Bonus Content: Why do We Think Iron Shatters Bronze?


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Armed with the power of HITTITE IRON, reedy doctor Sinuhe breaks general Horemhab’s sword! From scene 12 of Sinuhe: The Egyptian (Michael Curtiz director, 1954)

Most people interested in ancient weapons know that early iron swords were not any better than bronze ones. But they don’t always know where the idea comes from, or how we know about the properties of early edged weapons. If you want to find out, the article is available in Ancient Warfare XI.6 (The Decelean War) from Karwansaray.

But in a little magazine article, I was not able to include all the references which I wanted. So what if you want to learn more?

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Some Thoughts on “Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia”


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M. Jursa with contributions by J. Hackl, B. Janković, K. Kleber, E.E. Payne, C. Waerzeggers and M. Weszeli, Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium BC. AOAT 377. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2010.

Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium BC is a weighty academic tome 900 pages long full of charts of prices and case studies based on unpublished tablets, but it also grapples with one of the great dramas of the ancient world: the time when silver money came to Babylonia. People in Babylonia, Syria, and Egypt had kept accounts in weights of bronze and silver or baskets of barley for thousands of years, but for most people most of the time this was an accounting convenience. Most families had enough land to produce most of what they needed, and the kings and gods just had bigger estates and more dependants, so people kept track of who owed what in their heads and every so often exchanged some bronze or barley to balance their accounts. But then, in the cities of Babylonia in the sixth century BCE, we see another world: a world where almost any good or service could be had for silver in the hand. Wet-nursing, fringed cloaks dyed commercial red, substitutes to fulfill your service obligation, chalcedony seals carved with goats in the tree of life, laundry services at a convenient yearly rate, bowcases full of Kimmerian arrows … in the sixth century, it was hard to live for a month in a Babylonian city without exchanging goods or services for silver.

Jursa and his co-authors suspect that this began when Nabopolassar sacked the Assyrian cities around 612 BCE and his successors marched into Syria and launched vast construction projects in Babylonia. They found that they did not have enough slaves and dependants to do all of this work, and the literati were always telling them that the gods became angry if they imposed too much service on the citizens of Babylon. So they started hiring workers with the silver stolen from Syria, and as silver flowed into their hands, other people in the cities thought of things to do for the workers. From 610 to 540 BCE, prices fell and wages rose. These changes bewildered many of the magnates. Since the Flood, life had been good when a shekel of silver could buy 180 litres of barley and support a family for a month, but now male workers were demanding 2, 4, and even 10 shekels a month. One letter complains that the writer is besieged by men seeking employment, but if he refuses them the work will not be done (p. 680). Another laments that he is out of barley, so if he brings serfs they get hungry and run away, but it is the month of the date harvest, so hired workers are not to be had for less than six shekels a month. Readers of David Graeber or good books on Shakespeare’s England can imagine how this upset old values and old ways of doing things.

These changes do not appear in the chronicles of the day. Instead, they appear in the everyday business and administrative documents which happened to survive the periodic discarding of old records and be excavated. This book cites about 2600 tablets, some of them still unpublished. While these documents are formulaic and difficult to understand, they give us glimpses of social history as bright as the Sun peeking through a slit in a mud-brick wall. From a letter to the wife of a businessman explaining that the writer is at court and cannot leave and could she please lend him some silver for interest (p. 624), to the switch from drinking barley beer to date wine in the first millennium BCE (p. 212: beer continued to be brewed for sacramental purposes: apparently they were not sure whether the gods would accept this new beverage), to the dimensions and weight of a mountain garment (TÚG.KUR.RA) in different cities, this book is spotted with interesting details. (For my own research, there is very helpful information about the archives of Zēru-ukīn, a rab hanšê “chief of fifty” of Nippur, and of Itti-Šamaš-balāṭu of Larsa who kept hiring the same substitute whenever Nabonidus or Cyrus conscripted him).

There are all kinds of things which we cannot know about ancient history: Keith Hopkins once wrote that he had no idea what a Roman marriage ceremony in the first century CE involved, because the sources just focus on the legal implications or imitate Greek poets from hundreds of years earlier. But there are some things about Babylonia which we can know very well, and more where the sources plus comparison with other cultures suggest some tantalizing possibilities. I hope that specialists in Late Babylonia continue to study material culture and social history, and continue to move towards a synthesis rather than being intimidated by the many difficult and interconnected problems.

Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia is available on

Cross-Post: Sword and Shield Workshops 2018


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A living history village with fields and a lake from the air

The Geschichtspark Bärnau-Tachov from the air, courtesy of

Roland Warzecha will be teaching workshops on the Viking shield, high medieval shields, and the buckler at the Geschichtspark Bärnau-Tachow on the Czech border. The Geschichtspark is a unique location, with replicas of an 8th century Slavic settlement, a 10th century motte and church, and a 13th century village embedded in farmland on the edge of a small Bavarian town.

These are the dates for 2018:

June 9/10: Viking shield

September 1/2: Kite & large heater shields

September 8/9: Buckler and smaller late medieval shields. Watch a video of fights with triangular shields here.

For more information, check out his Patreon.

Edward I’s Draft Dodgers


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As I have been working on my thesis, I found a reference which I was looking for but could not find back when I was writing my Master’s thesis. It described one of Edward I’s wars in Scotland where over the course of a few months, half of his infantry threw down their issued crossbows and headed home. The story comes from Michael Prestwitch, “Edward I’s armies,” Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011) pp. 233-244:

The logic of the way the infantry were organised, and the quality of the officers, was not, however, sufficient. Desertion was a major problem, and it did not prove possible for Edward I to keep large numbers of men in the field for any considerable length of time. For example, there were almost 3,500 Yorkshire infantry in the army when it mustered at the end of June 1300. A month later the number was down to 1,483. Edward was understandably furious, and wrote to the keeper of the wardrobe. ‘We are sending you under our seal the names of the footmen from the county of York who have left our service and our host without our leave. These people have maliciously deceived us and have traitorously failed us in our business.’ In 1301 he complained to the officials of the exchequer that as he had no money, he could not prevent his troops from leaving.

Now, a medievalist like Prestwitch can explain the customs of warfare around the year 1300 which made invading a distant country unbearably expensive better than I can (There is a handy article on the situation in Geoff Mortimer ed., Early Modern Military History, 1450-1815 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)). But this is relevant to a point which I make in the Doktorarbeit.

People often describe Achaemenid infantry as “reluctant levies” and explain that the kings did not trust their subjects in the provinces and preferred to rely on Persian cavalry and foreign mercenaries rather than train and equip the peasants. Eduard Meyer was trying to decide what he thought of this idea a hundred years ago (Geschiche des Altertums, Band 4, S. 63 if you read German). But in every single society with conscription which I have looked at, I find that there was a great deal of reluctance amongst the future draftees to spend years in a distant land. Kings and republics were often much more eager to recruit soldiers than to feed and pay them, provide medical care when they were wounded, and support their children if they were killed. So in every society which I have looked at, conscription for a distant war at least provokes grumbling, and usually efforts to avoid going, whether those involve legal loopholes and convenient ailments, hiding from the census-taker, or getting together to murder the conscription officer on some lonely road and hide his body. The more ambitious the rulers, the more intense the resistance. Nathan Rosenstein noticed that after Gaius Gracchus offered free land to citizens, the next census registered 25% more cives, which suggests that at least a quarter of the eligible population had avoided being registered on the list which was used to recruit soldiers. Some armies turn reluctant draftees into an effective fighting force, and others do not. So whether or not Babylonian levies were “reluctant” is about as relevant to the question of their effectiveness as the shape of their skull.

Cross-Post: Artisans in Ancient Greece


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Francine Blondé (ed.), L’artisanat en Grèce ancienne: filières de production: bilans, méthodes et perspectives. Archaiologia. Villeneuve-d’Ascq; Athènes: Presses universitaires du Septentrion; École française d’Athènes, 2016. Pp. 420. ISBN 9782757414767. €48.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Mills McArthur, University of Chicago (

This collection of twenty papers (two in English, the rest in French) emerges from an October 2007 round table gathering organized by l’École française d’Athènes. The theme is craft production in ancient Greece, and the majority of papers focus on one of three subjects: textile production, metalwork, or ancient glass. But this statement somewhat understates the diverse scope of the book. We also encounter papers on basket making, alum production, and the spatial organization of craft activity. Geographically, we travel as far afield as Roman Gaul. Chronologically, the papers delve as early as the Mycenaean period and extend as late as the 19th century CE.

Above all, this volume will be of value for its contributions to the study of ancient textiles, a subject that has attracted much scholarly interest in recent years. One is happy to find Marie-Louise Nosch, a leading authority, among the contributors. Her paper (pp. 157-170) promotes the use of experimental archaeology, defending this form of knowledge from the occasional charges of amateurism. The process of reconstructing ancient garments, she maintains, has the potential to address a broad range of fundamental questions, such as the duration of time required in textile manufacturing, the different techniques employed, and the difficulties encountered during production. She underscores this point with an experiment of her own, in which two experienced spinners spun thread using replica Bronze Age spindle whorls of differing weights. The findings: a skilled worker could spin an average of 50 meters of thread per hour with an 18 g spindle whorl, compared to 40 m per hour with an 8 g whorl. The lighter whorl, however, producing a finer thread, required greater concentration on the part of the spinners, implying a greater degree of skill. For Nosch, these results are an argument for putting tools front and center in the analysis of textile production. The weight of spindle whorls provides a window into the nature of ancient textile production, shedding light on the skills of workers and the type of thread produced at a given site. But exploiting such evidence, she adds, requires adopting rigorous criteria for classifying the tools consistently.

Valérie Marion (pp. 145-156) echoes Nosch’s insistence on the need for greater methodological rigor in describing artifacts of textile production. Much like Nosch’s spindle whorls, Marion sees in loom weights objects of technical precision whose value as evidence is hampered by the lack of a standardized descriptive vocabulary to classify them. The most important point about these weights is their weight — and yet, Marion states, precisely this information is all too often lacking in published inventories. For her, loom weights present an opportunity to pose questions about regional variation, and to that end she offers a case study of two Greek colonies in Thrace: Argilos and Thasos. Despite their geographical and cultural proximity, the evidence of loom weights paints a markedly different picture of textile production in these two communities, as Marion illustrates by graphing the weights’ size distribution and morphology (p. 151). Loom weights, she hopes, will become a means for identifying different technical traditions of textile production across the Greek world.

Quite apart from the tools of the trade, textiles themselves are a source of information for their own production. Some may be surprised to learn just how many ancient Greek textile fragments have been discovered (though they come almost exclusively from funerary contexts). Christophe Moulherat and Youlie Spantidaki (pp. 119-144) present several such artifacts dating from the Bronze Age to the Roman period, the result of a collaboration between the Hellenic Center for Research and Conservation of Archaeological Textiles (ARTEX) and the Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France (C2RMF). The authors describe the fragments, add a few words about archaeological context, and provide details in tabular form about the fragments’ composition, as well as supplying a number of photographs. Especially striking is a fabric from Koropi in Attica that preserves the form of several embroidered lions.2

Across these papers, one gets the impression that a relentless attentiveness to seemingly mundane artifacts of textile production — spindle whorls, loom weights, textile fragments — has great potential to move beyond an understanding of the textile industry resting predominantly on textual and iconographic evidence. …

For the rest of the review, see If you want that linen embroidered with a diaper pattern (intersecting diagonal lines) it is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Museum Number T.220 to B-1953.

The Power of Old Books


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The reading room of an old library with bookcases along the walls, chandeliers, and wooden tables with leather-covered chairs

The reading room of the library of the University of Alberta, Edmonton. Photo by Sean Manning, March 2012.

For the last few weeks I have been trying to follow a lead on the origin of the idea that the Greeks made armour by gluing layers of linen together. Everyone who believes this theory today seems to have got it from the late Peter Connolly, but some of my American friends have found versions as early as 1869 (if you know of an earlier text linking glue and armour, please say so in the comments!) I think I can link it to Isaac Casaubon and another famous 16th century scholar, and show how between 1868 and 1875 their theory of linen soaked in vinegar until it became like felt turned into Connolly’s theory of linen soaked in glue until it became like a mask of bandages soaked in plaster. But my case for that will appear in a footnoted article not a blog post, and today I want to make a larger point which is useful even if you have never spent 10 minutes ranting about silly theories of armour construction.

Everyone with a browser and an uncensored Internet connection is two clicks away from every book in a great library. And if you chose to learn to use it, you can discover wonderful things known to very few people in this world. There are rooms full of books which which are interesting to some community today which have either been forgotten, or were never brought to the attention of that community because it did not exist in 1881. Armour in Texts might seem impressive, but most of the works there were quoted or summarized in about three books published before I was born. I did not find most of them by reading sources, I found most of them by reading people who had read sources and noted down which were useful for understanding armour. The farther back I dig into scholarly books on armour, the more interesting sources I find which nobody seems to read.

It helps if you can read even a little bit of any major language other than English, and if you know a little bit about 19th and early 20th century culture to spot the Edwardian equivalent of Osprey books and self-published treatises on how mainstream science is totally wrong. But I know plenty of people without a lot of university education or knowledge of other languages who have still found and copied useful things. This work is too big for me: I have a dissertation to finish, and I do not love every kind of learning equally.

Google Books and are the best known collections of digitized books, but even more useful are French projects like Persee and Gallica and German projects by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek and the University of Kassel. These projects are run by libraries and universities, and librarians are expert in putting books away in a place where they can be found again, and in warning people about issues like the different forms of letters used before the 20th century. (Google rushed to scan books and refused to listen to librarians, so about a third of their books are mis-catalogued and many have transcriptions which make basic blunders like confusing ʃ and f … and it is much more expensive to correct these mistakes after they have been scanned and processed than it would have been if they had moved more slowly and done it right the first time). But having any of these resources is a treasure, and it gives you powers which were once limited to people living in Vienna or Paris or London.
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2017 Year-Ender


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This picture combines deer, hockey, and a snowless New Year … what could be more Victoria than that?

Another year ends in the manner of the one which ended Xenophon’s Hellenica: after terrible battles and startling results, there is not peace but confusion and disorder. Xenophon’s perplexity lead to a Sacred War, 300 dead lions on the plain of Chaeronea, and the King dead in an abandoned carriage as his conqueror bent down and took his seal with clean white hands. As for me, I am getting to know the local deer and my old library.

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Some Thoughts on “Empire, Authority and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia”


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An oblong sealstone showing a horseman stabbing a charging boar with a lance

A stamp seal of chalcedony in a ?modern? silver mount and an example of the impressions which it leaves on clay. British Museum, Museum Number 120325. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre, Empire, Authority and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2013) ISBN 978-1-107-01826-6 (Oxbow Books)

Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia deserves a wide readership because it is brave enough to try to talk about what life was like in Anatolia in the 220 years when it was part of a timeless empire with Persian kings. The only texts which survive come from the far western and southern fringes, where mountain chieftains and coastal cities carved messages into stone and a few writings became part of the classical tradition. But it has been well studied archaeologically, partially because the region is rich in metal and stone, and partially because Turkey is usually a safe and orderly country open to foreigners. For most of the last century, it was easier for foreign archaeologists to work in Turkey than in Turkmenistan or the Sinai.
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How Much Did a Shirt Really Cost in the Middle Ages?


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A painting of peasants eating and napping under a tree while others harvest grain

Peter Brueghel the Elder, The Harvesters (1565: now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession number 19.164). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Some people on the Internet are curious about how much a shirt cost in the middle ages. Now you could try to answer that question by trying to calculate how long it would take to spin and weave the linen and sew the shirt, combining your guesses in an elaborate chain of assumptions using your big modern educated brain. A certain Eve Fisher imagined and calculated and came up with the figures $3500 or $4200 for a shirt like those depicted by painters like Peter Brueghel the Elder. This has been re-posted by a number of popular websites, and several weavers and spinners have dropped by her website to comment that they are not so sure about some of her assumptions. But did you know that we can skip all of these guesses and calculations, and the questions which they pose about whether we spin and weave as fast as people in the past, and just ask medieval people how much they paid for a shirt?

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