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Paper in Ancient China › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Mark Cartwright

The widespread use of paper and printing were features of ancient China which distinguished it from other ancient cultures.Traditionally, paper was invented in the early 2nd century CE, but there is evidence it was much earlier. As a cheaper and more convenient material than bamboo, wood, or silk, paper helped spread literature and literacy but it was used for many other purposes from hats to packaging. The material was made finer over the centuries, was traded across Asia and was used in the first paper money from the early 12th century CE.

Yuan Dynasty Bank Note & Plate


There is ample archaeological evidence of primitive paper types from the 2nd century BCE in China, largely using hemp. It is believed that the invention of this early form of paper was accidental after clothes, which were made of hemp, were left too long after washing, and a residue formed in the water which could then be pressed into a useful new material. The traditional date for the invention of more refined paper has long been 105 CE. Cai Lun, the director of the Imperial Workshops at Luoyang, is the one credited with creating paper by using soaked and then pressed plant fibres which were dried in sheets on wooden frames or screens. Cumbersome bamboo or wooden strips and expensive silk had been used for centuries as a surface for writing but, after much endeavour, a lighter and cheaper alternative had finally been found in the form of paper scrolls.
Over time different fibres were experimented with to make paper, and so the quality had greatly increased by the end of the Han period (206-220 CE). Fibres from many different plants, the stems of grasses, vegetable matter, hemp, tree bark, and even rags were used and blended in a constant quest of experimentation to find the cheapest mix of materials which produced the highest quality of paper. Rattan replaced the early hemp paper and was favoured for centuries until it was replaced by bamboo fibres as the most common raw material from the 8th century CE. One of the reasons for rattan's replacement was that the demand for paper was so great the slow-growing plant had almost been wiped out in certain regions of China.Bamboo grows much quicker than hemp and so was a significantly cheaper option. From the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) paper production techniques became even better and the main raw material was now the boiled bark of the mulberry tree.Chinese paper was of such high quality that it was traded to foreign states along the Silk Road.
Sheets of paper came in all sizes and many colour shades. Materials, techniques, and preferences varied from region to region, but there were helpful treatises written on the subject, the earliest being by Su I-chien (957-995 CE). Special paper with an appealing texture, pattern or colouring was reserved for calligraphy and art. These paper types were made using rice, wheat straw, sandalwood bark, hibiscus stalks, and even seaweed.

Paper-making Process

The Chinese were naturally rather secretive about their papermaking skills, just as they were with silk production but secrets rarely remain so for ever. The outside world, or at least the world west of China, acquired the knowledge of paper manufacturing in the 8th century CE (or plausibly even earlier). The trigger was when a group of papermakers were taken prisoner by their Arab victors following the Battle of Talas. Soon Baghdad would become a major producer of paper, and Medieval Europe, too, would eventually produce high-quality paper of its own.


The invention of paper greatly helped the spread of literature and literacy, making books more convenient to use and cheaper.Scholars at the Imperial academies were issued with thousands of sheets of paper each month by the government. Further, the combination of brush, ink, and paper would establish painting and calligraphy as the most important areas of art in China for the next two millennia. With the invention of block printing - either in Korea or China and perhaps in the 8th century CE - the demand for paper rocketed, especially from Buddhist scholars and temples. In the 10th century CE, when there was the Neo-Confucian revival, the printing of Confucian classics positively boomed. With the invention of moveable type printing, from the 11th or 12th century CE, paper needed to be thicker to resist the heavy metal blocks of type, but the two inventions - press and paper - would revolutionise communication and remain unchallenged as the means to send and store information until the arrival of the computer.
Paper was so highly valued in ancient China that it was used to pay tribute and taxes to the state during the Tang dynasty(618-907 CE). The Tang also imposed a colour code on the use of paper, with white paper being reserved for legal documents, yellow for government purposes, and blue for communications with Taoist temples.
Besides its use for writing and books, paper was used to produce topographical and military maps from the Han dynastyonwards. Drawn to a reasonably accurate scale, they included colour-coding and symbols for local features and included specific areas of enlarged scale. Other uses of paper included as packaging for delicate items such as medicine and as wrapping paper, especially for parcels of tea. Paper was widely used to make hats, stiffened it was used for armour, and thinned it could be used for windows. There were paper screens, sheets, curtains, clothes, and, eventually, money.


Following increases in trade, the system of barter, or the exchange of one material for another, was replaced by a system where one particular commodity came to be a common form of payment. In China rolls of silk or gold ingots could be used to pay for any other type of goods. For smaller exchanges metal coinage was used, first in the shape of tools, then in the form of more convenient small coins. As trade and the number of people involved in it grew ever larger, an even more convenient method of payment was sought. Another problem with coinage was the sheer quantity of copper required to make enough coins for the economy's needs.
Paper money of a sort first appeared during the Tang Dynasty. The development sprang from merchants relying on paper documents. This was especially so for tea merchants, one of China's best-selling commodities. Merchants were wary of carrying valuable ingots to and from the state treasury and so preferred to use receipts instead. These paper documents allowed a merchant to make or collect his payment in any local treasury and so they became known as 'flying money'. This first form of paper money was not actually much of a success and, for larger transactions, merchants still preferred the greater security of silver ingots. The ideas was a good one, though, and paper money made a comeback in the 11th and 12th century CE.
In the 11th century CE in the Szechwan province, the use of heavy iron coinage necessitated the wealthy to leave their money in state deposit houses where it was more secure. Around 1023 CE, in order to indicate what money they had on deposit, people were issued with a paper certificate by the Song government. These certificates could also be used in transactions instead of physically moving the coinage. By the 12th century CE merchants elsewhere in China were again using more convenient paper receipts for their transactions instead of heavy bags of coins. These, in turn, led to the development of paper money around 1120 CE when the Chinese government established a monopoly on the issue of such receipts, in effect, creating the world's first banknotes. By 1260 CE the paper money had become what we would today call real banknotes - they could be kept for as long as one wished, used across the country to make purchases, and converted into gold or silver at any time.
The Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo gave one of the earliest accounts of Chinese paper money following his travels in Asia in the 13th century CE:
The coinage of this paper money is authenticated with as much form and ceremony as if it were actually of pure gold or silver; for to each note a number of officers, specially appointed, not only subscribe their names, but affix their signets also; and when this has been regularly done by the whole of them, the principle officer…having dipped into vermilion the royal seal committed to his custody, stamps with it the piece of paper, so that the form of the seal tinged with vermilion remains impressed upon it. (in Ebrey, 156-7)
Paper money still had its problems, though. Despite the precautions described by Marco Polo, paper money was just as likely to be counterfeited as coins were. The biggest blow came with high inflation. This was so rampant that paper money quickly became worthless and all but disappeared. A brief return during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE) was again ill-fated and the wide circulation of reliable banknotes would only become a reality in 1866 CE when they were issued by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.

Amphitheatre › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

An amphitheatre was a structure built throughout the Roman empire where ordinary people could watch such spectacles as gladiator games, mock naval battles, wild animal hunts, and public executions. Usually oval in form, the largest examples could seat tens of thousands of people, and they became a focal point of Roman society and the lucrative entertainment business. Amphitheatres are one of the best surviving examples of ancient Roman architecture, and many are still in use today, hosting events ranging from gladiator re-enactments to opera concerts.


The fully enclosed amphitheatre was a particular favourite of the Romans and evolved from the two-sided stadiums and semicircular theatres of ancient Greece. The date and location of the first true amphitheatre are unknown, but the tradition of gladiator fights had roots in the Etruscan and Osco-Samnite cultures. The earliest securely dated amphitheatre is that of Pompeii, built c. 75 BCE and known as the spectacula. Early structures took advantage of rock and earth hillsides to build the banks of wooden seating on, but by the 1st century BCE free-standing stone versions were being constructed.Amphitheatres of all sizes were built across the empire as Roman culture swept in the path of its army. Indeed, army camps often had their own dedicated arena, usually built using timber and used for training as well as entertainments. Amphitheatres were made oval or elliptical so that the action would not remain stuck in one corner and to offer a good view from any seat in the house.
The Colosseum, officially opened in 80 CE and known to the Romans as the Flavian Amphitheatre, is the largest and most famous example with a capacity of at least 50,000 spectators. Dwarfing all other buildings in the city, it was 45 metres high and measured 189 x 156 metres across. It had up to 80 entrances, and the sanded arena itself measured a massive 87.5 m by 54.8 m. On the upper storey platform, sailors were employed to manage the large awning ( velarium ) which protected the spectators from rain or provided shade on hot days.

The Colosseum or Flavian Amphitheatre

The Colosseum's design became famous as it was placed on coins so that even people who had never been in person knew of Rome 's greatest temple to entertainment. The design was copied throughout the empire: a highly decorative exterior, multiple entrances, seating ( cavea ) set over a network of barrel vaults, a wall protecting spectators from the action of the arena (sometimes with nets added), and underground rooms below the arena floor to hide people, animals, and props until they were needed in the spectacles. There was also an extensive drainage system, a feature seen at other arenas such as Verona 's amphitheatre where it still functions and has greatly contributed to the excellent preservation of the monument.
The Arena of Verona measures 152 x 123 metres and was third biggest after the Colosseum and Capua. It is another excellent example of the features involved in a Roman amphitheatre. It was constructed in the 1st century CE, using a cement and rubble mix known as opus caementicum, brick, and stone blocks set in square pillars to create an external façade of three levels of 72 arches, each spanning 2 metres and creating a total height of over 30 metres. The lowest arches lead directly to an interior corridor 4.4 metres wide, which runs around the Arena. From this corridor, steps lead upwards at regular intervals and on four different levels to form vomitoria (exits), which give access to the interior cavea. Inside, the seats were arranged in four elliptic rings giving a total of 44 rows of seating.

Amphitheatre of Verona

The Romans built over 200 amphitheatres across the empire, most of them in the west as in the east very often existing Greektheatres and stadiums were converted/employed for public spectacles. Other well-preserved arenas besides the Colosseum and the Arena of Verona which can be visited today include Arles, Burnum, Capua, El Djem, Frejus, Nimes, Leptis Magna, Pergamon, Pompeii, Pula, Salona, Tarragona, and Uthina.


If there was one thing the Roman people loved it was spectacle and the chance to escape reality for a few hours and gawk at the weird and wonderful public shows which assaulted the senses and ratcheted up the emotions. Roman rulers knew this well, and so to increase their popularity and prestige with the people, they put on lavish and truly spectacular shows, which cost fortunes and lasted all day for several days. The whole live entertainment industry thus became a huge source of employment, from horse trainers to animal trappers, musicians to sand rakers.
To modern eyes, the bloody spectacles put on by the Romans can cause revulsion, but perhaps we should consider that the sometimes shocking events of these spectacles were a form of escapism, just as cinema and computer games are today, rather than representative of social norms and barometers of accepted behaviour in the Roman world. Perhaps the shockingly different world of Roman spectacle, in fact, helped reinforce social norms rather than acted as a subversion of them.

Tarraco Amphitheatre

Emperor Augustus established rules so that slaves and free persons, children and adults, rich and poor, soldiers and civilians, single and married men were all seated separately, as were men from women. Naturally, the front row with more comfortable seats in amphitheatres was reserved for the local senatorial class. Tickets were probably free to most forms of spectacle, as organisers, whether city magistrates given the responsibility of providing public civic events, super-rich citizens, or the emperors who would later monopolise control of spectacles, were all keen to display their generosity rather than use the events as a source of revenue.
Gladiator Fights
In the bloody events of the arena, none came more graphic than the one-on-one gladiator fights. Qualities such as courage, fear, technical skill, celebrity, and, of course, life and death itself, engaged audiences like no other entertainment, and no doubt one of the great appeals of gladiator events, as with modern professional sport, was the potential for upsets and underdogs to win the day.
In Rome, city magistrates had to put on a gladiator show ( munera ) as the price for winning office, and cities across the empire offered to host local contests to show their solidarity with the ways of Rome and to celebrate notable events such as an imperial visit or an emperor's birthday. Gladiator fights became hugely popular, and those who went on a winning streak became living legends, darlings of the crowds who even had their own fan clubs.

Gladiator mosaic

Wild Animal Hunts
Besides gladiator contests, Roman arenas hosted events using exotic animals ( venationes ) captured from far-flung parts of the empire such as rhinos, panthers, and giraffes. These were made to fight each other or humans. Animals were frequently chained together, often a duo of carnivore and herbivore, and cajoled into fighting each other by the animal handlers ( bestiarii). Certain animals acquired names and gained fame in their own right as did their human 'hunters' ( venatores ). During these events, the underground mechanisms were employed to have animals appear unexpectedly in the arena, which was often landscaped with rocks and trees to resemble exotic locations and heighten the realism.
Mock Naval Battles
Shows in the arena often accompanied the lavish festivities held during a Roman triumph, and one of the most popular events was to audaciously restage real naval battles ( naumachiae ), naturally, in as lifelike and deadly fashion as possible.Julius Caesar commemorated the Alexandrian war by staging a huge battle between Egyptian and Phoenician ships while Augustus staged one to celebrate his victory over Mark Anthony at Actium. Nero went one better and flooded an entire amphitheatre to host his naval battle show. These events became so popular the later emperors did not need the excuse of a military victory to wow the public with epic mythologically-themed sea battles. The manoeuvres and choreography of these events were invented but the fighting was real, and so condemned prisoners and prisoners of war gave their lives to achieve ultimate realism for the baying crowd.

Fresco Amphitheatre, Pompeii

Public Executions
Arenas also hosted the execution of criminals – usually during the lunchtime lull – which was achieved in imaginatively gruesome ways like setting wild animals on the condemned ( damnatio ad bestias ) or making them fight well-armed and well-trained gladiators or even each other. Other more theatrical methods included burning at the stake or crucifixion, often with the prisoner dressed up as a character from mythology to give a little extra colour to the occasion. The spectators were not passive viewers as sometimes an execution was cancelled if the crowd demanded it.


Eventually, gladiator contests, at odds with the new Christian-minded Empire, declined under the later emperors and finally came to an end in 404 CE. The spectacle of criminals fighting animals went on for another century, but gradually the amphitheatres crumbled into disuse and suffered varying degrees of reuse and abuse. The tale of the Colosseum is a common fate: made into a fortress in the 12th century CE, damaged by an earthquake in the 13th century CE, and used as a public quarry by Pope Alexander VI. Still, the Colosseum and many other surviving Roman arenas remain today magnificent monuments and enduring testimony to both the skills and the vices of the Roman world. Many amphitheatres are actually still in use and still host large crowds for all manner of cultural events such as the world-famous summer opera season in Verona, mock gladiator fights in Tarragona, and rock concerts at Arles.

Amphora › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

An amphora ( Greek : amphoreus ) is a jar with two vertical handles used in antiquity for the storage and transportation of foodstuffs such as wine and olive oil. The name derives from the Greek amphi-phoreus meaning 'carried on both sides', although the Greeks had adopted the design from the eastern Mediterranean. Used by all the great trading nations from the Phoenicians to the Romans, the sturdy-walled amphora spread throughout the ancient world and they have become an important survivor in the archaeological record providing clues as to dates of sites, trade relations, and everyday diet.


Evolving from the large Bronze Age pithoi vessels, which the Minoans and Mycenaeans used for storage purposes, the amphora became perhaps the most common ancient pottery shape. However, the size and form had a great many variations.Amphorae could also be plain – typically when used for the transport of goods – or highly decorated, just as any other red-figure or black-figure pottery. Specific places, already noted for their pottery production, such as Corinth and Attica, along with famed wine-producing islands like Chios, Lesbos, and Samos all produced distinctive amphora types. So too did colonies in the Black Sea area and Magna Graecia, although some cities were happy enough to copy tried and tested designs. All amphorae were made in stages on the wheel with a period of drying between the addition of a new section.
The two basic types of amphora were the neck-amphora, which has the shoulder joining the neck at a sharp angle, and the belly amphora (or simply amphora) which curves continuously from neck to foot. Those vessels with broad mouths were known as either kadoi or stamnoi while the plain types for transport were referred to as amphoreus. Gradually the form of the vessel evolved to reflect its primary function as a carrier of wine and for ease of packing. The base foot became a spike and the vessel overall became taller and slimmer. In addition, during the Roman period the contents of amphorae became easily identifiable from the shape of the vessel in question, a useful feature when stored in busy ports. Decorative amphorae w ith a pointed base would have been kept upright in a bronze stand or deep ceramic ring.

Amphora, Wine Storage Jar


The average capacity for amphorae was 20-25 litres, although early versions were considerably larger. The general size became limited by the necessity for one or two persons to easily carry the vessel, and a standardisation, although attempted, was not achieved in practice until the Byzantine period. Foodstuffs transported in them included wine, olive oil, honey, milk, olives, dried fish, dry food such as cereals, or even just water. Non-food contents included pitch, and some were used in tombs as containers for the ashes of the deceased. Another special type was the Panathenaic amphora which was a large vessel of around 36 litres decorated with black-figure designs. They were filled with olives and given as prizes in the Panathenaic Games, held every four years in Athens. Finally, miniature amphorae known as amphoriskoi (sing. amphoriskos ) or pelikai ( pelike ) were used for storing perfume.
The Romans used amphorae in much the same way as the Greeks but with the addition of such Roman staples as fish sauce ( garum ) and preserved fruits. For this reason, amphorae were sealed using clay or resin stoppers, some also had a ceramic lid when used to store dry goods. Very few lids have survived in proportion to amphorae but those that do commonly have a single knob handle, sometimes made into the shape of a fruit. Finally, amphorae were used for completely unrelated purposes to their original design such as burial whole in marshy land to provide more solid foundations for buildings and walls or in roof domes as a means to provide additional support between courses.

Amphorae Packed for Transportation


Many amphorae (but certainly not all) used to transport goods were given a stamp before firing, typically placed on the neck, rim, or handles. This identified the place of origin (pottery workshop), indicated the vessel was part of a particular batch, named a controlling official, or guaranteed the content volume and quality. The name or monogram of the manufacturer might appear on the stamp, a month, or a regional adjective or symbol ( Rhodes, for example, used a rose emblem). In the case of wine, the age of good wine was indicated and the drink-by-date (year) for cheap wine. Stamps were also a means by which authorities could exercise a control on customs duties. Stoppers could be stamped for the same purpose. In addition to stamps, the Romans painted information labels on their vessels to make their contents easily identifiable.
All of this information has often been invaluable for archaeologists when attempting to date a site which contains amphorae, especially shipwrecks. Finally, the discovery of amphorae whose origin can be identified and their quantities are helpful in determining the extent of trade in the ancient world. The Monte Testaccio in Rome is an artificial mound of pottery shards coming from some 53 million discarded amphorae; impressive testimony to the fact that the amphora was one of the most common and useful objects in antiquity.


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