Pim de Klerk Palynology

How ancient cultures perceived peatlands and wetlands (300 BCE-500 CE)

Most studies on the past development of mires, peatlands or wetlands in general derive from the discipline of palaeoecology, which is the “study and understanding of the relationships between past organisms and the environment in which they lived”, or more practically “the reconstruction of past ecosystems” (Birks & Birks 1980). Normally in modern-day science the past environment is reconstructed from a variety of biotic and abiotic proxies. One important source of information, however, is often overlooked: written accounts by eye-witnesses of past landscapes. There are vast gaps between the disciplines of biology, ecology and earth sciences and those of linguistics, literature, history and theology that need to be bridged in order to combine these totally different scientific branches.

This inspired us to have a more thorough look at ancient texts and to make an overview of the views on mires and wetlands by ancient cultures. We focus on Mesopotamia (Sumer, Babylon, Akkad, Assyria, Elam, and the neighbouring realms of the Hittites and Hurrians, and Persia), ancient Canaan (developing into Hebrew and Phoenician states), ancient Egypt, and the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations. In total, the time-slice between c. 3000 BCE to 500 CE is covered.

We distinguish a series of thematics that occur all over in the various relevant cultures:

- Topography includes predominantly the places were the specific mires and wetlands were located, which is mainly covered by the numerous geographical works known from Antiquity. But the topic includes places or regions named after mires too.

- Descriptions of mires and wetlands are rare, first of all because these landscape types were not always easily accessible, but secondly because most writings did not focus on wetlands but on subjects of which wetlands were only a part of the scenery. The subject ‘descriptions of wetlands’ does not only include the appearances of wetlands, but their flora and fauna too, of which especially the works on natural science by Theophrastus (‘Enquiry into plants’, ‘On the causes of plants’), Aristotle (‘History of animals’, ‘Parts of animals’, ‘On the generation of animals’), Dioscorides (‘On medical matters’), and Pliny the Elder (‘Natural history’) are important. Sculptures and pictures of animals and plants provide additional information on the ancient views on flora and fauna.

- Wars were elaborately depicted by many ancient historical authors. Principally, mires and wetlands were used for three purposes in war: for hiding, for natural defences of cities, of camping armies or in battle, and as a trap into which the enemy could be lured and killed.

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Chaldaeans hiding in the reedlands for the Assyrian armies, c. 640-620 BCE, relief found in Nineveh and preserved in the British Museum; ©Trustees of the British Museum

 

- Health: the relation between mires and health is twofold. First of all, there were medicinal qualities of various plants that were discussed elaborately by Theophrastus (‘Enquiry into plants’), Dioscorides (‘On medical matters’) and Piny the Elder (‘Natural history’). On the other hand, it was thought that mires as landscape types had a very negative influence on human health - especially in the Roman culture, but this view already emerged among ancient Greek authors.

- Human impact included the use of vegetation, especially of reedbed plants, as raw material for building, packaging, weaving, fodder, writing material, weapons, musical instruments and many more. Reedlands were frequently hunted, primarily for food, but for pleasure too. Also pasturing of cattle often was in reedlands or other mire types. Hydrological regulation of mires dates back to the early beginnings of civilisations. In the ancient Egyptian society agriculture was in the floodplains of the River Nile after the river had deposited fertile silt during the annual inundations. The agriculture connected to this flooding required an ingenious irrigation system and a thorough understanding of hydrological processes, as well as a central authority that planned and structured the hydrological projects. The summit of hydrological regulation is complete drainage or filling-up of peatlands. The city of Rome was built - in-between and outside the famous seven hills - in floodplains of the River Tiber.  Major peated valleys were the Velabrum maius (where the circus Maximus was located) and the Velabrum minus (with the Forum Romanum), and initially the city was plagued by floods and water surplus. According to Livy (‘History of Rome’ I:38), Lucius Tarquinius Priscus - the mythological 5th king of Rome – organised the construction of the cloaca maxima around 600 BCE to drain the forum and the Velabrum minus. Soon other cloacae were constructed to drain other parts of the city. Although originally open canals, in later days buildings were erected haphazardly covering the cloacae (Livy, ‘History of Rome’ V: 55), with as result that nobody knew their precise locations anymore. The cloacae were primarily constructed for water discharge and were not used for sanitation purposes prior to the early imperial period

The question arises whether peat was extracted from mires as resource. From the texts seen by us it appears that peat as substance was not known or used in antiquity, or at least nobody wrote about it. There is one exception: Pliny the Elder (‘Natural history’ 16:1.4) mentioned how the Chauci - a Germanic tribe in present-day northwestern Germany - used some kind of mud for cooking and heating. It is clear from his description that this mud was burnable, and it is almost unambiguous that this was peat.

IMCG Fig. 5 Fishing-fowling

Facsimile of an Ancient Egyptian fishing and fowling scene in papyrus reeds, from the tomb of Menna, Thebes (c. 1400-1350 BCE). Various fishes, birds and other animals are displayed, as well as papyrus and water lilly. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Religious aspects of mires and wetlands: The polytheist religions of ancient times were manifold, and numerous gods were connected to wetlands. However, wetlands played also a role in various creation myths, in great flood stories, and in the envisagement of the afterlife. In the Egyptian religion, the final destination of the deceased was the Sekhet Aaru, which is difficult to translate. Sekhet can mean field or marshland, aaru translates as reeds or rushes. This area was probably imagined as a gigantic Nile Delta-like landscape including interconnected river branches and marshes, but agricultural fields as well. Furthermore, there was the Sekhet Hetep or Hotep that had ample water courses and various cities and islands. Hetep translates as offering, rest, or peace, but also signifies the state of being at peace, being at rest, or being satisfied. The road to the afterlife realms was long and dangerous, and the well-known ‘Pyramid texts’, ‘Coffin texts’ and ‘Book of the Dead’ presented ample instructions and spells how to get their unharmed, and also give detailed information how both sekhets were envisaged.

- Sexuality: A connection between wetlands and sexuality probably initially appears strange, but there were various wetland-related stories that had a highly erotic content. Especially Sumerian texts were often explicitly sexual, but also the Egyptians envisaged reedlands as excellent  places for the sexual act.

 

First insights:

In ancient Mesopotamia the extensive wetlands of the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris were seen as something beautiful, which relates to the fact that Mesopotamia societies were completely dependent on the wetlands for raw material, food and daily life in general. However, some negative connections were perceived also. In ancient Egypt, similarly, the societal focus was completely on the River Nile and its floodplains. However, in the secular literature seen by us the wetlands were mainly merely a part of the scenery and not something special. In the Egyptian religion, however, wetlands were very dominant, culminating in the marshes of the afterlife. Whereas ancient Greek literature seems to have had a rather neutral to slightly negative attitude towards wetlands, the Romans completely detested such landscape types: this will predominantly be the result of the difficulties in the city with the mires in the floodplain of the River Tiber. All societies developed the necessity for wetland management which resulted in ingenuous hydrological technology. It is safe to assume that the mires and wetlands played an important – if not crucial – role on the way the different civilisations developed technically, agriculturally, and socially.

 

Outlook

We plan to present our research in a series of papers covering the various identified thematic aspects. It would be interesting and valuable to extend this kind of research to other areas in the world where ancient literature or visual art may give information on the role of mires and wetlands, and we hope to encourage experts from all over the world to join our objective: it will result in an overview at the crossroads between nature and culture, and will enrich both the (palaeo)ecological sciences, and those of history, archaeology and linguistics.

 

Publications

De Klerk, P. (2019): Peatland poetry from the past: The Calydonian boar in the Metamorphoses by Ovid (43 BCE – 17/18 CE). IMCG Bulletin 2019-06 (November-December 2019): 13-14.

De Klerk, P. (2019): Peatland prose from the past: the trembling soils of Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE). IMCG Bulletin February-March 2019: 3.

De Klerk, P. (2019): Peatland prose from the past: the indulgent and exorbitant mires of St. Ambrose (340-397 CE). IMCG Bulletin April 2019: 2-3.

De Klerk, P. (2019): Peatland prose from the past: the Sudd in the south. IMCG Bulletin: 2019-05 (August-October 2019): 7-12.

De Klerk, P. (2021): Peatland poetry from the past: The headgear of river gods in the works of Virgil and Ovid. IMCG Bulletin 2021-2: March – Apr. 2021: 5-7.

De Klerk, P. (in press): Peatland prose from the past: The ancient Egyptian ‘Tale of the herdsman’ (early 2nd millennium BCE). IMCG Bulletin.

De Klerk, P. & Joosten, H. (2019): How ancient cultures perceived mires and wetlands (3000 BCE – 500 CE): an introduction. IMCG Bulletin 2019-04 (May-July): 4-15.

De Klerk, P. & Joosten, H. (2021): The fluvial landscape of lower Mesopotamia: an overview of geomorphology and human impact. IMCG Bulletin 2021-3: May – June 2021:  6-20.

De Klerk, P., Musäus, I. & Joosten, H. (2020): Famicose peatlands and ungulate hoof diseases: on the meaning of a word from ‘On the meaning of words’ (Festus, 2nd century CE; Paulus Diaconus, 8th century CE)Mires and Peat 26, Article 22. doi: 10.19189/MaP.2020.OMB.StA.2018

 

Mire quotes from Antiquity

(for convienence common english names of authors and works are used):

 

 

"Enki shouted: "by the life of An I demand: lie down in the reeds, lie down in the reeds: it will be a pleasure!"

(from the Mesopotamian legend of Enki & Ninhursag)

 

"Greetings, Field of Rest! Greetings to the vegetation... that is in you, the clean growth therein!"

(from the ancient Egypt Pyramid texts)

 

“He advanced to attack, and the men of Chlat pressed him. His horse got caught in the reedy marsh of Tschechur. With difficulty he crawled out of the bog and reached the waters of the Lochur.”

(From an ancient Armenian text)

 

“The general’s night was disturbed by a disturbing dream: he saw Quintilius Varus rising – covered in blood - from the mire, and heard him calling. But he refused to obey and pushed him back when he hold-out his hand.”

(Tacitus Annals’ - Book I)

 

“The Egyptians, before a battle on a plain near a marsh, covered the mire with seaweed, and then, when the battle began, they feigned flight and drew the enemy into a trap: then these, while advancing too rapid on the unfamiliar ground, were caught in the mire and surrounded”.

(Frontinus Stratagems - Book II)

 

"I have a neighbour whom I wish to fall head over heels from your bridge into the mud; — but let it be at the blackest and deepest pit of the mire with its stinking morass."

(Catullus poem XVII ‘O Colonia’)

 

"If you have to cross a mire, let your horse be the first to test its depth.”

 (Claudian ‘Panegyric on the fourth consulship of emperor Honorius)

 

“When he [=emperor Probus] had come to Sirmium in the hope to enrich and enlarge his birth city, he ordered several thousand soldiers to drain a nearby peatland and to construct a large canal with outlets flowing into the Save in order to provide the people of Sirmium with new lands. However, the soldiers rebelled and pursued him into an iron-clad tower, which he himself had built very high as a look-out. The soldiers slew him there in the fifth year of his reign.”

(Group of authors ‘Historia Augusta)

 

"Put sloth aside, and once you break the shafts of love the torch is out, and is afterwards only an issue for jokes and mockery. Like the plane tree loves wine, like the poplar loves the river, like the marshy reed loves slimy soil, so does Venus delight in idleness."

(Ovid Love’s Cure)

 

"Varus, who was betrayed by a freedman, ran away. After wandering from mountain to mountain he reached a marsh at Minturnæ where he rested. The inhabitants of Minturnæ, however, guarded this mire in search of robbers, and the motion of reeds revealed the hiding-place of Varus."

 (Appian Civil Wars - Book IV)

 

"…and the atmosphere around it was highly pure and good for the health of humans. Then there was neither a marsh nearby as a source of oppressive and filthy vapours, nor were any vapours brought in from outside."

 (Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities’ - Book XII)

 

"If you have to build on a river bank, do not build the front facing the river, since it will be extremely cold in winter, and unpleasant in summer. Such precautions need also be taken in the neighbourhood of mires for the same reasons, but also because there are certain miniscule creatures that are invisible to the eye but hover in the air and enter the human body over the mouth and nose and cause serious diseases."

(Varro On Agriculture’ - Book I)

 

"Hannibal, whose eyes were suffering from the annoying spring weather that alternated between hot and cold, rode his sole surviving elephant in order to be higher above the water. But sleep deprivation, moist nights, and the air of the marshes affected his head. Since he had no place and no time to allow for healing, he lost the sight of one of his eyes."

(Livy History of Rome - Book XXII)

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