Photographs Showing How a Helmet is Made

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22 black and white photos of a helmet being worked from a simple plate of steel into a visored and polished and engraved and gilt form

Series of steps in the construction of a close helm in the Greenwich style of about 1580 by Daniel Tachaux. Photo by Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1915, as reprinted in Robert Douglas Smith ed., Make All Sure: The Conservation and Restoration of Arms and Armour (Basiliscoe Press: Leeds, 2006) p. 108 publisher’s website

I encourage you to click on the photo above and see it at full size. This is not a source for how real 16th century armour was made (and an expert tells me that its not a very good replica), but how Daniel Tachaux made a replica during the First World War.

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Matthew Amt’s Greek Hoplite Page Updates

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Screenshot of a website with a title flanked by two photos of hoplites

Matthew Amt’s Greek Hoplite Page is pretty well known among people interested in ancient warfare. It might not be as well known that he has been updating it, expanding the bibliography to include some of the new publications on Greek clothing, arms, and armour and addressing the great shoulder-flap-cuirass controversy. As I revise this post, his old glued linen armour is sitting in a bath, being cleansed of its sticky contamination so that the linen can be salvaged and remade into a quilted armour. He has also added a typology of Classical Greek swords based on several archaeological publications after deciding that his old swords and sources did not match the originals, and is working with Deepeka in India to help them make replicas which are closer to the originals (a Labour of Herakles in itself!)

One thing that I admire about his approach is its humanity. One of the problems with reconstructing historical artefacts is that any one depends on a whole system of crafts and industries which are usually missing today. It is very difficult to obtain wide sheets of copper-tin bronze, so would-be bronzesmiths are reduced to salvaging decorative panels on doors and cracked cymbals. Ancient woollens were often woven to shape so that they did not need to be cut, and could have had a density and thinness which we associate with cottons; having something appropriate specially woven and dyed is a long and expensive process. There is not much demand for split or coppiced ash poles today, so modern spear-shafts have to be cut out of sawn logs, with the result that they are probably more fragile and worse balanced than the originals. Rather than give up, or exhaust oneself in the search for the perfect, Matthew suggests choosing “good enough” and making continual small improvements as your skill or knowledge increases. I think that his site succeeds in its goal of giving readers the information to make a “good enough” kit, and enough pointers to sources that they can start digging deeper if they want to.

The Size of Achaemenid Armies

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In the chapter of my dissertation on the Greek sources, I had to talk about the size of Persian armies. One of the few details about Persian armies which most Greek writers give is that they had a specific and very large number of men, and no other kind of evidence lets us estimate the size of armies in the field (the Behistun inscription lists the number of enemies killed and taken alive in various battles, and it is possible to estimate how many bow estates or temple soldiers were available in some parts of Babylonia, but neither is a reliable guide to the size of royal armies in the field). The reason why we are so determined to give the size of Achaemenid armies is that the classical tradition tells us that we should.

I side with the skeptics, such as George Cawkwell, who feel that the numbers for barbarian armies in ancient sources are not worth much, and that as they drew on similar populations and administrative systems, Achaemenid armies were probably about as big as Hellenistic and Roman ones. In a broad survey like my thesis, I had no time to propose numbers for specific cases, even if I decided that that were possible. (My master’s thesis lays out the evidence for Cunaxa as clearly as I could, although today I would add a few sentences). While arguments against vast armies are not always perfectly formed, I am not sure that the remaining believers in countless Persian hordes are really driven by the evidence (a great article by T. Cuyler Young has some suggestions about the psychology and literary forces involved). So instead of arguing back and forth about logistics and the lengths of columns, I focus on some other perspectives.

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Cross-Post: Historical Sword and Shield Training 2017

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From Dimicator, the alter ego of Roland Warzecha.

You are welcome to participate in the Historical Sword & Shield Classes 2017 in period costume in the most beautiful venue of the History Park Bärnau in the south-east of Germany [in Bavaria, on the Czech border- ed.] All seminars focus on single combat with shields and hand weapons, but duelling with spears will be covered, too, as a means to convey essential tactical and mechanical concepts. See photos of past classes in these albums here and here.

An info brochure is attached as PDF to this post. This should answer most questions, but do not hesitate to send an email if you need any further information. Registration is open.

These are the weekend seminars offered in 2017:
Viking shield: 17/18 June
Kite and medieval triangle shields: 24/25 June
Small and medium sized triangle shields and bucklers: 22/23 July
Advanced buckler: 29/30 July (requires a medium skill level with historical sword and buckler fencing)

Feel free to ask any questions you might have via email.
See you in the History Park Bärnau in summer 2017!

Roland

From a Patreon post by Dimicator (Warning: invisible without enabling cloudflare and patreon Javascript). A brochure in PDF format can be downloaded here.

While I am not completely confident in what Roland is doing from an academic point of view, I can say that he is a very good fencer and a safe teacher. So if you are interested in how later martial arts can be extrapolated backwards to find effective ways of fighting with earlier weapons, these workshops would be as good a place as any.

Some Thoughts on “Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics”

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The cover of a book showing a map of Eurasia in the background and a tree of Indo-European languages in the foreground

Asya Pereltsvaig, Martin W. Lewis, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2015) ISBN 978-1107054530 Bookfinder link

A few years ago, some very bad linguistics was published in some very famous journals and credulously reported by newspapers which are very widely read. Usually, academics respond to nonsense by ignoring it, because proving something wrong is much more work than claiming it in the first place (Brandolini’s Law), and because the authors of bad research rarely respond well to criticism and fans of that research are not always interested in a second opinion. But two blogging philologists, Martin Lewis and Asya Pereltsvaig, have written an entire book exploring the problems with these papers and standing up for the importance of geography and historical linguistics in any attempt to understand past languages and cultures.
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Publishing in Xenophon’s World

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One way I use this blog is as a commonplace book. Researchers often assume that to publish something in the fifth or fourth century BCE was more or less the same as to do it in 1950 AD: one wrote and corrected it, checked it carefully, sent it out to be copied and distributed, and thereupon ceased to interact with it unless at some distant time you decided to publish a second edition. Douglas Kelly is not so sure:

The other possible line of enquiry that appears fruitful is to consider what Xenophon expected to happen to a copy of the Hellenica when he let it out of his hands. Modern criticism assumes, as in the case of Plato’s dialogues, that the text went to individuals who read it, aloud of course, in private. So some may well have done, but the hypothesis being advanced here is that Xenophon expected his Hellenica, like the rest of his works, to go to those small groups of his peers: that educated and leisured audience saw a book more as the occasion for a sociable gathering for discussion than something for solitary reading. … The assumption here (and it can only be an assumption but at least is an explicit one that arises to explain things otherwise without cogent explanation) is that these small private reading circles could turn their attention to historical working as much as to philosophical writing. That Xenophon tried his hand at both might suggest that he expected much the same audience for either. Xenophon himself came from the small social class as that from which the little, club-like groups visible in some of Plato’s dialogues were drawn. His Socratic writings were addressed to a similar audience as were Plato’s, although in Xenophon’s case the audience will have been less rigorous in its taste for philosophical arguments and more interested in the practical lessons of conventional ethics. In Xenophon’s hands the writing of history for such an audience was going to be gentlemanly and edifying.

– Douglas Kelly, “Oral Xenophon,” in Ian Worthington ed., Voice into Text: Orality and Literacy in Ancient Greece pp. 161, 162

Now suppose that Xenophon discussed the things he cared about with such groups of peers, and sometimes gave them a copy of his current version of a particularly good lecture (which he had adjusted as he spoke according to his audience) or had someone come approach him between the mimes and the flute girls to ask if he was going to really slander so-and-so in his history, so that in his world, before he had become a ‘classic’ to be edited and glossed, multiple versions circulated and people were as likely to hear his ideas orally as to read them. That is hypothetical, but no more hypothetical than the assumption that he worked like Isaac Asimov!

Cotton from Dilmun

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An eroded ziggurat against the background of the blue sky with bushes and depressions in the foreground

Tschoga Zanbil, the greatest surviving ziggurat in Elam (modern Khuzestan). Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.

In Achaemenid studies, Wouter Henkelman’s book The Other Gods Who Are is famous for using some very difficult sources to argue that we should not think about Iranians replacing and subjugating Elamites, but that the ancient Persians we know were the product of hundreds of years of interaction between Iranian-speakers and Elamite-speakers sharing the highlands of Fars, so that by the time of Cyrus or Darius it was hard to say what was Iranian and what was Elamite. Elam had traditionally included both lowland Susa and highland Anšan, and by the time of Cyrus the difference between mountain and plain may have felt more real than any difference in language or religion inside one region.

As this study aims to show, the religious landscape of the Achaemenid heartland was a fascinating and variegated tapestry woven from Elamite and (Indo-)Iranian traits. It will be argued that, though heterogeneous, this landscape was nevertheless a unity that was treated as such by the administrators at Persepolis. ‘Iranian’ and ‘Elamite’ cults were not only treated alike, but were actually not separated in clearly distinct sections. The gods venerated and the cults sponsored were only so because they were considered to be Persian, i.e. as belonging to the rich intercultural milieu of first-millennium Fārs. (p. 58)

As I take my first glance through it, I find that it has other treasures:

One question that arises at this point is whether [the hoard of silverware from] Kalmākarra is an exception, or an indication of the overall level of prosperity in the period under discussion [ie. the century after the Assyrian invasions around 640 BCE]. Confirmation of the thesis that ‘Kalmākarra’ is not an exceptional case is the rich inventory of a stone burial chamber, discovered by chance in 1982 at Arǧān near Behbahān in eastern Khūzestān. The funerary deposits, in and outside of a bronze coffin, included an elaborate bronze stand (or ‘candelabrum’), a large gold ceremonial object (‘ring’), a dagger decorated with precious stones and gold filigree, a silver rod, a bronze lion beaker and a large bowl with engraved scenes. Four of the objects have an Elamite inscription reading “Kidin-Hutran, son of Kurluš.” Apart from metal objects, the tomb also contained remains of embroidered garments. The 98 gold bracteates, also found in the coffin, may have been sewn to one or several of these garments. There is now a communis opinio on the tomb’s date: the later seventh or early sixth century BC (i.e. contemporaneous with the Kalmākarra hoard and the Acropole texts).[79] The Arǧān find is of major importance for its international context. The tomb inventory displays a range of different styles and iconographic themes (Phoenician, Syrian, Elamite, Assyrian) and some objects probably reached Kidin-Hutran via long-distance trade. This is particularly true for the textiles found in the tomb, at least three of which are made of cotton – these are, in fact,among the earliest Near Eastern examples of cotton garments. As Javier Álvarez-Mon argues, maritime trade between Elam and Dilmun, where cotton was grown in this period, is the most likely source of the fabric or the raw material (Álvarez-Mon [forthc. 1]).

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How Much Does the Protection of Low-Tech Armour Vary?

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A selection of images from tactical displays in Star Wars: A New Hope

Despite all of our technological terrors, we still can’t predict the outcome of hand-to-hand combat very well. Graphic courtesy of Dr. Mike Reddy 2013 https://doctormikereddy.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/javin-java-battle-of-yavin-tactical-computer/

Designers of roleplaying games who are interested in learning how the real world works, and not just studying other people’s stories and games, usually put a lot of thought into the combat mechanics. One old argument is about how to handle the performance of armour. Fairly early on (sometime in the 1970s or 1980s?), the idea of a damage roll was combined with the idea that armour could provide a penalty to damage. However, this tends to bother people whose archetypical combat involves modern firearms and armoured vehicles or kevlar body armour.

Bullets and shells have a very predictable ability to penetrate armour, and modern industrialized, standardized-tested armour has a very predictable ability to resist it, and the damage-roll-minus-armour model tends to let some things get through which should be stopped. While sometimes this can be abstracted away (“eh, maybe those few points of damage represent bruising”) other times that is difficult to justify (“did the shell explode inside the tank or outside? Did the Deathly Dagger of Draining touch his flesh or not?”) One solution to this is to treat both penetration and resistance as more or less fixed, then generate the effect of the wound based on their interaction. GURPS fans often refer to this as armour-as-dice, because armour can be treated as reducing the predictable number of damage dice which the attacker rolls instead of the variable results of that roll.

However, models which treat penetration and resistance to penetration as more-or-less fixed tend to make people who are more interested in combat with hand weapons uncomfortable. In this post, I would like to explore what we know about how much the ability of hand-made armour to resist weapons can vary, even within a given piece of a known form and quality. If you want, you can skip to where I sum up.

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2016 Year-Ender

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Every day that we throw out some seeds is Christmas for the local birds!

Every day that we throw out some seeds is Christmas for the local birds!

I have now been blogging for three years, three months, and a day. Traffic has roughly doubled every year since 2014 to the dizzying heights of 20 unique visitors and 40 page views per day and ten comments a month. My post on learning Sumerian is still popular, as is my outline of “Armour of the English Knight,” my confession of error about the historical fencers, and my posts on whether we have any evidence that the Greeks used glued linen armour and on the scale armour from Golyamata Mogila. No other posts received more than 300 visits in the year.

Amongst people who like to write on the internet in English, there is a meme that 2016 has been an especially bad year. For many people, that is political news and the death of favourite celebrities. For me, it is sickness, a serious illness in my family, and watching people react to that political news in ways which are very human but make the problem worse. From ever-fiercer posturing against evil outsiders, to shouting louder and louder about the meaning of events, to sitting down and writing another column which attempts to predict the future using the same methods which just failed to predict the present, a lot of people are doubling down on strategies which they know do not work. But as I look back, I notice a big contrast between the real world that I live in and the artificial world of the media (from blogs to newspapers).

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The Linen Karballatu

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A bascinet with a perforated-metal visor wearing a red hood with cheek flaps and a tall comb at the top folded down

I am cautious about posting closeups of my face on the Internet, but while I am visiting my parents I have a convenient surrogate available

Some years ago, I made up one of the famous Persian hoods in red linen cloth. I machine-sewed it and bag-lined it, and did not have sources other than reliefs, the Darius Mosaic, the bonnet from one of the Pazyryk tombs, and an interesting woodcut which Jona Lendering showed me. I used linen because it was available and appropriately light and flowing. I had a feeling that wool would have been more common. Back then, I knew that Strabo said that ordinary Persians wore a rag of sindōn (fine linen? by the middle ages sindon was a delicate silk) about their heads while rich ones wore a tower-like felt hat, so I had one possible source for linen (the original Greek is ῥάκος σινδόνιόν and πίλημα πυργωτόν and the citation is Strabo, Geography, 15.3.19). In the meantime I learned a bit of Greek, and also some Akkadian. It turned out that both of those languages are relevant.
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