armour
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armour

Some Good Armouring Channels

A cuisse in progress, a sketch of the desired form, and a photo of an original piece by Jeff Wasson of Wasson Artistry http://wassonartistry.com/show.php?id=techniques

Today all kinds of skilful artisans are describing their work on YouTube, and some documentaries and demonstrations are available there. This makes it possible to learn about armouring on your laptop in the same way that 20 years ago you could learn about cooking or home repair on TV. Unfortunately, a simple keyword search will turn up both videos on historical armour and rants about video games, the New Zealand Army’s video on a trade, a British soldier grumbling about a change in pay scales, and other things not very helpful to someone interested in ancient and medieval armour. So this week I thought I would suggest some channels by good craftsmen who know what they are talking about. All of these links are videos hosted on a site owned by an American company which makes its money by tracking you [Google], so let the privacy-conscious or low-bandwidth clicker beware.

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Announcing Armour in Texts

An 18th century coloured print of a man in armour from neck to foot wearing a long straight sword and a carbine on a sling
The armour which Maurice de Saxe had made sometime before 1757, from the French edition of Mes Rêveries.

Back in 2014 I began a project to address a problem which I noticed. Amateur students of armour seemed to have trouble finding written sources, and historians specialized in one period sometimes seemed not to notice things which I saw again and again in the world history of armour. For example, my reading in the world history of prices in general, and armour prices specifically, makes me read the statement that Athenian settlers needed to bring arms worth 30 drachmas differently than some other ancient historians do (for a list of sources, see Van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities, p. 52, plus the Salamis Decree from the Acropolis at Athens). From watching the traffic on my blog, I noticed that if you give people a link to sources, many of them will follow it. In my view, making sources available is the single most important thing which historians can do: interpretations change and are a product of our culture, but sources are foreign and reading enough of them makes it hard to have any simple interpretation of history, or believe that people in other cultures and other times think just like we do. But often sources on armour are published in out-of-print books in a handful of libraries, or available in old translations by people who were not especially interested in material culture.

Unfortunately, I have had to put this project aside for two years now, so I think it is time to make sure that my gentle readers know about Armour in Texts.

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How Much Does the Protection of Low-Tech Armour Vary?

A selection of images from tactical displays in Star Wars: A New Hope
Despite all of our technological terrors, we still can’t predict the outcome of hand-to-hand combat very well. Graphic courtesy of Dr. Mike Reddy 2013 https://doctormikereddy.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/javin-java-battle-of-yavin-tactical-computer/

Designers of roleplaying games who are interested in learning how the real world works, and not just studying other people’s stories and games, usually put a lot of thought into the combat mechanics. One old argument is about how to handle the performance of armour. Fairly early on (sometime in the 1970s or 1980s?), the idea of a damage roll was combined with the idea that armour could provide a penalty to damage. However, this tends to bother people whose archetypical combat involves modern firearms and armoured vehicles or kevlar body armour.

Bullets and shells have a very predictable ability to penetrate armour, and modern industrialized, standardized-tested armour has a very predictable ability to resist it, and the damage-roll-minus-armour model tends to let some things get through which should be stopped. While sometimes this can be abstracted away (“eh, maybe those few points of damage represent bruising”) other times that is difficult to justify (“did the shell explode inside the tank or outside? Did the Deathly Dagger of Draining touch his flesh or not?”) One solution to this is to treat both penetration and resistance as more or less fixed, then generate the effect of the wound based on their interaction. GURPS fans often refer to this as armour-as-dice, because armour can be treated as reducing the predictable number of damage dice which the attacker rolls instead of the variable results of that roll.

However, models which treat penetration and resistance to penetration as more-or-less fixed tend to make people who are more interested in combat with hand weapons uncomfortable. In this post, I would like to explore what we know about how much the ability of hand-made armour to resist weapons can vary, even within a given piece of a known form and quality. If you want, you can skip to where I sum up.

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Armour of the Month: Tatami-dō

A tatami dô (folding cuirass) with kon (dark blue) lacing.  In a palace in Silesia near Bielsko-Biala, Poland.
A tatami dô (folding cuirass) with kon (dark blue) lacing. In a palace in Silesia near Bielsko-Biala, Poland.

It seems like I have been making a lot of long, wordy, academic posts in the past few months. This week, I would like to focus on pictures of one of the artifacts I have seen in my travels, a Japanese armour imported into Europe at the end of the 19th century. The museum estimates that it was made between 1820 and 1840.

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An Armoured Horseman on a Sasanid Bulla

Clay bulla of a rider on an armoured horse in style of 6th or 7th century CE (late Sasanid period).  "Returned from the USA" to the National Archaeological Museum, Tehran.
Clay bulla of a rider on an armoured horse in style of 6th or 7th century CE (late Sasanid period). “Returned from the USA” to the National Archaeological Museum, Tehran.

In the national archaeological musuem in Tehran were a cluster of a dozen or so clay bullae: hanging attachments to a skin or papyrus document which could take a seal. The name is medieval, but the technique is much older. These ones come from the Sasanid period (6th or 7th century CE), and I suspect that they turned up on the art market or in a private collection and the Iranian government was able to show that they had left the country without permission. Several of them show armed men riding armoured horses.

Unfortunately, I had very limited time to take photos of the whole museum, and I do not have a polarizing filter for my camera to reduce glare from the case. The photo above is my best, but I have include several other legible photos below the fold. All are of the same bulla, but there were one or two others with armed men on them which I was not successful in photographing.

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Linen-Cotton Blends in the Greco-Roman World

Some of my hobbies are making me think about fabric. I used to think that fabric containing both cotton and linen was a product of the last thousand years, as cotton production spread west from India into areas with a strong tradition of weaving linen. In the second half of the middle ages, cities in Italy began importing cotton from Egypt and Turkey and Syria and weaving it themselves, and the trade slowly spread north across the Alps. The basic idea was that cotton was cheap and absorbed dye well, while linen was strong but hard to colour. Some weavers found that if they used cotton for the warp threads, they tended to snap. So a mixed cloth with a linen warp and cotton weft was both strong and colourful. In the middle ages these cloths were known by names such as English fustian, Italian fustagno (from the suburb of Fustat in Egypt) or German Barchent. Today weavers are comfortable with a cotton warp, and artificial dyes can colour pure linen any imaginable colour, but cloth with cotton running one way and linen threads the other is still used for shirts and other items. I did not think that these mixed cloths existed before the middle ages. But now read this!

The finds of archaeological linen textiles display a wide range of qualities in ancient Greece. However, they are primarily burial finds and thus no adequate source for the topic of clothing practice. Nothing, however, suggests that linen textiles were rare, or associated only with female burials or those of foreigners. Linen textiles occur much more frequently than wool textiles in the archaeological record in Greece, as Moulherat and Spantidaki have observed, but this only reflects the preservation conditions in Greece, and does not denote a choice of fibre. A linen textile of impressive size came to light in Eleusis: it measures 220 cm × 50 cm. It was found in a bronze vessel dating to the mid-5th century BC. Preserved linen textiles with 100 threads per cm are not unknown in classical Greece. From the 5th century BC such a linen textile was found in a tomb at Kerameikos; another 5th century linen fabric of similar quality comes from Kalyvia T­horikos. In another 5th century Kerameikos grave, linen textiles with remains of stitch holes from embroidery and fabrics decora­ted with purple were recovered. The original assumption of silk fabrics has now been proven wrong in new analyses by Christina Margariti and colleagues who demonstrated that there are four different fabrics of which two are of made of linen, while another fabric is probably made of cotton, and the last is woven of linen warp and cotton weft.

That quote comes from an article by Marie-Louise Nosch where she argues that scholars have been too hasty in following a passage in Herodotus and dismissing the use of linen in classical Greece (Hdt. 2.105 tr. A.D. Godley):

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The Shoulder-Flap-Cuirass from Golyamata Mogila

A photo of an armour comprising a Chalcidian helmet with hinged cheeks, a leather gorget covered in iron scales, and a leather cuirass with a skirt of feathers and two shoulder-flaps (aka. Jarva type IV/tube-and-yoke/linothorax) completely covered with iron scales
From Daniela Agre, “The Tumulus of Golyamata Mogila near the villages of Malomirovo and Zlatinitsa” (Sofia: Avalon Publishing, 2011) p. 73

Although many scholars grumble about reviews of academic books in academic journals, those reviews can still be valuable. In a review of that valuable but frustrating book from the Midwest, Raimon Graells i Fabregat mentioned some relevant evidence which the authors did not discuss:

In chapters 3 and 4, the author’s experiment is described, with a commentary on the materials and techniques used to reconstruct linen body armor. What is surprising is the absence of an analysis of the two iron cuirasses designed in the same way as linothorakes, one from Tumulus II of Vergina and the other from Burial III of Aghios Athanasios or even the complete linothorax from the Golyamata Mogila near Malomirovo and Zlanitsa. These metal cuirasses would doubtless have provided useful support and verification for technical aspects of the reconstruction.

The third armour was excavated a few years ago in modern Bulgaria (ancient Thrace), and pictures have been floating around on the Internet for some time. Fabregat cites the book in which it has been published with parallel Bulgarian and English text. It is made of one layer of medium-weight leather covered with iron scales. The collar should remind readers of the Alexander historians of a certain passage, and the difference between the right and left shoulders should make readers of Xenophon on horsemanship 12.6 ponder. The author has posted her book on academia.edu where it is available for free download (link). Download both files with the Roman numeral III in the title, and start at page 72.
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A Third of a Metre of Linen, Some Thread, and a Few Spare Hours

Two 7 inch by 7 inch patches of cloth on a plastic cutting board marked with a grid.  One is quilted vertically every 1 cm with white thread, and one is quilted horizontally every 1 cm with purple thread
Two test patches, eight layers of linen quilted with thick white cotton thread (left) and seven layers quilted with thin silk thread (right). Photo by Sean Manning, January 2016.

Lately I have been trying to spend less time online and more working with my hands. For another project I wanted to practice my stab stitch and see how organic thread compares to the cotton-coated synthetic which I usually use. While I was doing that, I thought I would take a few hours to learn some things about a type of armour which many people today find difficult to understand, namely layered cloth. This post has many photos; don’t forget that you can click on them to see a larger version.

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The Armour of Patroklos

A painting of a circle withing which a man in Greek armour is crouching and bandaging the arm of a second who is sitting on his round shield
A Red Figure Vase of Achilles and Patroclus, painted around 500 BCE. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Akhilleus_Patroklos_Antikensammlung_Berlin_F2278.jpg

I am sick again this week and have not been able to finish a craft project which I wanted to talk about, so I thought I would post half a thought about armour instead. The vase painting above is one of the most famous. Pottery geeks try to assign it to a group of paintings from the same workshop, students of mythology appreciate that Akhilles and Patroklos are labeled, and students of material culture enjoy the details of military equipment. The view of the shoulder-piece springing upwards as soon as it is untied, and of the skirt of ‘feathers’ stopping above the genitals, have shaped many modern ideas about Greek armour. Long ago Peter Connolly repainted it for his Greek Armies.

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