I have observed two types of historians during the course of this little torsion project.  There are those I call the Occamists.  These stern fellows have taken it upon themselves to remind us all of what is strictly a part of the historical record and what is not.  Like faithful pruners of their gardens, they rarely meet ideas that don’t inspire them to acts of excision.

Then there are those of us who are perfectly well aware of the razor-like insights proffered by the Occamists, yet still find it valuable to extend our observations by using a combination of imagination and logic in an attempt to flesh out those areas of ancient technology that belong to the realm of the not strictly known.

The Occamist faction seems to delight in reminding their more, shall we say, creative colleagues, that they are susceptible  to a dreaded disease known as “blue sky thinking”.  Often, these dour guardians of historical precision,  take it upon themselves to administer dire correction to anyone who strays outside the fold of absolute certainty.  Or at least, their version of it.

Of course the trouble is, when it comes to the study of ancient catapults, what is actually known for sure makes paltry pickings for further study and examination.   This is where the arts of extrapolation and thoughtful experimentation must take over to light the way.  Without a considered use of imagination to suggest how these machines were built and affected the ancient world, the whole area of historical catapult study becomes moribund and repetitive in the extreme.

What we do know is far exceeded by what we do not know.  We can gage the depth of this ignorance by those few scholars that have tried to replicate ancient catapults and generally failed miserably to get any decent performance out of them.

However, there is a modern breed of experimental archaeologist that prefers to blend the “known” with an experimental approach that is oriented towards developing high-performance.  And by this methodology, further our understanding of how these remarkable machines probably worked and looked.

What the Occamists might call “blue sky thinking” , I prefer to call, “ripe fruit on low hanging branches”.  Perhaps there is no irrefutable direct evidence that a particular type of technology existed, but because it would have been so easy to achieve, and is a natural outgrowth of well known technologies that are a part of the historical record, and, very importantly, because this “ripe fruit” technology would confer substantial benefits to it’s users, there is every likelihood it did exist.  Enough anyway, to make looking for the signs of it a worthwhile endeavor.  Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  And because the Occamists are constitutionally averse to using their imaginations in these matters, they make poor readers of what signs do exist.

Take for example, the subject of shooting lead bullets (or glandes) from ballistas that normally only fire bolts and light javelins.  In my experiments with Firefly I was able to make this double bowstring, with a pouch,  in an afternoon.



It was my first attempt at making a sling string, and yet in short order I was able to boost that one pound lead egg up to 318 feet per second.  This next video shows the effect at 50 yards of one of these projectiles travelling at 295 fps on four sheets of 5/8″ plywood.

Click for vid: glandes 1

In the next video we see the first rough shot prior to sighting in.  It struck a good foot above the plywood targets, slipped through the camo netting and tarp, ploughed through a dense hay bale and smacked a two foot splinter out of the 2″ X 8″ douglas fir backstop, and then went on to God knows where .  You can hear the sound of it hitting that fir backstop if you listen carefully.

Click for vid:  glandes 2

Here is a view of one of these whirring beasties speeding downrange.  (Unfortunately Firefly is not visible as she is hidden inside the open door of my shop.  There was no way to move her back then.)

Click for vid:  glandes 3

If you turn up the volume and look at this last video on a big screen, in a darkened room, you can gain a sense of how these projectiles must have appeared to their recipients. (Okay, hypothetical recipients.)  Just visible is a glint of lead in the left of the open doorway, followed by a streak of grey to the left of center screen, and then a small splash of dirt on the lower left as the glans grazes the top of the dirt backstop. The knocks you can hear after that are from the glans crashing into the tree line 40 yards further on.

In my last excursion into glans testing (back on  April 9, 2012, see archives), a sling string was used to launch 14 glandes at once, each weighing 31 grams.

sling string 2


The effect of this “shotgun” pattern can be seen as seven of the fourteen glandes blew through  a 1/2″ thick plywood patterning board at 35 yards.  The seven that missed during this shot could been seen going through the air in a similar pattern directly to the right of the plywood.  So the actual pattern is twice what the video actually shows striking the plywood.

Click for vid: glandes 4

Please keep in mind this patterning exercise was really just a first attempt, conducted in a single day.  How effective would a shotgun technique like this have been in ancient combat?  Especially if the technique was well developed and several times more devastating than the one seen in the video?  That is largely a matter of context.  For opposing an assault through a breach in a wall, or one that was funneled into an appropriate kill zone, the shock of it would likely be quite demoralizing for the attackers. Especially if multiple machines fired at once or in volleys. Perhaps at lower power settings the Romans would have found it useful for crowd control.   Who knows?

The point of all this is to illustrate the concept of “ripe fruit on low hanging branches”.  The Occamists, with their penchant to oversimplify, are not in a position to consider the existence of these easily attainable technologies.  I know they consider themselves to be defenders at the gate, keeping at bay the hordes of speculators that threaten their ivory towers, but let’s face it, the Occamists are also somewhat bereft of imagination and therefore unlikely to connect any of the fairly obvious dots.  Especially the pragmatically opportune ones.

Ejecting high speed glandes was a part of this project that was accomplished without a lot of undue fuss.  In other words, performance like that shown in the above videos was achieved with very little effort on my part.  Why the Romans wouldn’t have included a simple, inexpensive sling string for shooting glandes and the like in their normally bolt shooting ballistas, seems remote to those of us that have actually done the experiments.

“Blue sky thinking”  or “easy pickings”?  As my wife Rebecca says,  “it is better to know that you believe, than to believe that you know”.  The Occamists, and their predelicton to streamline all avenues of thought, are not well suited to exploration.  Probing the unknown is what this game is about.  That requires imaginative and physical engagement,  tempered with careful caveats, not just smug criticism devoid of any sense of the potentialities involved.


2 Responses to “The Occamists vs. the Historians of the Blue Sky.”

  1. Charles W. Fink says:

    This Blue Sky thinking reminds me of the book ‘Genghis Khan and the making of the Modern World’ by Jack Weatherford. Probably you’ve read it, if not may I recommend it. It is a version of history that was not what I was taught to expect.
    I would like to encourage you to write a book. Or to do the job of editing what you have already written into a book. Even a small limited run can be self published with modern technology. To start. You have done so much and documented it so well that it should be built into a book. Its how stuff gets remembered. Not a “E book”. Hard cover. Limited run.
    Don’t rule it out.
    A lot of writers live from their armchairs, but there is not often skill in their hands or the tools and drive to actually manipulate any matter in the reality they describe. There are also individuals that excel at manipulating the matter around them, but aren’t literate enough to write their own name, or only speak one language, or something like that. It seems that you have a high degree of skill, are quite literate and stick with it till you get it right. I think you should consider it. Keep in mind, that if someone else wrote a book about you, it would piss you off, because they wouldn’t do it right.

  2. nick says:

    Thank you Charles. That touches me more deeply than I dare imagine.

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