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Japanese parade helmet, made from iron, gilded copper, lacquered leather, silk

More Than Metal: Amazing Historical Suits of Armor

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Armor was commonly used by warriors for protection during combat. In the history of warfare, various types of armor have been used. Some of these, such as the lorica segmentata of the Roman legionaries and the plate armor of the medieval knight, are well-known examples of these protective suits. Others are perhaps less famous and will form the subject of this article. The suits of armor will be divided into three types – those made of metal, those constructed using animal parts, and those made with plant material.

Metal Suits

Metal is one of the most common materials that was used for the creation of armor. One of the major advantages of metal over many other materials is its hardness. This allowed the armor to better protect its wearer from enemy attacks. Whilst metal was a commonly used material for armor, there are certain metal suits of armor that are quite unique. One of these is the Japanese Tatami Gusoku , which translates as ‘to fold armor’, and its main components were an armored jacket, a foldable cuirass, a helmet and a hood for head protection, and other parts that corresponded with those of a full suit of traditional Japanese armor. The unique feature of this armor was that it could be folded and packed into a small box, thus allowing it to be easily transported by individual soldiers.

Japanese folding armor (tatami gusoku), Edo period.

Japanese folding armor (tatami gusoku), Edo period. ( CC BY 2.5 )

Some suits of armor that utilised metal in their construction were further strengthened by animal parts. One example of this is a suit of armor made by the Moro people of the Philippines. This war coat dates to the 19 th or 20 th century AD, and consists of a chain mail reinforced with pieces of buffalo horn.

Moro armor, Philippines, undated, horn plates and mail - Glenbow Museum Canada.

Moro armor, Philippines, undated, horn plates and mail - Glenbow Museum Canada. ( CC0 1.0 )

Animal Part Armor

Bone was also used on its own as a material for making armor. One such example is a suit of bone armor that was discovered during an excavation in Omsk, Siberia. This artefact, which was found to have been surprisingly well preserved, is thought to have been between 3500 and 3900 years old.

Suit of armor made of bone found in Omsk, Siberia. Credit: The Siberian Times

Suit of armor made of bone found in Omsk, Siberia. Credit: The Siberian Times

Another example of such a type of armor comes from Ust-Poloi, which is also in Siberia. This suit, which is 2000 years old, was found to have been made using reindeer antlers. Both of these suits of armor were buried separately from their owners, and in the latter case it has been speculated that it had been intended to serve as an offering to the ancient polar gods.

Apart from bones, other animal parts were also used in the making of armor. One of these, for example, is a crocodile skin suit of armor dating to between the 3 rd and 4 th centuries AD. This suit of armor consisted of a piece of body armor and a helmet, both of which were made of crocodile skin that was sewn together. It has been suggested that this armor was not used during combat, but during certain military-style ceremonies of the regional crocodile cult.

Suit of parade armor used by a Roman soldier during cult processions, consisting of a helmet and cuirass, both made of sewn crocodile skin. British Museum

Suit of parade armor used by a Roman soldier during cult processions, consisting of a helmet and cuirass, both made of sewn crocodile skin. British Museum ( CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )

Another suit of armor, that may have been used other than during combat but would have been more useful as a symbol of luxury, is a body armor made of pangolin scales. This was given by the Maharajah of Datiah to the now defunct India Museum in London. This suit of armor was ornamented with gold, and had turquoises and garnets encrusted into it.

The Use of Plant Material

Plant material is perhaps an unlikely source of material for the manufacture of armor. An example of such a type of armor comes from Kiribati in Oceania. This particular suit of armor, one of which is today kept in the British Museum, and another in the Pitt Rivers Museum, was made primarily of wood and coconut fibre (coir).

Wood and coconut fibre (coir) from 19th Century Kiribati. British Museum

Wood and coconut fibre (coir) from 19 th Century Kiribati. British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )

In addition, human hair was included for decorative purposes. Plant materials were also used by the ancient Greeks to make body armor. Between 600 and 200 BC, there was a type of armor known as linothorax (which literally translates as ‘linen chest’) that was highly popular in Greece, as well as in other parts of the Mediterranean. Whilst linen does not seem like the type of material that would protect its wearer from enemy weapons, modern reconstructions have found that it was indeed an effective type of armor, and would have protected a soldier from swords and arrows of that period. Better metallurgy and stronger bows that were developed during the 2 nd century BC, however, made the linothorax obsolete.     

Chukchi walrus hide and wood armor from Eastern Siberia with back shield characteristic of Chukchi and Koryak armors

Chukchi walrus hide and wood armor from Eastern Siberia with back shield characteristic of Chukchi and Koryak armors

Featured image: Japanese parade helmet, made from iron, gilded copper, lacquered leather, silk . (Public Domain )

By Wu Mingren

References:

culturalinstitute.britishmuseum.org, 2017. Crocodile-skin suit of armor200 AD - 399 AD. [Online]
Available at: http://culturalinstitute.britishmuseum.org/asset-viewer/crocodile-skin-suit-of-armor/MwEr3NNie7N5QA?hl=en

Egerton, W., 2002. Indian and Oriental Arms and Armor. New York: Dover Publicaions, Inc..

Lugovskaya, K., 2014. Warrior's 3,900 year old suit of bone armor unearthed in Omsk. [Online]
Available at: http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/features/warriors-3900-year-old-suit-of-bone-armor-unearthed-in-omsk/

Matt, 2017. Ancient Siberian Reindeer-Bone Armor Discovered. [Online]
Available at: http://www.historyinorbit.com/ancient-siberian-reindeer-bone-armor-discovered/

Pitt Rivers Museum, 2017. Coconut fibre armor (1941.2.74). [Online]
Available at: http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/weapons/index.php/tour-by-region/oceania/oceania/arms-and-armor-oceania-222/

Rothman, J., 2014. How to Make Your Own Greek Armor. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/books/joshua-rothman/how-to-make-your-own-greek-armor

The British Museum, 2017. cuirass / armor. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=500394&partId=1&searchText=armor&images=true&object=24211&page=1

The British Museum, 2017. mail-armor / coat. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=551041&partId=1&searchText=armor&images=true&page=1

The Vintage News, 2016. Japanese armor worn by all samurai classes – the Tatami Gusoku. [Online]
Available at: https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/10/21/japanese-armor-worn-by-all-samurai-classes-the-tatami-gusoku/

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