Human history is unbelievably long and, as we all know, simultaneously a tiny infinitesimal speck in the timeline of the universe. So much has happened; so much more is lost forever than we could begin to surmise from the breadth of the relics we’ve recovered. Some things in the history of our species are so incredible, they beg disbelief. Were it not for the sheer astounding luck of stumbling upon proof, most of us would never trust many things we now understand to be fact.
I am immensely inspired by the Bronze Age. I’ve written about this before and that post remains among my most popular to this day. I thought it might be cool to really look at some genuine articles of this ancient era, bask in the feats of our forebears, and share their influential wonder to hopefully inspire other role-playing game enthusiasts.
The Colossus of Rhodes
In 280BC the Greek people of the isle of Rodos, known today as Rhodes in most contexts, dedicated the completion of a grand statue thus:
To you, O Sun, the people of Dorian Rhodes set up this bronze statue reaching to Olympus, when they had pacified the waves of war and crowned their city with the spoils taken from the enemy. Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom and independence. For to the descendants of Herakles belongs dominion over sea and land.translated from Anthologia Graeca
Built to celebrate the city-state’s defense against a failed invasion by the massed forces of a one-eyed general of Alexander the Great, the Colossus of Rhodes is broadly attested in ancient texts as being as tall as the Statue of Liberty. It stood watch over the harbor of Rhodes, was built of bronze captured from the fleeing Macedonian forces, and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Its scale was so immense it attracted visitors from throughout the known world; across Asian, European, and African territories. It stood for half a century until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 226BC.
- The mad wizard Athalov plans to coax life into the bronze skin of the newly-completed Grand Titan. Maybe he wishes to do so as a last-ditch effort to defeat an invading force. Maybe he wishes to do so to sow chaos and destruction in the city.
The Antikythera Mechanism
Here’s a big one. In the ancient Mediterranean, Greek scholars perfected an incredibly complex mechanical computer small enough to be a personal possession. This crank-operated mechanism of hundreds of gears, tracks, pins, and inscriptions could orient star and planetary positions, dates, times. It could track long time cycles as part of several extant calendrical systems in circulation at the time, it could track moon phases, seasons, equinox and solstice dates, and more. Gaps in the recovered machinery point to the device likely being even more complicated and capable than we even know.
This was created ca 200BC, or maybe as late as 80BC. Its unbelievable brilliance would be the stuff of fantastic fiction if we had not lucked into discovering the shipwreck containing the artifact. This level of sophisticated technology was lost to the collapse of cultures in the area, and though some engineers centuries later in the medieval Islamic world produced fantastic automata and clockwork devices, the ability to produce machines of such complex and accurate clockwork computational power did not reappear until 1300-1400AD in Europe.
- The royal engineer has been working on her clockwork contraption for decades. At its unveiling, much to the shock and confusion of the crowd, it is revealed that cycling it changes day into night and night into day.
- Vom the sorcerer has descended from his cloud-piercing tower to warn folks below that the cycle of the planets, predicted by clockwork devices with great accuracy, is becoming misaligned and chaos will soon envelop the world.
- The captain of a ship advances his mechanical calendar by one day at dusk and finds, as he peers into the sky, that the stars suddenly do not align as predicted. In fact, none of the constellations are recognizable at all!
- Rumors of an advanced civilization, possibly spared from the devastation of an apocalyptic disaster, grow after fishermen drag up a complicated geared device from a dangerous waterway said to have once been theirs.
King Tut’s Dagger
The dagger of King Tutankhamen of Egypt is one of the most amazing treasures of bronze age royalty. Not just because of its delightful condition millennia later, and not just because of its lovely design; but because the blade is comprised of meteoric iron.
There was a time before early industrial efforts at extracting and refining iron ore, where iron itself was precious and rare, and often a literal gift from the heavens. It was the province of kings and chiefs, bestowed by those who pried strange oxidized, pock-marked metallic stones from the glassy sand craters they carved in the surface of our world. If that doesn’t get your juices flowing, you’re probably lost and ended up on this blog by mistake after I wrote about fountain pens awhile back. Sorry.
For the rest of us, a rare and powerful metal arriving by divine providence as a literal treasure from the stars is pretty much the recipe for a good time.
- The gods have been sending unknown minerals from the heavens. Some of these rocks can be smelted into mighty weapons. Some glow for months and can be chipped apart and used to illuminate homes. Some seem to fog the land nearby with malevolent energies.
- A pitched battle is occurring in an otherwise unremarkable area after several local factions have found the site of a meteor impact where a huge boulder gleaming like polished brass and crystallized sea water stands to be claimed by the victors. Camps ring the crater and skirmishes are constant.
- A village has suddenly become dominant in local conflicts, and it has something to do with their flashing swords, which can rend a blade in twain! Some say they are infected by devils and contract with demons to incite a great fury in battle. Others whisper that they have uncovered the alchemical recipe for a new kind of bronze written in the stars…
The scale of these massive structures is astounding. The ingenuity of the engineering is boggling. Dudes were out there measuring to within quarters of an inch across immense lengths using knotted string and splitting quarried stone with chalk. That’s not an everyday sort of clever, that’s the result of centuries of human know-how becoming codified into the field of engineering and being grasped by people in an era long before textbooks and PhDs. But most of all, these immense testaments to the majesty of the divinely-vested kings of Egypt are tombs. Giant, mysterious, cursed, sacred, monumental tombs, guarded by great statuary and hexes, filled with secret chambers and unknown levels we keep discovering thousands of years later, painted with brilliant hues.
Each pyramid is a necropolis. That sentence is stark and inspiring to me.
- The local regent has begun abducting workers from communities to fuel the dangerous production of his future tomb. Some say he has gone mad, that the construction is doomed, that the pyramid is marked by strange designs and elements of strange sorceries.
- At night, the peaks of the great pyramids – built by the lost civilization that once ruled these lands – have begun to glow and shine sky-piercing light into the heavens one by one. No one knows what happens when the last one lights up, but a sense of foreboding has stirred in the locals and now curious parties, crazed pilgrims, and power-hungry factions have traveled from afar to this forgotten land in great numbers.
- A local miner has broken through the stone of the shaft wall into an ancient and ornate tunnel of shaped limestone. He feared to go too deep, but he reports ancient designs and suspects it may connect to one of the ancient pyramids nearby – or, perhaps, all of them.
- The tomb of the imperial lord of the second age has been a weathered ruin for a thousand years. Sand covers its rounded facade. Countless caravans have passed it by in the centuries since the emperor’s time and paid it little heed. Why then does a distant thumping quake emanate from it at sundown each night? Why do animals now shiver and stir and steer clear of it? Why now is the moonlight each night a dimmer shade of red, each night darker than the last? Why now do men murmur that the emperor awakens?
The Terracotta Soldiers of Qin Shi Huang
You’re an emperor of one of the most innovative and significant kingdoms on earth. Scratch that – you’re the emperor of one of the most innovative and significant kingdoms on earth. China is entering one of the most dominant eras of its history and you are the first emperor to unite the Warring Kingdoms under one banner through cunning and force of arms. You have carved for yourself a corner of the historical record so great and consequential that the entire world will one day note your importance in shaping the modern globe. How do you celebrate this? You have your people prepare for your eternal rule by artfully casting an army of 8,000 individual soldiers, generals, attendants, artisans, horsemen, servants, and archers from the terracotta clay your dynasty will spread across the land, of course.
Painted in bright pigments and accompanied by clay horses, chariots, bows, quivers, swords, spears, and musical instruments, these soldiers of fired clay were buried with you, interred in your immense and expansive necropolis pits. These unique individualized soldiers guard you into the afterlife and serve you in your eternal life beyond.
- Local artisans have been using clay from the east to produce funerary art for the aging emperor, but recently, the caravans haven’t been coming in on time. Those that do arrive are harried and stare off in exhaustion. Word creeps out that dastardly crabmen plague the riverbanks and devastate caravaneers trading on the clay.
- Word has it the long-dead emperor of these lands was not satisfied merely with terracotta warriors, and took with him also the country’s largesse. The great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of an accountant in the emperor’s inner court swears by a family tale handed down over generations that tells of a immense treasure buried with him; she says that the ten-mile-trench that entombed the emperor’s funerary procession was not merely filled with ornamented statuary of camels and horses – rather, the mercantile caravan carrier very real gold and jewels on their backs.
The Bronze Age had an almost endless stream of human accomplishment. We take so much for granted that the breathtaking achievements of earlier civilizations are often missed because the world is so full of giant structures and colors. The Great Lighthouse of Pharos at Alexandria is hardly impressive when every rocky shoreline in Maine has three competing Pinterest-perfect lighthouses, but a 300′ structure built out on an island centuries before motorized seacraft and smokeless light sources. That’s absolutely wild. If they truly existed as described, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were a feat of great engineering, bringing verdant green life to tiered terraces atop buildings and a mud-brick “mountain” that created a massive monument of greenery that could be seen for miles – in what was, in many ways, a desert. The study of bronze age achievements is so vast I feel woefully inadequate and incomplete trying to list fun things in a blog; each next idea tugs at me from the last few letters of the one before.
As always, we stand to benefit by reading things other than games; to really get the brain juices flowing, we should steep ourselves in cool history and cool fiction. Hopefully these scant few Bronze Age things throw some fuel on the fire of the game-playing mindset and prompt some adventures. Let me know – comment here or post over on Twitter @DungeonsPossums.