Monday, September 29, 2008

Happy Michaelmas

Michaelmas, September, 29th, the Feast of St, Michael, was an important day in the Medieval calendar. It marked a close to the harvest season. With the end of autumn farm work, it was a time of feasting and going to market. Like other early Christian holidays, it masked a Pagan celebration of the same time—the autumnal equinox.

Appropriately to this feasting holiday, I received two books in the mail today—Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink, by Ann Hagen and Food in Roman Britain, by Joan P. Alcock. I'll review these fully after I read them. I haven't seen any online reviews of Food in Roman Britain, so I'll be especially sure to discuss that book. I quick skim shows that book to be a very accessible to the general audience. There is an extensive bibliography, but chapters are lacking citations. Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink is much more voluminous and scholarly, but just as readable. It's assertions are well cited with footnotes on every page.

(Did Medieval people wish each other, "Happy Michaelmas"? Probably not, but it makes for a nice blog post title.)

For more on Michaelmas and the Medieval farming seasons see:
Life in a Medieval Village, by Frances and Joseph Gies. This is book is an enjoyable read. My local library had a copy, and on it is available used for less than $2.00! 


The oop Ral Partha ettin model I bought on eBay arrived this weekend. I had expected to strip it and re-paint, but the paint job is actually not bad. So, the photo above was not painted by me. If at some time I do decide to re-paint, I'll replace this photo and correct this text so you'll never know someone else's painting work was pictured here. Muuuwaaahaaahaaahaaa (evil laughter).

"Travelers in the forests of our land have oft been fooled into thinking they have drawn near to a group of fellow explorers when they encounter an Ettin, for these two-headed monstrosities have been known to carry on heated discussions with themselves. An Ettin invariably abandons its dialogue when it hath the chance to attack an adventurer."
—Ultima I Bestiary

Multiple-headed trolls receive frequent mention in Scandinavian stories, yet the two-headed monster with the name, "ettin" is not common in European folklore. There is a traditional Scottish tale of the Red Etin (spelled with one "t"). This monster had 3 heads and does not seem to appear outside of this one specific story. Two-headed ettins have long been a staple of the Dungeons & Dragons world. Doubtless, this monster is another example of the writers of the Utima series looking to D&D for inspiration.

The reader does not directly encounter an ettin in Tolkein's books. However, reference is made to the existence of multi-headed trolls.
"Yes, I am afraid trolls do talk like that, even those with only one head each." —The Hobbit, Chater II, Roast Mutton
There is another probable allusion to ettins in the place-name, "The Ettenmoors," a mountainous region north of Rivendell. This is an area known to be populated by trolls.

Mirliton makes a very nice two-headed orc that could very well be an ettin. I'm not sure how big it is. I'm getting one the next time I make an order.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Ancient Farming by Peter J. Reynolds

Shire is a wonderful archaeology and history publisher in Oxford, England. Initially an independent publisher, they are now owned by Osprey Publishing. Just as Osprey Publishing's books are gateway to military history, Shire introduces readers to daily life with titles such as Celtic Coinage, Roman Dress Accessories, Villages in Roman Britain, etc. The offerings in the Shire Archaeology series are only 5.75 x 8.25 in., and less than 100 pages. Although small, these books are authored by leading scholars in their fields.

The expert in Iron Age farming was the late Peter Reynolds. His recently reprinted, Ancient Farming, is the perfect place to start your research into the life of the pre-Roman Celts. His experimental archaeology at Butser Ancient Farm lead to insights not found in traditional archaeology. For example, digging up bones tells us what kind of animals lived on an Iron Age British farm, but Dr. Reynold's observations of actually raising the descendants of these animals informs us as to how the livestock were kept and how that could affect choices made by the ancient farmer.

Chapter Contents:
1. Introduction
2. Nature of Evidence - an explanation of the sources for our knowledge
3 The Sequence of Development - the history of ancient peoples' transition from hunter/gatherers to farmer society
4 Farming - Growing, storing and using plants. Raising and making use of animals
5 The Farming Year - typical farm work by season
6 Conclusion

A compliment to Ancient Farming, is another book by Dr. Reynolds, Iron-Age Farm: The Butser Experiment, published by Colonade Books, British Museum Publications, Ltd. 1979.6x9 in., 112 pages. It covers the same information, with the addition of chapters on Iron Age buildings and structures. The text deals specifically with the experimental archaeology done at the Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, England, with general implications for farming in Iron Age Britain as a whole.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

1/72 Plastic Barbarian WAB Army

I have always had a special fondness for 1/72 plastic toy soldiers. My dad collected them which is how I was introduced to the hobby. They're great for building large, yet inexpensive armies.

One of my many unfinished wargame projects is an army of Iron Age British to play WAB. I'm following the sample Barbarian army given in the WAB rulebook, using 1/72 scale plastic models from a mix of manufactures. I started with an old box of Revell Celts. In real-life horned helmets were not as common as these models make it seem, so I simply trimmed off most of them. In fact, helmets in general were quite rare in Iron Age Britain. On Oct 20th I posted some close-up photos of these guys.

I am also using Celt models from Airfix, ESCIHaT and Italeri Gauls. Most of the dated Airfix figures are unusable, but the standard bearer and archers are quite nice (see above). The Airfix chariots are in need of some converting. The solid wood wheels are definitely no good, but they were easily be replaced with spoked wheels from the Egyptian chariot set made by the old company, Atlantic. I will have to post a photo of the conversion made. Hat make much better chariots, based on more recent archaeology. doesn't give the best review of Hat's Gallic warband, but I like them.

I have yet to actually play a game of Warhammer Ancient Battles, so I am looking forward to completing this army (if that ever happens!). Most wargamers prefer 28mm or 15mm metal, so I'll have to make another 1/72 scale Roman army to fight these Celts. I actually met a guy who was working on his own 1/72 plastic barbarian WAB army, but I don't think he is any closer than me to finishing.

DBA Dacian Army - work in progress

Last Fall I started my first 15mm metal army to play the wargame, De Bellis Antiquitatis. I ordered a bunch of Dacian figures from Essex Miniatures. To add variety in the poses I also bought some of their Celts. The Celtic and Dacian warriors were equipped similar enough for these models to mix well. The shipment from England took forever, so I started building my camp element, a Dacian farmstead.
I started work on November 16, 2007. I choose a camp base size of 70 x 100mm. The rules offer alot of leeway with camp sizes, so I looked around the web to find a common size. The base itself is sheet styrene from Evergreen Models. This is cool stuff. You can score the sheet with a blade and snap off a piece.
The walls are made of balsa wood. I made the mistake of setting the grain of one of these walls vertical (perpendicular to the length of the wall). This caused the piece to warp, but with the roof on it is not too noticeable. Always cut wood with the grain! The roof is cardboard from a box of gluten-free cereal!
Coming up with thatch for the roof was an interesting problem. If I were making a 28mm scale building I would use fake fur. This scale is way too small for that, so I went with putty. I squished the green stuff down on the the roof and etched it with a sculpting tool. I think it looks pretty convincing! The wattle fence posts consist of a pink paperclip clipped into short lengths. The wattles are thin wire, woven around the uprights. I brushed PVA glue (Elmers Glue) over the wire to prevent it from popping out of place.
I wanted to add some 15mm scale animals to complete the farm look. I had already ordered my Dacians from Essex, which doesn't have a very good animal selection. All the animal sets I could find are from English companies. Ordering a single pack from the UK is a problem because of the high shipping charge. With the low dollar, and international shipping this would have cost me almost $20 - just so I could use 2 goats and a cow. Luckily, a friend told me about a local manufacturer. MiniFigs is a pretty well known range sold by Game Figures, Inc. - right here in Colorado, USA. I have return to this project sporadically. I'll post new photos as I progress.

Diorama Shelf

It's Diorama-rama! As a child I was captivated by the toy soldier dioramas found in the museums my dad brought me. Fort Ticonderoga, NY has some nice ones. Many have a little button, when pushed activates a sound recording to describe the scene. My diorama lacks the audio, but it's equally charming.

Since I am primarily a collector/painter, my models are more likely to be found in diorama shelf, rather than the game table. The base is a 1/2 in. thick piece of hardboard cut to fit the shelf. The background is a piece of canvas held in place by that blue or white sticky putty stuff you can buy to hang posters on the wall. The background starts on the surface of the base, extending up to the top of the shelf. It curls a bit on the bottom, so what I should have done is extend the canvas down to the bottom of the shelf, behind the base.

(You can see a Roman guard tower in progress at left)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

My new historic hobby blog

My interest in ancient history has extended into a hobby: collecting, painting and wargaming with miniatures (toy soldiers). The past couple years I have been preoccupied with fantasy figures (LOTR), but the historic ranges are calling...

28mm Celtic Folk

I've been working on an Iron Age Celtic farmstead diorama for about a year now. Black Tree Design offers several very nice "Celtic Folk" sets. I have painted 6 characters so far. The models have distinctive Celtic details such as the mustaches, the anthropomorphic-hilt dagger held by the old man, the bronze mirror held by the woman, and the torque held by the smith. They are all mounted on 20 x 20 mm sheet styrene. I like to bevel the edges with a blade, rather than leaving them perfectly square.

I have a keen interest in Iron Age agriculture, so I expect to post alot of photos of painted, sheep, cows, scratch-built farm houses, etc. 

Peter Connolly's Greece and Rome at War features a chapter on Iron Age celtic arms and equipment.

Miranda Green's Celtic World is an excellent reference for all aspects of Iron Age Celtic society: military, daily life, technology, etc.

An illustrated article on Iron Age Celtic shields on

Friday, September 12, 2008

28mm Vendel Miniatures Orcs

"The result of ancient magical experimentation (poorly conducted experimentation, I am sure) goblins [ orcs ] only vaguely resemble the men from whom their forebears sprang. Although some attempt has been made to civilize them, surliness still dominates their nature."
—Ultima VII, Part Two Bestiary

"Orcs are more annoying than dangerous to the seasoned adventurer, but they can be a grave threat to the novice, especially when they travel in large groups or accompanied by a giant or two. Generally, they are fairly easy to defeat, do a modicum of damage if they hit, and carry meager belongings." —Ultima V Bestiary

The six orcs above come from Vendel Miniatures (now sold by SGMM). I used my window sill studio to take this shot, augmented with a desk light. Usually, I paint the eyes, but for these I just used a black wash (watered-down acrylic) to fill in the recesses in the face.
Goblins, of course, have been a part of European folk lore for hundreds of years. J.R.R. Tolkein was the one who first popularized the term, "orc." It is thought that the word was ultimately derived from, orcus, Latin for "hell." Here's a well cited article discussing the etymology of the word on Wikipedia.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Basing Miniature, Step by Step

This tutorial describes my technique for decorating a model's base, whether it's a metal washer, sheet styrene, wood, or a plastic "slotta" base.

Step the First - Glue to base
At left is a model right out of the package (a Vendel Miniatures orc). You can see how insubstantial the base is. You don't want him falling down at the slightest bump of the table, so you'll need to glue him down. Here I am using a 1 in. (25mm) wide washer from the hardware store. The perfectly round shape looks quite nice for display and the metal adds a good bit of weight to the finished model. I prefer the low profile of the washer to the taller plastic slotta base. (Incidentally, this washer is the same width as the round bases used in GW's rules)

I use super glue for this stage, letting it dry overnight.

Note: You may find it easier to paint the model if you temporarily glue it to a popsicle stick, wine cork, etc. This will keep your fingers away from the wet paint while you work. It's especially useful if your model is destined to share a single base with other models. If that's the route you take, then you won't be gluing the model to it's base until after it has been painted and varnished.

Step 2 - Putty
Next, I add some putty, This is molded around the base of the model, sloping down to the surface of the washer. It hides the otherwise abrupt step formed where the model meets the washer. For the most part I use my finger to flatten it out, but a toothpick works well as a miniature rolling pin. A little bit of water keeps the putty from sticking to you. Although it's quick and easy, I advise against licking your finger or the toothpick. You're bound to get some of the putty in your mouth, and that ain't good. Beyond aesthetics, the putty also help the model to stick to its base.

I use Kneadatite, "green stuff." You can buy little packages of this at your local hobby shop. GamesWorkshop store has little packages, but you can get larger tubes of the stuff from online stores. I bought mine from

Step 3 - Prime and Paint the Model
I brush on black matt enamel paint. Spray-paint is faster... but dangerous! If you spray on a humid day, small gritty bits may form on the surface from the moisture. This isn't too common a problem, but once was more than enough for me.

In the past I glued sand on the base then prime the whole thing at once. Invariably, little grains of sand would stick to the brush and transfer to the model. I wouldn't notice them until I started painting. So, I ended up tearing bits of paint off when I removed the sand grains. Now I prime and paint the model first, glue down sand, and then prime the sand.

Allow the primer to dry overnight, then paint and varnish the model. I won't say too much about my painting style. There are enough sites that give painting tutorials (see Steve Dean's Site).

Step 4 - Sand
A layer of sand adds a nice ground-like texture. Brush on white glue (Elmer's Glue, for instance), then dip into a container of sand. I keep my sand in a wide, shallow tub that once held carry-out guacamole. You can buy sand, but why would you? Two sources for free sand: the beach, or a playground sandbox. If you're concerned about germs soak the sand in water with a tiny cap-full of bleach. A mixture of water and hydrogen peroxide (3:1 ratio) works well too. Remove twigs, pebbles, etc. with sieve (like the kind that comes with a beach shovel and bucket) or a scrap of window screening.

Step 5 - Prime and Paint the Base
It's time to brush on some matt black enamel again. It's annoying to have to bring out the enamel a second time, but acrylic paint doesn't stick to the metal edge of the washer very well. When the primer dries overnight, I then paint the whole base dark brown. I use Citadel acrylic paints. The brand name brown is, "Scorched Earth." I then dry-brush a lighter tan-brown, "Graveyard Earth." This picks out the raised bits of the texture.

Varnish the edge of the base. It's vulnerable to chipping.

Step 6 - Vegetation
I like to glue a couple tiny pebbles (seen in the foreground). I use a pair of tweezers to dip the pebble in glue, then place it on the base. A good place to find alot of appropriately sized pebbles is on the edge of the road or parking lot—where the paved surface meets the dirt.

"Static Grass" is a nice product sold by GamesWorkshop (I imagine other companies make something similar, but I haven't looked into it). These are tiny green plastic hairs. What I have found looks best is to brush on glue in a few scattered areas on the base. I take a pinch of static grass and sprinkle it over the glue.

"Flock" is sawdust dyed in various shades of green or brown. It's easy to find in hobby stores, but I'm not a big fan of that stuff (it looks fake). The company, Woodland Scenics sells some nice fake grass for the model railroad hobbyists. This comes in a length of about 3 inches. To use this stuff I pinch a little bit and snip off the end with scissors. Dip the end in glue and place the clump on the base. Using tweezers helps to get the grass in close to the model. Once the glue is dry you can trim the longer pieces with a small pair of scissors.

Note: I'm using white glue again. Super glue would just be overkill.

I saw an exciting terrain/basing product on another blog recently. Silfor brand Prairie tufts are expensive, but look awesome!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Wargame music

It's nice to have a little instrumental music playing in the background, setting the mood of your wargame or model painting. Here are two groups offering Medeival / Rennaisance compositions.

This group of European and American performers carefully research the instruments, music, and dress of their ancient counterparts. I actually got to see these guys play at the Maryland Rennaisance Fair in '05. They put on quite a show! My introduction to the group was this: I heard one of their CDs playing at my local hobby shop. I asked about it, assuming it was the soundtrack to some period film. The shop worker told me who they were, and he let me know that they often play at the Ren Fair—conveniently in the same town where I lived! Seeing Wogelmut was really my main reason for attending the fair... well that and the turkey legs. Mmmmmm, turkey legs. Wogelmut website and Wogelmut MySpace

Albums Reviewed:
Tempus Saltandi, a thumping, gritty romp. These are songs composed for the 16th century "brawl" dances. Appropriately named, these melodies sound like they should be setting the scene for a fist-fight between two hulking trolls, a raucous pub-fight, or a proper duel between gentlemen. This is all a good thing!
I also own their albums, Schauspeluden, Schauspeluden II, and Momento—all worth having. They each have their own differences in character, especially because group members have changed over the years.

I noticed this group on an online classical music station (via iTunes). I'd say the target audience for the Dufay Collective is the classical music crowd. Consequently, their music is a bit more sophisticated—is that the right word? Their style seems a bit more polished and "safe" in comparison to Wogelmut. Still, it's nice stuff. One might say that courtly lords and ladies listen to Dufay, while the rustic masses dance to Wogelmut. I own the album, A L'Estampida. Dufay Collective website

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Miniature Photo Studio

To photograph my painted models I have devised a little studio. Most hobbyists make use of a couple of desk lights, but I noticed that my window ledge has nice natural light. Twice a day (in the late morning and late afternoon) a diffused white light streams through this south-facing window. The drawback to this system is the limited time for use. Of course, night time is right out, and the direct sunlight is too harsh in the late morning up to the early afternoon.

The exterior walls on my home are extra thick, so the window ledge is quite wide (6 in). I cut a piece of hardboard to fit. Half is painted and flocked to look like grass. The other half is painted like a cobblestone street. The backdrop is a scrap of painted canvas from my diorama shelf (something deserving of its own post). I also have a foam brick wall from a model train store. That is used with the cobblestone floor for an urban setting (as seen in my Town Guard post).

I realize not everyone will have a good window for this type of miniature photo studio, but I think it's a clever little set up. Most of the close-ups of models on this blog have been photographed here.