The Stuff of Inspiration: Ancient History!

Matt Williams
10 min readMar 19


British Museum

Hey all! I’m feeling inspired again, and I’m getting really sick of talking about politics. Have a look at some of my previous articles, you’ll see what I’m talking about! So today, I wanted to follow up on a previous article I wrote about history and the stuff that motivates me to write. Specifically, I addressed the subject of ancient ruins and how mysterious and inspiring they are (some more than others).

Today, I wanted to expand on that by talking about the various periods of history that have been known to have the same effect on me. After all, mysterious ruins do not exist in a vacuum. Half the mystery comes from the historical context in which they were created, what people were doing long ago, and how we see the legacy of that in what they left behind. I feel like this is a universal phenomenon among humans, where the places and periods we know the least about are the most intriguing to us.

And for reasons I can’t fully explain, I’ve always wanted to write fiction that inspires the same feelings. Growing up, I always loved science fiction and fantasy franchises that had complex universes that included plenty of mystery and legend. Some examples include Dune, Lord of the Rings, Foundation, and Star Wars. The creators of these stories knew how to include deep backgrounds where there were plenty of unknowns.

When it comes to looking for real-world examples, these are the ones I come back to time and time again.


When it comes to the stuff of mystery and origins, there are few places and periods more appealing to me than ancient Mesopotamia. The name itself is Greek for “land between rivers,” referring to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers — in modern-day Iraq. Between 2500 BCE and the fall of Babylon in the 6th century BCE, this region was one of the most influential places in ancient Eurasia. Several civilizations rose and fell here over the millennia, like the Sumerians, Babylonians, Akkadians, and Assyrians.

But the reason this region is so interesting to historians, linguists, and ethnographers is that it is here that Western civilization traces its roots. Many of the advancements that led to civilization as we know it (“we” meaning Westerners)—agriculture, brewing, writing, metalworking, etc.—originated here and were adopted by neighboring cultures like the Elamites, Semites, and Hittites. These same traditions spread outward through trade and conquest and made their way all across Eurasia.

Beyond the technological, some of our deepest-held mythological traditions also originated here. Consider the Garden of Eden, the Deluge, and the Tower of Babel, three myths that are central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (though the “garden of life” and “great flood” narratives exist in many cultures). Many modern scholars trace the origin of these myths to the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enūma Eliš, the Babylonian creation myth.

In addition, the astronomical and astrological traditions of the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians passed (virtually unchanged) from the ancient Babylonians to the Minoans, Greeks, Romans, and Europeans. And the feats of engineering they accomplished remain famous to this day — the Ziggurats, the Walls of Babylon, the Hanging Gardens, and the tower of Etemenanki (believed to be the basis of the Tower of Babel myth).

Unfortunately, what many people know (or rather believe) about this ancient land comes from Biblical sources that portray the cultures that lived there as dark and decadent. This is the result of how the Babylonian Captivity period when emperor Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Judea in the early 7th century BCE and sent many Hebrews into exile. As a result, Hebrew books dated to this period (Jeremiah, Ezra, , and Ezekiel) portray the Babylonians negatively.

Much like Sodom, Gomorrah, Egypt, and the Philistines, the enemies of the ancient Hebrews are portrayed as wicked, their very names used as pejoratives to denote immorality. This obscures the fact that all of these civilizations were highly advanced, cultured, and responsible for many of the advances and practices that shaped western culture — and that includes that of the ancient Hebrews and the Levant. And when it comes to Mesopotamia, it is no exaggeration to say that it was the fountainhead of civilization as we know it.

It is only with modern archaeology and academia that the historic achievements and importance of Babylon and other Mesopotamian civilizations has come to be recognized.


My fascination with the Aztecs, the Mayans and other Mesoamerican civilizations goes back to my teen years when I learned about them for the first time. This only intensified after I was able to visit the Yucatan region in 2006 and visited Chichen Itza and Tulum while backpacking across the peninsula. But the more I dug into Pre-Columbian American history, the more intrigued I became.

In truth, the area extending from Southern Mexico to the Andes was one of three regions in the world where civilization arose independently and (almost) simultaneously. The civilizations that rose and fell across the region over several millennia were immensely interesting. They created cultural, mythological, technological, astronomical, and mathematical traditions that were astounding. Their engineering skills were among the best in the world, especially so considering that they didn’t always rely on metal tools.

What we know about the Mesoamerican cultures is rather limited due to the Spanish Conquest (from the early 16th to late 19th century), which wiped out millions and led to the near-destruction of their culture. As a result, what we do know about the pre-Columbian history of the area is largely the result of the Florentine Codex and the Dresden Codex, which contained detailed accounts of the Aztec and Mayan cultural traditions.

The rest is the result of ethnographic, anthropological, and archaeological studies, and what they revealed is fascinating. In a previous post, I talked about how Teotihuacan is such an inspiring place. The reason for this is because this site and others like it speak to the “pre-recorded” history of the Valley of Mexico. According to current theories, by 1500 BCE, the first complex civilization in the Valley emerged.

These were the Olmecs, whose name in Nahuatl means “rubber people” — an important trade resource and vital to the Mesoamerican ballgame. Their civilization reached from the Gulf Coast to Lake Texcoco and is evidenced by the ruins and artifacts they left behind (the most notable of which are their pyramids and giant stone heads). The Zapotec and Mayan civilizations also began to arise in this period, with large settlements popping up in modern-day Oaxaca and Guatemala.

By about 400 BCE, the Olmecs began to decline, and many city-states (altepetl) rose and fell until the rise of the Toltecs (early 8th century CE). It was during this period that Teotuhuacan was established, reaching its height by around 200 BCE with an estimated population of 125,000 (and measuring 20 square kilometers). During the reign of the Toltec empire, the Valley of Mexico became one of the world’s most densely populated areas in the world (and still is), and the cities of Tula and Tollan arose as major cities.

This era also saw Mayan civilization enter its “classical period” (ca. 250–900 CE), where major cities like Tikal, Calakmul, and Chichen Itza became major centers of trade, diplomacy, and cultural influence. By the 13th century CE, the city of Tula and the Toltec empire began declining, and the population shifted to the lakes region of the Valley. It was at this point that the Aztecs (Mexica) arrived in the Valley of Mexico and settled around Lake Texcoco.

In 1325, the Aztecs founded the city of Tenochtitlan on a small island in the southwest corner of the lake. Over time, they created a system of dikes, canals, sluices, chinampas, bridges, and artificial islands. They also filled in sections of the lake and terraced them for the sake of expanding their farmlands. They also created a network of aqueducts that brought fresh water from the nearby mountain springs into the city. Eventually, the Aztecs formed the Triple Alliance with the neighboring city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopan.

As they expanded outward, the Aztecs encountered the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan, Tula, and other Toltec and Olmec sites. Their fascination with these “prehistorical” places went deeper than anything we can imagine today. In Nahuatl, the name Teotihuacan literally translates to “birthplace of the Gods.” It and other ruins were termed “Tōllān,” which translates to “among the reeds” (i.e., reclaimed by nature.)

These names and the reverence with which they treated the ruins of the Olmecs and Toltecs tell us something. Like like all those who came and went in the Valley of Mexico and Mesoamerica, they recognized the cultural influence of those who came before them and left a lasting mark. The same is true today in how we view the marks left by the Aztecs, Mayans, and other Pre-Columbian civilizations.


If you’ve ever studied Chinese history, one of the first things you would note is how it is taught. With Western history, the education process usually begins with the Near East and the Levant, Greece and Rome, Medieval Europe and the Renaissance, the Age of Imperialism and Revolution, the Colonial Era, the World Wars, the Cold War, and the turn of the century.

Museum of the Terracotta Army/PA

In short, it’s all about tracing the roots of Western Culture back to its origins and showing how Europe’s expansion into the non-Western world effectively laid the foundations for modern history as we know it. But Chinese history, in contrast, is about tracing the origins of one of the largest and longest-lived civilizations on the planet. Like Mesopotamia, many civilizations in Asia trace their roots to the “Sinosphere” (China and environs).

What a history student will notice is that the Warring States Period (5th to 3rd century BCE) is a sort of transition point. Basically, it is where most of China’s recorded history begins and therefore has a more “modern feel.” What came before, the period known as the “Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors,” is the stuff of legend and mystery. It feels like the stuff of prehistory and mythology but is based on actual events.

This period began when the Zhou Dynasty fell, and what we recognize as northern China today became divided between the Seven Kingdoms — Chu, Han, Qi, Qin, Wei, Yan, and Zhao. These states warred for generations until Qin Shi Huang managed to conquer the others and rule as the first emperor (“Huángdì”) of China. What followed was the Qin Dynasty, which essentially set the mold for all subsequent dynasties of China.

In fact, the very name for China (Zhōngguó) literally means “central state(s),” referring to a united homeland under one rule. However, it’s the “Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors” period, which lasted from ca. 2070 to 256 CE, that truly interests me. To modern historians, this period coincides with the Xia Dynasty (2070–1600 BCE), the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BCE), and the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE).

The dates are approximate, given that there are few (or no) records dated to these dynasties. What we know about the Xia Dynasty comes from the Records of the Grand Historian and the Bamboo Annals, published between the late 3rd and early 1st century BCE. While Chinese scholars have uncovered archaeological evidence dating to the Bronze Age that is believed to correspond to these dynasties, the descriptions contained in these volumes are mythological and legendary.

The three Sovereigns of these periods were said to have ruled for thousands of years and are described as god-like figures. The “emperors,” meanwhile, are described as leaders whose lineages are described, but the dates of their rule are not well-constrained. Nevertheless, the entire period described is essentially the fountainhead from which China’s culture and history sprang. And the further back one looks, the more mythical and mysterious it becomes!

Get the picture? All these places, cultures, and historical narratives have something in common. They are all mysterious in and of themselves, but they also have the awe and wonder of “prehistory.” Those who came before, who left their mark on the “cultural landscape” and had a big influence on who and what we are today (and in ways we may be unaware of) — they are made all the more powerful by the fact that we don’t retain a lot of knowledge about them.

The unknown has a way of inspiring us to dig deeper, look harder, and seek out answers to the big questions. What we find often shakes up our conceptions of history, the Universe, and our place in it. Who knows? Perhaps future generations will unearth our civilization someday. Or we might hit the jackpot and find evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations out among stars. That is my personal hope since this kind of discovery would be the ultimate mystery!

“Those who came before” meets “those who came from another planet”! You can’t tell me that isn’t the stuff of inspiration!



Matt Williams

Space/astronomy journalist for Universe Today, SF author, and all around family man!