Other early civilizations

© Bob Denton, 2016
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Between 703 and 690 BCE, Sennacherib (the son of Sargon II) pursued a number of grandiose projects in the north of today’s Iraq. Mesopotamians believed that a well-conceived and executed building project deserved as much respect as military prowess.


He surrounded his palace with gardens that needed to be irrigated. To make this possible he built the 50 kilometre Atrush Canal in 690 BCE to supply his city of Nineveh, and his extensive gardens, it also filled a defensive moat. This project involved diverting eighteen freshwater sources in the mountains by a series of dams and canals.

As part of the canal he built what is claimed to be the world’s first bridged aqueduct at Jerwan. It was 300 metres long and 12 metres wide, using more than two million dressed limestone blocks and a cement filling. There is an inscription on the aqueduct saying,

‘Sennacherib king of the world king of Assyria. Over a great distance I had a watercourse directed to the environs of Nineveh…. Over steep-sided valleys I spanned an aqueduct of white limestone blocks, I made those waters flow over it.’

And of the garden he said he created,

‘A high garden imitating the Amanus mountains I laid out next to it, with all kinds of aromatic plants, orchard fruit trees, trees that enrich not only mountain country but also Chaldea [Babylonia]’.

Some authorities suggest that he used bronze Archimedes-style screw pumps to raise the water to the garden. The historian Strabo seems to agree, but these devices do not appear in the historic record until Archimedes ‘invented’ them 350 years later in 250 BCE.

Sennacherib does claim to have invented the lost-wax casting method, his hubris is startling,

‘I Sennacherib, leader of all princes, knowledgeable in all kinds of work, took much advice and deep thought over doing that kind of work…. I created clay moulds as if by divine intelligence for cylinders and screws… In order to draw up water all day long, I had ropes, bronze wires and bronze chains made.’


Some suggest that this was in fact the site of the ‘Hanging Gardens’, and that it was not in Babylon. Sennacherib did later sack and destroy Babylon in 689 BCE, and the fact that he was evidently someone who enjoyed a well-turned phrase about his own achievements, it seems remarkable that the victor would not have ensured that his gardens were the ones that became immortalised.




Judah and Jerusalem

Back in 701 BCE Sennacherib fought a rebellion in Judah, during which he laid siege on Jerusalem. A baked-clay artefact found at Nineveh, the ‘Taylor, or Sennacherib Prism’ has the latter claiming,

‘by force of arms and by the might of my power I took 46 of his strong fenced cities; and of the smaller towns which were scattered about, I took and plundered a countless number. From these places I took and carried off 200,156 persons, old and young, male and female, together with horses and mules, asses and camels, oxen and sheep, a countless multitude; and Hezekiah himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage […] building towers round the city to hem him in, and raising banks of earth against the gates, so as to prevent escape… Then upon Hezekiah there fell the fear of the power of my arms, and he sent out to me the chiefs and the elders of Jerusalem with 30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver, and diverse treasures.’

The Bible (2 Kings) says that it was only 300 silver talents, not as Sennacherib claimed 800, but as we have noted the Assyrian king often exaggerated. It also suggests that Hezekiah was assisted in lifting the siege by Jehovah’s angel who put to death large numbers of the Assyrians. Josephus, in his Jewish Antiquities, quotes a Babylonian historian, who talked of a disease that killed 185,000 of the Assyrians. In What If? the historian William Hardy McNeill took this comment to propose a theory that the springs outside the walls may have been blocked to deny the Assyrians clean water and thus the deaths might instead be attributed to an outbreak of cholera. It has been said that the Assyria-Judah friction is one of the best-documented events of the Iron Age.

BRIEFER: Hezekiah was from the house of David, his father Ahaz, and became the thirteenth king of Judah The Talmud credits him with compiling the biblical books of Isaiah, Proverbs, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. He also expanded Jerusalem and its walls to house 25,000 inhabitants, five times larger than that in Solomon’s time.

We need to backtrack a little to place Sennacherib and Hezekiah in context. The Bible’s Old Testament outlines, around 1,500 BCE, a series of sanitary laws attributed to Moses for the Jewish peoples. It is suggested that perhaps he brought these ideas with him from Egypt. These laws defined cleanliness and hygiene processes that a devout Jew should pursue and in particular specifies that human waste should be removed from any centres of population.


A pit toilet dated to 1,450 BCE has been found at the base of Mount Sinai, which was a popular pilgrimage site of the time. The temples built here had two plumbing systems, one for pure water supply and the other for wastewater disposal. The latter was collected in storage ponds or cesspools to settle and be recycled for agriculture or gardening.


Jerusalem sits 2,500 ft above sea-level which is not a particularly promising location for water. A nearby spring at Gihon was initially its sole source of water, the spring was used for irrigation via open ditches to the Kidron wadi, or valley. There are signs that the Bronze Age inhabitants tried to dig a well but the rock proved obdurate.

So instead, from as early as the 12th century BCE, water tunnels were built to lead water sources from outside the city to supply its population. Jerusalem was locate at a ‘crossroads’ that often found itself between warring factions – Assyria and Egypt, Macedonia, Romans – so underground tunnels became a vital part of their water supply schemes. Some sources suggest the Megiddo water system dates from the 12th century BCE, and thus long before Solomon’s city walls. However later investigations have argued they may have been built three centuries later, in the 9th century BCE by King Ahab of Judah.  By 1,000 BCE Jerusalem had sewerage systems and also built a ‘Dung Gate’ through which carts carted away the city’s human waste.

BRIEFER: King Ahab married a princess of Tyre in Sidon, aka a Phoenician, called Jezebel, she turned him away from Jahweh and towards Baal and other idolatory. Like most discredited women in history she was denigrated for her liking of finery and cosmetics, her name becoming synonymous with prostitutes and false prophets. She met her end when Jehu a disciple of Elijah had her defenestrated, or thrown from a window.


In the 8th century BCE King Hezekiah of Judah (see above) added a new 530 metre tunnel that ensured the Gihon spring could be hidden from invaders, on its journey of supply to the city. This tunnel followed an existing water route to the Siloam pool. It was excavated from the south of Bethlehem to Jerusalem by teams of diggers. There is an inscription in the tunnel that indicates it was dug from both ends – with its S-shape it was therefore quite an achievement to ensure the two teams met up!


Close to Solomon’s Temple they reputedly built a large laver, a brass or bronze basin, described as 4.5m (15 ft) in diameter, 2.1m (7 ft) high and 8 cms (3 inches) thick, estimated to weigh 33 tonnes (tons) – it sat on the backs of twelve cast-iron oxen, arranged in four groups of three.

It held the equivalent of 150 ritual bath-fulls of water, and was termed as the ‘Molten Sea’. An outer area was used to wash hands and feet before entering the temple. A nearby Water Gate admitted a water conduit to feed and refresh the bath. Sadly Nebuchadnezzar (589-587 BCE) sacked the city and destroyed the bath so the veracity is impossible to evaluate.


The first hominids arrived on the island of Crete around 130,000 BP and many rock and cave shelters have been uncovered. It subsequently found itself along the course of the Sumerian maritime trade routes, with new arrivals to the island developing small settlements from around 7,000 BCE. They built daub and wattle houses, they used an advanced set of stone tools and weaponry and appear to have had cloth-making skills too. They farmed with cattle, goats, pigs and sheep and developed agriculture in cereals and vegetables. There is some conjecture that they may have come from Cyprus as this was the only Aegean community that exhibited these types of skills prior to their appearance on Crete.

Yet by 6,000 BCE the village of Knossos had become the largest Neolithic settlement in the Aegean region. It consisted of a series of flat-roofed homes that had stone bases and mud-brick walls, the inside walls were plastered. At around this time they created a unique set of animal and human figurines that included some distinctive female forms with large boobs and backsides, most likely fertility symbols or representations of Mother Earth.


The Minoan civilization evolved on Crete between 2,750 and 1,450 BCE. They worshipped Hydros as their god of water and they certainly became adept water managers.  They created aqueducts to run through tubular ducts bringing water 10 kms (6 miles) from the Kephala hills and its Archanes springs, the source the River Karaitos. The aqueduct served both the city and its palace.

It was around 1,900 BCE that the Minoans built the Knossos Palace on Kephala Hill, academic debate continues as to whether this had a religious or an administrative purpose – or both? On Crete there were other, albeit smaller, ‘palaces’ built at Mallia, Phaistos and Zakros. These each used the distinctive inverted Minoan pillar, larger at the top than the bottom, unlike other Greek orders of pillars. They were often of wood and painted-red.


The city population at its peak was some 100,000. The palace was destroyed in 1,700 BCE, probably by an earthquake and the rebuilt Knossos Palace was truly labyrinthine. At its peak it was four storeys high with over 1,300 rooms, covering some 14,000 sq m (150,000 sq ft). This has led to it often becoming associated with the myth of the Labyrinth.

BRIEFER: Legend says that King Minos had the architect Daedalus design the Labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur. It was a fearsome creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull. The Labyrinth was designed so that no being, particularly the Minotaur, could find the exit. The architect was kept as a house-prisoner by Minos so that he could not reveal the secret. Daedalus therefore designed wings from feathers and wax for him and his son, Icarus, to escape. He urged his son to be cautious but Icarus was so elated he flew too close to the Sun. The person who defeated the Minotaur, Theseus, subborned the support of Minos’ daughter who suggested he play-out a ball of string as he went in so that his exit route was simple. He slayed the Minotaur, though his return to Athens proved rather less fortunate!

The Minoans built complex water management systems into their Knossos Palace. One system used ducting to deliver rainwater to storage cisterns for drinking, cooking, washing and bathing. The palace and some wealthy homeowners appear also to have used a hypocaust approach (see Romans later) to heat their water.

The Knossos palace used a sophisticated series of plumbing innovations. Within the palace the duct-delivered water was distributed by gravity via terracotta pipes to fountains and spigots. The pipes had a taper at one end so they would slot into each other, the joint sealed securely with rope. Pithoi jars were filled at the fountains for storage.


It is believed that Knossos was also the first to use the siphon principle, which is based on the fact that water in a ‘U’-shaped pipe will seek out its own level. So, if in one side of the U, the water is higher than the other, then it flows through the ‘U’ to achieve the same level.


Excavations of the queen’s bedroom discovered a toilet and a bathroom. The toilet was simply a seat set above a drain that could then be washed down with water from a jug – essentially a manually flushing toilet. This also revealed a painted terracotta bath, its shape was tapered and 1.5 m (5 ft) long. The bath was attractively illustrated with water reeds. It was filled and emptied by hand, with a hole in the room’s floor to lead the waste water away to a drainage system. Other baths elsewhere in the palace and in several larger homes were directly connected to a water supply by simple terracotta (baked clay) plumbing.


The Palace Throne Room also appears to have had a lustral basin, it is speculated that it was used for purification prior to ritual ceremonies.

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A second water system was created for rainwater drainage. At Knossos this was critical because its hillside was routinely victim to heavy rains and torrents. They dug ditches and channels to guide the water where they preferred it to travel, the slope of the hill assisting in this process. The channels were zig-zagged with basins at the corners to slow up the speed of the rainwater flow. Where they did dig or set these channels beneath the surface they added manholes for routine maintenance.


A third water system was built for wastewater, it was stone-built. Within the palace four cement-lined limestone shafts acted as rubbish and sewage disposal routes from the upper floors. Elsewhere terracotta pipework was used to lead the waste off to the Kairotos river.

Later, from around 1,300 – 1,100 BCE, the Minoans’ Knossos palace added a small number of latrines which were flushed by an external reservoir and washed out through terracotta pipes and channels to an outside drainage system.



The Minoans developed a form of writing that consisted of ‘Cretan’ hieroglyphs. These were pictographic and three-dimensional. It was in use between 2,100-1,700 BCE.


But this was superseded by a regional form of writing termed as ‘Linear A’, linear because the early discoveries were found scribed in lines on pottery. Most of the traces of this script have been found on Crete at three sites. There are over 7,000 symbols that appear to be ideograms representing a syllable or semantic sense. It was in use from 2,500-1,450 BCE.


On the ‘Greek’ mainland between 1,600 and 1,100 BCE the Mycenaean civilization emerged, named for Mycenae one of a number of its major strongholds. The Mycenaeans developed its own ‘Linear B’ script for writing that was in use from 1,450-1,200 BCE.


Mainland ‘Greece’ entered its ‘Dark Age’ between 950 and 750 BCE when many of its early settlements were abandoned (except Athens) and its population declined as they appeared to have returned to a nomadic and pastoral existence. No records have been discovered to satisfactorily explain why this happened (See Classical Era: Greece in S S and S).

Niger River settlements

Archaeology has established that Nigeria and the Niger River valley may have been settled as early as 11,000 BCE, perhaps even earlier. From the 4th millennium BCE research has found signs of stone tools and ceramics. It is clear that from the 2nd millennium BCE there was a regular trade taking place between the Nile (Egypt and Nubia) and Niger valleys, which transited the Sahara.

The River Niger follows a strange course which led to the notion that it was originally two rivers that joined together. Its source is just 240 kms (150 miles) from the Atlantic but it turns away from the ocean and runs up to the Sahara and Timbuktu where it once formed a lake (now dry), then it takes a major dog-leg that turns south to the Gulf of Guinea. On this second leg it very wastefully loses two-thirds of its water to evaporation and seepage. But it represents one of the major water sources of the Sahara region, which ensured it was on the trade routes.

In west Africa the Nok culture emerged around 1,500 BCE in what is today’s northern Nigeria but this had disappeared by 300 CE. The Nok lived at the confluence of the Niger and the Benue rivers where they were engaged in agriculture and cattle-management. They developed the skills to work metals and also fabricated very early life-sized terracotta figures. The earliest of these was acquired by a British colonial administrator, Bernard Fagg, who discovered it in 1943 being used as a scarecrow.


Sadly they had no writing, and the soil is so acidic that no skeletons have been found here only the shards of their ceramics survive. They left no real signs of their water management techniques eithert, but to have developed their iron and ceramic techniques they would have needed to manage the rivers for water supply, agriculture and ‘industrial’ purposes. It is believed that the Nok split into six peoples – Birom, Gwari, Hausa, Jukun, Kanuri, Nupe.

At Taruga, 4th century BCE iron-smelting furnaces have been discovered. Construction work on the Kainji Dam across the Niger river in the 1960s first revealed further signs of 2nd century BCE ironworking.

Kuk, Papua New Guinea

Another agricultural community emerged completely independently from the advances that were happening in the Middle East. This took place in the Kuk wetlands area, in Papua New Guinea, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List (#887). There are other such sites in the Upper Waghi Valley region, but Kuk has been the most thoroughly investigated to date.


There are signs that the land may have been worked from as early as 7,000 BCE with agriculture starting around 6,500 BCE. The early peoples here reversed the process that had been adopted in the Middle East, from 2,000 BCE they dug ditches with wooden tools not to irrigate, but to drain the land.

They began to propagate plants like bananas, taro and yam and developed agricultural techniques in the highland areas, at some 1,500 metres (5,000 ft) above sea level then spread this to the downlands as their drainage techniques improved. They also regularly practised burning of the margins so that it could be used for animal grazing. This lifestyle continued virtually uninterrupted until the 1930s when Europeans began to arrive looking for gold or as missionaries.


Migrations from Asia and the Middle East into Europe sought out major river systems to exploit. Thus, the first central-European civilization emerged along the Danube.

These early peoples have been traced and investigated through their distinctive pottery approaches. Here it is Linear Pottery that is used to label one main group of the Danubian culture – in German the Linearbandkeramik or LBK people. One site at Bylany, 65 kilometres east of today’s Prague, has yielded over 100,000 fragments of this pottery.


The earliest traces of this people comes from between 5,500 – 4,500 BCE as they spread along the central part of the Danube, then to the upper parts of the Elbe and the Rhine. However rivers were not their only source of water, near Leipzig in Saxony (see earlier) two wood-lined wells dated to 5,200 and 5,100 BCE have been discovered.


These peoples cleared forests and ground cover to grow cereals in the rich deposits of the river valley. Evidence of the soil condition and of seeds, crops and animals show that they stopped their nomadic wandering to settle along these valleys.

Archaeo-botanical analysis of one long-term well-preserved LBK site, at Vaihingen an der Enz, identified that their agriculture included einkorn and emmer wheat, flax, lentils, peas and opium poppy.

Early in their era they buried females and children beneath their homes, though apparently not the men? Presumably resultant disease and illnesses prompted them to later create graveyards where family groupings seem to have become the norm. Cremation and burial was practicised. Around a third of their graves have been shown to include possessions, yielding a whole series of items – amphora, basins, bowls, cups, flasks, jugs and weapons.

One mass burial site dating from 5,000 BCE in Talheim, in today’s Baden-Württemberg, yielded thirty-four skeletons. There were nine men, seven women and sixteen children, all with signs of extreme trauma inflicted by LBK weapons and thus assumed to be the remains of a complete settlement. This is odd because it was only much later, from 4,000 BCE, that these settled agrarian people came under attack from an invading culture and began to build earthworks. It is assumed therefore to be a very early sign of the rise of Neolithic strife as populations rose, competing for resources. It can only be speculated as to whether this is a conflict between hunting and farming groups or between two settlements. Or was this cannibalism as has been shown to be the case at another early-Neolithic site in Herxeim?

To-date, Central Europe has been found to hold between 120 and 150 earthwork ‘rondel’ or ‘henge’ enclosures around the Danube and Elbe basins, spreading across today’s Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Dating back to early 5,000 BCE they are known as kreisgrabenanlagen in German, circular ditched enclosures.

This culture is claimed to have created the first truly village-like European settlements. Being in a heavily forested part of Europe, their homes were wooden long-houses stretching more than sixty metres with internal sub-divisions, presumably for family units. These communities kept cattle, goats, pigs and sheep and tended a mixed agriculture.

One successor group of the LBK people was the Rössen culture (4,600 – 4,300 BCE), they are distinguished by the decoration of their pots using double-incision tools. This culture buried their dead in a crouched or foetal position, upon their side and looking towards the sunrise. They spread through most of today’s Germany, north-east France, south-east Low Countries and parts of Austria and Switzerland.

Goseck is one of the earlier rondel sites, dating to 4,900 BCE and situated in today’s Saxony-Anhalt. The circular mound has a concentric ditch and two wooden palisade fences. The site appears to have had an archeo-astronomy purpose because its palisades had two ‘gates’ that aligned to the sunrise and sunset on solstice days. Within the site there were remains of what are assumed to be ritual fires and bones both animal and human. There was also a headless human skeleton prompting suggestions of human sacrifice.

It has been shown that they used a simple form of water management and applied manure from their livestock to increase their yields; the crops were of course also used to fatten up the livestock.


Another successor group, the Michelsberg culture (4,400 – 3,500 BCE), distinguishable because they did not scribe their pottery which had a distinctive pointed base. Their homes were also wooden-built, covered in daub.

They grew barley and emmer wheat along the river banks. They tended cattle, goats, pigs and sheep, but finds of fox and deer remains suggest they were hunters too. In these more temperate climes the need to store and irrigate proved somewhat less important.

However they were not able to manage their water supply in the way the Mesopotamians had achieved, so that the community at Michelsberg appears to have been abandoned when the Rhine changed its course and they could no longer sustain agriculture. BRIEFER: It is only very recently that it is evident that this change from hunter-gatherers to the agricultural/pastoral lifestyle had a real impact on the local ecology by changing the nature of land cover which in turn affected biodiversity.

© Bob Denton, 2016
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