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 News – www.spektrum.de – https://www.media.uzh.ch/ – Science Daily – Heritagedaily 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?”)
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.
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.
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.
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
- “Call for Sources: The Organic Components of Scale Armour in Antiquity” version 1.3 (November 2019) https://www.bookandsword.com/my-articles/#organic_components_scale_armour
- Some thoughts on ‘Armour Never Wearies’ (2016) https://www.bookandsword.com/2016/02/08/some-thoughts-on-armour-never-wearies/
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;)