Timothy Dawson, Armour Never Wearies: Scale and Lamellar Armour from the Bronze Age to the 19th Century. Spellmount: Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2013. ISBN-13 978-0-7524-8862-2
128 pages, GBP 14.99
Dr. Timothy Dawson has undertaken a difficult task: to understand armours of small plates laced or wired together, often known as scale or lamellar. Although these kinds of armour were once common, they tend to fall apart as the backing or lacing rots, so understanding how they were made is hard. Even worse, he is most interested in styles from the Greek Christian world which are only preserved as vague references in texts, stylized images of saints, and a few fragments of rusted iron. Moreover, arms and armour studies are not well supported by academe, so he has to do his work at his own expense and without the discipline of needing to submit his ideas to criticism by a group of peers. The resulting book is not very useful to me, but under the circumstances I can’t complain.
“Armour Never Wearies” begins with some healthy warnings about the difficulty of interpreting armour in art. The general approach is broad and open, with armour everywhere west of Afghanistan and north of the Sahara being considered. Dawson defines the terms “scale armour” and “lamellar armour” clearly and uses them consistently. The black-and-white diagrams are clear. There are some useful summaries of archaeological finds in places close to the Roman empire in the 10th through 12th centuries CE which I had not been familiar with. Dawson also takes the trouble to build and wear his hypothetical reconstructions.
Unfortunately, the goals of this book are not completely clear to me. It is not a comprehensive catalogue of art or archaeological finds. There are typologies, but many pieces are assigned to them based on his hypothetical ideas about lacing patterns. There are reconstructions, but they are often based on nothing more than pictures of armour or loose scales in museums, and Dawson does not take time to explain his decisions and address alternative views. And there certainly is not enough information on his experience making and wearing armour to interest armourers or armoured fighters.
Dawson is famous amongst people interested in armour for his armours of scales laced or riveted to leather bands which are laced to each other. This book analyzes images of saints and speculates about how loose scales from archaeological sites could have been fastened together, but does not provide examples of surviving armour assembled in this way. Its descriptions of scales and lames excavated by archaeologists mix the evidence with his ideas about how to assemble them in a way which I found confusing (for example, this book states that the edges of each row of plates in the armours from Cartagena and Wisby were wrapped in leather before being laced together, but I don’t see a reference to archaeological evidence for this; in his diagrams of five ways of fastening scales to backing, only one points to surviving armour laced in that pattern). A book which focused on gathering archaeological and written evidence for how scale and lamellar armour were assembled might have found places in both the library and the workshop.
I am happy to say that it is not true that “there is, alas, little evidence for the Near East for many centuries following the latest of the Assyrian reliefs” (p. 69, cp. 64, 65). Large numbers of scales from the fourth and fifth centuries BCE were found at Persepolis and Pasargadae in Iran, Deve Hüyük in Syria, and the Palace of Apries in Egypt, and sculptures from western Anatolia and seal impressions from further east give some idea of the general cut of armour. Nor is it necessary to rely the reliefs to understand Assyrian armour. Assyrian sites contain piles of corroded armour a foot or more thick, some of which were photographed while traces of the lacing were still visible as white lines against the dark rust. A reconstruction could be based on these, with the reliefs and cuneiform sources used as supporting evidence, just as reconstructions of earlier Roman armour begin with surviving examples rather than Trajan’s Column.
On pages 15 and 16 Dawson briefly discusses materials:
Organic materials were certainly used in lieu of metal. The more limited survival of these is supplemented by literary references to horn, and more robust forms of leather such as ox hide. There is limited evidence to support the idea of more mundane types of leather being treated by processes such as boiling or wax impregnation in order to be used for these armours, although no one can say that it was never done. Pragmatically, however, it is unlikely, for leather of that sort can be used to make large plate armours with much less effort. One thing is quite clear- that leather is used for external small plate armour reconstructions in both re-enactments and films far more often than the evidence justifies.
It is true that quite a few people who enjoy dressing up as early medieval warriors and fighting each other talk themselves into wearing leather lamellar armour, since it provides better protection against blunt weapons than mail or soft armour and does not rust like steel. Unfortunately, Dawson does not mention Thomas Hulit’s work on scale armour in the Late Bronze Age. Texts from the Bronze Age indicate that armours covered with hide scales, or with a mix of hide and bronze scales, were once common, but the only remains of a hide armour comes from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Thutmoses III claimed to have captured 200 hide and 2 bronze armours at the battle of Megiddo. Far from being made of thick oxhide, Tut’s scales are between 1.3 and 2.5 mm thick; rather than being boiled leather, they are painted rawhide. The surviving laces of Tut’s armour might help answer some of Dawson’s questions about how scales with many holes can be laced to a continuous sheet of backing rather than bands. Lamellar made from hide is also easy to document in sources on the Mongols, in archaeological sites around the Taklamakan Desert, in Tibet in very recent times, and in Japan.
I was startled to read that “there is no evidence- whether archaeological, artistic, or by comparison to more recent surviving examples from further East- to suggest that cuirasses might open at the rear, and such a configuration is inherently very much less practical.” (p. 18) The Japanese warriors who wore haramaki dô (rear-opening cuirasses), or the Europeans whose pairs of plates opened up the rear (here are some examples of what I mean), seem to have felt that hiding the vulnerable opening at the back was worth the need for help putting on their armour. Since vast amounts of Japanese lamellar armour survive, along with manuals for armourers written while lamellar was still used in combat, ignoring it seems unwise. Dawson mentions that he cannot read the right languages to study armour east of Iran. However, some basic references by scholars such as H. Russell Robinson, Anthony Bryant, Albert Dien, and Trevor Absolon are available in English free or for a modest price, and most large cities have a museum with some Japanese armour to study.
Why am I talking about a book which disappointed me? Because it was written under difficult circumstances. Academe today does not have much room for serious studies of arms and armour, although a handful of archaeologists get to play with Roman catapults and a few scholars at museums have time to publish an occasional article on their armour collections. This means that the systems which help people in other fields do better work are weak or absent. Without a network of journals and presses to provide constructive criticism and circulate new ideas, without networks of libraries which make classic works and back issues of journals available and help to subsidize the costs of book design and printing, and without regular conferences to keep people in different branches of the field talking to each other, scientists in any field would make more mistakes and overlook more relevant evidence. And if they had to limit the length and detail of their publications to what their publishers thought would please a wide audience, or write them in their free time from a job having nothing to do with their research, they would also have trouble moving the discussion forward. Research certainly won’t move forward if people who think they know better refuse to state their criticisms clearly and openly, but just gossip about bad books and eccentric ideas over coffee. Therefore I am posting some of my concerns here in a spirit of collegiality, in hope that future publications will address them.
Further Reading: On the Late Bronze Age see Thomas Hulit, Late Bronze Age scale armour in the Near East: an experimental investigation of materials, construction, and effectiveness, with a consideration of socio-economic implications (Durham, 2002) (link). Todd Feinman has reproduced a number of pieces of late Bronze Age armour based on lists of materials from Nuzi, the armour from Tut’s tomb, and paintings of armoured warriors. Mike Loades tested some in a PBS Nova documentary Building Pharaoh’s Chariot in 2012.
A photo of one fragment of Assyrian armour with traces of lacing has been available on Wikimedia Commons since 2011. Another section, with the plates corroded together but no trace of the lacing, is available from the British Musuem, museum number 132699. Edit 2016-02-09: Academic readers may enjoy chapter V: Armour of Amy Barron’s doctoral thesis, Late Assyrian Arms and Armour: Art versus Artifact (University of Toronto, 2010, available on academia.edu).
On the Achaemenid period see Erich F. Schmidt, Persepolis II. Contents of the Treasury and other Discoveries. OIP 69. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957 p. 100 and pl. 77. (link), Oscar White Musacrella, Bronze and Iron: Ancient Near Eastern Artefacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York, 1988) p. 212 no. 321 (= Metropolitan Museum of Art 1978.93.15, book available as a PDF here), Peter Roger Stuart Moorey, “Iranian Troops at Deve Hüyük in Syria in the earlier 5th century B.C.” Levant 7 (1975) p. 115, and William Matthew Flinders Petrie, The Palace of Apries. Memphis II. (London: School of Archaeology in Egypt, 1909) pp. 13, 16, pl. xvi (scanned on the Internet Archive but modern photos of some of the scales and lames are available from University College London).
Parenthically, one collection of armour plates from Tibet is the finds from Mīrān fort published in Sir Aurel Stein, Serindica, vol. 2 (1921) plate L (on the Digital Silk Road)
Edit 2016-06-15: Added scales from Pasargadae thanks to RlA s.v. Panzer.