Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Victorian Christmas

In another first for Tastes Of History, we travelled to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight to support English Heritage's "Victorian Christmas".  Our aim was to provide a sampling menu of food and drink of the period for visitors to try.  The cooking of mince pies and a warm Wassail Punch added the aromas of Christmas, attracting passers-by to our humble cottage.

For those who do not know, Osborne House is a former royal residence in East Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought the Osborne estate on the Isle of Wight in 1845. The house, designed by Prince Albert himself, was built between 1845and 1851 in the style of an Italian Renaissance palazzo. Osborne became a summer home and private rural retreat away from court life. Victoria used Osborne for over 50 years, entertaining foreign royalty and visiting ministers, finding solace there after Albert’s death in 1861. Now in the care of English Heritage, visitors can explore the many rooms still filled with original furniture and works of art, while the planting in the grounds is to Albert’s designs.
Of particular note, The Durbar Room is an exceptional example of high Victorian opulence. By the 1890s, Victoria lived increasingly at Osborne and decided the house needed staterooms so that she could hold court there. The Durbar Room was one of the places added as a result and was one of the few parts of Osborne that was built by Victoria following the death of Prince Albert.

In 2015 the room was re-opened to the public after an extensive refurbishment that had used photographs of how it looked when Victoria was still alive. As guests step through the door, they will see the Durbar Room as she would have seen it - a banqueting hall. Visitors can walk on ornate carpets around a huge dining table set with fine cutlery and crockery to give an idea of the opulent meals held there by Queen Victoria. Moreover they can marvel at the restored plasterwork orginally decorated by Lockwood Kipling, father of author Rudyard Kipling, and Bhai Ram Singh.

For our part, it was a challenge to keep up with the demand for mince pies.  Using only a small portable oven, we were limited to cooking trays of 24 mini mince pies at a time.  Once cooled, however, it was amazing to watch two dozen pies being devoured in as many seconds by visitors.  Their popularity must have been due to Mrs Beeton's Mincemeat recipe:
Our ginger cake seemed popular too, even though its texture is more bread-like than cake. This is largely due to the use of plain flour with a little baking soda rather than self-raising flour  more likely to be used today.  The result is denser ginger bread but even this differs significantly from the biscuit-style ginger bread available in shops and familiar to most people.

Self-raising flour was invented by English baker Henry Jones about 1844, in the first quarter of Victoria's reign.  A year later, Jones applied for and received a British patent on his flour manufacturing process.  He hoped to sell his invention to the Royal Navy to replace the sailors' tradition hard tack with a more appealing freshly baked “soft tack”.  Sadly, bureaucratic inertia foiled his efforts and it took a further ten-years before Jones' self-raising flour was sailing the length and breadth of the British Empire.
For those with an even more sweet tooth, we offered two dishes: an Everton toffee and a Victorian marshmallow.  The latter, having the addition of rose water, created a bit of a stir.  Many visitors were initially confused by the flavour until they realised the rose water connection with Turkish Delight.  Both dishes were, however, sugary treats not for the faint-hearted:
And finally, the aroma of hot mince pies and ginger cake were supplemented by the addition of a Victorian "Wassail Punch", a brief history of which can be found here.  We decided to produce a non-alcoholic version so all, young or old, could sample the flavours of Christmas.  For those wishing for a more merry version (perhaps), the recipe can be upgraded by replacing apple juice with scrumpy or something similar:
From what we understand over 8,000 people visited Osborne House over the weekend.  The passing trade certainly kept us busy, and it was a joy once more to share our food knowledge with interested, and interesting, people.

With that in mind, we hope the recipes above can add an appealing twist to your Christmas festivities this year.  So, from all at Tastes Of History, have a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous and peaceful New Year.  Wassail!


Sunday, December 08, 2019

Reclaiming an Ancient Good Luck Symbol

Mention the word ‘swastika’ or worse draw the image and today you risk causing offence for so many reasons. Though once commonly used over much of the world without stigma, because of its iconic usage in Nazi Germany the symbol remains highly controversial in the Western world. Any discussion on symbology cannot, and must not (lest we condemn ourselves to make the same mistakes), divorce itself from these modern connotations. However, might it be appropriate to return this symbol to its more benign ancestry and through education over time deny its use to ‘extremists’. That’s the aim - now how to navigate the minefield..?

A ‘swastika’ is normally taken to refer to an equilateral cross with its arms bent at right angles, which appears either right-facing or in its mirrored left-facing form. The archaeological evidence for swastika-shaped ornaments dates to as early as the Neolithic period. As an ancient symbol, the swastika occurs mainly in the cultures that reside in modern day India and the surrounding area, sometimes as a geometrical motif (as in the Roman Republic and Empire) and sometimes as a religious symbol. It has long been widely used as a sacred emblem in world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism (see insert), and Mithraism. The major religions, with a total of more than a billion adherents worldwide, make the swastika universally found in both historical and contemporary society

Etymology  The word swastika is derived from the Sanskrit word svastik meaning any lucky or auspicious object, and in particular a mark made on persons and things to denote good luck.  It is composed of su-, meaning "good, well" and asti, a verbal abstract to the root as "to be".  Svasti thus means "well-being."  The suffix -ka intensifies the verbs meaning or confers the sense of 'beneficial', and svastika might thus be translated literally as "that which is associated with well-being", corresponding to "lucky charm" or "thing that is auspicious."[1]  The Hindu Sanskrit term has been in use in English since 1871, with alternative historical spellings including suastika, swastica and svastica.
Origin Hypotheses  The ubiquity of the swastika symbol is easily explained by it being a very simple shape.  Many basket-weaving societies, for example, have independently arrived at a repeating swastika design using the edges of the reeds in a square basket-weave.  Regardless, the genesis of the swastika symbol is often treated in conjunction with cross symbols in general, such as the "sun wheel" of Bronze Age religion (see opposite).

History  As already alluded to, the earliest consistent use of swastika motifs in the archaeological record is dated to the Neolithic.  The symbol has been found on several pottery sherds from the Khuzestan province of Iran, for example, and as part of the "Vinca script" of Neolithic Europe of the 5th millennium BC.  In the Early Bronze Age, it appears on pottery found in Sintashta, Russia.  Swastika-like symbols also appear in Bronze and Iron Age designs of the northern Caucasus (Koban culture), and Azerbaijan, as well as of Scythians and Sarmatians.  In all these cultures, the swastika symbol does not appear to occupy any marked position or significance, but seems to be just one form of a series of similar symbols of varying complexity.

The swastika symbol also has an ancient history in Europe appearing on artefacts from many pre-Christian European cultures.  The Indo-Aryans, Persians, Hittites, Slavs, “Celts” and Greeks, among others, extensively used it as a decorative symbol.  In more modern times, the swastika experienced resurgence in the Western world following the archaeological work in the late 19th century of Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the symbol in the site of ancient Troy.  Following his discovery, and after consulting two leading Sanskrit scholars of the day, Emile Burnouf and Max Müller, Schliemann concluded that the swastika was a specifically Indo-European symbol.  Later discoveries of the motif among the remains of the Hittites and of ancient Iran seemed to confirm this theory and thereafter associated the symbol with the ancient migrations of Proto-Indo-Europeans.  Schliemann also connected it with similar shapes found on ancient pots in Germany, and theorised that the swastika was a "significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors", linking Germanic, Greek and Indo-Iranian cultures.[1][2]

By the early 20th century, these discoveries, and the new popularity of the swastika symbol, had led to a widespread desire to ascribe symbolic significance to every example of the motif.  In many European countries, examples of identical shapes in ancient European artefacts and in folk art were interpreted as emblems of good-luck and success linked to the Indo-Iranian meaning.  Schliemann’s work, however, soon became intertwined with the völkisch[3] movements, for which the swastika was a symbol of "Aryan" identity - a concept that became equated by theorists such as Alfred Rosenberg with a Nordic master race originating in northern Europe.  Western use of the symbol, along with the attached religious and cultural meanings, was subverted after its adoption as the emblem of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Nazi Party).  With its conveniently-geometrical and eye-catching simplicity, the swastika was highly effective for associating Nazism with the Aryans as the historical forefathers of modern Germans and instilling racial pride.  It is worth remembering that many Roman symbols were also co-opted by the Nazis to blatantly associate the ‘Reich’ with ancient Rome and establish its imperial aspirations.  One need only look at the flags (vexillae), eagles (aquilae) and the bound bundle of wooden rods (fasces)[4] on display in parades (e.g. Nuremburg and Munich) and on all government buildings to see the obvious parallels.  Since then, of course, the swastika is almost exclusively associated in much of the West with Nazism, fascism, white
supremacy and racism, the Axis powers in World War II, and the Holocaust.

Today, the version of the swastika shown left remains a core symbol of Neo-Nazi groups.  How sad then that its original use as a ‘lucky charm’ has been so thoroughly corrupted.  Perhaps it is high time that we, as professional historians, teachers or history enthusiasts, begin the process of educating future generations to accept the swastika without prejudice and for what it has always represented.  Time, perhaps, to reclaim this most ancient symbol.  Good Luck!
Endnotes:
1.  Schliemann, H. (1875), Troy and its remains, Murray, London, pp. 102, 119-20.
2.  Boxer, S. (2000), "One of the world's great symbols strives for a comeback", The New York Times, July 29.
3.  The German interpretation of the populist movement, with a romantic focus on folklore and the "organic".
4.  During WW2, and ever since, the swastika became deeply stigmatized, yet strangely the fasces did not.

A Brief History of Foods: Turkey at Christmas

There was great excitement during Easter 2019 with the announcement of the first secure dating of a rabbit bone, found in Britain, to the first century AD.  While it has been widely believed that the Romans introduced the wild rabbit to these shores, actual scientific proof had been sadly lacking.  Analysis of a rabbit bone found in Fishbourne Roman Palace in West Sussex, however, now shows at least one animal was alive in Britain in the first century AD.  However, the origins of the rabbit in Britain, and its domestication, are not the focus of this post as the media quickly linked the timing of the find to the rabbit's association with Easter.  Reading around this latter subject led to the discovery of thought provoking research on "Celebrating Easter, Christmas and their associated alien fauna"[1].  Should you wish to read the full paper, it can be found here: https://doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2018.1515655, but what got my attention was all about Meleagris gallopavo, the Turkey, and its link to Thanksgiving and Christmas.  While not particularly partial to turkey myself, it was surprising how little I knew of the historical connection with the winter celebrations.  Being keen to share knowledge, especially when I've learnt something new, what follows are the pertinent paragraphs extracted and are presented for your information and delectation: 

"The date of the turkey’s first appearance in Europe is unknown, but written documents suggest a 1511-12 introduction to Spain and 1520 in Italy (Crawford 1992; Fothergill 2014).  Their introduction to England is credited to William Strickland[2], who claimed to have bought six turkeys from Native American traders[3] and sold them in Bristol in 1524 or 1526.  Until recently, there were no archaeological finds to support a 1520s introduction, as the earliest closely dated physical remains were from a 1534-50 context at St Alban’s Abbey (Hertfordshire) and almost all other finds have broad date ranges (Poole 2010; Fothergill 2014).  Fothergill (2012) suggests that when turkeys were initially introduced to Europe their status as exotic animals meant they were more likely to be used for display purposes rather than food.

Initially, the turkey’s feast-day popularity in Europe may have been linked to their exotic status, but their growing association with Christmas and, in America, Thanksgiving, was likely facilitated by their natural breeding cycles.  The poults (chicks) are born in the early summer, reach adult size in the autumn and are ideal for slaughter in mid-winter (Fothergill 2012, 44; ‘’ National Wild Turkey Federation).

How turkeys became established as the ultimate Christmas fare is unclear, although Thomas Tusser’s book Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie indicates the association was in place by 1573. Tusser suggests that Christmas feasts should include ‘Beefe, mutton, and porke, shred pies of the best, pig, veale, goose and capon, and turkey well dressed’ (Tusser 1812, 57). It is interesting to note that this first reference to Christmas turkeys in England predates the use of turkeys in American Thanksgiving celebrations by over 150 years. The earliest specific references to turkeys at American Thanksgiving relates to the consumption of eight birds by the colony of Georgia in 1732, and in Savannah in 1733 (Smith 2006, 68). Both cases are associated with new arrivals from England, rather than existing American colonists, suggesting the possibility that including turkeys in celebratory meals was developed in England and only later exported back to the turkey’s continent of origin."

So, the turkey's central role in the American Thanksgiving began as an English tradition, another of which has it that Henry VIII was the first English king to enjoy turkey at Christmas.  Yet, while this tradition is said to have spread rapidly throughout England in the 17th century, goose remained the predominant Christmas roast until the Victorian era.  Turkey's more recent popularity as "traditional" fayre was undoubtedly helped by Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843), but it was King Edward VII who reputedly made eating turkey fashionable.

Notes:
1.  Malene Lauritsen, Richard Allen, Joel M. Alves, Carly Ameen, Tom Fowler, Evan Irving-Pease, Greger Larson, Luke John Murphy, Alan K. Outram, Esther Pilgrim, Philip A. Shaw & Naomi Sykes (2018) Celebrating Easter, Christmas and their associated alien fauna, World Archaeology, 50:2, 285-299, DOI: 10.1080/00438243.2018.1515655
2. According to Richard Marriott, a descendent of William Strickland (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber-20672110), there is no real evidence that his ancestor did introduce the turkey to England.  Strickland, however, was keen to promote the story and thus adopted a turkey cock as the family crest.  The drawing of his coat-of-arms, held at the College of Arms in London, is thought to be the first depiction of the bird in Europe.
3. Native Americans hunted wild turkey for its meat as early as AD 1000.  Turkey feathers were used to stabilise arrows and adorn ceremonial dress, and the spurs on the legs of wild tom turkeys were used as projectiles on arrowheads.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Anglo-Saxon Fare Fit for a Battle

A pivotal battle took place 953 years ago on October 14th, 1066.  It changed the course of Anglo-Saxon England's history when William of Normandy defeated the army of King Harold II at Battle in East Sussex.  Known today (somewhat erroneously) as "The Battle of Hastings", the battlefield owes its survival to William the Conqueror, who founded Battle Abbey on the exact spot where Harold died as penance for the bloodshed of the Norman Conquest.  Each year, as close to the anniversary as possible, English Heritage host a large scale re-enactment of the battle.

Over the weekend of October 12th and 13th, Tastes Of History found ourselves preparing Anglo-Saxon recipes for visitors to the event to sample.  All did not go as well as we had hoped.  Persistent rain on the Friday carried on throughout Saturday, not stopping until Sunday morning.  The ground quickly became very wet under foot and the firewood equally soaked.  With a low pressure weather system set in, we lit our first fire at 09:30 am and promptly sent the next four hours fighting to get any heat to cook on.  We had planned to produce a beef casserole but the challenging conditions simply did not allow us time to do so.  Nevertheless, we were able to make a curd cheese for the Cheese Spread recipe below and eventually got the Pea Soup cooked.

There is surprisingly little contemporary writing on food of the period.  The Anglo-Saxons left us no surviving cookbooks and without one creating recipes of the 11th century is somewhat of a challenge.  Anglo-Saxon cooks, especially those in high-status households, might have had access to, or knowledge of, the Roman cookery of Apicius, which still influences menus today.  As to more contemporary sources, De observatione ciborum ("On the Observance of Foods") is a letter written by Anthimus, a Byzantine physician, in which he discusses the eating habits of 9th century France.  Other than that we have to wait until The Forme of Cury ("The Method of Cooking", cury being from Middle French cuire: to cook).  This scroll provides an extensive collection of medieval English recipes from the 14th century.  So, somewhere in between lies the cuisine of Anglo-Saxon England.

Much of our understanding of what was eaten, therefore, comes from a general understanding of the types of crops that could be grown, the animals farmed and native species that could have been foraged.  As with most early cultures, the Anglo-Saxons had wheat, barley, oats and rye to make breads, pottages, ale or beer. Such staples would have been supplemented by legumes (peas and beans), root vegetables (carrots, parsnips and turnips), alliums (garlic, leeks and onions), leafy vegetables (cabbages and lettuce), and diary products (butter, cheese and eggs).  Hunters and fishermen would have added to the variety of foods with game meats (deer and wildfowl), fish and seafood (crabs and molluscs) where proximity to such things permitted.

With all this in mind we turned to "Tastes of Anglo-Saxon England" by Mary Savilli.  This collection of recipes is inspired by the author's knowledge of Anglo-Saxon ingredients and cooking techniques.  Some of the recipes are from Latin sources but they are almost certainly very much like those used in England.  So, like the author of this cracking little book, we set out to introduce modern palates to flavours known one thousand years ago.  Should you wish to recreate the dishes, then here are the ones we were able to deliver on a wet weekend in Britain:
 Many who sampled the Onion Relish commented that it would be a superb condiment at a barbeque.
The Cabbage Salad was a surprise hit for many people despite the raw nature of the cabbage, leek and spinach.  We used feta cheese in the salad but feel that a good, hard sheep's cheese would work equally well (if not better).
To make a simple curd cheese, we have a recipe here in a piece we published on Neolithic Feasting at Stonehenge.
The Pea (and Ham) Soup is a perfect example of one-pot cooking and was described as "delicious" by Edward, a young gentleman of discerning taste. Thanks Edward, you made our weekend.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Bosworth: Food Fit For A King

Tastes Of History was delighted to be part of the Bosworth Mediaeval Festival this year at the brilliant Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre.  For those unfamiliar with the history, the Battle of Bosworth Field (or Battle of Bosworth) was the last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses.  Otherwise known as the "Cousins' War", this was the civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York that extended across England in the latter half of the 15th century.  The Battle of Bosworth Field was fought on August 22nd, 1485 and resulted in the death of King Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.  Won by the Lancastrian forces of Henry Tudor (Henry VII, father of the future King Henry VIII) the battle marks a pivotal transition in British history from the Late Mediaeval Period to the Early Modern Period.

Our brief was to produce period recipes for visitors to sample at the Festival, which given such a specific date was a challenge to say the least.  Nevertheless we set about recreating dishes that we hoped would not have been out of place on such a historic day.

All did not start well.  Persistent rain had turned the field into a quagmire.  So much so that, after several vehicles had been bogged in, movement about the site on the Friday afternoon was sensibly restricted.  Re-enactors were directed to camp on Ambion Hill rather than risk getting stuck in the mud of the lower-lying period campsite.  Even so, several hardy souls are highly commended for hand carrying their gear and equipment onto site.  Hussah!

Regardless of the "glorious" British summer, we pitched out tent and set about dressing our mediaeval kitchen in preparation for the weekend.

Saturday dawned bright and, most importantly, dry.  That said, the main arena was still too soft for horses to be involved in a recreation of the Battle, and jousting by Destrier was understandably cancelled.  No one wished a horse or rider to be injured.  Despite these set backs a full programme of displays, demonstrations and lectures was delivered to a very appreciative audience.

For our part, we prepared the following recipes for visitors to sample; posted here should you wish to recreate them:




Of the recipes shown above, the Ox Tongue, Braised Heart and Tripe dishes were created by Tastes Of History's chef, Jill, and thus are not taken from a historical source per se.  They do, however, use ingredients known to mediaeval cooks, which are combined in a way that would be familiar to diners of the period.  Most visitors to the Bosworth Mediaeval Festival were pleasantly surprised by the taste and texture of those cuts of meat not typically found in their local supermarket.  Unsurprisingly, sampling our meaty Farts went down very well, appealing to a very British sense of humour.  Titter yee not..!




Saturday, August 10, 2019

Last Supper in Pompeii


Located in sunny southern Italy, the ancient Roman city of Pompeii was perfectly positioned between lush vineyards and fertile plains to one side and the bountiful waters of the Bay of Naples to the other.  “Last Supper in Pompeii”, a major exhibition in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, tells the story of the city's love affair with food and wine.

When the ash from Mount Vesuvius began raining down on Pompeii in October AD 79, the townspeople were engaged in typical day to day activities: producing, buying and selling food and, most importantly, eating and drinking.  This remarkable exhibition provides an extraordinary insight into their everyday lives.

As is so typical of the UK media, the newspaper coverage of the exhibition’s opening made much of Romans eating dormice.  Given that Tastes Of History has spent two decades trying to correct this fallacy, we were keen to see the exhibition’s approach first-hand.

There are certainly surviving recipes for Edible, or Fat, Dormice (Glis Glis), so it can be argued that Romans did eat them - well, wealthy Romans might have done - as a culinary delicacy.  From the evidence available, however, dormice were not widely eaten by ordinary Romans, who simply could not afford such expensive luxuries.  Moreover, while there is a native species of small dormouse in Britain, the edible one was certainly not and the evidence for the latter’s introduction to these shores by the Romans is sadly lacking.  As for Romano-Britons eating them, there is even less proof!

Edible Dormice are actually more like squirrels, being silver grey in colour, with white or yellow undersides. They have large round ears, black areas around small eyes and long bushy tails.  Typical examples are between 14 to 19 cm long, with a tail a further 11 to 13 cm long.  They were farmed and eaten (possibly as a snack), even though they were expensive to breed and raise. The latter was usually achieved in large pits or, in less spacious urban surroundings, in terracotta containers known as gliraria, something akin to hamster cages. The “Last Supper in Pompeii” exhibition has a wonderful example on show, compete with (ahem) a “dormouse”. Peppered with breathing holes, an edible dormouse would have been confined in such jars to simply eat, drink and sleep. With little exercise the dormouse would be fattened over a number of weeks until it was of sufficient size for the pot.

Being cooks we were very interested in the food preparation and kitchenalia elements of the exhibition. We were fascinated to discover that a rather unusual looking pan, a reproduction of which we possess, is described as cake baking tray. Suitably inspired, we shall experiment with our version and see how well it (albeit a reproduction) performs.

There was only one niggle. In the caption describing a series of serving platters, it is suggested that the visible cut marks might have been caused when someone cut a pizza too forcefully. Yet, pizza, as we understand it, was unknown in the Roman world. The biggest single problem is that most pizza dough bases are covered with a tomato-based sauce and tomatoes were not introduced to Europe until the late 15th or early 16th centuries. The species originated in the South American Andes and its use as a food began in Mexico, spreading throughout the world following the Spanish colonisation of the Americas. Moreover, the term pizza was first recorded in the 10th century in a Latin manuscript from the Southern Italian town of Gaeta in Lazio, on the border with Campania, while modern pizza was invented in Naples. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that any resident of Pompeii was eating pizza in the 1st century AD.


Notwithstanding this one tiny error, the “Last Supper in Pompeii” is packed with over 400 rare objects, including fine masterpieces of Roman art, ranging from the luxury furnishings of Roman dining rooms to the carbonised food that was on the table when the volcano erupted. The displays are supported with detailed, easy to read and digest, information panels, and an accompanying audio guide is available for both domestic and overseas visitors. We spent a good hour discovering the many wonderful objects on display.

While exploring this exhibition cannot replace a trip to Pompeii itself, it is a superbly informative alternative. “Last Supper in Pompeii” is running now until January 12th, 2020. Tickets can be purchased on arrival, but a timed ticket system is in operation. It is highly recommended, therefore, to book ahead to ensure you get the time slot of your choice. Full price adult tickets are £12.25 each although concessions are available. To book your tickets, click on this link or visit the Ashmolean Museum website.










Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Dionysios' Polybolos

The design of Dionysios of Alexandria’s “Polybolos” is somewhat unique in the annals of ancient artillery. The very name “Polybolos” or “multi-shooter” implies this weapon, most likely a torsion bolt-shooter, had some form of repeating action. As described by Philon of Byzantium in his work “Belopoietica”, it was an automatic repeating straight-spring catapult that could launch arrows in succession. It employed “a double-chain drive, a cam mechanism translating linear into rotary motion, and automatic systems for feeding the bolts and engaging and releasing the trigger.”[1]

Armed with Philon’s description, a working Polybolos was reconstructed by Alan Wilkins, FSA. It has a rotating roller with two slots (one lengthwise and one helical) and a wooden case that held the missiles. On both sides of the case it had two pairs of pentagonal sprockets (gears) connected by a wooden chain. A pin on each chain was connected at the same point with the slider of the catapult.

With the forward rotation of handspikes on a windlass, which is connected to the rear sprockets, the slider moves automatically forwards, whereupon a pin attached to the slider engages and follows the helical cam groove of the roller above. The roller rotates clockwise until the lengthwise slot is aligned with the corresponding opening of the bolt case, or magazine, at which point gravity feeds a bolt into the longitudinal groove. As the slider reaches the extent of its forward motion, the bow-string is fed beneath the claw-like fingers of the trigger. Another pin engages the trigger release lever locking the claw over the bow-string.
Rotating the windlass in the opposite direction reverses the direction of the chain drive to pull the slider rearward and, in so doing, rotates the roller anticlockwise. When the longitudinal slot is aligned with the groove in the slider an arrow is gravity fed onto the latter. The slider continues rearward until a fixed pin engages the protruding lever of the trigger mechanism freeing the claw to pivot upward and release the bow-string. At this point the twisted skeins of sinew-rope propel the two bow arms forward dragging the bow-string along the slider to discharge the bolt. The continuous backward and forward rotation of the windlass in this way enables an operator to launch a succession of bolts relatively swiftly.

The chain drive mechanism produces an impressive rate of fire when compared with a reproduction of a standard three-span Vitruvian catapulta. Testing by members of The Roman Military Research Society (THE RMRS) revealed that Wilkins’ Polybolos could shoot six bolts in the time taken to discharge two using the Vitruvian machine and a two-man crew. With this impressive rate of fire there must have been a very sound reason for the Polybolos not continuing in service after the third century BC.

Why, then, was the Polybolos unsuccessful? The main problem seems to be that it did not offer a huge technological leap forward in firepower. While one man can singlehandedly operate the Polybolos, the semi-automated loading and firing process results in the string being drawn at essentially the same rate as other non-automated machines. Allowing gravity to feed the bolts is therefore not much faster than allowing a loader to place them on the slider against the bow-string. Moreover, the non-automatic system allows the ballistariae more time to aim between shots. Philon makes the claim that the Polybolos was too accurate ("...the missiles will not have a spread..."), but one could argue whether Philon ever saw the machine in action, because there is no way that successive bolts would stay in a tight group except at close ranges[2]. Indeed, well before the maximum range quoted by Philon - "...little more that a stade", approximately 200m - the bolts would have spread out, as they can be seen to do when shooting modern reconstructions of standard, non-automated, bolt-shooters[3]. The Polybolos is clearly a much more complicated machine, with many more constituent parts, than the standard bolt-shooter. It would have been be more costly to construct and maintain. For example, the Wilkins’ reconstruction used about 150 pins to join the links of the two chain drives, and that may be the Achilles heel that led to its not having "found a noteworthy use" by Greek, or indeed Roman armies. Every pin would have to withstand the strain of drawback, and if even one pin snapped - literally “the weakest link” - then the machine would be out of action.

Yet it is intriguing to know whether a full power Polybolos would be a viable weapon. Having seen Alan Wilkins’ reconstructed Polybolos in action several times over the years, and having been lucky enough to actually operate it, it is a complex yet elegant machine whose action is simple to master, but not without its problems.

Firstly, most, if not all, reconstructions of the Polybolos appear severely underpowered. This is not a criticism of the reconstructions themselves, or of their builders, since most of these machines are simply proofs of concept, full size working models if you prefer, aimed at “bringing to life” Dionysios’ invention. Their constructors did not necessarily set out to reproduce a fully tensioned catapult. Rather, most seem intrigued by the concept and determined to investigate how all the complex parts might have fitted and worked together.

Actually, this does make some sense as the mechanism was/is an unknown quantity. The precise materials used in its construction[2] are not known, although we can infer much from the parts  of ancient catapults that do survive. Nor do we know how robust these different parts were or needed to be. We have no idea whether the whole mechanism could have coped with the stresses on the individual components or whether it could have operated efficiently with the amount of potential energy stored in fully tensioned sinew-rope springs. There is the inherent danger of the machine literally destroying itself under tension. Until foolhardy individual builds a full power catapult fitted with the automated loading/release system this will remain a "known unknown".

All of the above, however, has been a preamble to a long running thought experiment. Taking the Wilkins Polybolos as the benchmark, it is fairly obvious from shooting this particular example that the bolts do not fly very far, about six metres rather than the hundreds for an effective war machine. This is hardly surprising since the spring frame is deliberately underpowered for reasons of safety when being demonstrated in public.  The performance is not helped as the Wilkins example, and all similar reconstructions, uses flightless bolts. Once again this is not that surprising. The automated feed system, with its magazine and grooved roller, would appear to rule out the use of fletches, fins or vanes. The absence of fletching will adversely affect the aerodynamic stabilisation of bolts or darts, however.  Thus we are left o question what would happen if flightless bolts were used in a fully tensioned Polybolos? How would they perform? Would they be stable in flight? Would the bolts fly true? How accurate would the catapult prove to be, and what range could be achieved? Answering these questions would certainly demonstrate the viability, or not, of a fully tensioned Polybolos as a weapon.

As stated, two or more fletches or vanes fixed proud to the bolt shaft, much like a standard arrow or crossbow quarrel is configured, would foul the magazine-fed system. So, could the fletches or vanes be incorporated into a bolt to generate the missing in-flight ballistic stabilisation? The inspiration for a possible solution to this problem came from a somewhat unlikely source, namely the “Hale Rocket”.

In 1844, William Hale (1797-1870) patented a new form of rotary rocket that improved on the earlier Congreve rocket design. Hale removed the stabilising guide-stick from Congreve’s design and vectored part of the rocket's thrust through canted exhaust holes to provide rotation of the rocket, which improved its stability in flight[4]. The three curved fins, reminiscent of arrow fletches, were. most notably, in-line with the rocket’s cylindrical body. Could a similar configuration be used for the shaft of a Polybolos bolt? Could the fletching or vanes be fixed to a reduced diameter shaft so as not to foul the feed system, and would this actually work?

The mock-up shown below is based around a bolt recovered during the 1922-1937 excavations in the Roman garrison town and Sassanid siege-works at Dura-Europos in Syria. A tapered wooden shaft may not be the most appropriate for the feed system but the thicker rear section ought to act as a useful counterweight to balance the iron bodkin. Experiments with both tapered and parallel shafts would be necessary to determine the most efficient bolt design. Four fletches or vanes (shown below in black) are proposed for symmetry. The shaft at the point where the fletches/vanes are adhered would need to be of sufficient diameter so that the bow-string connects with the bolt shaft and not the fletches/vanes. The latter circumstance would undoubtedly lead to a potentially dangerous misfire.


An alternative might be taking a standard bolt with an untapered shaft and incorporate the vanes along its axis. The example shown below uses a bolt 46 cm long typically associated with a one-cubit, or two-span, catapult. Three offset vanes have been carved into the shaft such that sufficient mass of material is retained to resist the propelling force of the bowstring acting on the shaft.

The next step will be to produce a number of example bolts and shoot them. Future tests will aim to prove the concept and determine which of the two bolt designs will: (1) feed cleanly from the Polybolos' magazine, (2) engage with the mechanism, (3) shoot safely, and (4) improve in-flight stability.








Notes:
[1] Wilkins, A. (2003), Roman Artillery, Shire Archaeology, Princes Risborough, p. 8.
[2] There is little or no evidence beyond Philon’s description to prove the Polybolos was anything more than an idea. Most likely it was an unrealised one.
[3] As with many automatic weapons systems, the Polybolos does tend to launch multiple bolts consistently at the same point in space. While this does produce a rather desirous “mean point of impact”, it is less than ideal if the intention is to engage and hit multiple targets in rapid succession.
[4] Winter, F.H. (1990), The First Golden Age of Rocketry: Congreve and Hale Rockets of the Nineteenth Century, Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, p. 321.