Thursday, October 24, 2013

The akinakes scabbard re-examined

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

¡Hola!  Since it seems my earlier article How to make a scabbard is (as of this writing) the most-read post on this site, I thought now would be the time to go over the evidence once again, and try to direct readers away from what I now believe to be outdated information.

In that post, I assumed akinakes scabbards would be constructed in a similar manner to the popular style from later European history:  a wood core wrapped in thin leather and fitted with a separate chape and thin metal throat.   In fact I have never seen a separate throat from an original akinakes scabbard, and I must admit I've always had trouble imagining how such a thing could be made to work:  A separate throat has to have considerable contact area with the scabbard core for mere pressure or glue to hold it on, whereas we know from art that the akinakes throat usually expanded to cover the sword's guard, which would reduce its surface contact with the core to much less than that of it which was left "free-floating."  The only other methods would be to staple or otherwise physically attach the throat, though even that wouldn't be very secure, or to have the core extend into the throat, which would conceivably work, but again, there is no evidence for it.

The well-publicized archaeological finds of scabbard fittings seem to fall into one of two categories:  chapes, and sheet-metal coverings for the entire scabbard.  I know of only a single one which has the typical Achaemenid features of an enveloping throat and bellied belt tab.  It is commonly associated with the famous Oxus Treasure, though John Boardman has argued, on the basis of the artistic styles on its embossed decoration, that it actually older (Median), Mesopotamian-influenced work from about 600 BC.  The others are of different shape and most or all lack the enveloping throat (as well as the "bellied" profile of the belt tab).

As for chapes, most follow the general rounded triangle or trefoil shapes of those seen at Persepolis and are acceptable as models for Achaemenid impressions.

I know of one and only one preserved scabbard core, the wooden scabbard from Thebes.  In this example, the core comprises front and back halves which include the throat and chape.

Taking the Oxus scabbard cover and the Thebes core together we can say that the akinakes scabbard should comprise an organic core with a (possibly optional?) cover, and that on each half of the core and of the cover, the throat is a contiguous piece with the rest of the half.  This would make for a much stronger, simpler construction than trying to make a separate throat that is still an enveloping one.

I do not have enough practical knowledge to rule out the use of leather in either the core or cover.  A very heavy vegetable-tanned leather, if carefully molded and hardened, could conceivably be used alone, without additional covering or internal stiffening.  The ability of vegetable-tanned leather to be deeply and intricately tooled also makes it an attractive scabbard material, as an alternative to embossed metal.

I'm still looking into the plausibility of painted leather scabbards.  In light of the fact that most if not all ancient types of paint require a rigid substrate to be able to adhere without flaking, my new scabbard may have been a mistake, albeit still much better than the old one.  For what it's worth, veg-tan leather can be made as hard as wood with the right hot water treatment, but doing so without deforming it is tricky.

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