Leather scale armour proves technology transfer occurred in antiquity

Researchers at the University of Zurich have investigated a unique leather scale armour found in the tomb of a horse rider in Northwest China.

Design and construction details of the armour indicate that it originated in the Neo-Assyrian Empire between the 6th and 8th century BC before being brought to China.

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In 2013, a nearly complete leather scale armour was found in the tomb of an approx. 30-year-old male near the modern-day city of Turfan in Northwest China.

This unprecedented find, which survived the millennia thanks to the area’s extremely arid climate, provided the international team led by Patrick Wertmann from the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies of the University of Zurich with new insights on the spread of military technology during the first millennium BC.

Scale armours protect the vital organs of fighters, like an extra layer of skin without restricting their mobility. The armours were made of small shield-shaped plates arranged in horizontal rows and sewn onto a backing.

Due to the costly materials and laborious manufacturing process, armours were very precious and were rarely being buried with their owner. However, the emergence of powerful states with large armies in the ancient world led to the development of less precious but nevertheless effective armours made of leather, bronze or iron for ordinary soldiers.

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Standard military equipment for horsemen

The researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the armour to between 786 and 543 BC. It was originally made of about 5,444 smaller scales and 140 larger scales, which together with leather laces and lining weighed between 4 and 5kg.

The armour resembles a waistcoat that protects the front of the torso, hips, the sides and the lower back of the body. It can be put on quickly without the help of another person and fits people of different statures.

“The armour was professionally produced in large numbers,” says Patrick Wertmann. With the increasing use of chariots in Middle Eastern warfare, a special armour for horsemen was developed from the 9th century BC.

These armours later became part of the standardised equipment of military forces of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which extended from parts of present-day Iraq to Iran, Syria, Turkey and Egypt.

Two armours, distinct units

While there is no direct parallel to the 2,700-year-old armour in the whole of Northwest China, there are some stylistic and functional similarities to a second contemporary armour of unknown origin held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (the Met).

It is possible that the two armours were intended as outfits for distinct units of the same army, i.e. the Yanghai armour for cavalry and the armour in the Met for infantry.

It is unclear whether the Yanghai armour belonged to a foreign soldier working for the Assyrian forces who brought it back home with him, or whether the armour was captured from someone else who had been to the region.

“Even though we can’t trace the exact path of the scale armour 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 BC,” says Wertmann. Find out more


Header Image Credit : D.L. Xu, P. Wertmann, M. Yibulayinmu

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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