Simon James is not the most prolific researcher, but his words are always worth carefully considering. A few years ago he had this to say:
In discourse on the European Iron Age, the terms ‘war’ and ‘warrior’ are rarely examined or defined. ‘War’ (except ‘civil war’) is commonly understood to connote organized collective armed violence between polities. Yet in many historically attested societies, possessing, displaying and using lethal weaponry are/were not about war, primarily and sometimes hardly at all. Rather weapons may articulate social dynamics, mutual fear and conflict within a polity – as exemplified by the contemporary United States.
Simon James (in press) “Ch. 30: Arms, the armed, and armed violence.” In Colin C. Haselgrove, Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, and Peter S. Wells (eds.), Oxford Handbook of the European Iron Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
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!
Unskilled labour is one of those terms which people often absorb from pundits or books without thinking. Its worth saying out loud that unskilled labour is labour which is common, or labour which employers can easily replace. It does not mean ignorant, or uneducated, or that anyone from a different society could do it.
Taylor, Michael j. (2022) “Decimatio: Myth, Discipline, and Death in the Roman Republic.” Antichthon, pp. 1–16 doi:10.1017/ann.2022.9
Around 150 BCE, Polybius wrote that Roman military law contained the fearsome punishment of decimatio:
If the same thing (i.e., acts of cowardice) ever happens to large bodies, and if entire maniples desert their posts when exceedingly hard pressed, the officers refrain from inflicting the fustuarium or the death penalty on all, but find a solution of the difficulty which is both salutary and terror-striking. The tribune assembles the legion, and brings up those guilty of leaving the ranks, reproaches them sharply, and finally chooses by lots sometimes five, sometimes eight, sometimes twenty of the offenders, so adjusting the number thus chosen that they form as near as possible the tenth part of those guilty of cowardice. Those on whom the lot falls are clubbed mercilessly in the manner above described; the rest receive rations of barley instead of wheat and are ordered to encamp outside the camp on an unprotected spot. As therefore the danger and dread of drawing the fatal lot affects all equally, as it is uncertain on whom it will fall; and as the public disgrace of receiving barley rations falls on all alike, this practice is that best calculated both to inspire fear and to correct the mischief.
But historian Michael Taylor noticed that the Romans had only two or three examples of this punishment being carried out before the time of Crassus and Pompey, both of which belonged to the misty times before 300 BCE.
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.
In November I was talking to James Baillie who had questions about why the war in Ukraine was becoming harder to follow. To understand why that is, we have to think about the two forms of industrial warfare. While its dangerous to predict, as I schedule this post in December I foresee that the Russo-Ukrainian War is about to slow down after momentous events in January and February 2023 (and it is worth saying that I was wrong about those momentous events – ed.). I think that when a war settles down along fixed lines (whether the NATO intervention in Afghanistan or the Russian invasion of Ukraine) it becomes hard for anyone to know who is winning.
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.
Over on birdsite John F. Sullivan noticed something which readers of ancient tactical manuals or surveyor’s manuals or medieval painters’ handbooks and fencing books have also noticed.
Whenever I pick up a new Sun Tzu translation, the very first thing I compare is two verses found in chapters 7 & 11 of the text. Why? It turns out they are exactly identical verses, should be rendered identically, but only rarely are. It gives us an indication of how careful and thorough a translator is. The verse itself is not one of Sun Tzu’s most memorable. It is basically composed of three thoughts—understand your neighboring rulers’ intentions, conduct a detailed assessment of the enemy’s terrain, and employ local guides to assist you in traversing enemy land. It does, though, reinforce two main themes of Sun Tzu’s military thinking—detailed assessments of the enemy situation (primarily terrain) and a preference for deep offensive invasions as the ideal military strategy.
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.
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?
In my first post on Iron Age bows, I showed that there is a lot of evidence that archers in England, the Ottoman Empire, and the Manchu Empire used bows with very heavy draw weights (over 100 pounds / 45 kg at the intended draw length) around the 15th-17th centuries CE. People who are keen on early modern archery often project these heavy draw weights onto all war bows in all cultures. But we have reconstructions of ancient bows from the area from Egypt to India by people who examined the remains of bows and arrows from that place and time. What kind of draw weights did those bows have?