Tuesday, July 5, 2016

On the origin of the Western Iranians

The normal scope of this blog is the Achaemenid period and the years immediately leading up to and following it, approximately 600 to 300 BC.  I'd like to take a diversion for the moment to look further back and examine the roots of the Achaemenid Persians and their close relatives in northern and western Iran.

Although some estimates place the composition of the Avesta well before the Achaemenid period, I know of no physical written documents by Iranians before the Cyrus Cylinder and none in Iranian languages before the Behistun inscription.  By that time, the Western Iranians had already diverged into the Persians, Medes, Parthians, and possibly others.  Thus, for information about their history before that time, one must rely on neighboring literate cultures for clues - in this case Mesopotamia.

Well into the 12th century BC, written records from the Akkadian-speaking states fail to indicate the presence of any individuals or nations with etymologically Iranian names in the Zagros.  The fact that three of the Median tribes Herodotus enumerates don't seem to have Iranian names suggests that prior inhabitants of the region were acculturated by the Iranian newcomers after this time.  Unfortunately, political turmoil in Mesopotamia resulted in a period of silence with regards to northern Iran (Kuz'mina, 371-372).

The earliest plausible record of any Western Iranian peoples is the Black Obelisk of Neo-Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, 844 BC, in which the king claims to have received tribute from the 27 kings of Parsua and conquered the Amadai (Butterfield).  Amadai may be a form of Media (O.P. Mâda), but Shalmaneser's itinerary appears to place Parsua far to the north of the land known as Parsa in Achaemenid times.  Scholars have localized it between the northern border of modern Kermanshah and the south shore of Lake Urmia (Frye, 66).

Assyrian texts also describe a Parsuaš or Parsumaš, which can be localized on the opposite side of Elamite territory from modern Luristan (Gershevitch, 63) and is therefore logical to equate with Achaemenid Parsa.  Many historians consider that the initial appearance of Parsua and later Parsumaš indicate the migration of Persians south along the Zagros into their historical territory.  Edwin Grantovsky believed that the ethnonyms Parsua and Parsumaš proclaimed "strong" or "broad" people.  It has further been observed that a nearby tributary to Shalmaneser III was ruled by an Artasari (Dandamaev and Lukonin, 3-4).

However, Ilya Gershevitch points out that Parsua is always described as a land, not as a people.  He argues that Parsua and Parsa, along with the Parsii of Strabo, the Parsyetae of Ptolemy and even the Pashtuns all derive from an Old Iranian term *Parsava, meaning "border[land]."  Richard Frye more-or-less concurs, interpreting the root of *Parsava as "rib" but here understood as a frontier, and adds Parthava (Parthia) to the list of cognate borderlands (Frye, 66).  It was I.M. D'yakonov's opinion that Parsua and Parsumaš existed simultaneously, reducing the likelihood that one was a colony of the other (Dandamaev and Lukonin, 4)

(In this case, Mâda may well be an Indo-European cognate for "middle."  An amusing coincidence, if true:  Greek Mēdia means "land of the Medoi [Medes]," but is also the plural of Latin medium, meaning something that is in the middle.)

The questions of whether Parsua can be identified with the Persians and whether it was a migration from the general direction of Parsua (not necessarily colonists from Parsua) that created the settlement of Parsumaš are important insofar as they inform the course of migration.  If the answers are yes and yes, then the Persians' ancestors likely followed one of three routes into the northern Zagros Mountains:  directly south from the Caucasus region, or northwest across the Iranian Plateau, or west-northwest along the Elborz Mountains.  An approach east, through Mesopotamia, is obviously vanishingly improbable, and a further north-northwestern route would require passing through the land that would become Parsumaš only to backtrack and colonize it later, which is not impossible, but seems odd.

If the answer to the first question is no - if Parsua is not connected with the Persians - then alternate routes may be considered:  The Persians may then have reached Parsa traveling north-northwest or directly west.  If the answer to the first question is yes but the second is no - if Parsua was in fact settled from the general direction of Parsumaš - then alternate routes must be considered, for the same reason that they were so unlikely if Parsumaš was settled from the area of Parsua.  However, the likelihood of these is subject to other considerations, as will be seen later.

Anyway, that's as far back as historical records take us.  Other evidence is circumstantial.  The oldest Iranian compositions are in languages, Old Persian and Avestan, which have already diverged into Western and Eastern (some say Central, or at least non-Western) sub-branches respectively.  The earliest Old Persian texts date to. c. 521 BC ("Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions").  The Avestan Gathas are generally thought to be older and might seem to offer a terminus ante quem for the East-West divergence, if its date could be pinned down.  Unfortunately, the earliest dates for the life of Zarathuštra come from long after the Achaemenid period and are all over the map, ranging from Diogenes Laertes' six thousand years before Xerxes invaded Greece, to al-Biruni's mere 258 years before Alexander's invasion of Persia (Nigosian, 15-16).

On a possibly-helpful note, the Vendidad, a later Avestan text, does not mention Media, Persia or Parthia.  This has been taken by some to mean that the Vendidad was composed before these countries existed (Eduljee), in other words before the eighth and possibly before the ninth century BC (Butterfield).

Obviously, attempting to date the East-West divergence by the composition of the Avesta, and the Avesta by the apparent lack of Western Iranian nations, is somewhat circular.  The most that all of points can be taken to imply is that the early Western Iranians took some time after the breakup of proto-Iranian before forming into the nations we know from Assyrian and Classical records.  The period may have been quite long.

Archaeologically, the Western Iranians have been tentatively connected with the spread of Late West Iranian buff ware, dating from about 950 BC.  This pottery in turn derives from the Gurgan buff ware of c. 1100 BC (Bryant and Patton, 135) which, as its name implies, comes from the area around Gorgan (historically the satrap of Varkâna or Hyrcania).  An example of the late type was found at Tepe Sialk VI (Malekzadeh and Naseri) in central Iran.  It shows a figure who appears to be bearded, holding a staff or polearm and a checkerboard-patterned rectangular object easily interpreted as a small version of the pavise shield*, and wearing what seems to be an akinakes in a wide-throated scabbard at his waist.  In short, he is a direct predecessor of the line spearman of early Achaemenid armies.

If the connection between Western Iranians and the Gurgan buff ware is true, then routes into Media and Persia from anywhere other than the northeast are ruled out.  D'yakonov supported the same route on the basis of toponymy (Kuz'mina, 372).  This model is also supported by the spread of the Bactrian camel as a livestock animal from east of the Caspian.  Like horses below, they were often given ritual burials.  West of the Caspian, the use of camels (specifically dromedaries) spread from Arabia and they are known by terms derived from the Phoenician gāmālu, while the Iranian languages maintain native terms, e.g. Avestan uštra (ibid., 377).

Going back to the Vendidad, Hyrcania may appear there under the name Khnentem Vehrkano, while there is no country with a name resembling that of Parthia (whose name, Frye's theory implies, is an artefact of Western Iranian expansion), despite that the two were very close together.  I would speculate on the possibility that this could provide a terminus post quem for when Parthia was colonized or terminus ante quem for when the Vendidad was composed, but I can't find sources on whether or when pottery derived from the Gurgan style reached Parthia.

The main competing archaeological model connects Iranian-speakers with wood-framed tombs and horse burials, which may indicate descent from the Srubna or Timber-grave culture that occupied the area directly north of the Black Sea and Caucasus during the Late Bronze Age.  This model has the Iranians move almost due south from the Lower Volga through Transcaucasia and into the northern Zagros.  It has been observed that the Scythians followed the same route when invading the Near East in the seventh century BC (Kuz'mina, 373-375).  Kuz'mina herself concludes that Iranian tribes entered the plateau by both routes (ibid., 378).

This combined model does result in the interesting possibility that Eastern Iranian-speakers entered Iran from the West and Western-speakers from the East, depending on which archaeological culture is associated with which people.  In light of the view that the West Iranian buff ware is considered ancestral to Median and Persian pottery, it need not be said that it's simplest to identify its creators with the proto-West Iranians.  If that's correct, then the Western Iranians either originated within the Andronovo horizon or passed through there on the way from Srubna areas.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that a material culture isn't necessarily indicative of an ethnolinguistic group; as an obvious example, the early Romans displayed heavy Greek influence in their art, architecture and other material culture without being Greek in origin or adopting the Greek language or identity.  So from a theoretical standpoint, it's possible that the Srubna influences and buff ware were simply adopted by Western Iranians as they entered the plateau from elsewhere  On the other hand, I can find no alternate model that has scholarly currency.

I am not well-versed enough to try to identify our subject with either the spread of timber graves or buff ware, so it wouldn't be useful for me to arbitrarily voice support one or the other.  But in summary the models should look like this:

A)  The Western Iranians branch off by around 1100 BC in the area of modern Gorgan and proceed to migrate west along the Elborz into Media and Parsua by the ninth century, south into Persia by the eighth and east into Parthia by the sixth (probably earlier, but not before the composition of the Vendidad, whenever that was).

B)  The Western Iranians branch off some time around 1000 BC in the area of southwest Russia and travel southward along the Caucasus.  The dates for the settlements of Parsua, Media and Persia are roughly the same as they are in scenario A, but it would make sense for Parthia to be one of the later regions colonized, which more easily allows the possibility of a somewhat later date for the Vendidad.

Both models, such as I understand them, allow for but do not require that the sequential appearance of Parsua and Parsumaš represents the southward movement of Persians over time.

* I would be remiss not to acknowledge that checkerboard-patterned rectangles in isolation are a popular artistic motif on this type of pottery, so the resemblance to a shield may be coincidental.

"Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions."  Livius.org.  http://www.livius.org/aa-ac/achaemenians/inscriptions.html

Adams, Douglas Q.  Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture.  Taylor & Francis.  1997.

Bryant, Edwin Francis, and Laurie L. Patton.  The Indo-Aryan Controversy:  Evidence and Inference in Indian History.  Psychology Press.  2005.

Eduljee, K.E.  "Aryan Homeland in Avesta."  Zoroastrian Heritage.  2005.  http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/aryans/airyanavaeja.htm

Butterfield, Bruce J.  "Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser II."  Marquette University.  1996.  http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/Assyria/Inscra01.html

Dandamaev, Muhammed A., and Vladimir G. Lukonin.  The Culture and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran.  Cambridge University Press.  2004.

Frye, Richard Nelson.  The History of Ancient Iran.  Part 3, volume 7 of Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft: Alter Orient-Griechische Geschichte-Römische Geschichte.  C.H.Beck.  1984.

Gershevitch, Ilya.  The Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 2.  Cambridge University Press.  1985.

Kuz'mina, Elena E.  The Origin of the Indo-Iranians.  Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden.  2007.

Malekzadeh, Mehrdad, and Reza Naseri.  "Shamshirgāh and Sialk:  bricks with impressions."  Antiquity:  a review of world archaeology.  http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/malekzadeh335/

Nigosian, Solomon Alexander.  The Zoroastrian Faith:  Tradition and Modern Research.  McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP.  1993

Monday, June 27, 2016

Pseudo-wicker shields from Pazyryk

The Pazyryk culture, dating from about the sixth to third centuries BC, is a subgroup of the Scytho-Siberian culture, and its royal kurgans found in the Altai have provided a rich source of artefacts from our time period preserved in permafrost, including rare textile and leather goods.

I recently came across a post by Sean Manning at Book and Sword on small Pazyryk-style shields, including several I'd never seen before.  Some of them are made from the familiar stick-and-hide construction, but one is a solid wood shield chiseled to resemble the others at first glance.  There's also good shots of the flat leather thong that apparently functioned as a grip.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Some thoughts on linguistics and the name of Varkâna

Varkâna, the name of the satrapy located on the southern and southeastern shores of the Caspian, is thought to mean "wolf-land" (c.f. Avestan vəhrkō, Sanskrit vŗka and New Persian gorg).  The Greeks knew it as Hyrkania (Ὑρκανία, while in Latin and consequently Western European languages, it's spelled "Hyrcania").  Today the name survives as Gorgan, the name of the capital of Golestan province.  In the Caspian branch of the Iranian languages, the city is called Wergen

Relating these diverse forms is less challenging than it might appear.  To begin with, you've probably already noticed how closely-related V and W phonemes are.  The letter V in Western European alphabets is descended from Classical Latin U, which was shaped like a V and functions as a W when it appears before other vowels, so the word virvs, "poison," was pronounced "wee-roos," and vniversvm as "oo-nee-wer-soom."  However, in Italian and modern ecclesiastical Latin as they evolved in the Middle Ages, V came to be pronounced like English V.  Within the Germanic languages, English ward is equivalent to Norse vörðr and Frankish *wardōn which became French garde and English guard.

From Frankish loanwords in the Latin languages we know that W often shifts to GW and G.  Thus *wardōn became Vulgar Latin *guardāre, thence Italian guardare, Spanish guardar, Old French garder.  Likewise the English warranty is equivalent to French guarantie (whence also English guarantee), war to guerre, and so on.  The shift from W to GW is slight, requiring only that the back of the tongue touch the roof of the mouth, and the difference between them is blurry, as in Spanish GU, which is sometimes pronounced like English W.

In the Iranian languages, the same shift is attested with the name of Vištāspa, Zarathuštra's royal patron in the Gathas, called in the Middle Persian Zand-i Wahman Yasn "Wištāsp" and in the New Persian Šāhnāmah "Goštāsp."  So, we can easily picture Varkâna becoming a transitional Middle Iranian form *Warkan(a), which leads to Caspian Wergen and a further transitional Persian form, something like *Gwargan, before becoming Gorgan in New Persian.

If the V->W shift - at least in the spoken languages - had already occurred or was taking place as early as the fifth century BC, then Herodotus (or his third-party sources) would have been hearing Varkâna in the form *Warkan(a).  This is not unreasonable; in the fourth century BC, Old Persian inscriptions were changing in the direction of Middle Persian and it may be that the spoken language was evolving ahead of the written form.

This brings us to Hyrkania, which from an English-speaker's point of view still scarcely resembles *Warkan(a).  However, that's down to applying English phonology to the word.  Ὑρκανία in Greek has rather different sound values, mainly in the first syllable.  First, note that the letter eta (H) is not written.  In ancient Greek dialects, initial eta was often dropped.  Second, the upsilon (Y) was pronounced much closer to English long U (as in "rue") than to any kind of English Y.  Thus, the ancient Greek pronunciation of Hyrkania was probably more like "Oorkania," which, of course, is not too far removed from *Warkan(a).

The change from -a to -ia is seen elsewhere in Greek; the ancient Anatolian country of Lukka was known in Greek as Lykia (Lycia).  I don't have sufficient knowledge to explain the elimination of the first A, but it's perhaps relevant that the initial digamma (W) before vowels was dropped altogether in many Greek dialects during the Archaic period, as Mycenaean wa-na-ka, "king" -> Homeric anax.

For comparison:
Iranian Vištāspa = Greek Hystaspes
O.P. Vidarna = Gk. Hydarnes
Sanskrit Vistasta = Gk. Hydaspes

If I'm correct, then in all these cases, the upsilon equates to Indo-Iranian V, not I.  In which case, the I is dropped just like the first A in *Warkan(a) -> Hyrkania.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

XMFM is now The Royal Road

I felt it was time for a less overtly silly (not to mention confrontational) title.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Linen armor build thread by Todd Feinman

Should've posted this earlier.  Todd Feinman is currently working on an Egyptian linen corslet over at the Bronze Age Center.  Armors derived from this style may have been worn by Persians (Herodotus I.135) and of course by Egyptians in Achaemenid service; he also proposes that the weaving techniques may be applicable to tube-and-yoke corslets.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Making an Elamite dagger, part II

Couple of weeks ago, I went to town with the angle grinder's flap disk.  In about an hour and a half, I removed a third of the tang thickness and completed the primary bevels.

I also did a quick polish to round off the now-sharp edges and highlight remaining problem areas.

Getting the tang down to an even thickness is proving difficult.  A nice surprise was how easily the little chevron shape on the guard formed as a result of adding the bevels, but unfortunately, I don't think the scales I selected are long enough to cover it, so it might wind up as a very small ricasso.  Although it has practically no distal taper before the point, the blade now feels light and sword-like, balancing about an inch in front of the guard, which will likely move even farther back when the scales are added.

What didn't go so well?  The flap disk does the job fast, but it left behind many deep grind marks which will be difficult to polish out.  The flap disk also seemed to produce a slight hollow grind on one side of the centerline.  And keeping the centerline from wandering was pretty difficult...

...  which resulted in this, the blade becoming too thin below the shoulders, where I tried too many times to correct it.  A well-made sword blade should be at its very thickest at this point.  Hopefully, the original grinding wheel can get rid of the flap disk's grind marks and reduce some of the uneven thickness a little more slowly.

With the edges safely rounded, I could feel and sorta see that where the blade should be at its widest, the edges are faintly convex.  As well, I learned from my belt knife project that the flanges don't require that much extra material, so I should make the tang narrower by perhaps a sixteenth of an inch.

I've halted work for several weeks, because I have other things to do and the weather in Bucks County's been cold and rainy (grinding is too noisy and produces too many steel filings to work indoors).  I intend to pick up again a week from Sunday, after my woodworking class ends, hopefully correcting all the above issues.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Making a belt knife

As I observed at the time, one takeaway from Marathon 2015 is that we still sometimes need a small but sharp knife around camp for mundane jobs.  Since my flanged dagger project will require grinding primary bevels and cold-forging flanges anyway, I decided to practice these skills and acquire a needed accessory in the process.

The knife is inspired loosely by one seen in Oriental Institute Publications 69 (pg. 311 of the PDF) and, to a lesser extent, one with a more extreme recurve found at Deve Hüyük.  Mine doesn't exactly resemble either of them, and is sized to be useful for tasks like cutting rope and opening boxes.  I don't know what the purpose of the recurved shape is, but it's pretty common, used by the Romans, Thracians, and in South Asia, so there must be something to it.

The lack of any blade shoulder gives it away as a utility knife with little use as a weapon, as there's nothing to keep the fingers from slipping onto the blade if used for stabbing and it's too small to put any power behind a slashing attack.  Of course, that does make it a bit less safe as a tool as well; even most utility knives have a bit of a shoulder, but not all, so if you're not reckless, it's fine.

I markered the outline freehand on 1x1/8-inch mild steel bar stock, added the rivet holes with a drill press and cleaned them up with my Dremel's cone cutter.  I cut the outline with my angle grinder and did the primary bevels with the standard stone grinding wheel.  I intended for it to have a flat grind from the spine, but when the edge started to get too thin, it wore away and deformed.  Perhaps being overly cautious, I wound up giving it a convex bevel that only extends about half its width.  As a result, the blade is very sturdy but probably won't get too sharp.

Forging the flanges was easy enough (took a lot of effort, but that's just my lack of stamina talking), but there was still quite a bit of extra material, which suggests that I might want to go back and reduce the extra width I added to the flanged dagger tang for that purpose

The grip is black walnut, cut and drilled at Bucks, with a simple linseed oil finish.  The trick in drilling rivet holes in a grip of this type is to chuck up a bit on the drill press, hold the blade either over the edge of a block or preferably in a vise so that the tang sticks out, and position it so the drill bit is sticking straight down through the rivet holes.  Then slip the grip onto the tang, making absolutely sure not to move the tang at all, start the drill press and lower it until it drills through the grip, passing through the tang holes in the process.  It's a delicate job even with modern equipment and a humbling reminder of what clever bastards ancient people were.  I understand that a clamp is preferable for holding the blade but there weren't any in the shop that would actually work for the purpose.

I made the slot a bit too wide, requiring a shim (that little pale edge peeking out between the blade and grip), and the grip is a bit too narrow between the flanges, which I didn't notice until after drilling.  So I rounded off the ends of the flanges so they wouldn't bite into my hand.  Rivets are simply an annealed common nail cut up with the angle grinder's cutting wheel.  The sheath is heavy molded rawhide with a welt and glove suede facing, painted with the Iranian rosette and just tied to the belt with a suede band.

My camera didn't want to focus on it, but I found the rope-like seam produced by single whipstitching very interesting.  When the needle initially entered the leather from the front, whipped around and passed through the front again, the seam on the back was curled forward into a shape I found oddly reminiscent of the edging seen on ornate akinakes scabbards (see here, third photo from the top on the left).  Obviously the resemblance is not that great, but I could imagine this kind of leather seam edging, whose decorative quality is purely incidental, as being distantly ancestral to that used on what are presumably metal facings.