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Once upon a time history was nice and simple and everyone knew where they were with the subject. You had the Modern Period, which was obviously “a good thing” and before us you had the Medieval Period, where everbody was slightly less sophisticated but still European and Christian and therefore somewhat of “a good thing”. Before the Medieval Period, however, you had the Dark Ages, when there were Vikings and Barbarians and was therefore not “a good thing”.
Before the Dark Ages came the Classical Period, which was classical and therefore “a good thing”, so that meant that Greeks and Romans were all right. Before them, however, history was a blank and mostly made up of Ages like the Bronze Age or the Stone Age, or of things ending in “-ic” like the Neolithic, the Chalcolithic or even the Paleolithic. Pictures of the period – labelled “reconstructions”, which made them “a good thing” – showed simian creatures with hirsute faces and undue amounts of body hair, hammering at dead trees or dead animals with lumps of stone. (The body hair served two purposes, it showed how primitive and ape-like these creatures were while at the same time it obscured the embarrassments that might otherwise have been caused by the creatures lack of clothing.)
Today this simple picture no longer prevails. Even in recent times there are all sorts of complications like Byzantium which bridged the Dark Ages and linked Classical and Medieval; foreign lands like China, India and South America are reluctantly conceded to have had culture and civilisation, and even the “Ages” have been found to have had a surprisingly sophisticated degree of ability and taste: Bronze Age artefacts rival those of modern times for beauty and utility. Even pre-historic rock art, which is indubitably primitive, can now be seen either as paralleling our modern abstract art forms or at worst as the daubings of juveniles whose self-expression was hindered by a lack of spray paint cans while the “real” art may have been on perishable media such as wood, cloth or leather.
At one time Jericho was claimed to be the oldest city in the world, going back 7,000 years according to Kathleen Kenyon. In all that long history, however, the most formidable and sophisticated defences were those erected during the Neolithic Period, a well-built round tower with an internal staircase. Recent excavations in Turkey have uncovered a Neolithic city whose artefacts and layout bear comparison with those of more modern times! More modern “reconstructions” show Neolithic man as fully human: put him in a suit and he would pass muster on any commuter train.
Syrian archaeologist Mouhammed Maktesh claims to have uncovered the real, world’s oldest city at Hamoukar, some 300 miles north-east of Damascus. According to conventional chronology, the city flourished between 6000 and 4000 BC, extending over an area of 750 acres and housing a population estimated at around 25,000 – which was large even by Roman standards! Finds include stone statues that may represent gods or rulers, and a large number of pottery figurines of animals such as lions, bears and horses. Over 7,000 beads have been recovered, indicating a high standard of personal adornment.
The most surprising thing discovered, however, is the way in which the city’s houses were built: many of them were constructed with double walls separated by a two-inch gap. The modern technique of cavity wall building is designed to solve two problems: the cavity provides insulation helping to cut down on heat loss from the house; it also eliminates damp from the interior because any rain that might penetrate the outer wall is unable to affect the inner one.
It is unlikely that the inhabitants of Hamoukar were worried about heat loss: although temperatures can fall below freezing in winter, the bigger problem is the heat in summer and experts who have examined the houses suggest that the gap may have allowed air to circulate around the inner shell of the house, thus keeping it cooler – in other words, a primitive form of air conditioning.
Historians have long been puzzled by the appearance of the Sumerians, who arrive abruptly on the scene in southern Mesopotamia as a fully fledged civilisation with codes of laws, well-organised government and a system of writing that quickly evolved into cuneiform. As Hamoukar is believed to be 2,500 yeas older than the oldest Sumerians, some are now suggesting that the people of Hamoukar may be the ancestors of the Sumerians, culturally if not physically.