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Michael G.




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PostPosted: Fri 06 Nov, 2009 2:25 pm    Post subject: Sumerian armor         Reply with quote

Various places on the ever-reliable internet mention different types of Sumerian body armor, including metal studded leather cloaks, and even scale armor. I've found little evidence to support these ideas, though. Anyone have any hard evidence supporting Sumerian body armor?

Let me go ahead and mention the evidence I have found and what I think of it.

Archaeological evidence:

As far as I know the only defensive Sumerian armor unearthed is from Ur. Sir Leonard Woolley found six "copper" helmets and one (presumably ceremonial) electrum helmet.

He also found a flat relief of "copper" which he identified as part of a shield, because it was formerly attached to wood and was found near some spears. However, he was not even certain that it was part of a shield.

I should mention that I put copper in quotes because I am not entirely sure of the composition of the metal. At least in his book The Sumerians, Woolley seems to always mention copper and never bronze. A more recent book from 1998, Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur, refers to many of the same objects as "copper alloy." From what I've read, it seems that at the time of the royal tombs of Ur (mid-3rd millenium BC) true tin bronze would have been fairly uncommon, but arsenical bronze as well as pure copper were in common use. I doubt many of the copper based artifacts from Ur have actually been analyzed metallurgically.

Iconographic evidence:

The three most important (or at least most commonly cited) examples of Sumerian iconography related to warfare are the Standard of Ur, the Stele of the Vultures, and the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin.

Standard of Ur (mid-3rd millenium BC)



This piece shows many soldiers wearing helmets just like the real ones found at Ur. In addition, the middle row shows soldiers wearing spotted cloaks. Many have interpreted these as being armor. Yigael Yadin in The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands says that, "It is clear that this cape was a form of armor, particularly as it was studded with small circular plates of metal." Many others also believe the cloak to be studded with metal, and some go further and say that the cloak is made of leather. I'm not sure how anyone can identify the materials based on the rather crude representation. I don't think there is any archaeological evidence for metal discs on the cloaks. Indeed, Woolley, the excavator of the tombs that provided the Standard as well as the real copper helmets, stated that he thought the cloaks were felt, or possibly leopard skins because of the spots. It seems to me that the cloaks could be some kind of armor (of unknown construction) or could simply be part of a uniform (leopard skin cloaks might have good psychological value). All of the soldiers wear fringed skirts of unknown material.

Stele of the Vultures (mid-3rd millenium BC)



This work clearly shows the copper helmets again. In the top row, large shields are depicted. The king and the soldiers in the lower left are shown with skirts that might appear to be of scale armor, but are almost certainly not. In fact this kind of skirt is shown in much non-military art and appears to depict a skirt of fleece. For example see the fleece of the goat on this Sumerian statue:



The king has a shawl of some other kind of fleece over his shoulder and the infantry in the lower right seem vaguely to have a similarly draped shawl. These shawls are also seen on the uncloaked soldiers on the Standard of Ur. On other works I have also seen shawls of similar shape but of spotted material like the cloaks on the Standard of Ur.

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (mid- to late-3rd millenium BC)



Similar helmets are still shown, the skirts are slightly different and I can detect nothing resembling body armor.


Now, there are numerous references to Sumerians developing scale (or plate) armor on the internet, but I haven't find any real evidence for it. Has anyone else?
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Michael Ekelmann




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PostPosted: Sat 07 Nov, 2009 2:55 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Michael,
I'd have to agree with your conclusion. I haven't seen much evidence that the Summerians used any plate armour, other than the helmets. Even the "metal discs" on the cloaks are debatable because I don't recall ever reading that such discs have been found. They could be decorative, could be horn, really, who knows?
I do find it interesting that the helmet shape is almost the same as a medieval bascinet.

“Men prefer to fight with swords, so they can see each other's eyes!" Sean Connery as Mulay Hamid El Raisuli in The Wind and the Lion
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Sat 07 Nov, 2009 3:44 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Nope. No Sumerian body armour. No way can those cloaks be interpreted as studded leather. More likely spotted animal skins.

The only metallic helms were found in the "noble" graves. No helmets were found in the "common" graves even though metallic weapons were found in them. The illustrations show lower ranks wearing helmets that look similar to the upper class helmets. The absence of these helmets in the common graves can best be explained by them being made of a perishable material such as leather/hide.

I would interpret the fringed skirts as either goat fleece or an artefact of the weaving process where the warp threads are left long enough to tie into tassles.

The six-bossed shields on the Stele of Vultures are probably meant to represent six separate shields rendered on a flat plane. There are six spears, six pairs of hands, etc. So there are not six bosses on one shield but six shields with one boss each.

The earliest scale armour was found at Nuzi and dates to the 16th century BC. However the Petrie Museum has four copper scales found in Egypt dating to c. 2000BC that could have been scale armour. They only have two lacing holes though so they don't look like any other type of scale armour. But, assuming that they are from some sort of "proto-scale", they are still 500 years too late to be contemporary with Sumeria.
http://www.petrie.ucl.ac.uk/detail/details/in...Findex.php

The best book on the subject is Warfare in the ancient Near East to 1600 BC: Holy Warriors at the Dawn of History By William James Hamblin.
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Michael G.




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PostPosted: Mon 09 Nov, 2009 10:15 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks for the replies. I always felt that the claims for Sumerian body armor were pretty bogus.

Dan Howard wrote:
The only metallic helms were found in the "noble" graves. No helmets were found in the "common" graves even though metallic weapons were found in them. The illustrations show lower ranks wearing helmets that look similar to the upper class helmets. The absence of these helmets in the common graves can best be explained by them being made of a perishable material such as leather/hide..


I'm not sure we have enought evidence to come to a conclusion on the helmets. As far as I know only 7 helmets have been found. One was a highly decorated gold helmet found in a very rich individual grave. The other 6 were plain copper helmets found together in one of the royal tombs. So out of the thousands of burials and 16 so-called royal tombs found at Ur, helmets were only found in two of them. That is to say helmets were not only not found in the common graves, but were not found in the great majority of upper class graves.

I should also note that the functional copper helmets (as opposed to the ceremonial gold one) were not found on the bodies of the upper class, but rather on the bodies of sacrificial victims places in the tomb of an upper class member. I would argue that those actually wearing the helmets were probably from the lower classes, or they might have been more able to avoid being sacrificed.

While the perishability of most helmets is one possibility for the absence of more helmets, the fact that even in the great majority of royal tombs no helmets were found could point to other conclusions. For example, it could be that helmets were just usually not considered appropriate burial items. It could be that, especially among the lower classes, helmets were more valuable than most weapons and were therefore preserved rather than buried. It could be that copper helmets were used by the commoners, but were owned and distributed by the state, and could therefore not be buried. I'm just not sure the current state of the evidence really lets us know either way.

Quote:
The best book on the subject is Warfare in the ancient Near East to 1600 BC: Holy Warriors at the Dawn of History By William James Hamblin.

Thanks for the recommendation. I had heard of this book, but wasn't sure if it was any good. I'll check it out.

I should also make a correction to what I said in my previous post about the metals used. The Mesopotamian Metals Project at the U. of Pennsylvania has been analyzing metal samples. They found that in the royal cemetery of Ur, true tin bronze makes up about 50% of the artifacts. This seems to be an outlier, though, and most other sites, and even later periods at Ur, show much lower percentages of tin bronze compared to arsenical bronze. The extraordinary wealth of the royal tombs of Ur compared to most other Sumerian finds and the high concentration of tin bronze found there could point to tin bronze being a luxury item. Even in the royal tombs, weapons and tools seemed to be more often arsenical bronze than tin bronze.
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Mon 09 Nov, 2009 2:30 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Quote:
I'm not sure we have enought evidence to come to a conclusion on the helmets. As far as I know only 7 helmets have been found. One was a highly decorated gold helmet found in a very rich individual grave. The other 6 were plain copper helmets found together in one of the royal tombs. So out of the thousands of burials and 16 so-called royal tombs found at Ur, helmets were only found in two of them. That is to say helmets were not only not found in the common graves, but were not found in the great majority of upper class graves.

I didn't know this. In this case I would agree that copper helms were probably not buried with warriors and that we have no idea whether the lower classes had helmets made of copper or not.

Quote:
I should also make a correction to what I said in my previous post about the metals used. The Mesopotamian Metals Project at the U. of Pennsylvania has been analyzing metal samples. They found that in the royal cemetery of Ur, true tin bronze makes up about 50% of the artifacts. This seems to be an outlier, though, and most other sites, and even later periods at Ur, show much lower percentages of tin bronze compared to arsenical bronze. The extraordinary wealth of the royal tombs of Ur compared to most other Sumerian finds and the high concentration of tin bronze found there could point to tin bronze being a luxury item. Even in the royal tombs, weapons and tools seemed to be more often arsenical bronze than tin bronze.

A further note is that it is unlikely that arsenic was ever deliberately added to copper. Analysis of local ores suggest that the arsenic occurred naturally. It seems that they smelted everything "green" that they could find and kept the best results for weapons. It just happened that the best alloys at the time for making weapons had a certain percentage of arsenic in them. Only tin seems to have been deliberately added to improve an alloy and it was rare and expensive at the time.
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Michael G.




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PostPosted: Mon 09 Nov, 2009 5:45 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Dan Howard wrote:

I didn't know this. In this case I would agree that copper helms were probably not buried with warriors and that we have no idea whether the lower classes had helmets made of copper or not.

Just to be extra clear, these are the only 7 helmets that I know of. In all of my searching through general Sumerian history books as well as reports and catalogs from various digs at Sumerian cities (Ur, Kish, Maskan-Shapir) I have found tons of references to axes, daggers, maces, arrows, spears, etc. but no mention of helmets except in those two tombs at Ur.
Quote:
A further note is that it is unlikely that arsenic was ever deliberately added to copper. Analysis of local ores suggest that the arsenic occurred naturally. It seems that they smelted everything "green" that they could find and kept the best results for weapons. It just happened that the best alloys at the time for making weapons had a certain percentage of arsenic in them. Only tin seems to have been deliberately added to improve an alloy and it was rare and expensive at the time.

Very true, I should have mentioned that. There has been some argument over whether the tin in Sumer came from Anatolia or Central Asia (most likely originating in Aghanistan). Documentary evidence from the time implies that it came from the east, either overland via Elam, or overseas via the Harappans. In any case, it's a long trip that would likely make tin quite expensive in Sumer.
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