Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, IV: Harness Racing, Equestrianship, Oxhide Ingots and Coins

Olives are the definition of the Mediterranean diet. They also need to be cured in salt or lye. This isn't very relevant to this post, but it is your weekly reminder of the importance of the primordial chemical industry to subsistence agriculture during the EIA.
So my Christmas-New Years schedule is up, and when I started this post, I had some writing time during the down weeks at the store where I am currently working, which serves the UBC community. That took some pressure off in regards to long posts, leaving me to do a progress report towards this "Sacred Spring" series, this week.

Now, of course, I do not. On the bright side, my employer has conceded that it mishandled the process of reallocating employees from two stores that have been closed for renovations. I'm sure you don't want to hear the details, and I will draw a veil over the whole embarrassing exercise by pointing at one of our competitors --a major national corporation, which paid its CEO $8.5 million in 2015-- CEOs with buyouts of $15 million and $25 million paid in the millions-- defending itself on charges by blaming middle management, and fixing the price of bread for the last decade and more by offering everyone a free $25 gift card. It's not that I don't believe that middle management at Loblaws/Weston Bread didn't realise that price coordination is wrong. That seems par for the course in an industry that can take a week and a half to realise that no stores are ordering cranberries at Christmas because of a software issue, and not because it's  a wacky thing that's happening for no reason at all that no-one can fix. It's that I no longer have five days off after New Years to write. And while the company now owes me three weeks off with pay, I have no idea when that's going to happen, or what that means for my writing "schedule."

This would be a good time to nail down the horse problem, at least.

Prevalent from 1500-1200, disappearing after 1000, and cast to be easily carried in a pack saddle. Interesting. By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

So, first of all, oxhide ingots. Well, actually, a confession that much of the material in this post is based on an afternoon in the Antiquity online archives looking to back up some possibly obsolete claims about the rise of equestrian culture in Inner Asia. This was what clued me in to the ongoing discussion about whether or not oxhide ingots penetrated into inland central Europe. (The controversy originates with some claims that you can follow up on here.)   The controversy seemed to take as given the claim that these standardised lumps of relatively pure copper really were functioning as money in the last century before the Late Bronze Age collapse. Hence, the failure of the ingots to penetrate into settentrionale Europe, unlike coined money, shows that the transalpine region wasn't part of the Mediterranean ecumene in the Late Bronze Age. 

As it turns out, I can kinda use Google, and the British universities are still doing a great job of putting fine theses online, so you can follow up on that here. [pdf] tl;dr: Yes, the ingots were being used as money, and they are being found in increasingly large numbers throughout the Central Mediterranean, but not beyond the Alps.

Since the LBA's "money" system did not penetrate beyond the Mediterranean Basin, we can think about the reasons it did not penetrate. That is, why aren't people carrying money north?

Here's another way of looking at this:
This graphic is taken, in an embarrasingly primitive way, from Harald Meller, "Armies in the Early Bronze Age: An Alternative Interpretation of the Unetice Culture Hoards [Antiquity 91 (2017): 1529--45.] Meller's point is that the Unetice culture's wealth was defended by something resembling standing armies, but incidental to that is this graphic demonstration that the soource of that wealth was control of access to the Baltic, as illustrated by the distribution of amber, the red dots in the graphic above. I'm not sure how far I want to ride in the Meller bus in the direction of Older Bronze Age central European incipient states, but I am struck by this simple illustration that the core-periphery model for relationships between meridionale Europe and the Mediterranean does not work. As far as down-the-line amber exchange goes, the doorway to the Middle East in Greece is not much more prominent than Sicily or the Riviera.

Transalpine Europe is its own ecumene, in one picture.

Unfortunately, awesome as the graphic is, it doesn't prove as much as I would like it to prove. The Unetice cultural horizon is 1600BC, and is precisely followed by the Tumulus Culture, a kurgan-building cultural horizons with affinites with AndronovoGround Zero for "Indo-Aryan" brain rot

I'm not quite done with European evidence, but this post does centre more on the Andronovo than on Europe, so I should explain. The common thesis is that the Andronovo were Indo-Iranian speakers, and were associated with a key innovation of c. 1600BC, the war chariot. 

I'm sure that this is going to come across as cranky polemic, but this seems like a pretty weak argument. It's not as bad as the doyens of Indo-European studies insisting that Indo-European must have evolved on the Inner Asian steppe, because language families can only arise in vast spaces. We seem to be saying that because Andronovo had chariots, you can prove that they were Indo-European speakers because Indo-European speakers had chariots. It's not obviously circular as formulated, because the key claim is that the Andronovo, or their relatives, invented the chariot, which makes them special chariot-havers.

Clearly I'm going to have to move on, because I'm having trouble being fair and collegial to Indo-Europeanists for some reason.

Is there a way out of hot-and-bothered politics? The historian of technology certainly thinks so! The point is that we have three equid-related Revolutions in Military Affairs on offer in the Middle East, the primordial Downtown of Old World history. The first, ponderous, disc-wheeled "war carts" drawn by mules bred out of donkeys and onagers, is left to the Sumerian even before the Age of Akkad. It's hard to argue with the Royal Tombs of Ur!
The King of Ur, King of the Four Quarters, King of Kish, tramples his enemies beneath his war-cart.

I like William Hamblin's synoptic account of the age of the war cart, but it is only available as a print monograph, and you will have to take my word for it when I say that it is fine scholarship, and not to be judged by the author's more recent activities online. He seems pretty clear that the animals drawing the war-carts of Ur are mules bred of onagers and donkeys. (Wikipedia is less sure, so I guess there's a controversy, here.)

The next Revolution in Military Affairs is conventionally dated to 1600BC and Mursili I's great raid on Babylon. The argument for the chariot arriving from the steppe, no doubt with the ancestros of the Hittites themselves, comes from findings of spoked-wheeled vehicles in Sintashta cultural horizon burials conventionally dated to "around" 2000BC. However, amongst the data marshalled by Hamblin are artistic impressions of spoked-wheel chariots from Ur and Babylon (before or by 1779BC in, I think, the Middle Chronology.) This is pretty tight for time in the dissemination of the spoked-wheel technology. One may assume that the dashing, gallant, spoke-wheeled chariot did disseminate quickly, but the timing holds open the idea that it is an innovation of the centre, extending outwards to periphery. Albeit, of course, not accompanied by early money.

The final Revolution in Military Affairs is the rise of equestrian cavalry. Here I am going to point to Robert Drews' Early Riders: The Beginning of Mounted Warfare in Asia and EuropeDrews is an incredibly fruitful thinker who is always right, original and innovative when he agrees with me, and a typically overreaching military historian when he doesn't. In this monograph about which I have blogged before, Drews argues that cavalry did Change Everything, but was necessarily delayed until after the invention of iron. It's an Early Iron Age innovation!  It would be overegging the cake to insist that only iron bits are sufficient for squadron manoeuvres, but the metal bit did spread late, just at the dawn of the Iron Age. (Things being unnecessarily opaque due to the provenance issues with Luristan bronzes.)

Parade ground finery of one of Sargon's colonels, or modern forgery? We'll never know, now.

Some scholars have been trying to put this on a more empirical basis.
The model's name is Bruno, but he does not get co-author credit, which is going to look bad at the tenure review.
 Here is an Iron Age horse bridle, as reconstructed by Laura Bunse and published in Experimental Archaeology 2012 (2), and reprinted in Antiquity. The reconstruction is, indeed, "experimental," and the bit, although of iron, need not be. What does have to be iron, it seems, is the rivets that hold the harness together.

So there you go, horse riding and iron, a package.

As I said, this is fundamentally a literature review, and one focussed far away from Europe, on the Inner Asian steppe. The reason for this that we have an interesting and well-documented transition tht I found  illustrated by a nice colour photo in Antiquity that I stole by (again, the most barbaric of methods).
This is a Mongolian winter camp, pitched right next to the Andronovo horizon house excavated by Peter Jia and his team at Adunqiaolu in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The team's interest lies in showing that the Andronovo extended this far east, this early. Jia's team thinks that the economic basis of Andronovo life in the Tien Shan mountains was the same as it is today, but the key point summarised by this one photo is that, after the Andronovo, these fixed shelters disappeared.

Instead, we have a variety of grave/monumental/theatre of memory sites spread through Inner Asia. The most famous are the monumental graves of the Pazyryk Culture, known for over a century as "Scythian" remains.
He rode horses before it was cool. 
It might seem like a bit of stretch that we find "Scythians" in the high Altai at the intersection of Russia, Mongolia, China and Tuva, but there are a lot of Pazyryk findings up there, perhaps because no-one has been tempted to go up into those hills and create new elite burials. So in this Iron Age transition to equestian pastoralism (if that is what it was), the Altai corner gained a prominence that it would never again achieve. There's probably something going on here, but I'll be damned if I know what.

Meanwhile, in Mongolia and going back a bit, we have monumental sites, called Khirigsuurs that appear in the Late Bronze Age, and where there is no prior settlement context. Francis Allard and Diimaajav Erdenebaatar argue that this is not yet a mobile and pastoral society, nor one in contact with China. In essence, the khirigsuurs are accommodation to the challenges of demographic recriutment (that is, tentative state formation) in the Mongolian context, and very different from the elaborate displays of wealth procured elsewhere shown in ostensibly similar locations of memorialisation, as in the Pazyyryk and presumptive Luristan burials. Riding comes later, and follows on chariotry in the Late Bronze Age, say William Timothy Treal Taylor and several Mongoian co-authors that convention says I shouldn't cite because there are too many of them. (Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan and Tumurbaatar Tuvshinjargal). Though it is only fair to say that the Mongolian authors think that "early riding" was occurring in Mongolia by the Late Bronze Age.

The one thing that I did not find was the paper that provoked this inquiry in the first place, although I suspect that if I had more time, I'm on the right track here, with Tamsin O'Connell's paleochemical investigation-for-hire of ancient bones leading to the discover that the diets of early steppe inhabitants were heavy on millet and fish. The inference is that they were riverbank-living, fish-and-millet eating semi-sedentary populations that began building houses to replace ephemeral structures during the Bronze Age, and then radiated away from the riverbottoms onto the high steppes as horse-riding pastoralists in the Iron Age.

Literature review eyeball scans that I do not have notes for from earlier in the week suggest that this Iron Age increase in mobility is a reluctantly-accepted consensus. The reluctance suggests that it will either fall in the near future, or ascend into consensus over the next generation. I'm going to take it as correct, rest on the work of Drews and Nicola di Cosmo, not hitherto mentioned here, and claim that horse-riding did, indeed, disseminate from the centre: that the Luristan bronzes show an efflorescence based on mercenary service to the Neo-Assyrians, and that the subsequent spread of horse pastoralism across inner Eurasia shows the dissemination of technique along with mercenary service. 

The bit about arguing for changes in Europe by analogy with changes in Inner Asia is a regrettable, I admit.


  1. I'm no Indo-Europeanist, but 782 pages on Andronovo = Indo-Aryan seem to be online here: The main argumentation for the equation comes in Chapters 10-13, in which the chariot shows up only in one brief paragraph - although skin colour makes a slightly longer appearance: "In the Rigveda, light skin alongside language is the main feature of the Aryans, differentiating them from the aboriginal Dasa-Dasyu population who were a dark-skinned, small people speaking another language and who did not believe in the Vedic gods".

    It's far too late to concern this post, but with all that Mongolian material, I can't resist pointing out the recent discovery of the oldest known inscription in Mongolian by many centuries, written in an Indic script and dating to the 5th-7th c. AD.:

  2. Whatever else can be said about the decision to put a 782pp (Brill!) edition online, the fact that there has been no monograph about the Andronovo in eighty years. . .