Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Of Ancient Norse, Egalitarian Societies, and Burial Practices

Some of you may have seen an internet article like this one going around recently for a study that was actually published three years ago. But if your local library doesn't have the access to go behind the paywall of the original article, you might also find yourself being mislead. Here's a more accurate write-up of it close to the time of publication, and here's a write-up explaining where the newer misleading ones went wrong. I recommend reading through the comments of the last one; some of them are quite informative.

I first got wind of this study through one of the newer studies. I had a brain fail and didn't check the primary reference (shame on me!) before commenting on a friend's post that I wasn't surprised. The Norse did give us Valkyries and shieldmaidens, after all. And I'd heard from SCAdians with Norse personas that women in those cultures had much more freedom than more stereotypical medieval European societies. But then I saw the post explaining the errors and I was also not surprised. The game of Internet Telephone and bad science journalism strike again...

One of the comments reminded me of something that I've never explicitly stated (and I apologize for not doing so before)—when you hear or read about egalitarian societies of the past (or today)—it doesn't necessarily mean they're egalitarian because they believe in equality. It might be because they don't really have a choice.

<tangent>To bring in another of my bio/paleo analogies, terrestrial vertebrates can be bipeds or quadrupeds, but the description doesn't end there. They can be obligate or facultative bipeds or quadrupeds. There's a difference between an organism being bipedal because it has to be vs. bipedal because it wants to be. Raccoons, for example, are quadrupeds normally, but I've seen them pick up food in their front paws and run away on their hind legs. It was more useful for them to be bipedal at that point in time because they could carry more food that way.

In her book, Davis-Kimball recounts some time spent with a modern nomad group. Their chief was a woman. She asked the men what they thought about having a female leader. They looked at her like she was an idiot and told her she was their chief because she was the most qualified to be their chief. End of story.

If you're like me, you probably have a pretty privileged life. Living inside a decent building. Your access to the internet is good enough that you can afford to spend time on it reading my blog instead of doing necessary things like checking if your boss has e-mailed you recently. You can likely go to a nearby grocery store to buy your food. Maybe you even have the fallback of living with your parents if your job doesn't pan out.

But if you live a nomadic life on the steppes, or you're looking for new farmland across the sea, the future quality of your life is much less certain. You can't afford to tell half the population "No, stay home. We'll take care of everything here" or "You can't fight or be a leader because we want you to sew things and cook, even if you aren't terribly good at it". What an individual does is dictated by necessity as much as by their skill. If a male Viking spends all day raiding a nearby village, he's not going to be able to stay home and tend the fields. If your group needs a leader, you pick the best because you may not fare well in the winter if you don't. The way "civilized" society has been set up, we have more leeway with the mistakes we make. Crops didn't do well this year? That's okay. We've got plenty from last year in the freezer.

But having all that leeway means the powerful also have more wiggle room to let their personal preferences creep in. And in Western society, that means assuming males are more competent than females in many jobs and deserve more pay. Now before you counter that the pay gap is false, I've read the same 70% statistic as you and, like you, disregarded it because the study that number came from failed to account for various factors that would cause it to look more serious than it should. I didn't see any reason to believe the pay gap diatribe until I read this horrifying study. It's in an open access journal, so you have no excuse not to read it.

But if you're in a rush, here's the take-home message (before you go read the full thing later): Give people (male or female; it's so ingrained in our culture that it doesn't matter!) the resume of an applicant for a STEM field position. If the gender of the name is masculine, they are more likely to hire that person, offer them a higher salary, give them more career mentoring, and consider them more competent.

The thing that makes this study so convincing is that the only thing that changed on the resume was the gender of the name. Everything else on the resume—the achievements that actually tell you how good a candidate a person is—was the. Exact. Same. And there have been plenty of other studies showing similar biases (which is why female authors often abbreviate their names).

...So back to my original point—when you read about female warriors of the past, or female leaders of modern nomadic tribes, don't assume it means that society believes/d everyone is created equal. It might just be because they had/ve no choice but to act that way.

Remember the post on the Nart Sagas I linked to? Where there's a prophecy that "one day men and women will live peacefully as equals"? At first glance, it sounds all warm and squishy because it means they accept that it's possible for people to be equal regardless of gender. But also remember that wife kidnapping was a thing there. And forcing an unrelated woman to treat you like a son by doing something that, in our society, is sexual harassment was an accepted practice.

Early Sarmatian (or maybe just Sauromatian, I forget if it stopped with them) graves with weapons may have been 20% female, but that practice died off. By the time you get to Late Sarmatians, there are no more female warriors defending their tribes against the Huns or raiding nearby Roman settlements. And as for that 20% number, again, things aren't necessarily what they seem. Just because someone is buried with an object doesn't always mean they regularly used that object in life. Ancient Egyptians were buried with a book; that doesn't mean they were all librarians.

Like the Book of the Dead, the steppe nomad practice of burying weapons with people could be a ceremonial or religious thing (from what I've read, they did practice a sort of sword worship). Maybe that noblewoman was buried with a sword because her tribe felt that people of note should be buried with a symbol of power. Or maybe their mythology had dead souls paying their way to the afterlife with a sword, like the coins for Charos (note: I completely made that one up; I have no reason to actually believe that). Who knows? One could come up with any number of theories, both substantiated and unsubstantiated. The same goes for the occasional steppe nomad man buried with both weapons and mirrors (normally associated with female graves)—doesn't necessarily mean he was something like a Two-Spirit, which Davis-Kimball suggested. The assumption that grave goods are solely representative of use in life is rife with errors and where Davis-Kimball's book falls flat.

On the other hand, it doesn't mean that every case of being buried with weapons was like that. It is common practice, after all, to bury people with things they were attached to in life. Just remember that's it's not going to be a 1:1 correlation. If you want to be sure about a particular find, look for data like whether a particular sword was worn from use and whether the skeleton shows skeletal pathologies consistent with being a warrior.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Saka "Golden Woman" Reconstructions

Two years ago, a new, undisturbed find of a wealthy Saka woman from the 4th to 5th centuries BC in western Kazakhstan made the news. Finding an unlooted kurgan is always great news. So many of them were looted in both distant and recent history (in modern cases, many looters melt the gold down, which means all cultural information is lost). A week ago, images of many of the artifacts in her grave, along with reconstructions of some things (like her clothes and her comb) were published here. Take a look through them! It's pretty awesome.
  The claim that her symbols represent a belief in Zoroastrianism confused me. Maybe something was lost in translation, but worshiping a sky/sun god is kind of an ancestral Indo-European thing (discussed in The Horse, The Wheel, and Language), so it should by no means be indicative of Zoroastrianism over other religions in that category.
  Side note 1: The tall hat would have been made of felt over a wooden frame. I don't know more details than that; it's something that was briefly noted in Warrior Women by Davis-Kimball.
  Side note 2: The "Golden Man" is also a woman. But because the archeologists in charge of reporting her operated in a highly patriarchal paradigm, they failed to report it, even though some of them suspected it. It ruffled their feathers that she was buried with a warrior's accoutrements. Davis-Kimball also recounts how she independently figured it out and the reception of her findings in her book.
  One thing I should note before anyone rushes off to recreate her outfit: just because someone is buried in something, doesn't mean they would have worn it in life. It could be funerary clothing. Someone noted on this facebook page that a hat like that is impractical, so why would someone living on the steppes wear it? Couldn't it get blown away by the wind? All I have to offer to counter that is that there are depictions of steppe women wearing tall hats while alive in their goldwork. See this post for one example. However, it's still possible that they were specifically for ceremonial purposes, rather than for everyday use.

Anthony, D.W., 2007, The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, Princeton University Press, pp. 553.
Davis-Kimball, J., and Behan, M., 2002, Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines, Warner Books, pp. 268. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sarmatians et al. in the SCA

  I've started hearing from more and more SCAdians with Sarmatian personas. I think it would be nice if we all had a way to contact each other and share what we know. Maybe even start a household. :)
  So if you have a Sarmatian or other Iranian steppe nomad persona and are willing to be included on this list, could you e-mail me (or comment here with) your SCA name (or mundane if you're trying to decide or want both listed), kingdom, and local group? If you have more specific persona info, (century, tribe, geographic area...) you can opt to give me that as well.
  If you've e-mailed me in the past and I haven't accidentally deleted the conversation during an inbox purge, I'll contact you separately to ask. But if you haven't heard from me by this Monday (August 25), assume I lost it and contact me again. If you've commented on a previous blog entry but not included your e-mail address, I probably won't have a way to reach you, so please also comment here again.
  I haven't decided what the best way to make a contact circle would be. I could hyperlink e-mails here (with your permission). We could start a Yahoo or Google group. What's everybody's preference?

  • SCA name: Aritê gunê Akasa
    Mundane: Jess Miller-Camp
    Tribe: Undecided
    Time: Undecided
    Place: Undecided
    Kingdom: Calontir
    Local: Shire of Shadowdale
  •  SCA name: Undecided
    Mundane: Csenge Zalka
    Tribe: Undecided
    Time: Undecided
    Place: Undecided
    Kingdom: Middle Kingdom
    Local: Barony of Red Spears 
  • SCA Name: Storanê Sauromatis
    Mundane: Carol Botteron
    Tribe: Undecided
    Time: Undecided
    Place: Undecided
    Kingdom: East
    Local: Barony of Carolingia
  • SCA name: Maiôsara Sauromatis
    Mundane name: Sarah Mitchner
    Tribe: Roxolani
    Time: 5th century
    Place: Tomis
    Kingdom: Middle
    Local: Barony of the Flame
  • Sarmatian Name: Undecided
    Real Name: Holly Herda
    Tribe: Iazyges
    Time: Late 2nd Century AD
    Place: Sarmatia (Hungary) / Britain
    Location: Texas, USA
  • SCA Name: Minythia
    Mundane: Rachel Baltz
    Tribe: Scythian/Sarmatian (intermarriage)
    Time: 6th Century BCE
    Place: Nomadic- Don River to Altai Mountains
    Kingdom: Caid
    Local: Barony of Calafia

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sarmatian-related Objects in the British Museum

  I was actually able to find some Sarmatian-related things in the British Museum! Yay! Many of them were artifacts from sedentary cultures that were either traded from or influenced by their steppe neighbors, be they Sarmatian or contemporaries of the Sarmatians.

  First up is something a sedentary culture picked up from either the Sarmatians or a contemporary steppe culture. They liked to sew gold plaques on their clothing. There were some in a case of Parthian items from the 1st century AD.
  There are tiny holes on the edges for the thread. Not pictured above these were some gold leaves mimicking early Greek head wreaths. The label notes that the wreath was probably placed on a corpse, so in this case the gold plaques may have been a funerary-specific thing.

 There were also a type of small, three-sided arrowhead which were apparently indicative of Central Asian steppe cultures before some sedentary ones decided they were awesome and started using them themselves. They were apparently quick and easy to make and good at piercing armor. They were fired out of recurved bows—also introduced form the steppes.
 These are from a soldier's cemetary (Deve Hüyük) from the mid-6th to 4th century BC in northern Syria, which was then part of the Achaemenid Empire.

  This horse bit is from the same site as the arrowheads. Nothing was said about whether the style was native Achaemenid or steppe-influenced, but I've included it here since it's contemporary and may be of interest to equestrians.
  I wouldn't advise actually using these on your horses, though. The label noted that the knobs on the snaffle, while allowing control with very small movements, would be uncomfortable for the horse.

  They also found items in at least one female grave there. Bronze mirrors were also ritually buried with priestesses in steppe nomad kurgans. It used to have a wooden handle. The bone tube used to have a lid and contained some sort of makeup. The other items are a cloak brooch and bracelets with stylized calf's head motifs.
  Anyone know what the burial practices of an Achaemenid garrison would have been?  Would they bury wives of soldiers there as well? Would they have had a religious leader there? Or did women sometimes fight in their culture like the Sarmatians? The labels didn't say if these were found alongside martial artifacts or not.

  Fast-forward in time to the Sassanian Empire—the last Iranian empire before the spread of Islam. They made seal stamps out of various minerals. People, animals (real and mythical), plants, and inanimate objects were all possible images on the seals. ...So were tamgas. :)
  The BM display only had the one tamga seal (no provenance given), but you can see quite a few more in a private Austrian collection on this website.

   And, finally, there was the Ribchester Hoard. The hoard itself is too early to belong to any of the Iazyges Sarmatians that were stationed there, but other, later Roman artifacts were displayed in the same case. And some of them looked to be lifted from the Sarmatians. One of the re-enactment groups I'll talk about soon discussed how Romans tended to absorb weapon and armor styles from the people they conquered.
  There were a number of weapons in this case—swords, daggers, etc...—and one of them is a ring pommel sword. Ring pommel swords were popular among Sarmatian from the 2nd century to the 2nd century AD (mentioned in the Osprey book on them). They were also used by other Central Asian peoples, though it doesn't seem like they were very popular until later according to the discussion on this forum. About the time the Iazyges were first drafted into the Roman army, ring pommel sword became popular amongst Romans.
  This sword is from the 2nd-3rd century AD, Pevensey, East Sussex. It was found with coins from Emporer Commodus' reign (176-192AD). It was buried in the ground intact. The wood and leather scabbard(?) (I think they may have meant to say grip there...) rotted away, but the tin-coated bronze pommel is intact.

  I'll talk more about the Ribchester Hoard and the Sarmatian ala there in an upcoming post on the Ribchester Roman Museum.

Quick Update

I am working on the next few posts. I have quite a few I want to get out! I still have a couple from my Europe trip, plus now a quick archeology news share and updates based on some of the books I've been reading while on planes, trains, and buses in both Europe and the paleo dig in Wyoming. I've just been getting more work stuff square away, but my goal is to get one out by tomorrow afternoon.
Also, I've made a last-minute decision to go to Cattle Raids this weekend. Anyone want to meet up? I think I'll load the Roman re-enactor videos (complete with cavalry and horseback archery!) back onto my camera and take it, so you can get a sneak peak if you find me. :) I'll be wearing some...uh...totally non-period lime green Thai pants...'cause I ruined my only pair of period pants trying to resize them...-_-* At least they're linen?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Scythian and Scythian-related Objects in the British Museum

I was quite happy with the British Museum (BM). They had many steppe nomad and steppe nomad-related artifacts on display. And, because they're an archeology museum, their labels were much more informative than the Louvre's. Also, there's so much I want to talk about that I've decided to split my visit there into two posts--this one focused on the Scythians and the next on the Sarmatians.

The Oxus Treasure
Scythian feline on a ring biting its tail.
Similar to the pommels at the Met.
The Oxus Treasure is a collection of Achaemenid-period metalwork and coins found in modern-day Tajikistan just across the border with Afghanistan. Much of it was unfortunately cut or melted down for bullion by the merchants the finders originally sold it to, so museums only contain part of the find now. The art styles in the hoard are highly variable, so one hypothesis is that the hoard was temple tribute, with individual pieces being of various ages and originating from various cultures. The BM dates the metalwork to the 5th or 4th century BC. Some of them are the steppe nomad's Animal Style. Others simply demonstrate interactions with them.

Scythian bracelet with two
interlocking monsters.
Luristan Bronzes
The most adorable little Scythian monster ever!
Originally, it would have had stone inlays
and may have been on a hat or hair accessory.
This Achaemenid piece shows a
Persian hero killing steppe nomads.
I finally found out what those deer-ibex motifs in the Louvre are--they're from a group of artifacts called the Luristan Bronzes. They're from the Early Iron Age of west-central modern-day Iran. Some pieces are ornamentative, some ceremonial, and others had more practical purposes (e.g., the weapons). The BM had more on display, including some that looked like humans shaped to be rather, uh...phallic. I haven't included any pictures of this collection.

Caucasian artifacts
There was an entire section on the early first millennium BC Caucasus as the "gateway to the north" for Iran. Some of the artifacts in this section were of Scythian style from northwest Iran, while others were Caucasian (Koban culture). Below are gold fragments from late 8th century belts from Ziwiye in north-east Iran, which would have been sewn onto cloth or leather backings and are daggers from Iran and Georgia.

Scythian-style feline motifs with missing stone inlays
Look familiar? The label here gave more information on this
artifact than the one in the Met, some of it conflicting. I'm
not sure if they're two pieces of the sameartifact with the
Met either getting the less battered piece or restoring their's
more nicely, or if they're two separate artifacts made by the
same person. There are two different styles here.
The stags and ibexes are done in Scythian style. The motif
encasing them is more along the lines of Near Eastern art.
I do wonder about its identification as apiece of a belt...that
would have to be a pretty wide belt...even wider for the Met's.

10th-9th century BC Iran
The style is similar to some found in both northwest Iran and Georgia.
The handle was covered in wood held attached with small cooper
rivets. The edges have been sharpened, so it has actually been used
as a weapon.
14th-9th centuries BC, Georgia
These are types of Caucasian daggers.
The left is of a style often found with
other weapons (swords, axes, spearheads)
 in graves in Armenia and Georgia. The
right is younger and of the Koban culture.
 The style with animals facing each other
on the handle may have influenced later
Scythian handles.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Maybe Scythian Stuff in the Louvre?

Apologies for the wait. Between collections work, sightseeing, some professional service work, keeping up another blog to meet one of the requirements for one of my fellowships,and resting from doing all that, I'm only now getting time to write stuff up here. But more will follow shortly. :)

It turns out the Louvre doesn't actually have any Sarmatian stuff. I wish I'd saved the link that pulled Sarmatian stuff up on a search because I have no idea why it told me they did. They have one thing in the collections which references the Sarmatians (a Roman relief commemorating some of Hadrian's victories over them), but no actual stuff of their's according to a search through their online database. I went through the Iranian area (Iranian meaning cultures-and-empires-based-in-Iran, not all Iranian ethnicities) just to see what was there.

The database mentions an Achaemenid bracelet that might have been made by the Scythians. I found some artifacts on display that look familiar after having looked at a lot of pictures of Scythian metalwork. But there's no way to be sure they actually made it because the Louvre is an art museum and art museums do this thing where they hardly give you any information on the labels. Just name, material, date, donator, and date of aquisition.

---Dear art museums,
I know you want us to spend our time looking at the art pieces, but I would be able to appreciate them more if you'd give me a contextual framework in which to appreciate them. I know I could have rented an audio guide, but I highly doubt you consider the pieces I'm interested in important enough to tell me about them in there. And I know you sometimes have guided tours, but same thing there. So....more informative labels, please?

So, given the lack of information (I only knew they were found within the boundaries of an Iranian empire because that's what the rooms' themes were.), there's no way for me to know if those pieces were: 1) made by the Scythians and traded to someone in an Iranian empire; 2) made by someone in an Iranian empire copying Scythian art style; or 3) representative of that Iranian empire's art style which happens to be similar to the Scythian's because they used to be the same people way, way back in the day. That being said, here are the artifacts I saw which might fall in one of the three categories above.

Colored relief of Assyrian griffins.
 Assyrian griffins look different from Scytho-Sarmatian griffins, but still quite fun. They have lion heads instead of eagle heads, horns instead of fin manes, and eagle back feet instead of lion back feet. But notice the colored blotches on their flanks? Look reminiscent of some Scythian style art you've seen before on this blog?

Bronze quiver plates (leather's rotted away) and arrows. 8th-7th centuries BC
The designs on the cases look nothing like Scythian cases (aside from griffins attacking a prey animal in the upper right being a familiar motif). But the cases themselves are the same type of design- bronze on leather with panels of scenes on them.

Bronze bracelets, 8th-7th centuries BC
Torses ending in animal heads were common in Scytho-Sarmatian jewelery, though these specific designs don't ring any bells for me.

Something made of bronze. That's all the label said.
 The label called these branches. They look vaguely reminiscent of the "Tree of Life" motif, but I don't know if it's an actual correlation or the human tendency to see patterns even when they aren't there.

Bronze plaque. Label says "Fin du Fer I"....End of the Iron Age?
There were several openwork plaques similar to the above. From far away they look like deer heads seen from the front. Close up, they're made of a pair of ibexes, sometimes with extra ibex or dragon heads popping out of strange places. They reminded me of Scythian art, though no particular pieces are coming to mind. And since I'm traveling, I don't have my books with me to search for them.

So that was the Louvre. Next up, the British Museum, where I had a bit more luck.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Nart Saga

The Nart sagas are a collection of tales from the Caucasus about a group of ancient heros running around doing epic things–epic here meaning both the original definition and also sometimes hilariously awesome. Both Caucasian people (sensu stricto) and Ossetians tell stories of the Narts to one another and scholars think parts of them preserve ancestral Indo-Iranian mythos.

They certainly do have a lot of parallels with other Indo-Iranian ethnicities. For instance, there's an trickster like Loki and a story very similar to the Greek story of how Prometheus brought fire to humans. One big difference is that the leader of the Narts is a matriarch, not a patriarch. The Ossetians call her Satana, but variations of her name in other cultures include Satanaya and Sela-Sata.

The general tone of the sagas is remarkably matter-of-fact. If a Nart has to do something extraordinary, the fact that it's unusual is oftentimes remarked upon. Then again, there are unusual things that are treated like normal, everyday occurrences...like the story of how Satana got her son. And no...it is nothing like what you think. Very weird, though. I'm not going to go into that here because it's the sort of thing that should go behind an adult filter in our culture. I may still post some of the stories later, but with a specific warning that it's not my usual type of content.

I have John Colarusso's translations of the Caucasian versions into English (Circassian, Abkhazian, etc...), but at the time of printing he was only just starting to work on learning Ossetian. Which means I can't personally compare the Caucasian versions to the Ossetian to try to find bits that are uniquely Ossetian (and thus, Sarmatian in origin) and which bits are uniquely Caucasian. But fortunately, there's another Sarmatian in the SCA who knows Hungarian and there is a Hungarian translation of the Ossetian Nart Sagas. She's been reading through them recently and has posted some of her favorite excerpts here. I recommend taking a look. :)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Oldest Pants

Eurasian steppe nomads--bringing you pants since at least 1000 BC.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Gearing up for Europe

I'm heading to Europe this summer for paleo research, but I'll have downtime during evenings and weekends. I'd like to do some sightseeing. My interests are in pre-modern historical sites and the outdoors. For the outdoors, I'm specifically interested in places that are good for birding. For the historic sites, I'd be interested in a variety of things, but what I would most like to see is anything relating to Sarmato-Alan history. So far, I've found four of the latter type of places I'm interested in:

I'm going to visit the Louvre while in Paris and heading straight to their steppe nomad art. I'll just avoid the crowds around the Mona Lisa; she doesn't appeal to me anyways.

I'll also be going to the British Museum in London. They have items in their collection, but it doesn't look like anything's on display. Maybe they'll have something tangentially related, though. Even if they don't, they'll have other interesting exhibits.

I'm planning on taking a side trip to Ribchester in England to visit their Roman museum. Ribchester is one of the places Sarmatian auxiliary units were stationed. My trip lines up perfectly with a big celebration they're having with Roman re-enactors and a 3D recreation of what Ribchester looked like when it was a Roman fort.

I'd like to visit a museum or historic site on the Vandal-Alan coalition that invaded Gaul before heading into the Iberian peninsula. Anyone know of a place like that? Or a museum on a broader subject that displays their artifacts? I know there's the Gallo-Roman Museum in Lyon and I could stopover there for a few hours. But I can't tell from their website if they talk about the Vandals and Alans at all in the exhibits.

The places I'm going to are: Paris and Marseille in France; London, Isle of Wight, and Ribchester in Englad; Brussels, Belgium; Basel, Switzerland. I may also stopover in Luxembourg just to cross off another country.
In the fall, I'll be heading back and going to several places in Germany.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Extreme Schnoz: Saiga

Scientific name: Saiga tatarica
A higher clade it's part of: Antilopinae
Conservation status: Critically endangered
Current range: Patches in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, sometimes Turkmenistan, and Mongolia

  I'm ending the Extreme Animals series with one that the Sarmatians definitely encountered. We know this because it was important enough to be a subject of steppe nomad art. Also cool enough to be in two of my three forays into zoomorphic steppe art as illumination.

   The saiga is an antelope that's trying to be a tapir. They're only 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder. Adorable! Only the males have horns, but they all have giant noses. Their closest relative, another cold-adapted antelope called the Tibetan antelope, doesn't have this adaptation.
Tiny baby!
  Mammals are warm-blooded, which means we have to work to keep our body temperatures up. One of the easiest ways to mess with that is to breathe in air that's hotter or colder than our optimal body temperature...which is impossible not to do when you live in the cold steppes of Russia during the winter, like saigas, or the hot climate of the Sahara (like camels). There are two ways mammals work to counteract this with their nose: nasal turbinates and giant noses.
  Nasal turbinates are small, thin, mucosa-covered shelves of bone that stick out into the nasal passageway. They're called "concha" in humans, and,  having dissected one, I can tell you--ours are pretty pathetic. But as tiny and simple as ours are, you can still feel the effect that have on the temperature of the air we breathe. Go outside on a cold, cold day in winter. Breathe in through your nose. Then breathe in through your mouth. You will cool down much more quickly if you do the latter. Now imagine how much more effective that would be if you have turbinates like the seal below! Turbinates work this way because they're more surface area for the numerous blood vessels full of hot blood in their lining. This hot blood contacts the cold air and its temperature is evened out before it reaches your lungs.
A Hooded Seal at the Museum of Osteology in
Oklahoma showing nasal turbinates very well.
   Saiga have complex nasal turbinates like most mammals living in extreme climates, but they also add a giant fleshy nose. A saiga's turbinates don't stick out into the fleshy part of their nose--in fact the bony portion is quite far back in their head. But the fleshy part is still able to heat incoming air because it's bulbous (increased surface area) and has plenty of blood vessels running through it.
Their noses are mostly fleshy
  There are two subspecies: one in western Mongolia and one everywhere else. There range is extremely constricted compared to today. When the Sarmatians were around, they inhabited the steppes in an unbroken swath save for a small break between the ranges inhabited by each subspecies. Even farther back in time (into the Pleistocene), they were also found in North America. They're actually the only antelope that made it to the New World (Pronghorn aren't actually antelope; cattle are more closely related to saigas and gazelles than pronghorn are.).
Their population has been bouncing back and forth. They were almost driven extinct in the '20s, but were able to bounce back. Then the World Wildlife Fund got the bright idea to suggest people use their horns instead of rhino horns in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Because that makes so much more sense than telling people to just eat their own fingernails since it's made out of the same freakin' stuff and none of it does diddly-squat to help your cancer, virility, or anything else TCM practitioners claim...can you tell this subject makes me angry? I had to work not to violate my own no-cursing-on-the-blog policy. Surprise!--their populations dropped drastically. The timing of this suggestion unfortunately lined up very well with the fall of the Soviet Union. That meant economic troubles drove many of the now-poor people in these regions to turn to poaching saiga because their horns are easy cash and their meat fed their families. The fact that the males are larger and also the only ones to possess horns meant that they reached a point where there weren't enough males to mate with the females during rutting season, causing the population to crash even harder.
  Saigas have been protected in parts of their range since the '90s and were starting to recover, but their populations dropped again when a deadly, infectious disease started spreading through some of the herds, killing almost half of the population in the Kazakh Urals.
Graph produced by the Saiga Conservation Alliance
  But there's still hope. There's a captive breeding program at the Center for Wild Animals of the Republic of Kalmykia in Russia. The Saiga Conservation Alliance actively works to save these animals through research and public awareness campaigns. This includes both study of the animals themselves as well as where they're being hunted, who's poaching them, and why.

  Lastly, here's a documentary for my Russian-speaking readers (sorry, the uploader isn't letting me embed it). The saiga show up at about 3:35. The first couple minutes look like they're about some sort of rodent. A birch mouse, maybe? Skip to 10:27 to see some cute jumping and trotting and 11:00 for headbutting. And here's a video of a baby saiga because why not?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Extreme Cuteness: Tadpole-gobies

Azov Tadpole-goby
Scientific name: Benthophilus (20 species)
A higher clade it's part of: Gobiidae (gobies)
Conservation status: 8 Least Concern, 12 not evaluated
Current range: Fresh and brackish water in Caspian and Black Sea basins

Black Sea Tadpole-goby
Don Tadpole-goby
Tadpole-gobies are just adorable. Especially Don Tadpole-gobies! These abundant little fish live in the Caspian and Black Sea basins. Most of them couldn't have been encountered by Sarmatians because they live in deep brackish water or because they only live in parts of the Caspian Sea not adjacent to Sarmatian lands. Three species- the Don, Black Sea, and Azov Tadpole-gobies could have been encountered by them. They probably wouldn't have taken much note of them, though, because they're so tiny (2.6-5.9 in [6.6-15 cm]). These three live on the bottoms of lakes, deltas, and rivers.
They're carnivorous, eating small molluscs, insect larvae, and crustaceans. The species mentioned above live on sandy or muddy bottoms (depending on the species) with scattered empty shells. They need the shells because they hide their eggs underneath or inside them. They only live a year or so and die after spawning.
Tadpole-gobies diverged from the tribe they're most closely related to (Neogobiini) about 9 million years ago. Benthophilus diverged from the only other genus in its tribe (Benthophilini), Caspiosoma, about 5 Million years ago, coincident with the separation of the Black and Caspian Sea basins as they dried out. Tadpole gobies (at least, the ones sampled in the phylogenetic analysis listed below) diverged from one another about 2 million years ago, near the onset of the Pleistocene ice ages.

Neilson, M. E., & Stepien, C. A. (2009). Escape from the Ponto-Caspian: evolution and biogeography of an endemic goby species flock (Benthophilinae: Gobiidae: Teleostei). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 52(1), 84-102.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Extreme Length: Beluga Sturgeon

Scientific name: Huso huso
A higher clade it's part of: Acipenseriformes (sturgeons & paddlefish)
Conservation status: Critically endangered
Current range: Mostly Caspian and Black Sea basins, some in Adriatic Sea.

  The beluga sturgeon is a contender for the largest freshwater fish alive today. It swims up rivers to spawn (which is when Sarmatians could have encountered them if they did). It does have the ability to live in brackish water, so that keeps it from holding that record in everyone's eyes. Regardless, it's the second longest extant bony fish after the Giant Oarfish, and might be the longest macropredatory fish.
  Unlike the Great Bustard from last week's post, these fish don't stop growing--a trait called "indeterminate growth". Species with indeterminate growth won't grow at the same rate throughout their lives, but their growth curves never quite reach an asymptote. That makes it hard to say what an average size is--especially when you factor in how heavily hunted they are. The average size sturgeon today is much smaller than the average size would have been during the Sarmatians' time. So to make things simpler, I'm just going to talk about record sizes today.
  The record for largest beluga sturgeon was a female in the Volga River estuary. She was 24 ft (7.2 m) long--that's slightly longer than the longest verified Great White Shark (23 ft), and rivals the possible, but, it seems, unconfirmed, size of the Greenland  Shark. Its confirmed record is 21 ft, but it looks like the Florida Natural History Museum site says it could reach 24 ft. I can't find a trail leading back to the source of that information, unfortunately.

  The sad story of the Beluga Sturgeon is that it's prized as having some of the best caviar and being the source of the best isinglass (a substance made from fish air bladders and used to clarify wine and beer, among other less common uses). In spite of its critically endangered status, it continues to be hunted. Even if only caviar were collected, caviar isn't collected after eggs are laid--its collected by slicing the gravid female open, thus killing her before she can lay her eggs. Sturgeons take a very long time to mature (15-25 years for this species). If the population isn't allowed to replenish itself, it will go extinct.
  Mediterranean populations are protected under the Bern Convention. The United States banned import of Beluga Sturgeon caviar from the Caspian Sea in 2005. But, unfortunately, that's not enough. It turns out you can't trust the labels on caviar jars and cans. Take a gander at the study referenced below (if I could link to a free pdf, I would). With the caveat that the study took place before the US ban, it still shows that just because it's labelled as one thing doesn't mean it actually contains it.
  The researchers collected caviar from the US and Europe from 1995-1997. Sometimes they were labelled with a species, sometimes ambiguously (e.g., river sturgeon, which is meaningless), and sometimes not at all. Nothing they sampled in Europe was mislabelled (it can from Iranian sources). The US caviar came from countries in the former Soviet Union and, depending on the year, 17-32% of sources were mislabeled. Some caviar labelled as American Sturgeon was actually Beluga Sturgeon (some of it wasn't even sturgeon--it was paddlefish). And a dishonest dealer just went right back to his old tricks after serving time for fraud.

  So...don't partake in caviar that might be from the former Soviet Union. Or better yet, not at all. Because all sturgeon species are in trouble.

Birstein, VJ, Doukakis, P and DeSalle, R, 1999, Molecular phylogeny of Acipenserinae and black caviar species identification, Journal of Applied Icthyology, v. 15, p. 12-16.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Extreme Weight: Great Bustard

Scientific name: Oris tarda
www.bbc.co.uk - Male demonstrating part of the display.
A higher clade it's part of: Gruiformes (cranes & allies)
Conservation status: Vulnerable
Current range: Spotty areas of grassland and steppe across Eurasia in the band of latitude stretching from Gibraltar to southern England, plus a small area in Morocco across from the Straits.

Birding in Portugal has a display/fighting video (skip to
1:05 for the bustards) and some fantastic photographs,
including this one. It demonstrates the sexual dimorphism
between the female (top) and male (bottom).
And yes...she is doing what you think she's doing.
The Great Bustard is the heaviest extant flying bird (also most sexually dimorphic in size). Well...depending on what you mean by "heaviest". It could mean (1) heaviest on average, (2) heaviest maximum in the range of sizes normally reached, or (3) heaviest record. The male Great Bustard's stats for those are (1) 21.3-29.8 lb (9.65-13.5 kg), (2) 40 lb (18 kg), and (3) 46 lb (21 kg). They're rivaled by their relative the Kori Bustard, whose weight surpasses it in (1) 30 lb (13.5 kg), ties it in (2) 40 lb (18 kg), and is beaten by it in (3) 44 lb (20 kg). For the record, I'm ignoring unconfirmed records because it's ridiculous how much those can be exaggerated, even when the teller doesn't mean to. The way our memories and perception work is annoying sometimes...

Like many Gruiformes, these birds display to attract mates. Because they're ground birds, they perform in leks much like the more local-to-Calontir prairie chickens.

I haven't seen any bustards in Sarmatian art, but they co-existed on the Russian steppes, so it's unlikely they never encountered them. Scytho-Sarmatian art tends to focus on mammals rather than birds–eagles being the exception–so it's not really surprising that they wouldn't depict them.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Ossetian Language

Surprise Sarmatian post! Which means I'm procrastinating and will be getting back to work immediately after posting this...

I recently had a conversation with someone which prompted me to try again to find internet sources for listening to or learning bits of the Ossetian language. The Ossetian language is a direct descendant of the Scytho-Sarmatian languages with the Alanian language as the bridge between them. It's the only living member of the Northeast Iranian language group, though modified through proximity to Caucasian languages. The three dialects are the extant Dagor–spoken in western North Ossetia, Iron–spoken elsewhere in Ossetia and the standard for the written language, and the now-extinct Jász language–which was spoken in Central Hungary from the 12th through 15th? centuries. The living full languages closest to Ossetian are Pashto and Yaghnobi in the Southeastern Iranian language group, spoken in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, respectively.

I had more success finding sources this time (as in I had success at all). Quite a bit of it is in Russian, so those of us who don't speak it are at a severe disadvantage. But here are the links I've found:
Here's a video of a man speaking Ossetian, but the description says he shifts into Georgian sometimes and I don't know which is which.
And the Wikipedia page actually has quite a bit on phonetics and grammer lifted from the research of Vasily Abaev, though I can't understand the phonetics table.
What I would really like, though, is audio tracks accompanied by the letters and a discussion in English (French is fine too). If any of you know of a site or audiobook or anything like that, please let me know.

The first link is the closest I've found to that. No audio, but it has the words written in English phonetics along with the Cyrilic. I'm sure I'm butchering the pronunciation without audio to reference, but it's at least better than nothing. And as for emphasis, I only know from that Abaev says the difference between "a ___" and "the ___" in Ossetian is the emphasis–the former puts the emphasis on the second syllable, the latter the first.

I'm thinking it might be fun to incorporate some of these while at events–especially if in a zone where "period" is required...which I can't go in yet because I don't have a full period kit. Not enough time or money to put together at the moment. :/
Some that SCAdians might be familiar enough with, or you may use often enough for frequent companions to easily learn are below. The format is English word- Ossetian written alphabet- English phonetic pronunciation. All are from ossetian.free.fr.
Hello                        Салам                 salam
     SCAdians may recognize this because it sounds like (or at least very similar to) the Arabic word for "peace", used in a similar way. Think "peace be upon you/and upon you peace".
How are you            Куыд цæрyт?     Kwyd tsærut?
Goodbye(1)             Фæндараст         fændarast
Goodbye(2)             хорзæй баззай    horzæï bazzaï
     I'm not sure what the difference is.
Please                      дæ хорзæхæй     dæ horzæhæï
Thanks (so much)     (стыр) бузныг    (styr) buznyg
Yes                          о                          o
No                           нæ, нæы             næ, næy
I am sorry                ныххатыр кæн    nyhhatyr kæn
Excuse me               бахатыр кæн       bahatyr kæn

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

No Two Truths and a Lie This Year

Alas, I'm still too busy. Fortunately, it's been the "getting things done" kind of busy as opposed to last semester's "running around in circles not advancing my career" kind of busy.I missed making a post in March (I was writing a ton of grants to fund research trips to Europe and Asia later this year) and I don't want to leave you guys hanging, so I'll be doing a quick, small post every Monday this month. I haven't had time to do any Sarmatian-specific research, so these will be about something I'm already familiar with- animals. Each Monday, I'm going to post information about an extreme animal that shared the steppes and its waterways with the Sarmatians. I've talked a lot about the Sarmatians, but not so much about the environment in which they lived, and context is good. So this will be a step (albeit a sensationalist one) toward doing that.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Jász Linkdump

I mentioned the Jász in a previous post (I had used the descriptor Jassic, but have been told that's an Anglicized version, so I won't be using it again.). There's a Jász man named Attila Fábián Rigó on facebook who posts a lot of good historic information. I recommend following him and browsing through his photo albums. :) He and a friend have done some amazing recreations of pieces from the Golden Deer of Eurasia book which I at first mistook for the real things. They exhibited them at the Jász World Meeting last summer. He's an administrator of a genetic survey called the Ossetian DNA Project (his section is the Hungarian Jászság DNA Project). It's in progress, so there isn't a lot of explanation of the results up on the web yet, but keep your eye on it if it peaks your interest. So if you want to know more about the Jász, here's a linkdump he sent me for you to browse.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Ask the readers: Animals

One year ago today, we adopted a cat from the local shelter. Tali'Miller-Camp vas Iowa (yes, that is a Mass Effect reference) is a pet- an animal kept for pleasure. But unless your SCA persona is upper class and probably late period, the animals s/he could have kept are unlikely to have been purely pets- they would have had some sort of practical use.

What kind of animals did your persona (or their culture if not them, specifically) keep? What breed? Is it or breeds descended from it still around today? What were they used for?

Unlike my other "Ask the Readers", I can actually answer this one! Collectively, Sarmatians kept horses, cattle, sheep, and dogs.

Apologies for the lack of centering (it's at the top).
Turns out I don't have an image of this on my computer.
I'll replace it with a better version when I get home.

The sheep and cattle they kept for food, wool, and leather. Scythians did too and you can see an example of Scythians making a sheepskin shirt on a beautifully intricate torse made by the Greeks.

Mongolian horse and rider
Image source: http://www.studiomme.com

Their horses were their livelihood. They were meat, clothing, milk, wealth, transportation, and mounts all rolled into one. They would have been short and stocky compared to the horses we're accustomed to seeing in the West today- probably a lot like horses kept by modern steppe nomads.

Kazbegi type Georgian Mountain Dog
Image source: http://kaukasus.blogspot.com

Their dogs were big molossers who served as livestock guardians and war dogs. The dogs of the Sarmatians sensu stricto were Sarmatian Mastiffs. The breed kept by the Alans was the Alaunt (which would have been partially descended from the Sarmatian Mastiff. The word 'Alaunt' later came to be used for a general phenotype, rather than a particular breed, in Europe. The original Alaunt probably looked similar to the Kazbegi type Georgian Mountain Dog, which is probably a descendant.

(References will be when I get home. Sorry!)