It Ain’t what We Don’t Know . . . by Alma Boykin

UPDATE:  Ladies, Gentlemen and potato weevils, An Answer from the North is now free on Amazon 

*Huns, Hoydens, Dragons, butterflies and Purple Unicorns, put your hands together for the erudite, the extraordinary, the one and only…. Alma Boykin!”

It Ain’t what We Don’t Know . . . – Alma Boykin


It’s what we know that ain’t so. Because everyone knows that. “We’ve always known that. We’ve never found [thing] mentioned in old books, and never found bits of [thing] laying around the ruins, so [thing] didn’t exist back then.” That is, in a nutshell, the history of a great deal of ancient and medieval technology, prior to the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. The trouble is, we’re only just now learning what we didn’t know, and discovering that even now, we still might not know it!

[Caution! Simplifications and generalizations ahead!]


For the past three weeks or so I’ve been reading about medieval and Roman technology and water supply systems, as part of the research for Fountains of Mercy and Circuits and Crises. If you need to understand how a pure gravity-flow water supply system works, how to build one, how to tunnel without modern tools and GPS, and what options you have as far as water sources, the Romans are the place to start. Yeah, the Persians and eventually the Chinese developed systems, especially for irrigation and transportation (Chinese). The water-sweep (shaduf), ground-water tap (quanat) and water-lift wheel (noria) appeared in Persia and Northern Africa as early as 800 BC(E), along with some pretty decent (as in 60 km long) aqueducts in Assyria under Sennacherib (great civil engineer, bad judgment in picking enemies). The Greeks also had aqueducts, notably in Asia Minor. But the Romans really got things organized and applied what other people had thought of, but on a grand scale.

Later people knew about the Roman water systems. It is rather hard to miss things like the Pont du Gard in France, or the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, the still-functioning aqueducts in Rome and other Italian cities, and the baths and bridges north of the Alps. Over the years a number of the systems stopped functioning because of lack of maintenance, wonton destruction, or due to earthquakes: the last functioning Roman bath in Germany only fell into disuse after an earthquake in 1356 disrupted the hot springs that fed the baths. Once the water stopped flowing, people reused bits, or changed the plumbing to match their current needs and repair abilities. But everyone knew that yes, the Romans had been great engineers. During the Renaissance and Romantic eras writers and artists sighed over the Glory That Was Rome and castigated the people who came after for not measuring up to the Roman standard.

But for all that, according to what I learned as a kid and in college, the Romans never advanced any farther because they had no machines, or very, very few, and those were just toys. Instead they relied on slave labor and animal power. Rome stalled out, grew decadent, and starved, or would have if the barbarians had not gotten there first. Or they wasted away from lead poisoning from those water pipes and couldn’t fight off the barbarians. Either way, Rome fell.

Also according to what I learned growing up, the Dark Ages were smelly, dirty, and superstitious because monks thought bathing was sinful. People used perfume to cover their BO because everyone knew that washing made you sick (and a sinner), and people ate half-rotten food (covered with spices) because they were primitives who didn’t know any better ways to preserve things. Then along came the water wheel, and water mill, and windmill, and the cam and trip-hammer, and gears and the screw and pulleys and clocks and SCIENCE! And G-d created Thomas Edison, Marconi, and Henry Ford, and it was Very Good and we moderns are so much more enlightened and wiser than those superstitious monks and imperialist Romans.*

Except those monks had running water and flush toilets. And the Romans had water wheels (three different kinds in four mountings) and water towers, and filtration systems, and knew that water should be boiled to make it safe. And they mass-produced bricks and red tableware (until the Gauls undercut them with cheap knock-offs that sold like gangbusters north of the Alps). And Roman iron technology and distribution systems made hay meadows and the invention of the iron-shod plow possible. Roman commercial bakeries used kneading machines to process grain from water-powered mills. Roman laundries used waterpower to pound and scrub the cloth. And they invented some pretty darn complex surveying and measuring tools, as we are just now (as in, the last fifteen years) discovering. Oh, and those monks with the toilets? Their drains, wash basins and baths sometimes ran into fishponds to use for growing fish for fast days, or for doing laundry, and the monasteries helped provide the municipal water systems for some towns. In Italy and France, a few water supply systems continued in use from Roman times straight through to the 21st century.

We moderns didn’t know that we didn’t know. When all you have are bits of literary sources that were saved (two works on architecture and water system management), Gibbon, and the remains of aqueducts, all you know is that Rome had aqueducts and the Medievals didn’t. Thus, since everyone knows that Rome was the pinnacle and the Dark Ages the nadir, and that Roman stuff was so good, obviously the Medievals actively rejected Rome. And the Moors brought their water systems to Iberia, because either the Romans didn’t, or the smelly Christians had torn up all the Roman stuff to use the lead in their churches. And so people forgot about Roman stuff, and had to reinvent everything, so that it was only by the late 1700s or even mid 1800s that civilization had returned to the Roman levels. Because that’s what we had from the text sources and from later European commentators.

Then archaeology happened, and a touch of anthropology, and people really digging deep into archives, looking at monastic papers. And more than just the monastic chronicles and saints’ lives, but other day-to-day stuff that had been skipped over. Things like bills for plumbing work, and plaints about frozen pipes, and Brother James accidently dropped his scapular in the privy and clogged the outflow. And law suits over pipe and aqueduct right-of-way. At the same time, archaeologists began digging into things that had been skipped before, or that had been mis-interpreted, or simply unavailable for various reasons and found that, wow, Romans had gristmills. Lots of them, all over the place, using side-mounted wheels, as well as the more familiar overshot and undershot wheels. And more underground aqueducts than previously thought, and better agricultural practices than people had guessed. Roman livestock was larger and healthier than medieval stock, for example, or so the bones and sales records suggest. Romans raised deer in commercial deer farms to sell as venison. And they ran out of fuel in the Mediterranean because they’d pretty much deforested the basin, leading to a shift in where pottery and metal work were done.

All of a sudden we’re discovering that what we knew wasn’t true. Which raises all sorts of interesting questions about why Romans did or didn’t do certain things, how they could have slavery and mechanized manufacturing side-by-side, and why didn’t more places have running water? Turns out that some of those Moorish water systems in Iberia were Roman. And that Medieval people boiled their water, or brewed with it, because they knew that drinking from cisterns or from downstream of town tended to make your tummy very unhappy. Just like the Romans did. No one saved Roman engineering manuals, so we don’t have them, but given the standardization of certain practices from Iberia and Britain to Galicia in Asia Minor, the odds are pretty good that they had “Aqueducts and Plumbing for Dummies” or “Building Mills the Roman Way.”

In the 1950s we didn’t know because we couldn’t know. Archaeological technology had not reached the stage where we could identify the remains of the wooden workings of mills or of wooden pipelines. The monastic archives had not been opened, and people had not sifted through all the minutia to find the tiny bits of daily life that reveal big things about medieval water and sewage systems. Now, we can know, and it knocks over some long-held and cherished ideas about the past and the people who lived them. We’d say that the Romans wasted water because their systems ran 24/7. They’d say, “Of course we’re running constantly. How else can we keep pressures under control and the mains flushed and open? Blowing the pipes apart is what’s wasteful.”

What else might we know that ain’t so?


*Setting aside the eeeevil environmental damage started by the Romans and then capped off by modern environmental sinners. In which case the Romans were the snakes in the garden, offering Eve a flush toilet and a hot bath.

269 thoughts on “It Ain’t what We Don’t Know . . . by Alma Boykin

  1. Edison, Marconi, Henry Ford mentioned in the post. What of Nick Tesla? Tesla was very ill treated by Edison but, to those knowledgeable, he had more positive impact on modern life than Edison ever did. Can you say alternating current power systems? Much insight into electrostatics? Dreams of his that, if they had been supported 1/10 much as Edison, would have revolutionized the world even more. Tesla’s ac current system beat out Edison’s dc ideas resoundingly.
    So, yes, let’s remember what we don’t know; or, managed to forget; or, that we let the re-writer’s of actual history obfuscate. Ms.Boykin is on the right track but needs to dig just a bit deeper.

    1. Jack, I was grabbing common examples, not favoring one tech developer over another. My current research line stops around 1400 AD/CE and is water focused.

  2. Michael Flynn has an extremely good essay that lists medieval technical innovations. I’ll have to see if I can dig it up.

    Also, I’m full of giggles and bewilderment over how Brother James could possible have dropped his scapular down the privy. Monastic scapulars were (and remain) enormous.

      1. Well, the scapular is that big front and back apron-ish part of the habit. So I would say either not at all or it’s a sorry I’ve got to hear!

  3. Margaret Frazer wrote a series of books in Medieval England and often included comments about the falsehoods that people believed about Medieval England. One example was when a murder happened in an abbey the abbess was concerned about how her abbey would look with the investigators looked into the murder. IE in spite of what some people “knew” murder was serious business and would be investigated. Another example was when a murder took place in a church supported hospital. She had harsh words about what people “knew” about Medieval medical care was like. She also had harsh words about Henry VIII who sold off all those monastic properties and didn’t replace the hospitals.

    1. *shrug* Some people just want cheap imports. They could pay a few denerii more for real terra sigilatta, but no, they go over to Murus-Civitas*Ipsum and load up. Tisk, tisk. *shakes head*

      1. Well, if you’re in Tarraco or Tingis or Tarsus and all the tableware in the shops is imported, what do you care if it comes from Italy or Gaul? And if you’re a Gaul. . . .

  4. One of my beloved books is [i]Engineering in the Ancient World[/i] by JG Landels (1978 UC Press) that is pretty much an overview of energy sources, water supplies, specific devises like pumps and hoisting mechanisms, catapults and transportations, and finishes off with classical sources. It doesn’t talk about manufacturing, farming or milling, but it is only about 200 pages. The discussion on the pumps and water lifting wheels is fantastic, and it has well considered discussions on transportation.

      1. ‘S OK. Among other books, I’m looking at the “Oxford Handbook of Engineering Technology in the Classical World” (2008). It’s an essay collection, fascinating stuff.

        1. One of the major findings of the dig I volunteered on in England was a well-established middle class, mostly revolving around brewing and trading. The Plague wiped out most (if not all) of that class — that and the authoritarian response from Feudal lords to round everyone up and herd them into towns from scattered farm villages.

          1. That happened in Russia and (in the 1600s) in East-Central Europe as well. Between the Black Death and the Mongols, Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow, and other Russian proto-states suffered a population collapse that finished pushing the system to serfdom. The 30 Years War encouraged a similar response in some areas.

  5. Amazing– what we don’t know. My hubby and I talk about how the Romans invented concrete. We only discovered the ingredients two hundred years ago and now use it for a lot of things.

    1. And not just any concrete, but the kind that cures under water! I can just see Rufus Publius staring at a half-crumbled stanchion rubbing his chin and thinking, “I wonder what’d happen if . . . “

        1. I was just reading a while back that roman concrete lasts longer than the modern stuff. Different chemical mix.

          1. They used a type of volcanic ash that more or less turns into wonder rock. Great stuff, but not found many places outside of south-central Italy.

            1. Yup. The principal ‘improvement’ in modern concrete is that we can make the stuff out of common minerals that occur almost everywhere.

            1. From what I’ve briefly found, the biggest differences between Roman Concrete and Modern Concrete is Roman Concrete was “mixed” with rubble while Modern Concrete isn’t and Modern Concrete contains reinforcing steel which gives Modern Concrete greater strength in tension than Roman Concrete.


                1. Have you looked at basalt fiber and basalt fiber rebar?
                  This stuff makes me happy. Its like fiberglass made out of rocks. It is supposed to wet better than fiberglass and won’t rust. Oh, and it has no VOC in processing because all the volatiles were burnt off when the planetary crust was formed.

              1. From what I’ve read, they also mixed it drier — they’d be surprised to see us pumping it. They made more of a dough consistency and tamped it into place.

    2. David Drake used to get lots of complaints from readers when he mentioned Roman concrete. And plywood.

  6. TXRed, the Romans used trip-hammer systems to wash clothes in laundries? This is the full cam+arm combination like a hammer mill?
    I know that Heron of Alexandria discussed it, I think he used the idea to run an air pump to blow an organ, but I didn’t know that it was used for, you know, actual work.

    1. Bob, the citations are Lewis, M.J.T. (1997) “Millstone and Hammer: The Origins of Waterpower” (University of Hull Press) and Wickander, Ö. (1981) “The Uses of Waterpower in Classical Antiquity” in the journal “Opuscula Romana” No. 12. I have not looked at the book or article, just the review essays.

      1. I guess I’ll have to request Lewis’ book by interlibrary loan. Neither Amazon or Alibris have it listed.

        1. I prefer primary colors, you just can’t trust non-primary unicorns.

          Besides purple clashes with my hair.

            1. Purple cow initially became famous as a chimerical referent in a short humorous verse by Gelett Burgess :

              I never saw a Purple Cow,
              I never hope to see one;
              But I can tell you, anyhow,
              I’d rather see than be one.

              Burgess became somewhat exasperated with the success of his poem, of which he was constantly reminded. A few years later, he penned a riposte that became almost as well known as the original. It was titled “Confession: and a Portrait Too, Upon a Background that I Rue” and appeared in The Lark, number 24 (April 1, 1897):

              Ah, yes, I wrote the “Purple Cow”—
              I’m Sorry, now, I wrote it;
              But I can tell you Anyhow
              I’ll Kill you if you Quote it!

  7. So, hard water running through lead pipes will or won’t coat their interiors with scale? And will the scale protect the drinker from lead poisoning? Have we found pervasive lead in the bones of Roman-era citizens? Or were the Romans less lead-addled than we’ve been led to believe?

    1. Hi Steve!

      I would go with the scale/natural patina route rather than the anti-roman lead propaganda. Although it is interesting that crime rates have gone down with the elimination of lead based paint in the early 70s.

      Most people don’t know what is going on underneath their feet in the water/sewer system.

      Heck, they removed several still operational century old wooden log water mains from central Grand Rapids when they were doing the sewer separation (storm from sanitary) in the mid-70s. I don’t think there are any left, but once its in the ground, who can know.

      1. Huge difference between lead pipes and lead-based paint. The paint flecks off and can get crushed to dust, eventually getting stirred up into the air, can fall from ceilings to get on surfaces in the kitchen, and can be ingested by babies as they crawl on the floor, putting things in their mouths. Pipes, on the other hand, don’t dissolve much in normal water, plus the scaling effect Steve mentions will reduce exposure quite a bit.

        1. It turns out to be a difference in degree rather than kind. Lead can still leach into water from lead pipes. It’s enough of a concern that my employer has replaced all of the lead gooseneck connectors in the system. What matters here is the corrosivity of the water. Here in Los Angeles, the water is not terribly aggressive. With some effort, I could probably find the Langelier indexes for water sources in various parts of Europe, but it’s more work than I feel like doing.

          1. I’m pretty sure I didn’t say it was a difference in kind, but the dosage received from leeching into the water, in most places, is vastly lower than the quantity that can come from an urban area with tons of flaking paint, and a lot of children running around playing.

      2. More people are also carrying lead, backed by gunpowder, now than in the early 70s, I suspect the propagation of CCW had a greater influence on the crime rate than the elimination of lead based paint.

        1. There are lots of things that effect the crime rate.

          One is simply greater (longer, more) incarceration rates. Criminals behind bars tend not to bother non-criminals.

          1. And another is a collapse in birth rates. The people most likely to be criminals are young men in their teens and early twenties, and those are a lot scarcer in your population now than they were in the early 70s. Criminals who are never born tend not to bother non-criminals, even more strongly than those behind bars.

            1. There are so many things that affect crime rates that attributing a rise or drop in them to any one thing would be laughable, except it is done all the time with any number of things being the ‘attributing factor.’

            2. The thing was that when we had crime rate drop in the 80s, it dropped most in the cohorts that were older, rather than among the smaller, later cohorts, which exploded in crime.

    2. Steve, hard water sources did coat the pipes, sometimes cutting down their volume by a third. The Romans tried to de-scale pipes for that reason, with moderate success, or so it appears. And running water picks up little, if any, lead. Roman water systems ran full time, so piped water would not provide lead. The lead-sweetened wine, and lead fumes from smelters were different, but they affected fewer people than would contaminated water from the aqueducts. Romans, in general, did not suffer from mass lead poisoning, although it does make for a convenient explanation for various things.

      1. I remember a book where the Romans were having very few children and most of them had birth defects, because of the lead. Supposedly the barbarians were still having plentiful and healthy children and this was the real reason for the fall of Rome. *headdesk*

        1. Well, differential fertility was an obvious and pressing problem. Augustus onward, emperors passed laws trying to deal with it. Disinheriting the widowed and divorced who didn’t remarry, for instance, and limiting the inheritance of the childless. Allowing the legal emancipation of women with three or four live children.

          This wasn’t driven by lead, though, because there were great differences between Christian and pagan fertility. That was driven by Christians who didn’t expose their children; as early as Justin Martyr, Christians explained this little quirk of theirs when justifying themselves in pagan eyes. When Christians started to gather foundlings and raise them as Christians, their demographic advantage grew to be enormous, especially as the offspring of a Christian woman and a pagan man would turn out Christian.

      2. I don’t have a cite, but I seem to recall high lead findings in upper crust Roman remains with little corresponding high Pb levels in lower class remains, with the blame being placed on the lead-sweetened wine.

        The lesson of the fall of the western Empire: If you are living in a class-stratified society and your leadership classes get all stupidy, for whatever reason, bad things happen.

        1. There may have been an issue with the fact that haute cuisine used Sapa, which is cheap wine boiled to syrup in lead pans. It was the only sweetener outside of honey available and was essentially Lead Acetate. Lead acetate has a sweet flavor, and may be one of the reasons kids eat old paint chips.

          1. Lead Acetate= Lead sugar, and yes it was used as a sweetener. Also used to sweeten foods as well as wine.

          1. I blame botox for this go-round. Everyone who seems to get botox injections turns out to be foaming-moonbat crazy. So it is either a cause, effect or indicator.

            1. I’ve got this totally off the wall, probably wrong, theory about botox.

              1. I heard that when people look at other people, they unconsciously mimic the expression the other person is wearing, at least slightly, and not usually enough to be visible.

              2. I know that if my eyes are watering, I tend to feel sad, and if for some reason my eyelids have something wrong that makes them have close, I feel sleepy. And smiling can help you feel happier.

              So, if Botox represses facial muscles, it could destroy at least a portion of the bio-feedback that helps you understand and empathise with other people.

              That said, if you just have it for that little crease between the eyebrows that tends to be related to migraines, it’s probably all right.

              On Sat, Apr 12, 2014 at 8:34 AM, According To Hoyt wrote:

              > Bob commented: “I blame botox for this go-round. Everyone who seems to > get botox injections turns out to be foaming-moonbat crazy. So it is either > a cause, effect or indicator.” >

              1. Well in at least some people like Pelosi, my theory is they sunk the needles a little to deep and paralyzed the brain muscles.

              2. Jasini, a few medical studies suggest that, over extended periods of time, the use of Botox does decrease empathy, possibly for the reasons you surmise. The study was done on people who get it for medical, not cosmetic, reasons, so that might affect the results of the study.

  8. My favorite reference is Ancient Engineers by L Sprague De Camp.

    I read my father’s copy back in the early 60’s and it remains a good read. I got a personal hard cover copy when it was republished by everyone in the 80s/90s and my children have read it with delight.

    What I find interesting is how many highways (and major roads) are being rebuilt to the Roman Road standard with multilayer structure (under drains, sand, crushed rock, paving stones) instead of the sand covered by either concrete or black top as was done for most of the 60s. Some place I still have a picture of a model of the multilayer Roman Road structure of the Appian Way.

    1. Wow, if someone with that much intelligence is doing your roads you obviously don’t live in Michigan.

      1. Seeing as I am in Michigan and (as a child of civil engineers) have access to much of the design work done before and currently being done.

        The road in front of my place of business was rebuilt a couple of years ago from country road standards into a Roman Road with its 4×4 foot concrete blocks. You will even find this at many city intersections where they want to eliminate the grooves caused by heavy trucks.

        The major rebuilds of the Interstates in Michigan in the last 15 years have the three layer construction. That’s why they move all the traffic to one side of the road, rip up the road, and rebuild from the bottom up.

        What was interesting is that the Paul Henry (M-6) was built in two segments. The first used blacktop (cheaper and suggested by the asphalt lobby) and was already showing signs of major wear by the time the second segment was built. The second segment (built a couple years later) used the three layer Roman Road and is still going strong even in the swampy areas in the West.

        1. All blacktop roads I have ever been around being built were built with at least three (sometimes four) layers. And I’ve never seen sand be one of those layers. Remember the parable about building your house on shifting sand? I believe people knew enough not to build on sand if they wanted it to last, long before the romans.

          1. too many places here around Texas went to a sort of “ChipSeal”.
            It’s like they were doing a good job of making a base for blacktop, and forgot the blacktop … crushed granite base, washed gravel and tar as road surface. I live near several roads they did this on, one US 67, and they don’t last for a hill of beans, and if, like me, you ride a motorcycle, not only does it have no traction, it eats your tires.
            Most of the roads they did this to in the last two years are now again being rebuilt and I think all have gone to a blacktop instead of the accursed ChipSeal. Don’t know how much they saved doing it like that, but as they have to so soon redo the road, it has got to be a major money waste.

            1. Chip Seal has been used in the West for as long as they have been paving roads here. Lately they have went to asphalting some country roads without putting chip seal over it, and that is slicker when wet and flat out dangerous when it is icy out. Chip seal if done without an asphalt base needs redone every year or two for quite a few years until it has built itself up a nice thick base, otherwise log trucks and semis will beat holes through it in short order. (also it is considerably softer in hot weather, and semis will form ruts in it if it doesn’t have a solid base). My opinion asphalt or concrete are all right for a driveway, (never liked either in town where they are also commonly used) and make a good base for Chip seal, but should never be used as a finish surface any place that has winter, they are just to slick.

              Oh and chip seal needs redone more often for the first several layers, kind of like putting on paint, but once it has quite a few layers it only needs another one every few years, and it is way cheaper to put a layer of chip seal down than it is to reasphalt a road. Although it can be hard on windshields if they don’t sweep the loose gravel off.

              As far as eating tires, I can say it doesn’t eat them as bad as rock roads, but having never been in a place where I drove asphalt or concrete roads without driving considerably more chip seal to get to and from such roads I have to say I don’t have any comparision.

              1. This version though uses instead of the pea gravel in the top tar layer, a larger aggregate that is in the 1 inch range in size. Many of our side roads are real chipseal and the County I am in (Johnson) has a nasty habit of doing repairs without bothering to notify you there is fresh tar and loose pea gravel waiting to toss you in the ditch (Texas has a lack of shoulders on roads too).
                Those roads are fine for their locations as they tend to be slower roads, usually under 40mph speed limits, but come summer, the tar migrates up and they get good and smooth so are not the tire killers this garbage version they were using on higher speed roads (I’ve ridden on the big sized gravel in 75 mph limit zones) and it suffers the same poor load holding, grooving under heavy truck use, and does it far faster as these roads are high usage highways. One of the selling points was it is supposedly quieter right on the roadside, but everything else, except its cheap price, is far lacking compared to almost any other road building method. Like the Meat Grinder cables they use between the interstate lanes, it might work for a few people, it is deadly to folks like me on two wheels, they get bright ideas that don’t work well in real life in the real world.

                1. I don’t think the cables are supposed to be safer for anybody hitting them, I think they’re supposed to somewhat contain the accident to one lane and be cheaper to repair.

                  As I understand it, each of the metal bars holding them up costs twice what one of the old wood ones does– but a basic accident will take out two to four of the wooden ones, while it takes a simi in the right spot to require replacing two of the metal ones.

                  In theory, etc.

                  1. the sell them as being life savers. If you are in a pickup, or certain cars, they are. A Semi seems to go right through them (though they claim they are designed to divert them, I have seen where they go right through), other cars “submarine” through them, and one guy I know got lucky and when he hit on in a motorcycle accident, got only massive bruises and was not going very fast when he hit them. I know a woman who might not be here if those had been in the median she crashed into what a rear tire came apart and locked her rear wheel up. She was still moving pretty fast, and the cops were amazed she held it for so long.

          2. The modern Roman Road has between a foot and 18 inches of sand on the bottom. The sand has nylon covered drainage pipes buried in it to allow any extra moisture to drain out of the sand. The Romans used bundles of reeds to perform the same task. The sand is covered by another 18 inches of crushed rock. This forms the compaction layer that stabilizes the road. The crushed rock is then covered in 8 to 12 inches of concrete with expansion joints every 36 feet. The depth depends on the loads the road is expected to carry. After the concrete is set, it is cut into the (roughly) 4 foot squares.

            Without the sand and drainage, the road would frost heave and break in interesting ways. Without the expansion joints and cutting the concrete into squares you end up with popped joints when the weather gets too hot.

            When you say 3-4 layers of blacktop, I assume you mean that they are laying 9-12 inches of blacktop in 3-4 inch courses. That does the job, but it is just a replication of a single course concrete pour.

            1. No, by three to four layers I meant you start out with your compacted base layer of usually clay, unless there is bedrock where the road is being built, then Layer 1) base rock, often pit run, although sometimes when there is a lot of rock in the native soil they will use six inch minus Layer 2) gravel, either 3/4- or 5/8″-, Layer 3)pavement, usually consisting of one to two layers of asphalt usually topped with chip seal, occasionally on heavily trafficked roads they will use concrete either instead of the asphalt or in addition underneath the asphalt. In wet or swampy ground they will use additional layers of pit run base, and at times they will add a layer of 6″- or 3″- between a base layer of pit run and the gravel. Layers vary in thickness according to the loads the road is expected to carry.

              Sometimes they will take an old gravel road and simply blade it smooth and chip seal over it, if either the road gets quite a bit of heavy truck traffic or they don’t put at least two layers of chip seal down, and then relayer the next year and every other year after that for the next few you end up with problems like JP mentioned above.

              All county or state roads I have ever dealt with have ditches and culverts to deal with drainage, I suspect we have different drainage problems in this part of the country than you do in Michigan (haven’t been there, but have been to Minnesota, and that land of the lakes country is flatter than a pancake). Our drainage consists of water coming off of slopes, often times with considerable momentum, at times it washes away the pit run base, a sand base wouldn’t stand a chance. Frost heave wasn’t a concern on the coast, and here it doesn’t seem to be an issue on the well built major roads. The road builders were lazy here and many of the gravel county roads don’t have any base rock, they are just gravel spread on clay (causing them to regravel every year, if they would put down a good pit run base it would pay for itself in just a few years) and come spring when the frost starts to leave the ground they go very soft, so they shut them all down to truck traffic for a month or two every spring. If they put down a good base this wouldn’t be a problem, but since most of the truck traffic is log trucks, and they don’t bother to build the logging roads any better (probably because they have to drive county roads to get to practically all logging roads) the logging is pretty much shut down at the same time, so it isn’t that big a deal.

          3. I know some of the roads in High Desert areas in Oregon use a layer of sand, sort of– they dig down (where possible) and lay a layer of… it may have been compacted dirt or it may have been something a little more complex… then pile it high with rocks of about half-a-palm down to a thumb size, then cover that with sand, compact it, then add asphalt

            1. A lot of desert areas in Nevada and California are not using asphalt anymore, especially in high traffic areas. The asphalt melts and breaks between the extremes of heat and cold, and the pressures of traffic. We get a lot of semis– carrying everything you can imagine.

              1. Last I was through Nevada it seemed like most all the highways were asphalt (or usually chip seal on asphalt, I have a habit of calling it all either asphalt or simply pavement) although there may have been some concrete. Are they switching to concrete in your area now?

                I know that big stretches of I-90 and I-84 are concrete now, and those people that claim concrete doesn’t rut need to drive I-90 through Spokane..

                1. Argh! accidentally posted.

                  Concrete is admittedly better and lower maintenance than asphalt/chip seal. But it is much more expensive to initially lay, and when maintenance is required it is much more intensive and expensive to maintain. Not sure how it works out in the long haul,

                  1. As I understand it, concrete pavement is one of those things where, if you use the high quality stuff and do good quality work, it’s cheaper in the long run, but if you go cheap, it winds up costing more.

                    They just recently did work on a road where my I grew up for the first time since it was put in, in the ’70s. It’s a county road, not an Interstate, but it gets a fair amount of traffic.

                2. Yes– the new freeway. Plus a lot of it is being dug up and redone– we have a lot of projects in Northern Nevada right now esp. in the last ten years.

                  1. For some reason I thought you were southern Nevada, and it’s been about ten years since I spent any time down in Nevada. Spent some time right on the border, but not actually in Nevada unless I did it without realizing it out in the desert

              2. The area I saw was the route between la Pine and Lakeview– can’t remember the road name, that insanely long and lonely route where pretty much all you see is cops and trucks.

                Could there be a technical miscommunication here? I’ve always heard “asphalt” used to refer to the blacktop on roads, and was incredibly startled to find concrete roads when I was back east a decade ago. (still seems dangerous to me, but then again it’s not like they’ll have a lot of ice in Florida!)

                1. As far as I am aware asphalt and blacktop are synonymous, although at least locally many of us also refer to chip seal as ‘blacktop’ or all simply as paved roads. And if you think concrete is stupid and dangerous, imagine my thoughts about them using it on the interstate in Spokane. (also my complaint about smooth asphalt, the good well finished stuff is almost as slickery smooth as concrete). I’ve actually seen a road they did in concrete with an exposed aggregate finish, yes I did a double take, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea if they are going to use concrete without layering over it.

                  1. I don’t know about where you are, but concrete is as good or better a choice around here than anything else. Only a few times in the past 30 years have there been any coverings on the concrete roads where a more rough base would have made a difference, and the wide variation in weather tears other types up in short order.

                  2. Oh, dear, I’d manage to totally block out that road behind the airport– we only used it when that nasty fire went through a 5-6 years ago. It terrified me.

                2. not all the roads in NV are concrete– One prime example of a new concrete road is the newest freeway that used to be 395. The road construction here is changing because of the constant low-level earthquakes we get year round. They have to dig down and put in dirt that they truck from other places. soil liquidification is an extreme problem here. We have a five story office building in Carson City that is unusable (less than 20 years old) because it tilts. It was not built for that type of soil. This problem affects the roads here too. So yes, we do have some asphalt, but it is changing. Of course we also have to worry about storms in Northern Nevada, which can lay down heavy snow. The problems they have in Southern Nevada are flash floods in the spring and winter. So — the changes are driven by extremes in temperature and earthquake considerations.

                    1. Yes– we have sand, salt, snow-plowers, and winter workers for those road conditions. 😉 Get it off the road while it is happening types.

                    2. Well, and California has far better things to spend public monies on than something as mundane as maintaining roads. Like diversity and stuff. And parties. Diversity parties.

                      The difference in philosophy is nowhere clearer than around Lake Tahoe – drive on any road that crosses the state line, and the crashingly rough CA to glassy smooth NV paving will make it very clear.

    2. Ancient Engineers is OK, but I liked Great Cites of the Ancient World better, it was more focused and more in depth. Though not focused on technology development.

  9. I feel like I’ve been dropped into a Sydney Poitier movie:



    As a historian, admittedly with no knowledge of Roman water tech or mills, this is they type of thing that drives historian absolutely batshit insane. Actually, it may be worse than that. I’m not sure what the step after “batshit insane” actually is, but it pretty well describes a historian whose pet theory was just shot down because “new information” (IE a very old manuscript) was found that they didn’t know about when they came up with it. It happens a lot. Seriously. Do yourself a favor. The next time somebody tells you that “That’s all history. It will never change.” give them the carp. Hard. Right between the eyes.

    Information is always missing, even in the modern era. In Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam Gar Alperovitz told the whole world that the US had nuked Japan to scare the Soviet Union. Ten years later some documents were de-classified that showed that the good Mr Alperovitz was wrong. Not an incorrect interpretation, but… wrong. Two plus two equals ten million wrong. As in full of male bovine excrement wrong. Yeah. And that was something that only happened a couple of decades before he published. With your research it wasn’t so much the matter of what was classified, but what’s been lost. It has been a Long Time since Rome fell and a lot of what you researched probably came before the fall.

    What scares a lot of historians is the rise of electronic communications. A lot is going to be lost, goes the argument, because it’s not on paper. This despite the fact that most government offices require emails to be saved and some businesses do too. This is mainly for legal purposes. It doesn’t always work so well for defending themselves though. Ask Eric Holder and Lois Lerner. The fact remains that records are being kept and I’m not sold. But regardless, history is always going to be a matter of what information is available and how it is interpreted and less a matter of what actually happened.

    Some people find that shocking. Google the term “historiography.” Go ahead. I’ll wait. Basically, every generation re-interprets the past as though it was happening in their own time. Yes, the past IS a foreign country. No, most historians won’t truly acknowledge that fact in their work. It’s one of the reasons that the majority of historical work over the last forty years has been Marxism and race-baiting. It’s what the authors were taught in their college years.

    Good on you for pointing this out though. There are many people out there who would deny everything you’ve just proven to be true. History does change. It’s always changing. Anyone who tells you different is either lying or uninformed.

    1. This despite the fact that most government offices require emails to be saved and some businesses do too.

      That and ninety-nine cents would buy you a cup of coffee. They recorded all the engineering data for the Apollo flights three difference ways. None of which can be read now except by re-engineering the equipment to read them.

      1. Yes, as software versions march on, many times, the older data is no longer able to be loaded by the newer versions.

        However, after a certain point, I think there are places which are archiving the applicable software, as well, and I know that there are sites which keep lists of what software is related to what file extensions.

        1. Not even the software – they also recorded all the Apollo mission downlink in analog on reel-to-reel, and they don’t even have any readers for those tapes anymore.

          Time marches on and all, but that’s just bureaucratic budget preservation 101: “We’ve got all these mission tapes from Apollo, and these refrigerator-sized readers are all being retired, but I’m not going to redirect any of my travel-and-conference budget to spin them all into something readable. It’s not my problem!”

            1. The high school in my dad’s home town had one twenty years ago– I’m sure if they put out a public request, they’d get several.

              Gotta remember, “no-one has this equipment” means “it’s not listed.”

          1. NASA was buying replacement computer hardware off eBay for the Shuttles when they decided they needed to stop the program. They had 8088 chips in them and were hacking software for updates as well.

        2. We have the internet now. It is not difficult to find 20 year old source code or binary distributions. as an example.

          With things like Virtual Box and other emulators being open sourced we *might* have problems after a world wide EMP attack, but other than that stuff that is digital and copied forward will be available for a LONG time.

          Also there are enough people aware of the problem that folks are storing CD and DVD rom drives unused etc.

          it’s going to be a matter of rebuilding (at worst), not reengineering.

          1. I think that there are enough printed scientific handbooks, textbooks etc. that the knowledge won’t be completely lost. Something always gets lost.

      2. It’s worse than that. The same large organizations that are best at keeping information for a period of time, for legal reasons, also have formal policies to throw most of it out once the statute of limitations is past.

        1. not just throw out, but shred and destroy. The place I work has contracted Iron Mountain to come and shred our old paperwork, and this last time, some CDs and hard drives had been added to the mix.

          1. How do you shred a hard drive? I know that you can scrub it of any info, but how would you shred it, short of using a compactor?

            Is Iron Mountain based in Birmingham, AL (US)?

            1. Actually, the same way they do industrial paper and/or plastic shredders. There is a steel cylinder with a wide spiral groove down it, and possibly a harder material that makes up the edge of the groove, and it spins in a cylindrical opening with a very small clearance, so that whatever is being shredded will slip into the groove and then be sheared off against the side of the base.

              I’m not describing it very well, but it does work. Hard drive frames are made of aluminum anyway, so they’re not hard to shred.

            2. hmm, I typed in a reply on the tool bar but it seems to not be here.
              Eventually it will get the treatment Wayne talks about, They supposedly just drill a hole in them and then send them to the recycle folks.

              Where IM is based, I don’t know … but it doesn’t seem to be Iron Mountain Michigan.

    2. HISTORY doesn’t change: it can be revised by new data, and reinterpreted, but HISTORY remains the same. “X” happened in “Y” year, and “Z” people were involved. There may be missing details, and that’s where the fun begins, both in the search and in the interpretation once something new is found. Paleontology is the best example I can think of. Who, in 1900, would have had the courage to suggest many dinosaurs were warm-blooded, and that the raptors included many creatures with feathers? Yet I’d be quite willing to wager we know less than ten percent of what life was like during the Mesozoic Era. Still lot to be discovered, and as the knowledge grows, lots will have to be re-examined and reinterpreted.

    3. Oooh…. Y’all are going to love this:

      Military history is entering/has entered a veritable dark age, already. And, it’s due to digitization, more than anything else.

      WWII and Korea may be the last wars we really have good records on, until someone forces the “system” to pull it’s collective head out of it’s collective ass.

      If you want to go research what was going on in a particular unit on a particular day, in a particular area of the war in Europe during WWII, it’s pretty easy to do–Make a request to the National Archives, and all the morning reports, duty journals at the headquarters, and all that other stuff is available to you. It’s all been preserved.

      Korea, same-same.

      Vietnam? Oh, darlin’… We be having some issues, here, with finding the very machinery to read the tapes the records are on, in some esoteric cases. But, the raw data is still there in the paperwork that was preserved and brought back. Somewhat.

      Grenada? Mmmmm… There’s some stuff. It’s about like Vietnam.

      Desert Storm? Kinda-sorta the same, but more so. The transition to digital communications and computerization was in it’s infancy, so a bunch of stuff is starting to be hard to find, because the equipment doesn’t exist, and they “Z-ed out” all the hard drives and so forth.

      Now, after 9/11? Sweet jeebus… That’s going to be the worst documented war in ‘effing history. Know why? Everything was digital, all the normal reports, all the normal communications. And, not a damn thing was intentionally saved for history. When I was over there 2005-2006, the poor bastard who was serving as the 101st Division’s official historian went nuts, because literally everything that was the equivalent of the records he’d used during researching his doctoral dissertation on WWII was intentionally being erased–It was all on the classified network, you see. And. Every. Single. Hard. Drive. Was. Required. To. Be. Erased. Period. Without fail, without reason, and without exception.

      I think he finally got them to keep some stuff that wasn’t officially classified, in the end, but about 99% of the stuff that forms the raw material for research into past conflicts? Evaporated, gone, not kept. No daily reports, no logs, nothing. We left a copy with the 25th ID of the “current state” of the network hard drives when we handed everything over, but they were required to erase that after 90 days. Some records were no doubt rolled over, but everything that 101st had or did on the classified network, where 99% of all traffic was handled? Gone. Never to be recovered.

      We direly need new rules on this stuff, but it’s the same story across a lot of government agencies. Nobody thinks about the historians of tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Look at how much stuff NASA has lost, or what evaporated out of the Soviet space agencies after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a few hundred years, the only record of our moon mission may well be the physical evidence left on the moon, because everything else will be either gone or technically inaccessible.

      1. About 10 years ago, one of the profs at Flat State U was bemoaning that we’ll never know about some black/dark grey stuff from Vietnam because 1) the recording medium could only be read by one machine at Maxwell AFB, 2) the material was encrypted, 3) they’d not kept the encryption keys.

        1. Well, when you WANT the information buried for eternity, but don’t want to be the one to say you deleted it…

      2. I’ve go some sympathy for the desire to help future historians, but… I have a lot more sympathy for my friends not dying. The current system has enough flaws, not all of them human.

        Perhaps some sort of a system where the stuff that is frequently used gets put on a highly encrypted hard drive and shipped back to the Pentagon, printed out on archive paper by automated printer and packed away?

  10. A friend of mine was looking to do some research into relatively recent history. He was going to do comparisons on how tastes and products had changed over time, and went to his local newspaper, only to find that they didn’t archive the classified ads, which were going to be the parts he was studying. I don’t know if all newspapers are like that. I hope not, because the classifieds are more likely to give the little bits of information that are so revealing.

    1. He should check local academic libraries. They might have the old newspapers on microfilm or fiche. Those media are a pain to work with, but they’re stable(ish) and micro-formed newspapers include classifieds and ads and such.

    2. Of course, your friend isn’t going to see many classifies in today’s papers thanks to CraigsList. They even farm out the on-line obits to and the funeral homes.

      When I go to the library and look at the microfilm of the old papers, I see everything: classifies, comics, Sunday advertizing inserts, …. everything.

      I think your friend may need to go the manual route.

    3. Have your friend look at other places. Plenty of genealogy sites are archiving and digitizing newspapers. The older ones had the classifieds mixed in completely with the articles.,, and New York Times digital archive are just some of them. Unfortunately, there tends to be a gap between the really old ones (pre1950) and the current ones (archived local papers usually only back to the 80s, if that.

  11. My Father was a Professor of the history of science and technology (specializing in 18th Century Britain). I grew up with some of this. For example; History of Science became a separate discipline because historians don’t know enough science and scientists don’t know enough history. Before the birth of my Father’s specialty, the History of Chemistry had been written, for the most part, by Chemists … who didn’t understand the results that early Chemists reported because they didn’t know enough history to grasp just how much carbon contamination exists in a primitive laboratory in a coal-burning city.

    1. Yeah, historians have a hard time remember that they’re not experts in other things. This happens a lot. For years there was a theory going around that there was a groove down the sides of medieval broadswords so that the blood had someplace to escape. That lasted until someone showed a sword to an engineer who told them that it helped strengthen the sword. Oops.

      1. It gets REALLY nasty when something is two or three times removed, especially if it’s included in “basic familiarization” books.

        I had to actually call my mom up to ask about the myth of “stallions attack women who are menstruating.” She’d never heard of it, although there are a few cases where wild stallions have attacked women— and a TON of cases where animals attack because your mount is in heat.

        I knew that she’d ridden a stallion when she was pregnant with me, so I was pretty sure it was questionable, but wow.

        Her best guess was that it was either warhorses responding to blood on not-my-rider, or that women rode mares and so it was just common sense to avoid stallions just in case.

        1. Okay, but if I read ONE MORE ROMANCE where the hero rode a black stallion (because) I’m going to break something. (Or start singing black adder’s theme song.)

            1. I hated and despised Black Beauty, have no idea how such a book ever became a classic. The Black Stallion on the other hand, I could see that possibly subconsciously influencing them.

            2. I went through a horse phase, even if my earliest exposure was to my uncle’s rather mean spirited gelding (he’d bite, given half a chance. Might kick too. I kept my distance, even after I got horse crazy). But around 8 or 9, and until my late teens, horses were the thing. And I still like riding, in spite of being rather bad at it. I think part of it is the idea of being able to control something so much bigger than you, at that stage of your life when you don’t have much control over anything else (yeah, in theory anyway, actual control can be a bit spotty at times, depending on the horse…).

              Other ingredients, maybe just overexposure to all those movie heroes on a horse… seems romantic when you don’t see them spending the time they’d need to spend cleaning sweaty saddles or a bit coated in horse saliva or brushing the darn critter after which any cuddling would include a ton of horsehair since it has been embedded in his clothes etc. (And I’m still waiting for the movie where the heroine is allergic to horses, so every time the hero tries to get closer she starts to sneeze :D).

              1. My grandfather had a riding mule that was pretty ornery. You had to carry a short length of 2×4 inch board to ride him. You didn’t have to hit him with it. The mule just had to know you had it in hand.

                1. My dad had a horse when he was a kid he talks about that was the same way. He could ride him fine, because the horse knew he was boss, but even him if the horse hadn’t been rode in couple of months would have to carry a 2×4 when you got on him. He would rear and go over backwards if you didn’t have a club to hit him over the head with. And that gelding hated and had no respect for women, dad ended up selling him to the only woman that was ever able to stay on him.

                2. My grandfather had a prize-winning ass that he hired out to help get through the Depression.

                  No, seriously — it was a great-looking mule. I’ve seen a picture of it.

            3. I kinda like some horses. They have their use and place, and can be very aesthetically pleasing. I’ve also been pooped and peed on, bitten, kicked, and thrown off, and mashed against fences, so I don’t love them. I think it’s another thing we can blame on nostalgia, with doses of Walter Scott and excerpts from Black Beauty.

              1. That’s kind of where I am- some are pretty good. I still miss Cougar and Granger.

                It’s like folks going bonkers over pickups. (Growls– they are not trucks, you can’t load cows into them!)

                  1. My SUV is a covered pickup, really — an expedition. I use it to carry wood and furniture and stuff. Well, I used to. I haven’t done much carpentry last six years. This writing thing…

                    1. My husband took a little teasing from the guys at work who have pickups because he was using our minivan– until the day they had to move stuff in the rain.

                      They’d never considered that a minivan with the back seats removed was a covered pickup what was easy to load and unload, even from the side.

                      Which was part of why he’d volinteered to help, anyways.

                  2. Actually they are pretty dang handy for country boys also. You may not be able to load grown cows in them (my theory is you can load them just fine, you just need to quarter them first 😉 ) but if you want to carry firewood or dogs or fencing or innumerable other things, they will go a lot of places a big truck won’t.

                    And while I understand your irritation Foxfier, they have been trucks or rigs my entire life, and will probably continue to be so for the rest of it, old habits die hard.

                    1. Motorcycles, cement blocks, lumber, lawn mowers, hook a tow strap on it to pull my house back onto the foundation a tad better …
                      Mine has had plenty of use this month. Normally it sees less than 200 miles a month. I’ll need to get gas a second time his month. Before this month, the last fill up was around New Years.

                    2. I don’t think “irritation” covers the emotion after you got up at three, rode hard for six or so hours, spent another letting them mother up, and just came around the corner to where the guy left “the red truck”… to find a toyota pickup, not something you can move a half-dozen horses in.

                      It’s sort of like the clip/magazine argument with someone who was given the magazine for a pistol when he NEEDED the clip for the rifle.

              2. Heh. Stepped on. Fun. Especially when the thing then refused to lift his foot off your toes (probably we are talking only about seconds, but felt muuch longer. Fortunately happened in a stall, so at least what was underneath my foot had some give.).

                1. Got stepped on while wearing worn out tennis shoes. Almost like not wearing any shoes at all. The key to making a horse move is to get under his shoulder and push up. Good thing I knew that, because I weighed about 88lbs at the time. I could never have just pushed him sideways.

                  1. I was wearing rubber boots which were not much better. Yep. Steel toed boots. Excellent idea, whoever first thought about that hopefully got rich.

                    1. I’ve never worn steel toed boots since I seen a guy get his toes cut off by the steel toes when the foot of a rock drill slipped and came down top of his foot. We all knew better than to wear steel toed boots, even if OSHA required them, but his wife had bought him a new pair as a gift and he was wearing them that day. Less than a week old and they had to be cut off so the could pry the steel toed part up to release his toes (not cut clean off, but cut through the bone and tendon, basically just the skin on the bottom of his foot holding them on.)

                    2. If it crushed the steel toe of the boot that badly, then it would have taken the toes completely off the foot, and he would have been hemorrhaging as well.

                    3. Nope, I’ve seen the exact same thing happen multiple times with non-steel toed boots. One guy ended up with broken toes from it, myself just ended up with VERY sore and swollen ones. A large flat object, with rounded edges, even if it weighs a few tons tends try and crush rather than sever. A little chunk of 1/32″ sheetmetal however… Steel toed boots are great if you are planning to drop 25lb chunks of steel on your toes, or if you are going to try and trim your toenails with a chainsaw. Not so great if you use them to provide traction for heavy equipment, or if it is cold out. The new fiberglass/Kevlar toes alleviate the disadvantages of steel toes in cold weather, but have not seen the results of parking heavy equipment on them, yet.

                      Oh, and believe me, he was hemorrhaging.

                    4. According to my grandfather, they did– in part because loggers bought them because they’d cut toes off, rather than just crushing them. (Better to be known as half-foot than die of gangrene.)

                      Some of the newer boots seem awful flimsy, though, so you end up with that benefit being a drawback.

            4. I worked a couple of summers at a campground with trail rides. We had one gelding in our string of horses, and the teenage girls were nearly all mesmerized by the size of his “equipment”.

      2. Even today you will commonly see fandancy knifes and dirks be sold with a “blood groove.”

        1. And look at how long it took us to re-engineer how to make proper Damascus steel. *shakes head*

          You’d think the fullering would be obvious once you saw that lovely pattern, but no.

      3. There’s a great Nova episode detailing the recreation of the famed Norse Ulfberht swords, including the reasoning they follow to explain the sourcing of the crucible steel used to make them. Fascinating episode, and one I highly recommend to anyone who has an interest in that sort of thing. Our ancestors were not unsophisticated primitives as a lot of present-day types assume.

        1. Well, I’m just glad it wasn’t made from organic ingredients. Who knows what misspellings might have come from that?

  12. A lot of Roman era technology died out because of lack of trade. Not every part of the planet has the same amounts of raw materials. It’s hard to make concrete or plumbing if you don’t have lead or the ingredients for cement readily available.

    1. Several authors I’ve read point to Diocletian’s price regulations and the beginning of the end for both technological improvements and trade. And once the population dropped below a certain point, you didn’t have the necessary excess to be able to do (or to justify) major projects even if you had the materials. Thus the gap between the early 400s and, oh, the construction of Chartre and the other great cathedrals.

      1. Yup. And yet, to mainstream academic historians today, Diocletian is still the hero who restored the empire. Pardon me while I facepalm; and by face I mean a mainstream academic historian’s face, and by palm I mean the kind that has coconuts.

        1. HERE! HERE!!!

          As far as I’m concerned, his taxes helped set up the manorial system and his requirement that you take the job your father had set up the guilds.

          About the only thing good he produced were cabbages.

        2. Feature, not bug: such academic historians tend to endorse contemporary policies which consolidate power in the hands of an elite caste who will provide sinecures for historians legitimizing their authority. One thing at which academics excel is discerning which side of their bread carries the butter.

  13. I loved the show about Siena’s Roman water system. Twas awesome. It was mostly built in stone (IIRC), startlingly enough, probably because that town is all rock….

  14. Remember that European swords were nothing more than barely sharpened chunks of iron whose users had no skill whatsoever. Also, they weighed, like, twenty pounds.

    1. Actually, the weight thing has been recently disproved. Someone went to Europe and *GASP* weighed the swords. I don’t have the link handy, but there is an article about this on the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts website.

      1. This is another example of historians thinking they are experts at everything. Late models of plate armor were bulletproof (AAMOF the word “bulletproof” came from firing a pistol into a suit of armor before selling it as proof that a bullet couldn’t penetrate.) Historians assumed that European swordsmen used heavy weapons to hack through armor and that the weapons had to be heavy to penetrate. Untrue. Armor penetration happened when some slipped a point through a weak spot, not when armor was physically pierced, at least in the case of plate armor.

        1. I watched some show where they pretty much showed that even claymores were only good for battering the armor in so that you could either lock it up, or crush the flesh beneath the armor.

          On the other hand, not everyone wore full armor, so swords were good against the ones who didn’t. But a good mace was effective against even a good helmet.

          1. Yup. And the whole “cumbersome” plate thing- I got to see an SCA guy do acrobatics in medieval plate once. *chuckle* Tiring, yes. But well-fitted, it didn’t seem to restrict him as much as I’d have thought.

            1. Yeah. I can’t remember where I read it, but I saw another another document which said that training for knights included calisthenics similar to what you would see today, except in armor. And then there’s the story (from Ripley’s) of the guy who used to swim a river in full armor every morning.

            2. Full plate plus arms weighs less than modern battle-rattle, and is much better distributed.

              Those armored knights were not fools: They knew a major part of their job description included fighting dismounted, and as such simply would not use armor that would get them killed afoot.

        2. Ha! I did that with my space commando power armor. One of the ethnic groups had armor that included thick-based blades with a sharp point that attached to the outside of their calf, ankle to knee. They called them can openers and they were used for hand to hand combat to pierce the seams of the other guy’s suit.

          It just made *sense*.

          1. And there were swords (and other bladed weaponry) of a similar design used for more or less that purpose. The swords were usually called tucks or estocs, and were more like pointed crowbars with a hilt than what we’d think of as a sword. Very little in the way of edge, as it’s impossible to cut through the plate they developed in response to. There was a whole manual of arms devoted to teaching their use.

      2. I was being sarcastic. 😀

        I remember a teacher making the weight claim about swords when I was in high school. I printed out the appropriate studies (all 100 pages worth) and brought them in to prove him wrong.

          1. Probably as much as the teacher I corrected on his claim the US hasn’t had land occupied by a foreign invader since the war of 1812.

              1. Washington DC. Currently and for the last fifty or so* years.

                *or so may range as high as 150 years according to some standards of measurement.

      3. There was also a fun article on how well an European swordsman would have done against a Japanese swordsman. The big problem was “which” European swordsman to choice. There were so many “styles” of swords in Europe existing at any given time. Oh, the article did comment that an European swordsman would be a skilled one.

        By the way, even though the level of skill of either swordsman would be a factor, I would have voted on the European swordsman for the win. A good European swordsman could have fought against various styles of styles of swords and styles of sword fighting. The Japanese swordsman would have faced only one style of sword.

        1. The European was also likely to be taller, stronger, have better steel for his sword and better armor, and – as you noted – likely to be more flexible in his approach to a fight. I’m slightly biased, and possibly over-informed, though, as I have a close friend who runs a school that teaches, among other things, western martial arts. Specifically, a blend of the Spanish and Italian schools.

          1. Depends. I’d have to look this up again, but the East had some decent metallurgy, and folded steel blades are quite durable. They don’t keep an edge as well, but can be made sharper- the better to slice and pierce cloth and flesh.

            Of course, it would depend on precisely which and when. There were some not-much-better-then-potmetal blades on both sides, and there were others which would remain good war steel today.

            1. Ah, but the thing you have to remember is that the Japanese swordsmiths developed those folded-blade techniques specifically because their raw materials were so poor. European blades made out of crucible steel sourced from what is now modern-day Iran and Syria did not need to resort to those steps because their materials were much, much better. Japan has always been in a state of resource constraints, so they had to substitute sophistication and subtlety for things like high-quality steel.

              It’s all of a piece, as well: Japanese sword technique was informed by the available materials for the swords, which meant that the super-flexible rapiers and so forth of the late Renaissance were impossible.

              As to technique? Mushashi’s famed two-sword technique was supposedly lifted whole-cloth from European rapier-and-dagger combat technique he saw demonstrated by Portugese or Dutch traders.

              When you go digging, the Japanese sword is really not that impressive. What the Japanese did that was impressive was in the area of drill and standardization–They came up with standard musket drills long before William of Orange developed his ideas, recapitulating the Roman drill. There’s even some evidence that William’s innovations in Holland were inspired by reports he heard third-hand about Japanese technique.

              The Japanese were always better known for their spearmanship than their swords, at least until the post-WWII fad created by the US forces who captured Japanese swords, which were in turn inspired by an idealized Bushido tradition that never really existed in the first place…

              To some degree, the narratives we live by are more important than the actual history.

            2. Another fun argument is which swordsmen to compare– the average guy, or the best of each?

              K, now is it the average specialized swordsman,or are Europeans penalized for having enough swords to let less skilled folks use ’em?

              Why, yes, we did have this argument a lot. 😀

          2. Was there a German style of sword fighting? I know that there were a number of German principalities.

            1. Yes absolutely. The illustrated fighting manuals that served as marketing tools for the various German (and other European) schools-at-arms survived, and are what the various western martial arts folks have used to recreate their form.

              Look for “Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship” translated and interpreted by Christian Henry Tobler, or “Medieval Swordsmanship” by John Clements as a start.

            2. Try ‘Hans Talhoffer’. I’ve got a book called ‘Medieval Combat’ which is his Fechtbuch translated by somebody named Mark Rector.

              1. Checked. The original manual, that Fechtbuch, seems to be from 1467. It has illustrations of sword fighting moves, and for grappling and other both armed and unarmed close combat techniques.

                1. And by the way, some of those pictures can be a bit hard to figure out. Different drawing styles back then, what exactly the characters are supposed to be doing on them is not always clear at one glance.

                  1. I’ve looked at some of those old illustrations, kinda reminds me of the modern ‘chinglesh’ installation instructions that come with so many things these days, only in reverse. Instead of reading the instructions to figure out what the picture is illustrating, today you look at the picture to figure out what the instructions are telling you to do.

            3. Also, check out i.33 (the earliest fechtbuch anybody’s found, instructing on sword/buckler with a distinctly medieval feel), Lichtenauer, Joachim Meier, Capo Ferro (unless he’s studied, he’s a leaper!), Silver’s “Paradoxes of Defense,” I believe it is. Also Fabris, Agrippa, Fiore dei Liberi.

              1. The style taught by the sword school we have in Finland, The School of European Swordmanship, started by a British guy named Guy Windsor, is based on the teachings of Fiore dei Liberi.

                Guy has a few books out, the one I’ve got is Swordsman’s Companion, fairly easy to understand stuff. I have tried the beginners’ course a couple of times, but with bad luck so far, seems I manage to get some health problems every time I do that and have to then drop it for months or a year or two every time I try. And not caused by the sword practice either. Inflamed shoulder (work related) or something. 😦

                1. Since I have been on prednisone I can’t do any exercise program for any period of time (inflammation as well– part of my disease) so I sympathize. I do try to walk a little and am careful with weights. I used to be so physically fit. *sigh

                  1. I have always been overweight, but I used to be pretty fit too. Not for about a decade now. The irritating part is that theoretically I still should be able to get in shape. I have beginning osteoarthritis and a few other going to be permanent problems, but none are yet bad. But there always seems to be some small stuff. Most often inflammation, sometimes something else but every time when I try to get into a more regular practice of anything something seems to get in the way, that type of things which make your doctor to tell you that you should take a break and wait until it has healed. And when it has something else pops up. Part of it is probably due to my work, for one thing it requires lots of that kind of repetitive movements which can cause problems and since I’m not in good shape… bit of a catch-22 situation.

                    1. I do understand– inflammation is the killer er I mean the key. I take Omega 3s and eat more fish if possible. It keeps my disease which is all inflammation under control. Also, sadly, we are getting older.

    2. Crazy long quote so you don’t have to look for it:

      However, there are a few respected sources that do give some valuable statistics. For example, the lengthy catalog of swords from the famed Wallace Collection Museum in London readily lists dozens of fine specimens among which it is difficult to find any weighing in excess of 4 pounds. Indeed, the majority of specimens, from arming swords to two-handers to rapiers, weigh much less than three pounds.

      The late Ewart Oakeshott.

      Despite frequent claims to the contrary, Medieval swords were indeed light, manageable, and on average weighed less than four pounds. As leading sword expert Ewart Oakeshott unequivocally stated: “Medieval Swords are neither unwieldably heavy nor all alike – the average weight of any one of normal size is between 2.5 lb. and 3.5 lbs. Even the big hand-and-a-half ‘war’ swords rarely weigh more than 4.5 lbs. Such weights, to men who were trained to use the sword from the age of seven (and who had to be tough specimens to survive that age) , were by no means too great to be practical.”(Oakeshott, Sword in Hand, p. 13). Oakeshott, the 20th century’s leading author and researcher of European swords would certainly know. He had handled thousands of swords in his lifetime and at one time or another personally owned dozens of the finest examples ranging from the Bronze Age to the 19th century.

      Medieval swords in general were well-made, light, agile fighting weapons equally capable of delivering dismembering cuts or cleaving deep cavities into the body. They were far from the clumsy, heavy things they’re often portrayed as in popular media and far, far more than a mere “club with edges.” As another source on arms affirmed: “the sword was, in fact, surprisingly light·.the average weight of swords from the 10th to the 15th centuries was 1.3 kg, while in the 16th century it was 0.9 kg. Even the heavier bastard swords which were used only by second-grade fighting men did not exceed 1.6 kg, while the horse swords known as ‘hand-and-a-half’ swords weighed 1.8 kg on average. When due allowances are made, these surprisingly low figures also hold good for the enormous two-hand sword, which was traditionally only wielded by ‘true Hercules.’ Yet it seldom weighed more than 3 kg.” (Funcken, Arms, Part 3, p. 26).

      Starting in the 16th century there were of course special parade or bearing swords that did weigh up to 8 or 9 pounds and more, however these monstrous show pieces were not fighting weapons and there is no evidence they were ever intended for use in any type of combat. Indeed, it would not make sense given that there were other far more maneuverable combat models available which were several pounds lighter. Dr. Hans-Peter Hils in his 1985 dissertation on the work of the great 14th century master Johannes Liechtenauer noted that since the 19th century many arms museum collections typically feature immense parade or bearing greatswords as if they were actual combat weapons ignoring the fact they are not only blunt edged, but of impractical size and weight as well as poorly balanced for effective use. (Hils, p. 269-286).

      1. Also consider the size of the bearer. The average medieval footman was not a large fellow, for all the strength of his arm.

        1. One of the coolest things I never checked up on was when I found out my 5’6 dad was normal to tall for those days– since he weighed 98 pounds when he was 18, and had been bucking 150lb hay bails every summer up to that point….

          Had a lot of fun imaging a world where I was a big, strong woman instead of the smallest person around.

    3. Apparently the problem is that a lot of the weapons that get shown are show weapons– not something a body would actually use!

      1. I also think that we’re generally weaker than our ancestors who had to work physically every day.

        1. Ah, but folks like my parents are probably stronger, because they’re healthy. (Alright, when they were 45 they were insanely stronger, they’re a bit older now.)

          Generally, though, folks don’t have ranchers for parents so you’re totally right.

        2. We are. I read an article recently about how they calculated, based on the skeletal damage to the right arm and shoulder, from the outrageous muscle development there, that some Longbow archers were using bows with as much as 150lb draw strength. That’s insane.

          1. That is seriously insane, when I used a bow I was using one set at 80lb which is considered way high, and have actually pulled one that a guy had set at almost ninety. But 80 is the absolute top I’ve ever known anybody to use for everyday use. And these were compound bows that cam over and have 50-80% let-off. You are NOT holding a 150lb longbow at full draw for very long, without it affecting your skeletal structure.

            1. They pulled a bunch of staves off the Mary Rose that were quite stout. The method an English Longbowman used was not going to be a pull and hold, they used a push/pull that reached full draw when they were pointing up at around 45 degrees for max range. The arrows were stout too, and not just because the bows demanded a high Spine, but to drive the heavy bodkins into armor of all kinds. Even if the arrow didn’t penetrate it gave a heavy clout to the recipient. I used to frequent a boyers forum with a fellow from Denmark (iirc) who had longbows up to 200# @32″ draw and he had to make certain the targets were well anchored or they’d fall over from a hit from the 3/8″ hardwood arrows he used.

              Before my sholder started acting up and arthritis hit me hard I used a 70# and 80# bow. the 70# is a Hunnish style Horse bow, and the 80# is a red oak Penobscot Indian style double bow.

              1. Yes, that is why the longbow was a volley weapon (and why poachers generally used one of lesser strength) specifically because it was so powerful you didn’t draw and hold.

                The rate of fire that experienced longbowmen could produce was quite impressive, especially when compared to that of early firearms.

            2. And now you see why the British Army went to the musket even though early firearms were inferior to longbows in rate of fire and power.

                1. True [Wink]

                  Seriously, the longbow required constant practice to be good at using it and keeping good at it.

                  One of the problems England faced was that the average commoner had better things to do beside practicing with the longbow or even learning to use the longbow.

                  While the early handguns were useful, what was even more useful were the early cannon.

                  1. They actually had laws requiring every free man to practice x amount of time per month. I ran into this while researching Shakespeare. (You’re not going to ask, are you? It’s been YEARS.)

              1. That, and firearms were much cheaper to manufacture in quantity, especially after England was nearly denuded of yew-trees. Also, leaden balls and black powder are a lot easier to produce and lighter to carry, round for round, than arrows.

                1. Less time of training, smaller logistics loading, and cheaper to mass produce meant the economical-minded lord could field a much larger peasant army, for longer, than his more traditional minded foe. Makes sense from the perspective of history. *grin*

  15. Some Roman pumps:
    One reason we don’t know very much about some facets of Roman technology is that anything made of Bronze or Copper more than likely will get recycled. Also the mid Roman period probably had a general living standard as the early British Eighteenth Century and may actually have been more equitable. The problem was that the culture ran up against the limits of muscle and water powered technology and had a Malthusian collapse more or less.

    1. Not a Malthusian collapse; more a collapse of will and discipline.

      The waning years of the Western Empire, the senators were more interested in lining their pockets and keeping their manors running than in defending the Empire. They’d scream and shout about a “Roman Army for the Roman Empire”, then when presented the price and manpower requirements of raising actual Roman troops, they’d vote it down and offer a pittance to hire some barbarian chieftain.

      Eventually, they just pulled back, abandoning the frontiers as “indefensible” because they didn’t want to put in the effort of defending them. Then the economic slide began, as the armies weren’t out on the frontier needing supply and keeping the roads safe.

      The population didn’t collapse; as the “Roman” population declined, the “barbarian” population moved in.

      Having two courts didn’t help, either. A threat to Rome wasn’t a crisis in Constantinople, and vice versa. One of the later Western generals couldn’t step foot in Constantinople for fear of losing his head — and he was in fact removed from power by setting it up so he HAD to go there or essentially give up all his authority.

  16. I ended up running around the office today without my cellphone today, and I got to wondering what time it was. The place where I work doesn’t have any wall clocks. I think they are all in our cellphones now.

    I find myself wondering if future archeologists will think our era didn’t care about time, simply because we left no indication behind of all the automated clocks we have stuck to us at all times?

    1. This lack of wall clocks annoys me at my house. We have computers and tend to sit close to them most of the time, but on the times I am not anywhere near the computer, I can lose track of time. Eventually, it annoyed me enough that I got a radio alarm clock, because it’s also so quiet here that I often can go hours without hearing another human voice – usually until I have to pick up the littlest one from school.

          1. So we thought at the last place we were at. Ended up paying a few gs to have the rooms where we put up hooks (both sticky and nail) repainted and repatched. It really depends on the home-owner, though; but we’ve become leery of incurring costs like that again.

            1. There’s a thing called blue tack which you can use to put up stuff without holes, but it left residue on my wall, so I’m not recommending.(It’s not supposed to.)

              1. Yeah, we used bluetack to put up stuff, sticky hooks that weren’t supposed to peel off paint when removing, and holes where we were supposedly allowed to.

                Bluetack left an oily blotch behind that couldn’t be rubbed out, the paint peeled off when we removed the sticky hooks, and the patch up job was considered ‘not good enough.’

          2. From every place I’ve rented– yes.

            They’ll charge you for fixing them, not fix them, and charge the next guy if they don’t get in writing that they were already there.

        1. Dad installed picture rails in the house when we remodeled (in 1976). It is top molding that goes around at the junction between the ceiling and wall and has a gap at the top that you can hang a bent strap so you can hang your pictures from cables or cords. Very Victorian. Of course he then used nails to hang all the pictures, and I never asked why. The flattish wall clocks are pretty light and thin. Ever consider hanging them on straps over interior doors?

          1. I did think of that, but Aussie homes (at least up north Queensland) tend to favor open door plans and the only ones that have doors are the bedrooms and bathrooms (as well as exterior doors) I’m thinking of putting clocks on flat surfaces, like the shelf area in front of books and next to the phone in the kitchen, when I have money to spare.

            1. I have been thinking, and came up, among other things, with the wonderful idea of painting a sheet of plywood and leaning it against the wall, and mounting the clock on that….and I realized that not everyone is as style impaired as I am.
              ….and arguing that it is a workable solution makes it no better.

              1. That isn’t at all style impaired, you would bother with painting it, which is a step farther than I would likely go*.

                *Says the guy who once had a kitchen table in a rental (company I worked for rented it) house made out of a sheet of plywood found in rockpit, complete with bullet holes, and legs of alder cut with a chainsaw.

                1. Well, there is the story of the guy that had his entire downstairs paneled in peg-board. He was a bachelor of course.

    2. Two of the students were complaining yesterday because the alarms on their cell-phones had not gone off and they were almost tardy. It never occurred to them that there might be other options for back-up alarms. *shrug* I use a battery alarm clock. And the cat still goes off 10 min before the alarm, no matter what time I set the clock for.

      1. I got nailed by that too, when daylight savings rolled around. For whatever reason, my cellphone clock didn’t update to the new time until the day afterwards.

  17. Back in the 1800s, as reports of the earthworks in Ohio started trickling eastward, many of the “educated” refused to believe some of the details. Perfect circles hundreds of feet in diameter? Built by savages? PREPOSTEROUS!!!

    The first (more or less) scientific survey of some of the mounds included diagrams showing how the sites had been surveyed, specifically how they established the shapes of the circles. It quieted the criticism down, at least.

    And that was just over circles — which, when you think of it, just requires rope and a stick…

    1. Sir, it is obvious that those mounds couldn’t have been built by savages. The mounds are the remains of a lost civilization destroyed by those savages. [Very Big Evil Grin]

      Seriously Rob, what you left out were the “explanations” for the mounds once the “wise men” accepted that they existed.

      Some even brought the “mystery” of the Lost Tribes of Israel to explain the mounds.

          1. Never seen Babylon 5, but since it is spring time I just shaved my hair off to a half inch long, so you can see my hair isn’t covering in contact points.

            1. Oh, I was just wondering if you worked for the History Channel on one of their stupid shows that teach nothing about history other than “I don’t understand it so … Aliens!!1!1!11!”

              1. Personally I’ve never understood why a starfaring civilization would leave only a few scraps of pottery and some broken Neolithic tools behind. I mean do you really expect me to believe they recycled ALL their beer cans?

                  1. oh, pfui. They used mind powers. It’s all psi and stuff. You people are just so Earthbound. Here, have a crystal. I mean, where do you think the crystals came from and we have so many? It was their psi-activating thingy that made the star thingy go. (Yes, I’m running. I’ve seen your profile picture. I’m not letting you catch me!)

                1. Really Bearcat, every body knows that advanced star-traveling civilizations use bio-degradable tools and beer cans. [Evil Grin]

                2. You don’t understand. All the Neolithic tools and pottery were the things they taught the barbarian humans to make. THEY came from an advanced, eco-friendly, Socialist civilization and everything they used was bio-degradable and made by robots, which freed them to pursue their dreams.

                  (I’m running, too)

      1. Well, if you borrow the idea that some of the Welsh were from the Lost Tribes of Israel, and that a few of those sailed west with Prince Madoc and eventually became the Mandan of the upper Missouri River valley, then it makes perfect sense. *shakes head* And people think it took the invention of the Internet for weird theories to develop and spread?

        Textbooks in Iowa had the “lost civilization” account of the origin of the mounds into the 1950s. What raised my eyebrows was when I read a county history from the 1980s where the authors repeated the “higher civilization wiped out by Indians” story. In this case it was whoever built the pueblos in New Mexico.

        1. That “higher civilization wiped out by barbarians” theory always irritates me. If they were the “higher civilization” why is it that the other side is always successful, who exactly is defining “higher” anyways?

          1. “well if they won’t bow down before our superior understanding of cooking edame and choosing sunglasses, they leave us no choice but to unleash the mimes. May Gaia have mercy on their…well, have mercy anyways.”

            1. It is a well known fact that Rome’s collapse came after they resorted to stationing Roman hipsters on patrol at the Cisalpine border.

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