History of the World in 1,000 Objects
History of the World in 1,000 Objects
From the watch Napoleon used to synchronize with his generals at Waterloo and Chinese David vases believed to be the oldest example of blue and white porcelain to the US Constitution and the Mayan Dresden codex, the oldest book written in the Americas,
History of the World in 1,000 Objects
provides a completely fresh perspective on the history of the world.
With objects revealing how our ancestors lived, what they believed and valued, and how these items helped shape civilization,
History of the World in 1,000 Objects contains a treasure trove of human creativity from earliest cultures to the present day. Objects are grouped chronologically, under key themes, from art to the history of technology, and together help paint a unique picture that provides detailed insight into each culture.
In addition to stunning specially-commissioned photographs,
History of the World in 1,000 Objects is packed with timelines and maps that make it easy to compare how people lived at different times and in different parts of the world.
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of the WORLD in
of the WORLD in
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First published in the United States in 2014
by DK Publishing
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Senior Researcher for Civilizations in Contact, a Public
Engagement Project in the Faculty of Asian and
Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge, UK.
Author of more than 70 history books, including
DK’s Atlas of Ancient Worlds, Ancient Greece
(E Explore), Ancient Rome (E Explore), and the
Shakespeare Eyewitness Guide.
TRADE AND EMPIRE
Historian and writer whose books include DK’s
Eyewitness Companion Guide: World History,
History Year by Year, Science Year by Year,
History of Britain and Ireland, and Engineers.
ENLIGHTENMENT AND IMPERIALISM
Dr. Carrie Gibson
Writer who has contributed to The Guardian and
Observer newspapers and author of Empire’s Crossroads:
A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the
Present Day; gained a doctorate in 18th- and
19th-century history from the University of
INDUSTRY AND INDEPENDENCE
R. G. Grant
History writer who has published more than
40 books, including Battle, Soldier, Flight, and
Battle at Sea, and World War I for DK.
A SHRINKING WORLD
Contributor to several books for DK, including
History, World War II, History Year by Year, and
Science; award-winning documentary maker whose
ﬁlms include Shell Shock and Bomber Command for
Channel 4 in the UK.
Additional writing by R. G. Grant and Jack Challoner
Access Ofﬁcer, Durham University Oriental Museum, UK
Dr. Roger Collins
Honorary Fellow, School of History, Classics
and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, UK
Professor Richard Overy
Professor of History, University of Exeter, UK
Former curator of Saffron Waldon Museum, UK
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
J. Daniel Rogers Curator of Archaeology, Department
of Anthropology • Salima Ikram Egyptology Unit Head,
Department of Anthropology • Noel Broadbent
Archaeologist, Department of Anthropology
William Fitzhugh Curator of Archaeology and Director
of Arctic Studies Center, Department of Anthropology
James Harle Map curator volunteer • Bruce Smith Senior
Archaeologist, Department of Anthropology
Adrienne Kaeppler Anthropologist, Curator of Oceanic
Ethnology, Department of Anthropolgy • Joshua Bell
Anthropologist, Department of Anthropology
Candace Greene Program Analyst, Collections and
Archival Programs • Jeffrey Post Geologist, National Gem
and Mineral Collection • Alexander Nagel Research
Associate, Department of Anthropology
FREER GALLERY OF ART AND
ARTHUR M. SACKLER GALLERY
J. Keith Wilson Curator of Ancient Chinese Art
James T. Ulak Senior Curator of Japanese Art
Debra Diamond Associate Curator of South and Southeast
Asian Art • Massumeh Farhad Chief Curator and Curator
of Islamic Art • Louise Cort Curator of Ceramics
Stephen Allee Associate Curator for Chinese Painting
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY
Kenneth Slowik Curator, Division of Culture and the Arts
Stacey Kluck Supervisory Curator, Division of Culture and
the Arts • David Miller Curator, Division of Armed Forces
History • Joan Boudreau Curator, Division of Culture and
the Arts • Steve Velasquez Curator, Division of Home and
Community Life • Jennifer Locke Jones Chair and Curator,
Division of Armed Forces History • Harold Wallace
Curator, Division of Work and Industry
NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM
Alex Spencer Curator, Division of Aeronautics
F. Robert Van der Linden Chairman, Division of
Aeronautics • Andrew Johnston Research Specialist,
Center for Earth and Planetary Studies • Hunter Hollins
Program Specialist, Department of Space History
NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
Nik Apostolides Associate Director
James Barber Historian
COOPER-HEWITT NATIONAL DESIGN MUSEUM
Sarah Cofﬁn Curator • Cindy Trope Museum Specialist
Susan Brown Museum Specialist
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN
Ramiro Matos Associate Curator, Ofﬁce of Latin America
Colleen Batey Senior Lecturer, Archaeology, University of
Glasgow • Wirt Wills Professor of Archaeology, University
of New Mexico • Walter Turner Historian, North Carolina
700 BCE–600 CE
012 Early Humans Shaping the World
058 The City-states of Ancient Greece
114 Europe’s Germanic Kingdoms
016 The Enigma of the Indus Civilization
066 Celtic Kingdoms
120 Viking Traders and Raiders
018 The Cradle of Civilization
071 The Great Persian Empire
130 The Glory of Byzantium
026 Egyptian Life and Afterlife
074 The Artistic Etruscans
134 Islamic Courts and Caliphates
040 Europe’s Bronze Age Warriors
080 The Splendor of Rome
135 Islamic Cultures of Spain and Africa
043 The Mighty Hittites
090 Foreign Rule in Egypt
136 Norman Crusaders and Conquerors
044 Palace Societies of the Aegean
098 India’s First Empires
146 The Rise of the Holy Roman Empire
047 The Intrepid Phoenicians
100 The Uniﬁed Kingdoms of China
151 Early Kingdoms of Eastern Europe
048 China’s First Celestial Empire
105 Yayoi and Kofun Japan
152 Empires of the Mongol Khans
054 The Awe-inspiring Gods of the Andes
106 The First Cities of Mesoamerica
154 Art and Devotion in Classical India
055 The Mystical Land of the Olmec
110 The Mysterious Nazca and Moche
160 The Dragon Throne of Imperial China
168 Buddhism in Medieval Japan
170 Korea’s Golden Kingdoms
172 Temple Cities of Cambodia
174 Seljuk and Early Ottoman Realms
176 Spirit of the Greater Southwest
178 The Myth-makers of Mesoamerica
188 Treasures of the Andes
192 The Sculptors of Easter Island
1900 TO PRESENT
196 Art and Science in Renaissance Europe
272 The Birth of the Industrial Age
340 A Century of Flight
210 Reformation, War, and Enlightenment
282 Revolution and Republic in France
344 Transportation for the Masses
222 The Height of Ottoman Power
286 The Decline the Austrian Empire
350 Entertaining the World
228 Poetry and Power in the Safavid Empire
288 Russia Under the Romanovs
354 Fighting the World Wars
232 Culture in Korea’s Last Dynasty
290 The Race for African Empires
360 Combating Disease
236 China’s Age of Prosperity
294 The Empire of the Sikhs
364 Life Under the Revolution
244 Last Days of the Samurai
298 Company Rule and the Raj in India
366 The Western Home
254 The Majesty of Mughal India
302 The Reopening of Japan
372 Fashion for the People
260 The Rise of the Maratha Empire
308 Unrest in Late Imperial China
376 The Space Age
262 The Merchant Empire of Benin
314 Colonial Struggle in Southeast Asia
380 The Technology of Modern War
266 Ethiopia and the Christian World
316 Paciﬁc Exploration and Expansion
382 Connecting the World
268 European Settlers in the New World
318 Settlers in Australia and New Zealand
320 Revolution in Latin America
322 Tradition and War in North America
328 The Birth of the United States
386 Early Societies
394 Ancient Civilizations
410 Trade and Empire
427 Enlightenment and Imperialism
438 Industry and Independence
450 A Shrinking World
There is something magical about the survival of
human-made objects from the past. A piece of jewelry, a
cup, a sword, or a sandal that has, often arbitrarily, survived
the general tide of oblivion seems in some degree to bridge
the gulf of years that separates us from the world of our
ancestors—whether inhabitants of ancient Egypt or the
Roman Empire, the Aztecs of Mexico or Japanese samurai.
A collection of such artifacts can vividly represent a longlost civilization, its daily life, its art and culture, its ways of
making war and conducting trade, its rituals and its beliefs.
Many objects have come to us from ancient times through
the rituals surrounding death. Our knowledge of the
ancient Egyptians, for example, would be much poorer
but for their habit of burying personal possessions with
the dead. The exquisite decoration and furnishing of
palaces and places of worship has been another rich source
of surviving artifacts. We are also beholden to the desire
of people to record the great events of their own time,
which has given us Trajan’s column in Rome and the
Norman Bayeux Tapestry. Some objects were created to
celebrate heroes or gods, like the statues of ancient Greece
and Rome. Some are exquisite craft work, such as Japanese
Samurai armor and the gold ﬁgurines of the West African
Asante. Others are famous puzzles, such as the Rosetta
Stone, which eventually allowed scholars to decipher
Objects are particularly important when evoking human
societies that have left no written records, such as that of
the hunters and farmers of the Neolithic era. But objects
are also a rich source of information about the more recent
past. Historical documents such as England’s Magna Carta
and the United States Constitution have remained alive as
a basis for current political practice, as well as existing
as physical objects preserved for posterity. The Watt steam
engine shows the mix of practical good sense, skill, and
basic science that was to advance the Industrial Revolution,
while the Ford Model T transports us back to the early
days of modern motorized society.
Collected together in this book, objects from all periods
generate a striking impression of the overarching shape of
human history and its development from stone tools to
spaceﬂight. They also take us on a breathtaking journey
through the ever-varying stages of the human adventure.
R. G. GRANT
This Persian illuminated manuscript is from
a book of poems completed in 1548. Brightly
colored pigments were used to produce works
that show aspects of daily life including style of
dress and architecture.
After 12,500 BCE, as temperatures rose, vegetation changed
and ice sheets melted, and people adopted new ways of living,
including agriculture in some areas. As farming and settled life
spread, populations increased, and new technologies such as
metalworking and monumental construction began. Between
3000 and 1000 BCE, the ﬁrst civilizations, with cities and
writing, emerged in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley,
China, Mesoamerica, and Andean South America.
SHAPING THE WORLD
Humanity’s extraordinary success is due to our ingenuity in devising cultural means
to overcome our physical limitations. Early stone tools seem crude, but they were
the ﬁrst step on the road to computers, the Moon, and beyond. Along the way we
developed language, allowing the sharing of knowledge, skills, and ideas.
Settling down ▽
The huge Neolithic
village of Catalhöyük
in Turkey had closely
the roof via a ladder.
The main room had
a hearth, cabinets,
platforms for sitting
and sleeping. The
walls often had
paintings of bulls.
Our early ancestors evolved in Africa
and spread into Asia and Europe.
Around 2.5 million years ago, they
developed stone tools, initially to cut
through tough hides to access meat.
This began a period called the Stone
Age, divided into the Paleolithic,
Mesolithic, and Neolithic. Paleolithic
people tamed ﬁre for protection,
warmth, and cooking. Several human
species continued to evolve. One, the
Neanderthals, began burying their
dead and caring for their disabled.
Around 200,000 BCE, Homo sapiens
(modern humans) emerged in Africa.
Outcompeting other human species,
by 11,500 BCE they had spread across
Asia, Europe, and the Americas and
crossed open ocean to Australia. They
had created art, sewn clothing, made
shelters, and domesticated dogs.
THE FIRST FARMERS
Late Paleolithic people inhabited an
ice age world. By around 9600 BCE,
however, the world’s climate was
similar to today’s. Communities
began exploiting newly available
resources, and in some areas settled
permanently instead of traveling to
Mysterious serpentine ball
We don’t know why balls were carved from
stone in northeast Scotland, but the skill
required suggests they were highly valued.
obtain seasonally available resources.
For different reasons in different
areas, some communities began
cultivating plants, and in some parts
of the world herding animals. As
agriculture and a settled way of life
brought population growth, Neolithic
farmers expanded into new areas.
To obtain useful materials from
other places, sedentary communities
developed exchange networks. They
also sought luxuries with which they
could demonstrate their superiority
over others. These included ﬁne stone
and eventually, in some areas, metals.
EARLY HUMANS SHAPING THE WORLD 13
point for digging
The earliest known tools were of stone. Using
their cutting edges, wood and other materials
could also be made into tools. Over hundreds
of thousands of years, tools became more
specialized, designed for particular tasks, and
the range of materials expanded to include
clay, leather, ﬁbers, shell, and, later, metals.
THE FIRST TOOLS
As grains became important
in the diet, sickles were
developed to harvest them,
as well as to cut reeds used
in matting, basketry, and
The ﬁrst stone tools, made around
2.5 million years ago, had one
simple cutting edge. Handaxes, from
around 1.65 million years ago, were
carefully shaped digging, cutting,
grip for holding
and general-purpose tools.
Obsidian core and blades
Modern humans invented blades, which
they used as cutting tools or reshaped for
other purposes. Many small blades could
be struck from a single core.
ﬂuted base for
attaching to haft
row of inset
Elegant points were
made by the North
culture as tips for
spears, which were
used as projectiles
to hunt bison and
example was found
in a mammoth
tang for attaching
to arrow shaft
Digging sticks were used
to dig up tubers and to
make holes to plant seeds
and bulbs. A stone weight
on the stick increased its
power of penetration.
Fishing, begun by early modern
humans, became increasingly
important after the last ice age.
Fishing gear included wood, bone,
and antler ﬁshhooks and harpoons,
nets, and elaborate ﬁshtraps.
Bows and arrows, to kill prey at
a safe distance, were invented in
the late Paleolithic. Later times
saw many improvements in
their efﬁciency, such as these
arrowheads with barbs to embed
them more securely in prey.
to form series
hole for attaching
to be made, over
time tools for
This cast of an
around 3000 BCE,
is one such
Neolithic diorite ax
Stone shaft-hole ax
In the later Stone Age after 10,000 BCE,
people developed new techniques,
grinding and polishing hard stone to make
axes for felling trees and other purposes.
As metal objects spread in 3rd-millennium
BCE Europe, communities that did not use
metal made ﬁne stone imitations of them,
not as tools but as prestige fashion items.
Heavy stone tools
purposes, such as
adzes to plane and
trim wood, and picks
perhaps to dig up
plants or knock
limpets off rocks.
14 EARLY SOCIETIES
ART AND CULTURE
In many parts of the world,
the late Paleolithic saw the
ﬂowering of art, including
painting, engraving, and
sculpture. Fired clay came into
use at this time, providing a
medium with huge scope for later
artistic expression, as did textiles
woven from plant ﬁbers. Stone
monuments, often with a ritual
purpose, were created from at
least 9500 BCE (see, for example,
This ﬁne bone carving from France combined
practical utility as a spearthrower with artistic
sensitivity to the natural world.
The most impressive
Paleolithic artworks are the cave
paintings found in France. Their
purpose is unknown, although
some cave art may have played a
part in initiation or religious rites.
It is unlikely animals were drawn
to bring success in a hunt—the
people who painted this horse
and mammoth at Lascaux hunted
reindeer almost exclusively.
People with a mobile lifestyle could only afford to carry a
few small objects. Sedentary communities, however, could
accumulate possessions, including fragile pottery and heavy
querns (grindstones). After 11,500 BCE, such communities
included some hunter-gatherers and most farmers. With the
spread of farming across much of the
world, objects proliferated.
CLAY LOOM WEIGHT
WOODEN WEAVING COMB
The shift to sedentary life
and agriculture in many
regions brought dietary
changes and the associated
development of new
cooking and eating utensils.
Weaving on simple looms began in Neolithic
times, using cotton in India and South America,
and ﬂax and other plant ﬁbers in western Asia
and Europe. More complex looms, and silk and
alpaca and sheep’s wool, came into use later.
made by cord
Cereal grains (also seeds
and nuts) were ground
into ﬂour, to cook as bread,
porridge, or gruel. Grinding
with a quern and rubber
became an arduous daily
task for many women.
Later Jomon pot
Bell Beaker culture pot
Pottery was independently invented
many times, in different parts of the
world. The earliest pots, including
Jomon wares, come from late
Paleolithic East Asia.
The Bell Beaker culture made
a distinctive style of pottery
beaker with an upside-down
bell shape, in parts of Europe
after 2900 BCE.
Invented in the 4th
millennium BCE, wheeled
transportation, using draft
work by making it easier
to transport heavy or bulky
goods. This pot was found
in Eastern Europe.
BELIEFS AND RITUALS
The religious beliefs of people who lived before writing was invented are
unknown to us: we can only identify the results of their behavior, with
more or less certainty, and speculate on their meaning. Past peoples’
richly varied ways of treating their dead, artistic representations, and
places with offerings (and sometimes sacriﬁces) provide some clues.
Late Neolithic ﬁgurine
Stone ﬁgurines were made by cultures
across the world. Some were for use
in rituals; others were decorative, or
made social statements, or were toys.
These female ﬁgures, from late
Paleolithic Europe, are known as Venus
ﬁgurines. Made from mammoth ivory,
stone, and baked clay, they have
strongly emphasized hips and breasts,
and are generally faceless. They may
have played some part in rituals.
Rich grave goods
As communities expanded,
social differences developed
within them. The treatment
of the dead often reﬂected
their status in life, with rich
grave goods denoting
Some European late Neolithic megalithic
tombs included stones bearing geometric
designs. These designs may have held some
religious signiﬁcance. They sometimes also
appear on the associated grave goods, such
as plaques, made from a hard stone called
schist, found in southern Spain and Portugal.
burial design visible only to
dead person inside the tomb
CIST (STONE BOX) COVER
in painted plaster
has fallen off
Jericho plastered head
In some parts of early
Neolithic West Asia, bodies
were buried beneath house
ﬂoors, but skulls were
removed and modeled with
lifelike features, probably for
use in ancestor rituals.
Some cultures preserved
their dead by mummiﬁcation;
the earliest were the South
American Chinchorro, from
5000 BCE. They removed the
ﬂesh, reassembled the bones,
and replaced the skin.
16 EARLY SOCIETIES
THE ENIGMA OF THE
Around 2500 BCE, the world’s ﬁrst planned towns and cities appeared throughout
the Indus region (part of present-day India and Pakistan). Indus society was highly
organized and produced many ﬁne artifacts, but some details of the culture
remain obscure because their script has not yet been deciphered.
Public buildings ▽
Pakistan, was the largest
Indus city, covering
more than 620 acres
(250 hectares) and with
a population of
people. Many of its
included more than
700 wells, were built
of baked bricks of
Most Indus towns and cities had a
massive raised sector, the citadel, with
monumental public buildings. These
included the Great Bath at Mohenjodaro, which was probably a place of
ritual puriﬁcation. Indus political
organization remains a mystery, partly
because the writing invented by the
Indus people deﬁes decipherment.
However, society was organized and
controlled, with a good standard of
living and highly developed craft
specialization. A warehouse and
workshops at Lothal in southern
Gujarat, as well as Harappa in the
Punjab, exemplify the role of towns
and cities in manufacturing, storing,
and distributing goods for external
trade and circulation within the
Indus realm. Rivers provided
transport networks, and goods were
carried by herders moving between
seasonal pastures. Hunter-gatherers
brought in ivory and other materials
from beyond the settled lands.
The valleys, mountains, and coasts of
the Indus state provided agricultural
and pastoral abundance and many
Lands of the unicorn
A unicorn is the most common design
found on Indus seals, often with a ritual
brazier, as seen in this partial impression.
raw materials. The Indus people also
obtained metal ores and lapis lazuli
from Afghanistan. They shipped lapis
lazuli to Mesopotamia, along with
carnelian and other gemstones, ivory,
timber, gold, copper, and other
materials, probably in exchange for
silver and woolen textiles.
After 1800 BCE, unknown changes
brought about the disintegration of
the Indus realm. Towns and cities
were abandoned, and writing ceased.
However, farming communities
continued to ﬂourish in many parts
of the region.
THE ENIGMA OF THE INDUS CIVILIZATION 17
BELIEFS AND RITUALS
The symbols used on Indus objects
(including some seals, see opposite)
suggest that the Indus religion had
some similarities to later Hinduism.
These included deities resembling
Shiva and Parvati, and reverence
for aspects of the natural world,
particularly powerful animals such
as the bull and the tiger. Some
copper tablets depicting a hairy
man with horns suggest that a
form of shamanism was part of
Indus folk religion.
Stains on ﬁgurines
with large pannier
they may have been
used as ritual lamps.
The pipal tree was venerated
by the Indus people, as it
would be by Hindus, and the
unicorn had an important role
in Indus iconography.
This three-faced deity is
surrounded by a bull, rhino,
tiger, and an elephant. It has
been suggested that he is a
precursor of the god Shiva.
Some seals depict a deity
wrestling two tigers, as
here, while others feature
a half-tiger, half-goddess
ART AND CULTURE
The Indus people set great store
by personal adornment, wearing
necklaces, pendants, hair and ear
ornaments, rings, anklets, and bead
belts, made from materials such as
metal, ivory, faience (glazed ceramic),
terracotta, shell, and stone. Bangles
were particularly important. Indus
beadmakers were extremely skilled
in working gemstones such as agate,
carnelian, serpentine, and steatite.
The uniformity of Indus
culture suggests it was part of
a well-organized, controlled
society. Skilled artisans
goods from materials such as
ﬁne ﬂint quarried in Sindh,
gemstones mined in Gujarat,
and seashells. Indus art
included a few bronze and
stone sculptures, miniature
images of animals carved on
seals (see above), and vibrant
bent to form
Indus ﬁgurines portrayed
domestic and wild creatures,
including pet dogs, rhinos,
birds, and squirrels. Bulls were
the most popular subject.
Female ﬁgurines usually
wear nothing apart from
jewelry. Only rarely are they
portrayed clothed and
undertaking domestic tasks.
This tiny stone sculpture,
only 7 in (17.5 cm) high, is
often said to represent an
Indus ruler, but there is no
evidence to support this.
TECHNOLOGY AND INNOVATION
Indus women generally wore bangles. Their
materials give clues to social status: pottery or
shell for the majority, silver or gold for the elite.
Indus towns and cities were all set out in a well-deﬁned grid
pattern, and the residents enjoyed a highly sophisticated
water supply and drainage system. Specialized Indus craft
products included ﬁne ﬂint and copper tools, and a wide
range of pottery. Fine cotton textiles—dyed various colors
including yellow, blue, and red—were made at home.
Cubic stone weights
Indus ofﬁcials used standardized
weights, ranging from a base unit
of 0.03 oz (0.9 g) up to 23.9 lb
(10.9 kg) or 12,800 units.
This ornament has lost its
inlay, perhaps of carnelian.
The edge decoration is of
gold wire, soldered onto
the domed disk.
The design of this gold
neck choker, which has been
broken in two, reveals a high level of skill
on the part of the goldsmith who made it.
This model shows that the Indus
people had passenger carts as
well as traditional bullock carts
used to transport food and goods.
18 EARLY SOCIETIES
writing made by
pressing a reed
stylus into soft clay
The world’s ﬁrst civilization emerged in southern Mesopotamia, the birthplace
of writing, around 3300 BCE. Early city-states were united around 2350 BCE,
and Babylon became the capital of later empires in this region. In northern
Mesopotamia (Assyria), linked culturally with the south, empires emerged from
around 1800 BCE. Later, the Assyrians expanded to control all of western Asia.
Babylon grew into a
magniﬁcent city. It
boasted massive city
walls, the ziggurat of
Marduk (the “Tower of
Babel”), and the Ishtar
Gate and Processional
Way, clad in glazed
brick friezes of bulls
and dragons. Similar
tiles in the palace
throne room depicted
Southern Mesopotamia created many
innovations of world signiﬁcance
during the 4th millennium BCE.
Farming on the lower Tigris and
Euphrates rivers depended on
irrigation. The invention of the
seeder plough made preparation
of the soil easier and maximized
productivity. Crops included barley,
dates, and vegetables. Cattle kept for
ploughing also gave milk and dung
fertilizer. Sheep were now bred for
wool, woven into textiles. Pastured
locally or grazed farther aﬁeld by
shepherds, sheep and goats also
provided milk, meat, and leather.
The temple dominated society at
this time. Grain from temple lands
was used to pay people working for
the temple as farmers, laborers,
artisans, or traders. Such public
service or employment, paid in grain
rations and cloth, continued later,
when power passed to secular rulers.
The ﬁrst cities appeared around
3300 BCE in Sumer, centered on temples.
The ﬁrst known is Uruk, which yielded
clay tablets inscribed with the earliest
writing, invented to aid the temple
authorities in their administrative
tasks. By the mid-3rd millennium
BCE, texts also included literature,
such as epic tales of the early Uruk
king Gilgamesh. Secular authority,
vested in kings, who were originally
war leaders, grew in importance as
city-states came into conﬂict over
land and water for irrigation.
THE FIRST EMPIRES
Around 2350 BCE, Sargon of Akkad
created the Akkadian Empire, uniting
the south. He standardized many
aspects of the administration,
including weights and measures.
The later Ur III Empire imposed
stiﬂingly detailed bureaucratic
control. Following Ur III’s fall in
2004 BCE, smaller city-states rose to
power, but these were conquered in
the 18th century BCE by Hammurabi
of Babylon (famous for his “law
code” inscribed on a stone stela).
Agriculturally rich, Babylonia was
poor in raw materials. It traded copper
from Oman and later Cyprus; lapis
lazuli and tin from Afghanistan; and
lumber, gold, ivory, and gemstones
from the Indus. In exchange, it
offered manufactured goods,
Making a mark
Inscribed clay nails set into the walls of
major public buildings, such as temples,
bear texts describing the kings’ close
involvement in their construction.
especially ﬁne textiles produced
on an industrial scale in workshops
staffed by women and children.
NORTH AND SOUTH
Diplomatic correspondence reveals
shifting patterns of alliance and
hostility between the major later
2nd millennium BCE powers: Egypt
(see p.26), the Hittites (see p.43),
Mitanni in northern Mesopotamia,
and the Kassites in Babylonia. The
small northwestern state of Assyria
expanded as Mitanni declined.
Its fortunes ﬂuctuated, but for long
periods it dominated western Asia.
Palace relief sculptures bring Assyrian
campaigns vividly to life (see p.21).
One depicts King Sennacherib’s
beautiful terraced garden at Nineveh,
perhaps the original of the Hanging
Gardens attributed to Babylon.
Babylonia conquered Assyria in
612 BCE, but then fell to the Persians
in 539 BCE. However, Mesopotamia’s
cultural legacy included inventions
such as glass, the potter’s wheel, and
improved knowledge of medicine,
astronomy, and complex mathematics
have no equal among even the most distant
rulers… Everything is achievable by me.”
Shulgi, king of the Ur III Empire (2094–2047 BCE), A praise poem of Shulgi
POLITICS AND POWER
In city-states, the king and people
had a shared sense of identity,
and citizen assemblies had some
decision-making power. Larger
states were administered through
ofﬁcials from the ruler’s own
family, city, or tribe, but shared
cultural values ensured the king
remained answerable to the gods
for his subjects’ prosperity.
lines of hair
of gold ribbon
Babylonian temple text
Kings often founded temples and
restored and embellished earlier
ones. They recorded these pious
deeds on clay texts placed in the
foundations or in inscriptions.
Kassite kudurrus (boundary stones)
were documents recording royal
grants of land to those who had
served their rulers well. They were
publicly displayed in temples.
Writing was invented around 3300 BCE
to manage the administration of
temple receipts, outgoings, and
labor. Most surviving later texts are
This beautiful helmet of beaten
gold is from a grave at the Ur
cemetery, possibly that of King
Meskalamdug. It would have been
parade armor, not worn in battle.
king clad in ﬂeece kilt, his
status shown by larger size
war captive carrying
Standard of Ur
This unusual object from the Ur royal graves may
have been a royal standard (or ﬂag) or the sound box
of a musical instrument. One side is decorated with
scenes of warfare. The panel of the other side depicts
the preparations for and celebration of the victory
shown on the war side.
shell inlays and
pair of asses from
a chariot team
noble seated on wooden stool
with decorative animal legs
sheep, goats, and cattle
for victory feast
THE CRADLE OF CIVILIZATION 21
BELIEFS AND RITUALS
BATTLE AND CONFLICT
Warfare between rival city-states and with enemies from
the hills and desert is recorded at length in Mesopotamian
literature and art. Armies originally had infantry and chariots;
cavalry was added in the 1st millennium BCE. The highly
efﬁcient Assyrian military were greatly feared. Subject peoples
paid tribute and were defended against their enemies, but
rebellions were mercilessly suppressed.
Siege warfare inspired
in ways of defending and
attacking cities, such as
fortiﬁcations and wooden
siege towers and ladders.
The temple enjoyed great political and social power
throughout Mesopotamian history. Sumerian cities each
had their own gods but acknowledged the supremacy of the
storm god, Enlil. Babylon’s city god Marduk later became
the principal deity, mirroring the political rise of Babylon
itself. Although the Assyrians worshipped their city god,
Ashur, they also venerated the Babylonian pantheon.
IMPRINT OF SEAL
Mythical combat scene
battering ram with
Cylinder seals often bore motifs with religious
signiﬁcance. This traditional theme of gods or
heroes wrestling bulls or lions was particularly
popular in Akkadian times.
traditional ﬂeece kilt
Assyrian scale armor
Small plates of bronze, or
later iron, were attached
in overlapping rows to a
leather coat, protecting
the torso and upper legs.
Assyrian armor also
included metal helmets.
human head endowing
ﬁgure with intelligence
From the late 3rd millennium BCE,
composite bows (made of layered
horn, wood, and sinew) improved
archers’ efﬁciency, giving greater
penetration and range to the
Priests ofﬁciated at
to discover the gods’
views of proposed
Spear and javelin heads
Wooden javelins tipped with copper or
bronze heads were used by infantry and
chariot ﬁghters. A leather throwing
thong (ankyle) was attached to the butt.
Silver was used for display weaponry.
Copper or bronze adzes, like this
example from Ur, were used by
Sumerian soldiers in combat, as artistic
representations illustrate. They must
also have served as tools.
ﬁgures in Mesopotamian
art had a benign role.
and bulls representing
guarded the gateways
of Assyrian temples
ﬁve legs in
total to allow
front or side
Brilliant blue lapis lazuli was
used for the eyes (with shell
whites), forehead fringe,
and ﬂowing beard. Copper
(now greenish blue) was
used for the ears.
The objects from these graves
represented enormous wealth and
extraordinary artistic creativity. They
were made from imported exotic
materials, such as gold, silver, lapis
lazuli, Indus carnelian, and ﬁne stone.
They included not only vessels and
jewelry but also animal-headed lyres,
a gaming board with mosaic
decoration, a sled drawn by asses, and
gilded furniture. While some objects
were the deceased’s personal
possessions, buried for their continued
enjoyment, others were meant as gifts
to placate the grim underworld deities
in the hope of receiving favorable
treatment in the joyless afterlife.
post supported a
table or offering
stand; ash, maybe
lapis lazuli from
leaf or bud,
with ﬂowers on
“plant of life”
In addition to the principal, royal
person, the 16 graves contained the
bodies of others who may have been
sacriﬁced: at least 26 in Puabi’s grave
and 74 in what Woolley called the
Great Death Pit. Their positions and
associated ﬁnds showed them to
be guards, grooms, musicians, and
personal attendants, most of them
women. Woolley argued these were
willing victims, who chose to die with
their royal master or mistress. Recent
investigations show that some, at
least, died from blows to the head,
but whether all were sacriﬁced is still
uncertain. No other Mesopotamian
cemetary contains such sacriﬁces.
Wooden lyres were found with many of the
female attendants. Their sound boxes ended
in an animal head, usually that of a bull or cow,
decorated with lapis lazuli, shell, and gold.
a similar lyre
gold ﬂower symbolizes
Inanna, goddess of love,
fertility, and regeneration
In the 1920s, the British archaeologist
Sir Leonard Woolley discovered some
remarkable burials at Ur (in modern
Iraq), dating from around 2550–
2400 BCE. Most graves in the huge
cemetery were simple pits, but 16
were barrel-vaulted chambers, often
with large associated grave pits
approached by a shaft. They
contained lavishly rich grave goods,
and Woolley identiﬁed them as royal
graves. One pit grave also contained
rich furnishings, including a beautiful
gold helmet and two gold bowls
inscribed “Meskalamdug,” an early
king of Ur. One royal grave yielded
a seal inscribed “Puabi the queen.”
RAM CAUGHT IN A THICKET
WEALTH AND ARTISTRY
thin sheet gold covers
bush and goat’s face,
legs, and hooves
locks of hair around
goat’s lower legs were
modeled in gold
thin silver coating on belly,
badly preserved since silver,
unlike gold, corrodes
The goat and bush were modeled in wood and
thinly coated with bitumen (tar) to glue in place
the precious, colorful outer elements. These
included individually carved locks of hair, in shell
on the back and lapis lazuli on the shoulders.
This magniﬁcent wooden table support
has been known since its discovery as the
Ram Caught in a Thicket, from the biblical
story of Abraham and his son Isaac.
However, it actually depicts a goat standing
to graze on a ﬂowering bush, a scene with
Sumerian religious signiﬁcance. This is one
of a pair, of slightly different sizes, found in
the Great Death Pit.
Thin silver coats the sides of the wooden
base, while a mosaic of shell and red
limestone pieces decorates its surface.
A male animal eating the “plant of life”
is common in Sumerian iconography,
symbolizing fertility. Originally, a
silver chain fastened the goat’s legs
to the branches.
THE CRADLE OF CIVILIZATION 23
Cups, bowls, dishes, goblets, and jars for cooking
and serving food at home were usually made of
pottery. Well-off households also acquired metal
and stone vessels, often made of exotic imported
materials. Many of these vessels were buried at Ur
in both royal graves and those of lesser people.
Distinctive soapstone bowls
were manufactured at Tepe
Yahya and Jiroft, in modern
Iran, and Tarut, in Saudi Arabia,
in the 3rd millennium BCE. They
were widely traded.
typical hatched inﬁll
Intact rich graves are rarely
found, so most information
on Mesopotamian clothing
and adornment comes from
texts or art. These reveal that
Sumerian men, for example,
wore ﬂeece kilts and the
women wore woolen
wrap-around robes. The
largest collection of
surviving jewelry is from
the royal cemetery at Ur
Silver was imported from Anatolia to make luxury
tableware and decorative objects. Weighed silver
was used as a form of currency.
These rings were made from very
ﬁnely twisted gold wire, soldered to
plain gold bands. Ordinary people
wore rings made of copper.
Elaborate hairstyles were
held in place by a gold or
silver ribbon wound around
several times. Over this were
arranged wreaths of gold poplar
and willow leaves. The double spiral
of the gold pendant was a common symbolic
element in Mesopotamian decoration.
FEAST SCENE IMPRESSION
Beaded cuffs were found with many of the
women in the Great Death Pit. Surviving
threads show that these were sewn onto
short-sleeved red garments.
Sumerian barley beer was unﬁltered so it
was drunk through a long tube. Three tubes,
of gold, silver, and copper encased in lapis
lazuli, were found in Queen Puabi’s grave.
Queen Puabi and several of her
attendants wore bead belts, probably
stitched to a backing of leather or cloth,
sometimes with pendant rings of gold or shell.
Many tumblers of gold,
silver, and stone were found
at Ur. Soapstone, being soft
and therefore easy to carve,
was frequently used for
stone vessels and seals.
Stone was used in early
Mesopotamia to make
luxury vessels. Most was
imported, from Iran and
farther aﬁeld, but alabaster
was locally available.
A number of the female attendants in the royal graves
wore unusual chokers made of triangular beads. The
gold beads were made of sheet metal doubled over.
gold tube for
hair comb topped
by 7 gold ﬂowers
lapis lazuli ﬂy
ﬂuted gold bead
gold willow leaves
lapis lazuli bead
gold and lapis
silver support for
petal, now missing
Many of the women found
in the Ur cemetery wore
earrings. These large gold
were probably worn hanging
down, with the thin wire over
the top of the ear.
gold leaf petal
multiple strands of
gold, lapis lazuli,
silver, agate, and
banded agate bead
gold pendant rings
hanging from belt
Queen Puabi’s ﬁnery
Queen Puabi and several
attendants in the royal
graves wore “Spanish
combs,” which supported
an elaborate raised hair
arrangement. The ﬂowers
would appear to be
growing out of the hair.
Pins fastened a cloak
draped over one
shoulder and passed
under the other arm.
Often the wearer’s
cylinder seal was
attached by a chain to a
ring near the pin’s head.
With great skill, Woolley used the
position of surviving elements to
reconstruct original forms. These
included the queen’s elaborate hair
arrangement, outlined by her gold
ribbons and headdress, and her
magniﬁcent cape, made of long
pendant strands of beads.
From its inception, ancient Egypt was deﬁned by its religious beliefs. Worship
of all-powerful deities was part of daily life, and ancient Egyptians believed that
when they died they would enjoy an afterlife. Its pharaohs, kings who were
regarded as gods, controlled the vast resources of the kingdom, using them
to build architecture on a grand scale and tombs ﬁlled with beautiful objects.
real life ▷
The tomb of the
astronomer and scribe
Nakht, who lived
around 1400 BCE, is
depicting scenes from
life at that time. Here
he hunts birds in a
watched by his wife
and three children.
Egypt is often called “the gift of
the Nile,” and ancient Egypt owed
much to the river. Its annual ﬂoods
brought water and fertile silt to
sustain agriculture and, by the late
4th millennium BCE, supported a few
towns, with growing regional control.
The regions of Upper and Lower Egypt
were eventually united in 3100 BCE by
the legendary King Menes, who made
his capital centrally at Memphis. A
pattern of alternating regional division
and centralized control was repeated
throughout subsequent Egyptian
history. During times of prosperity
and under strong rulers, the land
was united; when troubles arose,
weakened rulers lost overall control
and the kingdom disintegrated into
smaller political realms enjoying
varying degrees of independence.
Comparatively little is known of
Egypt’s ﬁrst two dynasties (the Early
Dynastic period). The Old Kingdom
began with the 3rd dynasty in
2686 BCE. Its pharaohs built the ﬁrst
pyramids (see p.28). They obtained
gold from Nubia and traded with the
city of Byblos (see p.47) for lumber.
The Sun god Re became Egypt’s
supreme deity. However, poor ﬂoods
and subsequent famine brought
political disintegration from 2181 BCE
(the First Intermediate period).
Upper and Lower Egypt were reunited
under Mentuhotep II around 2040 BCE.
In 1985 BCE, the throne passed to
Amenemhat I, founder of the 12th
dynasty, who built a new capital at
Itj-tawy. The borders of the kingdom’s
administrative divisions (nomes)
were ﬁxed. Kings were still buried
beneath pyramids, now surrounded
by nobles’ tombs. Substantial temples
were built, and the cult of Osiris
(see p.34) grew in importance.
To gain better control of Nubia’s
gold deposits, fortresses were built
and a canal constructed. The early
17th century BCE saw a decline in
royal authority, and the usurpation
of power in the delta by the Semitic
Hyksos dynasty in 1650 BCE began the
Second Intermediate period. Itj-tawy
was abandoned, but an Egyptian
dynasty still controlled Upper Egypt.
“ Enjoy yourself
Behind the mask
After bandaging, a mummy’s face was often
covered by an idealized portrait mask,
made of gilded and painted cartonnage
(linen and glue stiffened with plaster).
Around 1550 BCE, the native dynasty
drove out the Hyksos and founded the
New Kingdom. Egyptian domination
of Nubia was extended southward.
Pharaohs were now buried in rock-cut
tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The
Theban god Amun was preeminent,
and large temple complexes were
built, particularly at Luxor.
In the 14th century BCE, the pharaoh
Akhenaten broke with tradition,
instituting worship of a single god,
the Aten, and building a new capital
at Amarna. Neither survived his
death, the status quo being restored
under his youthful successor,
Tutankhamun. International trade
ﬂourished, and the Egyptians
expanded their rule eastward.
By the 11th century BCE, political
control was disintegrating. A general
of Libyan origin seized control of
Upper Egypt in 1069 BCE, ushering in
the Third Intermediate period during
which Upper and Lower Egypt were
ruled by separate, although related,
dynasties. Egypt was reunited in the
late 8th century BCE by the Kushite
(Nubian) 25th dynasty.
while you live… follow your heart’s
command on earth, be joyful and make merry.”
Harper’s Song, inscribed on the tomb of King Inyotef c.2125–2055 BCE
28 EARLY SOCIETIES
POLITICS AND POWER
with hymn to
The mythical ﬁrst king of Egypt was the
god Osiris, followed by his son Horus.
From Horus, both kingship and divinity
were passed on to his male successors,
making the Egyptian pharaoh an absolute
monarch. Under royal authority, Egypt’s
administration was in the hands of state
ofﬁcials and provincial governors.
cobra), part of
ART AND CULTURE
Despite its conventions—which
dictated, for example, that human
faces, arms, and legs be depicted in
proﬁle, while torsos be shown from
the front—Egyptian artworks give a
wonderfully detailed and realistic
picture of Egyptian life. They include
paintings, reliefs, models of people
and scenes, and stone sculptures.
on wig and eyes
Meryptah, priest of Amun
As Amun-Re, Egypt’s principal deity
Amun represented the Sun. His
chief priest wielded considerable
political power, particularly under
King Djoser constructed the ﬁrst
pyramid, the step pyramid at
Saqqara, in the 27th century BCE.
In the following two centuries,
Sneferu at Dahshur and his
successors at Giza (shown above)
built smooth-sided pyramids,
along with mortuary temples,
subsidiary pyramids for their
wives, and other monuments.
Ramses the Great was one of Egypt’s
most powerful and long-lived rulers.
In the 13th century BCE, he built many
temples, monuments, and statues,
and a new city, Pi-Ramesse.
cartouche of Ramses’
son Merenptah added
after his father’s death
traces of red
The self-conﬁdent pose reﬂects the
advantages a scribe enjoyed, including
potential access to high ofﬁce and
freedom from the backbreaking work
endured by the majority.
cartouche, line and oval
enclosing royal name
Middle Kingdom sphinx
Sphinxes symbolized both the
Sun god and royal power. In the
New Kingdom, processional
avenues of sphinxes were
built as the approaches to many
temples. This sphinx was
recarved with the ﬁve royal
names of Ramses II.
This cartouche gives the throne name
adopted by Ramses II on his accession,
Usermaatre, which means “the Justice
of Re is Powerful.”
The hieroglyphic script included logograms
(signs representing a word or idea) but was
mainly composed of phonetic signs
signifying one, two, or three consonants.
EGYPTIAN LIFE AND AFTERLIFE 29
This wooden statuette of a servant girl is
a decorative form of cosmetic container.
Unlike most Egyptian sculptures, the girl
is highly naturalistic, her unbalanced pose
dictated by the heavy jar she is carrying.
False eyes were made to insert into statues and
funerary masks. These are constructed of bent
copper wire surrounding a stone eye.
hole for black ink
ivory pin holding
lid in place
hole for red ink
reed brush for
Only a tenth of Egyptians could
read and write. Written education
included astronomy, geography,
medicine, mathematics, and law.
The scribe’s palette, brushes, and inks
were so distinctive a mark of the
profession that they were used as the
hieroglyph for “scribe” and “writing.”
blue minerals and red ocher
hole for tie
hieratic script, written
from right to left
Monumental inscriptions and other display texts, such
as those on mummies, were written in the hieroglyphic
script, which was elaborate and highly pictorial.
Hieratic wooden label
Children attending the House
of Life (temple school) ﬁrst
learned to read and write in
hieratic, a simpliﬁed form of the
hieroglyphic script used for
informal documents and texts.
Ibis and cobra
ka (dead person’s spirit)
The Egyptians were acutely aware
of the natural world around them.
Many of their deities had an
animal aspect, so animals featured
prominently in Egyptian art.
30 EARLY SOCIETIES
Egyptian clothing was
made from white linen,
and the best pieces were
very ﬁnely woven. Men
wore a kilt, with or without
a shirt, or a loincloth for
manual work. Women
wore a long, straight dress,
with one or two shoulder
straps. Children usually
went naked (see p.29),
although some children’s
clothes were found in
the god Seth
Protective cowrie shell
amulets were worn by
women from Predynastic
times. Pigs were
associated with the
violent god Seth who,
surprisingly, also had
a protective aspect.
These rings all held a
swiveling bevel in the
shape of a protective
scarab beetle, its
with a good luck charm.
Faience, a glazed
ceramic colored blue
or green with copper
ore, was a cheaper artiﬁcial
substitute for turquoise or
lapis lazuli. Wide collars of
many strands of cylindrical beads,
known as wesekh, were worn
by noble men and women.
inscription of Queen Hatshepsut,
principal wife of Thutmose II,
Paintings and models in tombs vividly document
both nobles’ enjoyment of the good things in
life and the daily toil of those supporting them.
Egypt’s arid conditions have also preserved many
everyday objects made of organic materials,
such as basketry, and documents in perishable
materials, such as papyrus, which also describe
many aspects of daily life.
scribe writing on papyrus
ofﬁcial clad in robe
one of four
Badarian culture bowl
This stone vessel, inscribed with the
name and titles of Queen Hatshepsut,
may have been a gift to place in the
tomb of a favored royal ofﬁcial.
This handmade Predynastic bowl, with a
characteristic black rim, shows the great
skill achieved by Egyptian potters even
before 3000 BCE.
Most Egyptian pottery is basic redbrown coarse ware, for everyday use.
It is known as “Nile Silt ware” after the
material from which it was made.
coiled plant ﬁbers
Models of real-life activities enabled the
deceased to continue a normal life after
death. Here, an ofﬁcial interviews four
workmen while a scribe records the details.
Egypt is unusual in preserving ancient matting
and basketry, used in many cultures for
everyday containers. Dom-palm leaves and
grasses were used in making these objects.
EGYPTIAN LIFE AND AFTERLIFE 31
for white cream
amulet of Hathor,
goddess of love
wooden kohl pot
Noble ladies kept a large set
of tools with which to beautify
themselves, including a stone
palette on which to grind and
mix makeup pigments.
This exquisitely carved little
wooden spoon would have been
used for scooping up cosmetics.
Its papyrus stem handle is a
symbol of Lower Egypt.
stylized ﬁgure with
Servants prepare meat for a deceased
noble’s table. Ordinary people would
seldom have eaten meat: their diet was
bread, fruit, vegetables, ﬁsh, and beer.
Egyptian wooden ships were constructed
shell-ﬁrst, the wooden planks sewn
together to make the outer form
before the inner framework was added.
sail into the wind
lookout to spot
hazards such as
islands, and rapids
“ Ships sail
from North to South,
two men manning poles
to push off if boat hits
shallows or sandbanks
hinge to collapse mast
or hold it upright
Inscription of Ramses II, r.1279–1213 BCE
Rowing down the Nile
River travel was relatively easy: the current ﬂowing
downstream to the Mediterranean carried ships
north, assisted by rowers, while the prevailing
wind, blowing from north to south, enabled
them to sail back upstream. Boats and ships were
therefore designed to make it easy to shift from
oar to sail and back, either by simply furling the
sail or by collapsing the mast. Wooden models of
boats, such as the one shown here, were placed
in tombs to transport the owner in the afterlife.
shallow draft of
EGYPTIAN LIFE AND AFTERLIFE 33
THE LURE OF THE EXOTIC
Simple craft for ﬁshing, hunting
wildfowl, or crossing the Nile were
made of papyrus reeds bound in
bundles, but most long-distance
river trafﬁc was in wooden boats,
ideally of Lebanese cedar. Some had
cabins, in the center of the vessel or
at one or both ends. Substantial
ships were required to transport
stone from quarries, and for trade in
the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
Boats were essential for moving
the goods and materials on which
Egypt depended. Copper, stone, and
semiprecious stones came from the
desert east of the Nile. Copper was
also sourced from Sinai farther east.
To the south, the lands around the
Nile cataracts provided Egypt’s
seemingly limitless supplies of gold,
along with ebony, ivory, and
copper, and a route to the exotic
produce of sub-Saharan Africa.
African exotica were also obtained
from the land of Punt, reached by
sailing down the Red Sea as well as
overland. Its chief attraction was
incense, much used by the Egyptians
for religious ceremonies and
mummiﬁcation. In the 15th century
BCE, Queen Hatshepsut even sent an
expedition to Punt to obtain incense
trees. Punt also yielded gold, ebony,
blackwood, ivory, slaves, and wild
animals. Pygmies skilled in dance
were imported from sub-Saharan
Africa. The tomb of Harkhuf, an
Egyptian governor, contains a copy
of an excited letter from the 8-yearold King Pepy II in about 2276 BCE,
urging that every possible care be
taken of the pygmy dancer that
Harkhuf was bringing him.
Egypt also imported timber and
copper from its eastern neighbors,
and Minoan and Mycenaean pottery
and military equipment. Egypt’s
own exports included grain, wine,
Egyptian caviar, dried ﬁsh, linen
cloth, and luxury goods such as
depth of water to avoid
shoals and sandbanks
stand to support
linen kilt, the
BELIEFS AND RITUALS
Egyptian religion had a rich mythology, and
the story of Osiris, by which he became god
of the afterlife, was particularly important.
Religious and secular life were intertwined.
Nobles acted as priests or temple ofﬁcials
for short stints of three months, returning
to ordinary life for the rest of the year.
Isis and Horus
Isis, wife of the murdered
god Osiris, was regarded as
mourner and protector of the
dead. As the mother of Osiris’
son Horus, she was venerated
as the divine mother and as
mother to the pharaohs.
GODS AND GODDESSES
Amun (“the hidden
one”) was king of the
gods, the creator of the
cosmos, responsible for
all fertility. As Amun-Re,
he represented the Sun.
In his role as god of
scribes, Thoth was both
the keeper of all kinds
of knowledge and the
recorder when Osiris
judged the dead.
A daughter of the Sun
god Re, Sekhmet was
both the goddess of
war and a protective
In Old Kingdom times, models of workers
who would perform speciﬁc tasks for
the deceased were placed in tombs.
By 2000 BCE, these were replaced by
all-purpose shabti (“answerer”) ﬁgures.
Often seen as the son
of Ptah and Sekhmet,
Nefertem was the god
of the lotus blossom
and the Sun rising from
it. He was more feared
Anubis was called
“lord of the sacred
land” (the desert where
tombs were situated).
He was responsible for
protecting the dead.
Murdered by his jealous
brother Seth but brought
back to life, Osiris was
the ruler of the afterlife
and judge of the dead.
He symbolized fertility
Shabtis were made
in many materials but
faience was the most
common. Later tombs
might contain several
EGYPTIAN LIFE AND AFTERLIFE 35
Sons of Horus amulets
Each of the four Sons of Horus—
Qebehsenuef, Imsety, Hapy, and
of the four canopic jars in which
were stored the liver, lungs,
stomach, and intestines, which
were removed when the deceased
was mummiﬁed (see p.39).
From New Kingdom times,
amulets frequently portrayed
deities. This amulet depicts a
god between two birds, all
wearing the horns and solar
disk of Isis or Hathor.
in a bow
The Egyptian dung
rolling a ball of dung
many times its size,
came to symbolize
resurrection. It was
popular in amulets.
The left eye of Horus,
plucked out by his
uncle Seth but
Originally seen as
a pillar, the djed
was later taken to
backbone of Osiris,
and his resurrection.
The tyet was an early
sacred symbol. The
tyet amulet became
popular in New
Kingdom times, when
it was described as
the knot of Isis.
The aggression of the
dwarf god Bes was
all directed toward
external threats. He
was the protector of
the family, particularly
women in childbirth.
around a core
Later shabtis were sometimes depicted with tools, and
this ﬁgure wears a basket on her back. She is inscribed
“Of the Lady Maya,” referring to the owner of the tomb.
Amulets were worn in life to give general
protection or to ward against speciﬁc
threats. They were placed in mummy
wrappings for protection in the afterlife.
36 EARLY SOCIETIES
one of series of gates
through which deceased
must pass to reach afterlife
text written in
arranged in chapters
Extract from the
Book of the Dead
The Book of the Dead was
written on papyrus scrolls
that were placed within
the bandages wrapping
the mummy. It gave the
guidance on how best
to behave at the ﬁnal
judgment in the
underworld (see p.39).
Pasenhor’s mummy case
painting of face
A human-shaped cofﬁn not
only housed the mummy, but
could also replace it if the
mummy were destroyed or
damaged. Symbolic texts and
images painted inside and
out protected the deceased
and provided help at his or
her ﬁnal judgment.
collar of leaves, petals,
and lotus ﬂowers
eye of Horus
ankh (symbol of eternal life)
knot of Isis
EGYPTIAN LIFE AND AFTERLIFE 37
Hekay, a noble
Instead of pillows, the Egyptians
slept with their heads on a
headrest, usually of wood. This
luxury alabaster version was
placed in an Old Kingdom tomb.
Water was regarded as the
source of creation. It symbolized
life, regeneration, and purity,
so faience water jars were an
important burial offering.
Wine, made from grapes and
mixed with honey and spices,
was important in the Egyptian
diet. This large wine amphora
is from a rich woman’s tomb.
Cats were kept as household
pets and as animals sacred to
Re and to the fertility goddess
Bastet. This hollow ﬁgure may
have held a cat mummy.
The Ba (personality spirit) was
one of the ﬁve elements making
up a person. Its bird form helped
it return nightly from the
underworld to the deceased.
judgment of the dead
Book of the Dead
sacred to Horus
djed pillar (symbol of resurrection)
geese, bred for meat, were
leopard-skin robe of sem-priest, who undertook
the ﬁnal rites of resurrection on a mummy
leg of beef
servant carrying calf carcass
EGYPTIAN LIFE AND AFTERLIFE 39
jackal of Anubis
PREPARING FOR JUDGMENT
an offering prayer
boast that his virtues
made him superior
to all other Thinites
of his rank
of 32 offerings
white linen kilt,
for the gods
The Egyptians considered that death
was just an interruption in a life that
continued from birth to eternity. In
order to enjoy the afterlife, however,
it was necessary that the body should
be preserved and sustained. It was
therefore mummiﬁed: the internal
organs were removed and stored
in canopic jars, and the ﬂesh was
dehydrated by packing natron
(soda salts) within and around the
body. When the process was complete,
the body was repacked with fresh
natron and resin-soaked bandages,
to restore its natural shape. Layers of
linen bandages were wrapped around
the body, and amulets set among
them to protect the deceased from
OPENING THE MOUTH
The mummy was placed in its cofﬁn,
and an elaborate ritual, called the
“Opening of the Mouth,” was enacted
by the deceased’s heir. This restored
the senses to the deceased, enabling
him or her again to see, hear, speak,
eat, and behave as in life. The mummy
was now placed in the tomb, where
funerary offerings of food, furniture,
clothing, jewelry, and other objects,
as well as shabtis (see p.34) and reliefs
or paintings, provided it with all the
necessities of continued existence.
A memorial stela to the deceased, like
the one shown here, was sometimes
erected outside the tomb.
WEIGHING THE HEART
In the netherworld, the deceased
was held to account by Osiris and the
42 judges of Maat (truth and justice).
His or her heart (seat of the human
intellect) was weighed on the divine
scales against the feather of Maat.
The Book of the Dead, included
in the mummy wrappings, prepared
the deceased for this judgment and
gave advice on how to act. Benevolent
Anubis, standing by, might adjust
the scales in the deceased’s favor.
If not, the crocodile-headed demon
Ammut sat ready to eat the heart
and destroy the dead person’s eternal
life. For the majority who passed the
test, eternity beckoned. But it could
only be enjoyed if the Ba (see p.36)
was reunited every night with the
mummiﬁed body, in order to sustain
the Akh, the union in the afterlife of
the Ba and Ka (life-force spirit, another
of the elements making up a person).
is better to be praised for
neighborly love than to have
riches in your storeroom.”
Instruction of Amenemope, c.1300–1075 BCE
cattle, kept for
their meat and
milk and as
As well as decorating the inside of their tombs,
wealthy Egyptians often erected memorial
stelae outside. These bore their name and titles
and a funerary prayer, along with offering
scenes involving the deceased and often their
family. This stela belonged to Nefersefekhy, an
ofﬁcial who also served as a priest, in the town
of Thinis near Abydos, around 2175 BCE.
EARLY SOCIETIES 20,000–700 BCE
Metalworking began with soft metals, such as gold or copper, used to make
prestige objects. Later, people discovered that alloying copper with tin produced
bronze, a metal strong enough for tools and weapons. As bronze-working spread
across Europe, the need for tin (a rare metal) promoted international trade.
Built of massive
and smaller Welsh
Stonehenge is the
of a series of
Plain. It achieved its
ﬁnal form by 1900 BCE.
By the Early Bronze Age (from the
late 3rd millennium BCE), weapons in
burials reﬂect a society in which
status depended on prowess in
combat. Horse-drawn chariots with
spoked wheels, introduced from the
steppes on Europe’s eastern fringes
after 2000 BCE, were elite ﬁghting
vehicles. Increasing demand for
metals, and for other prestige and
practical materials, such as amber and
salt, stimulated international trade,
changing the direction of existing
routes and promoting the rise of a
continent-wide trading system.
Societies that were rich in metal ores
beneﬁted especially from the shift
in trading patterns. Ships now plied
long-distance trade routes around
the Atlantic seaboard of Europe
and along rivers. Warmer climatic
conditions allowed farming to spread
into previously uncultivable areas.
Arable farming intensiﬁed, and
livestock were particularly important.
THE LATE BRONZE AGE
By around 1300 BCE bronze was
used for everyday tools. Cremation
burials, often in vast urnﬁelds and
Ordinary axes were made in large numbers as
bronze became more common, but prestige
decorated versions were also produced.
usually with few grave goods, were
now the norm over most of Europe.
The onset of colder, wetter conditions
around 1100 BCE brought harsher
times, increasing conﬂict between
neighbors and offerings to the gods.
Fortiﬁed settlements now became
common, providing a place of refuge
for rural farmers and a high-status
residence for local chiefs and their
entourage. These settlements
developed particularly at key places
along trade routes, where chiefs could
enhance their power and wealth by
controlling the passage of goods.
BATTLE AND CONFLICT
As craftsmen came to appreciate the potential
of metals, they developed new technologies,
producing elaborate jewelry, weapons, and
ﬁgures. By 1300 BCE they were using multiplepiece molds and lost-wax casting, and creating
large sheet-bronze objects. Other crafts also
ﬂourished, including textile production, now
using wool as well as plant ﬁbers.
Bronze Age burials and art reﬂect a warrior society, engaged
in cattle rustling and raids rather than mass pitched battles.
Swords made their ﬁrst appearance and rapidly became a
vehicle for fashion and display. Late Bronze Age elite warrior
equipment comprised a slashing sword and spear, a helmet,
shield, greaves (shin armor), and cuirass (breastplate).
Knives would have served many purposes:
in daily life for tasks such as butchery, but
also as weapons, particularly for casual
defense or attack.
one-piece mold for
Spears appeared after the Early Bronze
Age, and most seem designed for
throwing rather than thrusting. Early
forms have a tang to attach the head
to the shaft; later ones are socketed.
Mold and axes
The ﬁrst, simplest bronzes were cast in
one-piece molds, consisting of a shape
cut into stone: this produced objects
with a ﬂat, horizontal upper surface.
one identical half of two-piece mold
Two-piece molds allowed the
production of more complex
three-dimensional objects. The two
halves were bound together and
molten metal poured in at the top.
in this mold
In the Late Bronze Age crested
helmets became popular in
Western Europe and especially
Italy, while Eastern
Rapiers, designed like daggers for
stabbing, gave way to slashing
swords in the later Bronze Age.
These three swords illustrate
regional diversity in their form.
helmet made of two
joined pieces of
EARLY SOCIETIES 20,000–700 BCE
Bronze Age women enjoyed a
growing range of designs in jewelry,
such as brooches, pins, earrings, and
bracelets. In Scandinavia, cofﬁns
made from oak trees preserve a rare
glimpse of woolen clothing. Women
were buried in long-sleeved blouses
and skirts, the men in shirts and kilts.
Both sexes had hats and cloaks.
Double spiral brooch
The double spiral design was a popular
motif used in jewelry in the Bronze Age.
This brooch is coiled from a single piece
of bronze wire.
When metals (copper and
gold) were ﬁrst used in Britain,
distinctive ornaments, including
ship of the day
ﬁsh towing the
Sun between ships
Irish tress ring
Personal equipment such as razors reﬂects
male concern with their appearance in the
Bronze Age. Razors included both lunate
and triangular forms, as shown here.
Bronze jewelry provided a vehicle for
metalworkers to display their versatility.
Pin designs were particularly open to
ﬂights of fancy.
Gold hair ornaments made in Ireland were
widely traded during the Late Bronze Age.
Gold was mined in the Wicklow Mountains
from around 2200 BCE.
BELIEFS AND RITUALS
Traces of Bronze Age religion show a preoccupation
with the heavens. Some monuments, including
Stonehenge, mark moments such as the summer
solstice. Artworks depict the Sun carried by a boat
or chariot across the sky. Many ritual offerings of
metalwork were buried in signiﬁcant places or
deposited in rivers, lakes, or bogs.
The Nebra Sky Disk was used in central
Germany around 1600 BCE as an instrument
for making astronomical observations, to
calibrate the lunar and solar calendars.
for food offering
Early Bronze Age British
burials were often
accompanied by a so-called
“Food Vessel,” containing a
special drink. Later, Food
Vessels were used as
Libation tables, stone disks
with a number of hollows to
take offerings, were used in
Early Bronze Age Aegean
rituals. This rare ceramic
vessel, called a kernos,
served the same purpose.
3rd-millennium BCE ﬁgurines
from the Cyclades, Greece,
probably represented both
gods and individual humans.
Some were deposited in
graves, others may have
been placed in shrines.
THE MIGHTY HITTITES
THE MIGHTY HITTITES
Around 1650 BCE, central Anatolia’s city-states were united by conquest into a
kingdom with its capital at Hattusa. Vigorous rulers of this Hittite Old Kingdom
campaigned into Syria and even sacked Babylon in 1595 BCE. However, the
series of succession disputes that followed reduced their dominions.
The massive defenses
of city gateways were
enhanced by carved
ﬁgures of deities and
creatures, giving divine
protection. This sphinx
guarded Alacahöyük, a
city north of Hattusa
From the 14th century BCE on, strong
Hittite kings regained previously lost
territories, expanded into western
Anatolia (part of modern Turkey)
and destroyed the Mitanni Empire in
Syria, thus bringing them into direct
territorial competition with the
Egyptians. After the inconclusive
Battle of Qadesh around 1274 BCE,
Egypt accepted Hittite control over
Syria, which the Hittites governed
through viceroys. Widespread
human and natural troubles in the
eastern Mediterranean around
1200 BCE destroyed the Hittite
Empire, but a number of small
ART AND CULTURE
Neo-Hittite kingdoms sprang up
in southern Anatolia and Syria,
prospering until the Assyrians
conquered them by 700 BCE.
Barbarian raiders ever present to
their north and a tradition of armed
conﬂict made the Hittites invest
heavily in defense. Massive and
complex city fortiﬁcations included
towers, huge stone gateways with
difﬁcult approaches, and long
tunnels under the walls to secret
exits. Often a citadel and inner
defensive walls protected the palace
and other key
BELIEFS AND RITUALS
Hittite art included both
miniature designs on seals and
monumental sculptured reliefs,
mainly of deities and kings. The
designs incorporated inscriptions:
the Hittites used both cuneiform
and a hieroglyphic script; the
Neo-Hittites used just hieroglyphs.
Huge surviving archives of Hittite
texts include diplomatic and
descriptions of rituals, annals,
literature, and mythology.
Religion permeated Hittite life. Every
natural feature was imbued with a divine
spirit. Individual cities had local variants
of major deities, and cosmopolitan Hittite
society embraced deities from every
community. Temples were prominent in
towns and cities, and reliefs of deities were
carved at key places in the landscape.
head and body
male god holding
falcon and staff
worshipper bearing offering
Neo-Hittite sculptured reliefs
included narrative scenes, such
as this deer hunt from Arslantepe
(present-day Malatya). Chariots
were also used effectively by the
Hittites in warfare, as mobile
In Hittite times, the traditional
Anatolian pitcher took on a
slim form. Pottery was made
on a wheel and by hand and
standardized. Forms included
bowls, ﬂasks, wide-rimmed
plates, and miniature vessels.
The principal deity was the
storm god, Teshub. He leads a
procession of gods carved at
Hattusa’s shrine, Yazilikaya. This
Neo-Hittite relief of Teshub is
from Sam’al (present-day Zinjirli).
Probably made as an offering to
the stag god, this rhyton (drinking
vessel) depicts two deities, a
procession of three worshippers,
and (on the reverse) sacred trees
and a sacriﬁced stag.
44 EARLY SOCIETIES
OF THE AEGEAN
Discoveries at Mycenae in the 1870s and at Knossos in the 1900s showed that
the heroic world described by Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey was not mere
legend but a record of Greece’s ﬁrst civilizations, the Mycenaeans and Minoans:
adventurous sea traders, skilled craftsmen, and painters of exquisite frescoes.
Palace ritual ▽
shown in Minoan art,
probably actually took
place, as a ritual. Bull
religion, and bulls may
have been linked, as
in later times, to the
god held responsible
for Crete’s frequent
The 3rd millennium BCE saw changes
that revolutionized life in the
Aegean, including vine and olive
cultivation and wooly sheep. Wine
and olive oil could be stored as
insurance against agriculturally poor
years and accumulated as wealth by
those with growing power; and wine
played an important role in feasting.
In the 2nd millennium BCE, sailing
ships spurred participation in
international trade. Exports included
colorful woolen textiles, while metal
ores were a major import, as bronze
became increasingly part of life.
Around 2000 BCE, Minoan palaces
appeared across the island of Crete.
With large central courtyards and
magazines of huge pottery storage
jars, they originally hosted religious
and public events, including
processions and feasts. After an
earthquake around 1750 BCE, the
palaces were quickly rebuilt, but
political changes saw the rise of
increasingly powerful new elites.
Widespread destruction of unknown
origin around 1500 BCE left Knossos
as the only functioning palace. A
change in the language of ofﬁcial
Many Mycenaean seals, like this carnelian
example, bore animal designs, a style
inspired by Minoan art. They were often
worn on the wrist or neck as talismans.
records reveals that it was now
Mycenaeans from the southern Greek
mainland who began to control Crete.
The Mycenaeans were already
familiar with Minoan culture and
craftsmanship, but theirs was a very
different society, in which warfare
between rival palace-states played a
major role. Their palaces were built
on citadels, surrounded by defensive
walls of massive stone blocks. Artisans
lived within or near the citadel, their
products including bronze swords
and boar’s tusk helmets. Palace
society collapsed around 1200 BCE.
ART AND CULTURE
The Minoans and the Mycenaeans were skilled artisans,
manufacturing perfumed oils, luxury pottery, ﬁne miniature
bronze, faience (a glazed ceramic), and ivory sculptures, and
jewelry, particularly of gold. Like the Minoans, the Mycenaeans
participated in the ﬂourishing eastern Mediterranean trade
networks, but they also sailed as far west
as Sardinia and Italy to obtain metal ores.
palaces were the
centers of a stratiﬁed
political and economic
control over associated
towns and extensive
palaces also fulﬁlled a
major religious role. The
hinterland of Mycenaean
citadels often encompassed
agricultural land, hills for
pasture, and access to the sea
for communications and trade.
Mycenaean octopus pot
Mycenaean stirrup jars were popular
exports to western Asia. They were
used to transport perfumed oils, a
major Mycenaean product, but were
also valued as attractive pottery.
Fine Minoan pottery was often
beautifully decorated with a realistic
octopus, its tentacles wrapping
around the vessel. Later Mycenaean
potters produced lifeless imitations.
Early Mycenaean warrior kings
were buried with considerable
ﬁnery in shaft graves at Mycenae,
ﬁve with gold masks, dated to
around 1600–1500 BCE.
BELIEFS AND RITUALS
Minoan palaces were linked with peak sanctuaries,
holy places on adjacent mountains where offerings
were made. The Mycenaeans had shrines within
their citadels. Both cultures had gods and goddesses.
The Minoan deities were associated with animals
and the countryside, while Mycenaean texts include
some deities later worshipped in Classical Greece.
were used as
sprinklers in Minoan
rituals. Some were
made of pottery;
others of ﬁne stone
or metal. Shapes
included vases and
real or model model boat
embossed gold beard
Fascinating insights into daily life are provided by beautiful
frescoes. These show musicians playing lyres and boys
boxing, Minoan ﬁshermen carrying their catch and ladies
gathering crocuses, and Mycenaeans riding in chariots,
hunting boar, or sitting on folding stools drinking from
elegant cups. Faience plaques from Knossos depict town
houses several stories high that mirror surviving houses.
Minoan cooking pot
Valuable bronze tripod
cauldrons used in feasting
appear in frescoes and are listed
in texts. This smaller pottery version
was used by ordinary people for
cooking and heating food.
groove in rim for wick
Haghia Triadha sarcophagus
Steatite pedestalled lamp
This painted sarcophagus comes from a Cretan
chamber tomb and shows the deceased receiving
offerings. On the left is a shrine with two double
axes, where a woman pours an offering of blood
from a sacriﬁced bull (depicted on the reverse).
Minoan and Mycenaean
craftsmen produced stone seals
and jewelry, as well as larger
objects including elite domestic
vessels, such as this Minoan lamp.
The Minoans used a range of plain
domestic pottery, including cups,
jugs, bowls, and storage jars. By later
Minoan times, even domestic wares
were often of high quality.
crown of Upper
and Lower Egypt
symbol of royal power
apron with uraeus
(rearing cobra), a
of West Asian
THE INTREPID PHOENICIANS 47
Canaan (the region between Egypt and Anatolia) was home to
coastal city-states whose prosperity depended on trade and
industry. Their inhabitants were known to the Classical Greeks as
Phoenicians, after their fabulously expensive purple (phoinix) dye.
Exporting timber from their region’s
mountains to timber-poor neighbors
enabled the city-states of Phoenicia
(roughly, modern Lebanon) to obtain
the grain, oil, and wool that their
narrow coastal territories could not
produce in sufﬁcient quantity. Byblos,
in the center, traded with Egypt by
1900 BCE. Others, especially Arwad in
the north and Tyre and Sidon in the
south, joined this trade later in the
A ship wrecked off Anatolia around
1300 BCE gives a vivid picture of trade at
this time. It was carrying copper ingots
and ﬁne pottery from Cyprus; tin,
probably from Afghanistan; African
ivory and ostrich eggs; and terebinth
resin (for making perfume), glass ingots,
and gold jewelry from Canaan. It had
probably plied a circular route from
Canaan via Cyprus and the Aegean to
Egypt and home to Canaan.
The Phoenician city-states experienced
a checkered history—the region was
fought over and often controlled by the
surrounding major powers, including
the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, and
Persians. The Phoenicians’ value as
traders and skilled artisans, however,
ensured that they retained a large
degree of independence under foreign
domination. The city-states were often
bitter rivals, particularly Tyre and
Sidon. To facilitate trade, obtain raw
materials, particularly metals, and gain
other economic beneﬁts, some citystates established overseas colonies.
Foremost was Tyre, which had colonies
in the eastern Mediterranean, such as
Kition on Cyprus, but also Carthage in
Tunisia and Gadir (Cadiz) in Atlantic
Spain. As seafarers, the Phoenicians
were in demand by inland states such
as Assyria and Persia to provide ships,
ship-building and navigational knowhow, and sailors and navies. King
Solomon engaged Phoenicians from
Tyre for his expedition to Ophir
(probably the Horn of Africa).
The Phoenicians were skilled artisans.
Among their ﬁnest creations were
purple textiles, bronze bowls, and gold
jewelry. In faience (a glazed ceramic)
they produced both exquisite cosmetic
jars, like the hedgehog shown below,
and mass-market trinkets. Masters of
glass manufacture, they developed new
technologies, for example making
transparent glass that imitated
expensive rock crystal (quartz).
Fine carved ivory panels for decorating wooden furniture were
exported widely or made on location for foreign rulers. These
owed much in style and subject matter to Egypt, with which
the Phoenicians had enjoyed long, close relations. This winged
sphinx, recovered from the Assyrian royal palace at Kalhu
(present-day Nimrud, Iraq), is a typical example.
EARLY SOCIETIES 20,000–700 BCE
Northern China’s Shang dynasty is famously associated with oracle bone
divination, bronze and jade craftsmanship, warfare and human sacriﬁce, and
walled settlements. However, many of these cultural features began with their
predecessors, the Xia culture, traditionally the ﬁrst kings of northern China,
or their 3rd-millennium BCE ancestors, the Longshan culture.
the mist ▷
China’s Great Wall
reached its present
form under the Ming
centuries CE), but its
early beginnings were
in the Zhou period,
when rival states
ramparts to defend
Around 1500 BCE, the Shang succeeded
the Xia culture. Work at Zhengzhou
has revealed a city that was probably
the ﬁrst Shang capital. Its center,
containing buildings that may have
been palaces and elite burials, was
surrounded by a massive wall of
rammed earth. Outside lay a distillery,
pottery, bone, and bronze workshops,
and the artisans’ houses.
Recent excavations have revealed
the remains of another Shang city at
modern Huanbei, which was probably
a later capital, Xi’ang. After 50 years of
occupation, however, its rulers appear
to have deliberately destroyed it. The
city was stripped of all its goods before
being burned to the ground.
Around 1300 BCE, the ﬁnal Shang
capital, Anyang, was built just across
the Huan River at Yinxu. Excavations
here have uncovered a palace and
temple complex, with pits containing
chariot burials, complete with horses
and charioteers. Suburbs contained
the homes of both the elite and
ordinary people; industrial workshops,
where artisans created prestige goods
for the royal family and their
entourage; and several cemeteries.
In one was the richly furnished grave
of Fu Hao, consort of King Wu Ding,
who died around 1200 BCE. Her burial
chamber lay at the bottom of a huge
pit, above which were many regal
grave goods, including ivory vessels
inlaid with turquoise, jade items, and
the sacriﬁced remains of 16 people
and six dogs.
Texts written on oracle bones
reveal the numerous concerns of the
Shang dynasty. These included many
aspects of warfare, harvests, rainfall,
hunting, settlement construction,
and general good fortune. The Shang
had conﬂicts with a number of their
neighbors, such as the people
inhabiting the area near the Yangtze
(Changjiang) River to the south.
Another Shang enemy were the Zhou
in the west, whose ruler overthrew
the Shang king around 1027 BCE and
established a new kingdom. Western
Zhou kings were strong rulers, backed
by a large, well-organized army. They
pursued a policy of expansion, settling
conquered areas under the rule of
members of the royal clan.
Ask the ancestors
The earliest Chinese script, ancestral to
that of today, appears on Shang oracle
bones. Used to divine the future, they were
inscribed with questions to the ancestors.
Around 771 BCE, however, the Zhou
kings were forced by invaders from
the north to ﬂee from their capital
Zongzhou (near modern Xi’an)
eastward to Luoyang, initiating the
Eastern Zhou period. Centralized
Zhou authority had declined and
regional power had grown. The
kingdom began slowly to disintegrate,
with the rulers of the small states
often ﬁghting either the Zhou king
or each other.
The situation declined throughout
this “Spring and Autumn period,”
turning into all-out war for supremacy
between the states after 481 BCE (see
p.101). By this time Zhou had shrunk
to a small state itself.
The Zhou period saw the extension
of many of the technological and
social developments of the Shang
period. These included bronze
casting and other crafts, and trade
and city life. It also included warfare,
with more organized and larger
armies, new weapons, and the
growth of defensive architecture,
including the rammed-earth border
defenses that were eventually
developed into the Great Wall.
is through fear that goodwill and harmony
reign between superiors and inferiors.”
Zi Han, Song ruler in the Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BCE)
50 EARLY SOCIETIES 20,000–700 BCE
BATTLE AND CONFLICT
In Shang times, trade brought in cowrie shells
(used as currency) and turtle shells, jade, tin, and
copper, and Chinese silk was exchanged with steppe
nomads. The invention of cast-bronze coinage,
in various denominations, in Middle Zhou times
reﬂects the beginning of a market economy.
Warfare was regularly mentioned on oracle bones, and enemy
prisoners were often sacriﬁced in rituals—1,200 were found in
12 Shang royal graves. Horse-drawn chariots, introduced from
the steppes, were originally used for ceremonial purposes. Over
time, they were increasingly used as elite ﬁghting platforms, but
during the Eastern Zhou period, infantry became more important.
This dagger would have
belonged to a member
of the elite. Swords
were introduced in the
Zhou period, but did
not become widely
used until later.
like a spade, an
ritual ax blade
Blades mounted on long shafts were the usual
weapon of foot soldiers. Through time, these
evolved from simple axes to halberds (see p.51).
tang for inserting
into wooden haft
Chinese coinage was
invented in the 7th century
BCE. In the north and central
states of the Zhou region,
this took the form of
Each state made its own
form of coinage in the
Middle Zhou period.
Knife-shaped coins were
made by states in the east
CLOTHING AND ADORNMENT
The dagger-ax was the characteristic
weapon of the Zhou warrior. It was a
developed form of the simpler halberd,
mounted and wielded in the same way.
In the Liangzhu culture
of southern China,
created many jade objects.
Headdress plaques were
decorated with a
hole for attachment
These slit earrings were made by the Majiabang culture
of the Yangtze river estuary in the 4th millennium BCE.
Such earrings were still popular in the Zhou period.
Later Neolithic, Shang, and Zhou people made
textiles from hemp and ramie (a type of nettle).
The elite also had garments of silk and highquality jade jewelry. Fu Hao, consort of a Shang
king, had many jade ornaments among her grave
furnishings, some of which were antiques from
the Neolithic Longshan and Shijiahe cultures.
Longshan hair pin
This beautiful jade pin comes from a
rich burial, perhaps of a local ruler,
around 2000 BCE. It may have been
worn in the hair or with a scarf.
CHINA’S FIRST CELESTIAL EMPIRE 51
red and darkbrown painted
Shang and Zhou kings were surrounded by
nobles, ofﬁcials, and priests—the elite who
enjoyed luxuries such as jade, bronze, and
lacquerware. However, most people lived
in villages, farming millet, rice, fruit, and
vegetables, and raising pigs and chickens.
They used everyday items such as pottery.
Fine painted pottery, such as this 3rdmillennium BCE Neolithic Majiayao culture
jar, may have been made to place in burials
rather than for everyday use.
allow heat to be
Zhou tripod pot
Groups in different regions had their own
characteristic styles of pottery decoration.
This vessel was made by the Xindian culture,
neighbors of the Shang to their northwest.
The tripod vessel, used to heat liquids, was a
standard pottery form from Neolithic times.
A perforated bowl set in the top could be
used to steam rice.
Neolithic people used pots to store water
and food. A rope secured round the middle
of a large, heavy storage jar made it easier to
grip the vessel when lifting.
BELIEFS AND RITUALS
Tubular jade objects called cong were used in
Neolithic elite burials and ritual contexts after
3000 BCE. Their shape echoes later cosmology,
and is meant to symbolize heaven and earth.
The Shang recognized a supreme deity, Di, and
during the Zhou dynasty, Tian took on this role.
However, most rituals were concerned with
honoring the ancestral spirits, who were consulted
by oracle bone divination (see p.48). Ritual objects,
many of which were made of jade, were placed
in elite burials.
Decorated Shang halberd
Shang royalty were buried with
many ﬁne grave goods including
weaponry such as this bronze
halberd, which would have been
mounted at right angles to a long
strong broad blade
Ranked sets of bronze bells were introduced
in the Zhou period. Small-scale sets of these
bells, such as the ones shown here, were
often placed in elite graves.
smaller bell gives
larger bell gives
EARLY SOCIETIES 20,000–700 BCE
The guang was used for storing and serving
wine. Once the lid was removed, the lower
portion became a spouted pitcher from
which to pour the wine. This clever and
attractive design combines two signiﬁcant
animals, the tiger and the owl, placed back
to back. Although the guang continued into
Western Zhou times, the tiger-owl form was
a short-lived Shang design.
tiger, inspired by art of
Shang’s southern neighbours
handle in form
tiger’s tail, lazily
CHINA’S FIRST CELESTIAL EMPIRE 53
HONORING THE ANCESTORS
Like many features of Shang culture,
the use of special vessels for pouring
and serving liquids began in earlier
cultures. Vying for prestige with the
splendor of their ritual feasts,
Neolithic leaders would serve drinks
in ritual vessels made of pottery. By
Shang and Zhou times, such cult
practices had become embedded in
tradition, except the vessels were now
made of bronze and the designs had
become more elaborate.
FOOD AND DRINK
tiger’s open teeth through
which wine could breathe
while lid kept it from
Sets of ritual vessels were used in
ceremonial banquets at which food
and drink were offered to honor and
placate the ancestors, who could
inﬂuence the fate of the