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A painting of a circle withing which a man in Greek armour is crouching and bandaging the arm of a second who is sitting on his round shield

A Red Figure Vase of Achilles and Patroclus, painted around 500 BCE. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Akhilleus_Patroklos_Antikensammlung_Berlin_F2278.jpg

I am sick again this week and have not been able to finish a craft project which I wanted to talk about, so I thought I would post half a thought about armour instead. The vase painting above is one of the most famous. Pottery geeks try to assign it to a group of paintings from the same workshop, students of mythology appreciate that Akhilles and Patroklos are labeled, and students of material culture enjoy the details of military equipment. The view of the shoulder-piece springing upwards as soon as it is untied, and of the skirt of ‘feathers’ stopping above the genitals, have shaped many modern ideas about Greek armour. Long ago Peter Connolly repainted it for his Greek Armies.

Christian Cameron, a knowledgeable amateur about ancient textiles, suggests that this could be tooled leather (link):

While we’re on this amazing piece of art (totally period, as it’s about 500 BC), let’s spend a few moments on other aspects of it. Note that Petrokles is sitting on his shield. Note his arming cap on his head. Note that he and Achilles are wearing scale armour. In a close-up, you can see that the top of Petrokles armour–the upper breast–is probably tooled leather. Note the arrow in the shield. This may actually be a reference to Marathon…

Here I have cropped and zoomed in to focus on the detail which he is referring to.

See blog post and caption

Closeup of the upper chest of Patroclus’ armour. Cropped from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Akhilleus_Patroklos_Antikensammlung_Berlin_F2278.jpg

It would certainly be possible to carve such a pattern into leather without too much work.

Nicholas Sekunda has found a vase painting of a whole armour whose face is covered with the same pattern of rhombuses and spots. In his Osprey on Marathon he suggests that these armours were built like a European jack of plates: of three or more layers of cloth inside which small plates were sewn by laces which were visible on the outside and made a geometrical pattern (here is a photo of a jack of plates in the Royal Armouries, Leeds and a photo of an armourer working on a reconstruction). The same vases can be found sketched in Duncan Head’s book and photographed in the online databanks of Greek vases. The resemblance is even closer to Japanese kikkô, which used hexagonal plates sandwiched between cloth, stitched down in the centre, and outlined with colourful silk thread. The plates of kikkô are typically very small, no more than 2 cm wide, which would match the small rhombuses on the breast of Patroclus’ armour (I count 26 of them from side to side on its bottom edge). I don’t think that any such small plates have been found from sites of the Achaemenid period, but only a few sites from this period have produced armour scales, and in later cultures such plates were often made of horn or hide which do not survive well. So the lines and dots could also be stitching.

I don’t think that paintings can give us enough evidence to rule out either possibility. Both tooled leather and covered small plates would look like the picture and produce the same absence of archaeological evidence. But because they are based on types of armour which were popular in several cultures for a long period of time, they are both reasonable guesses. The same can’t be said for all interpretations of ancient armour.