Big Data in World History: Seshat vs. DRH

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Ancient historians have been in the big open data business for almost 200 years, with Mommsen’s establishment of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum to publish all surviving ancient Latin inscriptions in 1853. Right now there are two competing projects to create an encyclopedia of quantitative data on world religious history which could be subjected to statistical tests: the Database of Religious History at UBC, and Peter Turchin’s Seshat project in the USA. Turchin belongs to a Russian tradition of social scientists such as Andrey Vitalievich Korotayev who want to find predictive, mathematical laws of history, often in the forms of cycles. A recent paper based on Seshat data has provoked not one but two responses only six weeks after publication.

  • Harvey Whitehouse et al., “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History,” Nature 568 (20 March 2019) pp. 226-229 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1043-4
  • Edward Slingerland et al., “Historians Respond to Whitehouse et al. (2019), ‘Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History'”, PsyArXiv Preprints, 2 May 2019 https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/2amjz
  • Bret Beheim, Quentin Atkinson (yes, that Atkinson), et al., “Corrected analyses show that moralizing gods precede complex societies but serious data concerns remain,” PsyArXiv Preprints, 2 May 2019 https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/jwa2n

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Some Thoughts on “Classical Greek Tactics: A Cultural History”

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A wall of gigantic rounded stones roughly shaped and placed together with a few smaller stones to fill gaps

Even the most overwhelming project can be completed if you take it one stone at a time! Photo of the Cyclopean walls of Mycenae by Sharon Mollerus, Wikimedia Commons, with a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Konijnendijk, Roel (2017) Classical Greek Tactics: A Cultural History. Mnemosyne, Supplements History and Archaeology of Classical Antiquity, Band 409 (Brill: Leiden)

Since the 1990s, there has been intense debate about early Greek warfare. Most people agreed that there was something wrong with the versions available in English, but it took time to agree on just what that wrongness was and whether it could be fixed with a few small changes or was more fundamental. This book is another Cyclopean stone in the walls of the current consensus.

Konijnendijk argues that the California School of writers on Greek warfare (John Kinloch Anderson, William K. Pritchett, and Victor Davis Hanson) were basically refining the ideas of Austrian, German, and English scholars before the First World War. The continentals were interested in a comparative history of warfare with the practices of the Prussian army at the top, the Roman army in the middle, and early Greek armies near the bottom, while the English scholars tried to explain why Greek warfare as described by the Prussians was so peculiar. For a long time it seemed like these early writers had solved the problem so little was written on the subject in English. When a new group of scholars in Cold War California became interested in warfare, they launched a flood of research in English which almost erased the original German context of their theories. In short, the ‘orthodoxy’ is really a set of received ideas from 19th century Europe which survived until a group of ‘scientific historians’ began to question them.
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Life as a Play

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A flyer for a business in Innsbruck: "NABU RECORDS: Schallplattn An- und Verkauf.  Exotica - Reggae - Dub - Hiphop - Austro Funk - Soul - Jazz - Rock - Metal - Pop - African - Arabic - Electro - Turntables - Poster"

Deliberate allusion or accidental choice of a name? Just like the river shrine to a certain Lady, parallels with ancient motifs are all around you in Innsbruck!

Epictetus, Enchiridion 17 tr. Manning

Remember that you are an actor in a play, in whatever kind the producer chooses: if short, then short, if long, then long. If he wants you to play a pauper, or a cripple, or a ruler, or a private citizen, you should play it the best that you can. For this is your job, to play the part that is given to you well, but to chose it belongs to another.

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Cross-Post: Bronze Sword Workshop, Scotland, 7-8 August

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Six unpolished bronze swords laid on the grass

Photo care of Neil Burridge of Bronze Age Swords

Neil Burridge had to give up his annual bronze sword workshops when he noticed his competitors taking them, but he is making an exception this year. These days he holds them at the Scottish Crannog Center near Aberfeldy in Perthshire

Sword workshop 2019 7th – 8th August @ crannog center

I have decided to run a sword workshop exploring Scottish Ewart Park swords at the Crannog Center. I ran one two years ago and really enjoyed it, still have to work out the details and places will be limited maybe 6 and will include an experimental clay mould casting and working on a pre cast Ewart Park blade and wooden handle shells and pommel included or an upgrade to metal pommel

Cost £320 message me if you are tempted

If that sounds like your bell beaker of ale, you can find the original posting by Neil Burridge at https://www.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=1672351989534498&id=644921868944187 {warning: Facebook!} or better yet just email him through his website.

Further Reading Bronze Age Swords http://www.bronze-age-swords.com/

Oh, The Scholar and the Swordsman Should Be Friends

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Two books with a wooden rondel dagger in a leather scabbard with a brass chape between them, laying on top of a hand-sewn linen shirt

Three historical fencing projects: a review of Jeffrey Forgeng’s “The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship” (2018) and a review of Guy Windsor’s “The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts” (2018)

The historical fencing world had 20 glorious years. Between 1992 and 2012, people around the world came together, pooled their different skills and interests, and turned a jungle of confusing manuals and manuscripts into working martial arts. At first, everyone was so excited to find someone else interested in swords that they were willing to overlook some other differences and tolerate each other’s flamboyant eccentricity. In the twilight of this period, Tom Leoni wrote that “I look forward to the fruits of the next generation of researchers- of both the swordsman-historian and historian-swordsman types.” But as it got harder and harder to fit everyone in a single gymnasium, and as it became less necessary to learn things from books by academics rather than buddies in the salle, cracks emerged. The jocks stopped being polite to the nerds, the people whose passion was for medieval dagger fighting stopped attending workshops on 18th century smallsword play, and the people who thought a background in say Japanese sword arts was essential stopped having any time for the people who thought it was corrupting. This week, I would like to talk about three projects which show the state of the movement in 2019, as best as I can see it from the outside.*
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Cross-Post: Hixenbaugh on Ancient Greek Helmets

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A closeup photo of a Corinthian helmet with a rough blue-green patina

Randall Hixenbaugh, illustrated by Alexander Valdman, Ancient Greek Helmets: A Complete Guide and Catalog (Hixenbaugh Ancient Art Ltd: New York, NY, 2019) 738 pages (275 color pages), 8 1/2 x 11 in, ISBN 978-0-578-42371-5, USD 450 (hardcover)

From Jeffrey Hildebrandt, for the deep of pockets:

The most comprehensive study ever produced on the subject of ancient Greek armor, tracing the development of the ancient Greek helmet from the Bronze Age through the Hellenistic Period, cataloguing over 2100 ancient Greek helmets and both public and private collections, examining every aspect of the design, manufacture, use, and cultural relevance of the military helmet in ancient Greek culture. Over 700 helmets are depicted in large full color illustrations.

Ancient Greek helmets are emblematic of the culture that created them at a time when entire nations were often obliterated by more powerful adversaries. This armor was the product of a culture that believed in free thought, free trade, and scientific inquiry unhindered by religious dogma. In their elegant and effective designs, we see the accumulation of these unique factors: individuality, industry, pursuit of excellence, and the desire to protect the lives and property of men that cherished these values.

The author “holds a Master’s Degree in Classical Archaeology and has participated in a number of archaeological excavations of Roman and Punic sites in Tunisia.” I can’t afford $450 books, and I can’t endorse the second paragraph of the description at all (it tells us how 19th century freethinkers, Edwardian colonial officials, and Cold War propagandists wanted to be, not about how ancient cultures actually lived; it picks one culture to represent whatever virtues the speaker admires, then uses other cultures to represent the corresponding vices), but if this book piques your interest, you can learn more at Hixenbaugh’s website. Jeffrey Hildebrandt is very impressed with the author’s earlier work.

Hieroglyphics in Mantua

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In Mantua did Gonzaga a stately pleasure dome decree. Being a renaissance tyrant, he decorated that dome with plaster frippery and curliques and paintings of fashionable Greek and Roman themes, but he also decorated it with these:

A roof decorated with neo-classical reliefs and fake heiroglyphics

A decorated roof at one of the palaces in Mantua.

Those are fake hieroglyphics! Nobody could read heiroglyphics in the sixteenth century, but that was not a problem for the plasterers of Mantua any more than it had been for the priests of Isis at Pompeii 1500 years before. Putting up some old sculptures with a sphinx or obelisk and some mysterious inscriptions communicated a message of exotic cosmopolitanism, and that (not “a thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of all good things to Semtutefnakht” or “Pa the scribe was here, these other scribes have trembling hands and stumbling lips”) was the message which visitors needed to read. Looking fashionably ancient in sixteenth-century Italy included Egyptian inscriptions as well as Greek friezes and busts of emperors. This raises the question when Europeans, and European settlers overseas, decided that the Greeks and Romans were ‘us’ and Egyptians, Syrians, or Persians were ‘them.’
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Folk Wrestling in Poland

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The field behind the Zentrum für alte Kulturen, Langer Weg, Innsbruck, on 31 January 2019

Over on Patreon, Maciej Talaga talks about the folk sports which Polish peasants used to play in the slack times of the agricultural year. As he says, outside of the harvest season peasant societies tend to have more workers than useful things for them to do, so people on the land have to find ways to amuse themselves.

Biady, that is wrestling, was one of the most popular. It was played mostly by older boys and unmarried men, but there were exceptions. Participants would establish a specific hold – you can see it demonstrated on the video – and try to throw each other down without breaking it. Such matches could last anything from a few seconds to up to half an hour (with a single successful throw!). They involved no judges or coaches, as none of the participants would receive any formal training.

The latter was also the very reason why documenting “biady” required a specific research strategy. Since this martial game had no technolect or jargon, practitioners had no consistent way to talk about it. They couldn’t discuss given techniques, as we are used to do in HEMA, since there were no names for wrestling actions involved. Even less so in regard to tactics and theoretical concepts. In effect, my Grandpa also had hard times answering my inquisitive questions which I started bombarding him with after I discovered he has a vivid memory of this fascinating tradition. Being a simple man, he not only was surprised that anyone found it interesting, but also lacked words to explain martial matters in a structured way.

Having realised these difficulties, I called for help: I have a pleasure to run a little youth club teaching HEMA to some fantastic boys and girls. Three of them, Krzysztof Markowski, Marcel Kwapisz and Bruno Biernacki, enthusiastically agreed to assist me in a research trip. We went by bus to Wizna, a town located some 30 km away from my grandparents’ house in Łomża, and took a walk to visit the only Polish folk wrestler we knew about. And this time we were prepared much better – instead of asking questions, we started “biadying” in front of my Grandpa in the hopes that it would be easier for him to comment on our performance than talk about “biady” from a scratch on his own. And it worked!

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What to Keep, What to Discard: The Mesopotamian Answer

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Men and women in Neo-Classical dress talk and consult plans as a city is built in the background

Rome was not built in a day, but my emails were transferred in one! A Baroque tapestry of the AEDIFICATIO BABILONIAE in the city museum, Rimini.

It is the end of the semester in which I graduated, so I have been working to back up my emails onto my computer (Austrian university webmail is limited to 500 MB, and does IMAP not POP, so when the account closes the emails go away unless you move them to local folders). The Anglo chattering class loves to talk about what to do with old papers and knicknacks, with Marie Kondo or the Swedish Death Purge inspiring opinion pieces and social media threads. Did you know that the cuneiform world had a pretty firm opinion on the matter?
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A Herodotean Sentiment

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The ruins of a brick-and-concrete structure in a grassy pit with trees and houses in the background

The remains of the Roman amphitheatre, Rimini (ancient Ariminum)

Evans-Pritchard [1937] (1977: 153) made the comment that when informants fall out; it is to the anthropologist’s advantage. However, in the modern era where informants read the anthropologist’s work, disputes among informants lead to all kinds of complications, and one must be especially careful in preparing the final script for publication both to safeguard the interests of informants, and to provide as accurate and unbiased an account as possible, taking into account the views of the different factions.

– Douglas S. Farrer, University of Guam, “The Perils and Pitfalls of Performance Ethnography,” International Sociological Association E-Bulletin, 2007 https://www.academia.edu/2350143/The_Perils_and_Pitfalls_of_Performance_Ethnography