material culture

Achaemenid Shields are a Puzzle

Figure 6-2 from my forthcoming book from Franz Steiner Verlag. Some types of gerron (wicker shield) used in the Achaemenid empire in the time of Darius I and Xerxes. Top: peltē and wooden imitation of a sticks-and-leather shield from Tuekta in the Altai (different sections of ‘sticks’ are painted red, white, and black; similar shields appear in Neo-Assyrian art). Middle: rectangular wicker shields. Bottom: violin-shaped or figure-eight shields. Note that they are worn on the arm like a peltē or an Argive shield, not held in the fist like the Tuekta shield. Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu CA, no. 83.AE.247 (digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program), State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, no. 2179/96 (photo by author); Gerhard 1847: Taf. CLXVI; western entrance of the Tachara of Darius (sketch by author), Persepolis; two reliefs on the Apadana, Persepolis (photo by author)

If you look at modern paintings and miniatures, you would think we have a good idea of the type of shield used by Achaemenid infantry in the time of Darius and Xerxes. They cite Herodotus book 7 chapter 61 and show the large rectangular kind on the middle row of the picture above. But as I argue in chapter 6.5.2 of my forthcoming book from Franz Steiner Verlag, things are more complicated. These large rectangular shields appear on the doorposts of two buildings at Persepolis and on two or three vases from Athens (out of thousands of soldiers at Persepolis and Susa and thousands of Red Figure vases). The person who published the sketch on the middle left thought it showed a battle against the Phrygian allies of the Amazons. And this type of shield does not agree with Herodotus’ words that quivers were hanging beneath the shields, unless we understand ‘beneath’ quite loosely.
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Provisions, Loin-Girdling, and Battle Gear in the Long Sixth Century

OK, the things they carried did sometimes include the gods of cities which made an uprising against the king of the world, but only under insolent provocation! A Neo-Assyrian relief in the British Museum.

People who are headed to Plataia 2021 and have picked the King’s side want to know what the King’s Men carried in 479 BCE. While Herodotus and the painters and sculptors focus on clothing, arms, and armour, two kinds of document from Babylonia list what was provided to particular soldiers at specific places and dates. These are contracts between men liable to service and their substitutes, and invoices for the issue of equipment to humble conscripts, many of them dependants of the great temples. They date to the period from Nabonidus to the terrible revolts in the second year of Xerxes (484 BCE), so just before the expedition against the Ionians Across the Sea.

Babylonians divided a soldier’s equipment into consumables, such as food and clothing (ṣidītu), which were provided once a year, and arms (Gadal-Yâma’s unūt tāhāzi “battle gear”) which lasted longer and only had to be provided once. The whole were called loin-girdling (rikis qabli). Some documents only list one category, others list both. A good example of the first kind of text is number 13 in The Arrows of the Sun: each shepherd or ikkaru stationed with the šušānu on horseback shall receive:

12 shekels of silver
8 kur (about 8 × 180 litres) of dates
1 5/8 shekels of silver for oil, salt, and cress
1 mountain garment ({tug2}KUR.RA)
1 širˀam
1 karballatu
x leather nūṭu-container (normally one per man)
x leather shoes (normally one pair per year)

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Trying Hard to Show it Wrong

See caption
Roman relief of a man wearing what scholars call an “Attic helmet” (style of first or second century CE, Palazzo Ducale, Mantova, inv. gen. 6733). Showing someone wearing one of these helmets associated them with Greek culture, but examples from this period are hard to find in the ground.

People, especially people who are most interested in material culture, often find it hard to accept that ancient art does not directly and literally depict the world. People who recreate Roman material culture, for example, often fret that when we can check it against other evidence, Trajan’s column is usually wrong. “But the rest of the sculpture is so lifelike,” they complain. “Shouldn’t we use what evidence we have?” “Why would they go to so much trouble to depict something wrong?”

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