Friday, 22 November 2013

Rethinking? -- part five

Lower linchpin terminal from British
chariot showing typical wear at head.
Jope's "vase-type" (i) Plate 301 b-d,
page 314. (d is from Wigginton Common,
near Grime's Ditch Iron Age earthworks).
1st cent. BC.
(Calgary Coin current stock)

To continue with my critique of  Chris Gosden and J. D. Hill, Introduction: re-integrating 'Celtic' art, in: Rethinking Celtic Art. On p. 6, the authors say:
Caesar estimates that Cassivellaunus mustered some 4,000 chariots against him in south-east England in 54 BC (none of these are evidenced in the archaeological record -- all twenty known British chariot burials either come from Yorkshire or Newbridge near Edinburgh). Due to the imperfections of his knowledge and the need to provide impressive war propaganda, it is likely that Caesar exaggerated.
The propaganda, here, lies not with Caesar, but with the authors who appear to have caught a common meme one encounters in archaeological writings about Caesar's commentaries. Whether it is far commoner in British publications, I cannot say, because these form the bulk of my reading. The actual form of the meme is unknown, but it certainly has to do with minimizing the Celtic presence in Britain, and then being accusative of ancient sources which do not reflect the meme. The fact of it being a meme is evidenced to me by the authors' opening to the paragraph: "The following figures are obviously an exercise in speculation, but they do suggest how little evidence we have compared to that which once existed." and again at the end of the paragraph: "Whatever the validity of this exercise, one conclusion seems inescapable: we have archaeological evidence of only a tiny fraction of the Celtic art that would originally have been in circulation." The exercise in question is providing numbers of chariot terret rings known and comparing these with the authors' estimates of the numbers of chariots that existed. You should be able to see from this that, while the meme was being further proliferated, the author's own reasoning had taken over to a great degree and the result was thus confused in its argument.

Although linchpins are mentioned, the numbers of surviving specimens are given only for terrets, and these are referenced to archaeological sites where their deposition was deliberate. Caesar's estimate of 4,000 chariots is halved in their calculations, but they offer no reason for their use of this particular percentage. Within the blockquote above, two glaring problems should be visible to anyone who has not been infected by the meme. I will deal with these in turn.

In preparation for his second visit to Britain (Book 5.1ff), Caesar commissioned the building of six hundred transports and twenty-eight warships. When he sailed, he took with him five legions and two thousand cavalry. A legion could have as many as six thousand men, but was frequently "understaffed". So the maximum number of foot soldiers would have been thirty thousand but could have been less. Sixty ships had blown off course when mustering and had missed the campaign completely;  Caesar became becalmed at one point on the voyage and was taken far off course by the currents -- having to row back to the planned landing. We do not know if Cassivellaunus had received any intelligence about Caesars' itinerary, but we do know that a large number of British troops were waiting for him at the landing site. After seeing the vast number of his ships, they had sought cover and were not visible to the Romans when they disembarked. Caesar only learned of this afterward from prisoners. He left ten cohorts (ca. 6,000 men) and three hundred cavalry to guard the ships. So he could have marched with as many as twenty four thousand foot soldiers and seventeen hundred cavalry. It is always wisest to take such numbers at face value and not to make subjective estimates as, with a sequence of subjective guesses, the likelihood of errors in the conclusion becomes far too great. Only when reaching a conclusion, will the possibility of errors become apparent. This is apart from any possible data-infection through memes. Even if we assume that Caesars' itinerary was known to Cassivellaunus' forces, four thousand chariots seems to me to be a reasonable response -- depending on their importance to the British forces strategy. At this point, it is also important to remember that Caesar was already behind schedule after being becalmed.

Comparing the number of chariot burials with the given number of chariots under the command of Cassivellaunus is simply wrong as chariot burials were not a custom among the tribes he commanded. Very few Celtic burials are known in south-east England, and most of these were later, anyway. The dead of the area in about 50 BC have largely vanished without trace (as have all domestic dwellings in La Tène Ireland). The term archaeological record is an oxymoron for this material and is another meme too often used inappropriately, by accident, in archaeological applications, but deliberately in political applications.

Caesar's "imperfections of his knowledge", throughout his commentaries, are to be found, mainly, in what he was told of ethnological matters, and not so much in military matters. When some Gaulish wag told him that the elk had no joints in their legs and had to sleep leaning against trees, and that they could be caught by partly sawing through such leaning trees, the man must have managed to keep a straight face and Caesar, not planning any elk hunting expeditions, found no need to interrogate prisoners or use spies to confirm this information. It was a very different matter with military affairs -- Caesar was a good general. Like archaeological record, "Caesar exaggerated" is another common meme and its application and functions are the same. That Caesar's military accounts were "war propaganda" aimed at his funders is a common excuse where needed by some people, and it is refuted by just as many. The flaw is that the events were just too big and the witnesses too many. While he erred, sometimes, by putting too much faith in those close to him, and then becoming very upset when his mistake was realized, he was not a mentally deficient man on the whole.

The use of terrets by the authors in their calculations seems misguided. I think it better to use a chariot part more frequently lost through use. As a terret is attached to horse collar, and has a rein running through its ring, accidental loss would be difficult. It would be better to use estimates of linchpin fragments in the trade. You can buy such objects anytime. Common to these, and mentioned by Jope, is varying degrees of wear. They are also prone to accidental loss away from any archaeological site as their shaft is made of iron. Celtic iron was wrought and was of varying quality. Fox noted that its best quality examples seemed to be used for edge weapons and these sometimes approached the quality of modern steel. We might debate whether the higher carbon content was deliberate or was due to the vagaries of the manufacturing process and that the quality of some of it was merely noticed after the fact, or was noticed in the work of certain smiths and exploited thus. I am no metallurgist and can offer little in that respect. We do know for sure that iron blades could be bent. If the bending of iron is too frequent, it can eventually snap and a lower linchpin terminal, catching on a rock or something else in battle might be easily lost. Let's see what Caesar said about the British chariots -- in reference to his first invasion of Britain, he said (Book IV.33):
In chariot fighting the Britons begin by driving all over the field hurling javelins,, and generally the terror inspired by the horses and the noise of the wheels are sufficient to throw their opponents' ranks into disorder.
He is obviously talking about the effect on his own troops: he mentions "ranks" and the whole scene would be of little surprise to anyone if both sides were Celtic. In the second invasion, his men know what to expect and do not seem alarmed by it. But you really have to wonder how much a Roman soldier would be terrorized by the sound of horses and wheels. Such sounds would be fairly commonplace -- even on the streets of Rome. I think that one of the things that the Celtic chariot drivers did was to bend the lower linchpin on the fixed axle to rub against the chariot wheel hub. This would produce a screaming noise which would be raised or lowered in tone depending on the speed. When I was a boy, it was common  to attach a card to bicycle wheels to make a similar noise as it rubbed against the wire spokes. The sound of metal against metal would be much more extreme. Many of the linchpin terminals I have seen have considerable wear, sometimes half the terminal is worn away. It would require that the iron shaft would need to be bent back often to keep in contact with the hub, and this is why so many were lost. I see no reason, whatsoever, to doubt Caesar's claim of four thousand chariots.

I'll be back with more on Monday.

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