Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Old Europe: The Axe

When I planned my writing for the week, I was going to take it easy, ripping off material coming out of the introductory chapters of Plantation of the Atlantic. Then I got drawn into talking about Red Air Force fighters. Hopefully this doesn't spin out of control on me, too. I want to talk about iron axes and the coming of "modern" Europe, 3000 years ago or so. Or was it 3000 years ago. Maybe it was 1500 years ago. You really can't go too late into history and not still find skeptics about the frequency of iron tools in Europe. Eighth Century AD Bavaria, anyone? That's a problem.

So why am I worrying about it right now? Because it's still too early to write about Operation Harpoon (soon, my pretties), and because a thinkpiece at Slate (don't judge me, it's got Doonesburyabout horses and social class, by Maria Mycio. Here's yet another meditation taking off from Gimbutas' not-dead-but-rather-undead argument for the early domestication of the  horse, and a starting point for a thousand darting thoughts that I shall strive  mightily to draw together.

Anyway, first this, to explain Europe, presumably before inequality. You know, "Old Europe":

It's a science fiction novel. Our hero gets involved in a time war and ends up being stranded in Neolithic Denmark. Oh, well, he consoles himself. He's got the girl, and nice neighbours. Sure, the kind, gentle, matriarchal, peaceful people who lived in the Old European oecumen that stretched from Crete to Denmark was going to be wiped out by the patriarchal, warlike Indo-Europeans in 1500 years, but that's still lots of time to do cool stuff like discover America. (WTF, Poul?)

I really don't remember the rest of the novel at all, but that ending sure stuck with me. Old Europe was a very nice place, before Kurgan-building chariot-riding, ax-wielding Indo-Germanic invaders  crossed the Volga and rode their wagons up the Tsaritsyn onto the Kuban steppe to bring Dumézilian caste and sky gods and like that. (Naturally.) It's also a meditation on time. What can I say? I'm a sucker for that stuff.

So, anyway, axes. Axes come naturally to the thesis, since presumed battleaxes are widely found in Urnfield burials in eastern Europe, and the Urnfield is descended from the kurgan-building Tumulus Culture. Whatever that means. Unfortunately, axes have a complicated role in this thesis, because they also play a big role in the "Old European oecumene." Arthur Evans famously found evidence for the ritual use of a double-bladed ax at Knossos, which was clearly the Rome/Mecca of Old Europe.

Evans knew what to call this tool quite well from his classical studies. In Roman usage, the double-bladed ax-as-tool was called a bipennis. When used to represent the thunderbolt of Jupiter Dolichenus and the badge of authority of the high priest of the mystery cult of this god of Commagene, once as popular in the army as Mithras, it was called a labrys, Plutarch's formulation of the axe-badge of the cult of Zeus Labraunda in the mountains of Caria.

The word is a loan into Greek, so Evans decided that it was a loan from the mysterious pre-Greek language of Knossos, because there was a "labyrinth" and Knossos and that the labrys was the symbol of the continental mother goddess of Old Europe. Because.

My sarcasm is elicited by the unquestioned fact that "labyrinth" already had a well-known explanation. The well-known morturary complex of Amenemhet III at Hawara beside Lake Moeris in the Faiyum Basin was fourteen hundred years old when it was visited by ancient tourists such as Herodotus, and the tourists all agreed that it was a "labyrunth," even if it's not clear exactly why. I'd just like to point out that besides pyramids and temples, the site had the flood gates by which the Nile was drawn off into the Faiyum via an artificial 90 mile canal. There's even an inference, which I know I've seen somewhere, but cannot find (scholarship; we has it!) that it is named after a nearby Egyptian town then called something Labryinthy. It makes a certain sense that the sanctuaries at Labraunda and Knossos and many others that were inspired by this site were named after it, so that the word is of ultimately Egyptian, not Old European, derivation. But if I said that, I'd probably be called a reverse racist, and associated with someone who is legitimately crazy.

So let's just call "labrys" a Lydian word. Lydian is a language closely related to Hittite, and, yes, we're getting back to Commagene.

Never mind, the labrys was the cross of Old Europe, and in a heroic example of lifting a thesis by its own bootstrap, proof of a pre-Indo-European substrate to Greek (hence more largely European) civilisation.

 I guess the takeaway here is that the single-bladed ax is bad, Indo-European, and warlike, while the double-bladed ax is Old European, peaceful, and good.

Second, this:

And since the German girls don't really sing along, here's Karine Vanasse, playing Collette Valois, and the one thing we're likely to remember about Pan Am:

That's the "forbidden" first verse of the Deutschlandlied, out of favour not because of the anodyne "Deutschland über alles" lyric, but because of its belligerent geography. If Germany lies between the Belt, Etsch, Meuse and Memel, it includes Schleswig-Holstein, South Tyrol, Lorraine, East Prussia, and a chunk of Lithuania of which you probably haven't ever heard. 

On the other hand, the song was written in 1844. If the verse claims this as the territory of a future, united, German state, then it is a very naughty little verse. If it says that these are part of the homeland of the Deutsches Volk, then, well, it's something else. Still something repudiated by history, but rather more innocuous. Since as far as we can tell, "Deutsche" and "Volk" are the same words, the phrase means "the people people," and Deutschland means the "The Land of the People." Old Europe, if Old Europeans spoke Indo-Germanic, which they surely didn't.

But you know me: I'm trying to find a way around culture and language. Hence axes. Hence this: the passing away of Old Europe.

The corps of pioneers, like the corps of grenadiers and carabiniers, is formed from the pioneers of each battalion of the line. The corps takes its place "on the right of the line," first in honour, because the battle line wheels to the left to become a column of march, and the "corps of pioneers" marches at the head, breaking the path. Pioneers shoulder axes rather than fusils because axes are the tool of their work, but they also storm the palisades with them, a frightening prospect for its defenders, I'm sure. 

They wear beards to signify that they are men. And before saying that makes me look like I'm going Iron John (or, more socially redeemably, ZZ Top) let me explain. "Pioneer" is a term of art from the Army of Flanders days, coming from "person of the country," which is to say, the conscripted labour details. Before it came to be the name of the corps d'honneur, it had to displace the older "carpenters of the army." [Die Zimmerleute] They are men,because they are grown into the mastery of their craft. Hence the aprons, and the slow march, to allow heavily laden men in their 40s to keep up. They build the way, and the army follows. 

The beards, on the other hand, are totally ZZ Top tributes.

One more second for looky-lous: remember that when the Germans opened the sluices at Kleve in the winter of 1944--45, this was the view looking towards the Rhine. That's what the Rhine looks like when it breaks out of Germany and into the Netherlands, if it is not trained within levees and controlled with sluices.

Conversely, a report on the 1892 Canadian militia field exercises 1892, describes how 27 skilled men and 26 recruits of an engineer battalion cut 450 trees and moved them to a bridging site three-quarters of a mile away over two days, then used them to erect a 144-foot-long trestle bridge, 7½ feet high with a corduroy deck capable of supporting a double file of infantry in 4½ hours, using 5 augers, 7 axes, a handsaw, a cross-cut saw, and some horses. 

You can't get from Volgograd to Denmark without crossing the Old Rhine. Well, okay, you can, but you'll have to cross the Elbe, Oder, Vistula... Look, the point is, you'll need to build bridges, and that means axes. 

So what do we know about axes? It's simply not a subject that gets much historical attention, which possibly accounts for this.** By which I mean that Ronald Jager has a hugely interesting point to make in the Technology and Culture article, but it's still a crazy, amateurish article. As briefly summarised in the foregoing link, you can see the importance: as late as the Civil War, North Americans still used the traditional European-style single-bitted axe with the haft through a ring-pole at one end of the tool. In less than twenty years, the double-bladed (bitted) ax replaced it. Starting half-a-century later, the modern ax, with its blunt overhang behind the handle, replaced both. This is something that needs explaining, and good on Technology & Culture for publishing an article about something hugely important that and no-one else even noticed. Everyday tools are like that.

Jager's story is, in one sense, not surprising. You only have to use a double-bitted ax to appreciate its superiority over the modern, conventional tool. It's a little hard to describe unless you've actually used one, being careful not to chop your own skull open in the process. Basically, the shape self-stabilises in the chop. The blunt end of the poll (if I've got the lingo right) does a little bit of the same work. The "old" ax, by contrast, is inferior to both. So why was it the dominant technology of two thousand years, when we know that the double-bitted design was available?

It's a fascinating question. Now I'll take it back to Kephart. The old woodsman has an entire chapter on "Axemanship," because, as he himself notes, the ax is the one indispensable tool of woodcraft. Obviously, you use it to cut down trees for your campfires. Less obviously, the ax is the basic tool for a whole set of other tasks. Kephart describes how you can make simple structural elements with an ax, and even cut planks out of a trunk, if you're careful. He goes on to describe how you can make a maul and wedges out of good hardwood with an ax, and use those to make planks of all kinds.

The sorts of carpentry you can do remain restricted. Kephart doesn't make the point, but he does describe a tool that sounds a great deal like an old-fashioned ax for more careful work. The takeaway here is that while it wasn't a substitute for a good set of chisels and an auger, you need an old-fashioned ax if you're going to move on from simple log-cabin-style building to do post-and-beam work and erect buildings. I don't actually know if that's Jager's conclusion --it's been a long time since I read his article, but it makes sense to me.

So we have the tools of entry: the old-fashioned ax, the auger, chisels. This prioritises technology, but makes chronology problematic. The Kurgan builders entered Europe in the Early Bronze Age. That's the point when there was some bronze around, but not much. One is really inclined to question how many bronze tools they had.

Is this a problem? Bronze? Stone? Iron? What's the difference, really. The fashion for modern archaeologists is to depreciate the difference between iron, bronze, and stone tools, on the grounds  that one was very nearly as sharp as the other, so it was just a matter of sharpening. I wish that archaeologists read Kephart, who is hysterical on the issue of making sure that axes are sharp and that no-one be allowed to handle them casually and knick them. A single knick, from striking a pebble or even hemlock hard wood can ruin your day. (Blah blah possible exaggeration alert.) Let's take it that sharpening is a huge deal, and so, therefore, is the coming of iron.

So the Kurgan folk were clearly good carpenters, able to do post-and-beam work and make carts that, thanks to the vagaries of translation, are often called "chariots" when rendered into English. My argument would be that they probably didn't make real chariots, however. the chariots in Tutankhamen's tomb show a great deal of ingenuity in choice of material and constructional method to avoid the applications where a cartwright's shop would turn to metal tools, but, at the end of the day, there's the spokes, and I cannot see people making spokes with flint knives. Again, we have a somewhat weird book still standing in for what ought to be a field of research. Perhaps the problem is that so few historians know their way around a wheelwright's shop, and the only one that I can think of is an Nineteenth Century Americanist. Maybe Thomas Kinney will take on the Bronze Age for his next project.

Anyway, I still haven't covered off all the technologies that our Canadian pioneers used. There's still the horse. Am I getting the cart before the horse? I think I am. Clearly the domesticated horse comes before the chariot, so if the Old Europeans were overrun by chariot-riders in 2000BC, they were overrun by horse-users. 

Only not so much: here's another way of looking at it. Take an army of 10,000 horse. What's behind that? I've seen annual attrition rates of up to 90%, but let's sidestep that and think like Constantius' heirs, who basically had to reckon that every time they sent the exercitum Gallus east to affect regime change, they basically had to replace its horses. Ten thousand horsesX60% chance of a mare conceiving per seasonXthree years of foals (so the army can take third-year horses)X an allotment of breeding horses= a stud industry that disposes of somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 horses.

That's a big stud industry. Yes, yes, I've gone over this territory before in arguing that the Romans must have had access to a widely-spread agronomic basis of horse production in the fifth century. Right now, we're reasoning backwards, trying to understand the relationship between iron and the coming into existence of the Europe we know. And dumping interesting things that I've found on the Internet into my blog. Here's Robert van de Noort's excellent research (from here) on "biotic productivity:" apparently,  European bogs are the least productive, producing 200g of exploitable carbon/square meter per year. Dryland pasture produces 260. Dry arable land produces 300. Deciduous woodlands produce 540g, river plus floodplain produces 1000, while the most productive land of all is estuarine, producing 1800 g of carbon per square meter per hear.

If you're wondering why I omit "coniferous forest," this is why I call this excellent research. I went looking, and I can tell you that these figures are pretty hard to come by. Anyway, the telling point is that while we think of our ancestors as improving their lives by clearing the forest and growing crops, it turns out that the pig herders of the forest and the stilt-walking Fen Folk are the ones who chose the best real estate. So if you ever get a chance to be the first to pick primeval European real estate, you want the Weald and Ditmarsch. Or floodplain, even if it does seem impractical, what with the flooding and all.

That being said, H. G. Well's encomium to the primitive democracy of the Wealden pig farm to which his hero repairs after the apocalyptic end of War in the Air is a little misplaced. You may be able to eat every bit of the pig from nose to trotters, but not without a great deal of salt, and thus not outside of convenient range of a salt spring, or in a context of a salt trade. In a larger sense again, not without a modified human landscape, since we're talking about a mast forest maintained by human intervention. The paleobotanists say that the initial postglacial European forest was linden, and not productive at all. (Again I quote a reference that I've long since misplaced. Yet more scholarship!) 

As for Ditmarsch, the Fen Folk are a bit quaint on account of their tendency to try to pay the rent with pots of eels. Biotic productivity is important in the abstract, but it also matters what you do with it. One thing that you can do with it is raise horses, of course. But, again, you're going to need some kind of human intervention, abundantly evident in the region in the form of the artificial raised villages, or terps, synonymous with Frisia and built from perhaps 500BC on, but showing up elsewhere in northern Europe.

So I've got a regular sphagetti-maze of loose ends here: iron, carpentry, horses. When did the "entrance" to Old Europe happen? What about the linguistic evidence?  Again, I've blogged about this. To cut to the chase, I don't yet see any reason not to call the first  'Indo-European' Hittite, or perhaps even Lydian, and associate the rise of an Indo-European linguistic comity in western Europe with a gradual penetration of technical specialists. 

Doing what? Making chariots is one thing, but we know that chariots were replaced by cavalry in the Iron Age. Nicola di Cosma thinks it happened around 5--400BC in China (I've seen some supporting articles in Antiquity, which I think I could find if it weren't far too late in the day), and proposes that the immemorial "nomadic/pastoral" lifestyle of Inner Eurasia can be traced to the same period. Robert F. Drews traces it in the Middle East to the years after Sargon II's campaign against Urartu, in which his engineers worked heroically to bring dissassembled chariots across ax-cut mountain roads into the Urartan heartlands. Drews has some fascinating things to say about the famous Cimmerians of old, who may or may not  have weakened Urartu in some of the first mounted razzias ever mounted, and then served as mercenaries in the armies of Assyria and its enemies. Either way, they were folk of Commagene. Quite possibly, their high priests carried labrys. Here's a compelling picture: recruiting in the Middle Eastern heart spreads its human-resources-seeking influence into the steppe, where it collapses previous lifeways in an abrupt transition to  horse pastoralism that, in turn, reaches China and transforms its military scene, all in the course of three scant centuries. What about Europe?

What we do know, in classic academic style, is that we know less than we thought. At a conference in Padua in 2001, eminent Assyriologists met to agree that they couldn't make out Medes on the map of the early Middle East at all, had no idea what was going on up at Pteria/Kerkenes, and that, in general, things were much more obscure in Iron Age Anatolia than we once thought. 

What do I mean by that? That looking up from the cockpit of great power war in Iraq into the high mountains of Kurdistan westward, we see upland pastures spinning out lots of (actual) Proto-European speaking horse-riding, iron-making, ax-wielding mercenaries. Most go east to find loot and pay in the service of Great Kings. Some  spread westward into Europe. Maybe we'll even get to the point of having Cimmerians founding Scotland, alas that Robert E. Howard did not  live to see the day. (I'm not doing the conference proceedings real justice. So I should amplify my point by saying that if this sort of stuff interests you, and you have access to a university library, go look it up.)

So we have a comprehensive (military) technology set consisting of horses, iron and ax-based carpentry. We have a historical-linguistic argument that it spread into Europe when we know that iron did (800BC), and if archaeologists and historians can still get away with that whole "pots=cultures=languages" stuff (I'm looking at  you, Peter Heather), we can even link it to the Hallstat culture and, arguably, the first signs of a long range staples trade in the products of the Salzkammergut.

So, we have the technology. What's doing with the delay between iron axes and the three-course rotation, iron ploughshares, mills, feudalism, longbows....? My argument is that Roman demand for military horses must have driven intensification. But why wasn't intensification an endogenous process? Why didn't it happen on its own, and overnight? Here I'll point to some recent archaeology, out of which a good picture of the lifeways of the prehistoric Netherlands are coming into focus. As far as we can tell, a mere few centuries before they had moved into the business of supplying Roman legions with cattle, the folk of the old low countries were settling the combed-out morane ridges, building their small, transient homesteads of three-aisled longhouses and proto-Grubenhausen, and going down onto the flats to cultivate the river floodplains by an assarting/ard based agriculture. In other words, they burned off the forest, planted crops with small ploughs made of wood, took off crops until fertility declined  noticeably, then let the land go to grass under constant grazing. After eight years or so, they stripped off the turf, burned it on top of the soil as a form of top-dressing, and went through another cycle. By the time that their homes were falling down with the wet rot, the last of the easily extracted productivity was gone, and it was time to move to another morane above another section of floodplain.

This is a pretty long-drawn-out way of saying that the ancient northern Europeans pursued a land-extensive rather than labour-intensive agricultural strategy. People had identified the most productive available terrain in the  north, and were using it in a way that suggests that population, not land, was the limiting factor. Until the Mediterranean intervened to drive intensification with its demand for horses and riders.

But, in a way, it's the same story that Jager tells about the ax. Taking the ax as a specialist tool for cutting down the woodlands of North America and turning them into money, the best tool, the double-bitted ax, has been known since the Neolithic. Yet it was not used between the Neolithic and the Gilded Age because the traditional ax was a better carpentry tool. Nowadays, when we hardly  use axes for anything, we have a third design, not as well suited for chopping wood as the double-bitted ax, but much safer to use. Because we're rich enough (from cutting down the forests and selling them) to have a wide range of tools, it doesn't even occur to us to reject the modern poll-ax because of its impracticality for carpentry. 

The tool flows from the social context that makes its greater productivity possible. The new social context is -well, social. It's a political creation. The tool then destabilises the social context that conceived it. Again, as I'm sure you knew that I would, I am taking aim at exogeneity, in this case Poul Anderson's barbarian invaders. 

Of course, in this case I'm replacing them with Roman invaders. The hypothesis does, however, show more Occamite economy. Just as we know that Hittite existed, but have to reconstruct proto-Indo-European, so we know that the Romans invaded Europe, and can only reconstruct Indo-European invaders. We can also explain Roman invasion as the result of the drawing power of the new Europe coming into existence in response to (of course) the Mediterranean's demand for horses.

So. Did the horse create inequality? No. Inequality created horses. 

How's that for a tribute to a Slate article?

*Although the story is that it's the Foreign Legion's dune-walking pace. Whatever.
**Ronald Jager, “Tool and Axe: The Success of the Double-Bitted Axe in North America.” Technology and Culture 40 (October, 99): 833–60.

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