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A recent scholarly book argues that ancient Greek soldiers wore body armour of many layers of linen glued together. This would be surprising, since most cultures with linen armour sewed it together, but some people are concerned that Greek images of this armour rarely show stitch marks.* The book briefly cites two 19th century articles as evidence that such glued linen armour has been found.** Many curious readers will not be able to follow up on these references, since the necessary journals are hard to obtain outside of a large reference library, and since the articles are in Italian and German. One perk of studying in Innsbruck is that I do have access to the necessary publications, and I can read German if not Italian. I therefore spent a few hours flipping through online databases and back issues of journals with gilded titles on the spines and „königlich und kaiserlich“ in the stamps on the title page. Because many interested people do not have access to these articles, I have decided to reproduce the key passages with an English summary.

The first article describes the contents of an Etruscan tomb at Tarquinia. (It was published as W. Helbig, “Oggetti Trovati nella Tomba Cornetana detta del Guerriero,” Annali dell’Instituto di Corrispondenza Archaeologica 46 (1874) 249-266). The relevant passage seems to be as follows:

Fig. 3) Spalletta (γύαλον) di bronzo foderata con tela ancora benissimo conservata, lung. 0,47. Allorchè la viddi per la prima volta, il pezzo di tela restava attaccato alla parte interna della spalletta, dove fuor di dubbio si trovata anche anticamente. Ma dopo, non so come, ne vanne staccato e dora copre la parte esterna, come lo monstra il nostro disegno. Siccome, a quel che mi venne assicurato, non si trovò traccia di altra spalletta, così è possibile, che coltanto la spalla destra del guerriero era garantita con cotale lastra, metra la sinistra, perche generalmente protetta dallo scudo, ne restava priva. In ogni caso l’oggetto merita un interesse speciale come unico avanzo finora conosciuto di quelle corazze di tela, che spesso vengono menzionate nalla letteratura antica. Amasis, re d’Egitto, dedico una cosifatta corazza nel tempio di Atene a Lindos e spedi un’ altra in dono ai Lacedemonj (Herodot. II 182, II 47. Plin. H.n. IXI 12).

[End of page 257 and start of page 258 summarizes several more references to Greek, Latin, and Hebrew literature]

Rimandando i lettori che vorrebbero istruirsi sopra l’uso, che i Greci in diverse epoche facevano della corazza di lino, al libro di Hehn Kulturpflanzen und Hausthiere 2. ed. P. 149 ss., mi contenterò di rammentare soltanto due fatti di storia italica che geograficamente et etnograficamente possono collegarsi col frammento di cosifatta corazza trovata nel sepolcro tarquiniese. Imperocchè la corazza di Tolumnius, re di Veji, la quale da Cornelius Cossus, che colla propria mano aveva ucciso il re vejente, fu dedicate nell’aedes Jovis Feretrii, dove la vidde ancor Ceasare Augusto e ne lesse l’iscrizione dedicatoria, era un thorax linteus (Liv. IV 20). E Silo Italico Pun. IV 223 determina i Falischi vicini degli Etruschi e con loro congiunti da molte relazioni politiche e commerciali:

Inductosque simul gentilia lina Faliscos.

Può essere, che alla stessa corazza di tela abbiano appartenuto anche i frammenti raffiguarati tav. Xd figg. 6 e 10.

My Italian is very poor, but this passage appears to describe a bronze shoulderplate 47 cm long joined to some very well preserved cloth. The shoulder plate originally had canvas inside and now has canvas on the outside. Helbig suggests that this was part of a linen or cloth cuirass (corazza di lino or corazza di tela) and compares it to various linen armours described in Greek and Latin literature. The figures seem to be missing from my copy of this article. I don’t see anything about layers of cloth, let alone glue, in this passage.

The second article deals with one of the Bronze Age shaft graves at Mycenae. It was published as Franz Studniczka, “Zur Herkunft der Mykenischen Cultur,” Mittheilungen des Kaiserlich Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts, Athenische Abteilung 12 (1887) 8-24. This find is commonly alluded to by reenactors and craftsmen, but I am not sure how many of them have read the original publication or a detailed summary. The German text of pages 21-23 reads as follows:

Ich erwähne hier noch ein merkwürdiges, bisher unbeachtet gebliebenes Fundstück aus einem mykenischen Schachtgrabe, welches zwar in keiner Richtung beweist, aber sich in den Zussamenhang der sonstigen orientalischen Elemente dieser Funde gut einfugt. Schon Schliemann verzeichnete Reste ausgezeichnet gewebter Leinwand, wovon hie und da ganz kleine Läppchen an den Schwertklingen klebten, so dass sie die Form der Klinge angenommen haben. Er erkannte darin Reste von Leinenscheiden; aber es ist augenfällig, wie ungeeignet Leinen gerade für die Innenseite der Scheiden so spitzer Schwerter wäre; auch haben sich mehrfach Reste von Holzscheiden gefunden. Die Stoffreste werden also, wenigstens teilweise, eher [p. 22 starts here] von Leinengewändern der Toten herrühen, auf denen die Schwerter lagen. Die Art dieser Gewänder lässt sich, wenn ich nich irre, in einem Falle noch bestimmen. An dem Fig. 4 nach meiner, begrieflicher Weise nicht ganz genauen, Skizze abgebildeten Rest eines Schwertes mit dem gewöhnlichen drei Buckeln klebt hinten mittelst des Oxyds ein ringsum unregelmässig abgebröckelter, etwa 8 cm. langer Leinenlappen, welcher fast durchgängig aus etwa vierzehn, zusammen fast 1 cm. dicken Schichten ziemlich groben Zeuges besteht. Alles wohl erwogen, dünkt mich die wahrscheinlichste Erklärung die zu sein, dass hier, auf griechischem Boden zum ersten Male, der Rest eines Leinenpanzers vorliegt. Auf der Rückseite bemerkt man Spuren eines Bronzegegenstandes, etwa eines Reifens der den Panzer an der Taille festigte. Kleinere Buchstücke derselben Art zeigen Reste von Golddraht, was an die Stickerei des von Amasis [p. 23 starts here] geweihten Leinenpanzers bei Herodot 3, 47 erinnert. Die Reste von feinem Leinen, welche auch an den drei Knöpfen des Dolchbruchstücks haften, dürften von einem, rings um die Knöpfe mit Holz unterlegt gewesen, Ueberzug dieses Teiles herrühen, welcher einer, wie es scheint, in Silber ausgeführten Stickerei zur Grundlage diente. Dagegen wird das Stück gröberen Leinens, welches unterhalb der Nagelköpfe an der Klinge festoxydiert ist, nach Zerfall des Leinenspanzers zufälligan diese Stelle geraten sein. – Unter den Völkern, denen unsere Ueberlieferung Leinenpanzer zuschreibt, erwähne ich hier die Myser und Lokrer (Amphios und Aias im Schiffskatalog) und die Ἀργεῖοι λινοθώρηκες des bekannten, dem siebenten Jahrhundert zugeschriebenen Orakels. Auf diese wird man sich bei dem hohen Alterum der mykenischen Gräber schwerlich zu Gunsten der hier bekämpfen Hypothese berufen dürften; vielmehr spricht die Wahrscheinlichkeit dafür, dass in so alter Zeit auch der Leinenpanzer als ein Zeichen asiatischen Einflusses aufzufassen sei.

This article is mostly concerned with possible Near Eastern influence on Mycenaean culture. The passage which I quoted discusses a find which Studniczka believes suggests such influence. Heinrich Schliemann described the remains of an “excellently woven linen fabric,” small parts of which clung to the blade of a sword which was lying atop them and had taken on its form. He interpreted the cloth as a linen scabbard, but Studniczka feels that linen would be obviously unsuitable for the scabbard of such a sharp-pointed sword. He suggests that some of the cloth remains belong to the linen burial shrouds atop which the swords lay. He describes the largest fragment in a convoluted sentence: “Because of the oxides, an irregularly broken, about 8 cm long linen cloth, which mainly consists of a reasonably large piece almost 1 cm and generally fourteen layers thick, clings underneath the remains of a sword with the customary three buckles, which is depicted in figure 4 by my own (not completely precise) sketch.” He suggests that this is the oldest remains on Greek soil of a linen armour (Leinenpanzer, a literal translation of the Greek thorax linou). This piece had traces of a bronze object on the back, which he suggests was a hoop (Reifen) for fastening the armour at the waist (Taille), and small fragments of the same kind contain traces of gold wire, which remind him of the embroidery on the linen armour which Pharaoh Amasis consecrated to Athena. He adds a few more details in another complicated sentence: “The remains of delicate linen, which also cling to the three knobs of the dagger fragment, could stem from a covering of this part all around the knobs with wood underneath, which served as base for embroidery carried out in silver. On the other hand the piece of coarse linen, which is almost completely oxidized underneath the nailheads on the blade, was preserved in this spot after the decay of the linen armour.” He cites three heroes who wear linen armour in the Iliad and a supposed Delphic oracle about the “linen-cuirassed Argives” and concludes that at such an early date, linen armour suggests Near Eastern influence. I have figure 4 in my copy of this article, and can reproduce it if anyone is interested; it shows a bent and broken object with a cloth grain and an impression on one side from a sword or dagger hilt shaped like an oval with three knobs (edit 2014/02/19: added a photo of the figure).

A black-and-white sketch of the linen find

Figure 4 from the article on Mycenaean culture (click to enlarge)

Did the Greeks wear glued linen armour? I don’t know, but I do not see evidence for glued linen armour in either of these articles. It is possible that I have missed something, and if anyone knows of a clearer reference in either article I would welcome the reference. I would be excited to see some positive evidence for the “glued linen armour” theory, but as far as I can tell it remains a guess. Leather, layered linen, and stuffed linen were used for armour in many cultures, but I do not know of any clear evidence for glued linen armour in any culture except the community of hoplite reenactors. Sometimes, modern people solve ancient problems differently than ancient people did, so archaeological evidence or parallels with other preindustrial cultures are very important in sorting out the solutions which ancient people are likely to have chosen.

Many warriors in the ancient world wore body armour with a smooth surface, two large shoulder flaps, and a skirt of narrow strips (sometimes called tube-and-yoke or Jarva type IV armour), and various hints suggest that this armour was made from some organic material, but we simply don’t have much evidence as to what that material was. Because of the lack of evidence, I consider it my duty to be precise about what the few sources do and do not say.

Edit 2016-12-18: Another way of deciding whether this project showed good judgement is to look at a blog post by one of the authors which contains the line “Interestingly, film crews loved seeing an actual person shot with an arrow while wearing the linothorax, so I often volunteered (perhaps against my better judgment).”

Edit 2017-04-08: jhupressblog.com seems to have been hacked, so I have changed the above links to the Wayback Machine.

* Edit 2016-02-24: Readers who wonder how smooth and springy quilted linen can be might enjoy a post where I fooled around with some linen and thread

** Edit 2016-02-21: If you want the details, you can find their exact words on Google books or on page 67 of a print copy of the book in question.