east bank of the River Volga, many from as far away as Siberia. The Luftwaffe, who had complete control of the skies, destroyed all the regular ferries before targeting troop barges being slowly towed across the river by lumbering tugs.

Civilian Defender’s

Prior to the attack on the city, the Soviets realized that there were tremendous constraints of both time and resources and ordered that anyone strong enough to hold a rifle be sent to fight – the lucky ones would receive said rifle. Civilians, including women and children, were put to work building trenchworks and defensive fortifications in and around Stalingrad.

Incredibly, the initial defence of the city fell upon the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment which was a unit made up of mostly young female volunteers who had no training for engaging ground targets. Despite this, the AA gunners stayed at their posts and bravely fought the advancing Panzer tanks. The 16th Panzer Division reportedly fought the AA gunners “shot for shot” until all 37 AA guns were destroyed or overrun. The men of the 16th Panzer were shocked to find that they had been fighting female soldiers.

Poorly armed worker’s militias composed of civilians not directly involved in war production were organized by the NKVD (Stalin’s secret police) in the early stages of the battle. These civilians were often sent into battle without rifles, presumably as human shields to soak up German ammunition; poor souls of one totalitarian regime sent to die in front of the guns of another totalitarian regime. Staff and students from the technical university displayed great courage and ingenuity in forming a tank destroyer unit. They assembled tanks from leftover parts at the Tractor Factory and, unpainted and lacking gunsights, drove them straight from the factory floor to the front line.

Street Fighting Men

German High Command had intended to avoid urban, street-to-street conflict where possible. However, with the prize of Stalin’s city on the line this seemed an impossibility and the fighting soon degenerated into some of the most brutal close-quarter combat since the invention of gunpowder. German military doctrine was based on the principle of combined arms: close cooperation between tanks, infantry, engineers, artillery and the air force. The Soviets adopted the tactic of always keeping their front-line forces as close as possible to the Germans to counter the advantage that the Germans had in supporting fire. Vasiliy Chuikov, commander of the 62nd Army, called this tactic “hugging” and it proved to be very effective.

The Red Army converted multi-floored apartment blocks, factories, warehouses, street corner residences and office buildings into a series of well defended strongpoints manned with 5-10 soldiers. Stalingrad had become an impregnable wasteland of rubble, military detritus and mini fortresses. Bitter fighting raged for every street, factory, ruined house, basement and even staircase. The battle was even taken below the city and into the sewer, with the Germans calling this underground urban warfare RattenKreig (Rat War).

Each building had to be cleared room by room. German soldiers bitterly joked about capturing the kitchen but still needing to fight for the living room and the bedroom. Some of the taller buildings in the city even experienced vicious floor-by-floor combat with Germans and Soviets on different levels of the building firing at each other through holes in the floors.

Fighting on and around the Mamayev Kurgan, a prominent hill south of the industrial sector in the north of the city, was particularly merciless with the position changing hands many times. This hill would later play a pivotal role in the battle.

In another part of the city, Sergeant Yakov Pavlov led a Red Army platoon who had fortified a four-story building that oversaw a square 300 metres from the river bank. This building was later known as Pavlov’s House. The soldiers surrounded the structure with minefields, set up machine-gun positions at the windows and breached the walls in the basement for better communications. The soldiers found about ten civilians hiding inside the basement of the house. These soldiers held their ground for two months without relief. As testament to the doggedness of the defenders, Pavlov’s House was labelled Festung (Fortress) on German maps.

Pavlov's_House

Aside from the prospect of close quarter combat at any moment whilst on the front line was the terror of being shot from afar. Both sides used snipers to inflict casualties in the ruined city. The most famous Soviet sniper of the battle was Vasily Zaytsev with 225 confirmed kills. The 2001 film Enemy at the Gates, stars Jude Law as a fictionalised version of Zaytsev.

Operation Uranus

After three months of bitter fighting through the streets of Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht finally reached the banks of the river Volga in November 1942, capturing 90% of the city and splitting the Soviet forces into two narrow pockets. Despite this, fighting, especially on the slopes of Mamayev Kurgan and inside the factory area, continued. The German 6th Army had already lost 60,548 men, including 12,782 killed on reaching the banks of the river by 20th November.

By this time, ice floes had begun to appear on the Volga. Recognising that the Axis troops were ill prepared for offensive operations during the winter, the Stavka (Soviet High Command) decided to conduct several offensive operations themselves.

Snow Tank

The other Axis powers of Italy, Hungary and Romania also had forces in the south of Russia. These troops were generally less-well equipped, less-well trained and less-well fed than their counterparts in German uniform. This, unsurprisingly, led to poor morale within the ranks of these armies. Red Army Marshal Georgy Zhukov stated that “Compared with the Germans, the troops of the satellites were not so well armed, less experienced and less efficient, even in defence.” These were the troops who were tasked with protecting Army Group B’s flanks and they were thinly stretched. It was not uncommon, for example north of Stalingrad, to find a single Hungarian platoon (approximately 40 men) defending a stretch of 1-2 kilometres. Similarly, the southern flank was held only by the Romanian 4th Army and beyond that, a single German division (10,000 -20,000 men) covered 400 kilometres. These numbers demonstrate how wildly massive the Eastern Front was.

German General Friedrich Paulus had requested permission to withdraw the 6th Army behind the relative safety of the river Don. His request was rejected outright by Adolf Hitler. This would prove to be one of the Fuhrer’s many costly mistakes over the war.

On 19th November, the Red Army launched Operation Uranus. Thinly spread, deployed in exposed positions, poorly equipped and outnumbered, the Romanian 3rd Army, which held the northern flank of the German 6th Army was overrun. No preparations had been made to defend key points behind the front lines and the response of the Germans was indecisive with poor weather conditions preventing the Luftwaffe from staging an effective air action against the Soviet offensive.

“Compared with the Germans, the troops of the satellites were not so well armed, less experienced and less efficient, even in defence.” – Marshal Zhukov

The next day, on 20th November, the Soviets launched a second offensive to the south of Stalingrad, focusing on points held by the Romanian 4th Army. This Romanian force too was swept aside with relative ease by large numbers of Soviet tanks. The two Soviet forces raced west and linked up on the 23rd November at the town of Kalach 72 kilometres west of Stalingrad. The German 6th Army was now cut off from their comrades and surrounded in what they referred to as a Kessel or cauldron.

The Kessel

The surrounded Axis personnel comprised nearly 300,000 Germans, Romanians, Italians, Croatians and Soviets who had volunteered for the German army. Army Group Don was hastily formed under Field Marshal Erich von Manstein who advised Hitler not to order the 6th Army to break out, stating that he could break through the enemy lines and relieve them. This advice, along with Hermann Göring’s boast that the Luftwaffe could supply the besieged troops with an air bridge sealed the 6th Army’s fate.

On November 27th, Paulus thought to assuage his beleaguered troops by concluding with the slogan “Hold on! The Fuhrer will get us out!” The Russian winter and heavy shelling of the airfields hampered the Stalingrad air bridge and the men trapped inside the Kessel began to suffer visibly from shortages in food and munitions.

The Soviets consolidated their forces around Stalingrad and fierce fighting to shrink the pocket began. Army Group Don undertook Operation Winter Storm in order to relieve the trapped 6th Army and it was initially successful. By 18th December, von Manstein’s forces had pushed the Soviets back to within 48 kilometres of the 6th Army’s positions. The starving and encircled Axis forces made no attempt to reach the relief army. Some German officers requested that Paulus defy Hitler’s orders to stand fast and instead attempt a break out, but Paulus refused. On the 23rd December, von Manstein’s forces abandoned the attempt to relieve Stalingrad and went, instead, on the defensive against continued Soviet onslaughts. It was noted by Zhukov that “The military and political leadership of Nazi Germany sought not to relieve them, but to get them to fight as long as possible so as to tie up Soviet forces.” German High Command sought to gain as much time as possible in order to withdraw forces from the Caucasus and redeploy troops to form a new front to check a Soviet counter-offensive.

The Stavka began a massive propaganda campaign at the end of November in an attempt to persuade the Axis forces to surrender. Aircraft dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets describing the hopelessness of their situation and a delegation of German communist exiles broadcast political messages over loudspeaker. These attempts proved futile. On 6th January, two weeks after Army Group Don aborted its relief operation, General Rokossovsky offered Paulus terms for an honourable surrender. Paulus chose to ignore the deal.

The Soviet’s final push to crush the encircled German troops began on 10th January 1943. Pushing from the west, soldiers on the Don Front drove the enemy back into the city, whilst at the same time, troops intensified attacks from the banks of the Volga. On 26th January the two forces joined at the Mamayev Kurgan hill, cutting the German forces into two separate Kessels, one in the north, the other in the south of the city. General Paulus was repeatedly forced to give up his quarters during the retreat further into the city.

On January 30th, the tenth anniversary of Hitler’s coming to power, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels read a proclamation that included the sentence: “The heroic struggle of our soldiers on the Volga should be a warning for everybody to do the utmost for the struggle for Germany’s freedom and the future of our people, and thus in a wider sense for the maintenance of our entire continent.” Hitler promoted Paulus to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall. The implication was clear: no German field marshal had ever surrendered and if Paulus were to do so he would shame himself as the highest ranking German officer ever to be captured. Hitler expected Paulus to choose suicide over disgrace.

POW

In the morning hours of January 31st, a German officer emerged from a department store in the aptly named Square of Fallen Soldiers with a white flag and offered terms of surrender. A group of Red Army officers were escorted into the basement where Paulus’ army staff were assembled (minus Field Marshal Paulus himself) and discussed the terms of surrender. The south Kessel had fallen but the soldiers trapped in the north Kessel in the Tractor Factory held out until 2nd February.

Around 91,000 exhausted, ill, wounded and starving soldiers were taken prisoner, including a whopping 22 generals. Hitler was apoplectic and reportedly stated that Paulus could have “freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow.”

Aftermath of Carnage

The disaster at Stalingrad marked the first time that the Nazi government publicly acknowledged a failure in its war effort, although the public was not officially told of the imminent catastrophe until the end of January. On February 18th, Goebbels gave his famous Sportpalast speech, encouraging Germans to adopt a total war that would claim all resources and efforts from the entire population. With the prospect of the “Bolshevik hordes” from “Asia” threatening to cross into Europe, fighting on seemed like the only way out for the terrified population. Which they did, with greater intensity than before, as the war raged for a further two years.

Of the 91,000 Prisoners of War captured in the Kessel it was not until 1955 that the last of the 5,000-6,000 survivors were repatriated to West Germany. The other 85,000 men became casualties of ruthless Stalinist policies.

When Red Army troops recaptured Stalingrad, they counted 7,655 civilian survivors who had miraculously survived in the ruins of the frozen city. As the clean-up began, mass graves filled with residents that the Germans had executed were discovered. Several thousand German prisoners were put to work in February 1943, clearing bodies and defusing bombs and would eventually help rebuild the city that they had destroyed.

The Rest is History

For a more in-depth look into the Battle, I highly recommend Stalingrad by Antony Beevor which I listened to as an audiobook.

The Human Story – Early Settlement

Last time we discovered that the Agricultural Revolution stimulated a massive shift in human activity: agriculturalists manipulated the environment to suit their needs rather than adapting themselves to the environment. With their newly discovered control over the food surplus, these farming folks were able to begin creating settlements. However, thousands of years passed before civilisations began to spring up across the great River valleys of Afro-Eurasia. What came after humans had settled but before the early great civilisations?

Here we will have a look at three Neolithic archaeological sites and their significance and importance in paving the road to civil societies. This article will be a little shorter than usual and should be regarded as more of a supplemental to the previous, Agricultural Revolution, post.

Before we start it is important to understand the importance of the proto-city. A proto-city was a large village or town of the Neolithic period which exhibited features of both rural and urban life. A proto-city is distinguished from a true city in that it lacks planning and, or centralized rule. For example, Jericho had a class system but no roads, while Çatalhöyük seemingly lacked any social hierarchy. This is what distinguishes proto-cities from the first city-states.

Now onto the important stuff.

Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe changes everything! Some archaeologists and researchers believe that these interconnected structures in southern Turkey were built by hunter-gatherers. If they are correct then it would mean that the ability to construct monumental complexes was within the capacity of these types of groups, overturning previous assumptions.

gobekli

The site dates to 12,000 years ago and consists of pillars of varying size with reliefs of many varied animals such as lions, bulls, boars, gazelles, donkeys, insects and arachnids, snakes, other reptiles and birds, particularly vultures. Some of these pillars and the artwork are very impressive indeed (I mean, just look at that sculpture ->), even more so when considering that the artisans were most likely stone age hunter-gatherers. Wow!

The lead archaeologist of the German team excavating Göbekli Tepe was Klaus Schmidt who believed that the site was not a settlement but rather a sanctuary or shrine where people from a wide region would periodically congregate. He argued that Göbekli Tepe may have contributed to the later development of urban civilisation, saying: ‘First came the temple, then the city.’

Jericho

‘When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.’ Joshua 6:20

Almost everyone knows of or has at least heard of the Walls of Jericho (any WWE fans out there?) and how the Israelites conquered the city with the help of a little divine intervention. By the time that Joshua’s band of Israelites captured the city some 3,400 years ago, Jericho as a settlement was already ancient by any standard.

The land where Jericho, the proto-city, was eventually built was within close proximity to both the Jordan River and the deep, clear waters of an oasis spring which led to repeated settlement prior to Jericho itself. The original Wall of Jericho was either a defensive or flood protection wall thought to date to approximately 10,000 years ago! If interpreted as a defensive fortification wall, then it is the oldest city wall thus far discovered anywhere in the world. This Neolithic wall was complemented by a stone tower built into it. It is estimated that the wall would have stood at roughly 15 feet high with the tower looming over it at a height of 28 feet. The height of the wall, the thickness of the wall (approximately 6 feet) and the addition of the stone tower, suggests that it was used as an urban fortification. The construction of such a project implies some sort of social structure, the division of labour and a social hierarchy class system: just as we saw when we looked at the Agriculture Revolution last time.

Tower_of_Jericho

The ruins that have been excavated at Jericho indicate that the proto-city was governed by a distinct ruling class and that they were almost certainly closely connected to the priests. There were sophisticated artisans and most likely a small merchant class too. Though the economy of Jericho was based primarily upon the farming of wheat and barley, there is considerable evidence to suggest a reliance upon both hunting and trade. From these archaeological discoveries, we can see that the people of Jericho were not quite ready to fully cut the ties with their hunter-gatherer roots.

Now it is time to travel east to the Henan Province of modern China to learn of a people who may have been the first to discover things that we take for granted nowadays.

Jiahu

Jiahu was the site of a Neolithic settlement based on the central plain of China near the Yellow River. This area was originally settled around 9,000 years ago by a complex and highly organised society and would have been home to at least 250 people and perhaps as many as 800.

There are three very important and exciting discoveries attributed to the people who lived in the Jiahu settlement. The first of these are the Jiahu Symbols which may (or may not) be one of the world’s earliest examples of written language, dating back to approximately 8,600 years ago. Some scholars believe these 16 markings to be similar in form to some characters used in the much later Oracle Bone Script (the earliest known form of Chinese writing from the late 2nd millennium BCE). However, others have disputed this claim and do not believe that the markings represent any form of systematic writing but are merely etchings for decorative purposes.

The second of these incredible discoveries are the Jiahu Flutes: thirty-three flutes which have been delicately carved from the wing bones of cranes and are believed to be the oldest playable musical instruments in the world. The third and final discovery from the Jiahu settlement is evidence of an early fermented beverage. This alcoholic drink was created by combining rice, honey, hawthorn fruit and, or grapes and the residue found embedded on pottery vessels is dated at 9,000 years old. This Jiahu concoction is thought to be the oldest known fermented wine to date. And wine and other alcoholic beverages have been fuelling terrible decisions ever since!

Jiahu.jpg

And The Rest is History

I hope that you are excited to learn about the Great River Valley Civilisations as those will take up the next three instalments of the Human Story. Next time we will visit the incredible inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilisation and learn a little about ancient Indian toilets! See you then.

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution

 

The Human Story – The Agricultural Revolution

Last time we looked at early man and his migration from the African continent and dispersal throughout the planet. Today we will focus on the most important innovation that Homo sapiens ever stumbled upon and the ramifications of what that means for us today.

The First Seeds

For most of human history, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, risking life and limb to provide a slab of mammoth meat and some edible berries upon the dinner table. And then everything changed. In a mere 15,000 years, humanity has gone from hunting and gathering to creating such improbabilities as the airplane, the internet, the destructive power of the nuclear bomb and the delicious pizza. These are all things that we take for granted in the modern era (perhaps except for the nuclear bomb) but the reality is that without the advent of agriculture we would have none of it.

15,000 years ago, humans were gathering fruits, nuts, wild grains and grasses whilst hunting allowed for more protein rich sources of food. By far the best source of hunting was fishing as the rivers and coastlines were bountiful in marine life and they were unlikely to provide much of a threat to the fishermen – not much chance of a sea-bear mauling them to death, really. This is the primary reason why so much of humanity’s early migrations were along coastlines and up rivers.

Wheat

This changed when different pockets of humans began to develop agriculture. It is worth noting that the cultivation of crops developed independently over millennia with the nascent farmers using the crops that grew locally. For example:

• The Fertile Crescent and Egypt began the cultivation of wheat around 11,000 years ago
• East Asia and the island of New Guinea started farming rice and taro respectively around 9,000 years ago
• West Africans began domesticating sweet potatoes around 5,000 years ago
• In the new world, the potato was first grown in the Andes region 7,000 – 10,000 years ago whilst Maize was created by human selection in Mesoamerica (Mexico) roughly 6,000 years ago

All over the world, people began abandoning foraging in favour of agriculture. It is easy to assume that since so many tribes developed this way of life independently of one another then it must have been a good choice, right? Not necessarily.

We tend to imagine that the lives of our foraging ancestors were harsh, nasty and short but the fossil evidence suggests otherwise. The bones and teeth of foragers appear to be stronger and healthier than those of their agriculturalist progeny. Additionally, anthropologists who have studied the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes have noted that they spend significantly less time working and more time on leisurely pursuits such as storytelling, art and music so it is hardly a great leap to assume that earlier hunter-gatherer tribes did the same.

As with everything else there was advantages and disadvantages to hunkering down and reaping what the earth provided…. providing you were willing to put in the back-breaking work, that is.

Advantages
• Farming provided a controllable food supply. Although there may have been droughts and flooding, human selection allowed the early farmers to breed hardier crops which meant less chance of starvation.

• It also meant that there was a surplus of food. A food surplus makes cities possible and allows the specialisation of labour to develop. Before farming, everyone’s job had been foraging for food where it takes approximately 1,000 calories of energy to gather 1,000 calories of food. This made it impossible to create large population centres. However, if there is a food surplus then it can support more people not directly involved in food acquisition. This led to people being able to specialise in other jobs such as trades people who could, for example, design and create better farming technology which in turn made farming easier which lead to more food being created more efficiently.

• Agriculture can be practised all over the planet, although in some areas it requires significant manipulation of the environment: irrigation, controlled flooding, damning or terracing.

Disadvantages
• To keep feeding more and more people as the population grows requires radically changing the environment of the planet.

• As the population grew and settlements expanded in size, disease was able to spread more easily throughout these packed settlements.

• Farming is hard work, especially before the Industrial Revolution. As such, one down side that is so often associated with the social order of agricultural communities is, unfortunately, slavery.

Not Quite Farming but Not Quite Hunting

An interesting and good alternative to both foraging and hunting is herding. It is quite simple really: domesticate some animals and then take them on the road with you. The advantages to herding are that the domesticated animals provide milk and meat. They can also provide wool and leather to produce clothing and shelter. The primary disadvantage to the herding, nomadic lifestyle is that you are forced to move around often in search of new grass for your herd to pasture and this makes it very difficult to settle and build cities.

Nomad

The reason that herding only really caught on in certain parts of the world is that there are not too many animals that lend themselves to being domesticated by humans. Herders were geographically restricted to Afro-Eurasia and even then, herding was (and still is) mainly practised in the high plains of central Asia. The only animal native to the Americas that was even semi-useful to humans was the llama.

Interestingly, looking at it from a purely biological viewpoint, one of the greatest evolutionary traits that an animal can have is its usefulness to humans. Many animals that can be considered either dangerous or of little use to us have either been wiped out or are on the brink of extinction. For example, there are an estimated 1.4 billion cows in the world, whilst only 23,000 lions.

Why It Happened

Back to the Agricultural Revolution. Why did it happen?

Plant

This is a question that no one knows for sure but there are some prevailing ideas. Perhaps the pressure of population growth necessitated a solution and agriculture was that solution even though it required more work. Maybe this abundance gave people more time to experiment with domestication or perhaps planting seeds originated as a fertility rite. Some historians have even made the argument that humans needed to domesticate more grains to produce more alcohol – for which human civilisation is forever grateful.

Perhaps there was no Agricultural Revolution at all but the whole thing came about accidently because of the evolutionary desire to eat more. Evidence suggests that early hunter-gatherers knew that seeds grew when they were planted. It is human nature to want to do more of something when you know it produces something that you want more of. This could have led early farmers to find the most accessible forms of crops and plant them and to experiment with them, not because they intended on furthering human development, but rather, because they simply wanted more food.

Archaeologists working in southeastern Greece found an early example of this. In the Franchthi cave that had been almost continuously occupied for 35,000 years they found evidence that roughly 13,000 years ago the inhabitants of the cave had been domesticating snails. They had been selectively breeding them to make them bigger and more nutritious. This was hardly a revolution but simply people trying to increase their food supplies.

How It Happened

We have looked at why it happened (and determined that we do not know) so now we will briefly look at why it happened (spoiler: we do not know).

Historians have postulated various theories as to how this massive shift in human activity came about. One such theory suggests that warming climates led to lush eco-systems with abundant food supplies. So much food, in fact, that the foragers stopped migrating and, instead, began to settle down. After several generations of population growth, the food began to become scarcer in these “Gardens of Eden” but the people had become so sedentary by this point that they had forgotten how to effectively forage. If this theory is correct then people would have been forced to get more out of the land. People already had a deep understanding of the local plants and of nearby animals that could be domesticated. Bingo!! You now have agriculture.

Cow.jpg

Another theory proposes that quarrels between different groups of people would occur over resources such as food, ponds and sexual partners. These peoples began to “claim” the land not for agriculture but, rather, to protect and safeguard the members of their group. In this scenario the people stayed in one place long enough to gain an awareness of the yields produced by the local vegetation and later developed agriculture to control and grow these yields rather than rely on the capricious nature of, well, nature.

Both theories are fraught with problems and actions inconsistent to the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers. However, as agriculture developed independently and at different times throughout history, the reality is that there are probably numerous reasons for how it came about. Regardless of the reasons for it, agriculture represents an incredible shift in human activity. Before agriculture, humans had adapted themselves to the environment. After agriculture, humans adapted the environment to suit their specific needs.

Some even go as far as to suggest that the Agricultural Revolution had been a mistake. In his incredible bestseller (seriously, if you have not read this then you need to), Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari suggests:

Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease… The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

What Harari seems to forget to acknowledge in this viewpoint is that Homo sapiens is just another animal. We have looked at both the advantages and disadvantages of the agriculturalist lifestyle over the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and ultimately it boils down to that one primal urge that all life forms have and propagated the very first organisms: the survival and expansion of the species.

And The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey

The Human Story – The Wise Man’s Journey

Welcome to the first instalment of Rest is History’s series on world history. Over the course of the series we will explore how in a mere 15,000 years humans went from hunting and gathering to putting man on the moon. But first, before we tell the stories that make up world history, it is useful to understand where and how it all began: where our human story, the story of all of us, begins.

The Evolution of Man

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) are just one of a group of animals known as hominids which were the earliest humanlike creatures. Archaeological evidence suggests that hominids speciated (separated) from other primates some time between 2.5 million and 4 million years ago in eastern and southern Africa. Though there was a degree of diversity among the hominid family, they all shared one common trait: bipedalism.

Hominids continued to evolve and develop unique characteristics with their brain capacities increasing and approximately 2.3 million years ago, a hominid known as Homo habilis began to create and use simple tools. Around 1.8 million years ago, some hominid species began to migrate out of Africa and into Eurasia where they began to make other important advances to the human story such as the ability to control fire.

To get an idea of the vast timescales we are talking of here, the earliest hominid migrations out of Africa took place so long ago that they occurred almost six times earlier than modern humans have even been around!

3 Species

Although there were once many variations of hominids, only one remains today: us, Homo sapiens. It is estimated that humanity, in its modern iteration, has been around for at least 200,000 years. The speciation of Homo sapiens out of archaic human varieties derived from Homo eructus is estimated to have taken place between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago.

A Migrating Species

The dispersal of early Homo sapiens from east Africa began soon after its emergence, as evidenced by the Jebel Irhoud fossil discovery in western Morocco near the Atlantic coast. These finds have been dated at around 300,000 years old. There is also indirect evidence to suggest that modern humans had made it as far as west Asia by 270,000 years ago.

Migration

Concrete evidence suggests that our early ancestors began to migrate out of Africa sometime between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago and began populating parts of Europe and Asia. Sometime between 35,000 and 65,000 years ago humans reached the Australian continent using simple boats. These early Australians are the ancestors of the Aborigine people. Around 35,000 to 30,000 years ago man had migrated as far as north eastern Siberia and some of these crossed into North America via the Bering Plain some 20,000 to 15,000 years ago. The Bering Plain intercontinental land bridge appeared between Siberia and Alaska due to the drop of sea levels by up to 137 metres (450 feet) during the closing stages of the last ice age. From here, Homo sapiens was able to head east and south, populating both the North and South American continents. Humanity had become a global species.

The question of why our ancestors decided to leave their homes in Africa remains unanswered but scientists, archaeologists and anthropologists have theories. It is estimated that the development of language occurred between 60,000 and 100,000 years ago. This evolutionary breakthrough allowed early man to make plans, solve problems and organize more effectively. We cannot be sure of the exact reasons that Homo sapiens first migrated from the African continent, but it likely correlated with a depletion of resources, particularly food, in their regions and competition for those sparse resources with other Homo sapiens as well as other hominids. Another theory posits that Homo sapiens migration was due to curiosity: they instinctively wanted to know what was beyond their environment. It is quite easy to picture really:

Ugg: ‘What is behind that mountain, Thug?’
Thug: ‘I don’t know Ugg. Why don’t we go find out?
Ugg: ‘Okay.’

Whatever the reason may be, once humans had the ability to communicate these concerns and make plans then they could collectively evaluate whether the pressures in their current situations outweighed the risks of leaving home to find a new one.

Otzi

A consequence of human migrations into new regions of the world was the extinction of many animal species. In the modern age, when we think of human induced extinction we tend to think of the dodo or the numerous animals currently on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss and hunting. The truth is, we have been doing this for millennia. By 11,000 years ago, human hunters in the Americas had seemingly played a huge role in the extermination of 135 species of mammals including three quarters of the larger ones (think mammoths, giant sloths, mastodons). These extinctions occurred rapidly too; it is thought no more than a few hundred years. This trend was not isolated to the Americas neither. Similar mass extinctions occurred with the arrival of the aboriginal people in Australia and Polynesians in New Zealand. In both cases humans were directly responsible for wiping out easily hunted species. The large vulnerable marsupials were the main sufferers in Australia with up to 90% of the larger species being wiped out within 5,000 years; whilst large, flightless birds were driven to extinction in New Zealand following the arrival of humans in the 10th – 13th centuries CE.

It was not just other genus of animals that Homo sapiens had a hand, either intentionally or not, in the extinction of. Next, we shall look at why it was us and not some other bipedal offshoot of Homo habilis who came to dominate the planet.

The Wise Man Triumphant

First off, I think that it is important to understand just what Homo sapiens translates into. As some of you will know Homo is the name given to the genus (or biological classification like feline for cat or equine for horse) that encompasses modern humans and some other species that are classified as ancestral or closely related to modern humans. It is Latin for “man” whilst sapiens translates to “Wise”. The term was coined by, Swedish zoologist, Carl Linnaeus in 1758.

Troll

Do we deserve such a distinguished and enlightening title? It may seem hard to see how, with the popularity of trash television and an ever-increasing number of internet trolls spewing hatred and stupidity onto the internet, but the simple answer is yes. Yes, we do. It is because of our greater brain capacity that we even have the television to idle away our time or the internet to heatedly debate strangers on topics that we don’t really care about. We are the only hominid to have developed these wonders, we are the only hominid left standing. How did this happen? What differentiated us from our early cousins?

The consensus is that our ancestors were more adaptable than their ancient counterparts, meaning that we were not restricted to a single environment but could survive, thrive even, in many environments. Homo erectus was the first hominid to leave the ancestral continent, making the journey around 1.8 million years ago. Homo sapiens would still not speciate for a further 1.5 million years at this point so Homo erectus had plenty of time to explore and populate Eurasia.

When the later evolving Homo sapiens dispersed from Africa and journeyed across Europe and Asia they would have crossed paths with members of the Homo erectus species. No one can know for sure how these first interactions would have gone down but there is some evidence to suggest that a degree of interbreeding occurred. However, some argue that this is where the co-operation ended and Homo sapiens outcompeted their lesser evolved cousins for resources (Go Us!). They occurred together and used the same resources, so it is quite plausible that Homo sapiens could have caused the extinction of Homo erectus. This scenario where the later evolving species replaced the earlier evolving species is known as the replacement hypothesis.

Brain SIZE2

Complicating the picture further was the Homo neanderthalensis, more commonly known as the Neanderthal. Genetic evidence suggests that Neanderthals were more closely related to modern man having diverged from him between 800,000 and 500,000 years ago before they too left Africa. Once again, there is evidence hinting at interbreeding between the two hominids in Europe. Homo sapiens may have outcompeted Neanderthals for resources just like they did with Homo erectus.

All of this occurred during the Pleistocene ice age when Europe was experiencing bouts of extensive glaciation. As noted above, Homo sapiens were more adaptable to changing environments and so it is possible that climate change was the actual cause or perhaps a contributing factor in the extinction of Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis or both, whilst modern man simply adapted to these changes.

Man’s Best Friend

I cannot write a piece on early man and his evolution without mentioning his best friend: the domesticated dog and his evolution. Very little about the causes and context of dog domestication are known. It is known that domestic dogs evolved from a group of grey wolves; and it is believed that these wolves encountered European hunter-gatherers sometime between 18,500 and 32,000 years ago. Other scientists believe that the first domestication occurred as recently as 14,000 years ago, whilst others place it at over 30,000 years ago. Some believe it first occurred in the middle-east, whilst others think it happened in the far east…. In other words, no one has a scooby.

Wolves.jpg

Okay, so we know what we don’t know about canine domestication then. We know that we don’t know the place or the time of the first domestication, but do we know why it happened? I’m afraid that we do not know that either. What I do know, however, is that there are several theories and I know which one I believe to hold most weight.

Early wolves would, as scavengers, be attracted to the bones and refuse dumps of human campsites. The wolves would recognise specific human groups as their own and would protect the territorial range from strange wolf packs and other animals. These early feral adoptees became tame wolves, dependent upon the humans for their source of food and became less fearful of humans than most wild wolves. This trait may have been heritable, making these wolves more susceptible to being domesticated.

Whatever the cause and wherever and whenever it happened, canine domestication was very important for the human story. If you remove domestication from the human species then there would probably only be a couple million Homo sapiens on the planet, maximum. Instead, we have over seven billion people, environmental manipulation, climate change, the internet and space travel. Human domestication has influenced the entire earth and it all started with the dog. For most of human history, we were not that dissimilar from the other primates that roamed the planet. We were manipulating our local environments but on no bigger scale than any other large mammal. And then we go into partnership with a group of wolves: they altered our relationship with the natural world.

And the Rest Is History

Next time we will look at how these adaptable Homo sapiens went from hunter-gatherers to farmers and the consequences of this agricultural revolution.

17 Brutal Punishments of History

We all know that the human capacity for inflicting pain on others has no limits. If you did not know this then pick up a book or, better yet, turn on the news.

Thankfully, the world has become a much more humane place over the past several decades and I think that we can all agree that that is a great thing. If you do not believe this to be a good thing then, please, immediately stop reading and go seek professional help – I do not want to be held responsible for giving you any gruesome ideas!

I know how torturous it can be when you lose wi-fi signal or have to endure, yet, another one of your friend’s stories about how unfair life is because her “serious” boyfriend of three weeks decided to dump her just as she was being overlooked for a promotion at work. I get it; you have my sympathies. But after reading this list of seventeen of the most terrible punishments in history you will be super grateful that two minutes without Facebook on the bus is the worst of your immediate problems.

1. The Brazen Bull

brazen-bull

The Brazen Bull, sometimes known as the Sicilian Bull, was a bronze statute of a bull with a cavity large enough to fit a person inside – you know where this is going don’t you? Designed by the ancient Greeks on Sicily, the bull held the condemned prisoner locked inside as a fire was lit beneath it. The bronze bull would heat and the unfortunate soul inside would be slowly roasted alive while screaming in agony. The bull was specially designed to amplify these screams and make them sound like the bellowing of a real bull.

2. The Rack

THe Rack

One of the most famous torture devices to make the list, the rack was a very popular torture device made of a wooden rectangular frame. The limbs of the convicted would be attached to either end of the frame with chains, and with the help of pullies and rollers they would be stretched until they either became useless or were completely torn from the body. Originally used in antiquity, although we are unsure which civilisation first conceived such a monstrous contraption, it was recorded that Alexander the Great used it. The rack gained popularity in western Europe in the Late Middle Ages when it was first introduced to England in 1447, although the French added to the torment by sticking spikes to the rollers.

3. Crucifixion

Crucifixion

Ah yes, the crucifixion! Just about everyone on the planet knows about this particularly cruel form of punishment. Jesus Christ was the most famous victim of crucifixion but it was widely used throughout Roman times and the 6,000 rebels of Spartacus’ Slave Revolt unlucky enough to not be killed in battle were crucified along the Appian Way (a road spanning 200 kilometres)! Although principally practised in antiquity this barbaric method of torture has, sadly, not yet been thrown in the trash heap of history. Several Islamic states still use crucifixion as a legitimate form of execution. It is a deliberately slow and excruciating execution where the condemned person is tied or nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang until they die, which usually takes days.

4. Guillotine

Guillotine.png

Probably the most humane form of execution on this list it was still very brutal. Although not actually invented by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the guillotine has bore his name ever since he proposed the idea for a more humane (and equal) form of execution for Revolutionary France. The contraption was used as the standard form of execution in France until the country abolished the death penalty in 1981; the last execution occurred in 1977. The guillotine was made of a razor sharp blade attached to a rope which dropped onto the victim’s head, severing it from their body.

5. The Tub

The Tub

Known as the punishment of ‘sitting in the tub’, the convicted would be placed inside a wooden tub with only their head sticking out. It doesn’t sound all that bad, eh? Quite pleasant compared to the previous punishments on the list really. Wait for it! The executioner would paint the victim’s face with milk and honey, and soon flies would begin to feed on them. Being fed regularly, the prisoner would end up swimming in their own excrement and after a few days, maggots, worms ad other lovely creepy crawlies would feast on their body as they decayed alive. Not so pleasant after all.

6. Rat Torture

Rat

If you have ever read George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four then you will be aware of the terrifying prospect of rat torture as the book’s protagonist, Winston Smith, discovers when subjected to the terror of Room 101. If you have not read it then I highly recommend it. Anyway, back to rat torture. This chilling torture technique involved a cage with one open side strapped to the victim’s body (often the chest). The cage would then be filled with rats and the metal cage would be heated. The rodent’s natural instinct led them to flee the intense heat. Where could they possibly flee to? Through the condemned of course. In order to escape they would burrow through the victim’s body with fatal results.

7. Breast Ripper

Breast Ripper

Here’s one for the ladies. Though women were subjected to much of the torture techniques found in this list, this one was designed specially for them. Used to cause major blood loss, the metal claws, which were often red hot, would be placed on the exposed breasts as the spikes penetrated beneath the skin. The claws were then tugged at, causing large chunks of flesh to come off with them.

8. Republican Marriage

Republican Marriage2

Another “ingenious” method of execution developed during the French Revolution, the Republican Marriage was a little less humane than the guillotine. It involved binding a naked male and a naked female together and then throwing them into waters to drown. What happened when there was no river or lake nearby, I hear you ask? Well, the soldiers would just run the victims through with swords and bayonets. This was the preferred method used to execute priests and nuns; what a crime!

9. Spanish Donkey

Spanish Donkey

From Revolutionary France to the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Donkey may just be one of the most brutal punishments ever conceived by mankind. The victim sat astride, naked, on a vertical wooden board with a sharp V-wedge on top of it. The torturer would then add varying weight to the victim’s feet, allowing gravity to do what it does best, until finally the wedge sliced through the body.

10. Saw Torture

Saw Torture.jpg

Similar to the Spanish Donkey (in that it involved splitting a human being in half) was saw torture. You really would not like this one. The unfortunate victim would be suspended by his or her feet. This allowed the blood to rush to their head so that they would be conscious for most of the execution. The victim was then sawed in half, from the groin to the head. Simple.

11. Flaying

flaying

Flaying was a form of torture popularised by the Assyrians. It literally means to skin: as in “skin you alive”. Lovely. Depending on the amount of skin removed from the victim, it was a punishment that could leave you either dead or a heavily scarred (emotionally as well as physically) cripple. Similarly, some were punished by having chunks of their flesh removed – Shylock did not make a demand out of the blue, after all.

12. Death by Burning

Burn Stake

Deliberately causing death through the effects of combustion has a long lineage as a form of execution. Many societies throughout history employed its use for various crimes, such as treason; witchcraft; sexual transgressions; heresy and the Japanese, with a wry sense of humour, used it to execute arsons. This was a crowd favourite as it made for a grand spectacle.

13. Impalement

Impalement

Given his nickname, it should come as little surprise to discover that this was the favoured method of execution of 15th century Romanian ruler, Vlad the Impaler. The victim was forced to sit atop a sharp, thick pole. When the pole was raised upright, the victim’s body would be pierced by the point and would slide down the pole from their own body weight. This gruesome execution method could take days to kill (depending on where the pole had been placed) and it was reported that the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II once fled with his army at the sight of 20,000 impaled corpses rotting on the outskirts of Vlad’s capital city of Targoviste.

14. Judas Cradle

Judas Cradle.jpg

Closely related to both impalement and the Spanish Donkey was the Judas Chair. This gruesome punishment involved the victim sitting atop a pyramid shaped cradle. The victim would be pulled down using ropes with the intent of stretching the anus over a long period of time, slowly impaling them. To maximise the humiliation, the victim was usually completely naked and the device was rarely, if ever, washed. If the torture did not kill you then the infection that you would inevitably contract would.

15. Cement Shoes

Cementshoes

A more modern form of execution, similar to the Republican Marriage, but more lonely at the end. The Cement Shoes were introduced by the American Mafia as a form of execution. The condemned would have their feet placed in breeze blocks (cinder blocks to our American cousins) and then have cement poured in. Once it dried, the victim would be thrown into a river, lake or ocean to sleep with the fishes.

16. Tongue Tearer

Tongue Tearer2

The Tongue Tearer was basically an oversized pair of scissors that was used to cut a victim’s tongue off. Usually reserved for a blasphemer or heretic, the mouth would be forced opened and the iron Tongue Tearer would catch the tongue with it’s rough grippers. Once a firm hold was maintained, the screw would be firmly tightened and the victim’s tongue would be roughly torn away from the mouth. So the next time you take the Lord’s name in vain, just think of how you would have been punished in an earlier age – don’t you feel fortunate.

17. Hanged, Drawn & Quartered

HDQ.png

The punishment for treason in Medieval England was to be hanged, drawn and quartered in public. Lasting for hundreds of years (as late as the 19th century) as a form of execution, thousands met their grisly end this way. The victim was tied to a wooden frame and dragged behind a horse to the place of execution. They would then be hanged by the neck for a short period of time until near-death (hanged), followed by castration and disembowelment where the entrails and genitalia were burned in front of the still breathing victim (drawn). The condemned would then be divided into four separate parts and beheaded (quartered). One of the most famous men to be hanged, drawn and quartered was the Medieval Scottish resistance leader, Sir William Wallace. His quartered limbs were sent to Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth to serve as a warning whilst his head was set on London Bridge.

 

 

For Valour – 3 Recipients of the Victoria Cross

I guess a good place to begin my history blogging journey would be to start at the beginning of my love for history.

When I was nine years old my parents took me to France. I think we may have visited Disney Land Paris, but I honestly cannot remember. What I do remember though is the scarred and pockmarked fields of the Somme Valley created by the trenches and bursting shells over eighty years before and the behemoth bunkers that had sheltered the German troops as the allies stormed the beaches of Normandy.

It was here, in northern France, that my fascination of military history exploded like the Lochnagar Mine near the French village of La Boisselle had done on July 1st, 1916. I needed to know everything possible about the First and Second World Wars. This was my new obsession at age nine but it did not take long to snowball into an obsession to learn all things militaria. Mum and dad, supportive as ever, added fuel to the fire and encouraged my obsession and even helped me start collecting military memorabilia from different conflicts throughout history.

To this day I have quite an extensive collection of militaria at my parent’s house, but there is one thing that I have always longed for above all else and that is a Victoria Cross (VC). Sure, I have a replica but the real deal costs upwards of six figures (which is a little out of my price range). The largest collection of Victoria Crosses is held by Lord Michael Ashcroft who privately holds 162 medals, over one-tenth of all VCs ever awarded. His collection, along with the Victoria Crosses and George Crosses held by the Imperial War Museum can be seen at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery in the Imperial War Museum in London.

VC3

 

Brief History
The Victoria Cross is the highest award of the British Honours System and is awarded for gallantry “in the presence of the enemy” to members of the British Armed Forces and formerly to members of the forces of Commonwealth countries. The VC was introduced on 29th January 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of heroism performed during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856). Since then, the decoration has been awarded 1,358 times to 1,355 individual recipients, only 15 since the end of the Second World War. The bronze from which all Victoria Crosses are made is cut from cannons captured from the Russians after the Siege of Sevastopol in 1855.

The greatest number of Victoria Crosses awarded for a single day was twenty-four for deeds performed during the Indian Mutiny on 16th November 1857. Twenty-three of these were awarded for the action at Lucknow, whilst one was received for an action at Narnoul, south of Delhi. The largest number of VCs awarded to a single unit during a single action is seven, to the 2nd battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot (Warwickshire Regiment) for the defence of Rorke’s Drift over the 22nd and 23rd January 1879 which saw a little over 150 British and colonial troops successfully defend the garrison against an assault by over 3,000 Zulu warriors. The greatest number of VCs awarded for a single conflict is, unsurprisingly, the First World War (1914 – 1918).

The decoration is a bronze cross, bearing the crown of Saint Edward surmounted by a lion, and the inscription “FOR VALOUR”. The cross is suspended from a “V” to a bar ornamented with laurel leaves, through which the crimson ribbon passes. The reverse of the suspension bar is engraved with the recipient’s name, rank, number and unit, whilst on the reverse of the medal in the circular panel is the date on which the act is engraved. Although all VC ribbons nowadays are crimson in colour, originally, the crimson ribbon was designated for the army whilst recipients from the navy received a blue ribbon. This changed after the creation of the Royal Air Force in 1918 when King George V signed a warrant stating that all recipients would receive the crimson ribbon and that living recipients of the naval version were required to exchange their ribbons for the new colour.

Now that we know a little about the Victoria Cross, let’s have a look at some of the recipients and the courageous actions that they performed.

Chief Skipper Joseph Watt VC – Royal Naval Reserve
Born in 1887 in the Scottish fishing village of Gardenstown into a large family, Joseph Watt’s family moved to Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, when he was ten after his father, a fisherman, was lost at sea. Young Joe learned the fishing trade from an early age, but the war changed the community as most men volunteered for service with the Royal Navy on patrol service, hunting for enemy shipping and submarines. Joe was no exception and was transferred to Italy in 1915 serving on drifters, like the ones he used back home, in the Adriatic Sea, attempting to keep Austrian submarines from breaking through into the Mediterranean Sea.

Drifter
On 15th May 1917, Skipper Watt and his crew of eight men and a dog were part of a patrol on the Otranto Strait looking out for suspicious activity following an increase in submarine sightings (the 72km patrol line was known as the Otranto Barrage). Unbeknownst to the Allies, the Austrians had planned a major operation against the naval blockade. The attack fell upon the drifter line during the night and sank fourteen of the forty-eight drifters defending the Otranto Barrage. Watt’s drifter, Gowanlea, was confronted by the Helgoland, an Austro-Hungarian cruiser, which demanded the surrender of Watt’s tiny ship and ordered the crew to abandon ship before sinking it. Rather than comply with the enemy’s demands, Watt ordered his crew to open fire on their much larger opponent with the drifter’s six-pound gun.

The Gowanlea was hit by heavy shells sustaining serous damage and wounding some of the crewmen. However, the other drifters around Gowanlea followed her example but were also subjected to heavy fire. The Royal Naval cruisers HMS Dartmouth and HMS Bristol came to the rescue of the tiny drifters and the Austrian cruiser fled but subsequently became engaged in the inconclusive Battle of the Otranto Barrage. Despite her own heavy damage and casualties, the Gowanlea moved amongst the wreckage and flotsam of the battle rescuing wounded men and providing medical attention to those in most need.

After the war, Joe Watt returned to Fraserburgh, refusing to speak of his war experiences. He joined the navy again as a drifter captain to serve in the Second World War, accompanied by his son who had been invalided out of the army after being wounded serving with the Gordon Highlanders during the Battle of France.

Watt, who always shunned the fame generated by his Victoria Cross, kept the medal in a drawer full of junk on board his boat. Chief Skipper Joseph Watt VC also received the French Croix de Guerre and the Italian Silver Medal for Military Valour for his courageous actions on 15th May 1917.

Private Sidney Godley VC – The Royal Fusiliers
As previously noted, the First World War holds the record as being the single conflict with the largest number of VCs awarded. Well, Sidney Godley’s award was the first of 628 won through the war.

Godley was born in 1889 in East Grinstead, West Sussex. His mother died in 1896 and young Sidney was sent to live with his uncle in London. Between the ages of fourteen to twenty, he worked in an ironmonger’s store before joining the Royal Fusiliers in 1909.

Britain joined the war on 4th August 1914. On 23rd August at Mons, Belgium on the Mons-Condé Canal Godley and Lieutenant Maurice Dease were manning a machine gun after the previous crews had been killed or wounded. Lieutenant Dease was killed and the order to retreat was issued. Godley offered to defend the railway bridge whilst the rest of his unit retreated. Private Godley single-handedly held the bridge under heavy fire. He was wounded twice; a shell fragment lodging itself in his back and he took a bullet to the head. Despite his injuries, Private Godley continued his defence of the bridge for two hours whilst his comrades made their escape. When he eventually ran out of ammunition, Godley dismantled his machine gun and threw the pieces into the canal. He attempted to crawl to safety but was captured by the advancing German soldiers.

Nimy PlaqueIt was originally believed that Godley had been killed by the enemy until it was later discovered by POW lists that he was, in fact, being held as a prisoner in a camp called Delotz. He received the information that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross whilst in this camp. He received the actual medal from King George V at Buckingham Palace in February 1919.

 

Captain Charles Upham VC & Bar – 20th Battalion (New Zealand)
Of the 1,355 recipients of the Victoria Cross, only three have ever been awarded a second. A bar across the ribbon represents the second award of the VC. These men are: Arthur Martin-Leake and Noel Chavasse, both doctors with the Royal Army Medical Corps who received both awards for rescuing wounded under heavy fire; and New Zealander Charles Upham who remains the only combatant soldier to have received a VC and Bar.

Charles Upham was born in 1908 in Christchurch, New Zealand. He attended Agricultural College where he earned a diploma in agriculture in 1930. He worked first as sheep farmer and later as a manager before valuing farms for the government. In September 1939, Upham enlisted in the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force and was posted to the 20th Battalion. Despite five years’ experience in the Territorial Army where he held the rank of sergeant, Upham insisted on joining as a private. He was eventually convinced to join Officer Cadet Training Unit in July 1940.

It did not take long before the newly minted officer saw action. He picked up his first Victoria Cross during the German invasion of Crete in May 1941. Second Lieutenant Upham led his platoon over 3,000 yards without heavy weapons or support and captured a strong German defensive position head on. He personally destroyed three German machine gun positions with grenades and a pistol. After this he helped evacuate the wounded under heavy fire before passing 600 yards of hostile territory to recover a platoon in danger of becoming isolated.

By this point in the fighting, Upham had already received mortar shrapnel wounds to the shoulder and a bullet in the foot, but he pressed on with the fight. When orders to withdraw south were given, he sent his platoon south whilst he moved forward warning other units that they were in danger of being cut off. As he advanced forward he was forced to play dead after being fired upon by two enemy soldiers. With only one functioning arm he was able to crawl to a tree and prop up his rifle to kill the soldiers.

Later, whilst still heavily wounded and using ingenious tactics, Upham led his platoon into deceiving an enemy section into exposing themselves whereupon he quickly mowed twenty-two of them down with a Bren Gun.

The Battle of Crete only lasted for 11 days, but Charles Upham had put together such an extensive catalogue of gallantry that could only be rewarded with the Commonwealth’s highest military honour.

WHAT A GUY!!!!! And that was just the first one!

charles-upham-vc-statue
After recovering from his injuries in Egypt, Upham was promoted to Captain and given command of a company of NZ troops. During the First Battle of El Alamein, Captain Upham VC continued to lead from the front and by the evening of 14th July 1942 he had already been wounded twice but continued to remain with his men. During an attack on El Ruweisat Ridge, he personally scouted ahead of his company to assess the initial phase of the attack, braving sustained fire to bring back the important information.

When his company was ordered into the main assault, it came under heavy fire from four machine gun positions and several tanks. He could be seen and heard above the great din of battle by his men and he rallied them at great personal risk to take the objective. Upham single-handedly destroyed several gun positions – surely his bread and butter by then – and added a tank to his ever-mounting tally. He was shot through the elbow during the attack which shattered his arm.

Eventually, weak from the loss of blood, he was finally removed from the field to the Regimental Aid Post but once his wounds were dressed he quickly returned to his men who were still under heavy fire. His company continued to hold off the numerically superior enemy forces throughout the day, but he eventually collapsed from exhaustion and further wounds. By this point, Upham’s company had been reduced to only six men and the position was eventually overrun leading to his capture. For these actions, Captain Charles Upham was awarded a second Victoria Cross after the war.

Once in captivity, Upham still had a willingness to fight the enemy. He made several attempts to escape his captors, once breaking an ankle jumping from a moving truck and once knocking himself unconscious after throwing himself off a high-speed train. Charles Upham ultimately ended up in the escape-proof Colditz Castle but once this fell into Allied hands, he attempted to re-arm and join an American unit.

Major-General Howard Kippenberger remarked, upon being asked by King George VI, that ‘in my respectful opinion, sir, Upham won the VC several times over.’ After learning of this man’s exploits I believe Kippenberger was bang on.

Further Reading
There are many books, websites, and television and radio programmes available on the Victoria Cross, but I highly recommend a book that I received for Christmas several years ago. It was written by, arguably, the leading authority on the VC, Lord Michael Ashcroft. Victoria Cross Heroes can be found by clicking on the link.