The History of the Artichoke and Other Improbable Inventions

by Andy Juell

Published in the December 1998 Issue of Anvil Magazine

Blacksmithing, including farriery, has always been referred to as the world’s second oldest profession. First place belongs to prostitution, a distinction constantly argued by social scientists as opposed to those of us who fancy ourselves as snobbish historians. Sure, we historians look great in tweed sweaters, but current events dictate an overwhelming interest in the sex lives of people we didn’t bother to vote for. But since I’m stuck with the second-place profession, I’ll do my best to put it in historical perspective. The social scientists will have to sort out the mating habits of beltway aristocrats on their own.

The real difficulty with history is not so much determining when an event took place, but what motivated an individual to argue with the existing status quo. A good example is the artichoke. Picture prehistoric man wandering around Africa in a hungry mood. Dinner could be a mastodon, a pear, maybe some sushi carved out of a large, angry fish. Instead, this early ancestor goes for an artichoke, which is nothing more than a mathematically arranged thistle with a bunch of hairy stuff inside. Who in their right mind would eat this thing, much less pay three bucks a pound for the privilege. And further, where could you buy dill sauce during the last Ice Age?

Another good example is a treatise entitled, “The Edible Mushroom Book,” published around 1820 in England. It is not a coincidence that it took until the 19th century to actually publish this book, since most of the previous authors probably died part way through the table of contents. The book was dedicated to the 480-odd friends and relatives who helped with the research — posthumously, of course.

Farriery, much like prostitution, evolved out of a peculiar human need, in this case the conversion of the horse from a dinner item into the Paleolithic version of the all-terrain vehicle. Even in the very early days of humanity, guys had this predisposition to pick fights with other guys. As Jimmy Buffet has pointed out, “there was probably a woman to blame.” Hunting and gathering had more to do with life’s needs than the artichoke thing.

The horse really changed everybody’s ability to pick a fight, especially as population pressures began to push up real estate prices. The notion of private property was invented at Catal Huyuk, in central Turkey, around 7,000 BC and people have been fighting over territory every since.

The earliest recorded depictions of the modern-day horse were painted in the caves at Lascaux, in modern-day France. Dating from approximately 13,000 BC, these mystical renditions seemed to celebrate the horse as a provider of food and clothing, easier to catch than a sabre-tooth tiger and less likely to mess up the “who eats who” debate, especially at a time when Homo sapiens were considered a menu item as well.

Domestication of the horse did not occur until the period of 3000-2000 BC, the exact dates still under scientific dispute. Not surprising that it took a suspicious animal like the horse some ten thousand years to get over the idea of being barbecue material. Asia appears to be the area of choice, various historians pointing to the Eurasian steppes, claiming Indo-Germanic cattle herders indigent to the region, or possibly present-day Ukraine around 4000 BC, China a thousand years earlier. Evidence is hard to come by, but it is known that charioteers are depicted in mysterious cave drawings found in the Libyan desert at Tadrari Acacous, not far from where Ronald Reagan launched a cruise missile at Moammar Gadafhi’s favorite tent. It is also known that the Egyptian army of the Middle Kingdom (circa 1600 BC) was considered invincible until the legions of Hyksos overran Syria, Palestine and Egypt with horse-drawn war chariots.

However, as the horse was integrated into the military, certain limitations became apparent, notably the hooves, which were quickly torn to shreds in a long march over rough ground. At first, such excessive wear was compensated for by simply having an abundance of horses. One animal would be ridden until it was lame, at which time the rider would simply hop on the back of another one. This might have worked, except for the fact that everybody (horses and soldiers) were along for the ride — Federal Expressing a horse to the front lines not entirely perfected.

A great deal of the available literature points toward the development of hoof protection during the Greek and Roman empires. Experiments were conducted using leather, broom corn, reeds and other vegetable matter as a way of protecting the horse’s feet. Well documented Roman literature refers to the use of so-called hippo-sandals, or solea ferrea, constructed of leather and strapped to the horse’s feet — archaeological data running from 84 BC to AD 450. Yet, a great deal of skepticism exists as to whether these sandals were actually used on horses, or, as farrier/author Henry Heymering (On the Horse’s Foot) asserts, were actually wheel stops designed to break a cart’s speed when traversing a steep hill. Since these hippo-sandals weighed close to 24 oz. apiece, they appeared to be too heavy and bulky for more than an emergency device, suitable more “[for getting] you home when all else fails” than a tool for everyday use.

The first application of a nailed horseshoe is difficult to place in history’s timeline. Literary references abound, but are they accurate depictions of fact or merely the poetic license of an imaginative writer? The Roman poet Catullus mentions in 50 BC “a mule’s loss of its shoe.” Fleming, in Horse-shoes and Horse-shoeing, published in 1869, notes the discovery “of a titanium-iron shoe in an excavation of Roman artifacts near Gloucester, England. Titanium? Nuclear submarines are made of titanium (well, some horseshoes, too), but in 1869, titanium was a concept, not a material — i.e., not a useful material until the 1940s. Another major problem with this discovery is that scientific inquiry in the mid-nineteenth century was primitive at best — carbon dating still locked up in Einstein’s brain.

The Roman argument is also compromised by the tendency of courtiers to decorate the hooves as a way of making a financial or political statement — the same as wearing a Rolex watch or flashing a gold card. Catallus could have been referring to a loss of station or status by the animal’s owner. In 50 BC they didn’t repossess your house, they swiped your mule’s feet.

The date most recognized by authorities is derived from a quotation in The Quran, or Koran: The prophet Muhammad, on the 27th night of Ramadan (AD 610), “was summoned to the highest possible point, millions of light years from earth and this Quran was placed in his heart.” (Sounds painful.) Written under the section dealing with horses, one finds the following passage:

“By the snorting chargers

by the strikers of fire,

by the dawn raiders

blazing a trail of dust.”

The characterization of “horses striking fire” is presumed to be a reference to iron shoes creating sparks when they came into contact with rocks. Supporting this theory is the fact that the Islamic invasions that began in the sixth century AD were the swiftest, most devastating use of cavalry ever noted in the annals of history. The superiority of the Arab horse has been offered to explain the mobility of the raiders, but a mere 300 years later, in the diary of Marco Polo, the intrepid adventurer makes reference to the few Arab horse he encountered, descendants of the Islamic invader’s mounts “who were dying of neglect [because] there were no farriers in India.”

Why Marco Polo made this entry is unclear, but the fact remains that he was familiar with both the technique and the terminology. Since his travels took him throughout Asia, it would tend to support the thesis that horseshoeing was perfected within those regions, and only later exported to Europe. Now if I can just figure out who ate the first artichoke.

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