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), but if this book piques your interest, you can learn more at Hixenbaugh’s website.

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

Cross-Post: Books Before Print

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Erik Kwakkel, Books Before Print (Amsterdam University Press/ARC Humanities Press, 2018) EUR 34 (paperback), 105 (hardcover), 105 (ebook) (available on Biblio)

Erik Kwakkel, excellent book historian and blogger, has a new book out on the medieval manuscript as a well-engineered tool shaped by readers’ habits and desires.

This beautifully illustrated book provides an accessible introduction to the medieval manuscript and what it can tell us about the world in which it was made and used. Captured in the materiality of manuscripts are the data enabling us to make sense of the preferences and habits of the individuals who made up medieval society. With short chapters grouped under thematic headings, Books Before Print shows how we may tap into the evidence and explores how manuscripts can act as a vibrant and versatile tool to understand the deep historical roots of human interaction with written information. It highlights extraordinary continuities between medieval book culture and modern-world communication, as witnessed in medieval pop-up books, posters, speech bubbles, book advertisements,and even sticky notes.

If you are a little bit interested in the middle ages, most of the illuminated manuscripts you have seen are from the 15th and early 16th century … they are roughly contemporary with the first printed books in Europe. Fifteenth-century Europe was richer than Europe a century or two earlier, it had more rich people who could pay for lapis-lazuli blue and gold dust and silver leaf, and the styles of art are closer to our taste. Early printed books imitated manuscripts like ebooks and websites imitated hardcovers and magazines. But medieval book culture was also different than ours: big margins were fashionable, and books were meant to be memorized not read once and passed on. Specialists called codicologists and art historians know many things which sometimes get brushed over in books aimed at a larger audience.

If you work with medieval books, but didn’t get to take university courses on the subject, reading this and a few of the books in the bibliography would be an excellent idea. You can find the affordable paperback edition on Biblio.

Full Disclosure: I know the author

Max Jähns, Red Figure Vases, and Linen Armour

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A leatherbound book with gold impressed title on the spine

Innsbruck’s copy of Max Jähns, Handbuch einer Geschichte des Kriegswesens von der Urzeit bis zur Renaissance. Technischer Theil. (Leipzig: Fr. Wilh. Grunow Verlag, 1880)

Today, we often take it for granted that ancient texts mentioning linen or leather armour must describe the kind with a yoke over the shoulders and a skirt of ‘feathers’ which we see in Red Figure vase paintings and Etruscan tomb paintings. But like many other aspects of this debate, it is hard to trace back before Peter Connolly in the 1970s. People have collected references to linen and leather armour in literature since the 16th century, but for a long time they did not compare it to artwork any more than they compared it to objects in museums. At first this may have been because travelling to collections of art and accurately reproducing them was impractically expensive. Any scholar could see a collection of antiquities, but the one in their patron’s library was not the one in another scholar’s cathedral or a third’s country house, so they could not refer readers to a specific sculpture and expect that they would seek it out in the way they could cite a line of poetry and expect readers to take down another book and read it. Also, the brighter researchers often noticed that many of these passages describe the armour of barbarians: Egyptians, Assyrians, Iberians. John Kinloch Anderson is the first writer who comes to mind who explicitly identified the “linen and leather armour” he saw in Greek texts with the armour with shoulder flaps in Greek sculptures and paintings (Military Theory and Practice in the Age of Xenophon, 1970, pp. 22-23). About a hundred years before, him, a Prussian staff officer named Max Jähns had some different thoughts on this question.
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Historiography, Forschungsgeschichte, and Geschichtsschreibung

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I am going to say a bad word: historiography. The problem with this word is that it can either mean “the writing of history” or “the history of writing about history.” Thus Roman historiography can be history written by Romans, but it can also be the things which people in the last few hundred years write about those Roman writers. Sometimes it even refers to the science of history, and to whether arguments obey the rules of logic and the rules of evidence, as when Karin Wulf writes:

And no, I don’t always read this way [intro, first and last pages of each chapter, conclusion, skim the footnotes, done]. For work that’s in my research area, and when I’m reading for the joy of reading history (which I try to do regularly), I read more deeply and thoroughly. But thinking historiographically, getting a sense of how evidence and argument are related within a book (or essay), and how those relate to other scholarship, I find pretty well served by this approach.

It is as if we had one word which covered novels, book reviews, and textbooks for would-be novelists, but not the words “novel” “book review” and “composition textbook” or “writer’s guide” (or if archaeology and museology were one word, so that sometimes you opened a book hoping for a casual read about Edwardian exhibitions of mummies and found yourself neck-deep in First Intermediate Period pottery chronology). When you see a book like Luke Pitcher’s Introduction to Classical Historiography on the shelf, you have to look closely to see whether it will talk about ancients like Xenophon and Sallust or moderns like Mommsen and Rostovtzeff.

Fortunately, in German we solved this problem a good long time ago. In German we have the two terms Geschichtsschreibung and Forschungsgeschichte. Geschichtsschreibung (“historical writing”) talks about the past, but Forschungsgeschichte (“research history”) talks about what people have said about the past and how they make a case for it. I find that this leads to less confusion.

English does have the term reception history which is the history of how people in general, without policing by a community of experts or commitment to particular professional standards, talk about the past. This can look a lot like the second kind of historiography, but it notices people outside a tiny academic circle. (This can be messier, because while historians usually cite the writers who influenced them, Gary Gygax did not feel the need to explain where he got his definition of a glaive-guissarme, and its hard to prove how much people’s ideas about Xerxes were shaped by seeing Xerxes played by a castrato in an opera). I don’t know why English borrowed this term but not the others, except that since the Second World War American academics have generally been more open to European literary theory than to the German-Dutch tradition of scientific history (although there are exceptions like Michael E. Smith).

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Further Reading: I would like to work through Anna Wierzbicka, Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English as a Default Language (Oxford University Press, 2013) which argues that the quirks of English shape many fields of academic research.

Rochberg on Omens

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Your humble correspondent in the Central European blizzard of January 2019

One of the books which I would like to find time to read is Francesca Rochberg’s Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science (University of Chicago Press, 2016) {available from the publisher}. About a decade ago, she was puzzled why Mesopotamian omen lists include situations which can never occur, such as the appearance of the sun at midnight or a lunar eclipse which moves from west to east across the moon. The Mesopotamian literati were intimately familiar with the movements of the heavens, and had thousands of years of records, so they probably had a firm conviction that this was not the sort of thing which could happen in the ordinary course of events. Were these absurd? The result of block-heads mechanically multiplying omens to cover different combinations of left/right, the three watches of the night, the four directions, and so on regardless of whether that combination was possible? Violations of the order of the heavens on special command of the gods?

Perhaps this is where we step into the realm of the conceivable, or the conceptually possible, as differentiated from the possible, or at least the metaphysically possible … To say certain phenomena in the omen lists are “impossible” or “absurd” because they do not occur and cannot be observed is our judgement and occurs nowhere in the ancient sources. That is to say, our definition of impossible (not in accordance with real properties) is not expressed in the texts. It seems more consistent with the overall makeup of the omen lists that recording a phenomenon as an entry in a codified omen list is evidence that it was regarded as epistemically possible [something which a reasonable person may chose to believe]. That is, the list of statements (P) constitute data, or knowledge, on the basis of which the diviner makes judgements and draws conclusions about what will happen. The use of the terms possible and impossible are, among other things, relative to one’s accepted knowledge of how and what things are.

– Francesca Rochberg, “Conditionals, Inference, and Possibility in Ancient Mesopotamian Science,” Science in Context 22.1 (March 2009) pp. 5-25
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Cross-Post: New Book on Legio IX Hispana

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A book cover with the title in black and a fragment of a Roman sculpture of an eagle below it

Duncan B. Campbell, The Fate of the Ninth: The Curious Disappearance of One of Rome’s Legions (Bocca della Verità Publishing: Glasgow, 2018)
https://www.amazon.ca/Fate-Ninth-curious-disappearance-legions/dp/1791768334

Duncan B. Campbell, the author of many fine books and articles on the Roman army, has published a new book on the mysterious fate of the 9th legion, which fades from the historical record with a building inscription at York dated 108, a scattering of stamped tiles at Nijmegen, and a series of officers who were promoted away from the legion in the middle of the second century CE. It certainly was not involved in the building of Hadrian’s Wall and the other construction projects in Britain after 122 CE. When only the inscriptions from York were known, this lead to a romantic theory that it had been destroyed by the Caledonians or the Brigantes which inspired one of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novels. Campbell goes through the history of investigations into this legion, showing how excavations in the Netherlands and Egypt and painstaking work reconstructing the careers of Roman officials allow us to sketch the history of this legion after it left its station at York. This is a story about how scholars methodically build a history of the Roman army and the men who made it up, but also about how once they have committed to a theory, human beings fight to salvage it rather than ask whether a premise was incorrect.

You can find a shorter, earlier version of his argument from Karwansaray Publishers and buy The Fate of the Ninth from Amazon.

Full Disclosure: I have traded emails with the author