Iron Age

The Cult Wagon from Strettweg bei Judenburg

A bronze model of a four-wheeled wagon with several dozen naked men and women and horses standing on it and a central figure, twice as tall, holding a flat dish over her head with the help of two X-frames
The “Kult-” or “Kesselwagen.” Archaeologisches Musuem Graz, Schloss Eggenberg, no. 184. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

This blog has been wordy of late, so this week I decided to post about one of the strangest relics I saw on my recent trip to Graz. It comes from a grave of the so-called Halstatt Culture which was discovered in 1851, and it was deposited there sometime around the end of the seventh century BCE. Since I know so little about the Iron Age in central Europe, I can’t be tempted to make a lot of wordy comments.

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A Third of a Metre of Linen, Some Thread, and a Few Spare Hours

Two 7 inch by 7 inch patches of cloth on a plastic cutting board marked with a grid.  One is quilted vertically every 1 cm with white thread, and one is quilted horizontally every 1 cm with purple thread
Two test patches, eight layers of linen quilted with thick white cotton thread (left) and seven layers quilted with thin silk thread (right). Photo by Sean Manning, January 2016.

Lately I have been trying to spend less time online and more working with my hands. For another project I wanted to practice my stab stitch and see how organic thread compares to the cotton-coated synthetic which I usually use. While I was doing that, I thought I would take a few hours to learn some things about a type of armour which many people today find difficult to understand, namely layered cloth. This post has many photos; don’t forget that you can click on them to see a larger version.
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The Armour of Patroklos

A painting of a circle withing which a man in Greek armour is crouching and bandaging the arm of a second who is sitting on his round shield
A Red Figure Vase of Achilles and Patroclus, painted around 500 BCE. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Akhilleus_Patroklos_Antikensammlung_Berlin_F2278.jpg

I am sick again this week and have not been able to finish a craft project which I wanted to talk about, so I thought I would post half a thought about armour instead. The vase painting above is one of the most famous. Pottery geeks try to assign it to a group of paintings from the same workshop, students of mythology appreciate that Akhilles and Patroklos are labeled, and students of material culture enjoy the details of military equipment. The view of the shoulder-piece springing upwards as soon as it is untied, and of the skirt of ‘feathers’ stopping above the genitals, have shaped many modern ideas about Greek armour. Long ago Peter Connolly repainted it for his Greek Armies.
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This is Not a Translation of the Gadal-iama Contract

Although respectable German and French translations of the Gadal-iama contract were available by 1952, they were published in journals for specialists. As a result, many English-speaking readers first encounter this text as quoted or paraphrased in books on other topics. One of the most widely read versions was published in a life of Alexander by Robin Lane Fox and quoted by Paul Rahe in his article “The Military Situation in Western Asia on the Eve of Cunaxa.” But as with some other things in Lane Fox’s life of Alexander, this version is not exactly what it leads readers to think it is:

In one remarkable document, the problems are set out in detail. In 422 King Artaxerxes had summoned his colonists to attack the city of Uruk, but the summons had caught the Jewish owner of a land grant off his guard. Probably because of financial embarassment, the Jew’s father had been forced to adopt a member of the Murasu bank as his son, so that the banker could inherit a share in the family allotment, and as the land grant could only be owned by members of the family, adoption was the one means of evading the king’s law and endowing an outsider. When the father died, the adopted banker held one part of the farm, the true male heirs the rest. … Fortunate in his banking ‘brother,’ the Jew had struck an advantageous bargain; the wild cat bankers would not fancy fighting and so their adopted agent would finance the armour, silver tax, horse and, very probably, the groom, while the Jew would ride out at the risk of his life.

In the joy of his heart, Gadal-Iama the Jew has spoken thus to the son of the Murasu: the planted and plowed fields, the horse land of my father, you now hold because my father once adopted your father. So give me a horse with a groom and harness, a caparison of iron, a helmet, a leather breastplate, a buckler, 120 arrows of two sorts, an iron attachment for my buckler, two iron spears and a mina of silver for provisions, and I will fulfill the service-duties which weigh on our lands.

As the horseman owned no bow, the arrows were presumably to be handed in to the cashier and then distributed to owners of bow and chariot land.

– Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, The Dial Press n.p. 1974 ch. 11 p. 159

Robin Lane Fox seems to have composed this version on the basis of the French and German translations which he cited. However, it is missing things in both of them, and contains things which neither does.
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The Reconstruction of an Iron Age Building

A path running through light woods with a building at the side with a lower story built from fieldstone and an upper story built from logs with their ends crisscrossed at the corners
A Rhaetian house reconstructed on the original foundations at the Ganglegg. Near Schluderns, Vinschgau, in Italy. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2015.

If you head up the valley of the stream which runs below Schloss Churburg, cross the river a short way past the wading pool which the Vinschgauers built for bathers who want enough water to get wet in in the summer drought or won’t dare the slippery stones of the streambed, and ascend the path which snakes up the right bank amidst jingling cowbells, you eventually reach an archaeological park on the mound called the Ganglegg. Aside from the uncovered foundations and picknick tables and aluminum signs, the designers of the park also decided to reconstruct a handful of buildings. But that decision was not without controversy amongst the archaeologists.

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The Thrust of an Argument

See caption
Impression of a seal on clay: a warrior in a Median hood and a cuirass with a tall projection behind the neck with a piercing axe thrust into it pulls an enemy’s shield down and stabs overhand into his chest as the enemy brandishes a club. From Erich F. Schmidt with contributions by Sydney P. Noe et al., Frederick R. Matson, Lawrence J. Howell, and Louisa Bellinger, Persepolis II: Contents of the Treasury and Other Discoveries. Oriental Institute Publications 69. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957 plate 9 seal 30. http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/oip/oip-69-persepolis-ii-contents-treasury-and-other-discoveries

Sometime in the sixteenth year of Xerxes great king (circa 468/7 BCE in our calendar), someone at Persepolis turned a tablet with Elamite writing on end and rolled his seal along it. A conversation with Josho Brouwers of Karwansaray BV recalled it to memory. Because this seems to show the style of body armour with a tall neck-guard and flaps over the shoulders which is often understood as distinctively Greek and said to have been invented about a hundred years before Xerxes based on its appearance in Greek vase paintings. But there is no hint of the Aegean in this scene, and this armour is missing the skirt of pteryges around the waist which usually appear in depictions of armour with this cut from the Aegean.


Showing where this style of armour was invented and how it spread and changed is more difficult than it sounds. It is true that the earliest evidence is painted pottery from mainland Greece in the early sixth or perhaps the late seventh century BCE. But in the sixth century BCE, it happens that we have much more evidence for arms and armour from the Aegean than from anywhere in the neighbourhood. The people there painted armoured men on their pots with durable glazes and carved them on stone, and they deposited large amounts of armour and weapons in graves and especially temples. So it is very dangerous to say that the Greeks invented an object just because it is first depicted in the Aegean, especially if that object is one which does not survive well in the ground. It is usually thought that the first armours with this cut were of cloth or felt or hide, and none of those materials survives 2500 years in the ground unless the conditions are just right. Although by the second century BCE armour with this cut was being worn all around the Mediterranean and made in every possible material, not a single fragment made from cloth or hide has been identified. So while this style of armour was probably invented somewhere in or near to the Aegean around the sixth century BCE, its hard to say for sure that it was invented by Greeks.

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Vishtaspa karanaya

A famous passage of Xenophon goes as follows (Xen. Hell. 1.4.3):

Cyrus had a letter with him, bearing the King’s seal … among other things it contained these words: I am sending Cyrus down to the coast as karanos of all whose mustering centre is Castolus (the word karanos means „having power“)

Xenophon never repeats the word karanos, and no other surviving Greek or Latin writer uses it. In the Anabasis (1.1, 1.9.7) he says that Cyrus was made strategos, or general, of those whose mustering centre is Castolus.

The word karanos has become encrusted with a painstaking and scholarly literature which investigates it philologically. Because the term was only attested once before the Parthian period, when it appears in Aramaic on coins and is spelled krny and equated with Greek autokrator, progress has been limited. The term clearly contains the root kāra-, the Old Persian word for the politically and military significant part of the population. This word is not easily translatable into English, but there are convenient equivalents in many languages, including German Heeresvolk. Because it appears in both the royal inscriptions and in Iranian names, its general meaning is clear. Philologists disagree whether the ending /-nos/ is simply the suffix for „someone in charge of“ (Latin tribus -> tribunus) or from a verb “to lead, to make go” as Nicholas Sekunda prefers (Gr. στρατηγός <- stratos “army” + agō “to go”, δημαγωγός <- dēmos “people-in-arms” + agōgos “one who leads astray”). In the first case the Old Persian would be something like kārana-, in the second kāranaya-. Neither theory clarifies exactly what the word meant in 407 BCE. Scholars who attempt to show that karanos was a common title in the Achaemenid empire find themselves in a foggy jungle, since just because a karanos could be called a strategos does not mean that any of the other strategoi in Greek sources were karanoi, and the masses of Elamite, Babylonian, Aramaic, and Demotic Egyptian documents did not use this term. But then the group of leather documents from Bactria from the fourth century BCE was published, and many of its readers noticed something.
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A New Script from Iron Age Georgia?

A stone step about a foot high covered completely with a row of deep marks like letters
One sample of the possible script from the excavations at Graklani in eastern Georgia-in-the-Caucasus. Photo from Georgia Today, 20 August 2015; photographer not named.

I am still sick, so this week I will be brief and talk about some of the papers which were read at the conference of the Societas Iranologica Europaea in St. Petersburg. Abdoula Souvadar did his best to argue that a sheet of silver containing an inscription in Old Persian which claims to be the word of Otanes announcing that Darius has become king is not a modern forgery. Askold Ivantchik discussed 235 arrowheads found in the ruins of a small fort near Gordion in Phrygia which seems to have been destroyed by Cyrus’ armies. So far, most of the physical remains of Persian battles and sieges which have been found come from Anatolia. And Vakhtang Licheli talked about an Iron Age site which he is excavating on the hills above a main highway in Georgia-in-the-Caucasus. Most of this site appears to date roughly to the Achaemenid period in the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BCE. For most of his paper he discussed the sorts of details of interest to specialists, but in the last few minutes he mentioned something else. Some of the stone altars at this site have deep marks like letters carved in them, but none of the marks looks like a known script such as the Imperial Aramaic or Attic Greek alphabets. Several people in the audience whipped out cell phones and cameras to catch Dr. Licheli’s slides, but it turned out that the photos of the possible text is available online.

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The Pazyryk Shield

Closeup photo of a shield of sticks thrust through zigzag slits in a sheet of leather
The shield from Pazyryk kurgan 1. Label not legible in my photo of it. Located in The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo by author, September 2015.

I recently had the opportunity to visit St. Petersburg and see some things which I had wanted to see for very many years. One of these was the shield excavated by S.I. Rudenko from the barrows at Pazyryk in the Russian part of the Altai mountains where Russia, Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Kazakhistan come together. The structure of the barrows and the local climate caused permafrost to develop beneath them, preserving some of their contents despite the intrusion of grave-robbers. Shields made in a similar way appear in Greek paintings of Persian soldiers from just over another border of the Achaemenid empire. The barrows (Russian singular kurgan) at Pazyryk are usually attributed to the fourth or third centuries BCE, but many of the objects found in them are older. To the best of my knowledge, the next surviving examples come from the siege of Dura Europos at least 500 years later (a photo is available in Nicholas Sekunda, The Persian Army, p. 21).

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