Month: January 2017

Some Thoughts on “Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics”

The cover of a book showing a map of Eurasia in the background and a tree of Indo-European languages in the foreground

Asya Pereltsvaig, Martin W. Lewis, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2015) ISBN 978-1107054530 Bookfinder link

A few years ago, some very bad linguistics was published in some very famous journals and credulously reported by newspapers which are very widely read. Usually, academics respond to nonsense by ignoring it, because proving something wrong is much more work than claiming it in the first place (Brandolini’s Law), and because the authors of bad research rarely respond well to criticism and fans of that research are not always interested in a second opinion. But two blogging philologists, Martin Lewis and Asya Pereltsvaig, have written an entire book exploring the problems with these papers and standing up for the importance of geography and historical linguistics in any attempt to understand past languages and cultures.
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Cotton from Dilmun

An eroded ziggurat against the background of the blue sky with bushes and depressions in the foreground
Tschoga Zanbil, the greatest surviving ziggurat in Elam (modern Khuzestan). Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.

In Achaemenid studies, Wouter Henkelman’s book The Other Gods Who Are is famous for using some very difficult sources to argue that we should not think about Iranians replacing and subjugating Elamites, but that the ancient Persians we know were the product of hundreds of years of interaction between Iranian-speakers and Elamite-speakers sharing the highlands of Fars, so that by the time of Cyrus or Darius it was hard to say what was Iranian and what was Elamite. Elam had traditionally included both lowland Susa and highland Anšan, and by the time of Cyrus the difference between mountain and plain may have felt more real than any difference in language or religion inside one region.

As this study aims to show, the religious landscape of the Achaemenid heartland was a fascinating and variegated tapestry woven from Elamite and (Indo-)Iranian traits. It will be argued that, though heterogeneous, this landscape was nevertheless a unity that was treated as such by the administrators at Persepolis. ‘Iranian’ and ‘Elamite’ cults were not only treated alike, but were actually not separated in clearly distinct sections. The gods venerated and the cults sponsored were only so because they were considered to be Persian, i.e. as belonging to the rich intercultural milieu of first-millennium Fārs. (p. 58)

As I take my first glance through it, I find that it has other treasures:

One question that arises at this point is whether [the hoard of silverware from] Kalmākarra is an exception, or an indication of the overall level of prosperity in the period under discussion [ie. the century after the Assyrian invasions around 640 BCE]. Confirmation of the thesis that ‘Kalmākarra’ is not an exceptional case is the rich inventory of a stone burial chamber, discovered by chance in 1982 at Arǧān near Behbahān in eastern Khūzestān. The funerary deposits, in and outside of a bronze coffin, included an elaborate bronze stand (or ‘candelabrum’), a large gold ceremonial object (‘ring’), a dagger decorated with precious stones and gold filigree, a silver rod, a bronze lion beaker and a large bowl with engraved scenes. Four of the objects have an Elamite inscription reading “Kidin-Hutran, son of Kurluš.” Apart from metal objects, the tomb also contained remains of embroidered garments. The 98 gold bracteates, also found in the coffin, may have been sewn to one or several of these garments. There is now a communis opinio on the tomb’s date: the later seventh or early sixth century BC (i.e. contemporaneous with the Kalmākarra hoard and the Acropole texts).[79] The Arǧān find is of major importance for its international context. The tomb inventory displays a range of different styles and iconographic themes (Phoenician, Syrian, Elamite, Assyrian) and some objects probably reached Kidin-Hutran via long-distance trade. This is particularly true for the textiles found in the tomb, at least three of which are made of cotton – these are, in fact,among the earliest Near Eastern examples of cotton garments. As Javier Álvarez-Mon argues, maritime trade between Elam and Dilmun, where cotton was grown in this period, is the most likely source of the fabric or the raw material (Álvarez-Mon [forthc. 1]).

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How Much Does the Protection of Low-Tech Armour Vary?

A selection of images from tactical displays in Star Wars: A New Hope
Despite all of our technological terrors, we still can’t predict the outcome of hand-to-hand combat very well. Graphic courtesy of Dr. Mike Reddy 2013 https://doctormikereddy.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/javin-java-battle-of-yavin-tactical-computer/

Designers of roleplaying games who are interested in learning how the real world works, and not just studying other people’s stories and games, usually put a lot of thought into the combat mechanics. One old argument is about how to handle the performance of armour. Fairly early on (sometime in the 1970s or 1980s?), the idea of a damage roll was combined with the idea that armour could provide a penalty to damage. However, this tends to bother people whose archetypical combat involves modern firearms and armoured vehicles or kevlar body armour.

Bullets and shells have a very predictable ability to penetrate armour, and modern industrialized, standardized-tested armour has a very predictable ability to resist it, and the damage-roll-minus-armour model tends to let some things get through which should be stopped. While sometimes this can be abstracted away (“eh, maybe those few points of damage represent bruising”) other times that is difficult to justify (“did the shell explode inside the tank or outside? Did the Deathly Dagger of Draining touch his flesh or not?”) One solution to this is to treat both penetration and resistance as more or less fixed, then generate the effect of the wound based on their interaction. GURPS fans often refer to this as armour-as-dice, because armour can be treated as reducing the predictable number of damage dice which the attacker rolls instead of the variable results of that roll.

However, models which treat penetration and resistance to penetration as more-or-less fixed tend to make people who are more interested in combat with hand weapons uncomfortable. In this post, I would like to explore what we know about how much the ability of hand-made armour to resist weapons can vary, even within a given piece of a known form and quality. If you want, you can skip to where I sum up.

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