Tuesday, April 29, 2008

From Catapults to Cosmology

This year I've read several really excellent books in my field. Three I'd like to share with you. Here in the past I wrote about my recommended Books on Ancient Science. The following are somewhat related to the same topic. All are highly recommended, at least if the subject material interests you in any bit. But I doubly recommend them not only because their scholarship is superb and thoroughly up-to-date (they currently have no peer), but also because they are so well written they read like a dream. Though all bog down occasionally in technicalia, those bumps and boggles are relatively scarce. Most of their content is easy to read, even delightful to read, and full of fascinating stories and facts. These are the kinds of authors I wish I were, and strive to be. All three books are entirely approachable to laymen, yet all are advanced, cutting-edge works, and will be required reading for experts in their respective subjects for decades to come.


Catapult: A History by Tracey Rihll (2007). Some of the best work in the history of ancient science and technology these days is being done by women. From Marianne Stern in the area of ancient glassmaking technology to Karin Tybjerg in Roman mechanics and philosophy of technology, Sylvia Berryman in ancient physics and mechanics, Astrid Schürmann in Roman mechanics and engineering, Liba Taub in astronomy and meteorology, Tamsyn Barton in astrology, Georgia Irby-Massie in alchemy, Adrienne Mayor on ancient geology and paleontology, Joyce Reynolds and Mary Beagon on Roman natural history, and of course Serafina Cuomo in ancient mathematical sciences, whom I'll be discussing next, and our present author: Tracey Rihll.

Rihll is a senior lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Swansea University (UK). You may recall she wrote a very good (albeit much too brief) primer on Greek Science (reviewed in my last post on this subject). Well, now she has gone to the other extreme, producing literally the most comprehensive book on ancient artillery ever written (and possibly ever to be written), and outdoing herself in every category.

Rihll tells great stories, and she tells them well. She marshals facts so numerous and thorough, from such a wide span of disciplines, as to leave almost no possibility of rebuttal, including superb and virtually complete discussions of the literary and archaeological evidence, tying both together. She covers everything you could ever want to know about ancient catapult development, from the pre-catapult days of ordinary slings and arrows, through the Hellenistic and Roman periods of advancement, and on up to late antiquity. She cites or discusses pretty much every book or article of any worth on the subject ever written. She discusses not only the history but also the science of projectile weaponry, and how the two illuminate each other, and she even links her results to broader questions of ancient technological progress and the philosophy of technology. And all this in under 380 pages.

The ancient catapult was one of the most advanced technologies ever produced before the Renaissance. Though popular imagination thinks of a catapult as some sort of medieval, one-armed tosser (more commonly known as an onager, shown to the right above), the most common catapult in antiquity (though they had onagers and probably invented them first) was the two-spring double-armed shooter (example to the left), which resembled something like a bulky and elaborate crossbow powered by what almost look like upright wood-and-rope shock absorbers. The ancient Greeks experienced a veritable arms race in the development of this vital military weapon, inspiring the earliest example of state-funded scientific research and development, with the specific aim of using technological advancement to gain a military advantage. And as Rihll shows, it changed the world.

In her study of this machine there are two things Rihll accomplishes of particular note (apart from producing a fully up-to-date synthesis of the whole of catapult history that reflects all the new developments in the field that few careful observers may already have known about from otherwise scattered reading). First, she establishes beyond doubt that catapult technology advanced considerably and importantly during the early Roman Empire (something that had often been denied), including the best case yet that they developed the metal-framed inswinger catapult, greatly magnifying power output (and leaving many modern reconstructions obsolete). Secondly, she also establishes beyond doubt the widespread use of small hand-held torsion catapults. In other words, the ancient equivalent of rifles (examples with three-foot stocks, for example, being commonplace), and even handguns (with models as small as nine or ten inches in total length).

The latter is perhaps the most astonishing. Expert observers will already have heard of growing evidence of Roman advances, but might have missed entirely the evidence of small catapults--yet as Rihll reveals, the evidence is surprisingly vast, if you know where to look for it, and what to look for. These weapons were apparently abundantly supplied in the Roman legions, and were so powerful that a typical stone-throwing smallarm could penetrate a human body with a lead bullet at a hundred yards--scaring the hell out of otherwise fearless Gauls, for example, who got totally freaked out when Roman bullets at such unbelievable range went right on into their bodies and didn't come back out again. In the modern age of firearms we take such an effect for granted, but you can imagine how terrifying it would be in a world that had never heard of such a thing.

Rihll conclusively proves that what we call a crossbow (sometimes still claimed to be a medieval invention, although the ancient Chinese had independently invented them as well) was already in existence by the time of Alexander the Great. And not merely in the form of what is technically called a bellybow (a kind of super-crossbow the sight of which would freak out the squares even today--in somewhat the same fashion, and being somewhat the same size and terrifying appearance, as the Bren Gun wielded unexpectedly by a doped-up hippy chick in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), but also in pretty much the same form known in the Middle Ages.

However, Rihll then demonstrates that the Greeks had already surpassed medieval crossbow technology by the time the Romans were arriving on the world scene. The ancients by then had weapons far more powerful, yet whose technology would be entirely forgotten in the Middle Ages. Though the ancients had and used metal springs (even in artillery), there is no conclusive evidence they had metal spring crossbows (though Rihll presents evidence of metal bows, and if you have those, why not metal crossbows?). But they might not have considered them worth the bother, since they had something better: the torsion catapult, which used springs of prepared hair or sinew that were actually much stronger than even modern springsteel (much less ancient or medieval spring metals). They were highly sophisticated machines that required considerable technical knowledge and ability to construct, but once you did, you had the most powerful missile weapon on earth before the rise of gunpowder.

Roman legionnaires employed such portable torsion "crossbows" in various sizes, from two-man cart-mounted units (the ancient equivalent of mobile gunnery) down to man-carried units (again) equivalent to rifle or even handgun size. Of course, besides these, they also employed a whole arsenal of larger catapults that required entire crews to operate, some actually mobile (in ox-pulled carts) and others portable only after disassembly, and some of those over 35 feet in length of stock, firing stone cannonballs up to nearly two hundred pounds weight as far as 400 yards, if you weren't too particular where the missile fell, or with impressive accuracy up to 200 yards, and with sniper precision up to 100 yards or more. The Romans, taking a cue from the Greeks before them, had standardized weapon design so the maximum and effective ranges of all weapons of all sizes were more or less the same, which meant even the "handweapons" were bewilderingly powerful. Hence the freaked out Gauls.

These small torsion catapults, like all ancient catapults, could be designed to fire bolts (thick, vicious arrows) or bullets (most commonly ovoid stone or lead pellets mass produced to a loose standard in numerous calibers not very different from modern jacketless bullets) or both, as well as an array of specialized missiles for any particular occasion. Though they had a cross-shape, much like a crossbow, they did not use "bows" for their springs, but upright cylinders of rope held taught in their housings and twisted back to provide driving force to the "arms" of the catapult (and thence to the "bowstring" or "slingstring" that launched the projectile). Since
pound-for-pound this mechanism was more powerful than springsteel, it was more efficient than metal bow springs, able to store massive amounts of energy in a very small space. Needless to say, the ancient torsion "crossbow" was truly a marvel to behold.

You can read all about this and tons more cool stuff in Rihll's awesome book. But don't expect a history of siege warfare or even siege weapons here. Her book's focus is squarely on only one weapon: the catapult (though with considerable attention to the changes in fortifications it inspired). But though that singular focus might suggest it would be boring, limited, and technical, it actually brings her to discuss numerous facets of ancient history, culture, society, and technology, very entertainingly, and almost always readably even for non-experts. Her discussions of the sociology of ancient weaponry alone are worth the reading, even if you think weapons themselves are dull tea.


Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity by Serafina Cuomo (2007). In this unique and interesting book, Cuomo (a professor of ancient science and technology at the University of London) analyzes ancient attitudes towards technology and craftsmen in five different ways, and in the process reveals numerous different aspects of ancient society and culture that are all in themselves well worth the read, even apart from their connection with technology. I learned much from it, and I think every chapter will leave you knowing a lot more about ancient culture that you won't have learned anywhere else.

In chapter one, Cuomo analyzes debates in Classical Athens over the definition and value of "art" or "skill" and the underlying social tensions these debates reflected
(finding that craftsmen were not so marginalized as historians usually now claim); in chapter two, she analyzes how Hellenistic advancements in war technology caused an upheaval in social values that had transformed attitudes towards technology and science by the dawn of the Roman era (supplementing and corroborating Rihll in important respects); in chapter three, she analyzes how funeral iconography employed by Roman artisans can be interpreted to reflect the values and attitudes of their social class (picking one particular example: depictions of the set square); in chapter four, how the attitudes of (and toward) Roman survey engineers, and their role in resolving ancient land disputes, can (or can't) be inferred from surviving inscriptions of the early Empire; and in chapter five, how everything changed in the era of medieval decline, even amidst pockets of surviving genius within the Byzantine Empire (a treatment of the East rather than the West that is itself almost novel in the study of ancient technology, and illuminating for that very reason).

Though these five chapters are really independent essays, paradigmatic examples of how Cuomo wants to see the myriad other subjects in the history of ancient technology written, and thus very different from each other in the questions asked and aspects studied, they do carry through a common theme, each in its own way. Her main objective is to show that there was no uniform "attitude" among any class in antiquity toward technology or craftsmen, that some among the literate elite could get all snooty over it, while others could hobnob with mechanics and experts and praise their contributions to society, and a whole complex spectrum in between.

Cuomo's collection of essays is required reading for anyone who wants to understand ancient attitudes toward science and technology, and useful as well for anyone who wants to see various and fascinating aspects of ancient culture that you probably won't see summarized elsewhere (especially for laymen). In fact, in various different ways she situates technology as an inseparable part of Greco-Roman culture that has all too often been overlooked by other historians, passed off as some sort of specialization that classicists need not concern themselves with. She refutes that notion quite decisively here. And at only 210 pages it is also quite short.

I should note that I disagree with her mildly on some few issues that will become clear in my own future book The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire, but also on one particular issue that I won't address there (as it falls outside the period my book will cover): her theory that engineering must have gained in prestige in the Byzantine Empire because engineers seem then to be increasingly and almost exclusively found among the governing elite (rather than coming up from the ranks of the ancient equivalent of the educated middle class, as had been the dominant case in previous eras). This is a non sequitur, and fails to be supported by other evidence (especially when compared with evidence for the previous period). I suspect what had actually happened was a worsening decline in the education system, such that only the highly privileged (and well-positioned) elite could get the requisite education to become a competent engineer--or worse, those outside the upper elite increasingly lost interest or faith in the pursuit of engineering as any sort of worthwhile goal, forcing a few keen minds in the aristocracy to take it up themselves simply to get things done.

Apart from her lone theory of a rise of prestige for engineers that I find untenable, she otherwise demonstrates several elements of decline in the engineering industry in the more advanced Byzantine Empire, already in the early Middle Ages, and her treatment of late antiquity is solid and informative. Every chapter, in fact, has something valuable or even essential to offer, and serves as a nice sampler of how to do history even when it's hard.


Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity by David Sedley (2008). This is a brilliant work, another series of Sather Lectures that astounds and defines a field, as so many have before, and it will, like the books above, become required reading for anyone interested in ancient cosmology, Presocratic philosophy, or the early origins of scientific thought. In fact, even though this book treats only one specific subject (Greco-Roman theories of the origin of physical and biological order in the universe, and ancient debates surrounding those theories, and the underlying assumptions behind those debates), it is so vastly superior to M. Rosemary Wright's Cosmology in Antiquity (reviewed in my last post on this subject) that I recommend reading Sedley's Creationism instead, at least for a start.

This book's relevance to the history of science is clear throughout, bearing not only on the transition from mythic to naturalistic explanation in the Presocratic era, but also on continuing debates thereafter between godless and divine theories of cosmic design, all the way into the Roman era. Sedley, a renowned expert in Hellenistic philosophy (who as Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Cambridge has recently been carving out an additional reputation as an expert on the Presocratics), includes chapters analyzing in detail the cosmogonic and biogenic theories (as far as we can reconstruct them) of Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Socrates, Plato, The Atomists, Aristotle, The Stoics, and finally (though most briefly) Galen.

This book does not discuss Jewish, Christian, or any other religious theory of creation, and it isn't comprehensive even among the pagan philosophers. However, it does discuss the most prominent godless theories of cosmogenesis (among the ancient atomists, from Democritus to Epicurus and Lucretius, though Sedley rightly proves they did not propose evolution theory as we understand it, despite what some have said) and what was in effect a form of ancient Deism or Pantheism (among the Stoics and possibly Galen). He also decisively proves the novel thesis that all ancient theories (apart from those of the atomists) were fundamentally religious, in the philosophical sense that they all incorporated intelligent design at some level. And yet ancient theories were surprisingly diverse in the many ways this was imagined to have occurred, thus challenging modern monolithic thinking among creationists as to what the options really are. Even the atomists advanced theories that do not correspond at all with modern evolution theory and yet rationally entail evident design without, in fact, any design at all.

But the most revolutionary (and yet entirely persuasive) proposal of this book is that most of the Presocratic cosmologies, often thought to have eliminated the divine (by scholars who thus imagine the Presocratic philosophers as the progenitors of modern naturalism and scientific atheism, as in a sense they are), actually instead subordinated the divine to rational scientific theory. Instead of radically splitting with mythological and sacred narratives, the Presocratic cosmologists concluded that God or gods were still involved, but the creation process could only be properly inferred from the available empirical evidence, and not learned from oracles, revelation, or sacred tradition. This led to increasingly naturalistic explanations that gradually replaced divine fiat and "just so" stories with appeals to intelligible systems of cause and effect. Thus scientific thinking originated within pagan religious thought, and continued living there quite comfortably.

But apart from that revelation and its implications, the best thing about this book are all the crazy, bizarre, interesting stories and examples that Sedley digs up from ancient sources, including arguments on both sides that were sometimes so sophisticated you can still hear them being voiced today, as well as cosmological assumptions that are entirely alien now, and yet were so pervasively embraced then that early Christianity can only be understood in light of them.

This book reads well, apart from a few places where Sedley delves into technicalia, though in the worst case of this he takes the trouble to warn the reader and advises those less interested to skip the technostuff and get right back to the gripping story.



David Fitzgerald said...

Thanks for such a terrific synopsis! I'm really delighted to see you post on these excellent books; they all sound like they should be required reading.

Ben said...

I think I got a bit of that feeling the Gauls had given I had no idea of such Roman badassery. How does one say, "holy shit" in Gaulese? I had to google a video of it in action. Pretty cool stuff. I still wonder how accurate that two spring tosser was. How do you aim a thing like that? Do you just point it at a scene from LotR's and expect casualties? I guess the spectators crap their pants possibly making archaeologists think lead, back in the day, has a radioactive halo of human feces.

In your opinion, in general, how difficult is it to debate over some point of history that falls off the beaten path of mainstream cultural nerves? Are there fights to the death over petty details like the exact nature of middle class engineers or do things go pretty smoothly if a better argument is made (that doesn't happen to infringe on someone's eternal security)? I suppose it probably just depends, eh? People can be pretty passionate about just about anything. I guess I'd just like to think there is pure sanity and love of better understanding floating around out there where I don't see it.

I really want to know more about those lateral creation debates. One always wonders how the ancients conceived of things without the kind of background information we now have. Naturally since a deity's work is no more obvious than it is today, I'm sure pretty much any and everything went across the vast spectrum of idiosyncratic possibility. Every IDiot across the countryside (wall to wall) has that single general, most generic, argument from incredulity to work with (and they've never heard of anything else)...GO!

Great reviews. Keep them coming.


Ben said...

Oh yeah, and forgive my anachronistic prejudice. I'm sure the "IDiots" of yesteryear deserve a little more credit than the modern ones. Although I do wonder who that bright agnostic thinker was that was able to at the very least recognize the "who created the designer" problem and the fact they really just didn't know enough about anything to really come to a decent conclusion. Although this sounds like the last person you'd expect to develop a cosmology and thus they would probably have virtually no representation. Maybe it was someone's wife, haha.

Pikemann Urge said...

Interesting indeed. This is noteworthy:

"technology as an inseparable part of Greco-Roman culture that has all too often been overlooked by other historians, passed off as some sort of specialization that classicists need not concern themselves with"

Technology is taken for granted as a part of our society and an influence on it. And yet there are some who suggest it was otherwise in ancient times? Makes you laugh.

Anther point which interests me a great deal is when technology gets lost and rediscovered. This didn't just happen in the past. It happens all the time.

We are certainly advanced but no doubt we could be doing better were it not for a technology that we've forgotten - if only we knew what that was!

Perhaps this is more relevant in specific crafts and disciplines but it's still valid nonetheless.

Ben said...


Before I go scouring the internet to sate my interest, do you happen to know off hand if there's a list of ancient technologies "lost and found" that we *do* happen to know of? It'd be nice to get a general feel for how some of that might go. Well...I'll probably go look anyway before you or anyone responds, but that doesn't mean I'll find what you might have in mind already. So gimme some links if you got em, if you would be so kind.


Pikemann Urge said...

I can only think of one example off-hand, and I have forgotten the details. Mr. Yamamura of high-end hi-fi company Yamamura Churchill said that he got lots of his fundamental understanding of electronics from an old textbook which contained information that somehow got lost over the decades after WW2.

Also, my mechanic, when taking a client's engine to a dyno, broke the record for the most amount of torque from a 2.0L engine. What's amazing is that he works with relatively simple tools. His knowledge isn't forgotten exactly but he got his skill organically over many years.

Hope that was helpful.

Richard Carrier said...

I can add to Pikeman's examples the one in the NOVA episode called, I think, Pyramid, in which a bunch of archaeologists and engineers were tasked with building a small replica pyramid (I think in fact in Cairo, or in any case somewhere in Egypt) using the same tools and materials, to see how plausible different theories were.

Maybe I'm thinking of a different episode, but I definitely saw one where they were having a hell of a time with techniques for raising stones. None of the archaeologists' or engineers' pet theories were working very well, until a local Egyptian stonemason came by and saw what they were doing and thought it was pretty stupid. He showed them how it was "obviously" done (no doubt in real life, since third world countries often have to rely on old stand-by's when tractors and cranes are not to be had), and the system was simple and worked beautifully, even better than any of the theorists had thought.

There are a lot of examples like that, where modern historians get wrong what was "possible" or "how" things were done in antiquity, because they never really learned how things actually got done before modern technology, nor consider that there might be more than one way to accomplish the same goal.

One example that isn't directly on point, but related and the one most recently in my memory since I just finished reading the papers on it, is the Roman wood-block force pump. This is the first known cylinder block invented by man, and it was a technology in wide use during the early Roman Empire. A large wooden block would be bored out with all the components a sophisticated reciprocating force pump required, separate hollow plungers would also be bored out of wood, and everything sealed with lead and leather washers, gaskets, and valves.

These were first dismissed as some inexplicable backwards technology, perhaps what was resorted to when the fancy die-cast bronze pump machinery (which they also had, with clearances between cylinder and plunger in the hundredths of a millimeter) wasn't affordable. But a few historians of technology started looking more seriously at this and realized this was actually an improvement (in certain contexts), and had been deliberately developed as a superior innovation by Roman engineers.

The wooden pumps were used in wells and other locations where they were constantly immersed in water and never had to be moved. They were actually more economical, more reliable, and longer-lasting (wood doesn't rust, and when treated and fully submerged rarely rots--which is why we still have them, two thousand years later), and were specifically designed for these reasons. In fact, their construction is so similar across the entire empire it is clear there was a standard manual on how to build them.

We take for granted modern materials and often forget that older materials are still often better. A well-made wooden chair, even today, will always be superior, in almost every measurable respect, to a metal or plastic one. Likewise, the technique of building wooden force pumps clearly had its advantages, and still could today, in some communities around the world, where a little wood, leather, and lead is far easier to get a hold of than a fancy metal well pump--and a lot harder for passing armies to loot.

Richard Carrier said...

Agnostics_R_Us said... How does one say, "holy shit" in Gaulese?

Good question. David, how does one say "holy shit" in the language of the Celts?

I still wonder how accurate that two spring tosser was. How do you aim a thing like that?

Modern reconstructions would be deemed embarrassing hack work by ancient engineers (and reconstructors will generally acknowledge the point, for reasons Rihll explains), so they aren't necessarily the best examples to judge by. Accuracy was remarkably high (probably the best of all mechanized weapons before modern gunnery), but how you aimed depended on the size and type of weapon (as there were numerous different kinds).

Large weapons typically were aimed the same way artillery still are: the targeteer knows how far a missile will go at what angle the weapon is placed, so all he has to do is sight the weapon (using the side of its stock as a plane surface parallel to the direction of fire, and they probably had dioptra, or metal sights, fixed in a useful spot) and fix its elevation against a plumbline (which also probably came attached, though plumblines were standard equipment among ancient engineers anyway). The success of a first aimed shot would depend on the skill of the targeteer (and how well he knows that particular weapon, since standardized "factory identical" machinery did not exist until the Industrial Revolution) and the accuracy with which range is determined (and that would be done using a whole array of surveying equipment and geometrical calculations available at the time). But after the first shot, adjustments can be made and aim gets better. Rihll reports that even with a modern reconstruction of a medium-sized torsion catapult firers found that it was so accurate it actually got in the way of their targeting: they kept trying to hit a target (this at a range that required indirect fire) until they realized its range was exactly half-a-ratchet-notch between the two notches they were using. Once they compensated (by changing the weapon elevation) they could hit a less-than-donkey-sized target consistently with every shot.

Small weapons were aimed the same way crossbows were and still are (well, except for those crazies who actually put optical sights on crossbows now). In fact, among the innovations introduced by the Romans were an improved sighting system (nothing fancy, just something that allowed accurate snap fire). One thing Rihll shows is that out to as much as a hundred yards hand-held catapults could pick off a specific man. In other words, they could be used for sniper fire, and as she also shows, this at ranges that often surprised the victims. But at the outside end of this range (100 yards) this would be akin to using a Barrett M82 sniper rifle to strike a target a thousand yards out: it would have to be a (more or less) stationary target due to the delivery time. Torsion catapult projectiles reach speeds of 90 to 130 miles per hour, which is nasty, but modern bullets go six to twelve times that (actually breaking the sound barrier).

Do you just point it at a scene from LotR's and expect casualties?

Quite frequently, yes. Two common uses of them were to destroy fortifications (in effect, to hit the side of a barn), and at that they were known to literally destroy entire stone towers of considerable size (so much so that fortification design changed radically once these weapons hit the scene), and to break up infantry formations (which only requires throwing missiles anywhere in an organized mass of men). Others included getting incendiaries (or worse) over walls, and controlling a zone (i.e. scaring any infantry from crossing a particular line of fire, which was more about terror than successful targeting). None of these required precision fire, per se. But there was precision fire to be had, at closer (and thus more dangerous) ranges.

In your opinion, in general, how difficult is it to debate over some point of history that falls off the beaten path of mainstream cultural nerves? Are there fights to the death over petty details like the exact nature of middle class engineers or do things go pretty smoothly if a better argument is made (that doesn't happen to infringe on someone's eternal security)? I suppose it probably just depends, eh? People can be pretty passionate about just about anything. I guess I'd just like to think there is pure sanity and love of better understanding floating around out there where I don't see it.

It varies. I've seen sanity and insanity everywhere in ancient history. But I have to admit, most historians of ancient technology (and I mean the actual experts) are very sensible and rapidly accept new theories well-grounded in evidence, and don't kowtow to ideological "fads." In contrast, historians of ancient economics are often very unreasonable and cling to the most absurd conclusions even when faced with vast evidence to the contrary--though ironically (or perhaps not) the historians of ancient economics who are (or actually listen to) the historians of ancient technology are usually the most reasonable ones. Meanwhile, historians of philosophy, and Classicicists, and others who would most likely assess Sedley's contribution, tend to be in the middle of these groups. That's just a general impression, though.

Pikemann Urge said...

Richard: interesting about the wood block pump. Historians (or people in general) tend to assume the worst of ancient civilised peoples but often it turns out they do know what they're doing. Except for lead water pipes. Ahem.

Personally, I like the geopolymer theory of the pyramids. This article about Coral Castle is interesting if you have time:


David Fitzgerald said...

How does one say, "holy shit" in Gaulese?

Well, my ancient Gaulish is a little rusty, but it's a P-Celtic language (like Breton, Cornish and Welsh) so you would probably say it something like the Welsh "Cachu Cysegredig!" (which sounds more like Kah-chee Kuss-kredik) or the Breton "Kaoc'h ki du!" (pron. Cacky-due!) which literally means "Shit from a Black Dog!"

In Irish, interestingly enough they have many words for shit, depending on whether it's cowshit, horseshit, etc...
Actually, it would be interesting to know what idioms the ancient Gauls actually used when they were surprised/terrified. The Bretons have another great one, which I can't remember of the top of my head but basically translates to "Triplefuck!

Ben said...

Those guys know their shit, eh? lol Kind of like Eskimos know their snow? Don't they have like twenty plus words for the different kinds of snow we'd never notice? Not sure what that says about people who have refined terminology for poop. And I'm not sure if I can work in any of those words into my personal swearing canon. We'll see. "Triplefuck" does have a nice ring to it. That's up there with "double damn."

I appreciate the examples provided of "lost and found" technologies. Although the special I saw of that mini-pyramid building thing ended in relative failure, I think. Maybe I didn't watch the whole thing.

Someone needs to compile a master list for posterity.

Donald said...

Darn. I got here late. In case anyone is reading this, how massive were the "bullets" or bolts launched by the handheld catapults (of either or both sizes--the 3 footers and the 10 inchers).
And what were the muzzle velocities? Someone upthread said 90-130 mph. I'm curious about the kinetic energy involved and how it compares to modern weapons. (Obviously not comparable to rifle bullets, but would it be similar to what a pistol delivers?)

Richard Carrier said...

Pikemann Urge said... Historians (or people in general) tend to assume the worst of ancient civilised peoples but often it turns out they do know what they're doing. Except for lead water pipes. Ahem.

Funny you should mention. The Romans knew lead was poisonous. For that very reason Vitruvius advises against lead pipes and recommends fired clay where feasible. However, archaeologists have confirmed that ancient lead pipes rapidly calcified (in fact, it seems pressure variances may have been built into their systems to specifically encourage calcium deposits) and that as a result essentially no lead entered the waterstream (in effect, the lead inside was coated with a natural polymer that separated it from the water). The poor still used lead cookery, which couldn't have been good for them, but the wealthier employed bronze.

Okay, some useless trivia: Why lead pipes at all? Because it was easy to work and repair and it hardly cost anything. Lead was so massively cheap in antiquity because it was a major byproduct of silver mining (vastly more lead came out of the process than silver, and miners figured they might as well profit from the byproduct as well as the silver they were really after), and silver was a top commodity (in both currency and tableware, among other things). Consequently, in effect, lead was their plastic: sure, a bit toxic at times, but you can do almost anything with it and it costs less than dirt. Even some fire pumps were made of lead (most typically fire pumps in silver mines--and why not, for them the material was free!).

Pikemann Urge said... Personally, I like the geopolymer theory of the pyramids.

I read about that. And the theory looks quite sound to me so far. Though even its authors admit their study still needs to be replicated to confirm, it looks highly likely that most of the bulk of the pyramids did indeed consist of molded concrete blocks poured in situ, and not cut stone as has always been thought (though some of the latter was of course used in the outer and inner shell). This would have involved a concrete process unknown otherwise (even to the Romans) and evidently lost before the Classical period, but that's not unfeasible.

Richard Carrier said...

Agnostics_R_Us said... Although the special I saw of that mini-pyramid building thing ended in relative failure, I think. Maybe I didn't watch the whole thing.

If I recall correctly, they only "failed" in the sense that they ran out of time (which is code for "budget"), and that only happened because they had wasted so many days trying it the wrong way.

Richard Carrier said...

Donald said... How massive were the "bullets" or bolts launched by the handheld catapults (of either or both sizes--the 3 footers and the 10 inchers). And what were the muzzle velocities? Someone upthread said 90-130 mph. I'm curious about the kinetic energy involved and how it compares to modern weapons. (Obviously not comparable to rifle bullets, but would it be similar to what a pistol delivers?)

Rihll discusses all these points in detail (including a very interesting discussion of the kinetic energy of crossbow bolts in relation to wound effect that draws on forensic reports from a modern murder case). She has an appendix with a table of a selection of sizes of catapult and projectile, as projected from formulae we know were used at the time (plus in part her own findings from the archaeological facts).

Hand catapults (like all catapults) fired two kinds of ammo:

(1) Bullets usually of lead (but sometimes of shaped stone), typically of ovoid shape and stamped with a scorpion. These would vary around the size of a modern large caliber bullet, most typically like a .45, but slightly larger weapons had correspondingly larger bullets, just like modern weaponry. A two-foot weapon would typically launch a half-ounce bullet (so something like a .444 Marlin round); while a three-foot would launch a one-ouncer (like a .458 Winchester Magnum) and a one-foot would probably launch something around 120 grains (like a .30 Carbine).

(2) Bolts, essentially like crossbow bolts, though of a more aerodynamic design and a bit more vicious in the business end. There were many different kinds of bolts for different applications (Rihll discusses the known varieties), but one typical sort resembled the spear-tips of Roman pila (and in fact some pila wounds identified in skeletons have been re-identified as bolt wounds), with long metal business ends and heavy pointed diamond-shaped tip for deep penetration. A two-foot weapon would typically fire a one-foot bolt, and this follows a linear scaling law (so whatever the weapon length, its bolt was typically half that).

Velocities were indeed 90-130 mph, but that's only 130-200 fps, which is way below modern firearms, which shoot at 1000 fps and up. Hence the catapults would not have killed by shock effect, and delivery time (as I remarked above) was comparatively slow. But they did fire fast enough to penetrate armor and flesh even without a sharp point. Of course the larger stationary weapons (e.g. 50, 100, and 200 Ib. stonethrowers) delivered tremendous kinetic energy to the target by shear inertia alone.