Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A reprieve for painted leathers?

So, I'm now reading that Native Americans have been painting soft brain-tanned leathers since before the introduction of modern acrylic paints, by either rubbing dry pigment directly into the surface or by using a thin hide glue solution as the medium

Powder Paint:  Preparation & Application

The fact that I've often remarked on that brain-tanning is a subtype of fat-curing and that Old World curing techniques might (at least on paper) had produced similar results, reopens the possibility that similar decoration methods could be used on gorytoi and other leather accoutrements in the Achaemenid period.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Revised recommendations on leather goods

Based on my last post regarding the unlikelihood of vegetable-tanned leather in Achaemenid times, here is what I've come up with for leather goods:

Personally I would accept brain-tan or the nearest affordable equivalent as a substitute for other fat-cured leathers.  The nearest affordable equivalent may include chrome-tanned "buckskin" or glove-tanned if it's of similar physical properties, but, as always, check your group's authenticity standards before buying.  I advise against suede or roughout (which are harder to clean; additionally, I believe machine splits are a 19th-century development) and, obviously, anything with an overtly unnatural finish.

I consider rawhide a given for any period.  Also, if you already have pieces of kit in veg-tan that you've sunk a lot of money and work into, my feeling is keep them.  Again, ask your group's leaders.

Archaeological finds have indicated that they were made of soft leather supported with a wood spine or frame.  So use fat-cured or equivalent.  I imagine the type seen at Persepolis and frequently on Greek pottery, with a straight bottom and curved upper edge - the standard for Persian soldiers in our period - had a curved wooden spine sewn into the upper edge.  This also means that the floppy-looking fringe seen hanging from gorytoi in Greek battle art may in fact be the same fitted cover seen at Persepolis; it is attached to the gorytos at the top edge, or just draped over it during battle.

Using soft leather also makes it unlikely that they were painted, unless the ancients had some method of painting dye directly onto the leather which I have been unable to discover (painting dye is a real technique but I'm told it's a modern one).  The crenellated borders shown in Greek art would probably have to be appliqued in a contrasting leather or fabric, which is done most easily before the main seam is closed.

Wood, or some other hard, solid block of material carved to shape (as in the ivory one from Takht-i Sangin).  The akinakes scabbard is attested as having been covered in embossed sheet metal.  Otherwise, plain wood will make a good surface for carving.  I could also imagine that a facing of glued fabric or parchment (thin rawhide) was used to add strength.  All these materials will accept paint better than cured/tanned leather, too.  Possibly, lighter sheaths (as for belt knives) were rawhide, maybe with a soft leather or fabric cover.

Shields of stick-and-hide construction, like the crescent ("taka") and pavise ("spara"), should almost certainly be rawhide, which resists puncture and cutting better than leather and which was used in the Dura-Europos shields that share the same construction method.  I have heard it suggested to paint a thin layer of wax on top of the finished shield to prevent water absorption.

The Persepolis reliefs and Alexander Sarcophagus seem to disagree about the presence of separate soles on the ankle-strapped shoes.  It may be that both interpretations are correct:  Again, I am reminded of these shoes' resemblance to Plains moccasins, which were produced both with integral (soft) and separate soles.  Separate soles may have been soft leather or hard rawhide.  The lack of additional soles on the shoes at Persepolis may explain why it was desirable to have a band running under the middle of the shoe, for arch support.  In this use I'd be willing to accept veg-tanned leather for rawhide for expediency.

Ankle straps were fairly wide, and were likely soft leather thongs.  I believe the greater width compared to modern leather laces was necessary because the latter are made of a firmer material (albeit not "rawhide" as they are often labeled; real rawhide is too stiff for shoelaces).

Herodotus mentions Persians as having leather clothing (I.72) and this is plausible if it is a very soft buckskin-like material, though I believe that the assertion that leather made up all or even the majority of their clothing in Cyrus' day is an exaggeration; they had, after all, been settled in old Elam for several centuries and raised plenty of sheep.  So I still recommend fabric first.  Bags and pockets may also be either fabric or soft leather.

In the absence of moldable leather, drink containers should either be soft (like wineskins) or ceramic.  Most of the clay canteens from Persepolis were flattened spheres with short necks, essentially like modern ones, even sometimes having cord ears (see OIP 69); those without ears could be carried in bags.  I'm open to the possibility of gourd or wooden canteens, but won't actually recommend them until seeing some evidence.

There is only one item which I haven't found a solution for yet:  the weapon belt.  Because it has to support the weight of a fully-loaded bowcase, it must be a firm material with little stretch, so fat-cured leather would seem a bad choice, but it also has to flex to be worn like a belt, so rawhide doesn't look like a great idea either.  In lieu of good evidence about what they were actually made of, I must continue to recommend veg-tan for this use alone.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A scabbard from Takht-i Sangin

Takht-i Sangin is the archaeological site of a Graeco-Bactrian town in southern Tajikistan, excavated in 1976.  At the center of the settlement was a temple which was apparently used for both Greek and native Mazdaist sacraments, and contained a hoard of temple offerings.  It is believed by some to be the origin of the Oxus Treasure.

Among the temple hoard was a scabbard, believed to date from the Achaemenid period.  It is of the typical Medo-Persian akinakes type, with a distinct chape (which I think is still a contiguous piece with the scabbard, as on the wooden one from Egypt) and "bellied" belt tab.  What makes it different from other finds is that it's made of solid ivory, deeply carved across its entire surface with a relief of a lion clutching a deer.  It also has a patterned border and the chape features the classic curled goat motif.

This may be going out on a limb here, but I think this find could perhaps justify including relief carvings on wooden scabbards for our period.  Even if the ivory scabbard is entirely ceremonial, I know of no reason that such techniques could not be applied to functional items; generally speaking, ancient people liked their military gear to be as gaudy as they could afford.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ancient leather: a retraction, and a revision

Many times on this blog I've talked about the excellence of vegetable-tanned leather for applications ranging from shoe soles and water bottles to scabbards and bowcases.

Unfortunately, my more recent investigations have led to more recent scholarship that calls into question the existence of vegetable-tanned leather during our period.  According to Carol van Driel-Murray ("Leatherwork and Skin Products"), the supposed references to "oak galls" in Mesopotamian literature probably instead refer to madder, meaning the processes described are not tanning but dyeing.  The earliest unambiguous references to vegetable-tanning are found in late Classical Greek literature, whereas "the usual method of dealing with skins in Antiquity" was fat-curing.

Fat-curing is a process whereby emulsified fats are added to a wet hide, which is then kneaded until dry.  Sound familiar?    Brain-tanning is a subtype, and although Classical fat-curing more often used oil or lard, the result was apparently similar; Todd Feinman has described it to me as "very soft like Chamois leather."  The process is attested in sources from Pharaonic Egyptian art to the Iliad.

Where does this leave us?  Well, without clear evidence of vegetable-tanning in the Achaemenid empire, the hide products available to us are very soft fat-cured, brain-tanned or imitation buckskin leathers, or rawhide.  Obviously this will require a revision of how we go about making a lot of kit.  In the next few weeks I'll go over some specific items and how they should probably be made.