How Heavy Was the Shield from the Fayum?

black and white photos of a dilapidated pltwood shield
Wolfgang Kimmig’s famous photos of the shield from Kasr el Harit in Egypt

In May a well-known ancient historian told the Internet that the style of shield from Kasr el Harit in the Fayum in Egypt weighed 10 kg. He probably got this from Mike Bishop and John Coulston’s classic handbook Roman Military Equipment (second edition p. 62) which cites reconstructions by Peter Connolly and Marcus Junkelmann. He was writing a general lecture so could not spend too much time questioning his sources. But I think this estimate is too high for four reasons.

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Linguistics B(h)at Signal: Phylogenetics and PIE Again

Martin Rundkvist has told me that Russell Gray is writing about Proto-Indo-European using phylogenetics again (basically, trying to figure out when languages diverged from one another by seeing how many words they have in common). The last paper in Science on this topic using these methods was so poor from a linguistic point of view that a whole monograph from Cambridge University Press was needed to explain the problems. Like the last paper, this one is in Science, which is a good journal for some things but not competent to review papers on linguistics. I’m a philologist but not a linguist or a specialist in PIE. Can any of my gentle readers point me to where linguists are discussing it? I am sending out the <*bhat> signal.

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Mathematical Methods and Research as a Community

The famous ancient historian Walter Scheidel has reviewed a book on mathematical models of the economy of the Roman empire.

The current system of academic training, recruitment and promotion is not well equipped to recognize work that is routinely collaborative, may result in electronic outputs rather than traditional deliverables, and is not overtly focused on the monograph as the basic coin of the realm. All that makes it hard to reconcile with norms and expectations that are deeply entrenched in the academic humanities, most notably in the United States where institutionalized individualism and fetishization of the little-read book rule supreme. Academic incentive structures will need to be tweaked in favor of collaborative and non-traditional work to give simulation studies a chance to flourish.

Some of my gentle readers may not know that in ancient world studies we have a situation where to make a bibliography count for academic promotion, we have to print a few hundred copies and sell them to libraries where they collect dust while researchers check the website with PDFs or a searchable database. Rachel Mairs’ Hellenistic Far East Bibliography faces this barrier, so does the ETCSL. And peer-reviewed publications in ancient history and philology are still expected to be written by one or two authors, whereas in natural science there are often a dozen or more authors who contribute different specialized skills (perhaps one performs a chemical test, another writes the software, a third does most of the writing, and a fourth manages the project). But I see a big problem with pushing to focus on understanding the ancient world through mathematical models.

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Democratic Peace but Warlike Democracy

When I was growing up a fashionable big idea stated that two democracies almost never go to war with one another. The exceptions tend to be very old (like Athens vs. Syracuse or Rome vs. Carthage) or very small (such as the Western Allies v. Finland in 1941-1944 and some armed fishing disputes after 1945). This democratic peace theory fit the mood in the 1990s because it said we could put an end to war just by changing political systems and not tedious negotiations about arms control and international law. My amateur understanding is that its not a bad theory as long as you treat it as a rule of thumb not an absolute (both ‘war’ and ‘democracy’ are vague enough that advocates and critics can interpret things the way they want). But there is another observation that democracies are often more warlike (and put more resources into war) than kingdoms or oligarchies or one-party states or military rule. I was reminded of this by Raimund Schulz’ article on the Persian Wars in the Journal of Ancient Civilizations.

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Review: “The Greek Hoplite Phalanx” by Richard Taylor


the cover of "The Greek Hoplite Phalanx" by Richard Taylor.  The top half of the cover is an image from the Chigi Vase, the bottom half has the title and author

Richard Taylor, The Greek Hoplite Phalanx: The Iconic Heavy Infantry of Classical Greece (Pen & Sword History, 2021) Available on Biblio and Amazon

The Greek Hoplite Phalanx is a survey of warfare on land in Athenian literature. That is both more and less than the title promises. Readers who sit down with it over long winter nights or lazy summer days will find thoughtful comments on many old questions. Readers who want something broad or concise may be less satisfied. In many ways it resembles John Kinloch Anderson’s Military Theory and Practice in the Age of Xenophon from 1970.

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Sir Charles Oman Missed This Too

One of the most frustrating things about Charles Oman is that he ignores when his medieval sources were alluding to famous ancient texts. At the battle of Benevento in 1266, the army of Charles of Anjou crossed the Apennines in February only to find themselves trapped between the mountains and the swollen River Calore with Manfred of Sicily and his army on the other side. Charles’ men were already reduced to eating fallen pack animals, and it was hard to see how they could go forward or back. But then fortune intervened:

Ricordano Malaspina wonders why Manfred crossed the River Calore at all since if he had waited a day or two, King Charles and his people would have been killed without a blow of a sword through lack of vittles (columns 1002, 1003). Oman wonders whether Manfred was worried about treachery or desertion, and asks whether “perhaps in the spirit of the mediaeval knight, he preferred to beat his adversary by the sword rather than hunger.” But any attentive reader in the 13th century would have seen that beating the enemy with hunger rather than the sword is a strategic principle from the third book of Vegetius on military matters. He mentions it three times: 3.3.1, 3.9.8., 3.26.32. It seems to me that Malaspina was just as unimpressed with Manfred’s strategic decisions as Oman was.

snippet cut from a forthcoming piece in Medieval World (Karwansaray Bv)
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A Cunning Plan for Basilike Stamatopoulou’s PhD Thesis

Basilike G. Stamatopoulou wrote a whole PhD thesis on the Argive shield (the domed shields with a rim used by Carians, Dorians, and even Etruscans). That thesis is online as photos of individual pages. Since few people outside Greece can read Modern Greek well enough to handle a 500-page PhD thesis, this is not available to most of us. Paul Bardunias and Giannis Kadoglou published a two-page English summary but it leaves many questions unanswered. I have a plan so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel.

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The Back and Forth of Research, or, The Tatbeet Seam

a photo of a seam in orange thread on two pieces of coarse white linen cloth against a blue background
The so-called aketon seam (see bellow): finish the edges, then place right side to right side, join the two finished edges with a whipped or overcast stitch, and unfold to reveal a smooth seam without excess bulk

A challenge in dress and textile history is that people use names for stitches or seams and do not define them or sketch them. Since people use different names for the same thing, and the same name for different things, it can be hard to understand what they mean. An Egyptologist says that seams on garments from Bronze Age Egypt are “mainly of the flat (‘tatbeet’) type, and the very similar run and fell seam … was used for children’s sleeves.” (Rosalind Janssen née Hall, Egyptian Textiles, Shire Publications: Princes Risborough UK, 2001, pp. 57, 58) There are no pictures so what did she mean?

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