The Rules of quality historical Research

After writing here a (usually) acerbic expression on bad research (short summary – it is the one appealing purely to authority status) it is time to make a statement on what I (subjectively) consider quality research method. Today in historical studies we move away from blind repetition of chronicles to a task akin to military intelligence or proper science – piecing together the existing information, filtering out what we consider to be the noise and finding an explanation that fits the best with the remaining data. Here are a few basic principles I consider to be of great importance when doing so:

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Two new Reviews of Arms and Armor of Caucasus

Courtesy of Arms Heritage Magazine:

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Courtesy of Military Review:

Arms and Armor of Caucasus

Kirill Rivkin

Yamna Publishing, 2016, 328 pages

Book Review published on: October 6, 2017

Kirill Rivkin has published an impressive, coffee-table quality book, Arms and Armor of Caucasus. The book is beautifully crafted hard cover with full-sized, 9×12 pages containing color pictures and high-quality semigloss paper. However, more important than the quality of the book is the research and quality of the material on the pages within. Rivkin adds understanding to a time and place in history where documentation from that time is minimal and artwork is historically less accurate.

Researching this book was a long, passionate journey for Rivkin that spanned over a decade. It started with theories and culminated in historical discoveries that he did not predict. Rivkin mentions in the introduction that he refutes previous theories that he earlier supported. He is not looking for this to be a “fundamental text” but rather a stepping-stone that other researchers will use to aid in their future added dialog and research of this time and place.

Organized by three main chapters—Historical Background, Armies and Societies, and The Weapons—this sequence brings an understanding of the societies and cultures that used the weapons he later details. Rivkin provides an overarching historical review for the period between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries to provide context as he shapes the reader’s understanding. This broad aperture shows how Middle Eastern, Russian, and European cultures all affected the region. He moves from the history and culture to the specific armies, focusing on those from Georgia, Dagestan, and Chechnya. Finally, he takes a detailed look at the weapons and armor, focusing on bladed weapons but also acknowledging pistols, rifles, and armor. I think his focus on blades is due to the honor given by slaying one’s enemy with the sword, or it could simply be the inventory available. The study of all arms is important, as decorative techniques and motif is just one area of concentration used to qualify his theories. The mass production of bladed weapons made them plentiful but also difficult to study. This chapter dedicated to studying the weapons is the majority of the book. He first explains his methodology and how a traditional approach to studying art, literature, and miniature figures specifically, does not work. Rivkin acknowledges that this process is not completely accurate, and he tries to provide clarity on when he believes something is fact or theory and where his interpretations lead.

I believe Rivkin achieved his goal to add to the understanding of the Caucasus region in the sixteenth to early nineteenth centuries through detailed study of arms and armor. His book not only depicts art from the region and time period, but also catalogs it and communicates an appreciation for the region’s rich and complicated history. His work not only brings clarity to this art, he adds to it with the beautiful pictures in a masterfully bound book.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Joe Schotzko, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

Collections to see – Japanese weapons in Japan

Surprisingly, despite a relatively large number of surviving examples, strong collecting community, well funded government institutions and tremendous wealth of publications, navigating the world of nihonto permanent and temporary exhibits can be rather difficult. The main issue is that in Japan collections are maintained/exhibited in a slightly different fashion compared to Louvre or MET, and also polishing and display level varies greatly, something that is not nearly as much an issue with non-Japanese swords.

So in this article we will quickly discuss the collections exhibited in various Japanese museums, and try to identifying strong points of each of them.

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Secret techniques of ultimate researchers

You probably heard about people who can pass themselves as pilots, lawyers, doctors, CEOs over substantial periods of time without either experience or training. How do they do it? Well, it looks like the very top class professionals of this kind are for some reason all in our field of arms, armor and archaeology. So let me share 7 simple techniques that are proven to ensure unlimited success.

  1. Proclaim yourself an expert, i.e. “I have been collecting/doing this/curating for 40 years…”.  The weakest and most basic technique of them all. Stronger version – have a buddy to proclaim “he has been recognized as an expert for 40 years”!
  2. Refer to an expert. “The greatest expert on the subject told me in confidence that …”. “No one present is qualified to challenge my mentor John, who by the way said …”. Most commonly used, and comprises 90% of current scholarship.
  3. Risky, but far reaching. Invent your own language. When handed a blade gasp “Ba, this is a real mutan-butan”. Or after “carefully” examining it “well, I see nagamishi, so it’s not all bad”.  When there is existing terminology – double down. If people say mokume, use true mokume versus, say, nagiri mokume. Widely employ little known, useless, but formally sounding names from early publications. Its best if they are not accompanied by pictures – they can mean anything!
  4. It always pays off to go for quiet, strong and unapprochiable type. Short and vague appraisals, most importantly never (!) divulge any underlining reasoning. People respect what they can’t see.
  5. Never apologize, if pushed – double down and shift tactics. Some shifts are more natural – If confronted while doing (4), change to (1). From (3) one typically jumps to (2), but not to (4).
  6. Always have buddies to cover for you! Every argument can be won, if there are three guys willing to start yelling at crucial point “how can such things be asked to a person of such caliber”. Hint: drink more beer with pals. Said pals can be acquired in mutual admiration groups. There are plenty of entities like Collector’s Club for Academic Research (previously known as West London Organic Farming society) or West London Token-kai (much worse).
  7. The ultimate secret technique – Black Dragon, Blue Fire. Become a Museum Curator. The essential nature of all these methods is to shift the argument from evidence, pros and cons to postulating one’s opinion as that of “a recognized expert”. Having official position of an expert is obviously the best card to play in this case.

Nihonto studies – challenges and opportunities

I would begin with making a disclaimer that often, especially in the West, obvious difficulties with nihonto research are attributed to mysterious “Confucianism” or the heritage or early Showa (pre WWII) nationalism. In my opinion it is not true, as very similar issues exist or existed in other regions as well. Some of them are more accented in Japan and some are less, and my understanding of the reasons is provided below.
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Miniatures and Mongol weapons

Much of controversy regarding the early Mongol weaponry to the West of Urals is due to the fact that it is separately researched by those specializing in texts (Kuleshov?), miniatures (Gorelik) and archaeological finds (myself).

The case of miniatures is especially interesting and important. They do present Mongols as exceptionally well armored force, with an emphasis on swordfighting. They also, at least the earliest, 14th century examples, do show evidence of some East Asian influence (helmets with protruding “ribs” which would normally identify lamellar plates, from which almost all East Asian helmets are assembled).

 

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Masamune, Tbilisi and Geniuses

The question that does not escape any kind of collecting is that of Masters and Masterpieces. What kind of work is recognized as a Masterpiece, who were the Masters who created it, and whether their other creations can be readily identified, are the kind of subjects that get revisited every generation or so, with often conflicting answers. But studying how these are/were resolved in different parts of the World and in different times can be by itself very revealing.

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East Asian and European guilds

After finishing my new work “A Study of the Eastern Sword” I realized that the subject of difference between the organization of East Asian (say, Japanese) and European (which in Arms and Armor tends to mean German or North Italian) manufacturing requires further elaboration. While it can easily evolve into a book of its own, one point needs to be clarified in particular, regarding why in Japanese scholarship transmission of craft is assumed to be strictly from father to son, with no other option given serious consideration.

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Caucasian grease boxes

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Gun parts need to be oiled from time to time, which in the XIXth century was often done with grease (animal, usually cow fat), also used to grease paper cartridges. Because of this, many chose to carry a small box containing supply of fat; in Caucasus it would be hanging, together with the rest of similar equipment, on the warrior’s belt. Most of these boxes were strictly utilitarian, made from low grade silver, covered with crude niello or engravings – and very few of them actually survived. High class boxes, such as the ones shown here, are even more rare. Very few were made in the first place, and from those even fewer survived. They are almost never encountered by collectors, and even major museums do not have them: they are small and in the XIXth century collectors preferred to go after larger items. Even is such a piece were to be donated to a museum, it is unlikely to be as strongly appreciated as similarly decorated long sword or dagger – despite tremendous rarity of these objects. So here we have four high end “fat” boxes, as they are often called, courtesy of one of the most important private Collections. It would be interesting to demonstrate how these can be appraised by using the method proposed by us in Arms and Armor of Caucasus.

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