Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Battle of Talisca

I've always found it a bit unfortunate that much of the attention media and even reenactors pay to the Graeco-Persian Wars have been focused on only half a dozen major battles:  Marathon, Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis, Plataea and Mycale.  While a broad understanding of the events leading up to Darius' invasion can be found in the pages of pop history books like Persian Fire, for many writers the wars seem to come to an abrupt end with the defeat of Xerxes' invasion of mainland Greece.  Even the period of 490-479 BCE saw multiple sieges and battles at Naxos, Eretria, Karystos, Talisca, Potidaea and Olynthus.  Herodotus covered the wars up to the siege of Sestos; the next year, the Peloponnesians and Athenians sailed as far away as Byzantium and Cyprus.  The Wars of the Delian League stretched on into the middle of the fifth century and went even farther afield, winding down with the Greeks' failed invasion of Egypt, which many historians mark as the actual end of the Graeco-Persian Wars proper.  Why exactly so much of the history hasn't held so much fascination for the rest of us isn't totally clear to me.  I suppose part of it has to do with most of the major battles being seen as "turning points," but that's not even true for all of them, like Artemisium.

The Battle of Talisca is one of my favorites.  It took place almost as far from Greece as the Siege of Memphis two decades later.  It was an aberration:  Both armies were isolated, far out of their element, and almost certainly neither actually wanted to fight in a region which neither the Greeks nor Persians ever tried to invade, but I find it all the more interesting because of that.  Our chief period source on it is Eurypylus of Miletus (449-394 BCE) who wrote Historia tou Europas ("Inquiries about Europe," or "History of Europe") in or around 415.  There is, however, a possible corroboration to be found among the Persepolis Fortification Archive.

According to Eurypylus, after the Battle of Salamis, several Greek and Persian ships were driven northward by a storm up the western coasts of Greece.  Their crews beached them on the northern Adriatic shores and disembarked in search of food and directions.  The Persians, learning of the Greeks' presence, pursued them, or possibly it was the other way around.  Alternately, the two groups ran into each other through blind chance after trying to avoid each other for as long as possible.  In any event, they had wandered deep into Europe by the time they finally met in the highlands of what is now Provincia, populated at the time by the Paraseticae.

The Paraseticae were an Indo-European people speaking a language possibly related to Celtic, Illyrian or Germanic.  They were an impoverished tribe who subsisted on small farming, herding (mainly of sheep and goats, with small numbers of cattle), and stealing things from their lowland neighbors.  Nonetheless the "prince" or chief of the Paraseticae, Golbrantes, sent messengers to two villages telling them to welcome the invaders separately.  Eurypylus thinks that Golbrantes had the idea of getting the two armies to fight to the death and then pillaging the dead, but it didn't exactly turn out that way.

War was not the Paraseticae's strong suite.  The nearest thing they had to armies were sort of like parties of land-Vikings, but more poorly equipped.  They relied on dashing in and overwhelming isolated herders or homesteads, grabbing loot and fleeing back into the highlands while doing as little fighting as possible, and robbing travelers.  On top of being too disorganized and few in number to form armies with any clout, one of the most important factors in their inability to wage war was noted by Eurypylus and even Roman writers hundreds of years later to be their limited supply of decent timber trees.  The most common tree in Provincia is the so-called brittle oak, whose wood disintegrates when dry and today is a common component of pulp for toilet paper.  Most useable wood was used up for looms, tool handles, certain structural parts of houses (other components were made of mud or stone, with thatched roofs), and other places where nothing else would work.  As a result their spears were small, thrown javelins were rare because of the risk of breakage and loss, edged weapons usually had grips of bone or horn, and most shields were either hide or woven grass - even wicker or Asian pseudo-wicker are unachievable without a decent resilient wood.

Archaeological finds show one thing the Paraseticae had which other peoples in the vicinity lacked:  vegetable-tanned leather.  It was probably made with the country's plentiful supply of brittle oak galls and bark saved as a byproduct of firewood and charcoal.  (They also made cookies and dessert porridge with "barley honey," as Eurypylus calls it, produced by the same mashing process as was used to make beer - in other words, malt syrup.)  I tooled this belt with Hallstatt-type motifs and finished it with oil and beeswax; no dye is necessary.  Belts were said to be laced rather than buckled; Professor Cabrioletta suggested the method you see above.

The Paraseticae didn't have a whole lot of metal, either.  The largest edged weapons ever excavated from the period are less than 20 inches overall, and no spearheads exceeding the size of a large javelin have been found that aren't of obviously foreign construction.  It's possible that relatively wealthy headmen would have been able to equip themselves with looted arms (Provincia borders on areas of the late Hallstatt and La Tene cultures) but the average raider - terms like "soldier" or even "warrior" are not justifiable here - would've been underequipped by the standards of the poorest Greek or Roman skirmisher.  No evidence of archery has ever been found in Provincia pre-dating the late Roman period.

There are two main types and five subtypes of knives known from the early Iron Age of Provincia.  Type I had a ring pommel resembling the kind used by neighboring La Tene Celts.  Type Ia tended to be slightly larger with a full-profile tang and bone or horn grips, while type Ib had a narrower, thicker tang with no rivet holes and likely would've been wound with cord or leather as a grip.  The larger types are probably derived from Hallstatt long knives.  Archaeologist Mariul DiMentato dubbed these "fighting knives," though he acknowledged that type IIa was likely mainly intended as a butcher knife and machete, while still able to function as a sidearm for commoners.  The much rarer type IIb has a longer, proportionally narrower blade reminiscent of a Khyber knife, and is more likely a true combat weapon, with a thickened spine often exceeding 8mm.  It includes the most elaborate and one of the largest knives, the "Vicito sword," which has, unusually, a bronze guard.  With the flowing lines of its decorative carving, it dates from somewhat later - perhaps around the turn of the fourth century, by which point the Paraseticae had begun absorbing elements of the more graceful La Tene style.  Not pictured:  the type IIc, a long thin-bladed knife possibly used for filleting and deboning.  Illustrations from DiMentato's "Cultri in Ata di Ferro in Provincia," 1957.

Atlanta Cutlery sells a large "companion" blade which is quite similar to the DiMentato type I.  I wanted to give mine bone grips, but I find bone in many ways too irritating to work with:  difficult to find in sufficiently large pieces, prone to chipping unless worked slowly, and producing a lingering stench when ground, along with dust which is dangerous to inhale.  Instead I used castelo boxwood for a similar pale color.

Hilt carvings throughout the period were highlighted with ochre and/or bone char.  The carvings are functional - they make the knife much easier to grip when performing a slashing blow.  I also ground a simple ring-pommel knife out of mild steel, with poplar grips.  The paint on both hilts is simple red ochre and linseed oil, which dries quite hard.  The spear is a forged small spear/javelin head from Lord of Battles, via Kult of Athena, mounted on a four-foot rake handle from Ace that I sanded and refinished with linseed oil.  The handle is attached to the shield by grinding it flat on the ends so that it won't rotate, and adding small grooves that the waxed hemp cord is lashed around.  Just two grooves are needed at each end.

Still, both the Persians and Greeks managed to recruit a number of native allies or mercenaries, mostly overenthusiastic young people who failed to understand Golbrantes' plan.  Guided by the chief's messengers, the two armies converged near the main village Talisca (Taliske), near modern Capotina, around October 13 or 14, 480.  Their scouts reported the enemy ahead, with the Persians in the north (or west) and Greeks in the south (or east).  That night, several raiding parties avoided each other and snuck into the oppositions' camps.  The Persians managed to return unnoticed, carrying off the Athenian captain Apollodorus' favorite blanket.  The Greek sortie managed to get as far as smashing some wine bottles that the Persian captain Mithraphernes of Hyrcania had been hoarding for himself.  The sound alerted some sentries, but in the dark the javelineers failed to hit the fleeing hoplites.
Eurypylus says that the Paraseticae used small shields of woven grass or leather, without porpakes, and their "princes" had shields with bronze bosses.  In high-status graves, the bosses and pins are the only parts of shields that remain even when iron spearheads and knives are also found, indicating that the shields were otherwise wholly organic.  The grass shields were exceedingly ineffective.  Pictured:  Pottery painting showing one raider TK'ing another while their leader is astounded by a dancing woodwose, or something like that.  Let's face it, these people were crazy.  Scan from Le Parasetici (1994) by Petrul Beolos.

My attempt at a leather shield has been at a standstill since I've been unable to mold the dome high enough to fill the metal boss.  As such, I've left the leather pinned to its wooden mold, which has loops of rope nailed and glued on to form the ridges.  I forged the boss from 14-gauge jeweler's brass.  BCCC lab tech Nick Hesson shaped a wooden grip for me (no bone or metal ones have ever been found in association with shield bosses) and I hand-cut some washers with the intention of setting the grips with long copper rivets.

The next morning the two armies went ahead and fought just east (or north) of Talisca.  Again, both groups were out of their element.  Talisca itself was well-defended behind a narrow, fortified pass, so neither force attempted to lodge themselves inside the village, but the uneven and thickly forested ground hindered the hoplites as well as the Persian archers and Phoenician javelineers, while the Paraseticae mercenaries mostly just attacked each other.  After fighting all morning with few casualties and no one managing to hold ground, the two groups withdrew to their camps.

No wheel-thrown pottery has been found that appears to have made in Provincia until the Medieval period.  The vast majority was pinched, coiled or slab-built.  This bowl was made for me by Deb Dayhoff of Earth2Table.  It's glazed only on the inside; pottery at this time was normally burnished to make it a bit more watertight, rather than glazed, but only glazing meets modern food safety standards.  The horn spoon is from Crazy Crow Trading Post.

Bone-beaded fibulae and necklace with waxed hemp cord, and pieced leather bag made of thin buckskin as a substitute for goat and sheep leather.

At this time one of Mithraphernes' personal retainers, an archer named Aricaspes, convinced him that a mutual retreat would be in their best interests.  The opposing captains secretly met in the forest nearer to Talisca and worked out routes back to the Adriatic coast that would avoid their forces crossing paths again.  Apollodorus returned to the Peloponnese by the middle of November.  Eurypylus says nothing more of the Persian forces, but it's interesting to note that one of the Persepolis administrative tablets, dating to the tenth regnal year of Xerxes (i.e. 477 BCE), is signed by an Arikaašba of Mirkaniya (the Elamite name for Hyrcania).  It's possible that this is actually the archer Aricaspes, having returned home and taken up, or more likely resumed, a job as a bureaucrat at Mithraphernes' estate in Hyrcania.  Certainly *Arikaspa would be an unusual, though obviously Iranian, name; it appears to mean "whose horse(s) is evil" or simply "bad horse."

(left)  My reconstruction of a Paraseticae raider.  (right)  Seal of Arikaašba.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Iranian trousers overview at Book and Sword

Sean Manning yesterday published a look at period trousers geared especially for reenactors who plan to attend Plataea 2021.  It's as comprehensive an article as I've seen and includes details on Chehrabad Salt Man 4's pants, which date to the Achaemenid period and a mere 75-100 years after Plataea.  Sean's recommendations on how you'll want to construct your trousers are bit more specific than mine have been to date.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Product review: Crazy Crow bag

Last year, RAT member Ivor (Crispianus) alerted me to the book Leatherwork from Elephantine (Aswan, Egypt):  Analysis and Catalogue of the Ancient Egyptian & Persian Leather Finds.  Among other useful information, you can see on page 102 (104 of the PDF) an Achaemenid-period bag in the form of a cylinder with a circular bottom and drawstring top.  While it may or may not be Persian, it at least gives solid evidence for a kind of purse or pocket that was carried during our time and within the borders of the empire.

A reenactor needs a small bag that can be kept on one's person for holding phones, money and other possessions that are best not left unattended around camp.  This bag is just about appropriate for that purpose.  It should be easy enough to make a replica should you have the time to do so, but similar bags already exist for the reenactment market.

One that caught my eye earlier this year is marketed by Crazy Crow Trading Post:  the large ball bag.  (British readers may pause to finish laughing before reading on.)  Its basic structure and even its size are similar to the Elephantine find:  6-1/2 by 4 inches (165 by 102mm) versus the Egyptian bag's 140 by 95mm.  The Egyptian bag is sewn with linen.  Its leather wasn't tested for tanning technique, but it has the color of and somewhat looks like smoked wet-scrape braintan.  The Crazy Crow bag is most likely made of a chrome-tanned cowhide split, dyed to resemble smoked braintan.  I have no idea what the stitching is made of.

There are some minor construction differences:  The Egyptian bag has two side seams where the Crazy Crow bag has only one, with thin folded rands on one side seam and around the bottom seam which the Crazy Crow one lacks entirely.  The Egyptian one also has a pattern of punched holes near the top, which could of course be added to a commercial bag after purchase if you have a small awl.

In person, the Crazy Crow bag is made of medium-weight suede, rich golden (a color that can be achieved by smoking undyed leather), with a much shaggier surface than would be produced by wet scraping.  The long drawstring is made of the same leather, which is thankfully not very stretchy.  Note that the catalogue description implies that these bags are made of various leathers - I expect they use whatever they have on hand that works - so the exact weight, color and texture will probably vary somewhat from one batch to the next while still fitting the general description of moccasin-weight cow suede.

As for practical use, I selected and borrowed some items that you might want to keep close to you at an event:  a 5-3/4 by 2-7/8 inch (147 by 73mm) smart phone, wallet, coin purse holding a few emergency medicines, roll of 10 bills and key ring with various mechanical and electronic keys.

The answer:  just about.  The drawstring almost entirely hides the top of the phone.  You would probably also be able to cram a passport in there.

Conclusion:  This isn't a top-of-the-line item, but it will certainly do if you're pressed for time to construct one that's a little more authentic. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

Cold-dyeing with madder root, part III and last

On July 3 I put the chamois in the dyebath with several rocks to keep it all underwater.  After just over a day, it was already showing heavy, but uneven, staining.

I took it out, swished it around and rearranged it every day for the next four days, toward the end of which it seemed not to be taking on any more color.  After that, fears that it may have eventually started to putrefy drove me to take it out.  The initial plan was to let it dry, rinse out any unfixed dye and bits of madder root, and put it back in the bath if the color wasn't satisfactory.

The chamois after drying but before rinsing.

I rinsed in about half a dozen laundry room sinkfuls of cold water without soap or detergent (per the advice of RAT members).  After several rinses, the color of the water began to redden less, but lots of leather fibers started slipping.

Both after the initial dyebath and after the rinsing, I pressed as much water as I could out of the leather, then draped it over a box fan on low to dry, kneading and rearranging it every half hour to keep it soft.

The finished chamois is noticeably lighter and duller than before rinsing, though not quite as bad as it looks here (it actually has a bit more yellow than you see).  Interestingly it seems that most of the slipped fibers during the rinse came from the shaggier side, which I take to be the flesh side.  It's now much smoother and more washed-out in color than the shorter-napped side pictured above.

So, success?  Well, for a given measure.  The leather is certainly red.  It's just not as rich or as even in color as we've come to expect.  For all I know, this could just be what madder-red leather looked like in ancient times, but maybe there are factors that would result in a better color, such as larger vats or more frequent stirring.

One last note:  The plastic bucket I used was also stained.  I wonder, if I use it for future dyeing projects with other colors, will they pick up some pink from this one?

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Cold-dyeing leather with madder root, part II

After soaking the chamois in mordant solution for 24 hours, I drained it, pressed it, and spread it out to dry in the sun today.  It'll remain dry until the dyebath is ready to use.

I'm a little concerned about what the soak might have done to it, since the water had turned faintly chamois-colored.  Did the alum and/or the cream of tartar attack the aldehydes, liberating some of the fish oil?  I'll have to knead it once it's dry and see whether it's turned rawhide-ish.

Yesterday meanwhiles, I started getting the dyebath ready to use.  I'm using the recipe and numbers from Wild Colours.  Luckily I had a manygallon bucket on hand as well as a jar of calcium carbonate I bought for use as a white paint pigment last year.

Although the numbers call for using a 1:1 ratio of madder to fiber by weight, I used the entire 100 grams of madder for 71 grams of leather because I can't be bothered and what am I going to do with 29 grams of madder anyway?

I put the powder in the bucket, poured eight quarts of water over it, sprinkled on the calcium and stirred it all up with my hand in a rubber glove.  Then I covered it in Saran wrap and set it on the back porch, with another plastic bag tautly pulled over the top of the bucket to prevent rain from filling it up.  (In hindsight, another sheet of plastic wrap would probably work better for this purpose.)  It will sit for four days to a week and then the leather will soak in it for four days to a week.  So, next update in about two weeks.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Cold-dyeing leather with madder root, part I

I plan on an all-new akinakes and scabbard for Plataea 2021.  My previous designs have used acrylic paints on the leather scabbard or leather facing.  Since I'm hoping to eliminate as much non-period materials as possible this time around, and I never figured out how to make a water-resistant paint for leather, my current aim is just to use a dyed red leather facing and maybe a bronze applique.

The trouble with dyeing leather is that the equivalent processes for fabric usually involve simmering them in water with mordants and dyes, but simmering leather invariably causes it to shrink and harden.  To work around that, I'm attempting both the mordanting and dyeing processes "cold" (which is to say, not hot enough to cause the leather's collagen protein fibers to coil up, which is what causes shrinkage and hardening).

Cold-mordanting is not unheard-of, as Sea Green and Sapphire describes.  Heat merely speeds up the process, but if you leave the fiber to soak overnight, you really only need enough heat to dissolve the mordants.  For me, all this is theoretical, and Heidi is speaking of wool, not leather, so we'll see whether it holds true in my situation.  It's my understanding that mordants for wool will work on leather, since both are proteins.

I'm using aluminum sulfate, which providence caused me to buy a pound of back when Allegheny Art was still operating in my town.  I have most of that left.  Ancient Mesopotamian records often mention alum and madder in association with leather, so we know this is a period-appropriate method.  Cream of tartar is, of course, readily available in grocery stores, and people should have at least been familiar with it in the Achaemenid period, since it readily precipitates out of fermenting grape wine.  Admittedly I don't know whether it was used to assist in mordanting at that time, but I'm willing to admit it as a plausibility.

The chamois leather in this attempt is from the nearby Ace Hardware.  It's also sold at Pep Boys, Home Depot, and probably other large auto supply and hardware stores.  Chamois, as I've noted before, is a type of fat-cured leather; the only difference between it and braintan is that the fish oil in chamois generates its own aldehydes as it oxidizes, so it doesn't need smoking to introduce them.  Thus, the fat is already permanently bound to the collagen, so wet chamois can be allowed to dry without kneading and will be easy to re-soften.

After cutting off some snippets for last year's casein paint experiment, I was left with 2.5 ounces of chamois.  Using the ratios from Botanical Colors, I came up with measurements of 14 grams of alum (just under a tablespoon) and 4 grams of cream of tartar (just under a teaspoon).  I dissolved both in Pyrex cups of hot water.  Interestingly the cream of tartar didn't seem to want to fully dissolve; around an eighth of a teaspoon of powder coalesced at the bottom of the cup no matter how many times I swirled it.

I dumped it all in a sink with warm tap water, added the chamois and kneaded it until it was thoroughly wet.  Tomorrow it gets hung out to dry, and with any luck we'll have some good weather ahead for the next stage.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Product review: Fluted brass beads from Crazy Crow

Fluted spherical beads, nowadays commonly called "melon" beads, were a common feature in Achaemenid jewelry and were even used on the thigh cords of akinakes scabbards.  They could be made of metal, stone, glass or ceramic, and often, but not always, featured a small rim at one or both openings.

I recently acquired a bag of fluted beads from Crazy Crow Trading Post.  They are advertised as hollow but heavy and 3/8 inch (about 9.5mm) in diameter; no indication as to whether that refers to the stringing length or the width.  I chose brass as a substitute for gold.

As you can see, they are not quite as advertised...

While the metal used may indeed be brass, it's "red" brass (that is, with a low zinc content and thus a more coppery orange hue) rather than the common yellow brass that it appears to be in the catalogue and online photos.  This isn't necessarily bad, but it does mean they're a less effective substitute for gold and look more like a medium- to low-alloy tin bronze, which was also used for some beads.  Reinforcing this effect is the fact that the beads are "raw" brass with no protective coating.  As you can see, some of them are rather badly tarnished.

In other respects, the beads do live up to the ad copy.  They measure a hair over 9mm in width and 9.5mm in stringing length.  They're surprisingly heavy, much more so than some of Crazy Crow's other hollow metal beads that I've bought, though lighter than solid beads would be.

The raw brass gives me pause.  While all unpainted metal would be "raw" in period, it would also be difficult to polish these without leaving any polishing agent in the grooves or getting it into the inside of the bead, where it could permanently etch the metal (I have seen Brasso do this when allowed to remain in crevices).  Therefore keeping them bright and shiny would be a challenge.

Otherwise, I think these would be excellent for period jewelry if you know what they are and how to use them.  As a substitute for bronze rather than gold, they would probably be appropriate for an impression of a well-off but not especially rich person.  Also, they might be useable on the thigh cord of a small akinakes, paired with a small chape - my examination of Persepolis reliefs indicates that the width ratio of the chape to the bead ranged from 3.57:1 to 5:1, so a 9mm-wide bead could be paired with a chape that is at most 45mm across.