The UWGB Linothorax Project: Reconstructing and Testing Ancient Linen Body Armor


Summary:
The UWGB Linothorax Project is an ongoing investigation that seeks to reconstruct a widely-used but mysterious type of ancient armor and then field-test its capabilities. It is a collaboration between Prof. Gregory S. Aldrete and a group of current and former UWGB students.


Historical Background:
In little more than two decades Alexander the Great of Macedon (356-323 B.C.) conquered by military force nearly the entirety of the known world. Despite the fact that he led one of the most successful armies of all time, surprisingly little is understood about the main type of body armor that apparently both Alexander and many of his men wore. This was the linothorax, a type of body armor created by laminating together layers of linen. While we know quite a lot about other types of ancient armor made from metal because specimens have been excavated, the linothorax remains something of a mystery since, due to the perishable nature of its material, no examples have survived. Today, the linothorax is only known through about two dozen descriptions in ancient literary sources and approximately 700 visual images in mosaics, vase paintings, and sculptures. Despite the doubts of some modern scholars regarding how something made of cloth could have provided effective protection to its wearer, the linothorax clearly thrived as a form of body protection for nearly 1,000 years, and was used by a wide variety of ancient Mediterranean civilizations.


The Project:
This is the mystery that the UWGB Linothorax Project is exploring. Using the available literary and artistic sources, the group has reconstructed several linothoraxes using only the authentic fabrics and glues that would have been available in the ancient Mediterranean. These reconstructions and various sample patches were then subjected to a series of tests to precisely determine how wearable this armor was, and how effective it would have been in protecting its wearer from common battlefield hazards, especially arrows. This involved actually shooting the test patches with arrows and measuring their penetration, as well as hitting them with a variety of weapons including swords, axes, and spears.

The idea for the project began with UWGB history major Scott Bartell (now graduated), who brought it to Prof. Aldrete, and together they built the first prototypes. It grew to involve a number of faculty as well as several generations of UWGB students, and materials for the project were obtained with the assistance of two Grants for Integrating Research and Teaching from the UWGB Research Council. In January 2009, Aldrete and Bartell presented the results obtained so far in a session of the annual meeting of the American Philological Association. In January 2010 we presented a poster on the project at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America which won the Best Poster Award. Currently we are finishing up a scholarly book about the project which will include an analysis of the evidence for this type of armor, an account of the reconstruction process, a detailed description of the arrow test methodology and results, and a database of nearly 1,000 ancient images of the armor in art.

The Linothorax project has appeared in a number of media outlets including being featured in the TV documentary series Museum Secrets: Athens National Museum, Galileo, and Penn and Teller Tell a Lie, as well as being the subject of articles in U.S. News and World Reports, Military History, and Der Spiegel.

In March of 2013, a book co-authored by Gregory S. Aldrete, Scott Bartell and Alicia Aldrete, Ancient Linen Body Armor: Unraveling the Linothroax Mystery, is scheduled to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press which will contain a detailed account of our research, reconstructions, and testing.

This project is still ongoing, and your questions and comments about it are welcome. Send them to: aldreteg@uwgb.edu

4-Minute Video on Linothorax Project

documentary thumnbnail 8-Minute Mini-Documentary on Project This video is a version of the mini-documentary shown on the TV program Galileo. It was made by Johannes Wiebus of Jynx Productions.

Linothorax Poster This link will take you to a page showing the poster that was presented at the 2010 meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. The poster contains detailed information about ancient literary and visual sources for the linothorax, the reconstruction process, and arrow test methodology and results. It received the 2010 Best Poster Award from the Archaeological Institute of America.

 

For those wishing to construct their own linothorax, the lefthand link below will let you download our first pattern of the two basic pieces. Note that this pattern will make a large sized linothorax that will fit someone of up to 48 inches chest circumference. To make a smaller size, just cut out a few inches from the right and left sides of the pattern. The righthand black and white image shows our later, simpler, (and probably more accurate) pattern for a linothorax. Note that this one gives measurements in centimeters and is sized for a much smaller person. It can also be adjusted easily, however, by adding extra centimeters to the sides.

Linothorax Pattern PDF

 

Ancient Greek vase painting of hoplite wearing a linothorax and photo of Prof. Aldrete wearing linothorax reconstruction.

 

Ancient Greek vase painting of a hoplite putting on a linothorax and photo of reconstruction linothorax being put on

 

Linothorax under construction

 

Shooting arrows at linen test patches and measuring arrow penetration

 

Students assessing the toughness of a linen test patch with axe and mace

 

Four variants of reconstructed linothorakes.

 

The co-investigators of the Linothorax Project, Greg Aldrete and Scott Bartell (photographed shortly after Aldrete shot Bartell with arrow).

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