Today, we often take it for granted that ancient texts mentioning linen or leather armour must describe the kind with a yoke over the shoulders and a skirt of ‘feathers’ which we see in Red Figure vase paintings and Etruscan tomb paintings. But like many other aspects of this debate, it is hard to trace back before Peter Connolly in the 1970s. People have collected references to linen and leather armour in literature since the 16th century, but for a long time they did not compare it to artwork any more than they compared it to objects in museums. At first this may have been because travelling to collections of art and accurately reproducing them was impractically expensive. Any scholar could see a collection of antiquities, but the one in their patron’s library was not the one in another scholar’s cathedral or a third’s country house, so they could not refer readers to a specific sculpture and expect that they would seek it out in the way they could cite a line of poetry and expect readers to take down another book and read it. Also, the brighter researchers often noticed that many of these passages describe the armour of barbarians: Egyptians, Assyrians, Iberians. John Kinloch Anderson is the first writer who comes to mind who explicitly identified the “linen and leather armour” he saw in Greek texts with the armour with shoulder flaps in Greek sculptures and paintings (Military Theory and Practice in the Age of Xenophon, 1970, pp. 22-23). About a hundred years before, him, a Prussian staff officer named Max Jähns had some different thoughts on this question.
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):
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. Read more
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. Read more
Sometime in the sixteenth year of Xerxes great king (circa 468/7 BCE in our calendar), someone at Persepolis turned a tablet with Elamite writing on end and rolled his seal along it. A conversation with Josho Brouwers of Karwansaray BV recalled it to memory. Because this seems to show the style of body armour with a tall neck-guard and flaps over the shoulders which is often understood as distinctively Greek and said to have been invented about a hundred years before Xerxes based on its appearance in Greek vase paintings. But there is no hint of the Aegean in this scene, and this armour is missing the skirt of pteryges around the waist which usually appear in depictions of armour with this cut from the Aegean.
Showing where this style of armour was invented and how it spread and changed is more difficult than it sounds. It is true that the earliest evidence is painted pottery from mainland Greece in the early sixth or perhaps the late seventh century BCE. But in the sixth century BCE, it happens that we have much more evidence for arms and armour from the Aegean than from anywhere in the neighbourhood. The people there painted armoured men on their pots with durable glazes and carved them on stone, and they deposited large amounts of armour and weapons in graves and especially temples. So it is very dangerous to say that the Greeks invented an object just because it is first depicted in the Aegean, especially if that object is one which does not survive well in the ground. It is usually thought that the first armours with this cut were of cloth or felt or hide, and none of those materials survives 2500 years in the ground unless the conditions are just right. Although by the second century BCE armour with this cut was being worn all around the Mediterranean and made in every possible material, not a single fragment made from cloth or hide has been identified. So while this style of armour was probably invented somewhere in or near to the Aegean around the sixth century BCE, its hard to say for sure that it was invented by Greeks.
Sultan Tipu was a warrior king, and like a warrior king he died when his enemies stormed his palace. Those enemies seized his treasury and hauled it to London, and as London has not been sacked since, most of his treasure is still there. Amidst the jewelled patas and the musical automata is a cloth armour.
A recent scholarly book argues that ancient Greek soldiers wore body armour of many layers of linen glued together. This would be surprising, since most cultures with linen armour sewed it together, but some people are concerned that Greek images of this armour rarely show stitch marks.* The book briefly cites two 19th century articles as evidence that such glued linen armour has been found.** Many curious readers will not be able to follow up on these references, since the necessary journals are hard to obtain outside of a large reference library, and since the articles are in Italian and German. One perk of studying in Innsbruck is that I do have access to the necessary publications, and I can read German if not Italian. I therefore spent a few hours flipping through online databases and back issues of journals with gilded titles on the spines and „königlich und kaiserlich“ in the stamps on the title page. Because many interested people do not have access to these articles, I have decided to reproduce the key passages with an English summary.
The first article describes the contents of an Etruscan tomb at Tarquinia. (It was published as W. Helbig, “Oggetti Trovati nella Tomba Cornetana detta del Guerriero,” Annali dell’Instituto di Corrispondenza Archaeologica 46 (1874) 249-266). The relevant passage seems to be as follows: