You are here
Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor: Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery
July 2014 (118.3)
Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor: Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery
By Gregory S. Aldrete, Scott Bartell, and Alicia Aldrete. Pp. viii + 279, figs. 36, color pls. 8, tables 18. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 2013. $29.95. ISBN 978-1-4214-0819-4 (cloth).
In the past, body armor was the primary element of the defensive panoply. It covered most of the body, and its manufacture required a greater investment in time, work, and material than most weapons. As a result, body armor also became an important marker of social and military status; thus, its study offers insight into different aspects of ancient war, such as combat, hierarchy, and military technology. Despite these considerations, the study of ancient body armor has not been a popular field of investigation. It was only in the 1970s that researchers turned their attention to it, mainly in relation to Italic types. These studies followed the fundamental works of Hagemann (Griechische Panzerung: Eine entwicklungsgeschichtilche Studie zur antiken Bewaffnung [Berlin 1919]) and Snodgrass (Early Greek Armour and Weapons: From the End of the Bronze Age to 600 B.C. [Edinburgh 1964]) on Greek body armor and examined the historical, typological, chronological, and technological aspects of metal body armor in greater depth. The linothorax type of body armor made from organic material has not been specifically studied, despite its common appearance in ancient iconography. The only exception is the work of Jarva (Archaiologia on Archaic Greek Body Armour. Studia Archaeologica Septentrionalia 3 [Rovaniemi, Finland 1995]). The book reviewed here follows Jarva's study and analyzes for the first time the manufacturing process and the real defensive capabilities of linen body armor.
The book has a clear and balanced structure, with each chapter being of similar length. Eight chapters lead the reader through the historical problems associated with the linothorax, describing the criteria used to reconstruct it and the tests performed to evaluate the effectiveness of the protection it provided.
A brief introduction sets out the aim of the book, its structure, and the audience for which it is intended. Chapter 1 examines the ancient written sources and iconographical evidence. Some of the assertions made are debatable, such as the alleged ancient skepticism concerning the ability of linen body armor to provide protection (1) or the introduction of the linothorax in Macedonia by Philip II (15) (already mentioned in C. Matthew’s review of this book [BMCR 2013.08.20]). In my view, the protective capability of the linothorax has always been beyond dispute, especially as it is the type of body armor most frequently seen in visual images. The issue of the introduction of linothorakes in Macedonia requires a different, historical-archaeological approach.
Structural and typological aspects are analyzed in chapter 2. This would seem to be an ideal point for the authors to propose their own theory on how the linothorax evolved, analyzing, for example, whether there was any variation in the morphology of pteruges, investigating when metal elements began to be incorporated, or whether the structural elements remained the same throughout the whole of the period that linen body armor was in use.
The absence of a catalogue of the linothorax’s metal appliqués that have emerged from the archaeological record is also unfortunate—metal pteruges, epomides, and rings and buttons used for fixing the organic shoulder flaps, among other things, come to mind. But it is true we have no studies of these metal elements because they are scarce (the pteruges and epomides) and sometimes difficult to identify (the rings), as the case of Gorge Meillet shows, where four buttons were recovered arranged on the skeleton’s chest (see E. Fourdrignier, “Double sépulture gauloise à char de la Gorge-Meillet,” Mémoires de la Société d’agriculture commerce, sciences et arts du Département de la Marne [1875–1876] 125–33, pl. 1; R. Joffroy and D. Bretz-Mahler, “Les tombes à char de La Tène dans l’Est de la France,” Gallia 17  5–36, fig. 21.2).
In chapters 3 and 4, the author's experiment is described, with a commentary on the materials and techniques used to reconstruct linen body armor. What is surprising is the absence of an analysis of the two iron cuirasses designed in the same way as linothorakes, one from Tumulus II of Vergina and the other from Burial III of Aghios Athanasios (Μ. Tsimpidas-Avloniti, “Άγιος Αθανάσιος, Μακεδονικός τάφος ΙΙΙ: Ο οπλισμός του ευγενούς νεκρού,” in ΝΑΜΑΤΑ: Τιμητικός Τόμος για τον Καθηγητή Δ. Παντερμαλή [Thessaloniki 2011] 351–63) or even the complete linothorax from the Golyamata Mogila near Malomirovo and Zlanitsa (D. Agre, Голямата могила, краиб Маломирово и Златиница [The Tumulus of Golyamata Mogila, Near the Villages of Malomirovo and Zlatinitsa] [Sofia 2011]). These metal cuirasses would doubtless have provided useful support and verification for technical aspects of the reconstruction.
Chapters 5–7 describe resistance and ballistics tests, which were carried out using television and police materials and methodology (pl. 7). As the tests focused exclusively on linothorakes and arrows, the analysis is also, unintentionally, a study of the effectiveness of bows and arrows. Besides allowing the impact of the projectiles to be visualized, this approach also provides the technical evidence that enables the real (or potential) damage to be evaluated. Unfortunately, the same technique was not adopted for analyzing the impact of spears, javelins, or swords.
Chapter 8 offers a social-economic analysis of ancient forms of production and costs. It is followed by conclusions and an appendix that lists 486 images of linothorakes, although examples such as the sculptures from the Celtic area are missing (e.g., Roquepertouse; see M. Py, La sculpture gauloise méridionale [Paris 2011]).
The discussion is straightforward, without obscure terms, and employs simple, easily understandable language. My only criticism is that the notes for each chapter are at the end of the book, after the appendix. This detracts from the pleasure of reading the book without flipping to the back, and, although it is no fault of the authors, it is something that merits greater attention from publishers, since the way a book is edited makes a great difference to the reader’s experience. In any case, the 37 figures in black-and-white and the eight color plates illustrate the contents well. Although it is a pity that a DVD with a video of the work and the tests carried out could not be included, these can be consulted at www.uwgb.edu/aldreteg/Linothorax.html.
This reviewer does take issue, from the title onward, with the word “mystery.” There is no mystery associated with the linothorax—the sources and the iconography offer abundant details that allow us to understand it. Examples can be documented archaeologically from their metal parts, but its evolution can only be traced through the images depicting it. This could be done by classifying and organizing the images painted on ceramic vases to record changes in style but also permit its functional associations to be classified. It would, I think, be important to look more closely at specific social practices and, in particular, at types of combat (inter Princeps or hoplite, infantry or cavalry battles).
The book contributes little to the archaeological study of the subject; nevertheless, the technical details it offers make it a useful aid for historical reconstruction teams. The project’s greatest contribution, however, is educational. It has succeeded in involving students, media, and professionals and has for the first time obtained new empirical results that can be reproduced and verified, and thus represents a significant advance in the study of ancient warfare.
Raimon Graells i Fabregat
Romano-Germanic Central Museum
Research Institute for Archaeology
Book Review of Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor: Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery, by Gregory S. Aldrete, Scott Bartell, and Alicia Aldrete
Reviewed by Raimon Graells i Fabregat
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 3 (July 2014)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/1833