Author Archives: kalleksc

Primary vs. Secondary Characteristics

A civilization is a social system or culture defined by specific characteristics; both primary and secondary.  There are six primary characteristics that make up all civilizations which include: urbanization, agriculture, specialization, complex economy, stratification, and state authority. These characteristics in my opinion are more important in characterizing a civilization compared to the secondary characteristics. The secondary characteristics of a civilization are: monumental public works, writing, metallurgy, tribute & taxation, mass production of goods, state religion, state art, and epidemic disease & malnutrition. The reason I think that primary characteristics are more important than secondary characteristics is because while primary characteristics are shared among all civilizations secondary characteristics are not. They are used merely to help strengthen the identification of a civilization. The secondary characteristics make up the parts of the primary characteristics that can be used to describe them. For instance the secondary characteristics monumental public works, writing, tribute & taxation, mass production of goods, state religion, and state art can all be used to describe how  a civilization demonstrates the primary characteristic of state authority. This reinforces the fact that primary characteristics are general ways of describing a civilization and that secondary are more detailed characteristics. The primary are basic general characteristics that are more important because they make classifying a civilization easier and as you want to began to describe a civilization more specifically the primary characteristics break down into more specific parts in the secondary characteristics that are used to continue to describe how complex a society is. The secondary characteristics describe more the specific parts of a civilization that make it complex while the primary are better for generalizing what a typical civilization looks like thus making them more important when trying to describe a civilization. You can use the primary characteristics as check list for what a society needs to be considered complex then use the secondary characteristics as a way to further describe a civilizations complexity and compare which areas of the civilization is it more complex in than another. Overall both sets of characteristics are useful in describing a civilization; however, primary characteristics are more important because of their ability to describe exactly what characteristics a typical complex civilization has. Secondary characteristics are only important in comparing two complex civilizations and showing the more specific areas of complexity within a civilization.

Sacrifice

Recently in class we have been discussing Maya culture and have touched on their use of sacrifice in rituals. I found the activity of sacrifice in Maya culture to be very interesting so I decided to do further research into the subject.

Sacrifice involved rituals of killing both humans and animals, these rituals were performed by priests. It has been a feature of almost all pre-modern societies during their development and for mainly the same reason: to propitiate or fulfill a perceived obligation towards the gods. Many agree that these practices arose in Mesoamerica among the Olmecs and were transmitted to subsequent cultures, including the Maya.

Sacrifices were carried out by a priest called a nacom. The nacom would cut out the hearts of the victims. The nacom had four assistants called chacs. The name chac stemmed from the god of rain and their job was to hold down the victims during sacrifice. Ritual sacrifices played a vital role in the Mayan culture. They sacrificed both animals and humans. Some animals were sacrificed in great numbers these included such animals as: crocodiles, iguanas, dogs, jaguars, and turkeys. However, sacrifice of human life was supreme. These sacrifices took place during elaborate ceremonies and have been depicted in ancient Mayan ceramics, sculptures, and murals. Slaves, criminals, bastards, orphans and children made up the bulk of the victims.

Diego de Landa a Spanish Bishop was one of the few Europeans to witness human sacrifices. He described them in detail telling that the sacrificial victim was first painted blue. Then, the victim was led to the top of the pyramid and laid over a stone alter. He was then held down by the chacs and the nacom cut open his chest and tore out his still beating heart. This was done with a ceremonial knife usually made of obsidian or flint. The heart was then handed to the high priest and the body of the victim was tossed down the temple’s stairs. There were other methods of sacrifice that also took place one being with arrows shot at the heart of the victim. Others included flaying, decapitation, hurling from a cliff, and throwing the victim into a limestone sinkhole. All of this was done just to appease the gods.

While researching this gruesome ritual I found some of the information I read disturbing. However, nonetheless I find it very interesting. It is hard to imagine a society whose culture is strongly tied to the sacrifice of fellow human beings. But these sacrifices are just a stage in many developing societies. It makes me thankful that I was not born into a society that is still in this stage of development.

Oracle Bones

In our lecture on the ancient Chinese State we briefly discussed Oracle bones; I found these items very interesting and wanted to do further research on them to get a greater understanding of their use and significance. In my research I came across quite a bit of interesting information about the bones that I wanted to share with those who might not know much about them.

Oracle bones are pieces of shell or bone, typically from ox scapulae or turtle shells due to their flat surfaces. They were used in as a form of divination in ancient China, mainly during the late Shang dynasty. The bones were used in a ritual where diviners would inscribe questions to deities regarding many things some of which being questions about: future weather, crop planting, military endeavors, and similar topics. The questions were carved onto the bone or shells using a sharp tool in a language known as oracle bone script. The process of carving used a metal rod put under intense heat and was applied to the bone or shell until it cracked due to thermal expansion.  The pattern of cracks would be interpreted by the diviner for meaning.  Later in time the preferred writing method became using cinnabar ink and brush to write on the bones which results in a lot of bones being unearthed blank.

The oracle bones are important because they bear the earliest form of ancient Chinese writing and contain historically important information. From oracle bones scholars have learned the complete royal genealogy of the Shang dynasty. In my research I learned that the Shang-dynasty oracle bones are thought to have been unearthed periodically by local farmers as early as the Sui and Tang dynasties. However, local inhabitants probably did not realize what the bones were and probably reburied them. In the 19th century, local villagers digging in the fields found the bones and used them as “dragon bones”.  Dragon bones are used in traditional Chinese medicine practice and are ground up Pleistocene fossils used in tonics and poultices. Turtle shell fragments were prescribed for malaria and other animal bones were used in a powdered form to treat knife wounds. The importance of oracle bones was first realized in 1899, when an antiques dealer from the Shangdong Province searching for Chinese bronzes in the areas acquired many oracle bones from locals and sold many to the chancellor of the Imperial Academy in Beijing. The chancellor was very knowledgeable of Chinese bronzes and is thought to be the first person in modern times to realize the oracle bones’ markings were an ancient Chinese writing.

As I researched oracle bones further they became more and more interesting to me, everything from their preparation to how they were used in practice.  They give us a written record of history in a form that isn’t seen anywhere else in the world. And all the mystery that surrounds them makes them that much interesting to learn about.

The Egyptian Pyramids and how they may have been built.

Most people when they think of Egypt the image of the great pyramids comes to mind. These pyramids no doubt show the amazing ability of engineering that the ancients had. With 138 pyramids discovered in Egypt as of 2008 there is no debating why the images of pyramids come to mind when Egypt is mentioned.  The most famous of these pyramids are those found at Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo. In my research I discovered that several of the Giza pyramids are counted among the largest structures ever built. The Pyramid of Khufu at Giza being the largest Egyptian pyramid and is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world. This is an amazing fact and made me wonder how the people of the ancient world were able to tackle such impressive public works projects. So I decided to do a little research into how exactly scholars speculate the ancients constructed the pyramids.

There have been many hypotheses about how the Egyptian pyramids were constructed and the techniques used. The techniques were developed as time passed so that the early pyramids were not built the same as later ones. There is a lot of debate on the techniques used but most agreed that the huge stones that made up the pyramids were carved with copper chisels from stone quarries, and these blocks were then dragged to the site and lifted into position. However, some do hypothesize that the stones may have been cast out of geopolymer cement. Most of the disagreements are concerned with the methods that were used to move and place the stones. The Twelfth Dynasty tomb of Djehutihotep has an illustration of 172 men pulling an alabaster statue of him on a sledge. This evidence has influenced the main hypothesis of how the stones were moved. There are other hypothesis’ as well that suggest the blocks may have been rolled using a cradle-like machine that had been excavated in various new kingdom temples. There may be debate on how the stones were moved but most agree that a ramp or series of ramps were used to raise the stones into position. However, there is a debate on what the ramps may have looked like. Some say large straight ramps, others say zig-zagging ramps that ran up one side of the pyramid, while others suggest a type of spiraling ramp that spiraled around the pyramid as it grew taller and taller.

No matter how the pyramids may have been built one can still appreciate the massive structures and the complex infrastructure of the state that created them. The Egyptian state had to be complex in order to take on projects the size of those of the pyramids. It took a lot of organization and resources to complete them whether it be organizing the work force or collecting the food that fed them. It is no wonder why the Pyramid of Khufu is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Plastered skulls

Due to being sick with mono for the past month I unfortunately missed some of the lectures this semester and am now finally starting to catch back up. As I read through the PowerPoint slides from the past lectures I came upon the slides talking about the pre pottery Neolithic and the slides that involved the plastered skulls. I found these skulls kind of weird but mostly interesting. Having missed the lecture on them I decided to do some further research on my own to try and learn about them as well as figure out what their purpose was.

As I searched through the articles in the MSU libraries catalog I found one that talked a lot about their origins, characteristics, and theories for their existence. I learned that many of these skulls have been found; seventy-three approximately, in Jordan, Syria, Israel, and Turkey. They have had many different substances applied to them such as plaster, marl, animal collagen, shell and paint. These were applied in order to imitate facial or other features. Many of the skulls have been found in groups without the rest of their skeletons which made it hard for identify the sex of them. But we now know that they range for adult males and females to even children. Because of the lack of the postcranial skeleton many scholars assumed that this practice was evidence of ancestor cult worship. They assumed that the skulls belonged to toothless men who were elders and community leaders. This promoted the notion of the worship of old men and the importance of males in Neolithic society. However, due to recent scientific analyses this theory cannot be true because it contradicts the new evidence that these skulls also belonged to adult females and children. The skulls have been found in a variety of locations from abandoned house to caves to graves. Many of the skulls have been found with objects that have decorative and practical functions. It is speculated that these may have been included with the skulls because of their importance or usefulness to the dead and that they may have been needed in the afterlife. Because of the various locations and contexts as well as the recovery of funerary offerings it is suggested that they held multiple functions. Some of these may have included use as fertility devices or devices to ward off evil, or as mementos of the dead. All of the evidence found taken together doesn’t support the interpretation of a form of ancestor worship. But instead it supports that they were used in a type of funeral ritual.