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.
Military historians often admire professional armies whose members have no trade but war. These armies can learn their art well, carry out clever manoeuvres, and don’t start arguing with each other when their general wants them to be making some decisive attack (before the 1980s, military historians tended to identify with the generals). In Europe this tradition goes back to Xenophon in the 4th century BCE and can be traced through wanna-be army builders like Sir John Smythe of Little Badow or J.F.C. Fuller the British general, tank visionary, fascist, and mystic. This line of argument has its virtues: the history of the past 500 years is dotted with sad tales of keen but untrained and poorly equipped fighters marching into the bullets and shells and being mowed down. But it usually summons a counter-argument about what those young, aggressive, highly trained men will do when there is no war to fight. I can trace this tradition back to Kabti-ilani-Marduk’s Erra Epic, which was composed sometime in the 8th or 7th century BCE as the Assyrians were sowing blood and flesh to plant the first world empire. Erra has Seven terrifying weapons, and they are feeling bored:
Warrior Erra, why do you neglect the field for the city? The very beasts and creatures hold us in contempt! O warrior Erra, we will tell you, though what we say be offensive to you! Era the whole land outgrows us, You must surely hear our words! (80) Do a kindly deed for the gods of hell, who delight in deathly stillness, The Annuna-gods cannot fall asleep for thge clamor of mankind. Beasts are overrunning the meadows, life of the land, The farmer sobs bitterly for his [field]. Lion and wolf are felling the livestock, (85) The shepherd, who cannot sleep day or night for the sake of his flocks, is calling upon you. We too, who know the mountain passes, we have [forgotten] how to go, Cobwebs are spun over our field gear, Our fine bow resists and is too strong for us, The tip of our sharp arrow is bent out of true, (90) Our blade is corroded for want of a slaughter!
Epic of Erra, tablet I, from Benjanim Foster, Before the Muses, pp. 775, 776
In mid-September I got lost on my return from the Goldbichl and found myself between Patsch and the Brennerautobahn. If you spend time hiking in Tirol that happens frequently, even though the mountain peaks provide good points of references and there are networks of paved or gravelled paths dotted with nice yellow signs, some of which even point within 90 degrees of the actual direction. And if you think about why that happens, you will understand the topic of my latest article for Ancient Warfare, namely why armies in eastern Anatolia (modern Turkey) follow the same few routes for thousands of years. Read more
Around 1853, gangs of workers under French supervision were excavating Sargon’s palace at Khorsabad, the ancient Dūr-Šarrukin (Fort Sargon). One of the great courts had some long storerooms along one side, and in one which they numbered 86 (or 84), they found marvelous things: “un vèritable mur métallique, occupant tout un côte de la chamber.” The orderly piles of ironware filled a space 5.80 metres wide, 2.60 metres deep and 1.40 metres high: hammers, pick-axes, grappling irons, chains, ploughshares, and fish-shaped iron ingots with a hole through them. The hoard must have weighed more than a hundred tons,* and was so plentiful that it was handed over to local blacksmiths to make sickles, wagon fittings, and other necessary objects. One of them remarked that aside from the famous Persian iron (wootz?) he had never yet worked better metal. Other objects like ploughshares were put back into use by the local farmers and served their purpose. This was all for the best, since most of the artefacts from Khorsabad were sunk by brigands near the Shatt al Arab at Kurnah in 1855 as they were being shipped to Europe. This was the period when the excavators at Susa built themselves a castle to protect themselves and their goods from robbers.
Finds like that were not uncommon in the early days of Assyrian archaeology. At Nimrud, the north end of chamber SW7 contained a mass of rusted scale armour piled 35 cm thick in spots. Groups of rusted-together scales can still be found in museums. Later the graves of three queens rich in ivory, gold, crystal and silver were uncovered at that site: probably Yaba, Banitu, and Atalia who lived in the eighth century BCE and were laid to rest with appropriately gruesome curses upon anyone who violated their chambers. These finds give us another perspective on early iron after looking at the lancehead from Deve Hüyük and the akinakes from the dealer in Iran. By the seventh century BCE, the Assyrians were incredibly rich in iron, and this presupposes a massive industry of charcoal burners and miners and smelters and forgers. So far, the only trace of this is the objects they produced. Read more
Tel Halaf 23 = Aaron Dornauer, Das Archiv des assyrischen Statthalters Mannu-kī-Aššur von Gūzāna/Tall Ḥalaf. (Harrasowitz Verlag: Wiesbaden, 2014) no. 21 Truppen vor Hūˀa-dīdu pp. 53, 54
This little, undated tablet is a list of names with a note every dozen lines. It was written sometime around the 8th century BCE. Texts like this are rarely exciting, but if one pays attention details sometimes leap out.
Meˀīsu, his son
Hannān, his son
2 son (sic) of Zannānu
Adda-sakā, 2 sons
(5) “God as my witness, she’s really a daughter”: Sîn-iprus
Saˀīlu, 5 sons
Kuwayni, 2 sons
Manānu, his brother
Qatarā, 2 sons
(10) Nanî, Igilu
Total: 25 troops
who are before Hūˀa-dīdu
One of the collections of texts which I have been working with is a collection of texts associated with an Assyrian governor in the first half of the eighth century BCE (about sixty years before the relief above was carved). Aaron Dornauer has published a luxurious edition with sketches, a specialized sign list with the readings used in these documents, and detailed commentaries. Many more documents were written on clay in Neo-Assyrian times than under the Achaemenids, and because of the burning and abandonment of many Assyrian cities, a higher proportion have survived. It is therefore very important to study earlier periods to see what traditions the Achaemenids inherited and compare what is known in Achaemenid times. This weekend I will discuss one of these texts which deals with one of my interests, arms and armour.
This text is No. 48 in Dornauer’s edition and comes from two fragments whose total size is 4.1 x 6.5 cm. Like many Assyriological collections it was excavated at the beginning of the twentieth century. I have written words which are written as logograms in the original with CAPITAL LETTERS.