Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Inside the Phaistos helmet

The Phaistos helmet has a double border running around the edges of the neck and cheek guards.  It's hard to tell for sure what this feature represents, but I believe it's a piece of felt sewn onto the inside of the helmet as padding and then folded over to the outside to create a decorative edge.

Double border around the neck and cheek guards.  The border extends to the edge of each piece and appears to be slightly raised.

This is not the only way to interpret the double border, but it is consistent with the fact that beehive helmets were lined in felt.  Homer uses the word πιλος (pilos) to describe a cap made out of felt which formed the lining of a helmet.  Later on, the word came to mean a helmet in Classical Greek.  Thucydides calls the Spartans' helmets πιλοι (piloi), but in reality they were probably made of bronze.  They were beehive shaped though.

Decorative border around the neck and cheek guards of my helmet.

In my very first post on the beehive helmet, I discussed the parallels between bronze age Aegean helmets and today's motorcycle helmets.  The pilos is equivalent to the foam padding inside a motorcycle helmet that makes it comfortable to wear.  My Phaistos helmet is a hell of a lot more comfortable with a pilos inside, and because this is very thick felt it does provide a little extra protection.

The inside of my helmet, fully lined.

These next photos show how I made the double border around the cheek and neck guards.  There's a piece of felt on the inside of each guard, and it is folded over the edge of the leather.  Then I've stitched right through both the leather and the felt to keep everything in place.  A second strip of felt is stitched in place to create a border with two blue ridges.

Felt is ideal for this process because it can be stretched and folded around corners, and unlike woven textiles it will not fray.

In this photo I'm starting to sew felt to the inside of the cheek guard.

In this photo I've finished sewing felt to the inside of the cheek guard and I'm finishing the decorative edging.

The stitching is done with heavy linen thread and goes right through both the leather and the felt lining.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

A little bit of fun

This fortnight's Historical Food Challenge is History Detective - "For this challenge, you get to be the detective! Either use clues from multiple recipes to make a composite recipe, or choose a very vague recipe and investigate how it was made".

Since it is barbecue season in this hemisphere I've researched ingredients known from Linear B texts and come up with two marinade recipes for grilled meat.  We know the Mycenaeans enjoyed grilled meat, and while we can't conclusively say whether they used marinades it's not an unreasonable assumption.

Beef with saffron and coriander, and lamb with mint and cumin.

We don't have any recipes from Mycenaean Greece, which is deeply unfortunate because they probably had quite a sophisticated cuisine.  We do know a bit about the kinds of food they ate, partly from archaeological remains, and partly because a lot of food products were recorded on Linear B tablets.  The staple food was grain, and workers were paid in grain; they might also get olive oil and figs.  There were a wide variety of domestic animals including cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats, although meat may have been a special occasion food for many people.  The elite got to enjoy a range of exciting spices, and probably a range of cooking techniques*.

Grilling meat on skewers the way modern Greeks make souvlaki was apparently common practice in Greece during the Bronze Age, and the Mycenaeans had a unique type of portable grill which archaeologists call a souvlaki tray.

Personally, I find the term "souvlaki tray" a bit misleading, because the meat wouldn't have tasted anything like modern souvlaki.  Souvlaki is made with lemon, which was not available in Greece at that time, and oregano, which may or may not have been available but is not attested in Linear B.  Based on the spices listed on Linear B tablets I would expect Mycenaean food to incorporate flavours we now associate with the Middle East, like cumin, mint and coriander.

Recipe 1 is flavoured with saffron and coriander, and I found it worked very well with beef.

Recipe 2 includes mint and cumin.  I used it to marinade lamb, and I think it might also be nice with pork.

The sign shaped like a T usually refers to a unit of weight equal to about 3 kilograms, but as Dr Richard Vallance has discussed this depends on context.  When it refers to spices it represents a much smaller quantity.  In these cases Vallance translates it as a gram (about a quarter teaspoon).  I've used it to refer to grams here, and I've also used it to represent mililiters, since a mililiter of liquid weighs close to a gram.  Mycenaean scribes sometimes did use weight measurements for liquids.

So here are the recipes in English:

Recipe 1

100mls red wine
50mls olive oil
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cumin
Around 20 saffron threads

Recipe 2

100mls red wine
50mls olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped mint
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cardamom

Both recipes are made by simply combining the ingredients and marinading the meat for 4 hours or, ideally, overnight.  After that all you have to do is thread the pieces of meat onto skewers and barbecue them.

The Challenge: History Detective.

The Recipe: See above.

The Date/Year and Region: Greece, 1600 - 1100 BCE.

How Did You Make It: See above.  If you're unfamiliar with saffron, remember to soak the threads in a spoonful of warm water for a few minutes before adding them to your marinade.

Time to Complete: A few minutes to prepare, plus grilling and marinating time.  I suggest making the marinade the day before and leaving it overnight, especially with recipe 2.

Total Cost: $9 for a packet of saffron; all the other ingredients are ones I normally have in my kitchen.  In the Bronze Age, however, the saffron and other spices would have been eye-wateringly expensive.

How Successful Was It? Both recipes were very nice.  Recipe 1 is my favourite, but they're both good.

How Accurate Is It? As I said previously, these recipes represent my best guess as to what Mycenaean cooking might have been like.  It's an educated guess based on what we know about how the Mycenaeans prepared food and the ingredients they used, as well as my own experience of what makes a good marinade, but it is a guess.

* We know this because of the many types of specialised cooking vessel mentioned in Linear B tablets.  For more information see Lis, B. 2008.  "Cooked food in the Mycenaean feast - evidence from the cooking pots", published in Dais or available online here.

Monday, 1 February 2016

More beehive helmet

Yep, I've been doing a bit more work on the beehive helmet.  I now have the outer shell of the helmet fully assembled.  I've connected my outer helmet pieces together using strips of felt sewn to the edges of the leather bands.  The felt strips connect the leather bands together, and cover up the joins.

This is to some extent a matter of interpretation, but it's an educated guess based on what we know about beehive helmet construction.  If I was making a boars' tusk helmet I would place strips of felt behind each row of tusks, and fold the felt edges over the ends of the tusks to create a nice neat edge.  It's also possible to use thin leather for this step, but personally I prefer felt because it can be stretched and eased to fit the helmet's curves.  It's more difficult to do that with leather.

Another reason I think this stuff was felt, not leather, is that in Minoan paintings it is brightly coloured.  I'm not sure if it was possible to dye leather bright colours using bronze age techniques, but they could certainly dye wool.

Take a look at these warriors from one of the Akrotiri frescoes.  Although the figures are very small and not especially detailed, we can see blue stripes between the rows of boars' tusks on their helmets.  We can also see that the cowhide used to make their shields is not dyed, which makes me wonder if they perhaps didn't have effective processes for dying leather.  If anyone knows, please comment and enlighten me.

Picture from The Stream of Time.

I made the felt myself, because commercially produced felt doesn't have the right properties for a Minoan helmet. This is stiff, solid fabric about a quarter inch thick and quite different from what you can buy at a craft store.  I used to think the felt was largely decorative, but now I'm starting to think it may have provided some level of protection in its own right.  It turns out Thucydides and Pliny both mention felt as being arrow-resistant.