Some Comments on Turner on Old World Iron

an outline map of Eurasia with coloured dates marked on it, all multiples of +100 or -100 except for the year 1
Map 1 from Turner 2020. “First acceleration in the use of iron across Afro-Eurasia … When iron becomes a material used for multiple object types … iron is used on a much greater scale 100 years after the proposed date and on a much smaller scale 100 years before the proposed date.”

Someone associated with the SESHAT project has taken Andre Costopoulos’ suggestion to focus on things which leave good archaeological evidence like metallurgy. They wrote a study of the spread and improvement of iron technology across the Old World. That is a topic that I am an expert on, so how does the paper hold up?

  • Turner, Edward A. L. (2020) “Anvil Age Economy: A Map of the Spread of Iron Metallurgy across Afro-Eurasia.” Cliodynamics 11.1

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a plaque of a naked woman (or godess) standing with her hands clasped in front of her stomach
An Old Babylonian terracotta in the Louvre, Paris

In the past few weeks I underwent a kind of Inanna’s Descent with the help of some dear friends who were kind enough not to point and laugh as I did what had to be done. Another thing which helped was classical music, and listening to my favourite radio station gave me an excuse to talk about ancient history.

Papponymy is the practice of naming a son after their paternal grandfather, so that names alternate between generations. Many ancient cultures sometimes practiced it, just like Anglos today sometimes name a son after the father. The satraps of Dascyleium / Hellespontine Phrygia included a Pharnabazus son of Pharnaces son of Pharnabazus. If you know to look for papponymy, you can use it as a clue in guessing family relationships and how many generations stand between individuals who happen to be mentioned in surviving writing. If the names are the same, one or three generations are probably missing, if different then two or four.

Listening to that radio station, I learned about a family which practised papponymy in the 20th century:

An ancient historian would call these Dmitri II Shostakovich, Maxim Shostakovich, and Dmitri III Shostakovich (Dmitri I was the composer’s father) because ancient historians value genealogy and umambiguity and have learned about regnal numbers. But in ordinary circumstances, nobody is likely to confuse the grandson and the grandfather.

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Against Seeing Everything as an Identity

A chart of the frequency of the word "identity," "nationality," "ethnicity," "race," and "performativity" over time ... "identity" becomes fashionable after 1960 and especially 1985
Google ngrams is a fun toy as long as you dont take its dates too seriously! (They refuse to work with librarians to clean up their data or with paleographers to OCR old books more accurately).

Some kinds of academics like to talk about “identities.” Literally, that means the things which you point to and say “I am.” But many academics use it to mean other groups that people get sorted in to. In chapter 2 of a book I recently reviewed, Guy Halsall calls class, gender, age, nationality (“ethnic identity”), and free or servile status “identities”. My friend James Baillie (who is absolutely not responsible for this essay) uses the term in the same way to describe different kinds of people in the UK today. The blogger and medical doctor Geeky Humanist wrote the following paragraph on “gender identity”

What do I mean by woman? Short(ish) answer: Any adult whose gender identity is female. For purposes of anti-misogyny endeavours such as International Women’s Day, I would also include a) girls (children whose gender identity is female), and b) anyone who is affected by misogyny as a result of having been determined on the basis of genital configuration to be female, even if their actual gender identity isn’t female. … Transgenderism (and cisgenderism, for that matter) isn’t about ‘choosing’ to identify as a particular gender. It’s about the inescapable fact that nearly all of us do identify as particular genders – not because we choose to, but because it’s a key part of us – and that sometimes a person’s gender identity doesn’t match the gender of their body.

Geeky Humanist has some ideas which are strange to me and which I don’t understand as well as I would like to. I don’t think she is saying that a man is anyone who says he is a man, and she definitely does not think it is any person of the male sex, she seems to understand “gender identity” as something more like sexual orientation. I think that calling gender and class and nationality “identities” and just identities confuses people about how power and societies work.

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If You Find “The West” A Confusing Term There Are Good Reasons

a set of hardcover books bound in celuloid on a wooden bookshelf
The circle of book life! This copy of Will and Arial Durant’s “Story of Civilization” was in Russell Books, Victoria BC, in February 2020.

Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization (eleven volumes 1935-1975, original planned length five volumes, at the authors’ deaths thirteen volumes were planned) was as famous in its day as Sapiens, Sex at Dawn, or Twelve Rules for Life but represents much more work. It is an ambitious attempt to cover the story of “the west” and if you can find a copy it has some beautiful prose. But when they planned their project, they fell into a trap that people are still throwing themselves into today.

That first volume covers the Near East (Ur III to the Achaemenids), South Asia (to the establishment of the Raj), China (to 1935), and Japan (to 1935). Greece (volume II) ends with the Sack of Corinth by the Romans, Rome (III) ends with Constantine, then a single big volume for a thousand years of Latin Christendom (IV), Italy (V) ends in 1576, Germany (VI) gets the reformation, then its on to the Northern Renaissance (which the Durants call the Age of Reason, volume VII), three on the Enlightenment and one on the age of Napoleon (XI). That is a fine List of Places and Times that We Think Were Pretty Cool, but what determines who is in this list and who is out? And I know of at least three contradictory theories, each of which includes people most people who use this term don’t want to include.[1]

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Thanks to the University of Victoria

Good harness, attentive students, and a Gothic podium to profess from – teaching and writing brought different rewards in Giovanni da Legnago’s day (d. 1383). Sculpture in the Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna (possibly slightly later than his death).

This summer, my plan is to publish two posts a month while I enjoy the weather and the slowdown in the pandemic and get some other things in my life sorted out. But with the burst of traffic from Hacker News, and a reminder of a previous life beyond the ocean sea, I would like to thank one of the biggest intellectual influences on my thought which does not get called out in my book: the University of Victoria.
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Cross-Post: Some Thoughts on Guy Halsall’s “Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West”

Even in this most unusual year, the plants grow and people play volleyball This week’s blog post is on Ancient World Magazine: a review of Guy Halsall’s “Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West 450-900” (Routledge, 2003). Halsall is a thoughtful scholar, and when I read his book I was struck... Continue reading: Cross-Post: Some Thoughts on Guy Halsall’s “Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West”

Sue Brunning and the Quest for the Perfect Sword

the cover of Sue Brunning's book "the Sword in Early Medieval Northern Europe"

Archaeologist Sue Brunning has a new book on the sword around the North and Baltic Seas. In an interview she brings up a way of thinking about the parts of a sword which is worth pondering:

There are common features that all swords had to have in order to be swords.

First, a blade – which I describe in the book as the “body” of the sword because it is the part that “does the work”, from a physical point of view; it is usually concealed beneath “clothing” (the scabbard) and only those most intimately acquainted with the sword would see and come to know its finer details. The blade also, like a body, became the repository for history, reputation, character…

Second, a hilt (or handle), which I describe as the “face” because this was the focus of a sword’s visual identity – it was the part that most people could see and come to recognise, as it was not concealed by “clothing” like the blade was. Hilts, like faces, had unique features manipulated by their owners; they could be altered to shape their identities in a desired way; and eventually, as we all know, they would show signs of ageing – wear patches, like wrinkles.

Next, the scabbard – the early medieval sources disagree to some extent over how essential this component was, but in reality it was quite important. It enabled you to carry the sword on your body, as well as keeping it bright and sharp thanks to the fur lining.

Within these three basic components, there was huge scope for customising your weapon in how it was decorated, the materials that were used and so on. This was a way to make your sword your own, or – I would argue – its own!

– Sue Brunning, “Sue Brunning on early medieval swords,” un trabajo tartamudo, 31 January 2020

I think that thinking about all three parts lets you understand swords much better than focusing on just one. If you aren’t a sword person, you might be surprised to learn that the standard typologies of Viking swords and rapiers just consider the hilts- which is like assigning cars a typology based on the bumper and paint, but the hilt is the easiest part to divide into groups and the people writing the typologies had never used a sword.

Roman swords in the 200 years after Augustus have fairly small and plain blades, but the scabbard are rich in finely worked brass and silver. And while swords and spears were as common in the early Roman empire as long guns are in rural Canada- Cicero, the gospels, and Petronius agree on that- soldiers were the only ones allowed to wear swords in public. The rich scabbards let soldiers communicate their wealth and taste at their own expense: Chaucer shows you how to size up someone using their clothes and knives and purse (the fancy scabbards also carried on a Celtic tradition, but that is another story). The army probably defined standards which blades had to meet (Cassius Dio accuses unruly Judeans of manufacturing weapons which would fail the army test and then stockpiling them), but how much bling a soldier wore was his own business.

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Some Terrifying Numbers

St. Felix in the armour of roughly 1400 with a red surcoat with a white cross on it
St. Felix (probably not the bishop of Nola?) From a polyptych by Battista da Vicenza (b. ca. 1375, d. 1438), Vicenza, Museo Civico, inv. no. A 18-22.  Photo by Sean Manning, 2020.

So a lot of us have spent the past month or two staring at some scary numbers and working out their implications. These numbers are based on counts, even if the authors had to make some assumptions and do some arithmetic to turn something they can count into what they want to know. I spend a lot of time staring at Greek numbers for barbarian armies, and if they were based on counts they are hard to understand:

  • If we have multiple sources, they give numbers which vary widely, even if they all drew on the same earlier writers
  • The smallest Greek number for a barbarian army, 100,000, is as big as the largest army we can document in western Eurasia before the Napoleonic Wars, even if we are very generous about what counts as ‘documentation’ (hard-hearted historians would say we need archives so no army strength can be known until about a thousand years ago)
  • The smallest Greek number for a barbarian army is about as many as the biggest army which any Near Eastern ruler claims to have commanded.
  • Either there are no numbers for individual units, or the numbers given add up to a much smaller number than the grand total
  • Usually, no source for the numbers is given: we are not told whether they are an estimate by scouts or by the enemy’s clerks.
  • Such vast armies could not march, camp, and fight in the usual fashion or on the described battlefield.

If we assume that these numbers are based on counts, we have to chose one of the figures in our different sources, then ‘correct’ it by adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing until it fits our expectations. As a fellow named Whatley said in 1920, these theories often sound convincing until you read the next article with another ingenious theory that contradicts the first one. So assuming that these numbers are based on counts has not lead to new knowledge that people with different perspectives can agree on, it has just lead to endless arguments and speculation.

So a few years ago, I asked myself what would we expect to see if these numbers are drawn from something other than counting. And instead of looking at different writers’ figures for the same army, I looked for the same number in stories about different armies. Have a look at the fifteen lines on this table and decide if you see what I see.





RIMAP A.0.102.10, iii:15-16

845 BCE

Šalmanessar III crossed the Euphrates with 120,000 men

Judges 8:10


Gideon and his 300 soldiers kill 120,000 Midanites

Hdt. 2.158.5

5th century BCE

120,000 Egyptians die building a canal for pharaoh Necho

Ctesias F. 13.28, 30 Lenfant

4th century BCE

120,000 Persians attack Plataea, 120,000 Persians die after Xerxes retreats from Greece

Xen. Anab. 1.7.11-13

4th century BCE

Deserters claim that Artaxerxes II has 1,200,000 men

Xen. Hell. 1.5.21

4th century BCE

An interpolator says that the Carthaginians invaded Sicily with 120 triremes and an army of 120,000 men

Xen. Cyr. 1.2.15

4th century BCE

They say that the Persians are about 12 myriads”

Xen. Cyr.  8.6.19

4th century BCE

An elderly Cyrus commands 120,000 cavalry and 600,000 (5 × 120,000) infantry

2 Chronicles 28:6

4th century BCE?

Pekah of Remaliah slew 120,000 valiant men in Judah in a single day

Jonah 4:11

4th century BCE?

There are more than 120,000 persons in Nineveh, and also many cattle

Judith 2:15

2nd century BCE?

Holofernes gathers an army of 120,000 men and 12,000 cavalry

I Maccabees 11:45

c. 100 BCE

The 120,000 people of Antioch rise up against their king

Justin, Epitoma Pompei Troagi, 41.5.7

1st century CE (original 1st century BCE)

Arsaces, the second Parthian king, fought Antiochus with 100,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry

Plut. Vit. Sulla 22.4

2nd century CE

Sulla says that he defeated a Pontic army of 120,000 men at Chaeronea

Plut. Vit. Lucull. 7.4

2nd century CE

Mithridates trained 120,000 infantry in the Roman fashion and invaded Bithynia

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Was Hadrian’s Wall Proceeded by an Earth-and-Post Construction?

Hadrian’s wall across Britain has left complex traces in the forms of trenches, pits, scraps of stonework which were not salvaged by later farmers and road-builders, and of course inscriptions boasting of what the dedicator had accomplished. Geoff Carter, the archaeologist of Britain, is working on his theory that Hadrian’s Wall was first built as... Continue reading: Was Hadrian’s Wall Proceeded by an Earth-and-Post Construction?