Thursday, December 15, 2016

Arcuballista: A Late Roman Crossbow

The sole mention of the arcuballista occurs in the work of Vegetius (Epitoma rei militaris)[1].  In book II.15, when describing how the ancient legion was drawn up in battle order, he refers to soldiers who shoot bolts with manuballistae and arcuballistae, terms which are typically translated as catapults and crossbows respectively.

In etymological terms, Latin ballista is taken from the Greek βαλλίστρα (ballístra), itself derived from βάλλω (bállō, I throw).  So, manuballista (the Latin variant of the Gr. cheiroballistra) has the sense of “hand projector”.  Most scholars[2][3][4][5] seem to agree that this weapon was a torsion-powered bolt-shooter, but debate on its configuration is effectively divided into two camps: those who accept the translation literally and believe the manuballista was hand-held and, conversely, those who see it as a continuation and technological development of earlier stand-mounted catapults as seen, for example, on Trajan’s Column.

As for the arcuballista, its name suggests it incorporated an arcus (Lat. “arch”), but whether this refers to the bow of a non-torsion weapon or to the arched-strut (Lat. arcus ferreus) design of torsion weapons from the 2nd century AD onwards cannot be unequivocally stated.

However, in Book IV of Epitoma Rei Militaris (op. cit. IV.22), while discussing siege and naval warfare, Vegetius continues to make a clear distinction between the weapons “they used to call ‘scorpions’ what are now called manuballistae” and those such as fustibali (“staff-slings”), arcuballistae (crossbows) and slings.  Unfortunately Vegetius does not describe the latter any further assuming that his contemporary readers would be familiar with their form and function.  Weapons such as slings and staff-slings are clearly hand-held weapons however and, by implication, so must arcuballistae.  Moreover, by repeatedly referring to manuballistae and arcuballistae separately Vegetius, and other authors such as Arrian, is clear that the latter are different from torsion powered bolt-shooters and stone-throwers.  So, if arcuballistae are not torsion-powered, then it seems logical that they were very similar to medieval crossbows using flexion bows.

Thus we turn to the crossbows depicted on the Gallo-Roman reliefs (shown below) from Salignac (left) and Saint Marcel (right)[6].  These are obviously not gastraphetes (belly-bows) as they lack the distinctive crescent-shaped stomach rests characteristic of such weapons.  Nor is there any sign of winching mechanism for spanning the bows.  Are these then the elusive arcuballistae?


From a photograph of the Salignac relief in his article[7], Baatz suggests a plausible reconstruction of an arcuballista:


It is unclear whether the reliefs depict self-bows or composites; both were known and used by the Romans.  A reconstruction of a arcuballista could, quite reasonably, use either.  It is unlikely that a steel prod was used as in later medieval crossbows, however.

No known contemporary spanning devices have been discovered, and none are shown on the surviving French reliefs.  To span an arcuballista, a sketch in Baatz shows the arcuballistarius placing a foot on the belly of the bow, either side of the stock, and drawing the bowstring by hand.  So, the draw weight of the arcuballista cannot be so great that the bow cannot be spanned by hand.

A visual assessment of the Saint Marcel relief suggests the stock was between 60 cm and 70 cm in length using the forearm of the arcuballistarius as a cubit measure; the average cubit being 47 cm (»0.5 m).Likewise, using the same method of measurement, a bow length of c. 130 cm (tip to tip), as Baatz' suggests, is plausible.

Using the length of the depicted quiver on the relief from Saint Marcel, Baatz makes the assumption that missiles were of similar length to arrows shot from standard bows.  Furthermore, with the nut placed at the end of the stock, Baatz also assumes that the draw length was longer than that of later crossbows, and thus longer arrows could be used rather than shorter bolts.

From the Saint Marcel relief there does appear to be a revolving nut.  Finds of something similar have been discovered in Britain and dated to the 5th or 6th century AD.  These, quite naturally, have been attributed to a form of late Roman crossbow.Releasing the nut may well have been effected with a trigger bar beneath the stock in similar fashion to medieval weapons.  Drawing back of the round handle at the rear of the stock might equally have been involved in releasing the nut.  Pushing the handle forward may have engaged a straight trigger bar in a notch integral to the revolving nut.  Precisely how the mechanism operated, however, remains a matter of conjecture.

References:

1. Milner, N.P. (1993), Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science, Liverpool University Press.
2. Baatz, D. (1978), “Recent finds of ancient artillery”, Britannia 9, pp. 1-17.
3. Gudea, N., and Baatz, D. (1974) “Teile spätrömischer ballisten aus Gornea und Orşova”, Saalburg Jahrbuch 31, pp. 50-72.
4. Marsden, E.W. (1971), Greek and Roman Artillery: Technical Treatises, Oxford.
5. Wilkins, A. (2003), Roman Artillery, Shire.
6. Espérandieu, E. (1908), Recueil général des bas-reliefs de Gaule romaine 2, Acquitaine, pp. 442-444, no. 1679 (Salignac) and 1683 (Saint-Marcel).
7. Baatz, D. (1991) “Die Römische Jagdarmbrust”, Archäoligisches Korrospondenzblatt 21, pp. 283-290.

All images from Baatz. D (1991), op. cit.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Why did the chicken cross the Red Sea?

The discarded bone of a chicken leg, still etched with teeth marks from a dinner thousands of years ago, provides some of the oldest known physical evidence for the introduction of domesticated chickens to the continent of Africa, research from Washington University in St. Louis has confirmed.

Based on radiocarbon dating of about 30 chicken bones unearthed at the site of an ancient farming village in present-day Ethiopia, the findings shed new light on how domesticated chickens crossed ancient roads - and seas - to reach farms and plates in Africa and, eventually, every other corner of the globe.


"Our study provides the earliest directly dated evidence for the presence of chickens in Africa and points to the significance of Red Sea and East African trade routes in the introduction of the chicken," said Helina Woldekiros, lead author and a postdoctoral anthropology researcher in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.


The main wild ancestor of today's chickens, the red junglefowl Gallus gallus is endemic to sub-Himalayan northern India, southern China and Southeast Asia, where chickens were first domesticated 6,000 - 8,000 years ago. Now nearly ubiquitous around the world, the offspring of these first-domesticated chickens are providing modern researchers with valuable clues to ancient agricultural and trade contacts.


The arrival of chickens in Africa and the routes by which they both entered and dispersed across the continent are not well known. Previous research based on representations of chickens on ceramics and paintings, plus bones from other archaeological sites, suggested that chickens were first introduced to Africa through North Africa, Egypt and the Nile Valley about 2,500 years ago.


The earliest bone-based evidence of chickens in Africa dates to the late first millennium BC, from the Saite levels at Buto, Egypt - approximately 685 - 525 BC. The current study, published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, pushes that date back by hundreds of years. Co-authored by Catherine D'Andrea, professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University in Canada, the research also suggests that the earliest introductions may have come from trade routes on the continent's eastern coast.


"Some of these bones were directly radiocarbon dated to 819 - 755 BC, and with charcoal dates of 919 - 801 BC make these the earliest chickens in Africa," Woldekiros said. "They predate the earliest known Egyptian chickens by at least 300 years and highlight early exotic faunal exchanges in the Horn of Africa during the early first millennium BC."


Despite their widespread, modern-day importance, chicken remains are found in small numbers at archaeological sites. Because wild relatives of the galliform chicken species are plentiful in Africa, this study required researchers to sift through the remnants of many small bird species to identify bones with the unique sizes and shapes that are characteristic of domestic chickens. Woldekiros, the project's zooarchaeologist, studied the chicken bones at a field lab in northern Ethiopia and confirmed her identifications using a comparative bone collection at the Institute of Paleoanatomy at Ludwig Maximillian University in Munich.


Excavated by a team of researchers led by D'Andrea of Simon Fraser, the bones analysed for this study were recovered from the kitchen and living floors of an ancient farming community known as Mezber. The rural village was located in northern Ethiopia about 30 miles from the urban centre of the pre-Aksumite civilization. The pre-Aksumites were the earliest people in the Horn of Africa to form complex, urban-rural trading networks.
Linguistic studies of ancient root words for chickens in African languages suggest multiple introductions of chickens to Africa following different routes: from North Africa through the Sahara to West Africa; and from the East African coast to Central Africa. Scholars also have demonstrated the biodiversity of modern-day African village chickens through molecular genetic studies.


"It is likely that people brought chickens to Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa repeatedly over long period of time: over 1,000 years," Woldekiros said. "Our archaeological findings help to explain the genetic diversity of modern Africans chickens resulting from the introduction of diverse chicken lineages coming from early Arabian and South Asian context and later Swahili networks."


These findings contribute to broader stories of ways in which people move domestic animals around the world through migration, exchange and trade. Ancient introductions of domestic animals to new regions were not always successful. Zooarchaeological studies of the most popular domestic animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs have demonstrated repeated introductions as well as failures of new species in different regions of the world.

"Our study also supports the African Red Sea coast as one possible early route of introduction of chickens to Africa and the Horn," Woldekiros said. "It fits with ways in which maritime exchange networks were important for global distribution of chicken and other agricultural products. The early dates for chickens at Mezber, combined with their presence in all of the occupation phases at Mezber and in Aksumite contexts 40 BC - AD 600 in other parts of Ethiopia, demonstrate their long-term success in northern Ethiopia."


Reported by EurekAlert! on November 2nd,2016: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-11/wuis-htc110216.php


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Book Review

Roman Empire at War: A Compendium of Battles from 31 BC to AD 565

· Hardcover: 215 pages
· Publisher: Pen & Sword Military (July 25th, 2016)
· Language: English
· ISBN-10: 1473869080
· ISBN-13: 978-1473869080
· RRP: £19.99 (UK); $34.95 (US)

As its title clearly states, “Empire at War” is a compendium - a select list if you will - of the battles fought by the Roman army from Emperor Augustus to Justinian I.  Dr Don Taylor’s aim is simple: to provide readers with a single volume reference that describes, concisely, the most significant battles during the chosen period.  In a work of this scale - 215 pages - it would be impossible to detail every skirmish, siege, minor encounter or major engagement.  Thus Taylor has deliberately selected only those contests of arms where some strategic value can be discerned for either protagonist.  Likewise, he has also omitted battles described by one or more ancient authors for which no identifiable name, location or landmark can be clearly attributed.  What remains, however, is a most useful alphabetical list of battles together with brief descriptions, some tactical maps, and lists of ancient sources for each.

The volume is divided into two distinct parts.  Part one provides some introductory material on the Roman imperial warfare.  For those unfamiliar or new to studied of the Roman army, this introduction is a very useful summary of the changes and evolution during the army’s long history.  Starting in the early first century BC, Taylor explains the late Republic/early Imperial army’s organisation, rank structure and terms of service and then neatly leads the reader through the significant changes and developments until the death of Emperor Justinian in AD 565.  Usefully, there is also a brief description of the navy whose role in Roman warfare is too often neglected in such works.

Part one concludes with a discussion on the reliability of the ancient and early medieval sources that chronicle the events, and from which the information for each entry is drawn.  In writing the battle descriptions, the author is keen to emphasize that he has not sought to analyse the evidence contained in the surviving accounts.  More importantly he has not sought to embellish said accounts beyond that necessary to provide clarity for the modern reader.  Instead that which is presented is a succinct version of what the original chroniclers tell us themselves of these dramatic events.

Concise biographies of the ancient authors and their works relevant to the study are presented in order that readers are aware of the possible pitfalls of relying solely on the original texts.  A basic insight is offered into the background of each early author to provide modern students with an appreciation of the value of extant sources and to evaluate ancient descriptions critically.  In addition, Taylor has provided information on how readers can obtain translated copies through the detailed bibliography on pages 196-200.

Part two is the meat of this work and begins with an alphabetical list of the battles.  Thankfully Taylor has also included a chronological list (pages 42-45).  Likewise several entries throughout Part two are usefully cross-referred where a particular battle is known by more than one name or location.  Each entry can only ever offer a brief description of the events but for those seeking more information Taylor provides a list of the sources consulted at the end.

Where more than one author is cited, however, it is less clear how differing accounts were reconciled into a coherent narrative.  This is a minor criticism given that the author never set out to produce an in-depth study.  Rather he hopes readers will be encouraged to investigate the sources, be they primary or secondary, and discover what contemporary information survives, the ambiguities that exist in the accounts, and derive their own conclusions.  In this manner Don Taylor’s “Roman Empire at War” is highly recommended and should prove an immensely useful reference and catalyst for further research into the battles of the Roman Empire.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Tasty Tudor Chewit

In every issue of BBC History Magazine, picture editor Sam Nott presents a recipe from the past. In this article, from December 2015, Sam recreates a delicate chewit - a meat and fruit pie enjoyed in the 16th century.
Britain loves pies, and recipes for them can be found in cookbooks going back centuries. A chewit mixes sweet and savoury flavours – a combination that was popular in the Tudor era. Recipes from that time often refer to coffins – robust pastry designed more to contain the filling than to be eaten. Sam's version, including measurements, is based on the following 16th-century recipe:

"Parboyle a piece of a Legge of Veal, and being cold, mince it with Beefe Suit, and Marrow, and an Apple or a couple of Wardens: when you haue minst it fine, put to a few parboyld Currins, sixe Dates minst, a piece of a preserued Orenge pill minst, Marrow cut in little square pieces. Season all this with Pepper, Salt, Nutmeg, and a little Sugar: then put it into your Coffins, and so bake it. Before you close your Pye, sprinckle on a little Rosewater, and when they are baked shaue on a little Sugar, and so serue it to the Table."

Ingredients


Pastry:


• 400g flour
• 1 tsp salt
• 200g butter
• 1 egg yolk
• Iced water


Filling:


• 500g minced beef
• 50g sultanas
• 6 dates
• Zest from half an orange
• 2 medium-sized pears, chopped
• 100g suet
• 1 tsp nutmeg
• Salt and pepper
• Rose water (sprinkle)
• Sugar (sprinkle)

Method


Pastry
: Sift the flour and salt into a basin.  Cut the butter into small chunks and rub it into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  Make a well in the centre.  Add the egg yolk and 5 tbsp of iced water.  Roll the pastry into a ball, wrap in cling film and leave in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Filling: Roll out the pastry and line a pie tin, leaving enough for the lid of the pie. Lightly fry the minced beef, then add the suet, fruit and seasoning.  Pack tightly into the pie case and sprinkle a small amount of rose water on the top of the filling before adding the pie top.

Sprinkle sugar on the pastry and cook for an hour in an oven preheated to 200˚C.

Time: 1 hour preparation, 1 hour cooking.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Ballistas, Catapults and Scorpions

A major source of information for Roman artillery is Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a 1st century BC Roman author, architect, civil and military engineer.  Commonly known as Vitruvius, Book X of his multi-volume work entitled De Architectura includes chapters on artillery.  In Book X.xvi.1, for example, Vitruvius refers to three separate terms for siege machines when beginning his description of the “Measures of Defence”.  Vitruvius (X.x.6) also claims to have described catapultorum rationes ("the rules of catapults") at the end of the section on the scorpio, which once again suggests a distinction.

For several years I accepted that catapults (bolt-shooters) were synonymous with “scorpions” following Vitruvius, and have even described them as such using the analogy of the bolt being the scorpion’s “sting in the tail”.  In the opening of Book X, Chapter x, for example, he writes of “catapults or scorpiones” and then in the first paragraph refers to “scorpiones and ballistae (X.x.1).  If Vitruvius’ use of terminology is inconsistent, then it is more confusing wherever he makes a distinction between three types of machine, i.e. ballistas, catapults and scorpions.

Yet Vitruvius is not alone.  The Roman encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (HN 7.201) also lists the three machines separately[1], and Livy (26.47), in his catalogue of Carthaginian machines captured at New Carthage in 209 BC, writes of:

catapultae maximae formae centum viginti, minors ducentae octoginta una; ballistae maiores viginti tres, minores quinquaginta duae; scorpionum maiorum minorumque et armorum telorumque ingens numerous

"120 catapults of the largest dimensions, 281 smaller ones; 23 larger ballistas, 52 smaller ones; larger and smaller scorpions and a huge number of weapons and projectiles"

Is it possible, therefore, that these authors considered the scorpion a distinctly different machine from a stone-throwing ballista or a bolt-shooting catapult.  If so, then what did this other scorpion look like?
For our purposes, ballistae, catapultae, and scorpiones are all torsion based artillery.  The principle of torsion was probably discovered by artificers working in Macedonia under Philip II and Polyidus between 353 BC and 341 BC.  Our understanding of their construction comes from Heron’s description (Belopoiika 81): “two separate wooden arms were inserted into two vertical skeins or springs of sinew-rope mounted in a stout frame of hardwood reinforced with iron plates.  Each strand of the rope is pre-stretched by winches around top and bottom iron washer-bars.  The iron washer-bars were slotted into revolving bronze cylinders that allowed the skein to be twisted, forcing the bow arms forward.  This twisting or torsion of the rope-springs was further increased when the arms were drawn back by winch, storing a massive amount of potential energy in the sinew.”[2]

When it comes to stone-throwers (Gr. lithobolos (Λιθοβόλος)) and bolt-shooters (Gr. Oxybeles Οξυβόλος)), the former are described as euthytonon (or euthytone), while the latter are palintonon (or palintone).  In Greek, a palintonon translates as "V-spring" and euthytonon (Ευθύτονος) translates as "straight-spring".  The "V" or straight spring describes how the construction of the spring frames and the shape of the bow arms of siege engines compare to shape of hand-held bows.

Confused?  In the early Imperial period, as under the Republic, two types of artillery were known: bolt-shooting euthytones (the scorpiones and catapultae of Vitruvius’ De Architectura X, x, 1-6) and stone-throwing palintones (the ballistae of Vitruvius’ De Architectura X, xi, 1-9).  According to Marsden these machines were apparently allocated 55-60 per legion[3].  Yet by the fourth century AD it seems the legions had lost their organic complement of artillery and the term ballista (and its compounds) appears in the literary sources to refer to an iron-framed bolt-shooter.  Presumably this was because the engine was technically a palintone, not a euthytone, and the old wooden-framed stone-throwing ballista is replaced by the more massive one-armed onager (Vegetius, Epitoma Rei Militaris ii, 10, 15 and 25; iii, 14 and 24; iv, 22).

Ammianus Marcellinus concurs.  By the mid-4th century AD, the Romans were employing the one-armed onager as their stone-projector, while the ballista seems to have been used only as a bolt-shooter, a task previously given to the euthytone, i.e. catapults.  Most importantly, Ammianus (23.4.7) claims that the onager had previously been known as a “scorpion”, quoniam aculeum desuper babet erectum ("because it has its sting raised up above it")[4].

Yet the 4th century AD is by no means the first appearance in the surviving literary sources for one-armed stone-throwing machines.  In c. 210 BC, some 500 years earlier, Philon of Byzantium casually refers to just such machine in his treatise on siegecraft, Poliorketika, in a passage concerned with defending a city under siege[5].  Had the one-armed stone-thrower been “hidden in plain sight” serving alongside the other named machines since Philon’s time?  Could the separate references to “scorpions” be the very same machines or their descendents for example the later Roman onager of Ammianus and Vegetius?

The design of the onager as a mechanized staff-sling is often thought to have been a late development, but as we have already seen Philon was aware of one-armed stone-throwers.  Unfortunately, he provides no specifics, and the weapon’s construction from mostly organic materials means that few physical remains are likely to survive.  Scroll forward just over three centuries later and a fleeting reference to a one-armed stone-thrower next appears in the work of the Emperor Trajan's engineer, Apollodorus of Damascus.  Indeed, the time of Trajan’s reign is significant because, as Marsden determined, during this period the terminology for artillery clearly changed.

Marsden was struck by the similarities between Heron’s cheiroballistra, an iron-framed palintone bolt-shooter, and the artillery pieces depicted on Trajan’s Column in Rome that date to around AD 110.  Although they were bolt-shooters, their wide palintone torsion frames qualified them for the term ballistae.  It seemed clear to Marsden that, from the reign of Trajan onward, palintones supplanted euthytones as the preferred machines for shooting bolts; ironically a capability they had always possessed.  The euthytone design seemingly disappeared from the mainstream and the one-armed machine usurped the name scorpio (scorpion), which had, up to this point, indicated a euthytone bolt-shooter.

If more evidence is needed then in his Scorpiace, written ca. AD 210, Tertullian describes how the creature, "rising up in an arching attack, draws its hooked sting up like a torsion machine; from this feature, they call the war machine a scorpion, that shoots its missiles by retracting."[6]  Tertullian equates the scorpion's tail to a one-armed torsion machine of the same name, in exactly the same way that Ammianus will do later.

Despite Tertullian from the reign of Emperor Trajan until the fourth century AD, when they are familiar to Ammianus and Vegetius, it seems that “the one-armed machines slip once more into obscurity.”[7]  Marsden notes that Ammianus refers to these one-arm machines as scorpio, catapulta, or onager, although Ammianus gives us the impression that the latter name was the “modern” and popular one.
So, what can we conclude?  The name applied to a given piece of torsion artillery heavily depends which author you reference, their familiarity with the subject matter, and the point in time they are describing.  It is just possible that all three types of weapon were in use concurrently and that perhaps the terms catapult, ballista and scorpion did refer to bolt-shooters, stone-throwers and one-armed machines respectively.  Personally, the author is inclined to use the terms catapultae for bolt-shooting euthytones, ballistae for stone-throwing palintones and, like Tertullian, reserve the term scorpiones for the one-armed machines known to later Romans as “onagers”.  But then, what's in a name?


Notes:

1.  Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book VII, 201: “...among the artillery, the scorpion [were invented by[ the Cretans, the catapult [by] the Syrians, the ballista and the sling [by] the Phoenicians.”
2.  Wilkins, A, Roman Artillery, (Shire, 2003), p. 13.
3.  Marsden E. W., Greek and Roman Artillery, Historical Development (Oxford, 1969), p. 179f.
4.  Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum, book 23, chapter 4, section 7.                           
5.  Philon, Poliorketika, 91, 33-8, as quoted in Wilkins (2003), p. 66.
6.  Tertullian, Scorpiace, 1.1.1-2.
7.  Marsden E. W., Greek and Roman Artillery, Technical Treatises (Oxford, 1971), p. 249.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Ready, Aim...Shoot!

Many years ago, long before I joined The Roman Military Research Society (or THE RMRS), a teacher inspired his pupils to build a catapulta, or bolt-shooting Roman period artillery machine.  I guess the project was in part a history lesson combined with developing practical engineering skills.  Whatever the motive, however, the resulting machine was eventually gifted to the Lunt Roman Fort in Baginton near Coventry.  When I first encountered this machine it was part of a static display in the Fort's small horea (granary) museum, and there it sat, unobtrusively, for many years.

A recent refurbishment of the Lunt Fort's granary saw the catapult placed in storage where it could easily have remained, forgotten.  Except for the fort's Engagement and Development Manager, Paul Thompson, who decided the machine would be an ideal addition to the new displays and, if working, could demonstrate how it works, and shoots, to school parties and other visitors.

So, who could do the repairs?  Enter THE RMRS or more specifically Len Morgan and myself. For my part, my knowledge and understanding of ancient Greco-Roman artillery has been inspired and much improved by three mentors: Alan Wilkins FSA, Len Morgan and the late Tom Feeley.  Over decades of research and practical experimentation, these "three wise men" have done much to promote the wider understanding of such machines.  Alan, for example, has spent a lifetime deciphering the manuscripts written by authors such as Philon, Biton and Vitruvius who recorded their thoughts and their technical treatises in ancient Greek or Latin.

Sadly, what survives for us to work with today are often copies made in the past by scribes practicing or perfecting their craft.  Since such men were not engineers, crucial textual information can be mistranslated, transcribed incorrectly or omitted altogether.  Alan, therefore, has been instrumental in identifying and correcting various errors or deducing the often essential but missing information.  Together with Len and Tom, both experienced engineers, models and full-size machines have since been recreated to test theories and demonstrate these artillery pieces to academics and the wider public.

A great deal of work had already gone in to getting the machine to the stage shown opposite.  The trigger mechanism was removed and renovated to improve its operation and avoid undue damage to the bowstring.  A new pull back cord was fitted connecting the windlass to the trigger mechanism, itself attached to the slider.  Even the pawls on the trigger assembly were chamfered so they did not foul the ratchet when the slider is pushed forward.

Most importantly, as the spring washers were of turned wood, these were reinforced with steel pins and collars to resist the forces generated when spanning the weapon and when shooting.  This measure proved to be a good move as a crack quickly appeared when the weapon was tensioned for the first time.  The original wooden levers were replaced with mild steel versions.  This was necessary because it is around these levers, or bars if you prefer, that the cord is wound to create the spring bundles.


Into the spring bundles the bow-arms are inserted, as can be seen opposite.  Rotating and pinning the washers in position imparts a twist to the cord bundle.  Pulling back the bow-arms twists the bundles even further increasing the potential energy stored in each spring.  This is where such torsion engines get the power to project missiles.

The penultimate task was to fit a new bow-string, whipping and sewing the ends together to form the loops that hook onto the bow-arms.  Finally, the vane ends of the bolts were reduced to fit between the fingers of the trigger such that when loaded they rest cleanly against the bow-string.

With all the work complete it was testing time.  The materials used in its original construction were never going to make the machine particularly powerful but the ol' girl still shoots.  So, all being well, visitors and especially school parties will soon get to see the Lunt Fort's cataputa in action once more.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Dispelling a Myth: Gladiators

Gladiator deaths in the arena were probably not as high as many modern commentators often portray. Gladiators were expensive to provide for and train, and perhaps to protect the investment, most only fought two or three times per year.

A gladiator’s price was fixed according to his rank, status and degree of success, with their market value being highly relevant if they died in the arena. His death became a chargeable item by which the owner, usually the lanista (trainer), would be recompensed. The lowest grade of gladiator would have had a maximum price of 5,000 sestertii - the equivalent of approximately £32,000 - hardly ‘something’ to be carelessly discarded! Of course, equivalency is very approximate being based on 4 sestertii as an average day’s pay, representing about £25-30. Regardless, this does not deny that gladiators died in the arena, just that the chances of survival varied at different times.

The Emperor Augustus for example, prohibited combats sine missio, i.e. to the death, partly to recognise the investment value of a skilled fighter but mostly to limit extravagant displays and thereby the political value to those staging contests by influencing voters with lavish entertainment. In the first century AD, the chances of survival have been estimated at 9:1 based on analysing the results of contests. If a gladiator lost, the ratio reduced to 4:1 and ultimately depended on a successful appeal for missio. Under later emperors, however, a gladiator’s chances of survival deteriorated as more fights were to the death.

Reference:  Shadrake, S. (2005), The World of the Gladiator, Tempus, p.91.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Stone Age Barbecue

In the summer of 2015 archaeologists from the University of Edinburgh attempted to recreate a style of Stone Age cooking based on their discovery of a 9,000 year old barbecue pit.

Over the last three years excavations have been ongoing at Prastio Mesorotsos situated in the Diarizos Valley outside of Paphos on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. The site, which has been almost continuously occupied from the Neolithic era to the present, offers a wealth of insights in to the practices of our ancestors but it is on ancient culinary techniques that we will focus.

A stone-lined, ash-covered pit measuring about 2.5 metres (8 feet) across and 1 metre (3 feet) deep was discovered, but it was only this summer that the archaeologists could say with some certainty they were looking at an ancient oven. Its sheer size, however, was troubling. For an oven of this type the newly discovered pit was thought to be at the theoretical maximum since to keep such an oven hot enough would require a significant amount of energy.

With no one sure whether cooking would have been even feasible, but in the spirit of the Stone Age (and experimental archaeology), it was decided to recreate a prehistoric pit feast. The aim was to feed 200 people with pig and goat, slow-roasted underground and thus test the culinary methods of Neolithic cooks.


A replica pit was duly dug, although modern tools were used as it was felt that getting to grips with stone tools would have taken too long. Searching for the other necessary elements to cook the meal stuck to ancient methods, however. The archaeologists scoured local riverbeds for big igneous stones that would retain and radiate heat, and they hauled their choice rocks uphill in sacks or with a yoke made from a stick and baskets - a time-consuming and painstaking task.

Local clay was collected in buckets to hold the 400 stones in place around the outside of the oven. The team made its own charcoals out of lemon and carob wood. They also tanned 10 goat skins that would be used as parcels for the meat and crafted meat hooks out of sapling wood.

Bones found at the site provided compelling evidence that the prehistoric inhabitants ate pigs, goats and deer. Thus it was decided to source a 70 kg (150 lbs) pig (skin on, head detached) and a 38 kg (80 lbs) goat from a local butcher. Deer, now extinct in Cyprus, was left off the menu.

Days before the feast, the team let a fire burn in the stone-lined pit for 24 hours so that the ground, possibly still cold and damp from a wet winter, would not suck the heat out of their oven. The charcoal was lit the day before the feast and were covered with another layer of stones to prevent the meat directly touching the heat source. When the oven was ready, the pig, stuffed with bulgur wheat, wild fennel stems, anise and bay leaves before getting sewn up tightly with hemp twine and packed into a blanket, was placed on th
e hot stones. Similarly the goat meat, which had been chopped, spiced with herbs like wild oregano and divided between two parcels, was placed in the pit.

More herbs were packed on top of the meat, before the oven was sealed with stones and a clay-and-mud mixture. Another fire was then lit on top of the closed pit so that heat would not escape overnight.  Slow roasting ensured that the meat was tender and infused with the tastes of lemon wood, carob and bay leaf.


Much was learned through the experiment. Firstly it was proved that a pit of the size found could indeed cook sufficient food to satisfy 200 guests and still have leftovers that could have sustained them for even longer. It is thought that fat rendered from the pig may have been used to preserve leftover meat. While the fat will turn rancid, the meat will not and can be stored for up to a year by this method.

While preparing the pit roast, the team also inadvertently recreated some of the more elusive, sensory elements of such a prehistoric feast. The spectacle of the three-day-long fire required to heat the oven would not have been a regular experience and thus may well have had a special significance for the local community.  The light and heat generated throughout the night was probably as much an important part of the feast as the gathering of people to enjoy the result. It is hard not to imagine storytelling, dancing and laughter round the communal fire - much as many of us often enjoy today.