Intricate leather armor found in tomb of horseman in northwest China

The ancient leather shed armor could be dated to between 786 and 543 BC. Image: D.L. Xu, P. Wertmann, M. Yibulayinmu

Intricately made leather armor found in the tomb of a horse rider in northwest China has been shown to be 2700 years old.

Researchers from the University of Zurich have investigated the unique leather armor – a waistcoat-like assembly of tiny leather scales stitched together on a backing to provide protection for the vital organs.

Its design and construction indicate that it originated in the Neo-Assyrian Empire between the 6th and 8th centuries BCE before being brought to China.

In 2013, the near-complete example of leather scale armor was found in the tomb of a male near the modern-day city of Turfan at Yanghai, in Northwest China. The armor survived the millennia thanks to the area’s dry climate.

It 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 BCE.

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

The materials were costly and the manufacturing process was time-consuming, which meant armor was very precious. Wearing such items was, originally at least, considered a privilege of the elite.

It was rare for them to be buried with the owner. However, the emergence of powerful states with large armies in the ancient world led to the development of less precious but nevertheless effective armors made of leather, bronze or iron for ordinary soldiers.

The researchers, reporting in the journal Quaternary International, used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the armor, putting it between 786 and 543 BCE. It was originally made of about 5444 smaller scales and 140 larger scales, which together with leather laces and lining weighed between 4 and 5kg.

The armor 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 armor was professionally produced in large numbers,” Wertmann says. With the increasing use of chariots in Middle Eastern warfare, a special armor for horsemen was developed from the 9th century BCE. These later became part of the standardized equipment of military forces of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which extended from parts of present-day Iraq to Iran, Syria, Turkey and Egypt.

While there is no direct parallel to the 2700-year-old armor in the whole of Northwest China, there are some stylistic and functional similarities to a second contemporary armor of unknown origin held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is possible that the two armors were intended as outfits for distinct units of the same army – the Yanghai armor for cavalry and the armor in the New York museum for infantry.

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

“Even though we can’t trace the exact path of the scale armor 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 BCE,” Wertmann says.

Patrick Wertmann, Dongliang Xu, Irina Elkina, Regine Vogel, Ma’eryamu Yibulayinmu, Pavel E. Tarasov, Donald J. La Rocca, Mayke Wagner, No borders for innovations: A ca. 2700-year-old Assyrian-style leather scale armour in Northwest China. Quaternary International. November 2021.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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