Cloth, a Body Armor of Choice?

I think it’s safe to say that the ancient world is absolutely full of surprises.  While most of us have long envisioned Alexander the Great donning a gleaming bronze cuirass for battle,  new research presented last week at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America reveals that one of the greatest military generals in history and his soldiers favored a much humbler form of body armor–cloth.

Gregory Aldrete,  a historian at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay,  and his student Scott Bartell, became interested in Alexander’s armor after collecting more than two dozen different classical descriptions of a type of cloth armor known as linothorax, made of linen.  The Greek historian Plutarch, for example,  describes Alexander’s gear on the day  he headed into the famous Battle of Gaugamela in 331 B.C. and decisively defeated the forces of the  Persian king Darius III. Alexander, says Plutarch,  wore “a breastplate of folded (or doubled) linen.”

Intrigued by this,  the two historians set out to replicate linothorax.  They scrambled to find linen made from hand-harvested and woven flax,  and then painstakingly glued the layers of linen together with two types of glue available in the ancient world –one made of rabbit skins and the other from flax seeds. The two historians then set up a kind of ancient firing range,  shooting arrows and thrusting swords at the linothorax.  “The laminated layers function like an ancient version of modern Kevlar armor,” Aldrete told a reporter from Discovery News, “using the flexibility of the fabric to disperse the force of the  incoming arrow.”

What I find particularly fascinating is the fact that soldiers in both the Old and New World developed cloth armor.  Aztec warriors,  for example,  wore a kind of quilted cloth-armor jacket or tunic known as ichcapuipilli for combat against the Spanish invaders.  This battle gear consisted pieces of unspun cotton sandwiched between two layers of cotton:  the armor measured nearly two fingers in thickness and, according to Ross Hassig’s fine book, Aztec Warfare,  was capable of deflecting both arrowheads and atlatl darts.

Inca soldiers,  too,  wore a form of cloth armor.   The attire couldn’t protect its wearer against cannon fire or Spanish steel swords,  but  it clearly had some advantages.   It was comfortable,  lightweight, and probably very cool in the heat of mid-day.  So some 16th century Spanish soldiers themselves adopted it, wearing cotton armor into battle in the Andes.

Clearly,  there is more to cloth than meets the eye.

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3 thoughts on “Cloth, a Body Armor of Choice?

  1. In his fascinating 1808 journal, early Canadian explorer Simon Fraser makes several mentions of the fact that Northwest First Nations used ‘mail’ – both as body armour, and as trade goods.

    Fraser and his crew used it to make new boots.

    Any idea what this material was?

  2. Hi Dan — I made a short post at my blog (click my username) on NW Coast Armour. I think the Simon Fraser observation was most likely to elk-hide armour though there may have been some sort of decorative elements which could be construed as “mail”. Slat armour is most commonly known from northern coastal areas, especially Tlingit and Nisga’a, but even there stiffened, multiple layers of leather would have been an important element in most armour systems, and that would also fit with the “new boots” statement.
    Nice post, Heather!

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