Great Moravian scale armors?

In the newly published anthology Bewaffnung und Reiterausrüstung des 8. to 10. Jahrhunderts in Mitteleuropa (“Arms and Equestrian Equipment of the 8th-10th Centuries in Central Europe”), which consists of nearly ten years old texts, some remarkable facts can be found, which will be interesting not only for the Czechs, but also for the foreign reenactor and research communities. Two articles that I would like to draw attention to were written by Miloš Bernart and Petr Luňák (Bernart 2019; Luňák 2019). Both archaeologists, who are veteran reenactors, focus on groups of metal items that could serve as armor components – Bernart interprets some examples of so-called Silesian bowls as chest plates (cardiophylax), while Luňák considers a group of rectangular fittings with bosses to be the armor parts (previously considered to be remains of belts, horse harnesses or furniture). Whether these theories, which resonated in the Czech communities 10 years ago, are correct must be confirmed by further research.

In this article, I would like to describe the third group of atypical objects that Bernart mentions in his list of body protection in the area of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia – the possible remains of scale armor. The scale armor is a protection consisting of metal sheets in the form of fish scales. Unlike lamellar armor, the scales overlap downwards and are attached to a textile or leather base by means of textile or leather cords, rivets or wire (Dawson 2013: 19). Bernart mentions that possible scales were found at three Slavic sites:

  • Fort Mikulčice, Czech Republic
    Two possible scales were found in Mikulčice (Inv. Nr. 5769/89). Their reliable interpretation and closer examination is not possible; they were destroyed when the depository burned down in 2007. It is evident that both objects had a relatively flat top with two rivet holes, the remains of which were still preserved. It also appears that the lower part of the more complete object was rounded or pointed.

Possible scales from Mikulčice. Bernart 2019: Abb. 12.

  • Fort Olomouc, Czech Republic
    In 2000, a building and a cultural layer dating back to the first half of the 10th century, were discovered in the area of the Wenceslas Hill. Within this layer, National Heritage Institute of Olomouc managed to discover fragments of at least two iron sheets. There were holes in one of them, it was bevelled and it had a half-round end. The dimensions were 7 × 3 cm (Bernart 2019: 16). The evaluation of the set from the site will be published 2022–2023). The finds will be X-rayed and analyzed during before the publication. In addition to metal sheets, there are more artefacts associated with the military. I deeply thank Mgr. Pavel Šlézar from National Heritage Institute of Olomouc for these information.

Possible scale from Olomouc. Photo was kindly offered by Radovan Frait.

  • Fort Gars, Austria
    A separate sheet, interpreted as a possible scale, was found in the Slavic fortified settlement in Gars, Austria. The sheet has the size of 2.5 × 1.5 cm and a profiled ridge in the center. There were two holes in the upper edges, with a central third hole below them. Unfortunately, the object disintegrated during conservation (Bernart 2019: 17). For more information, please contact Prof. Erik Szameit from the University of Vienna.

It should be borne in mind that the dominant body protection in Great Moravia was the chain mail, whose fragments are found in a number of locations in the Great Moravian Empire – Mikulčice (Bernart 2010: 70–71; Kavánová 2003: 238–239), Staré Město (Bernart 2019: 16), Pohansko (Pleiner 2002), Bojná (Bernart 2010: 73–74; Kouřil 2014: 330, Pieta 2015: 27, Fig. 15: 5, Fig. 17: 2), Olomouc (Bernart 2010: 70; Bláha 2001: 59, Fig. 11: 6), Dolní Věstonice (Ungerman 2007: 153-4), Devínska Nová Ves (Eisner 1952: 296, Tab. 71.6, Tab. 107.10), Prušánky (Klanica 2006a: Tab. 51.9; Klanica 2006b: 184), Čáčov (Šemmer 1940-1). At the same time, it is the only type of metal armor whose production is documented in Great Moravia.

Scale armors were popular in antiquity and, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, remained in the Byzantine, Islamic and Avarian arms traditions (Dawson 2013: 24-27). Often it is possible to read theories that the Franks also possessed scale armors, but these theories are rather criticized in literature (Coupland 1990). The Frankish iconography, mostly represented by the Stuttgart Psalter from the first half of the 9th century, depicts both one-piece armor protecting the entire body and armor divided into chest armor, skirt and thigh protection (Dawson 2013: 27-29). In this regard, Frankish iconography definitely follows Byzantine models (Coupland 1990). Notker also mentions the thigh scale protection when describing the armor of Charles the Great in Pavia (Coupland 1990), but this description suggests that the author wanted to record an exceptional piece of armor that was not well known to the domestic audience. In Frankish arms ordinances and capitularies, scale armour are not explicitly mentioned. This and the absence of actual finds points to the result this type of armor was used in the Carolingian Empire quite rarely, if ever.

It cannot be ruled out that the objects described here originally served other purposes and were not scales. Bernart himself is very careful in the evaluation. However, two-point fastening, profiled ridges and a relatively small size are good prerequisites. If the sheets described above are scales of armor, their small amount (1-2 pieces) indicates that we are not dealing with complete armor, but with unfinished or damaged pieces, fallen or reused fragments of former armor. As an analogy, parts of Roman and Avar lamellar armor can be mentioned – they occur in Great Moravian period as second-hand antiques in graves (Prušánky) or depots (Horné Plachtince; Bernart 2013). This phenomenon also covers fragments of chain mails, which were placed in children’s graves in Great Moravia (Prušánky, Devínska Nová Ves; Bernart 2019: 16). In the Avarian sphere, scales similar to those described above can be found relatively easily – the plates from Mikulčice and Gars match the scales from the Hungarian localities Kölked-Feketekapu B (Kiss 2001: 24-40), Závod (Csallány 1972: 6. kép) and Uo (Csallány 1972: 3. kép). In order to confirm or rebut the suggested assumptions we have to wait for further discussions and analysis.


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Bibliography

Bernart, Miloš (2010). Raně středověké přílby, zbroje a štíty z Českých zemí, Praha: Univerzita Karlova.

Bernart, Miloš (2013). Raně středověká lamelová zbroj z lokality Horné Plachtince. In: Zborník Slovenského národného múzea, Roč. 107, č. 23, Bratislava, 9196.

Bernart, Miloš (2019). Kettenhemden und andere Kriegerrüstungen des frühen Mittelalters aus Böhmen, Mähren und der Slowakei. In: Poláček, L. – Kouřil, P. (Hrsg.). Bewaffnung und Reiterausrüstung des 8. bis 10. Jahrhunderts in Mitteleuropa. Waffenform und Waffenbeigaben bei den mährischen Slawen und in den Nachbarländern, Brno, 9–22.

Bláha, Josef (2001). Archeologické poznatky k vývoji a významu Olomouce v období Velkomoravské říše. In: Galuška, L. – Kouřil, P. – Měřínský, Z. (eds.). Velká Morava mezi východem a západem, Brno, 41-68.

Csallány, Dezső (1972). Avarkori páncélok a Kárpát-medencében (I. rész). In: Nyíregyházi Jósa András Múzeum évkönyve 12-14, Nyíregyháza, Nyíregyházi Jósa András Múzeum, 7-41.

Coupland, Simon (1990). Carolingian Arms and Armor in the Ninth Century. In: Viator 21, 29–50.

Dawson, Timothy (2013). Armour Never Wearies : Scale and Lamellar Armour in the West, from the Bronze Age to the 19th Century, Stroud.

Eisner, Jan (1952). Devínska Nová Ves : Slovanské pohřebiště, Bratislava.

Kavánová, Blanka (2003). Mikulčice – pohřebiště v okolí 12. kostela. In: N. Profantová – B. Kavánová (ed.): Mikulčice – pohřebiště u 6. a 12. kostela, Spisy Archeologického ústavu AV ČR Brno 22, Brno, 211413.

Kiss, Attila (2001). Das awarenzeitliche Gräberfeld in Kölked-Feketekapu B. In: Monumenta Avarorum Archaeologica 6, Budapest.

Klanica, Zdeněk (2006a). Nechvalín, Prušánky. Čtyři slovanská pohřebiště I, Brno.

Klanica, Zdeněk (2006b). Nechvalín, Prušánky. Čtyři slovanská pohřebiště II, Brno.

Kouřil, Pavel (ed.) (2014). Velká Morava a počátky křesťanství, Archeologický ústav AV ČR, Brno.

Luňák, Petr (2019). Rectangular Embossed Fittings – Possible Armour Parts? In: Poláček, L. – Kouřil, P. (Hrsg.). Bewaffnung und Reiterausrüstung des 8. bis 10. Jahrhunderts in Mitteleuropa. Waffenform und Waffenbeigaben bei den mährischen Slawen und in den Nachbarländern, Brno, 431–440.

Pieta, Karol (2015). Včasnostredoveké mocenské centrum Bojná – výskumy v rokoch 2007–2013. In: K. Pieta – Z. Robak (ed.): Bojná 2 – Nové výsledky výskumov včasnostredovekých hradísk, Nitra, 9–49.

Pleiner, Radomír (2002). Metalografický výzkum velkomoravské kroužkové zbroje z Břeclavi-Pohanska. In: Sborník prací Filozofické fakulty brněnské univerzity, M vol. 7, s. 7781.

Šemmer, Viktor (1940-1). Archeologické nálezy v Čáčove (okr. Senica n. Myj.) r. 1937. In: Sborník Muzeálnej slovenskej spoločnosti 34-35, 137-9, Taf. IV.

Ungerman, Šimon (2007). Raně středověké pohřebiště v Dolních Věstonicích – Na Pískách. Brno : Masarykova univerzita.

Lamellar Armours of the Viking Age

This article is a translation of my Czech article “Lamelové zbroje ze Snäckgärde?” (Lamellar Armour from Snäckgärde?). The article was well accepted and was later translated to Spanish (“Armadura lamellar en la Escandinavia vikinga“), German (“Lamellenrüstungen der Wikingerzeit“), Polish (“Pancerze lamelkowe w Skandynawii“), Hungarian (“Lamellás vértek Skandináviában“), Russian (“Ламеллярные доспехи эпохи викингов“), Italian (“Armature Lamellari di epoca vichinga in Scandinavia“) and Portuguese (“Armadura lamelar na Escandinávia Viking“).

Lamellar armours in Scandinavia
vikingerikrig

The reconstruction of the Birka warrior. Taken from Hjardar – Vike 2011: 347.

The question of lamellar armour is popular among both experts and reenactors. I myself have dealt with this issue several times and I have collected the literature. My research led me to virtually unknown finds from Snäckgärde, which lies near Visby on Gotland. These finds did not survive, but are described by priest Nils Johan Ekdahl (1799–1870), which is called “the first scientific Gotlandic archaeologist.”

The reason why finds from Snäckgärde are unknown is that they were discovered almost 200 years ago and were lost. The literature about them is hardly accessible and mostly unknown for scholars of non-Swedish origin.  All I managed to find is this: in the year 1826, four graves with skeletons were examined in the site called Snäckgärde (Visby, Land Nord, SHM 484), and the most interesting of these four graves are those with number 2 and 4 (Carlson 1988: 245; Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 318):

Grave no. 2: grave with skeleton oriented in the south-north direction, spherical mound lined with stones. The funeral equipment consisted of an iron axe, a ring located at the waist, two opaque beads in the neck area and “some pieces of armour on the chest” (något fanns kvar and pansaret på bröstet).

Grave no. 4: grave with skeleton in east-west direction, spherical mound, 0.9 meter high, with sunken top. Inside the mound, there was a coffin of limestone, with dimensions of 3 m × 3 m (?). A ringed-pin was found the right shoulder of the dead. At waist level, a ring from the belt was discovered. Another parts of the equipment were an axe and “several scales of armour” (några pansarfjäll), found at the chest.

Judging by the funerary remains, it can be assumed that two men were laid in these mounds with their armours. Of course, we can not say for sure what kind of armours they were, but they seem to be lamellar armour, especially because of analogies and the mention of scales (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 318). Dating is problematic. Lena Thunmark-Nylén mantioned both armours in her publications about Viking Age Gotland. Pins and belt fragments also points to the Viking Age. However, what is the most important are axes – according to Ekhdal´s drawings, the axe from the grave no. 2 is a broad axe, while the axe from the grave no. 4 had the handle decorated with brass. A broad axe could be dated from the end of the 10th or from early 11th century, and the brass coated handle is a feature of some axes from the early 11th century (Thames, Langeid and another sites on Gotland, see my article “Two-handed axes). It seems logical to suppose that both graves were constructed in the same century, although there are some minor differences in the construction and the orientation of graves.

lamely_birka

The hall of Birka with finds of chainmail rings and lamellae. Taken from Ehlton 2003: 16, Fig. 18. Made by Kjell Persson.

In Scandinavia, only one analogy of lamellar armour (or rather fragments) has been known so far, from Birka (see for example Thordeman 1939: 268; Stjerna 2001; Stjerna 2004Hedenstierna-Jonson 2006: 55, 58; Hjardar – Vike 2011: 193–195; Dawson 2013 and others). Lamellae were scattered around the so called Garrison (Garnison) and they number 720 pieces (the biggest piece consisted of 12 pieces). 267 lamellae could be analyzed and classified into 8 types, which probably served to protect different parts of the body. It is estimated that the armour from Birka protected the chest, back, shoulders, belly and legs down to knees (Stjerna 2004: 31). The armour was dated to the first part of 10th century (Stjerna 2004: 31). Scholars agree on it´s nomadic origin from Near or Middle East and it´s closest paralel comes from Balyk-Sook (for example Dawson 2002; Gorelik 2002: 145; Stjerna 2004: 31). Stjerna (2007: 247) thinks that armour and other excelent objects were not designed for war and were rather symbolic („The reason for having these weapons was certainly other than military or practical“). Dawson (2013) stands partially in opposition and claims that the armour was wrongly interepreted, because only three types from eight could be lamellae and the number of real lamellae is not enough for a half of chest armour. His conclusion is that lamellae from Birka are only pieces of recycled scrap. In the light of armours from Snäckgärde, which are not included in Dawson´s book, I consider this statement to be hasty.

lamelovka_birka

The reconstruction of the Birka armour on the basis of Balyk-Sook armour. Taken from Hjardar – Vike 2011: 195.

People often think that there are many finds from the area of Old Russia. In fact, there are only a few finds from the period of 9th-11th century and they can be interpreted as eastern import, just like the example from Birka (personal conversation with Sergei Kainov; see Kirpichnikov 1971: 14-20). From this early period, finds come for example from Gnezdovo and Novgorod. The Russian material dated between 11th-13th is much more abundant, including about 270 finds (see Medvedev 1959; Kirpichnikov 1971: 14-20). However, it is important to note that until the second half of the 13th century, the number chainmail fragments is four times higher than fragments of lamellar armour, pointing out that the chainmail was the predominant type of armour in the territory of Old Russia (Kirpichnikov 1971: 15). With high probability, Old Russian lamellar armour from the Viking Age came from Byzantium, where they were dominant thanks to their simpler design and lower cost already in the 10th century (Bugarski 2005: 171).

A Note for Reenactors

The lamellar armour has become very popular among reenactors. At some festivals and events, lamellar armours count more than 50% of armours. The main arguments for usage are:

  • Low production price
  • More protection
  • Faster production
  • Great look

While these arguments are understandable, it has to be stressed that lamellar armour is in no way suitable for Viking Age reenactment. The argument that this type of armour was used by Rus can be counteracted by the fact that even in the time of the greatest expansion of lamellar armours in Russia, the number of chainmail armours was four times higher. What is more, lamellar armours were imported. If we keep the basic idea that the reenactment should be based on the reconstruction of typical objects, then it must be clear that the lamellar armour is only suitable for Nomad and Byzantine reenactment. The same applies to leather lamellar armour.

An example of well reconstructed lamellar armour. Viktor Kralin.

On the other hand, the finds from Birka and Snäckgärde suggest that this type of armour could occur in the eastern part of Scandinavia. Before any conclusion, we have to take into consideration that Birka and Gotland were territories of strong influences of Eastern Europe and Byzantium. This is also the reason for accumulation of artifacts of Eastern provenance, otherwise not known from Scandinavia. In a way, it would be strange if we had not these finds, especially from the period when they were popular in Byzantium. However, this does not mean that the lamellar armours were common in this area. Lamellar armour stands isolated from Norse warrior tradition and armours of this type sometimes occured in Baltic region until the 14th century (Thordeman 1939: 268269). Chainmail armour can be identified as the predominant form of armour in Viking Age Scandinavia, like in Old Russia. This statement can be verified by the fact that the chainmail rings were found in Birka itself (Ehlton 2003). Regarding the production of lamellar armour in the Scandinavian and Russian territory, there is no evidence to support that this was happening and such a production is highly improbable.

If lamellar armour should be tolerated in Viking reenactment, then

  • the reenactor has to reenact Baltic area or Rus area.
  • it has to be used in limited number (1 lamellar armour per group or 1 lamellar armour per 4 chainmail armours).
  • only metal lamellar armours are allowed, not leather ones or visibly lasered ones.
  • it has to correspond to finds from Birka (or Gnezdovo or Novgorod), not Visby.
  • it can not be combined with Scandinavian components like buckles.

The armour has to look like the original and has to be supplemented by appropriate gear, like Russian helmets. If we are in a debate between two positions “Yes to lamellar armours” or “No to lamellar armours“, ignoring the possibility “Yes to lamellar armours (without taking aforementioned arguments in account)“, I choose the option “No to lamellar armours”. And what is your opinion?


I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.


Literature

Bugarski, Ivan (2005). A contribution to the study of lamellar armors. In: Starinar 55, 161—179. Online: http://www.doiserbia.nb.rs/img/doi/0350-0241/2005/0350-02410555161B.pdf.

Carlsson, Anders (1988). Penannular brooches from Viking Period Gotland, Stockholm.

Ehlton, Fredrik (2003). Ringväv från Birkas garnison, Stockholm. Online: http://www.erikds.com/pdf/tmrs_pdf_19.pdf.

Dawson, Timothy (2002). Suntagma Hoplôn: The Equipment of Regular Byzantine Troops, c. 950 to c. 1204. In: D. Nicolle (ed.). Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour, Woodbridge, 81–90.

Dawson, Timothy (2013). Armour Never Wearies : Scale and Lamellar Armour in the West, from the Bronze Age to the 19th Century, Stroud.

Gorelik, Michael (2002). Arms and armour in south-eastern Europe in the second half of the first millennium AD. In: D. Nicolle (ed.). Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour, Woodbridge, 127–147.

Hedenstierna-Jonson, Charlotte (2006). The Birka Warrior – the material culture of a martial society, Stockholm. Online: http://su.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:189759/FULLTEXT01.pdf.

Kirpichnikov, Anatolij N. (1971). Древнерусское оружие. Вып. 3. Доспех, комплекс боевых средств IX—XIII вв, Moskva.

Medvedev, Аlexandr F. (1959) К истории пластинчатого доспеха на Руси //Советская археология, № 2, 119—134. Online: http://swordmaster.org/2010/05/10/a-f-medvedev-k-istorii-plastinchatogo-dospexa-na.html.

Stjerna, Niklas (2001). Birkas krigare och deras utrustning. In: Michael Olausson (ed.). Birkas krigare, Stockholm, 39–45.

Stjerna, Niklas (2004). En stäppnomadisk rustning från Birka. In: Fornvännen 99:1, 28–32. Online: http://samla.raa.se/xmlui/bitstream/handle/raa/3065/2004_027.pdf?sequence=1.

Stjerna, Niklas (2007). Viking-age seaxes in Uppland and Västmanland : craft production and eastern connections. In: U. Fransson (ed). Cultural interaction between east and west, Stockholm, 243–249.

Thordeman, Bengt (1939). Armour from the Battle of Wisby: 1361. Vol. 1 – Text, Stockholm.

Thunmark-Nylén, Lena (2006). Die Wikingerzeit Gotlands III: 1–2 : Text, Stockholm.