Month: July 2016

Linen-Cotton Blends in the Greco-Roman World

Some of my hobbies are making me think about fabric. I used to think that fabric containing both cotton and linen was a product of the last thousand years, as cotton production spread west from India into areas with a strong tradition of weaving linen. In the second half of the middle ages, cities in Italy began importing cotton from Egypt and Turkey and Syria and weaving it themselves, and the trade slowly spread north across the Alps. The basic idea was that cotton was cheap and absorbed dye well, while linen was strong but hard to colour. Some weavers found that if they used cotton for the warp threads, they tended to snap. So a mixed cloth with a linen warp and cotton weft was both strong and colourful. In the middle ages these cloths were known by names such as English fustian, Italian fustagno (from the suburb of Fustat in Egypt) or German Barchent. Today weavers are comfortable with a cotton warp, and artificial dyes can colour pure linen any imaginable colour, but cloth with cotton running one way and linen threads the other is still used for shirts and other items. I did not think that these mixed cloths existed before the middle ages. But now read this!

The finds of archaeological linen textiles display a wide range of qualities in ancient Greece. However, they are primarily burial finds and thus no adequate source for the topic of clothing practice. Nothing, however, suggests that linen textiles were rare, or associated only with female burials or those of foreigners. Linen textiles occur much more frequently than wool textiles in the archaeological record in Greece, as Moulherat and Spantidaki have observed, but this only reflects the preservation conditions in Greece, and does not denote a choice of fibre. A linen textile of impressive size came to light in Eleusis: it measures 220 cm × 50 cm. It was found in a bronze vessel dating to the mid-5th century BC. Preserved linen textiles with 100 threads per cm are not unknown in classical Greece. From the 5th century BC such a linen textile was found in a tomb at Kerameikos; another 5th century linen fabric of similar quality comes from Kalyvia T­horikos. In another 5th century Kerameikos grave, linen textiles with remains of stitch holes from embroidery and fabrics decora­ted with purple were recovered. The original assumption of silk fabrics has now been proven wrong in new analyses by Christina Margariti and colleagues who demonstrated that there are four different fabrics of which two are of made of linen, while another fabric is probably made of cotton, and the last is woven of linen warp and cotton weft.

That quote comes from an article by Marie-Louise Nosch where she argues that scholars have been too hasty in following a passage in Herodotus and dismissing the use of linen in classical Greece (Hdt. 2.105 tr. A.D. Godley):

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Keegan’s Challenge

I hope that everyone reading a blog like this has read the late John Keegan’s Face of Battle. In 1976, Keegan interrupted the quiet field of military history with some rude questions: Why was it that so many “battle pieces,” however detailed and colourful they sounded, did not explain what happened and how? Just where did the idea of the decisive battle come from? How much did we really know about famous battles? Using a few carefully chosen examples, he demonstrated how conventionalized and unrealistic many stories about battles were, even those by “serious historians” writing “technical accounts.” And then he suggested that two things had to be done: historians needed to study the “battle piece” as a genre and consider the tropes and assumptions which shaped it, and they needed to ask what individuals and small groups actually did in battle. He then explained that he did not have the energy, skills, and ambition to write a history of the battle piece as genre. Thus the next three chapters of his book are studies of what happened on three different battlefields in northern France, beginning with a sketch of the strategic situation and the course of the battle then narrowing in to focus on how and why the men on both sides fought. He borrowed some exciting new ideas from psychology and sociology and literary criticism, and added a fifth chapter with an extended comparison between soldiering and mountaineering to make the point that for the last century or so combat had come to demand more and more of soldiers to the point that it was difficult to envision what a clash between two modern armies would look like, even before the first nuclear weapon went off.

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The Seal of Athenades

Books on ancient warfare often reproduce certain pieces of Greek art from the middle of the fifth century BCE, including a rhyton shaped like a screaming Persian, a series of vase paintings with Greeks striking down cowering barbarians, and another where a man naked except for a cloak and unarmed except for an erection charges at another wearing Scythian dress with the caption “I am Eurymedon / I stand bent over” (the Athenians and their allies won a famous victory over the Persians at the Eurymedon River in southern Anatolia, although spoilsports sometimes point out that Eurymedon seems to be the pursuer instead of the pursued). In the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, there is another Greek depiction of a foreigner which is usually left out, no doubt because the authors are not sure how to obtain the rights to reproduce it.

The oblong face of a signet ring depicting a man in tunic and trousers and hood sitting on a folding chair with a bow at his knee and examining an arrow.
The face of the signet ring of Athenades. In the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Inv. No. Π.1854.26. Photo from Yuri Kalashnik, Greek Gold in the Hermitage Collection: Antique Jewellery from the Northern Black Sea Coast. (The State Hermitage Publishers: St. Petersburg, 2014) pp. 75, 76.
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The Forces of Madness Transform Topology


Since 1933, it has been well known that the forces of madness have an affinity with unusual topology. In the case of this style of garment, layers of flat cloth are assembled into a three-dimensional garment shaped like an hourglass, using a saddle-shaped curve along the high waistline. From this stage onwards it is hard to lay the assemblies flat for photographing, because the whole point of assembling them is to stretch flat planes into a three-dimensional shape. I used some books to support the edges of the seam across the small of the back to help create the right effect for the camera.

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The New “Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies”

Three paper copies a journal scattered across an oriental rug
JRMES 17, with its griffin guardians, has arrived in Rhaetia

The new issue of the Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies has arrived in Tirol. The two volumes published last year contained articles such as:

  • A study of the impact marks from catapult balls and sling bullets on the walls of Pompeii, presumably dating back to the Roman siege of the town during the Social War.
  • A project on Roman locking scale from Carlisle by David Sim and J. Kaminski which started with billets of specially-made wrought iron and ended in having a good bash at the armour with replicas of Roman weapons. This particular armour was sophisticated and effective, and the authors have many interesting insights into metallurgy and manufacturing process, including a time that their wish to ‘tidy up’ more than the original armourers did created a problem. I was left wishing that they had addressed some other issues, but I will put those below the fold.
  • A pair of articles on the reconstruction of Roman boots and their use on a march across the Brenner Pass. I enjoyed the contrasting perspectives of the shoe-wearers and the shoemaker-cum-archaeologist who made the shoes.

The latest volume includes things like:

  • Two examples of Roman lorica hamata squamataque preserved as a whole (rather than as loose scales or small clusters of scales), one of which was preserved with its linen liner. To my knowledge, this is the first archaeological evidence for mail with a lining in the Roman world.
  • A copper-alloy crescent (lunula) similar to those mounted on Roman battle standards from a layer dating to the first century BCE at Gurzufskoe Sedlo in the Crimea. Both the date and the location are worth noticing.
  • A set of silvered bronze saddle plates which ended up buried with a cow in the Meroitic kingdom of Kush.
  • An article by Jon Coulston on Roman archery which makes use of comparative evidence from outside the Roman world.

If that sounds like the kind of thing you want to read or support, copies are available here.

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The Elamite Rock Relief at Kurangun

Ever since Darius’ inscription at Behistun was deciphered, scholars have puzzled why it is placed high on a cliff where nobody can read it and even the sculptures are difficult to see. Even the ledge on which the builders stood was chiselled away, so that visitors who wished to copy the inscription had to be lowered by ropes from above. A common answer is that he wrote it for the gods, but this does not really work. Darius specifically addresses future kings, and readers who might doubt his words, and includes the boilerplate blessing on those who preserve and proclaim his words and curse on those who alter or destroy them. He also says that after the inscription was composed copies were sent amongst the nations (paragraph 70 of the Old Persian version), and we have a copy in Aramaic from Elephantine on the Nile and a retelling by Herodotus which clearly draws on the official version of the story. Babylonian scholars often had copies of foundation inscriptions and other texts which were buried for posterity in their collections. While the copy at Behistun was placed where nobody could read it, the text which is preserved there clearly has specific mortal audiences which Darius was concerned about, and it influenced many people in the empire and beyond.

At another place in Fars there is a tongue of rock overlooking a river with a fertile plain. On this tongue there is also a large relief carved into the rock about a hundred meters above the plain below. It was there long before Darius, although it is not clear that he was familiar with it like he was with some other rock reliefs.

The Elamite rock relief and valley below at Kurangun in Iran.  Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.
The Elamite rock relief and valley below at Kurangun in Iran. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.

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