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Explore the History and Treasures of Ancient Civilizations

Explore the History and Treasures of Ancient Civilizations

Thanks largely to improvements in farming, which brought a surplus of food and allowed people to develop broader skills and professions, complex societies began to emerge around 4000 BCE. Alongside the large-scale physical evidence that remains of these civilizations – monumental temples, pyramids, irrigation systems and extensive road networks – and legacies including written communication and structured legal systems, are some surprisingly sophisticated or ornate smaller items that have survived for centuries. Here we take a look at some of these archaeological finds and what they reveal about the way people lived.

Celtic Bronze Mirror

At the fringes of the Celtic region, metalworkers became adept at producing intricate patterns such as that engraved onto the reverse of a bronze mirror found in Desborough, Northamptonshire in 1908. Created between 50 BCE and 50 CE, it features decoration that is typical of work found in Britain at the time, with a coiling symmetrical pattern likely to have been created using a pair of compasses and cross hatching engraved afterward to add texture. The chance to see one’s own appearance was rare at the time, making a mirror a high-status item.

Persian Gold Earrings

The Achaemenids, one of the earliest civilizations to have inhabited the Iranian plateau, created a vast empire between 559 and 330 BCE and built a great number of palaces, many of which were decorated with a rose-like motif. As well as appearing in glazed brick or limestone tiles, the motif was incorporated into artworks and jewellery, including this pair of earrings found in a tomb at Susa. Thought to date from the 4th century BCE they are made from different shades of blue enamel set into a gold surround and making them would have required a high degree of skill in metallurgy.

Maya Figurines

In ancient Mesoamerica the ballgame was an important part of the culture and was closely aligned with the social structure and the concept of the world. Thought to be inspired by a legendary match against the gods of the underworld, the game required players to hit a heavy rubber ball down the court with their shoulders or sides. The significance of the game was such that it features in architecture, decorative items and figurines, and its association with the foundation of Maya royalty was so strong that high-ranking people were depicted clad in the players’ protective leather belts. This example comes from Jaina in Campeche, Mexico, where clay figurines were frequently placed as grave goods between 500 and 1000 CE.

Roman Gold and Cornelian Ring

While known for creating the mosaics and sculptures that adorned high-status buildings and spaces, Roman craftsmen were also skilled at making more personal items, with the production of jewellery and cameos increasing during the Augustan period (c.40 BCE to 18 CE). Reflecting the significance of the gods in everyday Roman life, these pieces were often inlaid with inscribed gems depicting mythological scenes. This example is made of gold and cornelian and shows Hercules holding his wife Deianira, who he rescued from the river-god Acheloos.

Khmer Stone Sculpture

The Khmers were masters of grand building projects, with Angkor Wat remaining the largest temple complex in the world. Among the huge array of stone sculptures and carvings to be found among its monuments is one depicting a five-headed horse. Situated at the northern end of the Terrace of the Elephants at Angkor Thom, the horse is flanked by apsaras and armed demons and is thought to be an animal representation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. The Terrace was built in the 12th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Aztec Feathered Shield

Warriors held a prestigious place in the highly stratified Aztec society, and those who died in battle were thought to be transformed into hummingbirds who accompanied the sun. The round shields used by soldiers to protect themselves also had a place in rituals, with examples such as this dating from the early 16th century – just before the Spanish conquest. It features a coyote whose tongue is shown as flint knife akin to those used in sacrifices, and the stream of fire and water flowing from its mouth was a symbol of war. Made with gold and highly prized feathers, the shield is likely to have belonged to a prestigious military leader and, owing to the perishable nature of the materials used, is thought to be one of only four in existence.

Incan Quipu

One of the distinguishing features of the Inca civilization is their system of communication. With no written language, the main way in which they recorded and disseminated information was via quipu. These consisted of knotted strings tied to a rope, usually made of wool or cotton but in some cases human hair. The way in which the knot was created, its colour and its position on the rope were used to record a wide range of numerical information, including census counts, military and ritual data, and taxes, and they were ‘read’ across the empire according to an agreed system. Quipu allowed people who spoke different languages to communicate and were so effective that they were in use from about 2600 BCE until the early 16th century.

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