Bonus Content: Trecento Sources for Concealed Armour

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Are scale caps and aventails just a fantasy of the artist who painted these ruffians looting a house? Check out Medieval Warfare VIII-1 and find out! Photo courtesy of the British Library.

Another of my writing projects brings us to the 14th century AD, and the burning question “what kind of concealed armour could you buy in the Avignon of the Babylonian Captivity?” If you think that concealed armour is just for Assassin’s Creed and 16th century bravos, you might want to check out Medieval Warfare VIII-1!

But what if you want the original source? Medieval Warfare does not have room for sources in the original, so this week, I have pasted them from my rough draft of the article:

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Bow Estates Already Under Nebuchadnezzar

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Sometimes the tablet-gods smile on us. Over the last hundred years, scholars have worked to establish when the properties known as bow, horse, and chariot estates first appeared in Mesopotamia. Earlier writers often saw them as examples of Iranian feudalism, imposed on Babylonia by the Medes or Persians, but there were a few examples under Nabonidus. Then in 1998 Michael Jursa reread a text from Uruk from the 35th year of Nebuchadnezzar with the following lines:

(15) 1 GUR 2 PI ŠE.NUMUN E2 GIŠ.BAN ša2 {m}Dan-/e-<>\-a
ša2 {m}{d}U.GUR-da-a-nu a-na er-ru-šu-tu2
i-ir-ši maš-ka-a-nu ša2 {m}Gi-mil-lu
a-di {m}G-mil-lu ŠE.NUMUN i-šal-lim

Vocabulary
rašû i/i “to get, acquire”
erušutu > erēşu “to seed
maškanu “security, pledge”

1 kur 2 pi of seed (ie. field which is sown with 7 bushels of barley), the bow estate of Dannēa, which Nergal-dān acquired to sow, is pledged to Gimillu, until Gimillu received the barley.

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The Ancient Story of Stephen Hawking’s Tombstone

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One of the graves of the kings of Elam at Tschoga Zanbil in Iran. If you haven’t invented any new mathematics, and are thinking of rounding up a gang of forced labourers to build a fancy tomb to give you immortal fame, keep in mind that the Assyrians may come around and dig up your bones! Photo by author, May 2016.

Stephen Hawking died on the 14th of March. I don’t have much to say about that, because there are worse lives than discovering a property of black holes, writing a best-selling book, taking a ride on the Vomit Comet, and guest starring on half a dozen nerdy TV shows before dying in your own bed at the age of 76. As Achilles said to Lycaon (Iliad 21.150) “ah, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?” This week I thought of an ancient aspect of his story which many people do not seem to have noticed.

At a workshop to celebrate his 60th birthday, Hawking heard that Ludwig Boltzmann the 19th century physicist had his eponymous formula for entropy engraved on his tombstone, and suggested that he would like the equation which describes Hawking radiation engraved on his own tomb (Dennis Overbye, New York Times, 22 January 2002 https://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/22/science/hawking-s-breakthrough-is-still-an-enigma.html But this story goes a lot further back than königlich- und kaiserlich Vienna.

There is a story that Archimedes was buried under a tomb marked with a cylinder and a sphere and an inscription describing their relative proportions which he had discovered. For Plutarch, this is proof that even though Archimedes was a practical engineer, his true love was pure mathematics:

And although he made many excellent discoveries, he is said to have asked his kinsmen and friends to place over the grave where he should be buried a cylinder enclosing a sphere, with an inscription giving the proportion by which the containing solid exceeds the contained

Plutarch, Marcellus, 17.7 http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Marcellus*.html#17.7

Now, a Neo-Platonist aristocrat like Plutarch had reasons for insisting that Archimedes was not a grubby tradesman, but he did not invent this story. In his Tusculan Dispositions, Cicero claimed to have found this tomb overgrown with brush outside the Akragas Gate of Syracuse, so we have an independent source within 150 years of Archimedes’ death. And because he and Plutarch retold it, the story about Archimedes’ tomb has never been forgotten. I know people before Archimedes who boasted of military victories or public offices on their tombs, but I can’t think of any who boasted of scientific or technical discoveries.

The New York Times reporter implied that Hawking got the idea from Boltzman, so I don’t know whether he knew the story directly. But I am sure that Ludwig Boltzmann knew his Plutarch. You didn’t get a Doktorat at Vienna in 1866 without a heavy dose of Greek and Latin. Even today, historians of ancient mathematics and natural philosophy are often mathematicians and physicists who study history as a hobby. The ancients had to describe the relationship between a sphere and a cylinder with the same height and diameter with words, but today we have algebraic notation and formulas, which is good if the local masons charge by the line. It hasn’t been announced whether his executors will indeed have such a stone made, but I hope they continue this ancient tradition.

You can learn more about Archimedes at Dr. Chris Rorres’ site https://www.math.nyu.edu/~crorres/Archimedes/contents.html

Some Thoughts on “The Cosmic Computer”

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A cover painting of infantry in pressure suits crouched behind the wreckage of a crashed jet vehicle and blazing away with automatic weapons against a red sky and purple moon

The cover of the Ace edition of The Cosmic Computer by Michael Whelan c/o http://www.zarthani.net/ Say what you like about the 1970s, but their oil painters could do cover art!

On Canada Day 2017 I finished re-reading the project Gutenberg text of Piper’s Cosmic Computer (my paperback copy with the wonderful red-and-purple cover is back in Canada). I read this novel every few years, and I always learn something new. Quite a few people who grew up on the American science fiction of the 1940s through 1970s have been reading the news, finding something uncomfortably familiar, and looking back to those Silver Age writers to understand some current madness (Phil Paine reread Revolt in 2100 for the same reason). I can’t talk about that here, but I want to talk about some of the things which I found valuable in this novel.
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How Many Arrows in a Scythian’s Gorytos?

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A reconstruction of a Scythian noble with the bowcase on his left hip. I almost wrote nobleman, but that is not a safe guess in the steppes! Probably from Philip De Souza ed., The Ancient World at War. A Global History (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008).


For a few years now, I have been trying to remember where I learned that Scythian bowcases (Greek gorytos, Babylonian šalṭu) often contained a hundred or more arrows. I have heard it in various places, including in a lecture by a famous classicist in the sunset lands beyond the Ocean, but what is the archaeological evidence?

  • Ellis H. Minns, Scythians and Greeks: A Survey of Ancient History and Archaeology on the North Coast of the Euxine from the Danube to the Caucasus (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1913) p. 68: 200 to 300 arrows in quivers from Scythian graves https://archive.org/details/scythiansgreekss00minn
  • Geo Widengren, “Recherches sur le féodalisme iranien,” Orientalia Suecanica V (1956) p. 152 n. 2: A gorytos in a kurgan at Solokha contained 180 arrows
  • Richard Brzeinski and Mariusz Mielczarek, The Sarmatians 600 BC-AD 450. Men at Arms 373. Osprey Publishing: Botley, 2002. p. 34: 128 arrows with painted shafts in a gorytos in Sholokhovskii kurgan at Rostov-on-Don (-IV); 228 iron heads, 4 bronze, 9 bone in two clumps in a kurgan near Hutor Kascheevka, Rostov-on-Don (-IV or -III)

Now, citing these sources makes me feel a bit dirty, because the ones after the Bolsheviks seized power don’t cite their sources. Unfortunately very few people talk about the Soviet excavations in English, German, or French, and when they do they do not give footnotes. So in the time I have available, these sources will do.
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A Tag from the Bard

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One would think that someone coming this way on a cycle with headlights and reflectors would need to watch out to the right and bear a little bit left, since cyclists coming from the left can see you coming and slow down if they want to make the turn onto the bridge, but anyone coming from the right will only see you as they start turning onto the bridge. But its never a good idea to assume that people can see and think!

On Wednesday evening, I calculated that the cyclist coming from the left like a bat out of the Land of No Return would either continue straight or slow down as he turned onto the bridge. I was wrong, but the Bard always has an apposite quotation!

So he spoke, and balanced the spear far-shadowed, and threw it,
And struck the sevenfold-ox-hide terrible shield of Aias
In the uttermost bronze, which was the eighth layer upon it,
And the unwearying bronze spearhead shore its way through six folds
But was stopped in the seventh ox-hide.

Iliad, 7.244-248, tr. Lattimore

Fleece gloves with a cut through one finger from a cyclist ramming into the wearer

These gloves are just threefold thinsulate, but they will do too

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 academia.edu

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 http://www.geschichtspark.de/

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.