Tag Archives: armor

How Early Wooden Armor Defeated Russian Firearms

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.

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.