methodology

methodology

How Heavy Were Iron Age Bows? Part 2

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?

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The Lying Chisels of Scribes

“‘How can you say, “We are wise,
    for we have the law of the Lord,”
when actually the lying pen of the scribes
    has handled it falsely?

Jeremiah 8:8 New International Version

The ancient world was a long time ago, but even in antiquity it was often hard to know what happened in the ancient world. With no trusted neutral institutions to establish facts, and no way of making many identical copies of a text or a speech, the curious had no reliable way to decide between competing claims by different interested parties. Already in antiquity, clever people turned to old writing painted on wood or carved on stone. But dishonest people realized that they could destroy or alter awkward inscriptions and forge new ones. Greeks, Romans, and Babylonians show us how this worked.

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When Trust is Not Verified at All

a painting of a medieval pole lathe being worked by a man in a felt hat
One of the tools which made preindustrial life work (and kept chariots rolling and kings supplied with gilt wooden thrones): a pole-lathe from a Central European master gunner’s book painted in 1411 (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, Codex 3069, p. 189 of 347) https://digital.onb.ac.at/RepViewer/viewer.faces?doc=DTL_2316748

In two earlier posts I showed that science is verified trust, but that the verification is not always well done. What happens when the verification is not done at all? We can see the horrid results in many different areas of life.

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How Heavy were Iron Age Bows? Part 1

See caption for description of painting
Another important detail: A Martyrdom of St. Sebastian in the BNM Munich showing the telltale red belly and yellow back of a bowstave made from the heartwood of a yew tree.

At the moment, many archery enthusiasts are telling anyone who will listen that soldiers’ bows usually had draw weights of 100 lbs and more (Deer hunters today usually use bows with a draw weight on the order of 50 lbs, casual or target archers often use bows about half as heavy, and even hunters of larger game rarely use a bow with a draw weight of 100 lbs or more). In other words, you could draw the bow to its full draw length by hanging it string-down and suspending 100 lbs or more from the middle of the string.  If this idea is correct, many men in the ancient world did something which is much more physically demanding than is commonly thought. This week, I would like to post some of the evidence which I know which might be relevant to the strength of bows used in the eastern Mediterranean around the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BCE. I hope that some of my readers can suggest more sources.

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When Trust is Verified Badly

Now, we can observe many flaws in just this one passage, but it should be noted that Low has done her reading and cites widely. The problem is that the analyses on which she is working are themselves flawed and, without detailed study outside of her discipline, she and other academics are unlikely to realise this. This is a hard warning for those of us who wish to research that assumptions are pervasive and insidious.

Rob Runacres, “HEMA Research: false truths and wishful thinking,” Western Martial Arts Workshop, Racine WI,September 2017 https://www.renaissanceswordclub.com/2017/09/27/hemaresearch/

In an earlier post, I argued that science advances human knowledge through a network that tests claims before they become premises in bigger arguments, and then tests the structure of those arguments to make sure they can hold the weight placed upon them. Past the early days of a field of knowledge, understanding advances because of systems and communities not lone geniuses who do everything themselves. Communities can ask more and harder questions than any one person can. But anyone who follows science news knows that this does not always happen. How can this system of verified trust fail?

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Science as Verified Trust

“Ad faciendas cartas de pellibus caprinis more bononiense”: In this case I don’t have to trust: Reed’s Ancient Skins, Parchments, and Leathers (1972) p. 74 cites a chapter by “Theophilius” on making parchment in British Library MS. Harley 3915 fol. 128r, but the text cited is actually an anonymous text on fol. 148r of the same manuscript as Theophilius (British Library database, see them for image rights)

The higher you rise in any hierarchy, the harder it is to get accurate feedback about your decisions because people are afraid to tell you the truth. I’ve worked with several (US) presidents. All have made big blunders. I’ve also known and written about CEOs of big corporations who have made terrible mistakes. In every case, they had flawed systems for getting useful, accurate and reliable feedback.

Robert Reich (some kind of former political appointee from the USA) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/apr/01/vladimir-putin-ukraine-truth-deniers-bad-decisions

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the role of trust in science or scholarship. Engineers such as Bill Nye and political propagandists throw around the phrase “trust the science”! On the other hand, the rationalists whom I mentioned last year brandish the Royal Society’s motto nullius in verba “Take nobody’s word for it” like a sword. I think both sides are working from some misconceptions about how science or scholarship work.

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Why Monster Talk is Important

As the emergency sirens howl, a handful of greasy people in shabby clothes are crawling around and assessing the damage. These people never got paid much for their work, and they were often opposed by institutions and ignored as they cried the alarm. These are people who look into weird stuff and the intersections between pop culture and pseudoscience such as Monster Talk podcast.

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How Long a Sword is Too Long?

three male peacocks and a female peacock on a concrete staircase next to a Baroque castle garden
Just before the plague hit, I took this photo. Schloss Ambras, February 2020.

Experience making and using low-tech kit is very valuable, but our experience is usually limited. Most of us have experience either using our weapons on foot or on horseback, but rarely equal experience with both. Most of us have experience in friendly or competitive play, but not in murdering or defending our lives. And Rory Miller and Marc MacYoung (not to mention Alexander Pope) teach us that someone who has survived one assault or won one championship tends to proclaim themself an expert and pronounce that everyone should do what worked for them. So we always have to question what of our experience does not apply as widely as we think it does. I like to fill in the gaps of my own experience by listening to others, such as the grandfather of all English blowhards, Sir John Smythe of Little Badow.

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Longsword Fencing in a Manuscript in Fulda

People who are interested in martial arts from the 14th century onwards can work from books meant to describe those arts. But that does not mean that other types of evidence suddenly become irrelevant. A fundamental principle of historical research is that claims should be backed by multiple kinds of evidence. We can study arms and armour, the culture of violence, and poems about people training. And we can also study pictures of people fighting. The painter of a book of Old Testament stories in Fulda (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda, manuscript Aa 88) shows many things which resemble fencing manuals painted a few decades later. The library in Fulda estimates that it dates around 1350-1375 and that seems about right to me.

a late 14th century painting of two groups of soldiers.  The leader on either side has crossed swords
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Weltchronik_Fulda_Aa88_142r_detail.jpg
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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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