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David Keys reporting

25 June 2013

David Keys, author of Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World, Random House:1999, is the archaeology and history correspondent for The Independent and in the BBC History magazine (now a hefty £4.25 a copy) he has a monthly report which is usually quite interesting. In BBC History magazine 14:5 (May 2013) he reports there is a predecessor to both the Antonine and Hadrian's Wall, on the frontier of northern Britain. Dating to the AD70s it stretched 120 miles and consisted of around 20 forts and half a dozen smaller fortlets, and 30 watchtowers, on a line stretching from south of Aberdeen to the Firth of Clyde. The forts so far excavated appears to have housed cavalry units (stables were part of the structures) – but what was it all about? Why didn't the Roman army simply sweep up to the northern coast and subjugate all the Highland zone. The defence line appears to have been created after their invasion of what is now Scotland – but they don't seem to have been able to place it all under the rule of Rome. The defence line represents an attempt to hold back still undefeated peoples that were living to the north of the line. It also provided protection for people living in what is now central and southern Scotland, people that might have been happy under Roman rule (it had benefits of a material kind for the ruling elite). 

In AD83 the Romans clashed with northern tribes, possibly the Picts, at the Battle of Mons Graupius (as recorded by Tacitus). This was clearly not as successful as Roman propaganda alleged as in AD87, just 3 or 4 years later, the Romans abandoned the defensive line. It was a very temporary affair.

In BBC History magazine 14:6 (June 2013)(see also www.historyextra.com) Keys reports on some underwater archaeology going on just off the coast of the NW delta in Egypt, a region that has subsequently subsided as a result of earthquakes. Four miles off the coast are the remains of 20 barges that were deliberately scuttled in order to thwart the Persian invasion of the 340sBC, at what was the port of Thonis-Herakleion. Each of the vessels were filled with limestone rubble and held in position with long timber poles in order to prevent them being swept away in the current of the river. Thonis-Herakleion was, at the time, Egypt's most important port and a key target for invaders. The barges were sunk at the entrance to the harbour. Unfortunately, the tactic was unsuccessful and the Persian victoryh ushered in over 2000 years of foreign domination. The last native pharaoh, Nectanebo II, was vastly outnumbered by the huge army of the Persians (and their vassals).

BBC HIstory magazine 14:7 (July 2013) has a report by Keys on the dark records of the Assyrian empire, the mass deportations of half a million people in the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Forced labour played an important role in the empire and as excavations in Kurdish Iraq has found, they were a very important factor in the glory of Sargon II, Sennacherib, and Ashurbanipal, and their grandiose building schemes. Some 130 previously unknown settlements of the period have been found, monumental aqueducts, and two riverside portages. There was an ancient canal system designed to irrigate hundreds of square miles of land – and delivered clearn drinking water from the mountains to the city of Nineveh. These massive building works relied on forced labour and a lot it came from Syria, ancient Israel, southern Iran and eastern Anatolia (in what is now Turkey). Some 200 sware miles of countryside to the north of Nineveh wre subject to intensive agriculture, supplying food to the royal cities (including Nineveh) and this is where the 130 new settlements have been found. It is thought they were people by detainees – and as captives in war they built the infrastructure, worked the land, and maintained the irrigation system, many of which were cut through solid bedrock. Stone was also quarried for the aqueducts and other civil projects, cut into blocks and transported to where necessary. However, it wasn't just the Assyrians that functioned on forced labour as the Hittites, Urartians, and the succeeding Babylonians did much the same thing. Prior to the Assyrians the practise is recorded from the Bronze Age so it was continuing in a well oiled tradition.

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