Episode 10 - Please Don't Eat the Priceless Artifact (Yes, it's Artifact Week)

Updated: Apr 19

Sam's Episode Notes: The Shang Oracle bones. The history of a civilization, which nearly got eaten. Artifacts tend to fall into one of a few categories – ceremonial purposes, literature, treasure, weapons, toys, and dicks. You get buried with what you love, Tom. And historically, people loved swords, gold, toy horses and giant ceramic knobs. If you go on holiday to much of South America, South East Asia, Africa and indeed most of the world, what you'll pick up as a holiday knick knack is a pair of exotic knackers. So today I'm talking about the Oracle Bones Tom, which have a very interesting history. Because they are probably the only historic artifact in history that was almost lost to being eaten, and yet they prove the existence of an entire mythical civilisation. Now. If I said here's something rare and valuable and very difficult to replace, lets eat it, what country do you think I might be talking about Tom? That's right, it's China and Chinese traditional medicine, which has a fascination with grinding up bits of rare animal – usually their dicks – to cure all manner of ailments. And the Chinese in the late 19th century were particularly keen on what they called dragon bones. Dragon bones were dinosaur fossils, which when ground up were apparently very good for treating malaria and knife wounds. Which is only logical, because if you eat stone, you'll be strong like stone. Facts. Unfortunately, fossils were very hard to come by, and so villagers in the town of Anyang in China's yellow river valley decided to substitute with the various bones that they kept digging up in their fields, mostly oxbone and turtle shells. Now in 1899, a passing antiques dealer looking for ancient bronzes ended up buying some of these 'fossils' or dragon bones from the locals, and took them to Beijing. There, they were sold to a guy called Wang Yirong, the chacellor of the Imperial Academy. He was an expert on bronzes so he knew the dealer well. But the story goes that he just so happened to also have malaria. And what treats Malaria? Quinine, Tom. And what doesn't treat malaria, Tom? Fossils. But what did Wang buy to treat his malaria? The not fossils. Keep up. However, being an expert in ancient China, Wang noticed something odd about the bones – they were covered in scorch marks, and scoring similar to some of the ancient writing he'd been examining from the Zhou dynasty, which at the time was the first properly understood major Chinese kingdom which ruled the yellow valley from 1050BC for over 700 years. What had come before that was a mystery – there were local legends of a great and powerful kingdom, and a few very tiny scraps of bronze that looked to be earlier than Zhou, but really, nothing was known about them. They were known to scholars as the Shang. And these bones were very, very old. Wang began to decode the texts, and realised that they were ancient divinations – prophecies about everything from love matches to political alliances to how to cure toothache. What would happen is that a king's diviner would inscribe the date and a question onto a bone, pour blood on it, then burn it. Depending on how the bone cracked, the question would be answered. Unfortunately, Wang got caught up in the Boxer rebellion of 1899 before he could finish his work. The boxer rebellion was a typical case of the West fucking over the East. Peking's diplomatic quarter was home to large groups of government officers and Christian missionaries from throughout the world, who were quite happily dicking over the Chinese people. They would scam them, con them, steal from them and then retreat to the safety of the diplomatic quarter where nothing could be done about them. In fact there was a particularly brutal group of German missionaries who formed a robber gang, terrorising the streets of Peking at night. Very Christian. The Chinese government, in turmoil and in uproar at Western Colonial influence, allied with a group of Chinese militia known as the Boxers. The boxers were staunchly anti-colonial and believed themselves to be bullet proof. They besieged the diplomatic quarter for nearly two months until a multinational western force landed and proved very much that the Boxers were not bullet proof. And then proved the Chinese point about westerners by looting the city, and extolling enormous war reparations for the next 39 years. The Chinese government fled, with the Empress Dowager fleeing east for an, ahem 'long overdue tour of the provinces'. And Wang, as one of her closest advisors, committed suicide before his work into the bones was complete. Two years later, his son sold on his collection of bones to a family friend, Lui E, who published a book on them, making them instantly famous throughout China and the world. Unfortunately, no one knew where they actually came from, because the antiques dealers who ran the trade covered their tracks to keep their sources secret. For five years, there was a fevered search for the source of the bones, until it was finally discovered in 1908 by a scholar named Luo Zhenyu. He realised that the city of Anyang was actually a great imperial capital – the last of the lost Shang dynasty.


Now that a few in the academic and antiques world knew where the site was, they descended upon it and basically trashed the place. On the plus side, they discovered an absolute treasure trove of archaeological evidence. In a couple of years, the Shang had gone from a mysterious, foggy myth into a concrete civilisation, with a capital city called Yin. Among the discoveries were eleven royal tombs, the foundations of palaces containing weapons temples containing the remains of animal and human sacrifices. They also found tens of thousands of bronze, jade, stone, bone, and ceramic artifacts. On the downside, the digs were unregulated, uncontrolled, and saw most of the artefacts spirited away into Western collections or antiques markets. The real hero for the Oracle bones is Canadian missionary James Menzies, who in began to catalogue the bones and published his first scientific study on them in 1917. He worked closely with the locals and ended up collecting over 35,000 bones, and in contradiction to most collectors, insisted that his collection stayed in China. As a result he's now considered a hero of Chinese archaeology. And what the bones tell us is this: The Shang dynasty ruled China's yellow river valley from sometime in the 16th century BC to, very specifically, 1046BC. So a long lived kingdom, 600 plus years. They were a massive empire, ruling around 1,250,000 km2, which is about the size of Peru or Mali. And I've done the maths because I know you'll ask, it's 12 million football pitches. The bones tell us how their government worked, who their kings were, their gods and ancestors, what they grew, how their economy worked, their legends... The whole lot. All from a bunch of bones that were nearly eaten – and countless thousands were – and all discovered, in archaeological terms, overnight.

Tom's notes: The Hedwig Beakers

· Glass drinking vessels; similar in size and shape to tumblers

o British Museum example; griffin, lion and eagle

· 14 in existence, fragments of another 10 or so

· Second half of the 12th Century AD

· Usually mounted with precious metal for use in mass

o Survived hundreds of years, despite being delicate, due to being highly prized…

Saint Hedwig

· 1174 to 1243; canonised in 1267

· Silesian (Polish) Princess and later Saint

o Patron Saint of Silesia

· Supposedly owned 3

· When she drank from beakers, water turned to wine

· Founded several hospitals

· Helping the poor, widows and orphans

· Once spent 10 weeks teaching a poor lady the Lord’s Prayer

· Walked bare foot in the winter

· Founded and endowed lots of monasteries and convents

Probably made in the Norman Kingdom of Sicily

· Although some debate…

o British Museum lists them as being from Sicily

· Bottom third of Italian Peninsula, parts of North Africa (Tunisia plus a bit more) for about 30 years during the late 12th Century, Malta

· Normans

o Evolved out of roaming Viking groups that settled in Northern France in the first half of the 10th Century

o 911; Rollo agrees with Charles the Simple of West Francia to protect his country from Viking raiders in return for land

· Norman Sicily

o Normans has been on the Italian Peninsular as mercenaries from the late 10th century (complex and fluid political situation!)

o 1038, Byzantine forces began to reconquer the island with mercenaries including the Varangians (Harald Hardrada) and Normans

· Varangian Guard

o Elite fighting unit and personal bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors

§ Made up of Norse, Anglo Saxons and Northern Europeans

§ No loyalties to anyone other than the Emperor

§ At one point, a Swedish law was introduced to stop migrants inheriting if they were working in Byzantium because so many of them!

§ Many Anglo Saxons joined after the Norman Conquest because they were disinherited

§ Hagia Sofia; 2 runic inscriptions, basically ‘

§ I was ere’

o The Normans eventually fashion their own fiefdoms in the area and these eventually merge into the Kingdom

· Looks like Muslim craftsmanship but Christian imagery

· The imagery is very similar to imagery found on other artwork known to be from Norman Sicily

o Namely a ceiling painting in the court of the Sicilian Norman rulers in Palermo

o Also a small shield with a triangle appears next to all the lions on the beakers

§ The heraldic lion of the Sicilian Normans

· Probably made during the reign of the last Sicilian king Wilhelm II and inherited by the German Emperor Heinrich VI

Silly names

· Louis the Stammerer; King of Aquitane

· Charles the Bald

· Charles the Fat

· Wilfred the Hairy

o “he was hairy in places not normally so in men”

· William Iron Arm

o Singlehandedly killed the Emir of Syracuse

· Henry the Bearded

o Husband of Hedwig

o Grew beard as act of piety like Cistercian lay brothers

· Bolesław the Tall

· Mieszko Tanglefoot

o Bandy legged

· Władysław Spindleshanks

o Long and thin legs

· Konrad the Curly

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