Achaemenid Shields are a Puzzle

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Figure 6-2 from my forthcoming book from Franz Steiner Verlag. Some types of gerron (wicker shield) used in the Achaemenid empire in the time of Darius I and Xerxes. Top: peltē and wooden imitation of a sticks-and-leather shield from Tuekta in the Altai (different sections of ‘sticks’ are painted red, white, and black; similar shields appear in Neo-Assyrian art). Middle: rectangular wicker shields. Bottom: violin-shaped or figure-eight shields. Note that they are worn on the arm like a peltē or an Argive shield, not held in the fist like the Tuekta shield. Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu CA, no. 83.AE.247 (digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program), State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, no. 2179/96 (photo by author); Gerhard 1847: Taf. CLXVI; western entrance of the Tachara of Darius (sketch by author), Persepolis; two reliefs on the Apadana, Persepolis (photo by author)

If you look at modern paintings and miniatures, you would think we have a good idea of the type of shield used by Achaemenid infantry in the time of Darius and Xerxes. They cite Herodotus book 7 chapter 61 and show the large rectangular kind on the middle row of the picture above. But as I argue in chapter 6.5.2 of my forthcoming book from Franz Steiner Verlag, things are more complicated. These large rectangular shields appear on the doorposts of two buildings at Persepolis and on two or three vases from Athens (out of thousands of soldiers at Persepolis and Susa and thousands of Red Figure vases). The person who published the sketch on the middle left thought it showed a battle against the Phrygian allies of the Amazons. And this type of shield does not agree with Herodotus’ words that quivers were hanging beneath the shields, unless we understand ‘beneath’ quite loosely.
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Cross-Post: Oxbow Books Sale

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Pavel Vaverka reminds me that Oxbow Books has its usual spring sale right now. Here are some of the ones that my gentle readers might be interested in:

  • Thomas Fischer and M. C. Bishop, Army of the Roman Emperors: Archaeology and History (Oxbow Books, 2019) £45 ISBN: 9781789251845
  • Paul R. Sealey, EAA 118: A Late Iron Age Warrior Burial from Kelvedon, Essex (2007) £5 {I have this one, its very good on a grave from roughly the time of Caesar’s invasion of Britain}
  • Rebecca Angharad Dean, Warfare and Weaponry in Dynastic Egypt (Pen & Sword, 2017) {where earlier books on New Kingdom warfare focus on texts and art, this has lots of experiments}
  • Ian Shaw, Ancient Egyptian Warfare: A Brief Introduction (Casemate Publishers, 2019) £10
  • Carolyn Willekes, Greek Warriors: Hoplites and Heroes (Casemate Publishers, 2017) £4
  • Edward Burman, The Terracotta Warriors (Pegasus Books, 2018) £8 {talks about what the ongoing Chinese excavations may uncover}
  • Fernando Quesada Sanz, Weapons, Warriors, and Battle of Ancient Iberia (Pen & Sword, in press) £40 {by an excellent archaeologist of warfare}
  • Sarah E. Bond, Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean (University of Michigan Press, 2016) £46 {funeral workers, criers, tanners, mint workers, and bakers in the Roman imperial period to Justinian}
  • Susan W. Katsev and Laina W. Swiney (eds.),The Kyrenia Ship Final Excavation Report, Volume 1: History of the Excavation, Amphoras, Pottery, and Coins as Evidence for Dating (Oxbow Books, in press) £45 {the best preserved Hellenistic ship, a small roundship from Rhodes with a crew of roughly four sunk off Cyprus c. 294-291 BCE … I am sure Harry Turtledove had fun with the preliminary reports when he was writing his Hellenic Traders novels}
  • Susan Rose, The Wealth of England: The medieval wool trade and its political importance 1100–1600 (Oxbow Books, 2020) £28 {in the year 1500, England and Scotland were places of no significance except that they produced the best wool in the world … if you want to understand medieval and rennaisance England you have to understand wool}

They have the usual load of books on ancient textiles if you want something really estoeric from Oxbow! I had not heard that Quesada Sanz has a big broad book in English with nice drawings coming out.

Where Did Ancient Slaves Come From?

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a phoot of a cat walking determinedly across an asphalt street

This Tirolean cat has a place to get to and does not care what tries to get in its way, like me when I get a research burr in my blanket! Photo by Sean Manning, May 2020

A retired economist in another country wants to know how we know that many ancient slaves were prisoners of war, kidnap victims, or the children of slaves. Ok! Readers who don’t want to hear about slavery and child abandonment might want to skip this one.

So in the Ur III period around 2000 BCE we see massive numbers of people being rounded up and deported into labour camps near Ur. Some were starved to death so their supervisors could sell their rations, and others seem to have been blinded to stop them running away (they could still haul water and do other simple tasks). A bit later we have contracts where parents sell their children to someone willing to feed them during sieges or famines. Moving on to the 8th and 7th century BCE, the archive from Nippur (Oriental Institute Publication 114) and the Iliad describe people being captured by raiders and bandits and either ransomed or enslaved. A little later we see massive numbers of captives being dedicated to the gods in Babylonia, where they would work for the rest of their lives for the temple (although it is worth noting that these širāku had what we would call human rights other than the right to move freely and choose their employer- there were even worse statuses to be placed in). We also see that people with unfree status were tattooed or branded so they could be identified if they ran away. Later stories about Solon around 600 BCE describe how farmers in Attica fell into debt and were forced to sell themselves and their lands, possibly share-cropping for one sixth of the produce (the ἑκτημόριοι “sixth-parters”).
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Temple and Palace, Gods and Kings

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Arzl has not had a king or a Caesar for a long time, but it is still Keith Hopkins’ World Full of Gods. And like unto the Esangila, this house has been covered with scaffolding for a long time due to a little dispute over who should pay the bills for restoring it.

I don’t talk enough about the gods and their cult because its not a subject I feel like I can say anything useful about. I grew up in a place where religion is a private matter (which anyone in the ancient world would think is insane) and I am a lot more comfortable talking about solid things like types of swords or what the third line of the tenth chapter of that book actually says. But religion in the ancient Near East had some peculiar qualities which can be easy for us to take for granted if we grew up in post-Christian, Christian, Moslem, or Jewish societies and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the cult of the gods and the praising of kings.

Perhaps capitalizing on the ethical imperative of protecting the poor, petitioners— and Gimil-Ninurta and Khunanup (hero of the Egyptian folktale “The Eloquent Peasant”) may be literary examples here— tend to present themselves as being poor, describing themselves using diminutive terms and overstating their poverty in an effort to win favor. One particular petitioner, the spurned exorcist Urad-Gula may have actually drawn subtle parallels between his circumstances and the poverty of Gimil-Ninurta in an effort to win the favor of Assurbanipal, a move that underscores PMN’s popularity. Interestingly, petitions such as these followed the same pattern as prayers, reminding us of the idea that poverty was often understood as divine punishment: gods made people poor and the king could intercede on their behalf, a nuance that will be important to remember in reading PMN and EP.

Daniel Shalom Fisher, “Representations of the Poor in The Poor Man of Nippur and the Eloquent Peasant” (MA thesis, Vanderbilt University, 2008) p. 5 https://etd.library.vanderbilt.edu/available/etd-07012008-205634/

In Sumerian, a temple and a palace are both a Big House (E2.GAL). They are both places where powerful and distant beings sit, and demand to be placated with obedience and generous gifts, but are also places of splendour (the White House at Sippar) whose occupants can make your dreams come true (the House of All Joys at Harran). There are people who think that the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible took shape under some of the last kings of independent Judah who wanted to center both the cult of the gods and the rule of the kingdom in Jerusalem. I think it might be helpful for some of us to think about how our pictures of gods are modelled on kings, and how our culture’s expectations of a leader are modelled on a father-god.

There is a performance of the Poor Man of Nippur (in English with cuneiform subtitles!) on YouTube

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Paradoxes of Sword Design

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cross-sections of six swords near the guard

Cross-sections of six swords near the hilt. From Peter Johnson’s talk “Paradoxes of Sword Design” at Arctic Fire 2012 https://youtu.be/nyAc5HbUuqw?t=2630

In February, I started to think seriously about swords after sketching the swords from Ghalekuti (which I will blog about one day). I am the “armour” sort of historical fencing person not the “swords” sort (thanks Steve Muhlberger) and I don’t have access to many originals in good condition. A group of European and American bladesmiths and engineers have been thinking about how to describe swords and how they want to move. The names I know best are Michael Tinker Pearce, Vincent le Chevalier, and Peter Johnsson; other people would mention Angus Trim and George Turner.

Swords are simple objects, but designing a specific sword requires trading off all kinds of goods against one another. The longer sword is more of a nuisance to wear and slower to draw, the stiffer sword may not be as effective in cutting, the more complex hilt limits how the weapon can be held. These seemingly simple objects hide a lot of engineering that you can slowly train your eye to see and your arm to feel.

This is a topic where not much has been formally published, but two great web resources are “Understanding Blade Properties” by Patrick Kelly and Peter Johnsson’s talk “Paradoxes of Sword Design” from Arctic Fire 2012 (warning: YouTube). Peter Johnsson is probably the most charismatic speaker discussing these ideas today and he has his own theory of how the medieval cruciform sword was designed. Because his talk is 80 minutes long and on a scary Google website I want to call out two things which I noticed.
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Cross-Post: Ways Forward in the Study of Ancient Greek Warfare

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Back in 2014, archaeologist Josho Brouwers and I both headed west to give talks in different cities on why the study of warfare in the middle of the first millennium BCE is not very scientific, and how it could be brought up to the standards expected in other areas of ancient world studies. Mine, on the study of Near Eastern warfare, is still in press in the proceedings of Melammu-Symposium 8, but Josho has dug up his paper from 2014 on warfare in the Greek world and posted it in all its uncensored glory (most academics try to give their talks in an entertaining way, then print a more moderate version):

First of all, students examining ancient Greek warfare tend to be myopic (i.e. hellenocentric), in the sense that they focus almost entirely on ancient Greece itself and ancient Greek sources, usually from a particular period, with little or no use made of comparative data. Compare this, for example, with the study of Roman warfare, where it is commonplace to compare Roman equipment, tactics, and so forth, with those of the peoples that they fought against, such as the Etruscans, Carthaginians, and various Celtic tribes.

Secondly, and by extension, ancient historians, classicists, and archaeologists tend to put their focus squarely on their own material. Thus, ancient historians and classicists rely almost entirely on texts, each with a different approach, while archaeologists limit themselves to producing detailed overviews of arms and armour. Whenever use is made of another discipline’s evidence, the treatment is often simplistic

Thirdly, there is little scientific rigour that students of Greek warfare apply to how they approach their material. Theoretical frameworks, preconceived notions, and the like, are never made explicit, and one gets the impression that proper interpretation of the sources is on the same level as connoisseurship in the study of Greek vases

Lastly, ancient Greek warfare seems to be one of the few areas of ancient history where rampant nineteenth-century colonialist ideology is still commonly accepted … it is still commonplace to regard the ancient Greeks as immediate ancestors of Western nations (mostly the United States and Western Europe), as inventors of democracy, philosophy, and a “Western”-style of warfare, despite literally decades’ worth of research that have proven these notions false.

– Josho Brouwers, “Phalanx and fallacies: Ways Forward in the Study of Ancient Greek Warfare,” 3 July 2014

In my view, the debate between ‘hoplite revolution’ theorists and gradualists (“orthodoxy” and “heretics”, “California school” and revisionists) lasted roughly from 1985 to 2013. Most of the former school dropped out of the debate as they found they could not answer questions from other schools of thought. Since 2013, the interesting debate has been between the majority of gradualists like Peter Krentz and Hans van Wees and some young bucks who think that they did not go nearly far enough and that a true study of Greek warfare needs to include the whole Greek world from Marseilles to Abu Simbel, and a study of hoplites needs to include Sidonians and Phrygians as well as Laconians.

Further Reading: “War and Soldiers in the Achaemenid Empire: Some Historiographical and Methodological Considerations.” In Sebastian Fink and Kerstin Droß-Krüpe (eds.) Melammu-Symposia 8 and 10 (ÖAW: Wien) pp. 495-515 {IN PRESS: I have the proofs of this and can send them to anyone interested}

Staring Evil in the Face: Some Thoughts on Hanson’s “The Other Greeks”

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a view to the bottom of a river on a sunny winter day

Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (The Free Press: New York, 1995)

I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labour of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labour it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern.

– John C. Calhoun, “Slavery a Positive Good,” 6 February 1837 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Slavery_a_Positive_Good

I finally read The Other Greeks by Victor Davis Hanson in summer 2018. This book, published in 1995, contains an argument that farmers working 9- to 13-acre (20-30 3 to 5 hectare) plots were key to Greek culture wrapped in two rants about the decline of the American family farm and the decadence of American academics. Victor Davis Hanson’s writings on ancient agrarianism are less famous than his political columns and his ideas about Greek warfare, but I enjoyed working through this book. Farming is obviously a topic that Hanson cares deeply about, and because he put so much care into this book I can tell that he sees some of the implications of his argument.

The ancient history in this book is interwoven with the story of a 40 acre farm near Selma, California which the Hansons have held for five generations (only three generations were able to make a living from it, his parents got jobs in town and he tried to keep the farm going after his grandfather retired but found that the only way was to use his salary and royalties from teaching and punditry to subsidize the farm). In his view, both classical Greek and modern US culture were at the best while society was dominated by rural small farmers, and any threat to this class is a threat to freedom and democracy.

To my knowledge, Victor Davis Hanson has never written about why his Swedish great great grandparents were able to take a share of “the richest farmland in the world” for a token price in 1875, just like Wikipedia estimates that the indigenous population of the San Joaquin Valley fell 93% from 1850 to 1900 but falls silent on what exactly happened (today all the nations of the Yokuts are a few thousand strong, about as many as one of the little farming towns Hanson loves).
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Despoilers of the Golden Empire

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A full-page advertisement beginning with the words "You'll Never See it in 'Galaxy'!"

Bat Durston is in trouble, whatever genre he is in! Will he get out? The rear cover of Horace L. Gold’s Galaxy Science Fiction No. 1 (October 1950) (Wikipedia)

In another place somebody cited Randall Garrett’s “Despoilers of the Golden Empire” (John W. Campbell Jr.’s Astounding Science Fiction, March 1959). If you don’t know that story, pop over to Project Gutenberg and read it, at least for a few pages until you understand the gimmick. Because this one story tells some things that most of the people talking about Silver Age science fiction don’t want you to hear.
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Sue Brunning and the Quest for the Perfect Sword

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the cover of Sue Brunning's book "the Sword in Early Medieval Northern Europe"

Archaeologist Sue Brunning has a new book on the sword around the North and Baltic Seas. In an interview she brings up a way of thinking about the parts of a sword which is worth pondering:

There are common features that all swords had to have in order to be swords.

First, a blade – which I describe in the book as the “body” of the sword because it is the part that “does the work”, from a physical point of view; it is usually concealed beneath “clothing” (the scabbard) and only those most intimately acquainted with the sword would see and come to know its finer details. The blade also, like a body, became the repository for history, reputation, character…

Second, a hilt (or handle), which I describe as the “face” because this was the focus of a sword’s visual identity – it was the part that most people could see and come to recognise, as it was not concealed by “clothing” like the blade was. Hilts, like faces, had unique features manipulated by their owners; they could be altered to shape their identities in a desired way; and eventually, as we all know, they would show signs of ageing – wear patches, like wrinkles.

Next, the scabbard – the early medieval sources disagree to some extent over how essential this component was, but in reality it was quite important. It enabled you to carry the sword on your body, as well as keeping it bright and sharp thanks to the fur lining.

Within these three basic components, there was huge scope for customising your weapon in how it was decorated, the materials that were used and so on. This was a way to make your sword your own, or – I would argue – its own!

– Sue Brunning, “Sue Brunning on early medieval swords,” un trabajo tartamudo, 31 January 2020

I think that thinking about all three parts lets you understand swords much better than focusing on just one. If you aren’t a sword person, you might be surprised to learn that the standard typologies of Viking swords and rapiers just consider the hilts- which is like assigning cars a typology based on the bumper and paint, but the hilt is the easiest part to divide into groups and the people writing the typologies had never used a sword.
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