Medieval castle

Were the Dark Ages Really Dark?

The idea of a worldwide Dark Age or universal decline in man’s knowledge may be difficult to accept because the broad deterioration of ancient civilizations didn’t happen at an even pace in all geographic regions and records are very sketchy. The Arab and Chinese civilizations, for example, are believed to have held up relatively well while many European cities succumbed to the worst of the Dark Ages. Some of the ancient Greek and Roman knowledge that was lost to many after the burning of the Alexandria Library and subsequent Dark Ages, did survive under Arab protection, and when combined with their own knowledge, helped these people move ahead of Europe in the early phase of the recovery, or Renaissance, period. One of the more advanced Emirates, Al-Andalus in Spain, was an oasis of religious tolerance at this time, credited by some with keeping civilization alive during the later Dark Ages.

An Age of High Culture? That Depends…

But was this a cultural high age? Compared to much of the West, yes. Many parts of the Islamic world (as well as China and India) did seem to fare better than Europe. But the trend, compared to their own ancient ancestors, was the same: a very long period of decline. Starting with Sumer, Akkad and Babylon, virtually all the cities along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers experienced a long, devastating cycle of lower and lower cultures.

So too did the region of ancient Egypt and Northern Africa and the surrounding lands (the Arab world). It went from an almost fabled civilization of pyramids, huge ziggurats, hanging gardens, vast canal systems, art and agriculture, towers and observatories for watching the stars – to one with crumbling ruins and an almost nomadic way of life. We have mentioned some of Babylon’s rich cultural achievements, but few realize that literature too was once at a high state in this region, the birthplace of the world’s first known epic, Gilgamesh. Yet many of the advancements and refinements of these earlier civilizations were already lost to the world thousands of years before the Arab culture supposedly flowered. It was nothing less than a long-term decline on a mass scale. And while this descent may have been punctuated by short periods of growth and civility, especially when compared to Europe after the fall of Rome, Medieval Arabia could not compare in scale to the richness of art and architecture of its elder civilizations , Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt.

‘Isle of Graia Gulf of Akabah Arabia Petraea’ by David Roberts; depicting the Pharaoh's Island in the northern Gulf of Aqaba off the shore of Egypt's eastern Sinai Peninsula.

‘Isle of Graia Gulf of Akabah Arabia Petraea’ by David Roberts; depicting the Pharaoh's Island in the northern Gulf of Aqaba off the shore of Egypt's eastern Sinai Peninsula.’ ( Public Domain )

Preservation Over Invention

But some might ask, what about the fact that Arab mathematicians invented the number zero and their engineers built geared devices well before the Europeans? Aren’t those hallmarks of an evolved society? I agree that these technologies were an important contribution to the broad cultural awakening that took hold after the depths of the Dark Ages, and that they seemingly came from this region.

But new evidence suggests that the Arab world may have played more of a preservation role rather than an inventive one. We now know that the number zero was in use by the ancient Mayan culture (long before Arabic numerals) and possibly by the Vedic Indians too. And the astrolabe type of geared device used by the Arabs to plot movements of the sun and moon was actually a less-refined version of the recently discovered Antikythera device – which simultaneously tracks many more celestial objects, and traces its origins to the Greeks in the Mediterranean 1000 years earlier (around 50 BC).

Antikythera Mechanism

Antikythera Mechanism. (Weekend Wayfarers/ CC BY 2.0 )

None of this is meant to slight the medieval Arabs or Moors in any way; indeed they should be lauded and remembered for their many scientific and artistic contributions, and for saving much of the knowledge that the rest of the world lost during the Dark Ages. For a multitude of reasons, the Arab world may not have suffered as severe a Dark Age as Western civilization during the same period, but the long-term historical pattern is the same.

The Cycle of Decline and Recovery

All of which is to say, that what is often described as a flowering when we look back to the thousand years since Europe’s Dark Ages, could instead be seen as a recovery or rebirth from a far longer and deeper decline over a period of 5000 years. Observed within this larger context, it looks a whole lot more like a cycle, a high period of enlightenment, a fall and period of decline (a descending age) and a recovery or renaissance (an ascending age), which continues to this day.

The same is true for western Asia, and especially China. Some say it was more advanced in many ways than Greece or Rome when those Western empires fell. The Han Dynasty (202 BC to 9 AD) which flourished about the same time as early Rome, was likely more civil than its European counterpart – at least they didn’t crucify people in the streets. Though the Han have been compared favorably with Western cultures of the same time period, they appear to have been a less accomplished culture than the preceding dynasty of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (best known for unifying China and for the 7000 life-sized terracotta statues found near his mausoleum – a huge archaeological discovery made in 1974).

Terracotta warriors

Terracotta warriors. ( CC0)

China’s Relative Dark Age

Let’s go further back in Chinese history. Long before the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, we find some very remarkable knowledge. According to the preface of the Atlas of the Chinese geographer Phei Hsui, the Chinese were making maps with grid lines ( Fen Lu) back in the Hsia and Shang Dynasties, c. 2205-1050 BC. These rectangular grids are akin to longitude and latitude, itself not used in the West until the later Renaissance, and highly valuable if one wants to make accurate maps or voyage long distances. However, over time these rather sophisticated maps fell into disuse and the grid system was replaced by a cruder system during China’s relative Dark Age.

The Chinese Yu Ji Tu

The Chinese Yu Ji Tu (Map of the Tracks of Yu the Great), a map carved into stone in the year 1137 during the Song Dynasty, located in the Stele Forest of modern-day Xian, China. Yu the Great refers to the Chinese deity described in the Chinese geographical work of the Yu Gong, a chapter of the Classic of History. Needham and Chavannes assert that the original map must have predated the 12th century. ( Public Domain )

Before 1000 BC we find a highly prosperous and advanced society with tremendous knowledge of astronomy producing an astounding amount of accurate astronomical records. In Qinghai Province, ancient pieces of pottery have been found etched with pictures of stars, the sun or the moon in various phases. One piece of bone dating to 1500 BC contains writing showing that the Chinese knew the length of the tropical year to within a fraction of the Earth’s daily rotation, yet this knowledge was later lost for many centuries. In the early 1900’s, thousands of these bone records were excavated from a field near An-yang, outside Beijing. Over the last 80 years, at least 135,000 more pieces have come to light, forming a treasury of information going back to Shang times.

Ox scapula oracle bone from the reign of King Wu Ding (late Shang dynasty) found in Anyang, Henan Province, China

Ox scapula oracle bone from the reign of King Wu Ding (late Shang dynasty) found in Anyang, Henan Province, China. (BabelStone/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

According to Dick Teresi in his book ‘ Lost Discoveries : The Ancient Roots of Modern Science – from the Babylonians to the Maya’, “This vast library recorded on the bone texts has enabled modern historians of astronomy to backtrack regularly occurring celestial events with computers to match sky phenomena inscribed millennia ago.” He even tells us that “NASA astronomers used 14th century BC oracle bones to help determine how much the earth’s rotation is slowing down…”and that the “Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena reported they had fixed the exact date and path of a solar eclipse seen in China in 1302 BC…based on analysis of tortoise shell inscriptions.” This, in turn, helped JPL to “calculate that the length of each day was 47 thousandths of a second shorter in 1302 BC than it is today.”

But as in other parts of the world, much of this knowledge fell by the wayside. Astronomical records in particular were lost for long periods of time, and with them much of the knowledge for accurately predicting recurring phenomena such as comets and eclipses. There is even a story about a Medieval observatory, a type of armillary sphere called a torquetum, located in Nanjing, that was moved from its original site in Linfen during the Ming Dynasty. By being moved, the device became useless because it was latitude dependent. Apparently this important bit of knowledge, critical to its function, had been lost.

Today, China is a land of increasingly frequent archaeological discoveries, which more and more are pointing to an ancient culture far older and more advanced than Western textbooks describe (the textbooks just can’t keep up with all the revelations). Based on a study of ancient jewelry, some dating back to 5000 BC, it now appears that the Chinese had knowledge of metallurgy far earlier than anyone had previously thought. Several pairs of ancient earrings indicate the ability to precisely balance the weight of precious metals in matching sets, and some jade objects display a finish smoother than diamond-polished jewelry of today.

jade dragon from the Chinese Western Han Dynasty king of chu's tomb.

Jade dragon from the Chinese Western Han Dynasty king of chu's tomb. ( CC BY SA 2.5 )

And China even has a number of ancient pyramid-type structures which local folklore dates to the time of the pyramids in Egypt (about 2000 – 3000 BC by most accounts). Frustratingly, the Chinese pyramids are off-limits to scientists at the moment because they are apparently situated near a rocket testing site.

In another example of ancient Chinese science, this time in medicine, a new treatment for malaria (Artemisinin, derived from the herb Qing Hao, or “sweet wormwood”) was recently found in a recipe in a Chinese tomb from 168 BC. (Information on these and other recent discoveries can be easily accessed on the internet.)

Artemisia annua or "Chinese wormwood", "Sweet wormwood" "Qing hao" is a medicinal plant with proven anti-malaria action. The principal active compound is called artemisinin and this is often processed into semisynthetic derivates like artesunate, dihydroartemisinin and artemether

Artemisia annua or "Chinese wormwood", "Sweet wormwood" "Qing hao" is a medicinal plant with proven anti-malaria action. The principal active compound is called artemisinin and this is often processed into semisynthetic derivates like artesunate, dihydroartemisinin and artemether. (Tom Rulkens/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

With the ongoing archaeological discoveries, I believe that China is showing us the same trend that we find in other regions of the world: At some point in the distant past civilization was highly advanced, then subtly or not so subtly it declined into a relatively dark age or less sophisticated period, only to begin ascending again in more recent times.

Controversy Over the Great Cycle of Civilization

While the notion of a great cycle of civilization was well-accepted in the ancient world, it is a lot more challenging for modern scholars to accept, because the pre-Dark Age archaeological record is riddled with holes, leaving it open to opposing interpretations. Furthermore, mythology, which constantly hints at cycles and higher ages, doesn’t rise to the level of provability – at least not yet.

Compound this with the fact that anyone not up to speed on recent discoveries, or overly inculcated in the Darwinist paradigm (which includes most of us who went to school in the 20th and 21st century), and you can see why the current mindset persists: Anything that came before us must be more primitive. But slowly, and quite surely

Extract from Chapter 1: How Broad Were the Dark Ages? in ‘ Lost Star of Myth and Time ’ by Walter Cruttenden.

Top Image: Medieval castle ( Zacarias da Mata / Adobe Stock)

By Walter Cruttenden

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