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This handmade historical illustration shows Neo-Assyrian riders wearing their distinctive leather armor in ancient Mesopotamia.		Source: Lunstream / Adobe Stock

2,600-Year-Old Leather Armor Found In China Was Made By Neo-Assyrians

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An international team of archaeologists and historians has completed an extensive analysis of a rare leather armor waistcoat recovered from the grave of an ancient horse-riding soldier in Northwest China. Amazingly, the researchers have concluded that the leather armor wasn’t manufactured locally but had actually been made by a craftsman from the Neo-Assyrian Empire in far-off Mesopotamia. Since the Neo-Assyrian Empire ruled the region of modern-day Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Egypt from 911 to 609 BC, this rare armor must be at least 2,600 years old.

The skeletal remains found in the ancient Chinese tomb belonged to a young man of about 30 years of age, who would have worn the leather armor buried with him in battle. His grave was one of many found in the first-millennium BC Yanghai cemetery, which is located near the modern city of Turfan. Turfan was a key stop on one of the major Silk Road trade routes.

Notably, the climate in that region of China is desert-like and bone-dry. This is significant, because the arid conditions and lack of moisture in the soil allowed the leather armor to survive intact despite being buried for nearly 3,000 years. It is highly unusual for military equipment constructed from organic materials to last for so long, which is why archaeologists generally have much better luck recovering ancient weapons made from metal.

The ancient Assyrian leather armor found in Yanghai, China was dated to the period between 786 and 543 BC. (D. L. Xu, P. Wertmann, M. Yibulayinmu / Quaternary International)

The ancient Assyrian leather armor found in Yanghai, China was dated to the period between 786 and 543 BC. (D. L. Xu, P. Wertmann, M. Yibulayinmu / Quaternary International )

Deductive Reasoning Linked The Leather Armor to Mesopotamia

Through a clever bit of deductive reasoning, the researchers have linked the Chinese Yanghai leather armor to the Neo-Assyrian Empire of the first millennium BC.

Under the supervision of archaeologist Patrick Wertmann from the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies at the University of Zurich, the research team members used radiocarbon dating procedures to establish the age of the Chinese leather armor. These tests showed the armor had been created sometime between 786 and 543 BC. The Neo-Assyrian Empire existed for all but the last 66 years of that time period, confirming that the armor could have been made by craftsmen living in this ancient Mesopotamian state.

This fact alone was not enough to prove the armor had been manufactured in Mesopotamia, however. To reach that eye-opening conclusion, the archaeologists and historians compared the characteristics of the newly excavated Chinese leather armor to those of a similar artifact currently on display at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (the MET).

The origin of the MET’s suit of leather armor had always been considered a mystery. But the researchers confirmed that both sets of leather armor had been created in the same distinctive style.

A historical illustration of ancient Assyrian warriors wearing long and short leather armor. (Lunstream / Adobe Stock)

A historical illustration of ancient Assyrian warriors wearing long and short leather armor. ( Lunstream / Adobe Stock)

“In age, construction details and aesthetic appearance it resembles the MET armor,” the researchers wrote in a recent Quaternary International journal article outlining the findings of their study. “The stylistic similarities but constructional differences suggest that the two armors were intended as outfits for distinct units of the same army, i.e., light cavalry [Yanghai] and heavy infantry [MET].”

Based on this important discovery, the archaeologists and historians concluded that the armor found in China must have been made in the same place and at approximately the same time as the armor on display in New York. And they have a pretty good idea about where both artifacts came from.

“As such a high level of standardization of military equipment during the 7th century BC is only known for the Neo-Assyrian military forces, we suggest that the place of manufacture of both armors was the Neo-Assyrian Empire,” they concluded.

The Chinese IIM127 Yanghai tomb with the position of the leather armor remnant indicated by the red circle. (Turfan Administration of Cultural Relics / Quaternary International)

The Chinese IIM127 Yanghai tomb with the position of the leather armor remnant indicated by the red circle. (Turfan Administration of Cultural Relics / Quaternary International )

Secrets of the Neo-Assyrian Armor Makers Revealed

Scaled armor is designed to protect a warrior’s body from injury without weighing them down or limiting their mobility.

This type of armor features multiple overlapping rows of small- or medium-sized plates, which are sewn into a cloth or leather backing. The plates could be made of bronze or iron (metals available during the Neo-Assyrian period), but they could also be made from leather, as was the case with the armor recovered in China.

Despite its obvious durability, the leather armor found at Turfan was a lightweight piece of equipment. It was covered by more than 5,000 small leather scales and 140 larger ones and was bound together tightly by leather laces sewn through leather lining. In total the armor weighed around ten pounds (five kilograms).

Closeup images of the Yanghai leather scale armor fragment: A: inside; B: outside. (P. Wertmann / Quaternary International)

Closeup images of the Yanghai leather scale armor fragment: A: inside; B: outside. (P. Wertmann / Quaternary International )

Armor constructed to these specifications are made to protect the entire upper body down to the hips. This made it perfect for cavalrymen, who would have spent most of their time mounted on horses while engaged in battle.

“Our reconstruction demonstrates that it can be donned quickly and without the help of another person by wrapping the left part around the back, tying it to the right part under the right arm and fastening with thongs crosswise over the back to laces at the opposite hip parts,” the archaeologists and historians wrote in their Quaternary International study. “Fitting different statures, it is a light and highly efficient defensive garment.”

In the beginning, this type of armor was considered quite precious. Armor waistcoats were slow to manufacture by hand and used costly materials, and thus were originally reserved for elite fighters or military leaders.

However, as powerful states with large armies became more common in the first millennium BC, Eurasian empires began producing cheaper and more easily manufactured armor suitable for ordinary soldiers and cavalrymen. This armor could have been constructed from leather, bronze, or iron.

“The armor was professionally produced in large numbers,” Patrick Wertmann confirmed in a University of Zurich press release .

As more cavalry units were deployed and the use of chariots increased in Eurasian warfare, the need for better protective clothing became acute. Ninth-century-BC craftsmen worked hard to develop suitable armor for warriors on horseback, and the largely impenetrable waistcoats they created ultimately became standard equipment for military riders in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Buddhist Uyghur king from Turpan attended by servants, revealing that Buddhism also reached the area where the Mesopotamian leather armor was found in China, likely on an established southern Silk Road. (Public domain)

Buddhist Uyghur king from Turpan attended by servants, revealing that Buddhism also reached the area where the Mesopotamian leather armor was found in China, likely on an established southern Silk Road. ( Public domain )

Detecting Faint Traces of Ancient Technology Transfer

It isn’t known how the Turfan armor reached eastern Eurasia. The researchers who analyzed it speculate that it could have belonged to a mercenary soldier from China who fought for the Assyrians before eventually returning to his home region. They also suggest it could have been captured during some type of battle (this may be unlikely, since northwest China was far outside Neo-Assyrian territory).

Regardless of its true origin story, the leather armor is a remarkable discovery, as Wertmann explained.

“Even though we can’t trace the exact path of the scale armor from Assyria to Northwest China, the find is one of the rare actual proofs of West-East technology transfer across the Eurasian continent during the early first millennium BCE,” he said.

It seems the world has always been interconnected, even when the fastest form of transportation available was riding on horseback.

Top image: This handmade historical illustration shows Neo-Assyrian riders wearing their distinctive leather armor in ancient Mesopotamia.  Source: Lunstream / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

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