archaeology

archaeology

Dating Bronze Age Shields

the front of a round bronze centergrip shield with a boss and a decoration of alternate solid ribs and rings of embossed dots
A Yetholm type shield from Rhyd-y-Gorse, Wales. Currently dated 1200-900 BCE. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1873-0210-2

Most archaeologists focus on metal, stone, and ceramic objects which are common and easy to conserve, but this has problems! Back in 1962 John Coles studied European Bronze Age shields by beginning with complete bronze shields (or shield covers) from Cyprus, the Aegean, southern Germany, Czechia, Denmark, and the British Isles. Because the oldest finds in the Aegean could be dated to around 850 BCE, Coles created an elaborate theory that the surviving wooden and hide shields and shield moulds from Ireland were copies of Southwest Spanish copies of the shields from the Aegean and Cyprus. Because the shields from Ireland were found loose in bogs, there was no way to date them by the other objects they were found with. Then in 1991 specialists started to collect radiocarbon dates from the Irish shields and shield-moulds, and consistently got dates before 1000 BCE! Since most parts of Europe don’t have as many peat bogs as Ireland, and ancient wood and hide rarely survive outside of bogs, this sparked some rethinking!

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Learning About La Tène

a laminate bookshelf with an assortment of books on armour, fencing, ancient Greece and Rome, and tabletop roleplaying games
My copy of “Greece and Rome at War” gets to hang out with its friends in the spare bedroom

Most people interested in ancient warfare know about the swords, spears, shields, and wheeled vehicles from La Tène in western Switzerland. Peter Connolly painted pictures of them which were printed in a number of his books. A chat with Prof. Dr. Marc-Antoine Kaeser of the Laténium in Switzerland pointed me to some articles where I learned more about these ancient wooden objects.

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Southern Scandinavia is Weird

the cover of Martin Rundkvist's book "Mead Halls of the Eastern Geats" with a photo of a reconstructed mead-hall on a snowy winter day

Martin Rundkvist, Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats: Elite Settlements and Political Geography AD 375–1000 in Östergötland, Sweden (Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien: Stockholm, Sweden, 2011) academia.edu

The first time I read Martin Rundkvist’s book on early medieval southern Sweden, I realized that Sweden is weird. That is because for the past two or three thousand years, the area has never been conquered or occupied by foreigners bringing an alien language and culture. The closest things to that are the arrival of Christianity and whatever happened in northern Scandinavia between Indo-European speakers, Finno-Urgic speakers, and whoever was there before them. I struggle to think of anywhere else in the world which could say the same. Norway got invaded by outsiders once in 1940, and Denmark sometimes had trouble with (Latin Christian) Carolingians, British, or Prussians, but basically wars in southern Scandinavia were between Southern Scandinavians whom the proverbial Martian would have a hard time telling apart.

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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?

a line drawing of a flat wooden shield with a central handgrip, a spine along the long axis, and a wooden boss shaped like a grain of barley
Diagram of a La Tène culture shield from Brunaux and Rapin’s Gournay II

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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