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:

Some Good Armouring Channels


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A cuisse in progress, a sketch of the desired form, and a photo of an original piece by Jeff Wasson of Wasson Artistry

Today all kinds of skilful artisans are describing their work on YouTube, and some documentaries and demonstrations are available there. This makes it possible to learn about armouring on your laptop in the same way that 20 years ago you could learn about cooking or home repair on TV. Unfortunately, a simple keyword search will turn up both videos on historical armour and rants about video games, the New Zealand Army’s video on a trade, a British soldier grumbling about a change in pay scales, and other things not very helpful to someone interested in ancient and medieval armour. So this week I thought I would suggest some channels by good craftsmen who know what they are talking about. All of these links are videos hosted on a site owned by an American company which makes its money by tracking you [Google], so let the privacy-conscious or low-bandwidth clicker beware.
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The Kindness of Strangers


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A softcover book with uncut pages against the background of a cheap desk, Murphy's "Ottoman Warfare," and Harrison's "Writing Ancient Persia"

On Friday a book arrived from the Magazin, which is what Austrians call the closed stacks or off-site storage of a library. Unlike other things which come from a magazine, it was not packed in an airtight box and covered in oil or grease, but I did have to do something else before it was ready for action: cut the pages open. The top and lateral edges of many pages were still solidly fixed to their neighbours, and I had to separate them a flick of my trusty Laguiole.

The book answered my question about shipbuilding terms, and helped me finish a footnote. But how long, Sandahl, did you wait for me? Seventy years, from the half-built times after the war, through years of revolt that turned into drugged smugness, then haughty pride growing across the sea as enemies blustered and clashed until suddenly there was only one which claimed the victor’s name but was strangely transformed as kings raged in Babylon and methane bubbled upwards from the Arctic depths like a beating heart beneath the floorboards. Thy author perished. The handwritten cards and typed slips from which thou wert born were reckoned quaint, yet no-one came to read the ‘checker’s rolls for which thy author had waited patient while the torpedoes and fire-bombs were falling. And all that time, nobody opened thee to “rivet” and read. How many patient librarians kept thee from dust and water? When wert thou banished to thy exile in the Magazin? And all so that thou wouldst be there when I summoned thee.

I am not the most adventurous person, and it is possible to strip the romance from anything if you look at it the wrong way. But I can call dead men from the vasty deep, and they answer when I call them. While that brings madness, I am not sure how much of my world is sane.

Ancient History Does Not Have Journal Rankings



Since you are putting up with me getting a bee in my bonnet about academic culture, how about these nice birds on the medieval city wall of Tallinn, Estonia?

Over on Crooked Timber, John Quiggin asks:

As far as economic research is concerned, less is more. More precisely, an academic economist with a small number of publications in top-rated journals is better regarded by other economists than one with an equal (or even somewhat larger) number of ‘good journal’ publications along with more research published in less prestigious outlets. I can vouch for that, though it’s less of a problem in Australia than in less peripheral locations. I have the impression that the same is true in other fields, but would be interested in comments.

Comments there and on his blog are closed, so I will comment here.

Due to my profession, I spend a lot of time talking to people in classics, ancient history, Assyriology, philology, etc. And I have never heard anyone in that field dismiss a work because of where it was published, or suggest that it should be taken seriously because of where it was published. I have not heard that kind of trash from the most nervous young researcher putting others down to hide their own fear, or the grumpiest professor who wishes that he (its usually a he) had picked another trade.

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A Mysterious Armour from Verona


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Front view of a painted marble statue of a torso from Verona. Photo by Sean Manning, April 2017.

I was travelling last week and am sick this week, so don’t have time for a full post. Instead, I thought I would post some photos of a statue in the Museo Archaeologico, Verona.

Side view of a painted marble statue of an armoured torso from Verona. Photo by Sean Manning, April 2017.

This style of armour is a mystery, because none of it survives and no text clearly refers to it. Armour from the Roman imperial period usually survives because it was deliberately buried when a fort was abandoned or deposited in water as an offering to the gods. This favours armour worn by common soldiers (especially kinds which left a trail of broken parts as they were worn), and small objects like helmets and greaves. Written sources are not interested in distinguishing muscled armours from shoulder-flap armours or armours with a cape which wraps over the shoulders from behind, and in the imperial period they rarely describe materials in detail. So whether they were made of iron plate, or bronze plate, or hardened leather, or something else is a mystery, despite many people having loud and angry opinions on the subject. Whether at some point they fell out of use, and just survived in art because they looked old and Greek, is a mystery. Just how they opened and closed, and what function the straps over the shoulders served, is a mystery. What the feathers at the shoulder and waist were made of is a mystery, although woven braid is a plausible guess.

Studying ancient armour is full of mysteries: types which are common in art but invisible in finds, kinds which are common in archaeological sites but difficult to identify in art, helmets which usually have cheek pieces in paintings but rarely have them in museums.

Dungeons and Historians


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A tunnel into darkness under Schloss Neuhaus in Südtirol. Any similarity to the tunnel under the Playmobil pirate island is totally coincidental; I can’t comment on whether there were any giant centipedes, gnolls, or 10′ deep pits inside, although for enough money I might sell a badly-drawn map and some cryptic warnings. Photo by Sean Manning, April 2015.

A few weeks ago, Martin Rundkvist published a light-hearted post on how archaeology spoiled his ability to enjoy dungeon fantasy (the kind of fantasy inspired by D&D, where humans and humans-with-funny-ears venture into underground compounds full of monsters and loot). I think I underwent a similar experience, although it started earlier and the details varied (elementary-school-me worked his way though a library of terrible TSR and Star Trek novels, but teenaged-me never learned the cloak trick). So I have a different perspective on some things than he does. Martin points out that the idea of a handful of heroes assaulting a fortress full of fighters is absurd. But stories about professional dungeon-crawlers and monster-slayers tend to be much more like the Iliad or Beowulf, where a hero can cut through entire armies (with nameless buddies to finish off the wounded) or slay a monster who has ripped up a hall full of warriors, than like our world, where “not even Hercules can fight two.” And everyone knows that dungeons are shaped like that because it is easy to draw on graph paper and copy onto your battle mat, not because it is ‘realistic.’ So this week, I would like to give my historian’s perspective on some of the issues which he looked at from his archaeological perspective.

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A Paradise


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The steel gate to a cinderblock compound in Fars

The gate to the Izadi paradise. As a prosperous country family, their walls are all cinderblocks, not mud brick or fieldstone.

παράδεισ-ος -ου, masuline noun, from Avestan pairidaēza-, Old Persian +paridaida-, Median +paridaiza- (walled-around, i.e., a walled garden), an enclosed park or pleasure-ground …

Dictionaries rarely have room to illustrate many entries, even when this works better than a written definition. On this blog, however, I am free to use more pictures than words!

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Historical Prices for Gamers and Writers


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Photo of cloth dealers in the old bazaar of Isfahan

Isfahan’s glory days are young, within the last thousand years, but a nice shaded place to set up shop is a luxury in any period! Photo of the Old Bazaar in Isfahan by Sean Manning, May 2017.

One of the big problems facing anyone studying ancient economies is that it’s very difficult to tell how much things cost at any given time. Records of market prices are sparse at the best of times and often nonexistent, and even where such records exist, they’re usually exceptional or represent only a single transaction. But sometimes historians get lucky …

– Matthew Riggsby, GURPS Hot Spots: The Silk Road p. 34

Gamers and novelists often want to know something which historians are not eager to answer: how much did practical things cost in the past? Historians of older periods tend to be very aware of the limits of a source which just says “five pounds of iron nails worth thus-and-such,” and admire the work of specialists in recent times who construct methodical serieses and statistics and turn them into charts with lines and inflection points. But characters in a short story or an adventure game are much more likely to buy a drink or a sword than ten bushels of barley. The writers of roleplaying games almost never have time to do the research, unless the game is set in very recent times and they can mine their collection of old Sears Catalogues and Baedekers. (Also, their customers tend to become just as attached to “a longsword costs 15 gold pieces” as they are to “magic missile always hits,” and in our decadent and decimalized age they sometimes revolt against something as simple as pounds/shillings/pence). So this week, I thought I would honour the release of Matthew Riggsby’s GURPS Hot Spots: The Silk Road with a list of some resources which I have found.

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The UBC PhD Career Outcomes Survey of 2016



A snapshot from a university department website with a field containing the automatically-generated message "There are no opportunities at this time"

From the mouth of algorithms comes truth- maybe a bit too much truth, in this case! A screenshot from the website of a Canadian university.

PhD students like to talk about the fact that there are far more new doctors of philosophy than positions as tenure-track faculty or researchers, so anyone who wants a job like that has to follow a series of very specific and demanding steps, with a high chance of finding themself stuck in a poorly paid, overworked position as a sessional instructor or post-doctoral researcher. Unfortunately, hard numbers are hard to come by, and naturally the people who are very successful or very unhappy have the loudest voices. The people who are most active in complaining about the problem tend to be Americans, and the situation in that country has some special features. Back in 2013, I estimated that about four people got a PhD in history in Canada for every tenured professor who retired, and made some choices accordingly.

Recently, the University of British Columbia published a survey of 3,805 students who graduated UBC with a PhD between 2003 and 2015. Through a combination of mail, email, and online searches, they were able to find some information about 91% of these students. A summary is posted at
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