Monday, February 8, 2016 is shutting down

Breaking:  In light of the fact that, as Christian Cameron observed, Amphicyonia's website is going unused, they have decided to stop renewing it.  Further contact with the Amphictyonic League will be through their Facebook page.

If there are any pages over at the old website you want to save, do it now.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Scythian bow from Upshot Archery

Thanks to Giannis Kadoglou for bringing this to our attention over at Amphictyonia's Facebook page.

Upshot Archery's Scythian bows have the most accurate shape of any low-end Scythian bow I've seen:  a more angular profile than the popular Grozer Old Scythian, they also have the asymmetric shape seen on many period bows but rare on the replica market, and appear to have thicker limbs.  Being made of PVC, they're extremely cheap, even at the regular price of US$100.

I am not sure how well the faux birch bark finish would pass inspection at any given reenactment event, though I expect it would be fine at Amphictyonia, and in my opinion the profile more than makes up for any possible drawback in that regard.  The two pieces currently available, as well as the one in the review below, are only 30 and 35 pounds, so it may be that Upshot focuses on low draw weights for this model.

The listed strung length of 52 and 55 inches/132 and 140cm make it somewhat larger than the Grozer and it will obviously require a larger gorytos because of that.  (Personally I've been hoping to find a smaller bow...)

BackyardBowyer posted this review to YouTube in July:

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Marathon 2015: A Retrospective

The wind howls along the beach, flapping the canvas of a single strange house-shaped tent.  Outside, a small crowd has gathered to watch four men in shining bronze armor go through their ancient paces.  It's the first of November, the last day of Marathon 2015, and I'm too tired to even change into my costume, but I'm still standing there, saying hello to the public as best I can with my total inability to speak Greek.  And in spite of all the things that went wrong, I don't regret it.

It's a truism that the Battle of Marathon shaped the modern world.  A long and largely-successful campaign by the Persian empire to solidify control of its Greek corner came to an abrupt end with defeat by the army of the city-state of Athens (and their Plataean allies), which went on to become the dominant political and cultural force in Greece over much of the fifth century BC.  How would things be different today if Athens had been conquered?  I don't know.  "If not X, then not Y" doesn't strike me as a reliable formula when we're talking about something so complex as human history.  I balk at the notion of trying to say what would have taken place when we're talking about two and a half thousand years and countless historical variables, and I disagree with the cliche that democracy would have been smothered in its cradle.  But what did happen is an epic story in its own right, and it's an honor to be able to stand on the very spot and pay my tribute to it.

For five days, we - fifty history geeks like myself from across the globe - pitched over a dozen tents, did battle on the beach and gave presentations on everything from ancient warfare to ancient cosmetics before crowds of students and sightseers.  On the last day, someone asked me if the government paid us to come here.  No, I said, we paid for our own plane tickets and equipment.  "Why do you do it?" he asked.  "Because we want to," I said.  He looked a little surprised and left the obvious next question unasked.

Reenacting is something you really, really have to want to do.  It's hours of stitching, cutting, gluing, grinding, and even hammering or pouring red-hot metals until your fingers are raw and ringing.  It's bank statements that make you wince and endless hours trying to sleep in a tiny airplane seat.  It's running until your lungs hurt before being knocked flat on your back and trying to die convincingly.  And it's really hard to explain what makes it worthwhile.  But it is.

It's a joy to be able to connect with people over such out-of-the-way interests, to be able to talk in terms like "trilobal" and "othismos" and have the other person understand what you mean (and not be bored by it!).

You can't not be happy hearing the "ohhh" of a classful of kids watching the archery demonstrations.  And at the same time I find that even when I'm in a position of educator, I have a lot to learn.  For years, I've been using the same straight draw on my old-fashioned recurved bow that I learned on a modern compound bow at college; it took careful instruction from heavy warbow archer Chris Verwijmeren for me to get the proper power and accuracy from the one I'm now using.  After a week, my left shoulder was just about recovered.

As well in the area of reenactment combat, I found I still need to get the basics down.  Fighting with Alan Rowell, I had it in my head that I shouldn't "die" until he feigned an attack with his knife, even though he'd already said that it wasn't blunt and he couldn't safely do so.  He had to knock me over with his shield to kill me, whereupon I spontaneously decided to wave my dagger in defiance, and could well have hit him in the face.

I found that a single-layer lining isn't good enough for my stupid skin; I needed to wear my linen tunic (with its multi-ply collar) under my wool one to stop my rash getting any worse.  I found that all the glue and sinew wasn't enough to stop my small-socketed arrowheads from simply popping off the arrows when embedded in a wood target.  And I'm now determined to obtain a good sharp belt knife like Jax Reeder has, because funnily enough, there's still a need for things like that, even for just opening boxes or cutting rope.

I'm sorry to say that I learned firsthand that you can't be too cautious with visitors.  Until now I'd been lucky not to be in the position to keep an eye on people around our weapons, and anyway I'd say 98+ percent of visitors are intelligent and respectful about them.  But then there are the times that you're deep in conversation with someone, and then you notice a kid picking up your bow and trying to string it backward.

For the most part, though, our relationship with the Greek public has been pretty good.  Which leads to the inevitable and innocent question:

"So will you be back next year?"

I grow timid.  I say things like "Well, maybe in a couple of years from now."  But it's almost a lie.  The truth is, we have no idea.

Marathon 2011 was a triumph, the first international event of its kind in Greece, commemorating exactly 2,500 years since the turning point of the Graeco-Persian Wars, showing the public what we're about, and concluding with the formation of Amphictyonia.  For me, Marathon 2015 was a bit of a letdown.  It's not just the fact that most of the reenactors had to pack up and go home a day early because of the PNO ferryboat strike on November 2.  It's not just the chilly and gray weather.  It is, rather, the fact that pulling off an event of this nature isn't any easier now than it was four years ago.  I expected a hundred or more reenactors this year; instead, we got fewer than in 2011.  As much as we love the hobby, maintaining enthusiasm for an event that costs each participant thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours of labor, and wrangling for a week or more off from their real jobs, is no cakewalk.  As for our misunderstandings with the municipal government of Marathon - I won't deign to comment, except that a feeling of quiet discouragement was in no way difficult to find.  I wonder if every iteration will be as if it were the first one.

Will there even be another, a Marathon 2019, or Thermopylae 2021?  I asked Jevon Garrett of Taxeis Plataia, one of Amphictyonia's leading voices.  He said that while he was sure there would be future events in Greece, participants have been looking into other venues, for example Plataea.  The mixed opinions of reenactors on this year's event may well amount to a tacit "no" to further events at Marathon - something like this simply doesn't happen without a lot of enthusiasm.

We're now almost at the halfway point between the 2,500th anniversaries of the first and second Persian invasions of Greece, immortalized at Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea and Mycale.  It may already be time to leave stop thinking about how we can redo our last event bigger and better, and start thinking about what we haven't done before.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Making a gorytos, part V and last

The gorytos body needs to be carefully fitted to the spine.  Mine required extra trimming since it was initially planned to wrap around a hidden spine.

I used rubber cement rather than true contact cement, both because I was working indoors and because rubber cement allows the glued surfaces to be slid around a bit after contact rather than bonding instantly.  Check again to be sure the bow fits and slides out easily enough without being too loose.

I marked for the line of stitching by pinching my thumb and forefinger together, putting one on the edge of the leather and pressing the other into the surface, then running them along the edge to make a shallow groove.  This is obviously not a method guaranteed to give nice neat results, but it worked tolerably well.  I then marked for the stitch holes with a pen, 1cm apart.

Drilling for stitch holes would've been much easier if I'd had a drill press, as holding a heavy power drill stable while pressing it down via a thin metal rod was precarious, and I broke one drill bit in trying to do so.  The size of needle and artificial sinew I used worked best with a 5/64-inch bit.  Not to mention a drill press would've allowed the holes on the back side to come out in a neater line.

On the other hand, I soon found that the leather edge on the back was a little further back than on the front, so with the power drill I was able to angle the holes in slightly.

In Greek art, gorytoi often feature a decorative crenelation and, on at least one example, a row of dots lined up with it.  Such a design might have been appliqu├ęd or done in hide glue paint.  Although there's no way of knowing, it's possible that the gorytoi at Persepolis once featured such decoration as well.

I worked up the design on mine lightly in ink, with a little calculating of the available space for each square and measuring to keep the dots exactly halfway between the squares and the gorytos' edge.  The paint would go a little bit over the lines to cover them up.

Finding the correct point of balance for the belt attachment required inserting the bow and full allotment of arrows and hanging the leather for the cover over the bow.  I unfortunately failed to take any process photos while nailing the attachments down, which was a tricky process, especially on the back (having done the front first, the big domed tacks prevented the front from lying flat while I was nailing the attachments to the back, and the tacks kept shifting and bending).

At this point, the bowcase would be functional and ready to take to the show, but not quite finished to the degree that I would like.

Making the cover:  The German-tanned buckskin is soft enough that it can be easily basted into place with a common desktop stapler (no, this is not a product endorsement).  I based it with the slightly rougher side out, since I intend to invert it after stitching - the originals in art don't show any seams.

To prevent the fit over the bow from being too sloppy, the seam should be no wider than necessary, so some trimming can be done at this stage.  I can't say I know for certain what a good width would be, as mine didn't turn out with a good precise fit anyway, but a quarter-inch seemed about right for strength.

Mark the seam as above.  Using more ink is fine, since it won't be visible on the finished cover.

The stitch holes are a centimeter apart, though for light stitching like this, a closer spacing might be preferable.  Without a thick slab of wood between the leather layers as on the bowcase's body, the stitch holes can be poked with a simple hobby awl.

The finished product.  Note the slightly sloppy fit of the cover.  I should have made both it and the sloping top corner of the spine that it sits over a bit longer, so that the cover doesn't slip off the spine as readily, but all in all, I think it will prove sufficient.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Making a gorytos, part IV - spine construction

I've had some difficulty keeping in contact with custom woodworkers to get this spine made, but if a reciprocating or band saw is available (luckily my uncle had one), a flat J-shaped spine may be pieced together from a plank.

To begin with, the leather gorytos body is used to trace a cardboard pattern.

The pattern is traced in sections onto a 48x6x1/4-inch poplar plank (the ones from Home Depot actually measure 5.75 inches wide).

The cut pieces are to be made into a two-ply spine with the grain of the two layers running perpendicular to each other, to hopefully reduce the risk of splitting.  The lengthwise-grain pieces will be on the left (outside) of the spine when the gorytos is worn on the left side of the body with the curved end pointing forward.

Due to the aforementioned slightly inaccurate labeling, an extra 1/2-inch-wide piece needed to be added to the lower end of the curve on the lower face.

The spine is glued together with a waterproof wood glue, and placed on a flat surface to dry.  Using scrap wood, half an inch of shims are placed all around it to make sure the weights sit evenly.

Twenty volumes of an encyclopedia form the weights to try to keep the spine completely flat as it dries.

I let the spine dry for two days to be absolutely sure it wouldn't warp.  Since the inside edge won't be visible, it only requires further cleanup if there are any large pieces jutting inward.  The outside should be shaved and sanded if necessary to achieve evenness between the two layers; the edges can also be rounded.

Either the floor or distribution of weights must not have been perfectly flat.  Lamination failed at one point where the back layer bent away from the front.   I worry that if this bit is allowed to flex in relation to the rest of the spine, it could crack.  I think this is an unlikely concern, but there's no point in risking it.

After the wood putty dries, the area is shaved and sanded down.

Applying a modern stain may seem like cheating, as it's basically trying to make one species of wood look like a different species, but that grey and green poplar is gross-looking.

Ordinarily, I would be finishing up with linseed oil at this point, but time is running very short, so tomorrow I'll apply a quick-drying varnish to protect from moisture and then get to final assembly.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Making a wooden akinakes scabbard, part V and last

Here you go:

The scabbard is finished with paints, in imitation of hide glue paints which we know were used on brain-tanned leather in more recent times.

My cast bronze chape from last semester is held in place with a pair of wooden pegs which pass through the front board of the scabbard and are glued down.  (Since none of the chapes I've seen which feature holes for these pegs have metal rivets or nails in place, I assume the pegs were organic.)

Lastly, a braided cord (cotton, unfortunately, but it's all I could find - and it is a period material, though preferably for high-status impressions) is tied tightly around the scabbard, with its knot in the back.  Both ends of the cord are sewn and tied off to prevent fraying, but on the long end, this step should be deferred until the cord is cut to its final length.  A little experimentation is needed to find the right length so the long end can pass comfortably around the thigh but not hang much below your knee or allow the scabbard to swing wildly when you run.  The short end is waxed so that it can compress enough to pass through the fluted brass bead and be knotted on the other side.