Oriental Armourby H. Russell Robinson
Detailed, scholarly survey of defensive armour used in the Middle East and Asia — from the scale armour of ancient Egypt to Japanese "modern" armour of the 19th century. Over 300 line illustrations and over 100 photos depict armour of Persia, Turkey, India, China, Ceylon, the Philippines, Korea, Tibet, and other regions. See more details below
Detailed, scholarly survey of defensive armour used in the Middle East and Asia — from the scale armour of ancient Egypt to Japanese "modern" armour of the 19th century. Over 300 line illustrations and over 100 photos depict armour of Persia, Turkey, India, China, Ceylon, the Philippines, Korea, Tibet, and other regions.
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By H. Russell Robinson
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1995 H. Russell Robinson
All rights reserved.
The Origins of Oriental Armour
Oriental armour, whatever its country of origin, developed from one of the basic forms of defence used in the ancient world. All forms of armour are of great antiquity and it is only in degree and material that they changed down the centuries.
Armour of Fabric
Fabric armour was perhaps the oldest and simplest, and it cannot be tied down to any one centre of culture or to any phase of development. It was found in many countries of both eastern and western hemispheres, in primitive and civilized communities, wherever some type of defensive armour was worn. Sometimes it formed the sole defence, particularly for the poorer soldier, and sometimes it was worn in conjunction with another form of armour: beneath the mail to absorb shock, or beneath plate armour to reduce chafing.
We shall see in the following chapters that armour of hides or fabric—either of several or many thicknesses, or of two layers stuffed with wool or fibres—was used extensively in the Orient for all parts of the human anatomy. In India and Asia the cut of the garments had a strong Mongol character; whilst in the Middle East and North Africa, Arab fashions were dominant.
Scale armour—a defence of very great antiquity—may have begun, as so many aspects of civilization, in the Middle East.
The earliest representation is in the tomb of Kenamon, who lived in Egypt in the reign of Amenhotep II (1436-1411 B.C.). The painting shows a garment constructed of ribbed bronze scales laced to a foundation, with blue bands at neck, sleeve, and bottom edges. A tubular leather neck defence is shown with it.
Another wall painting, in the tomb of Ramesses III (1198-1167 B.C.), in which the scales are clearly rendered with laces connecting them in rows, shows a standing collar and short sleeves. Bronze scales such as those shown in these tomb paintings have been found in Egypt and Cyprus. They have an embossed central rib and are laced together rather like lamellar armour in reverse, generally with a leather or fabric lining. Pictorial representations are numerous, as are actual scales from archaeological sites all over the ancient world. Single scales and large portions of armours, such as those from the Roman sites at Newstead and Corbridge, are not unusual finds wherever there has been some form of military occupation.
The graves of people dominated by a warrior class, such as the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Avars, have provided a wealth of military gear for us to study, thanks to their belief that all their earthly practices continued in the next world. Many finds of scale armour of various forms have come from Scythian burials of the fifth to fourth centuries B.C.
The commonest form of scale armour was built up of rectangular plates with the lower edge rounded or pointed. They were pierced in their upper edges with holes for lacing them to a foundation of leather or fabric, and with pairs of holes at each side for securing them in horizontal rows with a link or twist of wire. Generally, the rows of scales were overlapped in an imbricated pattern—like the scales of a fish or the tiles on a roof—but there were instances where they were placed so that one scale overlapped the one immediately beneath it. Some Oriental scales were of a more distinct leaf form, simply sewn in rows to the foundation. Riveting was occasionally employed.
Where scales are represented overlapping upwards—as in the Assyrian reliefs from Nineveh in the British Museum on warriors wearing long scale coats, and on many Chinese clay figurines where the pattern is either painted or modelled—we may perhaps have a convention employed to represent armour of laced lamellae. The possible clue to this theory is the little rib, either carved or modelled, reaching up from the bottom of each scale for about two-thirds of its length, which could well represent the laces connecting the rows of plates together. Also, in such cases the scales are not imbricated, but are placed immediately below each other—a definite feature in lamellar construction.
Scales have been found with a medial rib, but a commoner method of strengthening the thin plates was to emboss the lower ends, which, if not so treated, might quickly have become curled or bent with the movement of the wearer's body. This embossing of scales was taken to extremes in China and in Poland in the seventeenth century, and many fine specimens made in the latter country survive in Polish collections. They were made for the wealthy officers of hussar regiments and display strong Oriental features.
Scales for armour have been made from wood, rawhide, gold, silver, copper, bronze, and iron. Many of the reports upon which we have to rely for our information, written by Greek historians like Herodotus (IX, 22), are rich with descriptions of armours, frequently of scales, as being of gold or silver. Rarely, this may have been the case; but the softness of these metals would have deterred even the most extravagant of monarchs from relying upon them as a protection. Such armours were more likely constructed of bronze or iron plates gilded or silvered or even simply of burnished yellow bronze or tinned bronze—both of which could have been equally impressive and at the same time protective. In China, under the Han Dynasty, there is some evidence for armour of jade scales or plates for wear at court.
In ancient Greece scales were fastened to all or part of the rigid leather cuirasses of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. Etruscan art is also rich in representations of scale-covered cuirasses based upon the Greek model to be seen on several bronzes in the British Museum, but it is the flexible Roman lorica squamata that may be the result of direct Syrian or Sarmatian influence on the Imperial armies.
The reliefs on the Column of Trajan, in the Forum at Rome, depict scenes from Trajan's Dacian Wars (A.D. 101—102), and in these the only troops wearing scale armour are the Syrian auxiliary bowmen and the attacking Sarmatian cavalry, allies of the Dacians. The legionaries are shown wearing the laminated lorica segmentata and the auxiliary troops, both horse and foot, wear mail shirts called lorica hamata.
On the column of Marcus Aurelius at Rome, which carries similar but rather coarsely executed scenes in relief, many of the auxiliary troops wear scale armour—though not to the complete exclusion of mail. The Marcus Aurelius column was erected to celebrate this Emperor's victories against the Germans and Sarmatians in A.D. 175, after six years of war.
We are, of course, mainly concerned with the influence of the Middle East and Asia Minor on the rest of the Orient, and for this we must refer to the scale-clad Sarmatian cavalry on the Trajan Column. They are depicted as wearing built-up conical helmets, and both men and horses are covered with skin-tight armour of scales. The only facts in these sculptures are probably the helmets of the men and the eyeguards of the horses, which are circular and pierced with small holes. The rest, as is now known, is a figment of the sculptor's imagination—no doubt a literal translation of reports that the Sarmatian horsemen were armed, both rider and mount, from head to foot in scale armour. What, then, did the Sarmatians wear? The answer lies in the archaeological finds scattered throughout the Roman world, where Sarmatians later served Rome in the capacity of auxiliary cavalry of the type termed cataphracti. From the fort at Newstead, in Roxburghshire, there are leather chamfrons studded with bronze nails, masked parade helmets and what appears to be a piece of laminated bronze armour for a horseman's thigh. From Ribchester, in Lancashire, comes the finest of the masked helmets (British Museum) and a pair of deeply bossed bronze eyeguards from a chamfron, probably of leather, while similar finds are recorded from the frontier forts at Mainz and Stuttgart, Germany. The most conclusive evidence available for the method of equipping the cataphracti in the Imperial Roman army comes from Dura Europos, two hundred and fifty miles from Damascus on the Euphrates River, where excavations were carried out from 1928 to 1938 by teams from Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters. Dura Europos, a fortified city, had been held by Greeks, Parthians, and Romans, from whom it was eventually taken by the Sassanian Persians in A.D. 256. In a store in one of the towers the excavators brought to light two complete scale trappers for horses—one of bronze and one of iron—and a third in a fragmentary condition. The scales are linked together with loops of wire to form rows which have then been laced or sewn to a coarse jute fabric and bound at the edges with red tanned leather. The trappers are open at front and back, and a hole has been left in the area covered by the saddle or shabraque. No armour for the horse's head was discovered, but no doubt it would have been used. For the rider, only two thighguards of lamellar were found—which will be discussed later. A graffito of a Parthian fully armed horseman, also found at Dura, shows the complete scale bard in use.
Scale armour was seldom used after this period in such large quantities, lamellar taking its place to a great extent. The lack of flexibility in scale armour must have caused a swift decline in its popularity when other more comfortable types were obtainable. A large piece of scale armour with links joining the bottoms of the scales to those in the row beneath was found at Totin and is now in the Zagreb Museum, Yugoslavia. Such armour would hardly require a backing, except as a protection from the ends of the wire links on the inside, and the lack of movement must have confined this defence to a waist-length sleeveless cuirass.
All scale armour was restricted in flexibility, because the scales cannot turn back on each other. To give adequate protection, they had to be sewn in close-set rows; and in fastening them securely, the backing became taut and puckered, so reducing the movement allowed by the narrow areas between the rows. Lamellar and mail armour, particularly the latter, restricted the wearer's movements only slightly, and in consequence eventually ousted scale armour almost completely.
Lamellar armour in its simplest basic form was constructed of hundreds of small rectangular plates of iron, bronze, or rawhide, pierced with from eight to fourteen holes at top, sides, centre, and bottom, arranged according to the method of lacing employed in the area in which it was produced. The plates, or lamellae, were first laced with leather thongs into horizontal rows, to the length required for whatever part of the armour they were to occupy. These rows of lamellae were then laced together vertically, overlapping each other upwards—an essential feature of true lamellar construction. The resulting garment could be straight, of any desired length, with or without sleeves. The opening could be at the front or at one or both sides. Long skirts were often split to facilitate riding.
Such armour required little skill to make once a craftsman knew the essential rules of construction. The elaboration in the finish of lamellae, and the complicated techniques employed for lacing them into rows, only came when the armourer could go no further in the improvement of his product. They were not essentials for the strength and durability of the armour. In its simplest form, made from rawhide lamellae and dressed leather thongs, it made a light, efficient and, above all, flexible defence—and one is therefore not surprised that the Mongol hordes, with their great herds of livestock, adapted it to their needs and used it extensively.
Evidence points to the Assyrians as the people responsible for the early development and spread of this form of armour. In the numerous battle scenes depicted in the reliefs from Nineveh and Nimrud, commemorating the victories of Ashurnasirpal and Ashurbanipal, dating from the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., hundreds of Assyrian soldiers, both foot and mounted infantry—they had no true cavalry—are represented wearing cuirasses constructed of lamellae. These cuirasses reach from shoulder to waist, and in many instances they have short, close sleeves. If we accept the representations as correct and translate the method of construction literally, then we are confronted with a type of lamellar armour quite different from later specimens. A more solid form of construction is suggested, rather than the loosely laced rows of lamellae. Each row of lamellae would appear to be laced down at top and bottom to a substratum of leather or fabric, the same plaited lacing holding the bottom of one row and the top of the next. The convention employed to represent the lacing is a narrow strip of herring-bone lines engraved between the bands of vertical lamellae. The same convention is used on the Etruscan bronze statue of Mars dating from the fourth century B.C., found at Todi and now in the Vatican Museum. Here, a typical rigid hide cuirass made on the Greek model is covered with rows of lamellae laced down at top and bottom. All the edges of the cuirass are bound or piped. There are many similar Etruscan representations of armour made in this way and it is also to be seen in Parthian art when under Hellenistic influence.
As stated in the previous section on scale armour, the Assyrian soldiers wearing anklelength coats of scales, shown with their rounded ends pointing upwards, each with a rib running for about half of the scales' length, may well represent the more orthodox form of lamellar armour. These heavily armed soldiers are few in number and only represented in one scene, taking part in the siege of a city. Such armour may have been used only for sieges and later adapted by the Persians for their heavy cavalry. The Assyrian soldiers in question wear aventails of the same construction as their body armour attached to the lower edge of their conical helmets, which fit closely round the face and descend to the shoulders. These are the earliest representations of a feature which was to become an integral part of many Oriental helmets.
Fragments of lamellar armours have been found at Etsingol, in south-western Mongolia, on the sites of Chinese watch towers and forts of the late Han Dynasty and dated from the last century B.C. to first century A.D. This is the earliest recorded find in Central Asia, whilst the Mediterranean area can claim far earlier specimens. A Swedish expedition, excavating sites in Cyprus, found lamellae dating from the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.
The continued use of lamellar armour in the Middle East is proved by the finding of the thigh armour at Dura Europos, where it had probably formed part of the equipment of a Parthian auxiliary in the Roman garrison at the time of its destruction by the Sassanians in A.D. 260. The Parthians and Persians—like the Sarmatians—were noted for their fully armoured cavalry, and it is believed that it is from Iran that the spread of lamellar armour began. Lamellae have been found in Viking graves in Sweden dating from the tenth century A.D., and there is ample pictorial evidence of wide use in eastern Europe: as, for instance, the seals of the fourteenth-century Dukes of Mazovia. In the south, it was brought to Hungary by the Avars and to Italy by the Longobards. The latest evidence for lamellar armour in Europe was the finding of a complete sleeveless coat on a skeleton in the mass graves from the Battle of Wisby, in Gotland, which took place in 1361.
Excerpted from Oriental Armour by H. Russell Robinson. Copyright © 1995 H. Russell Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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