Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Playing with the kidaris or tiara

Personally, I don't find the look of the standard tiara appealing, but it is the most commonly-attested headwear for Persians in Greece, and is very easy to make at home.

A tiara pattern for a large head, with moderate-length neck flap (left).
If you choose felt, all you need to do is cut out the "blank," stitch up the front seam and turn the hat inside-out.

Persians appear to have sometimes worn tiaras tied around the crown with a cord of some kind.  On this practice run, I'm just using a bit of leftover cotton belting.
If you don't like the look of the long earflaps, they may be tied up Cappadocian-style, like a modern hunting cap or ushanka.

For an even tidier look, the flaps can be tucked into themselves.

From the back.
I'm going to have to rescind my words about the fabric needing to be soft enough for the peak to lay to one side.  It appears that even the very soft polyester felt I used on this prototype isn't flimsy enough for that purpose.  I'd guess that the flopped-over look was probably achieved using a fine woven cloth, either wool or linen.

Again, for the Graeco-Persian wars, I have only heard of felt being used.  Greek art typically shows Persian (or possibly Scythian, etc.) soldiers wearing tiaras with rather stiff-looking peaks that are often curled, but not flopped, forward.  So it's possible that the stiff peak is okay for our purposes.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A further note on leather sheaths

Remember back in May when I wrote on how to make a scabbard?  Recently while making the sheath for a factory-sharpened knife I discovered that the instructions I gave for the all-leather, side-seamed sheath back then are only fine as they are if your weapon is unsharpened.

Otherwise, you need to include a welt, which is a strip of leather glued around the inside of the sheath between anywhere a sharp edge and seam might touch.  This will prevent the blade slicing through the stitching.  It also, as a bonus, gives the sheath a less flat shape.

Instructions can be found all over the Web; as an example, see steps 4 and 13 here.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Native Way G202

While the socketed trilobate arrowhead is the most common and preferred type for our period, Native Way's model G202 (their G200 looks very similar) belongs to a type attested from findings at Persepolis and is therefore an option for the Achaemenid reenactor.  I also happen to find it very cool-looking.

It's molded from an original and cast in a "lightly leaded" tin bronze which as you can see cleans up very nicely.  It is unfortunately cast rather thick and heavy at 12 grams, but filing and trimming the tang (above, I've cut the tang down by about a third) will help, and also let you define the mid-rib more clearly.  I've managed to get the one I've worked on down to around 9g and could go further.  Because the dust contains lead, I'm guessing your should avoid high-speed power sanding.

The best thing about these, along with being perfectly authentic, is they're very inexpensive as far as reproduction arrowheads go:  Rough-cast, they retail for $3 each, and for the U.S.-based reenactor, shipping costs are far lower than overseas options.  If you don't mind doing some of the work yourself, these are a great option for the reenactor on a budget.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Er...  Some of you may be wondering why I haven't done anything with XMFM's Facebook page since creating it back in April.  The reasons are twofold:  1) my browser is so out-of-date that using Facebook properly is next to impossible (and upgrading is out of the question, for technical reasons relating to a completely unwanted and unrequested ISP "upgrade"), and 2) even using another computer, I can't figure it out to save my life.

I'm not asking for help, just thought an explanation was in order.

Monday, August 13, 2012

An all-wood akinakes scabbard

The British Museum has some good-resolution profile shots of an akinakes scabbard showing an alternative method of construction.  It is made of just two pieces of tamarisk wood, mirror-image front and back halves.  The chape and throat are presumably also integral to these halves, although they seem to carved to represent separate pieces.  The shell-like carved throat would eliminate any need for clever methods of shaping to make it wide enough to cover the sword's guard.  An unidentified white paste was used to cover the scabbard in gold sheet, most of which is now gone.

This find does not contradict the existence of separate chapes, which are well-attested archaeologically.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Over the months it's become hard to deny that, although (as I've observed below) the variety of arrowheads acceptable for use is much wider than I initially thought, the acceptable options available on the market remain sadly limited and that the good replicas available are a bit pricey for new reenactors to buy by the dozen.

To rectify this situation, we might consider working with bronze casters to develop new products.  As a demo I've made a handful of wax prototypes based on illustrations from OIP 69.  It's easy.  The challenging part will be to make them accurate by finding and examining originals firsthand.  Since shipping and handling overseas increases costs, I'd further recommend that these ventures by carried out separately in whichever continents significant numbers of archers are interested.

L-R:  Socketed two-blade, tanged two-blade, socketed triangular and tanged three-blade.  Personally I like the tanged two-blade best, but that may be because it's by far the easiest to make in wax.  I imagine it would also be the easiest to cast.

As always, send feedback to xerxesmillion@yahoo.com.  Thanks for your interest.

Friday, July 13, 2012

OIP 69 - buckles, arrowheads and more!

Oriental Institute Publications 69 is a wonderful resource cataloguing a wide variety of archaeological findings from Persepolis, including axes, horse tack, dinner plates, jewelry, armor scales, a big iron sword with a flanged hilt strangely reminiscent of the Luristan bronzes, and, of course, lots of pottery.

I'd like to draw attention to several specific items.  On page 257 are two objects that appear to be the long-sought-after round belt buckle.  To my mind, they don't clear up the actual function very much.  They're basically shallow, hollow cones with a single thin bar on the inside.  To pass under or around these bars, the belt strap would have to be either much softer and more flexible than would seem practical on a weapon belt built to support a fully-loaded gorytos, or else much, much narrower than the buckle; in period art, it's usually the other way around.  There's also no hook, stud or other mechanism that would allow it to act as a belt the way I'm thinking.  I've previously been over the reasons I don't think the round disc itself was a button.

On page 303 is a collection of weapon heads.  The lancehead is apparently a stout, short kite shape made of iron.  Two javelin heads appear which are basically giant versions of the bronze three-bladed arrowhead.  And lastly there's a surprisingly wide variety of arrowheads.  The most common are the classic socketed bronze three-bladed ones, but also appearing are two-bladed ones, iron ones, tanged ones, and long, narrow ones with solid triangular or square cross-sections, looking like precursors of Medieval bodkins.  While I've yet to find anything like most of them on the market today, their existence does lend precedent to bringing greater variety to our kit by using points other than the standard socketed bronze trilobates.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Further thought on the domed hat

When I first examined low-res images of the Mede domed hat, I believed that the hat was bound around the outside.  However, having continued to examine the high-res images at Nirupars (such as the first and second images on this page) I'm forced to concede that the band is internal.  Possibly the edge of the hat was folded in and stitched down over it, but an easier method might be to sew small patches to the inside (like belt loops).  Either way, the band then passes through a hole in the back and is tied into a slipknot on the outside.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Update 2: Spears

Antonis Aliades at RAT has directed me to Armes Antiques, which has a couple of spearheads which look like they would suit our period.  Item SP154 looks good if a bit big, and SP163 is especially eye-catching, being similar to the kite shape commonly shown at Persepolis.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Update: Axes

While you're at Hun Archery, you might also want to check out one of their range of bronze Scythian axes.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Update 3: Arrows

Arminius at Hippeis last week pointed out the Scythian arrowheads from Hun Archery.  These are some of the lightest repro arrowheads I've seen.  They look like blued steel.  I can't vouch for the quality but at 69 euros for 20 pieces they may be a good inexpensive option for European reenactors.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Tentative charter/rulebook for XMFM

I.  Mission and ideals
Xerxes' Million Fighting Men seeks to present, for the education and entertainment of the public, an authentic image of the first Persian empire, and in particular those of its peoples who participated in the Greek phase of the Graeco-Persian wars, 490-479 BC.

XMFM aims first and foremost to communicate the truth as near as it can be discerned.  Although our material culture and interactions with each other will showcase a certain image, when speaking directly to the public, we should not be afraid to admit to uncertainties, theories and conjectures about history and compromises in our impression.  If new evidence demonstrates that part of our impression is incorrect, that part must change; when limits on time or money prevents an update, the part should be excised; when it cannot be excised, the compromise should be acknowledged when speaking to the public.

Conscious misleading of others is strictly forbidden.  Political, religious, ethnic or other biases should be recognized and put aside as best as you are able.

II.  Materials
Clothing and equipment should be the most authentic that you are able to obtain.  For all "bronze," brass and other copper alloys with a similar look may be substituted.  For all "iron," any iron alloy suitable to the particular function may be used.  Plating may be used where historically documented.  For "sinew," artificial sinew or dental floss may be substituted.  For woods, any that will hold up under use is acceptable unless it has a distinct inappropriate look.  For fabric and leather, see the Denim and leather article.

III.  Personal appearance
XMFM aims to keep rules on personal appearance minimal and keep the doors open as wide as possible for new members.  Anything about your appearance that can easily be changed to appear less anachronistic should be.

Anyone of any race or ethnicity may reenact as any ethnicity documented as having been personally involved in events in the Persian empire or its enemies, allies, subjects or trading partners.  However, XMFM encourages people to choose a nation that reasonably matches with their own appearance.

Hair (including on the face and anywhere else visible to the public) may be any length or absent, but must be free of obvious styling or dyes that you can't document in period.

During public presentation, no clearly modern clothing, jewelry or accessories may be worn.  This includes watches and glasses; keep them in your pocket.  Wear contact lenses if you can.

IV.  Safety
Scrupulous attention must be paid to preventing injury during handling and demonstration of sharp weapons and stage combat.  Materials on display must be attended by at least one member.  The public may only handle materials under close supervision.

V.  Fiscal policy
If you have extra kit, please be willing to lend it to others.  However, ultimately it is the responsibility of each member to provide sufficient kit for his or her own impression.

Collectively-used expenses (car rental, cab fare, etc.) will be distributed among those using them.

VI.  Government
Form of government will be determined once four members have been recruited.

Next up:  ...
...  Actually, that's it.  I don't have any more articles scheduled.  I'll post more news as it develops, but for the moment I've covered everything I can.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Update 2: Arrows

John Conyard alerted me to bronze arrowhead repros from UK-based archery supplier A Piece of History. They're a distinctly Scythian type with separate sockets and a long barb behind the cutting blades.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Delma MA-3's are here and uh

The Delma MA-3 Penetrator is the closest that any modern arrowhead I've ever seen comes to replicating the shape of Classical ones, while being much cheaper (if shipping in North America) than a bronze replica.  Unfortunately, it's also big (not to mention wicked sharp) - something I didn't appreciate until examining them in person.  In fact, being nearly the same shape and just over half again longer than the period-correct equivalent from Manning Imperial seems (to my eyes) to give it several times the surface area.  I won't bother doing the math on whether that's technically true, but it's a moot point.

I had planned on trimming down the backs of the blades with a pair of tin snips, but the folded sheet-metal construction is a lot sturdier than it looks.  If you're stronger than I am, you might manage it, but I imagine doing so would warp the blades, not to mention put the socket at risk of splitting into three parts.  And frankly, taking power tools to them sounds like more trouble than they're worth.

I won't write these off just yet, but I will do so if something better comes along.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Travel and transport

Moving a large amount of kit can be one of the more frustrating parts of reenacting, especially when traveling overseas.  You need to pay or find ways around high transport costs, while packaging everything securely.

Airline regulations are varied, but most charge regular or oversized baggage fees according to the number of linear or dimensional inches (length plus width plus depth).  Expect to pay surcharges in the area of $100 for large shields and long spears.  A gorytos with a modicum of flexibility can be crammed into your suitcase.  US Airways requires items to be packaged in hard-sided cases (I've found that a rifle case works best for a recurved bow and arrows, and can hold sidearms as well; US Air doesn't consider this oversized).  American Airlines doesn't have such a requirement, but does set an upper limit of 75 inches in length which should be just barely enough for a 6-foot spear.  United Airlines requires documentation for weapons, but does have a separate cargo service and special hard-sided boxes in very large sizes for an extra charge.

Shelley Powers of Hoplologia informs me that rather than checking their spears and shields as airline baggage, the Plataians got theirs to Marathon 2011 by commercial shippers, which is viable for large groups.  She (and Ashley Holt of the Hoplites Association) also recommended plastic pipes for spears.  Shields were packed in bicycle boxes.

Since your kit will take up so much room, travel as lightly as possible otherwise.  Bring only as many changes of clothes as you need, and travel-sized toiletries (don't forget mosquito repellent and sunblock).  Wear a single jacket with plenty of pockets, and pick one pair of good walking shoes, with buckles or velcro so you can take them off quickly in the security check.

Your schedule will be busy and unpredictable, so eat well at breakfast and lunch.  If you're not camping out, or not camping out for the entire event, I can personally recommend the Thomas Beach Hotel in Nea Makri, which is a short drive from Schinias Beach where Marathon 2011 was held.

Next up:  A proposed rulebook for XMFM the reenactment group.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Putting it all together

This is a recap of required items for the male Pesian or Mede costume.  You'll need all the following items:

●  Sleeved tunic.
●  Close-fitted trousers, preferably footed.
●  Fabric belt long enough to be tied in a square knot with substantial (at least five-inch/13cm) hanging ends, in wool or linen if you can find it.  Cotton is acceptable if you can't find anything else.
●  Ankle boots.
●  Tiara or domed cap.  Tiara may be either wool felt or linen, must be soft enough that the peak will lay to one side.
●  Drawstring bag(s).
●  Leather or leather-covered water bottle.

Additionally, you'll need at least one of the following stands-of-arms:

●  Scythian or Assyrian bow.
●  At least 12 safety arrows and at least 12 sharp arrows spined for your bow, with natural feather fletchings.  Shafts should be wood or reed on sharp arrows and fiberglass tape-wrapped wood on safety ones.  I'll list approved sources for sharp and blunt points as I can find them out (for sharps, Neil Burridge and Manning Imperial are ideal if you can afford them), and the flu-flu versus untrimmed fletching issue when it's settled at Amphictyonia.
●  Gorytos with cover, that can hold the bow and 12 arrows, or shoulder quiver that can hold 12 arrows.
●  Leather weapon belt with single round iron/steel or bronze/brass button with optional flower design.

●  Spear.  A hame ball would appear to be the most accurate-looking counterweight but you can use any brass or bronze finial of appropriate size and shape.
●  Spear as above but with safety head.
●  Crescent or preferably rectangular shield.

●  Two or more javelins.
●  Crescent shield.

You are additionally encouraged to bring as much as possible of the following:
●  Akinakes with scabbard.
●  Kopis with scabbard.
●  Akinakes or kopis with steel safety blade, and own scabbard if it won't fit into the sharp one's.
●  Sagaris.
●  Weapons belt to hold the above (if you're not already bringing one).
●  Scale shirt.
●  Tube-and-yoke corslet.
●  Kandys.
●  Extra arrow components for field repair or replacement, wooden dowels for shields, wrenches or other tools for tightening loose tangs on swords, epoxy or arrow glue for loose components on weapons, and leather laces for a variety of applications.
●  Extra clothing and equipment, including for Greek or other c. 500 BC East Mediterranean impression.

Next up:  Getting it all there.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Update: Spears

The good folks at Kelticos demonstrate that a hame ball (or hame tip) makes a functional northern British spear counterweight.  As it happens, it also looks startlingly like a Persian spear counterweight as well.

Hame balls are mostly made of brass (sometimes chrome-plated), which is acceptable for bronze.  Look for one with clearly-defined ball and socket sections, not the teardrop-shaped type.  About the only flaw I can find is that they lack the little ring between the ball and socket that a Persian spear butt had.

Don't go without...

Update 12/10/13:  This post contains information that is probably incorrect.  Please see here.

You need at least two items to get along while in costume:

Drawstring bag
I don't know what ancient Persian luggage looked like, but as a stopgap measure you can use a simple drawstring bag.  It should be big enough to hold your lunch, water, wallet, cell phone, watch, glasses, meds, a mini-first aid kit and any other small objects you think you'll need.  Use soft leather or a heavy period fabric (a lining of finer fabric can help prevent objects bulging or poking through if the outer shell is a loose weave).

At Marathon I used a jute burlap bag with a long drawstring that could be worn over the shoulder.  I found the jute shed far too much and the cord was pretty uncomfortable.  I'm preparing to experiment with linen burlap (rug backing).  Possibly cutting out the section of the cord that actually goes over the shoulder and replacing it with a section of wide leather strap or fabric belting would make wearing it more tolerable.

You may, alternately, wish to keep a few things like your phone in a small bag (pocket) tied to your belt.

Water bottle
Some groups allow members to drink from modern bottles covered in a tight-fitting drawstring leather bag.  Others prefer that you use a waxed leather bottle.  These are readily available, for a hefty price, but are fairly easy to make yourself - see here for detailed instructions.

A few notes on leather bottles:  Make the smallest stitch holes you can still get the needle through, to reduce the chance of leakage.  You don't need a double boiler; a stainless steel bucket on a steaming rack in a pot of water works too.  You do need a massive amount of wax.  To save money, I used non-food-grade paraffin from a nearby candlemakers' supplier.  No idea if this is safe, but it hasn't made me sick yet.  Last but not least, keep your bottle out of the sun - you don't want the wax around the seams to melt.

Next up:  Chapter review!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Update 3

Based on amu1986's very helpful comment below, I've worked on a theoretical model for how a belt button could work.  The "button" part is actually the base of an upside-down button stud.  Since I'm pretty sure there was no such thing as screw threading, it would be attached by rivets in the form of additional stems.
These buttons would have to be custom cast for us.  As a cost-saver, I suppose it might be possible to use a screw-back concho with a longer screw, clamping the concho to the outer belt layer with a square nut and reshaping the screw to act as the stud.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Update 2 on belts

I spent part of yesterday and today finding out why large buttons aren't used on belts:  Heavy vegetable-tanned leather simply doesn't have the flexibility or stretch to get around the button unless the buttonhole is huge.  So either the leather used in an Achaemenid weapon belt was much softer or thinner than would seem to me practical for a belt intended to support a loaded gorytos, or I've yet to really understand how the "button" works.

For the large flower-patterned fasteners, I suppose it's possible that they functioned like cowboy-style buckles.  The smaller ones really do look like just large buttons, though.

Shield yourself from this

Update 12/10/13:  This post contains information that is probably incorrect.  Please see here.

The Achaemenids knew of four or five styles of shields:  round or oval (possibly), violin-shaped, rectangular, crescent and the Greek Argive shield.  Of these, only the rectangular style is attested as having been used in the Graeco-Persian wars period.  In addition, some illustrations have been found of imperial troops (the Negro Alabastrons) and Persian hunters with cloaks draped over their left arms presumably as makeshift protection.

The only attested material for Persian shields is called by the Greeks gerrha ("wicker").  While to my knowledge no Achaemenid shields have been found, four shields dating to the Sassanid dynasty were found in the 1922-37 excavations at the Hellenstic (later Roman) city of Dura-Europos in Syria, and their construction could offer a model for that of earlier shields.  They were not technically wicker, but consist of wood dowels (sometimes incorrectly referred to as reeds) woven vertically through a single sheet of soaked rawhide.  The rawhide was folded over the ends of the sticks and sewn between them.  One or two horizontal sticks were attached to the back, preventing the shield from rolling up as the rawhide dried, and the grip appears to have been a wooden rod tied to the back.

These shields were unpainted.  The holes through which the sticks were threaded form chevrons down the shields' faces.  There is a Greek vase showing a Persian soldier with a rectangular shield bearing an elongated checker pattern which could have been produced the same way.

Round or oval
An enigmatic, slightly elongated shield appears in at least one scene in the reliefs at Persepolis (middle, second from top).  It's roughly the same size and shape as the violin.  Its face is smooth, showing no evidence of wickerwork, boss or rim (though the violin shields in the same scene also lack rims, which they have elsewhere).  If it's a representation of the Argive shield (and that's a big if), it would indicate that the Persians adopted this type far earlier than my research otherwise suggests.  I suppose it's even possible that they are violin shields to which the artists for some reason didn't add the cutouts or bosses, but that seems very unlikely to me.

This double-gripped style is known, as far as I know, almost entirely from Persepolis.  It had a rim (even around the cutouts, which were located halfway or slightly more than halfway down from the top of the shield) and had a round boss right in the middle with four round dimples or cutouts.  It's shown with a smooth face and inside, unlike the rectangular shield (also shown at Persepolis, with its stickwork construction clearly visible), so it may have been made of wood planks and/or had a facing and lining of metal, leather or fabric.  (In fact, a solid bronze shield facing of similar shape is or was held in the Axel Guttmann collection, although I can't find out much about it.)  A bronze boss from one was found on the island of Samos off the coast of Turkey (close, in fact, to Mount Mycale).  However, I've never seen it in battle art and never in Greek art of any kind.  This at least suggests that it wasn't very typical of Persian arms in the war.

I can think of several reasons for this disconnect.  The violin shield may have been relegated to parade wear, perhaps an artifact of a previous generation of soldiers, or it may have been inherited as an item of ceremony from an older culture, perhaps the Elamites. It may have still been in use, but not nearly common enough for the Greeks to think of it as "the" Persian shield.  Search as I might, I can't find anything to back up any of these speculations.

Some people call this style the Dipylon or Boeotian shield, after similar types seen in Greek art.  But I feel this is incorrect.  These are Greek types, with significant differences in details:  Persian shields had large bosses and cutouts that are almost full circles, while the Greek ones had no bosses and their cutouts were more semicircular.  One may be copied from the other via intermediaries or they may derive from the same prehistoric source, but they could just as likely be totally unrelated.

Being perhaps up to five feet high, the rectangular shield was a kind of pavise which could be propped up to stand on its own and (according to Herodotus) attached to others to form a wall.  Of course, against the press of a Greek phalanx, this structure couldn't stand up very long, but it likely served very well against showers of arrows, and would be useable in one-on-one spear combat.

From what I've seen, this type appears to be the most common Persian shield attested in Greek art.  There's at least one picture of one at Persepolis as well.  An RAT member once uploaded a photo of it, which has since been lost, but you can see a line drawing at Mark Drury's site.

This type of shield is usually referred to as a spara.  This word comes from a glossary of Hesychius of Alexandria, who roughly a millennium later defined sparabarai as gerrhophoroi ("wicker-bearers").  While -bara meant "bearer" (and comes from the same PIE root as -bearer and -phoros), the Middle Persian word spar and its Modern Persian derivative sipar mean "shield," so it's possible that *spara also simply meant a shield of any kind.  If, as I suspect, all types of Persian shields were what the Greeks would call wicker, then "wicker-bearer" doesn't indicate what type of shield a soldier bore.  I suppose the reverse might also be true: that *spara did refer to a particular type of shield, but by Middle Persian had become more generic.

Showing up in Greek art late in the 5th century, the crescent shield resembled the Thracian pelte and some Scythian shields.  It could be single- or double-gripped and was somewhat smaller than an Argive shield (which is roughly two-and-a-half to three feet in width).

The Hoplite Association has reproduced crescent shields using 3mm (about eight-ounce) vegetable-tanned leather and wooden dowels; the edging is the same leather, laced on.  Andy Cropper used two grip systems:  one to be held in the hand and the other to be strapped to the arm, allowing archers to hold it while shooting.

In modern literature, this shield in Persian context is called a taka and its bearers takabara, but in fact we have no reason to think the ancients called them that.  The word takabara comes from the Persian phrase Yauna Takabara ("taka-bearing Ionians"), found at Persepolis and generally thought to be a reference to the Macedonians (Yauna or "Ionian" being the generic Persian word for Greeks).  Many researchers think that taka here refers to the petasos, or Greek sun hat, which was round and dished and shaped pretty much like a shield.  The phrase is translated into Akkadian as "who bear shields on their heads."  Nicholas Sekunda in Achaemenid Military Terminology states that taka means "hide," and should by extension be taken to mean a leather shield.  It is, however, difficult to be certain, and of course the petasos isn't crescent-shaped.

One of the main tools of the Greek hoplite, eminently suited for phalanx combat.  Putting aside the possibility that the round Perspolis shields are of this type, so far as I know Persians are only attested as using them in the 4th century, and then only rarely.  Since a great deal of literature on the construction and use of the Argive shield is available elsewhere, I shall refrain from going into it here.

Next up:  You'll need a few other things.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Armored bruiser

It's generally agreed that the Persian army wasn't very well-armored overall.  However, two types of body armor are known to have been used.

The older type is a scale corslet of the same general sort used in West Asia for centuries.  According to archaeological finds, Persian scale was mostly iron and sometimes bronze.  Xenophon describes Persian cavalry wearing bronze thorakes, but doesn't explicitly describe them as scale.  A cavalry commander named Masistius is reported to have worn golden scale (presumably gilded iron, which would be protective but resist rust) under his tunic (Herodotus IX.22).  If wearing scale under the tunic was standard practice, perhaps to keep the sun off the metal, that could account for the lack of scale portrayed in period art, even among the presumably elite guards of the king in imperial reliefs.

If earlier Mesopotamian art is any indication, it's likely the Persian corslet had short or no sleeves.  Anyone looking to replicate one might look to the work done by Sean Manning.  It is a massive undertaking.

The Persians and Scythians also sometimes used Greek-style corslets.  The type has been widely known as the linothorax ("linen chest"), which is actually a term from Homer, though references to thorakes of linen exist in Classical literature.  In fact there is no clear evidence linking the style of corslet to linen construction, and a competing theory has emerged linking the style to the term spolas, indicating hide (probably leather) construction.

Some long (but worthwhile!) threads at RAT have examined the literary and artistic evidence, cost and protective qualities of quilted linen, glued linen and leather in the style.  One outcome of the discussions is that the style is increasingly referred to as a "tube-and-yoke" or T&Y corslet/cuirass, since the fact that it was made out of a tube around the body and yoke over the shoulders is the only thing that can be said for certain about it.

As for what it all means for us:  To be honest, I haven't done enough research on the experiments many reenactors have performed to recommend what the new XMFM member should use if you choose to wear a T&Y.  The tentative rule will be that you may use any material that could plausibly have existed in the period and demonstrably provides decent protective qualities.  (That is, if your corslet is no more going to save you from a spear thrust than a motorcycle jacket would, you need to go back to the drawing board.)  Keep in mind that the two options aren't mutually exclusive:  It's not impossible, given what we know, for some T&Ys to have been linen and others leather.

After the Graeco-Persian wars, the T&Y was sometimes reinforced with scale, usually around the midsection.

Upon the head
Xenophon states in the Anabasis and the Cyropaedia that the king's cavalry wore helmets, though Persians generally didn't.  A bronze helmet found at Olympia was inscribed with a claim that it had been captured from the "Medes" and is believed to be a trophy from Marathon; it's an old Near Eastern onion shape.

Others have ventured that Persians wore helmets of the Kuban type, more commonly associated with the Scythians; these are low-profile bronze caps, dipping low between the eyes and with a straight, rather high cut from the sides around the back, to which some sort of aventail may have been attached.  The low shape could conceivably allow it to be completely hidden under a tiara.

An interesting but under-publicized find is an iron helmet from Achaemenid Sardis.  Its segmented construction and large cheek guards bear a startling resemblance to those of spangenhelmen of centuries later.

Next time:  If I am not shield... 

Friday, May 18, 2012

— with an ax!

The use of battleaxes is mostly attributed to the Scythians (Herodotus VII.64), although Persians may have used them as well. At Persepolis Darius the Great's weapon carrier is seen with an ornate axe or warhammer; other peoples are shown carrying axes as tribute.  The Greek transcription of the Scythian name is sagaris (pl. sagarides).

The sagaris could have an iron or bronze head.  It was small in profile and similar to a tomahawk, although the edge sometimes flared dramatically.  It typically had a long back spike.  An iron example may be seen here (item 5273 about three-fourths of the way down).  It is 7.25 inches (18.4cm) long and the spike is curled.  Other examples exist where the blade is double-edged or the back resembles a multi-pronged warhammer.  An unusual find, replicated here, has an extraordinarily broad blade and back spike shaped like a griffin head.  Judging by period art, the haft was slim, straight and about a foot and a half to two feet long (46-61cm).  It was probably worn with the haft tucked into the belt.

Sourcing:  Manning Imperial's medium and small Amazon axe heads are probably the best-looking available, but you have to make your own haft.  Pending documentation for its use in the Achaemenid period, the Luristan type is not acceptable.  A cheaper (albeit rather bulky) option, Cold Steel's "Spike Hawk," looks like it should be acceptable once the black coating is sanded off.

I don't know enough about the physics of stage combat with an axe to make any recommendations in that area.  Most sparring axes seem to be made of foam rubber or other bulky nonmetallic materials.  The few metal ones I've seen don't look right for our period either.

Next up:  Now we all have metal skin.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How to make a scabbard

Update 12/10/13:  This post contains information that is probably incorrect.  Please see here.

10/24/13 - Please read!
Since this post appears to be getting more and more pageviews, I feel the need to update it in some way.  All the scant evidence I have subsequently gathered on akinakes scabbards indicates that the following method is NOT CORRECT for the Achaemenid period.  Please do not use it in your own replica.  See here for further information.  I am nonetheless leaving this post unaltered.

Scabbards are tedious to make, but not difficult.  If you'd like an even easier method, I'm including instructions for an all-leather sheath at the end of this article.  Pending evidence to the contrary, XMFM accepts all the following methods.  As always, check your group's guidelines before deciding what to do.

The author's rough draft Achaemenid scabbard (bottom) with tin can throat and home-cast pewter chape, and Scythian-style leather sheath (top).

For a wood-cored scabbard, cut two planks slightly wider and longer than the blade.  They may be thick, with deep hollows carved on the inside faces to fit the blade, or thin and held apart with additional strips of wood so the blade fits between (though even in this case it's better to have them a bit closer together and do a little hollowing, so the fit is snug).  File indentations at the top to seat the lobes of the sword's guard.  Glue the halves together along the edges, and sand smooth.
Two ways to make a wood core.  The first is more time-consuming.

Making a pattern for the metal throat.

(Top)  Wrap a sheet of foil or paper around the top of the core.  It should project somewhat higher so that the tab can rise higher than the actual scabbard mouth, as in the originals.
(Bottom left)  Draw the throat on, then add extra width around the tab.  This will be used to crimp around either the front or back half and hold the tab together.
(Bottom right)  Remove the wooden core, cut the throat pattern out, then cut the extra width off of either the front (if you want the back to crimp around the front and be visible) or back (if you want the crimping hidden).

Trace the pattern onto a sheet of brass or bronze and cut it out.  Add little cuts around the edge of whichever half of the tab is wider so that it will crimp neatly.

You'll probably want to cover the scabbard in leather.  Select a soft, thin leather that will be easy to wrap closely.  I use dental floss for all my leather stitching, but for this application I think ordinary thread would suffice.  Measure out at least four times as much of it as the length of the seam you're making (more may be needed if you space the stitches closely, but I've always found four times to be enough).  A double-running or Holbein stitch is easy and secure.  Wrap the leather tightly and stitch either up the back of the scabbard and then down, or down and then up - either way, the end of the seam will be protected by either the throat or chape.  Tie off the thread tightly and trim down the ends.

Some Achaemenid scabbards had a ridge visible down the front.  I don't know how this was created.  I approximated it by inserting a bamboo skewer under the leather.

Stitching up the back.

If you want a fancy scabbard, you could cover the core in embossed brass/bronze sheet instead of leather.

Wrap the metal throat around the top of the scabbard, just like the throat pattern.  Crimp the edge of the wider tab half around the smaller half and hammer the crimping down.  You may also want to sand or file to reduce the raggedness.  Punch a hole through the upper corner of the tab and set a metal grommet through the hole.

I have not found an acceptable chape on the market, but this isn't a problem if you can do home casting or there's a small-item casting studio near you - check the yellow pages or online.  Make the chape out of sculpting wax, rounding the edges and scraping the surfaces smooth.  Decorate it if you like.  Then have it cast in a metal (bronze or brass) that closely matches the metal you used for the throat.  Sand and polish, then glue it over the end of the scabbard with epoxy or other high-strength adhesive.

I have no experience with bone carving and won't try to describe the process, but if you have the skills, feel free to make a chape in bone instead.

Alternately, you can make both throat and chape out of heavy (around 8-ounce) leather.  The instructions for a leather throat are pretty much the same as for a metal one, except that you'll stitch instead of crimp the halves of the tab together, so don't make one wider than the other.  Also, when tracing the pattern onto the leather, do make the middle of the throat pattern - where the side of the finished throat opposite the tab will be - a little bit (say, a quarter inch) wider than it is on the pattern, to account for the thickness of the medium and shrinkage.  Soak the throat after cutting to be able to mold it closely to the scabbard.  Sufficiently heavy leather will require you to punch or drill the stitch holes before stitching, using an awl or very small drill bit.  You don't need to add a grommet to the tab.  The chape is also made from two halves, stitched together, soaked and stretched over the end of the scabbard.  Allow both chape and throat to dry.  They'll probably shrink and either fall off or prove easy to pull off.  Glue them back on.

Lastly, punch a hole in the weapon belt at your right hip.  Insert a leather cord through the tab grommet and tie it through the hole in the belt.  Measure out another cord and tie one end around the scabbard just above the chape, leaving two or three inches of extra cord on the forward edge of the scabbard (the same side as the throat tab) and the rest on the backward edge.  Tie the forward end into a slipknot.  Tie the backward end of the cord into a small tight knot or attach a bead.  Loop the backward length of the cord around your right thigh, then put the knot or bead through the slipknot and tighten it.

But I'm too lazy
A leather sheath can be made in just a few steps.  Draw your sheath on the flesh side of a heavy leather sheet.  Cut it out, flip it over and use it as a pattern for the other half.  Drill stitch holes, stitch the two halves together, punch a hole in the tab, add the belt and thigh cords - and you're done!  If you like, you can now decorate the front of the scabbard with tooling.

I have no documentation that sheaths were made in this manner.

Important update (Sept. 14, 2012):  See A further note on leather sheaths to avoid this project being a huge waste of time and material.

Edit:  I've noticed that I reversed the directions regarding the slipknot system when posting earlier this morning.  Just to be clear:  The slipknot is at the shorter forward end of the cord.  The bead is on the end of the cord that loops around the leg.

Next up:  You're no better than Raskolnikov—

Friday, May 11, 2012

This is a sword... that I use...

While sidearms aren't essential for reenactment, it's a good idea to have one.  At least three types of edged weapons are attributed to the ancient Persian armies.

One - which I won't elaborate on, unless and until I find out about archaeological finds - is the so-called Elamite dagger, shown in the Persepolis reliefs and on the Egyptian statue of Darius the Great.  Unfortunately I've only ever seen it in sculpture, invariably sheathed, so there's very little to tell about what it looked like.

The most well-known type associated with the Persians was called in Greek the akinakes (sometimes akenakes, unattested Persian *akinaka, Latin acinaces).  Because the word means a Persian sword, in early modern times it was taken to refer to a type of saber or scimitar, and by extension other curved swords like the katana.

In truth the Classical akinakes was a short, straight, double-edged weapon, ranging in size from a small dagger to almost as big as a gladius.  The type is closely associated with the culture of the Great Steppe; variations were used from the Ukraine to western China.  While Steppe examples could still be bronze in this period, the Persian akinakes was made of iron.  The guard was typically shaped like an upside-down heart, and the columnar grip and rounded bar pommel formed a T.  Ornate golden examples exist which differ in many aspects.

The easiest way to create an akinakes is to hilt or rehilt a dagger blade of appropriate shape.  While metal hilts are attested, XMFM will approve of the use of organic hilts.  Windlass Steelcrafts and its distributors sell a big and cheap Arkansas toothpick blade which, while perhaps too tapered, is otherwise perfect for the part.  If you can find other examples, use them; just avoid undocumented fullering patterns and ricassos.

If you have the material skills, peen the tang over a washer.  Threaded tangs are okay, but to avoid the glaring anachronism, the securing nut should be either a tang nut sunken into the pommel, or low in profile and round, or a square or hex nut ground down as much as possible.  Unground ones are okay on sparring blades, which will never be entirely realistic anway.

Sparring sword I made for Marathon 2011.  It's much smaller than it looks!  Blade from American Fencers Supply Co., whose website appears to be defunct.

Sparring blades are generally light and flexible and must have either very obtuse rounded points or rolled ones.  Some options may include Darkwood's Wide Flex, Alchem's Safeflex and Hanwei's Practical Main Gauche blade (available from many distributors).

The akinakes was worn at the right hip in an elaborate scabbard.  The chape, generally a rounded triangle, could be made of bronze, chased gold or carved ivory, and probably lots of other materials.  Just above the chape, a cord was tied around the scabbard, passed around the thigh and then through a slipknot next to the chape.  The throat had a large tab, which at its own upper corner was tied through a hole in the weapon belt.  The throat should completely cover the sword's guard, but I haven't worked out a way of doing this yet.  This is a very elegant and handy suspension system for a very small weapon.

The last type(s) of sword was the single-edged, belly-bladed sword, in various forms called a kopis or machaira.  It was Greek in origin but in Greek art often shown wielded by Persian or Scythian warriors.  It was a somewhat longer sword than the akinakes.  Its shape gave it great cutting power (indeed kopis is Greek for "cutter").  It often had a single flared shoulder, on the sharp or forward side of the blade; and normally a full-profile or slab tang and a pommel which was simply a swelling of the tang on the forward side.  The pommel might be bulbous (the grip might then be carved into a curl, like a fiddlehead), or hooked and resemble a bird's head in profile.  Some kopides had a full S-shaped crossguard.

No one, to my knowledge, makes an off-the-shelf kopis that's historically-accurate yet inexpensive.  Windlass makes a small one of dubious historicity (it would require rehilting at the very least).  Their Cobra Steel kopis is a modern interpretation and the slab tang is the wrong shape.  Windlass, Del Tin, Deepeeka and possibly others have historical falcatas in their lineup of varying accuracy, but these are Iberian-style swords which only bear the broadest resemblance to Eastern Mediterranean ones.  If you have enough money, getting a custom blade is the best option.

Next up:  How to make a scabbard.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Spear counterparts

Any soldier who wasn't armed with a bow, and some who were, would have had a spear (arštiš) or javelins.  According to Xenophon, the javelins were made of dogwood, but for your replica, any wood that works well is acceptable - ash is frequently recommended.  Herodotus notes that the Persian spears were short, at least relative to Greek ones; judging by period art, they would have been roughly 6-7 feet long (183-213cm).  The lack of reach of the arštiš relative to the 7- to 9-foot Greek doru may help account for the difficulty Persians faced in close combat with Greeks.  Ancient javelins tended to be 4-5 feet (122-152cm).  As for thickness, Legio XX (Roman, but the same principles would apply) recommends 1 to 1-1/8 inch (25-29mm) for thrusting spears and 3/4 inch (19mm) for javelins.

The spearhead was small, kite- or leaf-shaped, with a short socket and a strongly-formed mid-rib extending to the tip.  It was probably iron.  Oddly, of the many spearheads I've seen on the market, the only cheap one that answers to this description is Museum Replicas Limited's "Greek Spearhead," though it's rather too big.  If you're willing to pay more for something that looks the part, Manning Imperial sells several spearheads that appear to be small enough.  Otherwise, just get one with a bladed section less than one foot (30cm) and you'll be safe.  Avoid any with partial mid-ribs, or sockets featuring swollen rings, stepped thickness or angular cross-sections; the Achaemenid spearhead's socket was completely plain, widening gradually from the blade's mid-rib.

Speaking of safe, special spearheads will be required for combat.  These come in several forms, and different groups have different preferences:  Some prefer blunt steel with rolled or spherical points, others plastic, others foam rubber, and still others bashed-together devices of springs, tennis balls and whatnot.  The Plataeans, Hoplologia's Classical branch, will be testing various types this summer, but I don't know if Amphictyonia plans to set a league-wide standard.  In any case, XMFM won't be doing contact combat unless and until we get firsthand instructions from someone with experience.

The most distinctive part of the Persian spear was its counterweight, which was spherical, with a ring between the sphere and the socket.  It was cast bronze, with higher-status troops carrying silver or gold ones.  The sphere looks to have been about 2 inches (5cm) across.  One was found at Deve Hüyük in Syria, where T.E. Lawrence (yes, that T.E. Lawrence) excavated many weapons from Achaemenid soldiers' graves, but I've yet to find further information about it.  I'm currently looking into the possibility of using a brass ball finial for a curtain rod or similar, assuming one with a sufficiently wide socket can be found.

Next up:  It does not mean "scimitar."

Monday, May 7, 2012

Addition to the contact list

The Hoplite Association has agreed to be published here as a contact for prospective Persian empire reenactors.  They're based in the UK; mainland European applicants are welcome but must commit to attending at least one UK-based event per year.  They also offer a "try before you buy" membership if you want to start by joining for just a specific event.  I spent most of my time at Marathon 2011 in the HA's company; they provided the lead Persian reenactors there.

Friday, May 4, 2012


Classical arrowheads used by Greeks, Persians and Scythians alike were mostly cast bronze and of the broadhead type, but smaller and lighter than modern ones.  A good overview has been posted at the Hippeis forum (fifth post down).  Period-correct types are available from Neil Burridge in the UK and Manning Imperial, Australia. They are a bit pricey.  I would say that you won't be required to use these exclusively, but I'm still looking for leads on possible substitutes for target-shooting and filling up the quiver.

According to Herodotus (Hist. VII 32), Persian arrows were made of reed.  If you can obtain them, reeds need to be straightened and usually have separate wood nocks installed, although nocks may also be cut just below a node.  A guide may be found near the bottom of this page.

Reed arrows unfortunately have a reputation for breaking with repeated use, so some reenactors prefer just regular wood for target-shooting.  I suspect most commercial wood shafts are too thick, assuming that the arrowheads' outside socket diameter corresponds to shaft thickness (which it doesn't necessarily, as reed arrows often have a wooden insert between the shaft and the arrowhead).  If that's the case, we may face the added complication of selecting and spining hardware store dowels to produce lighter arrows.

Fletchings were of course natural feather.  Attach them with sinew or floss and arrow glue, wrapping down the quills so they won't stab your bow hand on release.

Stage combat
In reenacting fighting, as many steps as possible must be taken to ensure that 1)  impacts, whether from arrows, spears or swords, don't land too hard, 2)  the edge or point of any weapon is unlikely to pierce unprotected skin, and 3)  no part of the weapon is likely to break and produce metal chips or wood splinters.

Amphictyonia discussions seem to be leaning toward requiring bows under 30 pounds draw weight for combat.  Arrows need special materials.  Both tall, untrimmed feather fletchings and flu-flus (spiral-wrapped feathers) are under consideration; these will slow the arrow in flight.  Safety arrowheads are large, blunt and made of rubber.  I've only ever seen them on UK websites; most rubber arrowheads are made for killing small game.  However, I hope at some point to compile a list of manufacturers approved for our use.  Arrows are likely to be marched on or just break on impact, so for a long time some groups have required that combat arrows be wrapped in fiberglass tape, which prevents broken shafts forming splinters.  This is especially important in Classical reenacting, where many participants go barefoot.

Next up:  The other main weapon.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Persian army

It is likely that the Persian army was originally made up mainly of nobles and their immediate bandaka, in early feudal fashion.  Herodotus' famous summary of Persian education (1.136) makes sense only in the context of a military aristocracy, as does Xenophon's more detailed depiction in the Cyropaedia (1.2).  Per Herodotus, Xenophon and Strabo, the sons of nobles were required to serve in the military.  Kings and nobles took part in (and sometimes died in) fighting at the front line.

Land value was sometimes assessed according to feudal underpinnings:  In the Achaemenid Babylonian texts, royal allotments are called bīt qašti, "bow land," bīt sisī, "horse land," and bīt narkabti, "chariot land," probably referring to the valuations of land needed for the support of an archer, a horse and cavalryman, and a chariot and crew.  (Per Erich Ebeling and Bruno Meissner, Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie, most holders of these estates during the Achaemenid period were not in fact soldiers, and if they were required to provide military service, probably hired soldiers.)

The foreign service
Much of the very large armies employed at various times, such as Xerxes' invasion of Greece, consisted of levies from various subject nations.  They were dressed and armed in their native manner, but led by Persian commanders.  Briant, however, has argued that most of the national contingents at this particular gathering weren't intended as a fighting force but as an imperial review and display of power.  The contingents that Herodotus actually mentions in battle are only a handful of those who turned up.

In the late 5th and 4th centuries, large numbers of Greek mercenaries entered Persian service.  The hoplite panoply and phalanx tactic were difficult to match in head-on combat with anything other than themselves.  Xenophon decries this situation (Cyr. 8.8) as part of, in his opinion, an overall decline in the martial character of the empire.

Troop types
Such a criticism would be most sensible, of course, if the Persians had ever had a tactic for meeting the phalanx head-on.  There are hints that they may have tried to develop such a thing later:  The mysterious kardakes at the Battle of Issus are described by Arrian, ostensibly quoting Ptolemy who was a witness to he battle, as "hoplites," and modern writers have sometimes taken this to mean that they were a Persian adaptation of the Greek infantry type.  From the Alexander Sarcophagus it appears that Persians did occasionally use Argive shields.  Strabo, however, says that the kardakes were young men training for war in the king's service.  In any case, I know of no evidence of Persian hoplites in the early 5th century.

The heaviest infantry contingent at that time was the Immortals.  (I won't repeat the well-known tale of the name's origin except to say that it is disputed - Lendering has ventured that it is a confusion with a similar Persian word meaning "companions," or in other words, the king's personal army/bodyguard.)   These likely carried the full panoply described in the Histories 7.61, including scale corselets and the short akinakes sword.  Despite being, ostensibly, the best Persian soldiers, even they lacked the ability to meet a phalanx head-on, probably due to using an open-order formation and shields unsuitable for the close-order shoving that characterized the phalanx.

For the most part, the Persian army relied on a more static line infantry, light infantry and cavalry.  The line infantry were armed with spears and carried large rectangular shields, which formed a shield wall to protect large numbers of archers.  These, the spearmen and archers, were likely the largest Persian contingents in the Graeco-Persian wars.  From Greek art in the late 5th and 4th centuries Asiatics are shown with smaller crescent shields and spears or javelins.  Slingers were also known.

The cavalry were likewise light cavalry, relying on bows and javelins (which could double as short spears).  By Xenophon's day, at the earliest, they were rather heavier-armored than the typical infantry (likely because they were wealthier, or were furnished by wealthier estate-holders), and the horse also had some armor.  But they lacked stirrups, which would have allowed a proper charge in the manner of heavy cavalry.

Chariots had lost much of their tactical value in the Iron Age, when warriors started riding horses directly, but were still considered a status symbol.  Late in the 5th century, the Persians started employing scythed chariots, but these failed to have much effect at the major battles of Cunaxa and Gaugamela, as well-trained infantry could sidestep them.  Only when catching men unprepared, as in one incident during the early 390s war between Spartan king Agesilaus II and the satrap Pharnabazus of Lydia, did scythed chariots prove useful.

Persians appear to have had a liking for decimal division, per Herodotus (7.81):  The names for subdivisions are commonly given as daθabam (10, commanded by a daθapati or daθapatiš), satabam (100, satapati[š]), hazarabam (1,000, hazarapati[š]) and baivarabam (10,000, baivarapati[š]).  I have yet to track down the original sources for these terms.

Next up:  You can't use a bow without it.

Friday, April 27, 2012

I'll show you where you can stick your bow

Update 12/10/13:  This post contains information that is probably incorrect.  Please see here.

While bows could be simply carried around the shoulder, a practical method of carrying them had evolved on the Steppe consisting of a large holster with a quiver on the side.  This bowcase is referred to in Greek sources as a gorytos (pl. gorytoi, Lat. gorytus).  It lasted for hundreds of years before being replaced with the separate bowcase and quiver of Turkish and Mongol horse archers.

The Achaemenid gorytos consisted of a rectangular, presumably leather pocket worn diagonally, bottom-forward, at the left hip.  Its forward corner was rounded off.  It was probably one piece of leather, folded and stitched along the upper edge with what looks in some illustrations to be a Holbein stitch, though in others a separate creased strip runs along the top edge which I am not sure how to interpret.  The strung bow rested in the case staff-down, and the curved corner follows the curve of the bow's tip.  This left the bottom corner of the gorytos empty.  A good overview may be seen here (second from the bottom on the left).

Another image of the gorytos showing (what I believe to be) a Holbein stitch.

It was attached to the belt by a thong that was held down with rivets to the sides.  If that sounds hard to understand, it's because it is.  Below I'll discuss a possible method.  The belt attachment is shown to have been more than halfway down from the tip of the bow.  I've found that it should be less than halfway down for the case to hang at the correct angle - the fact that art shows otherwise is again probably due to the artistic convention of showing the bow as smaller than it was.  For the same reason, the cover (below) was shown as making up more than half the case's visible length when the case was assembled; it actually makes up less than half.

The arrow pocket was presumably on the side of the case facing the wearer and thus invisible in most processionary art.  When the bow had been removed for combat, the case could be rotated so the fletched ends of the arrows pointed forward and were within reach of the right hand.
A simple plan for the main section.

Stitching is never visible on the cover, but I am working on the assumption that its construction was the same as the case itself.

Making your own
The gorytos is one piece of equipment you will have to make yourself (or have custom-made).  There are simply no readymade replicas available on the market that I've ever seen.

Constructing one is tedious but straightforward.  Use heavy (around eight-ounce/3mm) leather.  Cut the main piece about 2/3 the length and six inches (15cm) more than twice the width of your bow.  Cut the cover quite a bit wider - say, four inches - in the areas where it will slide over the case.  I seamed the cover of mine on the bottom edge - the opposite side from the case's seam - since the cover is more-or-less straight on the top edge.  Now cut out and position a third piece to form the arrow pocket.  It should be more than half the length of your arrows and must be several inches from the cover when the cover is in place so you aren't forced to jam the cover down over the arrows.

Lightly moisten a line down the middle of the case and cover pieces, on the flesh side.  Fold them, smooth side out, and place weight on top so they'll dry in the right shape.

Make stitch holes with an awl, leather punch or small drill bit as the thickness and hardness of your leather requires.  Using heavy sinew or string (about four times the length of the seam), first stitch on the arrow pocket and then close the bowcase and cover seams.

Belt attachment
My own solution to this problem was to rivet down a piece of leather through which a leather lace is threaded.

The forward side of the lace attachment.

The holes for the lace are punched into the intermediary leather piece first.  Then the bottom three rivets  - solid ones with washers - attach the intermediary to the unstitched case below the line of stitch holes, being hammered down on the inside of the case, and the lace is threaded through the intermediary.  After the case is sewn, the upper two rivets are installed; these are longer rivets that go all the way through the case above the stitching.

On the back.

It doesn't look good, but with larger, domed rivets covering most of the intermediary piece, it would probably look something like the originals.

It won't fit there
If you bowcase or cover are too tight for the bow, you can expand them by dampening and filling them with various objects, such as wooden boards and dowels, wherever they need to loosen so the bow can be removed easily when you go to shoot.  Don't use loose matter (the way you would expand a leather water bottle with grain or sand); you don't want the case to bloat like a balloon, but simply to expand in the necessary places while maintaining its shape.  I recommend doing this especially for the top end of the cover, where the curved tip of the bow fits rather snugly.

It's also essential for the arrow pocket to hold the arrows loosely (including large blunt safety arrows) so you can draw them fast.  Put a board (a large book works okay if you're careful not to make the arrow pocket too wet) into the bowcase to hold it taught, then fill the pocket with dowels, wiffle bats, just about anything to give it a full shape, filling in as evenly as possible to prevent lumps.  Let the leather dry completely before removing the objects.

The gorytos is a very convenient system for carrying and using your bow and arrows, as yours truly demonstrates.
1st row, L-R:  From walking position, swing the gorytos around, pull off the cover with your arrow hand and lift the bow out with your bow hand.
2nd row:  Remove the arrows with your arrow hand and notch.
Photos taken by Ashley Holt of the Hoplite Association.

Next up:  The Persian army.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

If you're in the Philly area on May 16, John Trikeriotis will be presenting a lecture, "300 Revisited: Fact and fiction in Hollywood’s depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae" at Drexel.  Members of The Hellenic Warriors will be there.

A drink before we decide

We have neither recipes nor detailed descriptions of the foods eaten in Achaemenid Persia, but we do know a lot about the ingredients available and something of what was made from them.  Common foods distributed according to the Persepolis tablets include barley, wheat, beer, sheep and goats.  Wheat flour was made into bread, doubtless similar to modern flatbreads (nan), and the Greeks speak of Persian cakes or pastries.  Fruits and nuts native to the area include figs, dates, pistachios and walnuts.  According to Herotodus, meals were generally light and followed with many desserts.

He also notes that at birthday parties, it was customary to serve whole roasted beasts:  oxen, horses, camels or donkeys if one could afford it, or otherwise small cattle.  Royalty and nobles enjoyed hunting, both in the wilderness and in royal paradises (parks), by which they also trained for war.  Pierre Briant notes that Persians seem to have eaten more meat than Greeks.

The ancient Mediterranean was wine country, and Persia was no exception.  Wine remained important in Persian culture even after Islamification, right up until the IRI banned it.  Herodotus claims that Persians would deliberate on important issues while drunk, then reconsider the decision while sober; if they were sober when they first considered the problem, they reconsidered it while drunk.  (Jona Lendering suggests that this is in fact a misinterpretation of the haoma ceremony.)  While the Middle East is best-known for grape wine, 2nd-century military author Polyaenus in Strategems wrote that half the wine consumed at the king's table in Babylon and Susa was palm wine.  Wine and beer were considered important sources of nutrition; kurtaš women who had just given birth were given extra rations of one or the other.

No one may vomit or urinate in another's presence: this is prohibited among them.
- Herodotus, I.133

The royalty ate very richly, as attested both by the brief entries of the Persepolis tablets, where large amounts of animals, flour, oil and wine are sent wherever a member of the family travels, and the lavish descriptions of Greek writers like Polyaenus, who provides several vertigo-inducing pages of livestock, game, waterfowl, veggies, fruit and nuts, oils, herbs and dairy products described as "the Great King's lunch and dinner."

Food at reenactment camps takes quite a bit of work simply because of the numbers of people being fed.  At the Marathon 2011 camp dinners, grills were set up on the beach well away from the treeline.  Arrangements for keeping meat cold (or allowing the time to buy it right before cooking) and having enough water for washing and drinking have to be made ahead well ahead of time.  In order to be served fresh, vegetables were trimmed by hand shortly before.  The upshot of this is that most of the food has to be kept pretty simple.

Next up:  The case for bows.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Book of the Bow

Two basic types of bows are attested.  Both are short and have recurved tips (the tips bend away from the archer), but one is otherwise a simple curve while the other dips back toward the string in the middle, giving it a shape like a B.  I think the first type is West Asian in derivation, since it looks like bows carried by earlier Assyrians.  The latter type is a Great Steppe style, essentially the same as those of the Scythians. It's the more common one overall in art from our period.

In essence, a recurve bow is already partly bent (drawn) just by being strung.  The added tension on the string means a recurve can hurl an arrow with greater force than a non-recurve bow of the same length and stiffness.  It's a logical choice for horseback archery like the Persians and Central Asians used, where a longbow would be more awkward.  Because tree limbs don't grow in the right shape for recurves, ancient ones were just about always composites of various materials (traditionally wood, animal horn and sinew) laminated with glue.  Recurves of traditional materials are still available for the right price.  Most budget-priced ones are made of fiberglass sheathed in leather, which works fine.

In period art, bows are shown as being extremely short, perhaps 30 inches (~76cm) when strung.  I believe this is due to artistic convention; archaeological finds show that they were at least half again longer than that.

As always, check your group's regulations when selecting a bow.  My own is a Grozer Old Scythian, a popular model among reenactors.  Judging by their photos, Grozer's higher-end biocomposite Scythian may be a more historically-accurate shape.  I've also heard positive reviews of Saluki Bow.

A few tips on use
I won't try to explain how to string a bow in words; any old video clip will be infinitely clearer.

Never snap a bowstring without an arrow notched ("dry firing").  The arrow is needed to absorb the energy of the string being released; without it, that energy will reverberate through the bow itself and possibly damage it.  Even if cracks aren't visible, small internal cracks can cause the bow to break when drawn - and a bow breaking at draw can be a violent thing.

We don't wear bracers or gloves in costume, and replica bows won't have arrow rests.  So adjust your grip so your forearm isn't hit by the string and the arrow's fletching only strikes your thumb and not the web (the skin between your thumb and index finger); strikes to the web are much more painful and can cause bleeding.

There's a discussion going on at Amphictyonia at this very moment on how to keep stage combat archery safe.

Next up:  I'm hungry.

Monday, April 16, 2012

XMFM is now on Facebook.

On slavery

I can think of few subjects more touchy or more widely misunderstood than that of slavery in the Persian empire.  On the one hand is the Classical belief that all the Great King's subjects were basically slaves.  On the other is the widespread myth that slavery simply didn't exist either in Persia or any of its subject lands.

The first idea stems from Greek writers, and is likely a rhetorical device.  The Greeks, particularly democrats like the Athenians, were ill-disposed toward absolute monarchies, where the Great King had the power to put to death even high nobles on the mere suspicion of disloyalty (as befell Intaphrenes).  Furthermore, in the Greek national discourse, the weak and submissive nature of the barbarians contrasted with the manly and free-spirited Greeks.  Pierre Briant has also suggested that Greek translators rendered bandaka (approximately "bonded"; in fact it shares the same PIE root) as doulos, "slave," when the word could just as easily mean "servant" or "subject" (it is used in the Behistun inscription to refer both to Darius' generals and to imperial territories).  Thus, in Greek discourse, the imperial subjects were like slaves in status and may have been (mis)understood to actually be slaves in name.

The second myth has much more recent roots; in fact, much of the responsibility for it rests on the last king of Iran, Mohammad Rezā Pahlavī (1919-1980).  Mohammad Rezā envisioned a secular, socially reformist Iran and saw the empire of Cyrus the Great as an historical precursor to his own.  It was his government that referred to the Cyrus Cylinder as a "declaration of human rights."  A false translation was published and remains widely circulated which has the Great King proclaim, among other things, emancipation for all slaves and religious freedom for all subjects.  In truth the Cylinder makes no such sweeping statements, though it does speak of ending a corvée that Nabonidus supposedly placed on Babylon's citizens.

Babylonian commercial tablets from the early Achaemenid period confirm that slaves were still owned and traded, including by the king.  Indeed, a sales tax on them was instituted during Darius' reign.  Babylonian slave deeds also record a legal stricture against the selling of free citizens.  There are indications that some peasants were bound to their villages and protected against being sold; in other words, serfs, neither slaves (moveable property) nor really free, since a body of workers was essential to the value of the land.  Muhammad A. Dandamayev (Encyclopaedia Iranica) sums up the extent of slavery thusly:

On the whole, there was only a small number of slaves in relation to the number of free persons...  .  The basis of agriculture was the labor of free farmers and tenants and in handicrafts the labor of free artisans, whose occupation was usually inherited within the family, likewise predominated.

The other institution which may fall under slavery (by modern standards) was a class of workers known in Elamite as kurtaš, possibly from an Old Persian root *gṛda, believed to mean "household slave" (Iranica).  They originated from all over the empire and worked in large numbers constructing Persepolis, assembling armor and other skilled crafts, herding royal livestock, and serving on private estates.  They were mostly compensated in rations, but sometimes in silver (which Briant theorizes wasn't literally silver, but credit to be used in a truck system) or even land rentals.  They could (at least sometimes) own property.  Unfortunately, none of these facts clearly define the kurtaš's legal status.

It's likely many kurtaš were prisoners of war, the populations we read of in Greek histories (the Eretrians being one of many examples) who were taken from their homes and resettled elsewhere in the empire.  In the case of involuntary movements of kurtaš groups, as Briant puts it, "this was a situation much closer to slavery than the 'helot' type of rural dependency..."  Dandamayev, however, concludes that the kurtaš also comprised "a few free people who worked voluntarily for wages, and some individuals who were temporarily working off their labor service."

A note:  Most of From Cyrus to Alexander may be found and searched at Google Books.

Next up:  First in the arms series, the bow.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Cloaked in mystery

Persians didn't wear cloaks as we know them from Greek and other European costumes, or even those of Asian peoples subject to the Persians, such as the Cappadocians.  Instead, an adaptation of the overcoat was worn with the cavalry costume, with the sleeves loose as if it were a cloak.  This garment is consistently portrayed from Persepolis all the way down to the Alexander Sarcophagus over a century and a half later.  The Greeks referred to it as a kandys (pl. kandyes).

It had a straight hem falling almost to the ankle, and a broad border around the neck and front edges.  It must have been secured by being tied at the neck with a band or pinned to the shoulders of the tunic.  The ends of the sleeves sometimes appear to have had mitten-like hand covers, or otherwise just broad cuffs.  Xenophon claims the sleeves were only used in the presence of the king, since they were so long as to prevent the wearer from using his hands (presumably as a way of preventing assassination attempts).  However, it can likewise be presumed that the kandys evolved from a functional coat, and may have been worn as such in cold weather.  According to Margaret Miller (Athens and Persia in the 5th Century BC), it was generally made of leather and trimmed with fur.

Out of all the figures in cavalry costume at Persepolis, only a few of them wear the kandys.  Thus it was probably something of a status item, not an essential part of the ensemble, and XMFM won't require anyone to have or wear one.  I would, however, encourage anyone who has the wherewithal to try making one.

Next up:  slaves in the Persian empire.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


After examining the images at Nirupars - and keeping in mind that all my conclusions are tentative and must change come further, unforeseen evidence (but that's how it always goes) - here's what I now believe:

Medes and Persians at war at the turn of the 5th century BC wore two belts, at the same time.  One was to cinch the shirt around the waist.  It was probably fabric, and was tied in front with a square knot, leaving the ends hanging.  On top of it was worn the weapons belt, to which the bowcase and sword were attached.  It was probably heavy-grade leather because of the weight it had to support.  It was slightly looser-fitting than the first belt, and fastened in front with a round or flower-shaped button; the inability to precisely adjust the button's fit accounts for its looseness.  The button could have been metal, hardened leather or other suitable material - I think that bronze is a likely material.  Perhaps a screw back concho or even a drawer knob, if it's not too thick and heavy, could make an acceptable substitute.  This belt's ends were much shorter and didn't hang.  The two belts were the same width and could have rounded or pointed ends.

Closeups of several of Darius' guards (fourth and fifth pictures here) show them wearing headdresses which might be taken as shorter versions of the tall hats worn by the king himself and other Persians in court dress.  The short hats were open on top because the tops of the men's heads, with hair, can be seen in the middle.  If these were indeed the same as the tall hats, then those "hats" are more like crowns.  While a flat top is visible on the tall hat if viewed from above, it may not mean anything since it's unavoidable when carving such a garment in shallow relief.  This gallery also provides plenty of further examples of soldiers in court dress wearing twisted headbands instead of hats.

Consider for your reenactment large, plain hoop earrings, which were apparently very common.  Most soldiers also wear loops around their necks; these may be torcs, but if so they appear to be wearing them backward, so I won't venture a conclusion here.