Lost Kingdoms of South America; In Search of Medieval Britain

The second episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America is about the Tiwanaku people, who lived in what is now Bolivia between about 500AD to about 1100AD. The main area they lived in is a large plateau in the Andes over 3500 metres above sea level. Cooper opened the programme by visiting some modern subsistence farmers in the area & showing us how difficult life can be on the plateau. The Tiwanaku people started out near a large lake on the plateau (Lake Titicaca) – this lake creates a slightly warmer micro-climate, and the soil near the lake is more fertile than elsewhere. The Tiwanaku increased the area where they were able to farm by using networks of channels between raised fields to irrigate the soil using the meltwater from the mountains.

The main archaeological site for the Tiwanaku people is a vast temple complex (over 5 square kilometres in area) called Tiwanaku – which means “stone at the centre”. This was constructed using massive stones brought across the lake, and made into walls for ritual areas & carved with faces of ancestors and gods. The religion of the people was about gathering together to make offerings to the gods controlling the environment, so that they would have successful harvests etc. Cooper went to a modern Bolivian “start of the growing season” festival, which was nominally Christian (in that it happened partly in a church, and people brought banners of Christ crucified with them) but also derived from the ancestral festivals of the people (and involved all the surrounding people in the area coming together and having a party). As with the Chachapoya this appears to’ve been a civilisation where there wasn’t such a strict hierarchy as we’re used to – there’s no indication of kings or leaders as such, no memorials to a single person. Instead the social bonds were formed at these festivals & a combination of close ties to the rest of the people and friendly competition is what drives the larger scale projects that require collaboration.

The rituals of the Tiwanaku people appear to’ve involved beer, and hallucinogens – the statues left at the site of Tiwanaku are normally of a person holding a beer cup in one hand and a snuff pipe (their drug paraphenalia) in the other. The archaeologist Cooper was talking to told us that the temple would originally have been painted in bright colours, and the people wore very bright coloured clothes which would add to the hallucinogenic experience. They also probably involved sacrifice – modern Bolivians will still sometimes sacrifice llamas at their festivals. There also appears to be evidence that at least on some occasions there was human sacrifice. However, I wasn’t entirely convinced by that segment of the programme – what they told us about was based on one single skeleton discovered buried at the Tiwanaku site of an individual who’d been hit over the back of the head. Perhaps this was a sacrifice, but without any other evidence how do you know it’s not just a murder? Presumably there was other evidence we just weren’t shown.

The beer cups are a distinctive shape with distinctive patterns, and as the Tiwanaku culture spread and met other cultures you can see those cultures adopt the beer cups & other trappings of the Tiwanaku lifestyle. Including head deformation! The Tiwanaku people wrapped the heads of babies to elongate the skull, or sometimes added boards to the wrappings to flatten the skull. The expansion of the Tiwanaku was presented as peaceful & involving bonding with people over a beer – but again I wasn’t entirely convinced by the evidence we were shown (not saying it doesn’t exist, just the way it was covered in the programme wasn’t convincing).

The Tiwanaku as a large “state” with a common culture appears to have collapsed around 1100AD, not through conquest but through a change in the climate locally that reduced the amount of meltwater for the irrigation of their fields leading to poor harvests. Eventually the Tiwanaku temple complex was abandoned. It was later discovered by the Spanish, and stones from it were used to build churches nearby (bizarrely including re-purposing statues as “St. Peter” and “St. Paul”). More recently Bolivian people have been reclaiming their past to some degree – including performing rituals at the Tiwanaku site. (But not deforming their babies’ skulls into elongated shapes …)

Somehow I got to the end of this particular episode & felt a bit like we were being given the “best side” of the Tiwanaku – even if it did touch on human sacrifice etc. It felt a lot like they were being set up as these chilled out stoned beer drinkers who just want to be friends, maaan. And I just don’t quite believe in 600 years of hippy peace & love with no conflict even as they spread to take-over a large territory. Maybe that just says more about me than about them, tho 😉

We’d started watching quite late in the evening, so didn’t have time for another hour long programme – instead we watched another episode of In Search of Medieval Britain where Alixe Bovey goes round the country looking at places on the 14th Century map called the Gough Map. This episode was about Scotland. It was quite funny looking at the shape it was given on the map – as Bovey said clearly the map maker didn’t actually know anything first hand or accurate about Scotland. None of the geography was right, but she still managed to go & visit a few relevant places. Particularly entertaining was the segment on wolves – apparently the best way to escape a wolf, according to a medieval Bestiary, is to take all your clothes off (to reveal your sinfulness) and stand on top of the discarded clothing banging two rocks together (to summon the apostles). This will so scare the incarnation of the devil (which is, after all, what a wolf is) that it will turn tail & run away. I hope no-one actually tried that 😉

She also visited the oldest cathedral in Scotland (in Glasgow), a herb garden (complete with herbalist), Stirling, the Isle of May (controlled access to the fishing ports at the south-east of Scotland, a very important part of the Scottish economy of the time), and a safe house in the border region where the border people would protect themselves from raiders. Or base themselves once they’d become raiders …

I do wish we’d managed to record more than two of these 🙁

Andrew Marr’s History of the World; In Search of Medieval Britain

Started off the evening with the third episode of Andrew Marr’s History of the World – this one was about the Word and the Sword, basically the rise and spread of Buddhism, Christianity & Islam with a few side stories. He started off with the story of Ashoka who killed and conquered his way to ruling an empire that covers most of modern India. But then after witnessing the appalling slaughter he himself had caused he converted to Buddhism and spent the rest of his (long) reign promoting peace and tolerance throughout his land and actively spread Buddhism as a religion.

The first of the side stories was about the First Emperor of China – who came to power around the same time as Ashoka and in much the same murderous way. But he had no moment of conversion, instead ruling his newly unified China with an iron fist. His mausoleum is apparently enormous – the only part that has been excavated is the Terracotta Army, but there’s a palace extending back beneath the hill behind where that lies. After his death (of mercury poisoning from an “elixir of immortality” which was anything but) the Han Dynasty ruled over China for about the same time period as the Roman Empire existed – and this was the next topic.

Well, sort of. What he actually covered was the final fall of Egypt, Cleopatra & Caesar’s relationship and then their deaths (skipping quite quickly over the Mark Anthony bit) and Egypt’s assimilation into the Roman Empire. The spin he was putting on this was that Caesar effectively saw that Cleopatra was worshipped as a god in Egypt and thought this was a good idea so went home to Rome to do the same. Leading to the Senate not being happy and murdering him (but actually all his successors were worshipped as gods, so the idea took hold). And then he cast the rise of Christianity as being partly a reaction against this politicised religion in the empire, people going back to a faith in something that was more personal to them. This wasn’t quite the spin I was expecting, so it ended up feeling like he’d kinda skewed things to make it fit his theme for the programme.

Early Christianity through to its establishment as the religion of the Roman Empire was told through the lens of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and his subsequent spreading of the gospel throughout the empire, and Perpetua’s imprisonment and martyrdom for her faith. And ending with the Romans having effectively assimilated the faith into their political & military structures.

The feeling of stretching to fit the theme was not helped by the next side-story which really did seem shoehorned in. We had a brief trip across to the Americas, and the Nazca people. These are the people who made the massive line drawings on their land, and their civilisation collapsed around 600AD due to human exacerbated environmental disaster. Basically they were cutting down trees to create more arable land, but then when they had 30 years of excessive rain the lack of trees meant the soil was washed away. Which made the succeeding 30 years of drought even less survivable than it otherwise would’ve been. This didn’t really fit the theme, but it happened in this time period so they told us about it anyway, with some reference to the religion and the increased numbers of human sacrifices during the end of the civilisation as they frantically tried to appease their gods.

And then it was back to the theme – with the meteoric rise and spread of Islam. They did another good job of juxtaposing the stories told to highlight the similarities between the different topics. In this case we had the almost martyrdom of Bilal to mirror Perpetua’s martyrdom as the entry point for the story of early Islam. Bilal survived, however, to become the first muezzin. And the spread of Islam by conquest was contrasted with the slower spread of Christianity by the travels of the Paul and the Apostles.

We were running late this week, so only had time for a half hour programme for the second one of the evening. We have had a couple of episodes from the middle of a series called In Search of Medieval Britain sitting on the PVR for ages, so we watched one of them. The premise of this series is Alixe Bovey (a lecturer in medieval history at Kent) travelling about the country following the Gough Map (a map dating to 1355-1366 which was donated to the Bodleian Library in 1809). In the episode we watched she visited Melton Mowbray, Lincoln and Sherwood Forest. In Melton Mowbray she helped make an authentic pork pie from the era. In Lincoln she visited the cathedral, which for 200 years held the title of tallest building in the world. Then the spire fell down in the 1500s (probably because the wood frame rotted) and it was no longer taller than the Great Pyramid. It was still the tallest point in Lincolnshire though. And finally in Sherwood Forest she told us about real outlaws (who were a much more murderous and unpleasant bunch than the fictional Robin Hood), and visited the oldest pub in the country. She also talked to some people who were making authentic medieval beer – with hissop instead of hops as the bittering agent. It was amusing to see her not drink any on camera, the “oh it’s delicious” after the camera panned away from her was pretty fake I think 😉

I wish we’d managed to record all of these, this one was quite fun 🙂