Category: Archeology

Pyramid Building 101 For Beginners

Ancient Egypt has been a keen interest of mine for many years. From 3000BC to 672–332 BC This magnificent civilisation flourished and influenced many other civilisations such as the Greeks and Romans. The ancient Egyptians build some incredible monuments and temples. Their greatest achievement was the construction of the Pyramids which were elaborate tombs for their Kings/Pharaohs ensuring transit to the afterlife which the pharaohs people could hopefully share in after helping construct these majestic monuments.
It was so see the pyramids up close and personal.
Below is an interesting  article  from  Ben Gilland  @ Metro Newspaper on the latest theories of how the pyramids may have been built.

Cleopatra’s Necklace Found in Siberia

The brilliant beads of ‘Cleopatra’s necklace’: Ancient Egyptian jewellery plucked from burial mound of Siberian ‘virgin princess’
  • Glass necklace discovered inside 2,400-year-old burial mound
  • Jewellery thought to have belonged to a 25-year-old virgin priestess
  • Experts want to pinpoint precise origin of priceless beads

By Lucy Crossley

PUBLISHED: 16:34, 3 February 2013 | UPDATED: 16:18, 4 February 2013

Nicknamed ‘Cleopatra’s Necklace’ by the Russians who found it, the jewellery was discovered on the skeleton of a 25-year-old woman, believed to have been a virgin priestess.

Although it was discovered during a dig nine years ago, this is the first time a picture of the priceless 17-bead necklace has been shown since it was found in the Altai Mountains by archaeologist Yelena Borodovskya.

Rare find: The necklace was discovered around the neck of a skeleton in a 24,000-year-old burial moundRare find: The necklace was discovered around the neck of a skeleton in a 24,000-year-old burial mound


Valued: The intricate beads are believed to have belonged to a 25-year-old virgin priestessValued: The intricate beads are believed to have belonged to a 25-year-old virgin priestess


Intricate: The beads were created using the 'Millefiori technique' where glass canes or rods are combined to produce multicoloured patternsIntricate: The beads were created using the ‘Millefiori technique’ where glass canes or rods are combined to produce multicoloured patterns

Siberian academics have released the images in the hope of finding experts from across the world who may be able to pinpoint the necklace’s exact origin.

 ‘It has a striking variety of colours, beautiful shades of deep and light yellow and blue, said Professor Andrey Borodovsky, 53, of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Novosibirsk.

‘I have worked with Altai antiquities for more than 30 years, and this necklace is probably the most beautiful find I’ve ever seen.’

Discovery: The precious necklace was found by archeologist Yelena Borodovskaya in the Altai mountains of SiberiaDiscovery: The precious necklace was found by archeologist Yelena Borodovskaya in the Altai mountains


Investigating: Professor Andrey Borodovsky is keen to discover how the necklace came to SiberiaInvestigating: Professor Andrey Borodovsky is keen to discover how the necklace came to Siberia

Professor Borodovsky said that the intricate beads were made using the ‘Millefiori technique’, which involves production of glass canes or rods with multicoloured patterns that can only be seen from the cut ends.

It is believed that the jewellery pre-dates Egyptian queen Cleopatra, who died in 30BC, but Professor Borodovsky wants to find experts to help him date the piece, according to the Siberian Times.

The owner of the necklace was believed to have been 25-years-old when she was buried with the beads around her neck.

Unusual: Professor Borodovsky, pictured left, said the skeleton was also found with a bronze mirrorUnusual: Professor Borodovsky, pictured left, said the skeleton was also found with a bronze mirror

She was believed to have been a ‘blue-blooded’ woman, who was likely to have come from a highly regarded tribe or clan.

‘It is quite likely she was a priestess,’ said Professor Borodovsky.

‘What points to this status is a bronze mirror which was packed into her “burial bag”.

‘The mirror had a chain of bronze pendants attached to it, also there was a set of sacrificial bones with a little butcher knife.

‘It shows that the mirror was treated as a living creature, which points to its magical function.

‘If she performed some priestly functions, she could have been a virgin, not having a family and belonging to a completely different social sphere.’

Academics also suspect the mystery necklace owner was a kinswoman of the famous tattooed ‘Princess Ukok’, whose body artwork was preserved in ice following her death.

An artifact such as the necklace has never been found in Russia before, although Professor Borodovsky said that he was not surprised that the jewellery reached remote Siberia from Egypt more than two millennia ago during the Scythian period.

‘Siberia has always been a kind of ‘stream of civilization’ – a transit territory, rich with resources and attractive for migration,’ he said.

He added that the necklace, and its owner had probably come to Siberia via present-day Kazakhstan, along an old silk road.

‘It is most likely by this route that those beads got to Altai,’ he said.

‘Obviously, this area was a very busy place.’


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Buddha’s Birthplace

This is really an interesting find.

According to a book I read about Buddhism, everyone can become a buddha.  It is not really a religion but one of enlightenment.  Everyone is capable of enlightenment as long as they follow some precepts.  The Buddha was not a god but rather one who was enlightened. By following the path he’d taken, one can be like him too.

Since it was not really a religion, i.e. believing in a god, so can a Christian in some way a Buddhist Christian?

hmmmm,  well the only way is to find out…  is to become and englightened Christian.  Be a Buddha for Jesus!

awww  headache …..





In the Far East there was once a prince whose name was Gautama. He lived in a splendid palace where there was everything that could give delight. It was the wish of his father and mother that every day of his life should be a day of perfect happiness.

So this prince grew up to be a young man, tall and fair and graceful. He had never gone beyond the beautiful gardens that surrounded his father’s palace. He had never seen nor heard of sorrow or sickness or poverty. Everything that was evil or disagreeable had been carefully kept out of his sight. He knew only of those things that give joy and health and peace.

But one day after he had become a man, he said: “Tell me about the great world which, you say, lies outside of these palace walls. It must be a beautiful and happy place; and I wish to know all about it.” “Yes, it is a beautiful place,” was the answer. “In it there are numberless trees and flowers and rivers and waterfalls, and other things to make the heart glad.”

“Then to-morrow I will go out and see some of those things,” he said.

His parents and friends begged him not to go. They told him that there were beautiful things at home—why go away to see other things less beautiful? But when they saw that his mind was set on going, they said no more.

The next morning, Gautama sat in his carriage and rode out from the palace into one of the streets of the city. He looked with wonder at the houses on either side, and at the faces of the children who stood in the doorways as he passed. At first he did not see anything that disturbed him; for word had gone before him to remove from sight everything that might be displeasing or painful.

Soon the carriage turned into another street—a street less carefully guarded. Here there were no children at the doors. But suddenly, at a narrow place, they met a very old man, hobbling slowly along over the stony way.

“Who is that man?” asked Gautama, “and why is his face so pinched and his hair so white? Why do his legs tremble under him as he walks, leaning upon a stick? He seems weak, and his eyes are dull. Is he some new kind of man?”

“Sir,” answered the coachman, “that is an old man. He has lived more than eighty years. All who reach old age must lose their strength and become like him, feeble and gray.”

“Alas!” said the prince. “Is this the condition to which I must come?”

“If you live long enough,” was the answer.

“What do you mean by that? Do not all persons live eighty years—yes, many times eighty years?”

The coachman made no answer, but drove onward.

They passed out into the open country and saw the cottages of the poor people. By the door of one of these a sick man was lying upon a couch, helpless and pale.

“Why is that man lying there at this time of day?” asked the prince.
“His face is white, and he seems very weak. Is he also an old man?”

“Oh, no! He is sick,” answered the coachman. “Poor people are often sick.” “What does that mean?” asked the prince. “Why are they sick?”

The coachman explained as well as he was able; and they rode onward.

Soon they saw a company of men toiling by the roadside. Their faces were browned by the sun; their hands were hard and gnarly; their backs were bent by much heavy lifting; their clothing was in tatters.

“Who are those men, and why do their faces look so joyless?” asked the prince. “What are they doing by the roadside?”

“They are poor men, and they are working to improve the king’s highway,” was the answer.

“Poor men? What does that mean?”

“Most of the people in the world are poor,” said the coachman. “Their lives are spent in toiling for the rich. Their joys are few; their sorrows are many.”

“And is this the great, beautiful, happy world that I have been told about?” cried the prince. “How weak and foolish I have been to live in idleness and ease while there is so much sadness and trouble around me. Turn the carriage quickly, coachman, and drive home. Henceforth, I will never again seek my own pleasure. I will spend all my life, and give all that I have, to lessen the distress and sorrow with which this world seems filled.”

This the prince did. One night he left the beautiful palace which his father had given to him and went out into the world to do good and to help his fellow men. And to this day, millions of people remember and honor the name of Gautama, as that of the great lover of men.

‘Exciting’ Discovery At Buddha’s Birthplace

Sky NewsSky News – 36 minutes ago

'Exciting' Discovery At Buddha's Birthplace

‘Exciting’ Discovery At Buddha’s Birthplace

The Buddha may have lived centuries later than some historians have suggested, a dig at his birthplace has revealed.

Archaeologists made the discovery during excavations of an ancient shrine at the Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini, Nepal.

The Unesco world heritage site has long been identified as the birthplace of the Buddha but the dig has revealed artefacts that pinpoint his life to a specific century for the first time.

As well as narrowing down his birthday, archaeologists believe they may also have located his exact birthplace.

His mother, Queen Maya Devi, is thought to have given birth while holding on to the branch of a tree in the Lumbini garden, midway between the kingdoms of her husband and parents.

It is thought the tree may have been situated in an open space at the centre of the newly-excavated shrine.

Professor Robin Coningham, of Durham University, led a team of 15 British historians who had to go barefoot or wear slippers during the excavation because shoes are forbidden in the sacred temple.

“(This) is one of the most exciting discoveries in terms of Buddhist archaeology since the early discoveries of the sites because we now have an idea of what the earliest Buddhist shrine looked like,” he said.

“The significance for us is that the shrine is built around a tree and the fact that the Buddhist birth story is connected with a tree.

“It is one of those really rare occasions when belief, tradition, archaeology and excavation actually come together.”

Experts have disagreed on precisely when the Buddha was born, placing the date anywhere between the early 400s BC and up to three centuries earlier.

The archaeologists, who spent three winters at the site, digging only when the water table was at its lowest, now believe he lived during the sixth century BC.

Buddhism is based largely on the teachings of the Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama, and is one of the world’s oldest religions.

Many hundreds of thousands of Buddhists from around the world make the pilgrimage to Lumbini every year.

The Asante and the Golden Stool

We dwell in our history to improve upon our future.
– African Asante Proverbs

I find this proverb so beautiful and inspiring.  This is what history should be to us, to improve upon our future instead of reliving all the madness and badness that went on in the past over and over again.

Anyway, Peter and I have been watching a documentary on the Asante people of Ghana in Africa. Their gold artefacts were so amazing.  There was a lake that continues to be a source of mystery.   Divers to these days are investigating it.

As to the history bit, the Asante people were colonised by the Brits, who changed their culture but not so total. The Asante were able to hide their iconic golden stool which is a symbol of their core values, customs and traditions.

The Asante and the Golden Stool



  The current Asantehene, Otumfour Osei Tutu II sitting besides the Golden stool

The current Asantehene, Otumfour Osei Tutu II sitting besides the Golden stool


The Golden stool being carried in public.



Viking Ship Going the Ikea Way to the British Museum

Wow!  This is something for the 2014 diary.  Just the thing to see during the Holy Week bank holidays!

It will arrive flat pack.  My thoughts and best wishes to the people who would assemble it back to its former glory! 😉


26 September 2013 Last updated at 13:49

Viking ship to arrive at British Museum in ‘flat pack’

By Tim MastersEntertainment and arts correspondent, BBC News

The Longship (Roskilde 6). The largest Viking ship ever discovered.
The 37-metre warship was built in southern Norway around 1025, and deliberately sunk in Denmark in the mid-11th century

The longest Viking ship ever found will arrive at the British Museum in a “flat pack” from Denmark early next year, curators have revealed.

The 37-metre ship is the centrepiece of the museum’s Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition which opens in March 2014.

“It’s essentially an enormous Meccano set which can be put together,” curator Gareth Williams told the BBC.

“Start Quote

As you might expect of a Scandinavian-designed ship, it comes flat packed”

Gareth WilliamsCurator

It is the British Museum’s first major exhibition on Vikings for more than 30 years.

Currently on display in the National Museum of Denmark until November, the timbers of the 1,000-year old ship will be packed up in individual boxes, shipped to the UK and re-assembled for display in the British Museum’s newly-built Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery.

“As you might expect of a Scandinavian-designed ship, it comes flat packed,” Mr Williams said at Thursday’s launch event.

“It’s massive by the standards of the time,” he added. “It’s longer than the Mary Rose.”

Experts are expected to take two weeks to put the ship back together when it arrives in London in January.

Silver-inlaid axehead in the Mammen style, AD 900s. Bjerringhøj, Mammen, Jutland, Denmark.  Iron, silver, brass. L 17.5 cm. © The National Museum of Denmark
A silver-inlaid axehead (AD 900s)

Known as Roskilde 6, it was excavated from the banks of Roskilde fjord in Denmark in 1997. About 20 per cent of the original timber survives and it is displayed on a steel frame that reconstructs the shape of the original vessel.

It dates from around AD 1025, the high point of the Viking Age when England, Denmark, Norway and possibly parts of Sweden were united under the rule of Cnut the Great.

The ship will be displayed alongside Viking artefacts from the British Museum’s own collection and elsewhere in Britain and Ireland.

The exhibition aims to reflect the role of Vikings as both raiders and traders.

“The Vikings were very keen on acquiring gold and silver,” said Mr Williams. “Their most favourite means of expressing power and wealth and status was basically ‘bling’.”

The Vale of York hoard, AD 900s. North Yorkshire, England. Silver-gilt, gold, silver.
The Vale of York Hoard was jointly purchased by the British Museum and the York Museums Trust under the 1996 Treasure Act

The exhibition will include recently excavated skeletons from a mass grave of executed and beheaded Vikings near Weymouth in Dorset.

“It’s a reminder that the Vikings were not always the invincible warriors of legend,” Mr Williams said.

He said visitors should not expect to see any Viking helmets with horns. Those were apparently the invention of 19th Century story illustrators.

Also on display will be the Vale of York Hoard which was discovered – by a metal detector – near Harrogate in 2007. It includes 617 coins, six arm rings and a quantity of bullion.

British Museum director Neil MacGregor said: “This world which we think of as essentially of violence and brutality is also a world of extraordinary sophistication and cultural achievement.”

Carbon Dating – Looking Back to History

This article explaining Carbon Dating by the BBC is the best I have read on this subject.  It is easy to understand and yet all the elements are there.  It is brief and concise.

Carbon dating has been used in all sorts of things including the ever mysterious Shroud of Turin.  To this day, people and scientists still puzzle on the authenticity of the Shroud.

Carbon dating has not really worked to authentic the shroud.  Apparently the shroud has been repaired many times in the past and newer threads were used, these thread were the ones given as samples to scientists for the carbon dating which of course would show and give the illusion that the shroud is a fake, or rather not the one used by  Jesus of Nazareth.

The mystery lives on.

Be that as it may, carbon dating has been used in so many things which has been more than useful.

The Story of Carbon Dating

Illustration of a boneRadio carbon dating determines the age of ancient objects by means of measuring the amount of carbon-14 there is left in an object. A man called Willard F Libby pioneered it at the University of Chicago in the 50’s. In 1960, he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. This is now the most widely used method of age estimation in the field of archaeology.

Certain chemical elements have more than one type of atom. Different atoms of the same element are called isotopes. Carbon has three main isotopes. They are carbon-12, carbon-13 and carbon-14. Carbon-12 makes up 99% of an atom, carbon-13 makes up 1% and carbon-14 – makes up 1 part per million. Carbon-14 is radioactive and it is this radioactivity which is used to measure age.

Radioactive atoms decay into stable atoms by a simple mathematical process. Half of the available atoms will change in a given period of time, known as the half-life. For instance, if 1000 atoms in the year 2000 had a half-life of ten years, then in 2010 there would be 500 left. In 2020, there would be 250 left, and in 2030 there would be 125 left.

By counting how many carbon-14 atoms in any object with carbon in it, we can work out how old the object is – or how long ago it died. So we only have to know two things, the half-life of carbon-14 and how many carbon-14 atoms the object had before it died. The half-life of carbon-14 is 5,730 years. However knowing how many carbon-14 atoms something had before it died can only be guessed at. The assumption is that the proportion of carbon-14 in any living organism is constant. It can be deduced then that today’s readings would be the same as those many years ago. When a particular fossil was alive, it had the same amount of carbon-14 as the same living organism today.

The fact that carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years helps archaeologists date artefacts. Dates derived from carbon samples can be carried back to about 50,000 years. Potassium or uranium isotopes which have much longer half-lives, are used to date very ancient geological events that have to be measured in millions or billions of years.

Oak Carving- Europe’s Oldest?!!!

What a tremendous find. Really exciting. Wood carvings during the Mesolithic and Neolithic period is virtually unheard of. And yet here we are, faced with an ancient but rather sophisticated wood carving. We may have to revisit our perceived history. Probably stone age is not so stoned afterall!!!;)

JPJhermes …………………………………..

6,000-year-old oak carving is among Europe’s oldest

July 29, 2013 By Filed Under: News
Maerdy Oak - Colour overhead - white background - JPEG - Low resolutionOverhead IllustrationA 6,000-year-old oak timber carved with a concentric oval pattern and zig-zag lines, recently discovered in the RhonddaValley, Mid Wales, is thought to be among the oldest decorative wood carvings known from Europe. Found by Heritage Recording Services Wales during the construction of a wind farm near Maerdy, the 1.7m long timber had been preserved in a waterlogged peat deposit, together with 11 other unmarked pieces of wood. With one end apparently deliberately rounded and the other tapering slightly, the timber has been interpreted as a post, possibly marking a locally significant site or a tribal boundary, or representing a votive offering. Radiocarbon dating has placed it in c.4270-4000 BC, in the late Mesolithic or early Neolithic period. ‘Most finds from this period consist of stone tools, so to have a decorative carving, on wood no less, is very exciting,’ said lead archaeologist Richard Scott Jones. ‘We all put bets on its age, and people suggested Dark Age, Iron Age – but no one imagined it would come back as Mesolithic. We have since shown it to a number of Neolithic and Mesolithic experts, and they say it is a unique discovery.’ Sub-Station Area - Colour LOW RESHe added: ‘This period marks the transition between mobile hunter-gatherer groups and sedentary settlements. The timber was found by a stream edge on a small flat plateau, and if it is a post, it was probably marking something; maybe a sacred site, or a pool, or a nearby hunting ground – there is an ancient lakebed, which could have attracted animals, just a stone’s throw away – or some kind of boundary.’ Similar abstract patterns are known from Neolithic pottery, and from standing stones such as those at the Gavrinis passage grave in Brittany, or, closer to home, at Barclodiad y Gawres, Anglesey, Richard said. Due to the rarity of such decorations surviving on ancient timbers, however, the team sent the oak timber to experts from the University of Wales Trinity St David, and Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust, to confirm that the markings were manmade. ‘We wondered if the lines could have been created by the larvae of oak bark beetles, but after consultation with palaeoentomologists, we are happy that these are not burrowing channels,’ said Richard. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe added: ‘As the timber is about 100 years older than the deposit in which it was found, this may suggest that the oak timber had been brought to the spot deliberately, and perhaps carved on site. If so, then that is a lot of energy to expend, which may indicate that the markings have a special purpose, rather than casual whittling.’ The oak timber is currently undergoing conservation with York Archaeological Trust, where it is expected to remain until 2014. All images: Richard Scott Jones

Ipplepen Iron Age settlement ‘one of most significant’ finds

This sounds really fascinating. I would like to go on a dig. I don’t mind having a little trowel to carefully sift through the soil for archeological remains.

I understand that it can be painstaking but the reward of finding an object so old with echoes from the past can be exhilarating.

One one when we have more time in our hands, Peter and I could probably do something like this. Maybe 😉


Ipplepen excavation
About 40 villagers from Ipplepen have been helping at the excavation

An Iron Age settlement unearthed in Devon has been described as one of the most important finds of its kind.

It was prompted by the chance discovery of Roman coins in fields at Ipplepen, near Newton Abbot about four years ago.

Archaeologists, who have recently started examining the site, said it is the first of its kind in the county.

The excavation is being funded by the British Museum, Exeter University, the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and Devon County Council.

Sam Moorhead from the British Museum said he believed the Ipplepen site was “one of the most significant Roman discoveries in the country for many decades”.

The site was discovered by local metal detector enthusiasts Jim Wills and Dennis Hewings, who contacted archaeologist Danielle Wootton, the Devon finds liaison officer for the PAS.

‘Electric atmosphere’

Ms Wootton said local people had been involved in the project, with about 40 volunteers helping at the excavation site.

“When we announced the find at a community meeting about three years ago, the hall was absolutely packed with local people and there was an electric atmosphere,” she told BBC News.

“The bit we’ve excavated at the moment is prehistoric – it’s Iron Age – but we have picked up traces of some Roman Romano-British field boundaries,” she said.

Ipplepen excavation
The British Museum said the Ipplepen site was one of the most significant Roman discoveries in England for decades

“It’s probably going to take us a very long time for us to fully understand the nature of the settlement and how long it was occupied for.

Ms Wootton said the important discovery should be credited to Mr Wills and Mr Hewings who had painstakingly recorded “every scrap of metal” they found.

“Jim and Dennis have been absolutely first class in recording what they’ve found and it’s a result of them being responsible with their metal detecting that we’ve discovered this site,” she said.

Mr Wills said the oldest coin he found dated back to 117BC,

“The very first Roman coin I found strangely enough – and this is out of more than 100 coins we found subsequently – is still the oldest of all the coins,” he said.

“I’ve been detecting for many years, but it’s always thrilling to dig up something you recognise is really important.”

Part of the settlement excavation site will be open to the public on Sunday.

The Historical Bible of Jerusalem

Just simply amazing!

3000-year-old inscription “proves Bible’s history is true”

A clay fragment unearthed in Jerusalem may be the oldest Hebrew inscription ever discovered in the city – and could prove that accounts of the reigns of King David and Solomon are historical fact.

Yahoo! NewsBy Rob Waugh | Yahoo! News – Thu, Aug 1, 2013
The find could prove the Bible's history is accurate (Rex)
Yahoo! News (SW News) – Thu, Jul 4, 2013

A clay fragment unearthed in Jerusalem may be the oldest Hebrew inscription ever discovered in the city – and could prove that accounts of the reigns of King David and Solomon are historical fact.

Working near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar unearthed a fragment of a ceramic jar, with the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city.

A new translation of the text suggests it may actually be in Hebrew – and could “prove” events in the Bible are true.

“I work with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other,” Mazar has said. “The Bible is the most important historical source.”


The Ophel inscription (Rex)Mazar claims the inscription is in a “proto-Canaanite” script, and written by one of the non-Israeli residents of Jerusalem, perhaps Jebusites, who were part of the population in the time of Kings David and Solomon. Mazar says the meaning is unknown.

Another biblical expert, Douglas Petrovitch of the University of Toronto, claims the inscription is in fact in Hebrew.

“The letters of the inscription match those of contemporary inscriptions, many of which form words that clearly are part of the Hebrew language. Hebrew speakers were controlling Jerusalem in the 10th century, which biblical chronology points to as the time of David and Solomon,” biblical expert Douglas Petrovich said in an interview with

Petrovitch claims that the discovery proves that Hebrew was being used as a written language in the 10th Century – and that the Bible could be a historical account written as events happened, rather than having been written hundreds of years later.

The inscription was engraved near the edge of the jar before it was fired, and only a fragment of it has been found, along with fragments of six large jars of the same type.

The fragments were used to stabilize the earth fill under the second floor of the building they were discovered in, which dates to the Early Iron IIA period (10th century BCE).

An analysis of the jars’ clay composition indicates that they are all of a similar make, and probably originate in the central hill country near Jerusalem.

According to Prof. Ahituv, the inscription is not complete and probably wound around the jar’s shoulder, while the remaining portion is just the end of the inscription and one letter from the beginning.

Kublai Khan: China’s favourite barbarian

Kublai Khan: China’s favourite barbarian

By Carrie GracieBBC News, Beijing

Kublai Khan
China has a love-hate relationship with what is foreign. Traditionally all people beyond the Great Wall were barbarians – only part human. But invaders have sometimes been welcomed, in time, into the Chinese family. One was Kublai Khan.

In the 13th Century, no-one knew how big the world was so it was not so wild for the Mongols to set off from the grassland with the idea that they were going to conquer all of it.

When the mighty Genghis Khan died in 1227, he had already claimed an empire stretching from the Pacific to Europe. His grandson Kublai set out to finish the job, and started by moving south to attack China’s Song dynasty.

But China had been a united empire on and off for more than 1,000 years. So what did the Song dynasty rulers make of Kublai’s ambition?

“For the Song, it would been absolutely inconceivable that the Mongols could take over the whole of China,” says John Man, author of a biography of Kublai Khan.

“It would have been like, I don’t know, the Picts taking over the Roman Empire or the Sioux in North America taking over the whole of Canada and the United States – inconceivable. So when it actually happened, the shock was catastrophic.”

The child emperor committed suicide. So did many loyal officials and their families.

Over centuries, the Chinese had got used to regarding themselves as THE world civilisation, and now this civilisation was at the mercy of people they viewed as barbarians.

“Barbarians are these people who are not Chinese – savages, hovering between human and some kind of beast,” says Xun Zhou, a historian at Hong Kong University.

As History is My Witness

Great Wall of China

She points out that unease about the barbarian or foreign devil is embedded in Chinese writing. Part of the character used to refer to them is the one used for animals.

“These people looked different. And that difference proposed a problem,” says Xun Zhou. “For China, they don’t really know how they should react to these people.”

Mongol pleasures included wrestling, fermented mare’s milk and throat singing, where the singer sings chords instead of single notes.

All very different from the southern Chinese elites who wore exquisite silks, admired each other’s poetry and went to art exhibitions. They paid armies to do the fighting.

Kublai was hugely outnumbered. The Song dynasty was a “a monumental culture” of 70 million people, says Man, and 10 to 100 times stronger in military terms.

The Mongols had to be clever. One major battle took place at Xiangyang, a city with impenetrable walls dominating the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze.

“Having a porous sense of what is Chinese is itself part of the Chinese tradition”

“This turned into a sort of a mini Troy,” says Man.

“The siege went on for five years. The Chinese could not break out, the Mongols could not break in. There were countless attempts to sneak in, to break in, to break out – all foiled. So there had to be some sort of a new initiative, and the initiative was suggested by the empire itself.”

The Mongol empire, that is.

Kublai’s relatives ruled all the way to Eastern Europe and he had heard of great catapults the Christians had used during the Crusades. He summoned two Persian engineers, who built the equivalent of heavy artillery – a catapult that could sling 100kg (220lb) of rock over 200m-300m (650ft – 1,000ft).

Drawing of catapult used during the Crusades

After a few shots to get the range, it brought down a mighty tower in a cloud of dust. The capture of the city allowed the Mongol fleets access to southern China which, for the first time, was taken by barbarians.

Kublai, in fact, ruled over all of present-day China. Yunnan in the south-west bordering Vietnam and Burma, Xinjiang stretching into central Asia, and of course Tibet. It is paradoxical that the country owes its enormous size to invaders with expansionist ambitions.

Kublai Khan’s pleasure dome

Marco Polo

The Venetian merchant Marco Polo left a description of Kublai Khan’s palace which, slightly shortened, goes like this:

“It is enclosed all round by a great wall with five gates on its southern face, the middle one never opened on any occasion except when the Khan himself goes forth or enters. This is the greatest palace that ever was. The roof is very lofty, and the walls of the palace are all covered with gold and silver. The hall is so large that it could easily dine 6,000 people. The roof is vermilion, yellow, green and blue, the tiles fixed with a varnish so fine that they shine like crystal and can be seen from a great distance.”

Kublai’s capital was Beijing. The city today goes on putting up scaffolding and high-rises. But it was Kublai who gave it its first big makeover.

He gave his dynasty a Chinese name, Yuan, and he ruled through a Chinese civil service. Chinese history has returned the compliment by absorbing the Mongol dynasty into its own imperial story – and absorbing part of Mongolia itself into the Chinese state.

Today the Mongolians form one of China’s 56 ethnic groups, along with Tibetans, Uighurs and the dominant Han.

Having a porous sense of what is Chinese is itself part of the Chinese tradition.

The same applies to innovations the barbarians brought with them and which China found useful. Chinese medicine absorbed Islamic medicine, points out Xun, “but they never talk about it”.

Galloping as they did from one end of Eurasia to the other, the Mongols had picked up plenty of useful novelties.

“They introduced buttons,” says Verity Wilson, an expert on Chinese clothes and textiles.

“He died in 1294 and left this part of the empire to his heirs, and none of them matched him in competence”

John ManAuthor of biography of Kublai Khan

“Prior to this time, men and women had always closed their robes with some sort of belt. But, the Yuan dynasty is credited with bringing to China the toggle-and-loop button, which now today we just call Chinese. It’s a real marker of Chinese dress that they’re closed with these toggle-and-loop buttons. But they didn’t really come in until the Yuan dynasty.”

This process of assimilation has continued ever since. Chillies are a later example, arriving from the New World in the Ming dynasty of the 15th and 16th centuries.

“But now they’ve been absolutely incorporated into the Chinese way of life, and we can’t really think about Chinese cooking without chillies,” says Wilson.

“And the other thing we think about is teapots. Teapots have very much become an item associated with China. But pre-Ming dynasty, there were no teapots in China. So I think all those things which we take to be quintessentially Chinese have actually been absorbed by the Chinese from other cultures.”

The arrival of the bicycle some 500 years later was initially greeted with scorn.

Bikes in China

To begin with, it was only so-called “foreign devils” who rode them. No self-respecting Chinese gentleman – and even less a woman – would be seen sweating under their own locomotion. But soon it would become the Chinese worker’s vehicle of choice.

Just 50 years ago, if a Chinese had declared a preference for American food, it might have cost them their liberty, if not their life. China rid itself of Japanese occupation at the end of World War II and the communists had thrown out Westerners after 1949. Soon, even the Soviets were sent packing.

It was part of the party’s narrative of a united China standing up to foreign aggressors.

But by the 1980s, foreigners were being welcomed back. Which is why, 20 years ago, I attended the opening of the first McDonald’s restaurant in Beijing. Now it feels as if there is American fast food or coffee on every corner.

McDonalds drive-through restaurant in BeijingMcDonalds has more than 1,400 restaurants in China

In some ways, today’s penetration of foreign products – American fast food, German cars and Japanese electronics – mirrors that of a century ago when the colonial powers had forced open Chinese ports to trade. The difference is that this time it is at China’s invitation.

Columbus heads for China

Christopher Columbus

History throws up some very strange ironies. If it was not for Kublai Khan, the Western powers might never have got to China by the 19th Century. It was his legend which inspired the European age of exploration.

“Because of Marco Polo’s account of Kublai Khan, Columbus decided to head to China,” says John Man. “He headed west and discovered that China was not where he thought it was, that America was in the way and so in the end it was Kublai through Marco Polo that inspired Columbus to discover America.”

Kublai’s own dream of world domination would never be realised. Twice he launched an armada against Japan, the largest the world had ever seen or would ever see again until the Allied invasion of Europe 700 years later. And twice his navy was scattered by what the Japanese called their kamikaze, or “divine wind”.

The Mongol dream of world conquest sank with Kublai’s ships.

“He became old, he became fat, he became ill. His only son and heir died, his wife died, and he himself died in 1294 and left this part of the empire to his heirs, and none of them matched him in competence,” says Man.

“So 80 years later, they were chased out in a revolution and went back to the grassland from which they originally emerged.”

The revolution put a home-grown emperor on the throne, but only until the next foreign dynasty which again brought China new territory and ideas.

The very last emperor of all loved bicycles, by the way. He is said to have removed doorstops in the Forbidden City so that he could cycle around, but that is another story. The point I want to make is that there is complicated history around what is Chinese… and what is not.

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