archaeology

archaeology

Uncertainties Regarding Historical Facts

Over on Andrew Gelmans’s blog, there is a discussion about my post writing for the curious.

One thing I did not spell out is that people with training in history, archaeology, or similar rarely make the key decisions about historical documentaries. Old Media documentaries are businesses like any other film or TV show. They are run by business people and drama people who want return on investment and artistic fulfillment. Scholars may be interviewed and provide sound bites, but what they say is scripted or edited to fit a message chosen by those business people and drama people. Because TV and film are big money, they face big pressure. For example, Zahi Hawass features in almost any documentary about ancient Egypt, not because of his expertise, but because he is very well connected and documentaries which don’t give him airtime have problem after problem with the Egyptian government. Often, a documentary is based on one or two popular books or press releases, so its well downstream of original research. Business people and drama people don’t have the skills or inclination to dig too far into “how do we know that?” so they tend to compare experts and pick the one who sounds most convincing or most exciting. Everyone has to do this sometimes, but trained historians are much better equipped to deal with questions like this.

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Writing for the Curious

a green and yellow maple leaf fallen on wet woodchips
A fallen leaf, 28 October 2022

I have said before that many people seem to misunderstand what historians do, even if they are interested in history. Over on Andrew Gelman’s blog, I found people saying things like:

Whenever I see theories about ancient stuff I always feel it is very speculative. “This artifact is a stone ax from a hominid from c. 800,000 BP”. “The Samson story in the book of Judges is based on folk legends about a Hercules-like half-man, half-god figure, but edited to make it conform to a monotheistic worldview”. To the extent that these conclusions really represent the best understanding of experts, they sound to me like a maximum likelihood estimator when the likelihood function is very flat.

or

I mean, what is the actual evidence Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon? If you look it up there is very little concern for such issues.

If you are active in any of the historical science, you know that discussions between experts are full of questions, alternative explanations, and debates. It is press releases, documentaries, and trade books which usually focus on one interpretation and promote it as hard as possible. Most ancient historians are unsure if they can know anything about the moment when Caesar crossed from his province into Italy or whether the ‘bad emperors’ did the things that salacious stories have them do. But a belief that questions are not being asked or that sinister forces are shutting them down lies behind many conspiratorial and anti-expert movements today. So how are we failing to communicate what we do and what we value?

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How Thick Were La Tène Shields?

This century, researchers such as Roland Warzecha have worked to spread awareness that most round centergrip shields from the Baltic were rather thin in the centre and even thinner at the edges. An overall thickness, including wood, skins, and any intermediate layers, of about 8 mm in the centre and 4 mm at the edge is typical from the sacrifices at Illerup Ådal around 200 CE to late Viking Era graves around 1000 CE. We do not know as much about shields in dryer, warmer parts of Europe where it was not customary to deposit arms in lakes and bogs. But we can study the surviving shields from La Tène on Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. If you read the original reports, you will learn many things which Peter Connolly did not tell you.

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What Woods were Used for Shields in Iron Age Europe?

two bundles of planks on a yellow plastic deck chair. One bundle is longer thin white planks, the other is shorter thicker red planks
16 linear feet of 5/16″ thick tilia Americana (left) and 9 linear feet of 2″ thick alnus rubra (right)

People often guess that particular kinds of wood were used for shields in ancient Europe, including hard, dense woods like oak and soft, brittle woods like pine. But did you know that we can just examine the objects they left behind and see what woods the ancients used? Or that ancient writers tell us which woods are best for making shields and why? This week, I will list the woods used in some surviving ancient shields and then quote those ancient writers.

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Call For Sources: Spears in the Imperium Romanum

An intact spear and buckler from the famous excavations at La Tène, Switzerland. Planche II of P. Vouga, “La Tène: Quatrième Rapport, Foulles de 1910 et 1911,” Musée Neuchâtelois, XLIXme Année (1912) pp. 7-15 http://doc.rero.ch/record/12454

There are many great publications of Germanic, British, and Celtic spears. Are there any published spears from the imperium Romanum, especially the eastern half? Or from pre-imperial Italy? I’m curious about what woods were used, how the diameter varies from point to butt, and the overall length.

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Female Military Historians

soldiers in pleated kilts and helmets carry a beam, while others stand by chariots with spoked wheels
Detail from a New Kingdom relief of soldiers in the Museo Civico, Bologna. Photo by Sean Manning September 2018.

I have said that the ‘hoplite debate’ from 1989 to 2013 was an argument between people who were very similar to each other. One way they were the same was that they were almost all men. Is that because academic military history in general is male-dominated? That would not be a very good argument because military history is so marginal at universities that most people who do it have another research field. But more importantly, I can think of about two dozen 40 fifty women who have made significant contributions to the study of war in the ancient and medieval worlds. From my point of view, a doctoral dissertation, scholarly book, or several influential articles are enough to be significant.

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The Scale Armour from Yanghai

a leather scale armour from an archaeological excavation, and a pattern drawing
The Yanghai armour. Figure 6 from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2021.11.014

Some comments on Patrick Wertmann et al., “No borders for innovations: A ca. 2700-year-old Assyrian-style leather scale armour in Northwest China.” Quaternary International, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2021.11.014 It has been discussed on Sci Newswww.spektrum.dehttps://www.media.uzh.ch/Science DailyHeritagedaily among others.

The cemetery at Yanghai in Uighur territory continues to give. This week, an article about hide scale armour in a grave there has been circulating on the Internet and corporate social media. The grave had other cool things, like a wooden bedstead and a wooden fire drill, but most of the attention has focused on the authors’ claims that the armour was made within the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Unfortunately, that claim is the weakest part of a strong article.

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Asteroids, Tall el-Hamman, and Multidisciplinary Research

a pewter brooch of a comet with a faceted glass stone
Shiny! This is a medieval comet not an ancient comet but close enough! Copy of a pewter brooch from Salisbury by Billy and Charlie.

In late September, the world was excited by a Nature Science Reports article arguing that Tall el-Hamman, a city on the Jordan River, was destroyed by an interstellar body bursting overhead around 3650 years ago. This paper was published by a team of natural scientists based in the USA, particularly geologists, remote sensor scientists, and earth scientists. Because it is multidisciplinary, very few people are qualified to assess the argument as a whole. There seems to be some pushback from archaeologists on corporate social media. Those threads are far less useful than a footnoted essay would be, and some of the ones by highly educated posters make claims which anyone who reads the article can see are false. One of the better threads is by a Dr. Megan A. Perry, a bioarchaeologist at East Carolina University in the USA:

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Identities Are Hard to Get At

Some stranded seaweed on a Salish Sea beach at about 1/3 of full tide

A few weeks ago, I talked about how an identity is something to which someone says “I am that.” After a series of unfortunate events between 1914 and 1948, educated people stopped talking about race, gender, and ethnicity as essences and started to talk about them as identities or social categories. This change was meant to reduce the amount of murder, enslavement, and forced migration in our world. But when we try to understand the ancient world, identities in the proper sense are not very helpful.

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Insights from Experience, Excavation, and Reconstruction

In September and October, I came across several projects in archaeology which help us understand early warfare. This week’s post will take us from China to Germany, Italy, and England and from the Bronze Age to the 18th century CE.

A magnified photo of the edges of two bronze swords, one verdegrised and one red
Figure 7 from Hermann et al. 2020 (see below). Left is a replica sword which has delivered a strike to the socket of a bronze spearhead, right is an original bronze sword

I will start with the Bronze Age (best age!) then move on to ages of other metals. A German-UK-Chinese team published the latest project trying to understand how Bronze Age swords were used. They examined damage to the edges of originals and then compared it to damage on replica swords by Neil Burridge after performing Andre Lignitzer’s six sword-and-buckler plays. I’d like to see more studies like this borrowing ideas from other martial arts like Shastar Vidiya to see which seem to work best with Bronze Age weapons from Europe. Fifteenth-century German fencing such as Andre Lignitzer’s plays has a lot of blade-on-blade contact and twisty actions while the blades are crossed, whereas other martial arts rely on the shield to defend or prefer simpler weapon-on-weapon actions. But I think that the evidence that swords from some periods often have marks characteristic of controlled parrying, whereas in other periods the edge damage is more random, is valuable. I am also glad that they experimented with common matchups like sword against spear, and not just the rare occasions when a sword was used against another warrior with a sword who was ready for the attack.

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