Cambyses’ Lost Army Redux

One of the most popular posts at rogueclassicism has to do with a claim a few years about Cambyses’ Lost Army (Cambyses’ Lost Army Found? Don’t Eat That Elmer …   … see also a followup that doesn’t seem to have actually come to fruition: Cambyses Lost Army? The Plot Thickens …). Thankfully, the claims in that post seem to have not had as much impact as its claimants would have liked, but we should make note of a recent Scientific American story which deals with the science behind a  sandstorm doing things according to Herodotus’ tale. Here’s the incipit:

Over the weekend Jen-Luc Piquant found herself pondering the works of Herodotus, specifically the tale of the Lost Army of Cambyses. Sometime around 524 BC, priests at the oracle of the Temple of Amun decided they didn’t much care for their new ruler, Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great. Cambyses decided that he didn’t much care for their insubordination. And he had soldiers — 50,000 of them, sent marching through the Sahara from Thebes to put those rebellious priests in their place.

But they never reached their destination (the Oasis of Siwa, where the mutinous temple was located). Seven days into their march, a massive sandstorm broke out and buried Cambyses’ entire army, never to be seen again. Per Herodotus: “A wind arose from the south, strong and deadly, bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand, which entirely covered up the troops and caused them wholly to disappear.”

It’s most likely myth, according to leading Egyptologists. But it inspired a cautionary mention of Cambyses in the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, when the Pardoner is advocating moderation in drinking alcohol (he seemed to think Cambyses dispatched his army in a drunken rage). And it also inspired various archaeological expeditions over the past 100 or so years to try and locate whatever evidence might remain of the lost army of the Egyptian ruler.

At least one such claim, in 1977, turned out to be a hoax. Most recently, in 2009, two Italian archaeologists claimed to have found remnants of the lost army, in the form of bronze weapons, a silver bracelet, an earring and hundreds of human bones. But this claim, too, seems suspect: let’s just say they didn’t have the blessing of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities for their 13-year quest, and they presented their evidence not in an academic journal, but in a documentary film screened at the archaeological film festival of Rovereto.

Jen-Luc does not make Herodotus a regular part of her weekend reading, but a new paper in Physical Review Letters described the results from computer simulations of midair collisions between grains of sand during a sandstorm, and reminded her of the doomed desert army. And it turns out those collisions may play a pivotal role in determining the strength of a sandstorm — known as the flux — increasing that strength the more they collide.

Physicists love to study granular media like sand, and sandstorms offer a rich trove of fascinating physics, notably in how these meteorological phenomena can transport huge amounts of sand from one place to another in a fairly short period of time. The grains are especially loose in dry, arid conditions, so when strong winds blow over the dunes of the Sahara, for example, they first start to vibrate, and then to pop up in the air, striking the ground after they fall and often breaking into a splash of even smaller particles of dust (called “leapers”) — all part of a process called “saltation.” […]

Obviously, the physics doesn’t prove the legend one way or another, but it’s a useful bit of science to tack on to retellings of the tale …

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