The Wellcome Trust and the Urban Graveyard Effect


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In the first two weeks of August there was a great kerfuffle about a BBC educational cartoon which showed a couple in Roman Britain who would be called multiracial in Late Capitalist Britain. Angry essays were typed, tweets flew with the wrath of the Stymphalian Birds, and many people hurried to let the Internet know which faction they aligned with. Neville Morley did a good job of summarizing how most ancient historians think about the problem in his blog post Diversitas et Multicultaralismus (no, a dark-skinned official and his light-skinned wife would not have been unheard of at Bath or Hadrian’s Wall; genetic data is exciting but just one of many kinds of evidence which historians draw upon to understand the past; genes are only loosely connected to identity). The Romans could be horrible snobs and bigots, but most of their stereotypes and slurs were directed at people from other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean … they do not seem to have been very interested in whether people had dark skin and kinky hair. In this post, I would like to talk about one of the methodological questions I have after reading the Wellcome Trust paper from 2015 by Leslie et al. which some people have been citing as evidence that negligible numbers of people from Africa had children in Britain before the 20th century (doi:10.1038/nature14230).

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Sometimes Bittner Was Right


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A painted relief of a warrior on horseback stabbing downwards with a spear. His body armour has two layers of short flaps at the waist, a front and back running straight up and down, wide blocky sleeves ending before the arm joint, and a tab behind the head just as tall as the head.

The horseman on the Çan Sarcophagus wears an akinakes strapped to his right thigh. Copyright Troy Excavation Project, photo found at

Specialists in the Achaemenid Empire don’t like to talk about Stefan Bittner. His Doktorarbeit is the only monograph on the Achaemenid army which has ever been published, but it takes exactly the approach which was inspiring another group of scholars to organize conferences and rethink the field: it relies almost completely on Greek literature and artwork, and treats these sources as a precious collection of facts to be worked into a coherent whole. In the decades which followed, those other scholars knocked so many holes in this approach that it is hard for them work with a book like his, so they tend to cite his thesis and say nothing more. I don’t think that this is really fair, since nobody can predict how academic fashion will shift or what new evidence will become available. People who try too hard to ride the crest sometimes find themselves flailing in midair as the wave below them crashes down. There is a sad joke that farming is a simple job where you just have to predict the weather, fuel costs, and food prices a year in advance; PhD students have to predict the job market 3 to 10 years in advance. And in the early 1980s, it was not so easy to hear about conferences and intellectual movements in other countries as it is today. So this week, I would like to mention one of his good ideas which seems to have been ignored.

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Cross-Post: Dis Manibus Muhammed Dandamayev


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Muhammad Dandamayev, the distinguished Russian Assyriologist and Achaemenid scholar, has died at the age of 88. He was startlingly multilingual (as he was born in Dagestan, even Russian was a second language for him) and untiring (the author of several books which required pouring through transcriptions of thousands of cuneiform tablets), and during the Soviet era built some of the few bridges between Russian and western European scholarship by having his works translated into French and English. Without his books and articles, it would be even harder for scholars without knowledge of Russian to learn what researchers in the Slavic countries are working on.

I suppose it is traditional at times like this to anoint his inscriptions with oil, but my photocopy of sixteen pages of The Culture and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran won’t survive that kind of treatment as well as good old diorite.

Further Reading:

The Innsbrucker Labyrinth


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The Innsbrucker Marktplatz in July 2017. Where do you turn, and turn again? How do delivery vans, bicyclists, and pedestrians share the space with the construction site, the underground garage [right next to a major river, natch], and the farmer’s market?

Last summer I regaled my gentle readers with the story of the Innsbrucker Scylla and Charybdis. Time passed, and that monster was vanquished (perhaps when the wine bar on the riverbank side of the farmers’ market noticed that a lack of pedestrian access was cutting into its profits). But its always possible that when one monster dies, another will take its place and occupy the vacant real estate, or ecological niche if you want to go all second-edition-Dungeons-and-Dragons. I see a labyrinth with walls and paths which shift and turn when I am not looking, and while I am pretty sure that the dung on the street belongs to the horses which pull the tourist carriages, and all the cows in town are up in the high pastures for the summer, I am not so sure that there is not a minotaur lurking about, perhaps in the depths of the underground parking garage under the Marktplatz. For something built metres away from a river, it descends through a surprising numbers of spiralling turns, and that raises another disturbing possibility. Did the diggers of the storm drain delve too greedily and too deep? The Nordkette has been wrapped in an unseasonable fog split only by flashes like lightning of late …

Since I took this photo, the labyrinth has vanished and been replaced with a fish market. But I would not be surprised if the dragons across the street take up residence there, or a sea serpent wriggles its way up from the Inn across the stones which Hapsburg engineers enthusiastically laid in concrete to keep the Inn within its bounds. If the last few years have taught me anything, it is that monsters are not as easy to banish as we think.

A Lombard Silver Bowl


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A plate wrought with a horseman in a shirt of mail riding down a man on foot with a two-handed thrust of a lance.  Another infantryman has already fallen atop his large round shield.

Detail from a wrought silver plate in the Castelvecchio, Verona. Said to come from northern Italy and date to the sixth century CE. Photo by Sean Manning.

One of the treasures housed in the Castelvecchio of Verona is an extraordinary silver plate. It dates a bit later than the Sasanid silverwork which I have blogged about before, to the age which gave us Maurice’s Strategikon when East Romans, Goths, and Lombards were struggling for control in Italy and destroying what was left of the wealth and learning built up in the centuries when Rome ruled the world.
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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. This one is not in Cornwall:

Bronze Sword Workshop 7th & 8th AUG Crannog Center
there are still 3 places left of the 6 contact them directly
01887 830583 this follows a history event over the weekend
Cost £100 stunning value

Bronze sword workshop
A two day workshop exploring the manufacture of bronze swords in the Late Bronze Age. The group will work together to cast a sword using charcoal and bronze age methods.
Then each participant will work on there own Ewart Park sword, cleaning, forging and looking at different ways handles were fitted. The development of leaf shaped blades though the late bronze age is the story of the Ewart Park sword making it the most prolific sword from this time in the British isles.

I believed that he means the Scottish Crannog Centre near Aberfeldy in Perthshire. You can find the original posting by Neil Burridge at {warning: Facebook!}

Further Reading Bronze Age Swords

War and Culture


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The countryside in Khuzestan (ancient Susiane/lowland Elam) near Ahwaz where 30 years ago the king of Babylon and the assembly of the land of Iran fought a terrible war.

As part of my dissertation I have to talk about conscription and how well it functioned in the Ancient Near East, and that turned me to a classic article. As I was searching for it I found another which I want to talk about.

Back in 1999, Norvell Atkine set out to explain to the American imperial elite why the “Arab armies” which they had armed and trained were so reluctant to fight the way that Americans told them to fight. These armies kept losing, so why were they rejecting help from more effective soldiers like him and his friends? “There are many factors—economic, ideological, technical—but perhaps the most important has to do with culture and certain societal attributes which inhibit Arabs from producing an effective military force.” When I read it the first time, I took away his lovely anecdotes about the culture clash between American military personnel and the Arab officers which they had been assigned to collaborate with. Atkine focusses on the armies of Mubarak’s Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. But a few years ago, Caitlyn Talmadge wrote a scholarly article on one of the Arab armies which he is less interested in: Saddam Hussein’s. Her article has an abstract, so I will let her speak for herself:

Saddam’s Iraq has become a cliché in the study of military effectiveness—the quintessentially coup-proofed, personalist dictatorship, unable to generate fighting power commensurate with its resources. But evidence from the later years of the Iran-Iraq War actually suggests that the Iraqi military could be quite effective on the battlefield. What explains this puzzling instance of effectiveness, which existing theories predict should not have occurred? Recently declassified documents and new histories of the war show that the Iraqi improvements stemmed from changes in Saddam’s perceptions of the threat environment, which resulted in significant shifts in his policies with respect to promotions, training, command arrangements, and information management in the military. Threat perceptions and related changes in these practices also help explain Iraq’s return to ineffectiveness after the war, as evident in 1991 and 2003. These findings, conceived as a theory development exercise, suggest that arguments linking regime type and coup-ridden civil-military relations to military performance need to take into account the threat perceptions that drive autocratic leaders’ policies toward their militaries.

To put it bluntly, Saddam spent his time in power worried that someone would toss him in his own torture chambers. After all, most of the governments in the region, including his Baˀath party, were descended from a group of soldiers who had overthrown the previous regime. So he set up policies to ensure that the army was not a threat to him: strictly limiting communication between units, requiring minor acts to be authorized from Baghdad, refusing to allow different types of troops to train together, and killing officers who were too popular. This kept him in power for 25 years and able to play warlord, even if it also meant that his adventures cost the lives of too many of his own soldiers for little or no gain. The only time that he relaxed these politics was the late 1980s, when it seemed like if the war continued, his regime might collapse. As soon as he had driven the Iranians back across the border and made peace, he treated the army just like he had before, because once again he was more worried about a coup from within than an invasion from without. And while Saddam was crazy (and perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer), his 25 year rule suggests that he knew how to stay in power.
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One Principle of Cuneiform: Punning


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Ways of drawing unicode character 74455 񴑕, a stylized hand with the fingers pointing left

Ways of writing the sign ŠU, number 354 in Labat’s Manuel d’Épigraphie Akkadienne

As cuneiform scribes developed a script which had been designed to write brief notes in Sumerian into one which could write long complex texts in several languages, they relied on several principles. These are not always obvious to the student today, but can make it easier to learn. One of these principles is punning.

A common Sumerian word is /šu/ “hand.” Usually this is drawn as a vertical wedge and four horizontal wedges, the bottom-most longer than the others, representing the base of the hand and the fingers (Yes, hands in cuneiform have four fingers, just like hands on the Simpsons!) Now, having a sign for /šu/ is a very useful in Akkadian: lots of words begin with it and it is a common suffix. The Akkadian word for hand is /qātu/ (or /qātān/ “two hands”) and while it would be possible to write it as [qa-a-tu] or [qa-a-ta-an] it was convenient to just write ŠU or ŠU.II (so “hand” plus “2”). So we have one sign which can be pronounced /šu/ in one language or /qātu/ in another. That opened up the possibility of using the same sign to write /qad/ or /qat/ as part of other words, such as /qadādu/ “to bow down” or /qatû/ “to finish.” The sign had all three readings (“hand,” šu, qātu) immanent within it, and required the reader to judge which made sense in context.

While the multiple readings required work to learn, they allowed the system to expand as needed without ever requiring a student to learn more than a few hundred signs. On the other hand, they opened up a world of puns which Spider Robinson would be ashamed to print (and etymologies which might have made Madame Blavatsky cry “hold on, my rubes are pretty stupid but I can’t get them to accept that one.”) For example, in the first millennium BCE Gilgameš is two thirds a god and one third human (earlier tablets give him other ancestry). These proportions do not work in the world of Mendelian genetics, where ancestry is a sum of fractions like 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, … and you can prove that no sum of such fractions equals 1/3. So why is he 2/3 divine? Now, the ferryman who takes Gilgameš across the Waters of Death once had the name Sursunabu which is neither Sumerian or Akkadian. At some point, scribes started writing his name as Ur-šanabi which is Sumerian for “the servant of two thirds.” Eventually, this became accepted as his real name, but it raised a problem: how was he a servant of two-thirds? Uršanabi was first the servant of Uta-napišti the survivor of the flood, but then served Gilgameš. And its just possible that at some point the scribes said “Uršanabi is the servant of two thirds, Uršanabi is the servant of Gilgameš, therefore Gilgameš is two thirds. What is he two-thirds? He is two-thirds divine.” We don’t know, but that kind of thinking was the way that scholarly cuneiform scribes showed off their learning.

Photo of an open book with the following text and gloss: It has been suggested that these [rings on the face of a buckler] were sword-breakers, ie. they were designed to entangle an opponent's blade so that it could be broken or twisted out of his hand: Sic di Grassi vel scriptor temporis eius

I am not a very good ṭupšarru but I have extended this principle further. Its traditional to gloss books in the margins and to draw a hand pointing from text to gloss or vice versa. We have already established that ŠU = HAND = any word for hand. Ergo, a ŠU is a perfectly acceptable substitute for a drawing of a hand.

Further Reading: Sebastian Fink, “How Gilgemeš Became a Two-Thirds God: It Was the Ferryman,” State Archives of Assyria Bulletin XX (2013/2014)

Scott Noegel has written a book on puns in the writing system as a technique in interpreting dreams

Edit 2017-07-24: Corrected malformed HTML in second picture

An Old Dilemma


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Inside Urim there is death, outside it there is death. Inside it we are to be finished off by famine. Outside it we are to be finished off by Elamite weapons. In Urim the enemy oppresses us, oh, we are finished.

– The Lament for Sumer and Urim, lines 389-402 (ETCSL 2.2.3)

More than 140 civilians have been killed in less than a week while trying to flee western Mosul, according to military sources [among the besiegers], as the Iraqi army seeks to close in on fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in the armed group’s last stronghold in Iraq.

According to the [besieging] military on Thursday, most of the fatalities were women and children.

– “Mosul battle: At least 142 civilians killed in six days”

Blindfolded, tied up men with dislocated shoulders dangling painfully from ceilings. Teenage boys, hands tied behind their backs screaming for mercy, only for a soldier to execute them in cold blood. Ashen-faced women clutching onto their terrified children after they had just been raped. These are just some of the scenes taking place in Iraq.

Ali Arkady, the Kurdish photojournalist who documented the abuses of Iraqi government troops, said he had originally set out to cover the soldiers’ heroism in the fight against ISIL. But after witnessing their crimes, his conclusion was that these men were “not heroes, but monsters”.

Arkady said he witnessed Iraqi soldiers – not Shia militias – perpetrating a wide array of abuses including abductions, torture, and rape. Not only did Shia soldiers rape one of their Sunni allied tribal fighters, but in one particularly horrifying instance, interior ministry fighters were gloating about raping a particularly beautiful girl. Their comrades, apparently jealous, vowed to pay the already violated and scarred girl a visit themselves.

– “Iraq Deserves Heroes, but Has Only Monsters,”

But those who were blockaded at Alesia , the day being past, on which they had expected auxiliaries from their countrymen, and all their corn being consumed …, convened an assembly and deliberated on the exigency of their situation. … When different opinions were expressed, they determined that those who, owing to age or ill health, were unserviceable for war, should depart from the town … The Mandubii, who had admitted them into the town, are compelled to go forth with their wives and children. When these came to the Roman fortifications, weeping, they begged of the soldiers by every entreaty to receive them as slaves and relieve them with food. But Caesar, placing guards on the rampart, forbade them to be admitted.

Caesar, Gallic War, 7.77-78

I believe that Richard the Lion Heart responded the same way to this gambit, but my books on medieval history are still in the old country.

Further Reading: Steve Muhlberger, “The Toronto Morality Play”

Cross-Post: New Manouchehr Khorasani Book Crowdfunding


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The cover of "Persian Fire and Steel: Historical Firearms of Iran" with a painting of two armies on horseback fighting with swords, cannon, and muskets

Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani needs funds to print his latest book, on black-powder firearms in Iranian museums. The title will be Persian Fire and Steel: Historical Firearms of Iran.

His earlier book, Arms and Armour from Iran, contains a wonderful assortment of information drawn from books and articles in half a dozen languages. It also contained pictures and measurements of objects which had never been published in a European language before, and translations and summaries of many texts in New Persian/Farsi which are otherwise unavailable. So if you are interested, or like beautiful books on arms and armour, you might want to check this new project out! Without the support of patrons, he won’t be able to afford to print it.

Further Reading: