The Scale Armour from Yanghai
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Categories: Ancient

The Scale Armour from Yanghai

a leather scale armour from an archaeological excavation, and a pattern drawing
The Yanghai armour. Figure 6 from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2021.11.014

Some comments on Patrick Wertmann et al., “No borders for innovations: A ca. 2700-year-old Assyrian-style leather scale armour in Northwest China.” Quaternary International, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2021.11.014 It has been discussed on Sci Newswww.spektrum.dehttps://www.media.uzh.ch/Science DailyHeritagedaily among others.

The cemetery at Yanghai in Uighur territory continues to give. This week, an article about hide scale armour in a grave there has been circulating on the Internet and corporate social media. The grave had other cool things, like a wooden bedstead and a wooden fire drill, but most of the attention has focused on the authors’ claims that the armour was made within the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Unfortunately, that claim is the weakest part of a strong article.

This study was performed by a combined Swiss-German-Russian-Chinese team and published in a geology journal. The bibliography seems solid which is challenging in an article in English on a subject where the archaeology is mostly published in Chinese and Russian. I was surprised not to see the book on Golyamata Mogila in Thrace and the well-preserved scale armour there.

The article begins with one of my favourite frames:

The first millennium BCE was pivotal for the environment and for human societies in Central and Eastern Eurasia …. Among the major driving forces was the increasing use of horse riding, which extended range of movement significantly and led to the development of cavalry units as a part of large armies. Empires with enormous outreach and gravitational pull formed and disintegrated in close dependence. The wide spread of military technologies demonstrates their bonds, though mostly in the form of metal objects due to the inherent survivability of their materials.

The great story of the first millennium BCE is how a world with no state as large as Poland changed into a world where you could ride from the Atlantic to the Pacific and only have to change your money twice. The story of the first millennium BCE is the story of mega-states (like the story of the first millennium CE is the story of how Judaism and its offshoots outlasted those states and became key to social order from Ireland to the Indus). Because hide and fabric armour rots much faster than iron-alloy or copper-alloy armour, and because armour was too bulky to lose by accident and was not customarily disposed of in ways which preserve it, body armour is hard to study archaeologically, and hide and fabric armour is even harder.

The armour is dated in two different ways. In terms of the style of the burial and the other grave goods, it belongs to Yanghai period III (700-300 BCE). A thorn stuck in the armour was carbon-dated to between 786 and 543 cal BCE (95.4% probability). So there is a rough agreement between the stratigraphic date (“which types of objects are found together? those must have been used at about the same time. which are never or very rarely found together? those were probably used at different times”) and the radiometric date (“how much of certain elements has decayed since this was made?”)

a diagram of bone armour from Bronze Age Siberia and a reconstruction of the wearer with a knife and short spear
From Kseniya Lugovskaya, “Warrior’s 3,900 year old suit of bone armour unearthed in Omsk.” The Siberian Times, 06 September 2014 (link)

They then argue that scale armour spread out of Southwest Asia in the Iron Age, and was not indigenous to the Eurasian steppes. I am not sure about this but I do not have the library resources or the time to investigate right now. I thought that scale armour, chariots with spoked wheels, and the composite bow were a tripartite weapons system which spread out of the South Caucasus or the steppes in the Bronze Age. The authors make a distinction between lamellar, where the plates are fastened to one another and do not need a lining, and scale armour, which will fall apart without the lining. Lamellar armour was very popular in the Eurasian steppes, China, and Japan for thousands of years. Around 1500-1900 BCE, a man in Omsk, Siberia was buried with a lamellar armour. I am suspicious of the authors’ claim that scale armour has not been found in the Eurasian steppes before the middle of the first millennium BCE, but with the books and time available to me I cannot say that it is false.

This armour resembles the fragmentary armour from Yanghai. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Accession Number: 2000.66a–c

They notice that their armour has some things in common with a scale armour in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. The armour in the Met has no archaeological provenance, so we can use the armour from Yanghai to guess where it came from. The authors then try to connect the Yanghai armour to the Assyrian empire thousands of kilometers away.

In age, construction details and aesthetic appearance its closest parallel is the MET armour. The stylistic correspondence but functional specifics make the two armours appear as outfits for different units of the same army: the Yanghai armour possibly for light cavalry, the MET armour perhaps for heavy infantry. This degree of standardization of military equipment at the time under discussion was a characteristic feature of the Neo-Assyrian forces in the 7th century BCE. With all of the above in mind, we suggest that both leather scale armours were manufactured in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

That seems like a leap of logic with seven-league boots. This armour does not look like the standardized waist-length, iron and bronze armours introduced by one of the Neo-Assyrian kings. I don’t know of any documentary evidence for leather armour in the Neo-Assyrian empire, whereas documents mention iron and bronze armour and hundreds of kilos of iron and bronze scales survived to be excavated (one of the documents from Tal Hallaf mentions iron and bronze armours, although not the document I translated in an earlier post). I believe I have seen other armours from the Eurasian steppes with this distinctive ‘waistband’ of large scales, whereas I do not know of any armours from Southwest Asia with this feature. And any two armours from the same tradition will have the kind of similarities which we see between the armour in the Met and the armour from Yanghai. But this is only a tiny part of the article, which mostly argues that scale armour spread out of the Mesopotamian world into the Eurasian steppes and the borders of China. All the empirical data in the article is valid even if you don’t find this one conclusion convincing.

a sculpture of a chariot carrying four warriors: two with shields, one with a bow, and a driver holding three sets of reins
The crew of an Assyrian chariot in the 7th century BCE. These armours end at the waist rather than having a skirt or a ‘girdle’ of tall scales; they protect both front and back completely rather than just protecting the lower half of the back; they have short sleeves rather than a ‘yoke’ over the shoulder. That seems like three important differences from the Yanghai armour! Photo by author, the Louvre, 2019.
a B&W photo of scale armour from an archaeological excavation
These scales are long and symmetric (not short with one scalloped edge). They are of iron (not hide). They are laced in the middle with criss-cross lacing, not just at the top with a thong which goes over under over. Do they have much in common with the armour above? Photo c/o Wikipedia Commons after M.E.L. Mallowan ed., Nimrud and its Remains (1965) pp. 409-411, 426

I was especially impressed by the examples of scale and lamellar armour from eastern Eurasia which the authors collected, including many objects from China which are rarely discussed in English. This lets you see how armourers continually invented the same few basic solutions. In Europe and Japan, armour which just protects the front often has a strap from the left shoulder to under the right arm, a strap from the right shoulder to under the left armpit, and a strap across the back. My breastplate and fauld are worn like that. But the authors show that this strapping system was also used on some warriors of the terracotta army of the First Emperor of China! The Yanghai armour has a long ‘wing’ which wraps under one arm, across the back, and is tied under the other arm. Students of armour know that several of the armours from Wisby (made circa 1300-1330, buried with their wearers in 1361) are built the same way almost 2000 years later. Understanding the ergonomics of armour helps us interpret limited evidence, and could also be useful to artists imagining fantasy armour. And Siberian armour was very influential through China on Japan and Tibet.

Volume 2, plate 1 of Bengt Thordeman’s Armour from the Battle of Wisby (Uppsala 1940). Wisby is a town on an island in the Baltic.

So this article does not make a good case that the armour from Yanghai was made in the Assyrian world. But it has a lot of interesting details for armour geeks. And if you like big ideas, the article makes a case that scale armour spread from Southwest Asia to the Eurasian steppes, and not the other way around. One of the latest trends in Neo-Assyrian military studies is asking whether things we associate with the Eurasian steppes such as large, organized forces of cavalry might have been developed by the Assyrians and spread from them into Eurasia rather than the reverse.

The authors’ article is available as Patrick Wertmann et al., “No borders for innovations: A ca. 2700-year-old Assyrian-style leather scale armour in Northwest China.” Quaternary International, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2021.11.014

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Edit 2021-12-13: fixed two typos (s/scythed/spoked; and s/an island in te Baltic/a town on an island in the Baltic;)

(scheduled 2021-12-11)

12 thoughts on “The Scale Armour from Yanghai

  1. Stephen M Stirling says:

    IIRC the earliest spoke-wheeled chariots are about 2200 BCE and from the Sintashta culture in western Siberia, which was an eastern extension of the Corded Ware expansion and is considered ancestral to the Indo-Iranians.

  2. Stephen M Stirling says:

    And of course horse-riding and mounted warfare were common in the Eurasian steppe from the Late Neolithic on — certainly no later than about 3500 BCE.

    1. russell1200 says:

      Andrew Drews in “Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe” makes a very good case that serious mounted warfare (fighting from the horse rather than using as transport) doesn’t get started until ~900BC. This does seem to fit with the known history versus interesting archeological interpretations.

      1. Sean says:

        And I think I recall that The Horse, The Wheel, and Language also argues that at the beginning of riding in Eurasia, warriors probably did most of their serious fighting on foot. I have not had time to track down the argument about the Neo-Assyrians and the steppe archaeology and assess it. If I ever get paid to do my vocation full-time then maybe I can look into it, but I don’t have Assyriological books with me in Canada.

        My only contact who an expert in steppe archaeology, Alan J. “Alanus” Campbell, has gone to the Land of No Return.

  3. Andreas Johansson says:

    “I thought that scale armour, scythed chariots, and the composite bow were a tripartite weapons system which spread out of the South Caucasus or the steppes in the Bronze Age.”

    Is “scythed” a slip here? I don’t think we have evidence of scythed chariots before Achaemenid times?

    1. Sean says:

      Yes! I meant spoked. After two years of a pandemic my mind is not all there.

  4. Pavel Vaverka says:

    I like using books of Robert Drews for citation (he has sometimes useful and interesting facts). I consider his best work The End of the Bronze Age published in 1993 (here I agree with many of his opinions). But then he released Coming of Greeks (1994) and from there to Early Riders (2004) and hist latest book Militarism and the Indo-Europeanizing of Europe (2019, I didn’t read this title yet, only some scanning and skimming) his opinions seems to me faulty. Also his theories are still the same. His axiom is (and I don’t know the source), that only sedentary people can be inventive, because they have resources. Only they can breed large, useful horses for warfare, because they have grain subsitence, etc. And Nomads in his perspective are only parasites using sedentary civilization to their own rise and advantage.

    I read David W. Anthony The Horse, The Wheel, and Language, his arguments seems solid based on archeology and different method for assesing age of findings. Instead of carbon dating they are using something more calibrated (sorry I forgot the details).
    But his theories are fiercely resisted by some Russian or English academics (The Making of Bronze Age Eurasia, Philip L. Kohl, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 22 January 2007, and also recently Donaghy don’t believe in Anthony’s thoughts. Horse Breeds and Breeding in the Greco-Persian World: 1st and 2nd Millennium BC, Cambridge Scholars Publishing; Unabridged edition edition (1 Jan. 2014), page 20-24.) Yet if I remember correctly resistance to Anthony seems to me more like https://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hlavologie Not effective denial of findings, dating, etc. But thougts like, all evolution was local, Indo-Europeans never existed. People didn’t need to adapt horse-breeding, horse-riding, cattle-breeding, horse or cattle is not an advantage in your way of living. And even if it does, You don’t need to learn new language for it from invaders. Ideas like society didn’t need to change, etc. All seems pretty lame to me and mainly as an excuse. When the real reason is… Nooooooo, I lost the whole bookcase of books and studies where I say different things which now seems like a plundered city, empty without convincing ideas.

    That’s my impression, that somebody in the 80’s made model of evolution for certain era (3500-1200 BC) how were things developing. And from now on You cannot perceive things differently, that would be an academic crime… Article about scale armour from Yanghai seems to me like more better articulated offshoot of this school. In collective hobby book about Ancient armies from 1984 You have an idea, that Cimmerians, Scythians were looting equpiment, weapons from Assyria, Urartu. Idea repeated some decades later in Cam Rea -March of Scythians (who is using some conjectures about archeological sources, like long term exchange between them and Urartu). I don’t know so much from Steppe history as I wanted (like Yamnaya culture, etc.). Another ideas will follow..

    1. Sean says:

      Its hard because we don’t have texts from the steppes, and because armour leaves little archaeological evidence because if its metal, its too large and valuable to casually throw away. So we have evidence from cultures where it was a traditional grave good, and we have evidence from big empires which had so much armour that some got buried when a site was destroyed, but before all those big kurgans I don’t know if we would expect to see evidence from the Eurasian steppes. But I can’t point to evidence which contradicts their theory that scale armour spread outwards from Syria.

      Research politics make me feel sad and confused. A few years ago, I learned that I don’t have the capacity to simultaneously track the primary sources, and modern research, and the politics of research and who is whose student or protege. So I try to keep track of them in that order (if my opinion is solidly based on the ancient sources, that is good; if it also draws on the analysis of researchers, that is better; and if some of them are saying what they say because of personal politics, that’s interesting but not so important). Knowing these things about who works where and studied with whom is good for your career, but its not something I do well.

      I would like to follow up on the Aztecs and their neighbours, and how from the 1980s onwards researchers overturned the very negative, very stereotypical ideas about them in earlier research, and how researchers have reinterpreted Cortez’ conquest of Mexico. That is important (Peter Green and the pundit with a hobby farm both loved to compare the Achaemenids to the Aztecs, and early empires tend to have things in common with one another), but not good for a young researcher’s career.

  5. Pavel Vaverka says:

    But from what I know about Cimmerian, Scythian weapons, horse harness are product of Central Asian style, Caucasian types of helmets, weapons, including influences from Balkan Europe (for the horse harness). This info is from archeological books, studies ranging from 90’s till today. So I don’t see some evidence, that Cimmerians, Scythians would need for their arsenal Neo-Assyrian Empire or some Near Eastern kingdom (yet I don’t deny they could use captured weapons armour). Regarding the scale armour, Cimmerians, Scythians could produce leather variant, metal-leather variant, metal variant. From late 8th CE BC or early 7th CE BC Cimmerians and Scythians could produce this kind armour by themselves (or by captured artisans). But there is still possibility it was Steppe which brought to sedentary people new type of scale armour (vis Gorelik books) and I would stick to this because it gives more sense due to the other Steppe items.

    I’m still waiting for the birth of book about Eurasian Steppe warfare, weapons, armour 3500-500 BC. We have some much artifacts. Theories of Marija Gimbutas about Kurgan culture are today mostly seen as laughing stock (it’s not like that, I believe in Gimbutas), yet somebody should check few of her claims and notes of her opponents. Things contra Drews like, using longbow on horseback is totally fine… (Carolyn Willekes did this experiment for Anthony, check his lectures on Youtube). Why “Old Europe” culture has endend? Enviromental causes are now seen as primal. I’m not so sure in the last few years (one book The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500, Princeton University Press 2010 is combining enviromental factors and warfare as reason of the downfall).

    Contra Drews, first cavalry were surely somewhere else than in Neo-Assyrian Empire. I’m studying LBA warfare, from 2018 EIA Near East warfare. Assyrians were adopting cavalry in 9th CE BC when other already had it. Neo-Hittites, Urartu, etc. Even in the LBA/EIA according to Ivantchik, Herzfeld and others there could be cavalry units in Assyrian army during 11th CE BC or earlier. Jorrit M. Kelder made some persuasive reasoning, that cavalry existed in LBA vis article Horseback Riding and Cavalry in Mycenean Greece (2012, Ancient West & East, p. 1-18).
    So for me it’s hard to believe, that Steppe culture would need Assyrians for producing of armour. Why China isn’t seen as source for this artifact? We have to hope for more books from R.D. Sawyer about Ancient Chinese warfare or somebody else. We know so little about China and India LBA/EIA….

  6. Pavel Vaverka says:

    If I could do my vocation on university here (instead of wagons for 20th Century history) my theme would LBA/EIA East, Central Europe. Book title History under the hoofs – influences of nomadic cultures in space of Central, Eastern Europe 1500-500 BC. Unproccesed findings, many new article and books about themes has reached critical mass! I can sort out unpublished artifacts from Czech, Slovakia museums, private collections. We have here Cimmerians, Scythians, Vezekrug culture, destruction of Celtic settlements, etc. But somebody made in 2008 plan, no money for univesities unless it’s foreign journal in Scopus, etc. So books, translations are dead here… and I’m somewhere else.

  7. BobFettler says:

    Did the steppe nomads have armourers among their mobile units, or was the armour made in settled communities or in seasonal camps. The question intrigues me as it seems to be one of the instances where their legendary flexibility of military response might be slowed down.

    1. Sean says:

      I would look at some of the ethnographic accounts like that Franciscan monk who travelled to a Mongol court!

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