History, even ancient history, brings us stories about disease. Since recorded history we have been able to look back at many outbreaks of various virulent diseases. The records of such things in really ancient history are much scarcer. In fact, the field is narrowed considerably by the time we reach c2000 BCE. Most of these stories come from religious texts, where we can read about all sorts of afflictions which hit various people at different times. These events are generally put down to, God’s wrath.
Some of them have been looked at carefully by experts. One army seems to have been decimated through their contact with mice. The experts think that the place they were camped at was over run by mice, and that the soldiers picked up a deadly disease because of it. But this incidence was interpreted in the religious text as God’s wrath. Obviously no one knew just exactly what happened, other than the enemy’s army was practically wiped out. Must have been God’s wrath, said the recorders of this event. We can forgive their ignorance since the answer was quite technical and needed a microscope among other things. But it could always be argued that the mice were God’s wrath.
There’s a story in the Irish mythologies which also tells of one group of people who died “all in the space of one day”. No doubt a bit of an exaggeration, but the point being that the people became ill and died soon after. All of them, which is likely also an exaggeration, but obviously took a large percentage of the population. After all, if they all died, who would be left to tell the tale? This story comes to us through Fintan, the Ancient White One. He recounts the history of the different groups of people who went to Ireland in ancient times. One whole group of people became ill and died. God’s wrath didn’t come into it at all, not even the monks added that. In fact, no reason for their illness is given at all. There was no moralizing about their life style, nor anything negative connected to the story of these people. This is also about the only time that you read about such a thing happening in the Irish mythologies. Obviously a large event which made a lasting impression.
The question is, would rulers of city states in ancient times have allowed their scribes to record such events, or did they just stick to recording religious rites, trade, battles, treaties, marriages, deaths, etc.? It wouldn’t be good for trade if you let on there was a problem. No ruler was going to admit publicly, that he was out of favour with God or the gods. The population would make up its own mind about that. For instance, did the Egyptians record the various things which befell them during the time of Moses? It would seem not, since the experts still don’t know whether Moses really existed , never mind which Pharaoh was ruler at that supposed time. So far there has been nothing found in Egyptian records about these events.
Most ancient societies seem to have been heavily influenced by their belief in God or the gods. Any city-state or country to suffer a great loss of life through disease would have been believed to have been cursed by God or the gods. It’s not likely that the rulers of such places would record such a thing. Anyone among the educated and craftsmen would have abandoned the place if they could. No one would want to live in a place that was cursed. No one would want to live in a place where people were dying wholesale of a disease. The peasants and poor would have been left behind and likely died. This is what has always happened throughout history. It was always the educated, affluent and talented that were the most mobile, the poor generally stayed in place.
It isn’t likely that the people leaving would tell their sorry tale when they got to wherever they were going. If they settled in a new community, it isn’t likely that they would tell people that they had come from a place that was cursed. Nor would they have mentioned disease and people dying of that disease. They would have been shunned by the people in their new chosen community. If this new group of people had found out what had happened, and anything bad happened in their territory, the new comers would have been blamed. It wouldn’t matter if the disease was different or if it was the sheep that were ill and dying, the newcomers would still have been blamed. It isn’t that long ago that there were actual witch hunts. Sometimes over nothing more than a bad crop or a sick cow.
After reading a great deal of history, it became obvious that something quite out of the ordinary happened c3200 BCE. Something which seems to have changed a great many things. It has been estimated that Mesopotamia lost about sixty thousand of its citizens. Uruk was the only city to gain in population, but all the other big cities like Ur and Eridu, as well as the countryside, seem to have lost people. Some have attributed this sudden decline in population to the dispersal after the Tower of Babel incident. No famine, weather or war details seem to account for this. Suddenly, all sorts of new constructions in many different places took place. Civilizations, fully functional, with every sort of craft, astronomers, priests, kings, scribes, smiths, architects, farmers, etc. pops up in places which saw nothing but hunter- gatherers and homestead farmers before that. All of them under unexplained circumstances, leaving us wondering, why then? What caused this sudden explosion of seeming knowledge of building, etc.? Why does there seem to have been mass movements of people? Apart from the Tower of Babel, disease could be the answer.
The Feudal System came to a crashing halt after the plague took hold of Europe. If there is little recorded history of those times in five thousand years, will archaeologists be left scratching their heads then also? What will they make of the remains in the plague pits were people were buried by the hundreds? Will they think disease or massacre? Such mass graves exist also. Or will they come across a few records mentioning this disease, and then think the masses of dead were victims of human sacrifice? Knowing what we know makes this sound illogical, but if you had nothing to go by but a few scraps of paper here and there, if any survived, and then you found one of those plague pits…………………? One of the current ideas is that Stonehenge was a Temple of death, will archaeologists think that of Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral? After all, there are a great many people buried within them.
We can only see through a glass darkly in the field of ancient history. Our knowledge of them is miniscule compared to the vibrant life such city states must have embodied. All that is left are fragments of cities, bones, weapons, pottery and some spectacular treasures, by which these places have been dated. Experts debate about the meaning of carvings, wall paintings, sculpture, ancient religions, etc. There are more opinions out there than there are artefacts. Opinions also change, some of what was believed in the 1800s is now considered archaic.
The Mold Gold Cape is one of the most outstanding sheet gold artefacts which has been found. It is unique, in a class of its own, and nothing like it has been found anywhere else in the world. It was hammered out of one ingot of gold. Found broken and in fragments at Bryn yr Ellylon near Mold, Flintshire, Wales in 1830, it was first thought to have been a corselet or breast-plate which passed under the arms. In 1904 the British Museum was presenting it as a chest ornament for a pony. It wasn’t until 1950 that its form suggested that it was a cape, and it wasn’t until 2002 that all the missing pieces were put together, proving that it was a cape. It is dated 1900-1600 BCE, and it is not known whether this was buried with a man or a woman. However, since it is only 18 inches wide, it is thought to have been a woman. Some 200 to 300 hundred amber beads were also found, presumably part of the decoration of the cape. Only one bead remains in the British Museum.
Although we can admire the amazing artistry which went into creating this cape, it tells us next to nothing about the society this person lived in, except that there was a certain amount of wealth, and that it was likely connected to the Great Orme copper mine. It tells us nothing about the person who wore this cape, only that she must have been important. How then can we try to interpret these people’s motives for doing certain things? Like seemingly abandoning one area of the globe, after which ‘civilization’ comes fully formed in other parts, when there is no concrete evidence to show us why this occurred.
Ancestor by Susan Seddon Boulet
The Mold Gold Cape, The British Museum