As regular readers will know, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about ancient forms of body armor. I got started on this subject last weekend, when I read about new research on the cloth armor that Alexander the Great and his army favored. But a question from reader Dan Hilborn and a very cool post over at Northwest Coast Archaeology (one of my favorite blogs) have led me to the subject of wooden armor, specifically the armor Tlingit men wore into battle against Russian traders in the late 18th century.
The Russians coveted furs — primarily the sea-otter fur, which is the thickest and warmest of any mammal on Earth. By the 18th century, these traders had pretty much exhausted the sea-otter populations that once flourished in Siberia’s kelp forests, so they sailed further east along the coast of the Bering Sea, searching for new kelp forests and more sea-otters. Along the Aleutian Islands, Alaska and eventually northern British Columbia, they spied abundant sea-otter habitat
Initially, the Russians traders sailed into Aleut villages, taking women and children hostages in order to force the men to bring them pelts. They did not hesitate to murder their captives if things didn’t go their way. In 1745, a Russian group slaughtered 15 Aleuts on the island of Attu, just to strike terror into the hearts of the villagers. The Aleut people, in turn, tried to expel these ruthless invaders from their lands, but Russian firearms and Russian diseases took a terrible toll.
Eventually, the Russians worked their way southward into Tlingit territory. Like many Northwest Coast peoples, the Tlingit fished the bountiful rivers and coasts of their territory and hunted sea lions and other sea mammals. They had a rich, complex culture, with chiefs, nobles and even slaves. To settle grievances with their neighbors, they embarked on raiding parties from time to time, outfitting themselves in armor made from the one of the most bountiful materials in their territory: wood. Tlingit men carved alder into slats and rods, then lashed these pieces together to form sturdy, lightweight armor.
The Smithsonian Institution holds several really spectacular examples of the traditional Tlingit armor. I particularly love the Tlingit battle helmet beautifully carved from a very hard spruce burl. The helmet itself is shaped like a very fierce-looking (and tattooed) man’s head and would have been worn atop the fighter’s head. According to the Smithsonian notes, “it would have been “impossible to split open with a club.” (The two images accompanying this blog show other Tlingit armor from the collection of a Spanish museum.)
But back to my story. After seeing images of Tlingit war gear, I began to wonder how effective it was in battle against the Russians and their firearms. I knew that the Tlingit had put up a very strong fight against the Russians, even capturing their settlement, New Archangel, on Sitka Island in 1802. But an account of one battle in Carl Waldman’s book, Atlas of the North American Indian, really caught my attention.
In their attack on Russian-led forces in Prince William Sound, writes Waldman, the Tlingit “wore animal masks to protect their faces as well as chest armor of wooden slats lashed together with rawhide strips, which actually repelled Russian bullets.” (The italics are mine.)
I would never have guessed that well-made wooden armor could deflect a bullet. It looks to me as if we don’t give early armorers nearly enough credit.