In the last years of my research, I came across several Early medieval fragments of mail armour with edging rings being made of non-ferrous metals. The topic of mail armour has a number of fans among the reenactors, so I was surprised that I was not able to find any comprehensive work that would process the copper alloy and gold edges of mail armour. For this reason, this work was created, which aims to gather as much material as possible and open up new questions. At the same time, I want to point out the quality replicas that have been created so far.
The oldest copper alloy edges that I know are represented by Roman fragments from the 1st century AD (Russell Robinson 1975: 171–173; Wijnhoven 2015). Decorative edges made of one or more rows are also well known from the preserved medieval armours, where they usually adorn the collar, sleeves or bottom edge of the armour (Tweddle 1992: 1003). Less common modifications are patterns, such as crosses, placed in the middle of a mail, where they have a contrasting effect (Vike 2000). The armour that are stored in European collections entitles us to claim that these forms of decoration were relatively popular even in the 15th-17th centuries (Arcichovskij 1949: 174). In the search for analogies outside Europe, we could find a number of similar pieces in the Arabic or Indian space, where these elements were applied until modern times. The Early Middle Ages, which stands at the turn between Antiquity and the Middle Ages, was still a neglected period in this respect, and the finds were usually published separately, without analogies.
Complete armours from this period are rather rare. More often we find individual rings or mail fragments, which number several pieces or dozens of rings. These fragments are usually interpreted as they may have originally originated from a mail armour and they have subsequently been used as protective amulets or talismans (Tweddle 1992: 1003). Protective objects may have had the status of antiques at the time of storage – for example, the pieces or lamellar armour that were stored in the children’s tomb from Prušánky (Great Moravian period), date back to the 2nd century and could be obtained in the Roman fortress near Mušov (Bernart 2013: 93).
Russia and Ukraine
In the 8th hall of the State Historical Museum (GIM) in Moscow, rolled-up mail armour is stored, which is exhibited together with objects classified as the culture of the Khazar Kaganat from the 7th-11th centuries. According to Sergei Kainov, a museum worker, the origin of the armour is unknown, but most likely comes from Kuban. On the lower edge of the armor we can notice three rows of “brass” rings, which probably also copy the slit. The outer diameter of the rings of this armour is 7 mm. I am grateful to Sergei Kainov for the information about the armour that I had the opportunity to see with my own eyes.
Next we will mention a large fragment of mail, which was found by V. I. Sizov in a large mound (No. 20) in Gnezdovo in 1885 (Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 8). The mound dates back to the 10th century. The mail contains rings with a diameter of 13 mm and a wire thickness of 1-1.5 mm. The “copper” rings that are welded in this fragment form 6 rows along the edge of the neck protection of the helmet.
Another specimen was discovered in Gnezdovo, namely in mound no. 86 (18), which was discovered by S. I. Sergeev in 1901 (Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 12; Sizov 1902: 97–100). This mound dates back to the second quarter of the 10th century. The mound contained, among other things, a sword, a long knife, a spear, a chainmail, and a helmet with a mail aventail. The armour that was folded was made of rings reaching an inner diameter of 6-8 mm with a wire thickness of 1.5 mm, while the helmet aventail was made of smaller rings (4 mm inner diameter with a wire thickness of 1 mm). According to Kirpičnikov, a “copper edges” can be found on the mail, although it does not specify whether the edging was part of the armour or the aventail. It should be noted that Sizov does not mention non-ferrous rings from mound no. 86 (18) in his works.
The fourth example was found by D. Samokvasov in the famous “Black Mound” near Chernihiv in 1872–3 (Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 17; Samokvasov 1908: 197–201; Samokvasov 1916: 10). This mound dates back to the 960s. According to Samokvasov, in addition to swords, helmets and drinking horns, fragments of two mail armours were also found in the mound, while fragments of the second armour “showed copper rings” (Samokvasov 1908: 198). Fragments containing copper rings (cat. No. 3265) consist of only a few rows and are burnt together.
Last two East European finds comes from Novgorod. The better known example consists of two pieces that were found in a layer dated to the end of the 11th or early 12th century (Arcichovskij 1949: 174, Ris. 13a – b; Kirpičnikov 1971: 13, Cat. No. 26. One of the pieces has dimensions of 18 × 5 × 8 cm. All rings are riveted and have a diameter of 10 mm. A smaller part of the rings is iron, the rest consists of “copper” rings, which are arranged in a rim 4 rows wide. The researcher Evgeny Avdeenko pointed to yet another two fragments of mail from 11th century Novgorod that is edged with a row of copper alloy rings (Avedeenko 2015).
Mail fragments from Novgorod. Source: Avdeenko 2015.
Czech Republic and Slovakia
The St. Vitus treasure guarded in Prague includes, among other things, a helmet and mail armour. Recent research has shown that the oldest parts of these artifacts date from the 10th century (Bernart – Braverman – Ledvina 2014). A so-called cloak belongs to the mail armour; it is a rectangular mail strip with a “standing collar” measuring 50 × 7.5 cm. The collar is edged with three rows of gold rings (Schránil 1934). At the very top of the collar there is a row of iron rings, which is connected to the gold rings. A detailed analysis confirmed that the collar is composed of the same rings as the armor, but differs from the rest of the cloak. Researchers (Bernart – Bravermanová – Ledvina 2014: 180–181) assume that the collar could first be a standing collar at the ring armor, from which it was later, perhaps around the year 1000, removed and used as an aventail for the helmet, where it was attached a series of iron rings that was connected to the gold edging. At the time when the aventail holder (formed by the folded silver plate) was removed from the helmet, the aventail became inoperable and found application as the basis of the cloak, to which a larger part was added to the form we see today. Virtually identical composition of gold is included in the cross-shaped mail which is a part of the flag of St. George. According to researchers, this ring cross was originally located on the flag of St. Wenceslas, and belongs to the oldest layer of treasure (Bernart 2010: 68).
The largest set of Early medieval mail from the territory of the former Czechoslovakia comes from Mikulčice. Unfortunately, a number of fragments burned down in the Mikulčice depository in 2007, together with the documentation, and therefore we currently have only a limited amount available. One of the fragments, found in the layers of the Great Moravian horizon during the research of the part of the settlement northwest of the fifth church, is composed of “bronze”, probably also gilded rings (Bernart 2010: 70–71; Kavánová 2003: 238–239). The fragment is tiny; it has only four rows in height. A similar fragment was found during metal detector activity in Dřevíč in 2020 and its publication will be done in the following years.
Another representative was found at the Great Moravian fortified settlement Bojná I, whose extinction horizon dates back to the beginning of the 10th century (Bernart 2010: 73–74; Kouřil 2014: 330, Pieta 2015: 27, Fig. 15: 5, Fig. 17: 2). Several ring fragments were found in this fort, one of which is decorated with five rows of “brass” or “bronze” rings. All non-ferrous rings are riveted and have an outer diameter of 9 mm. According to the current interpretation, this fragment was part of the helmet aventail, which was discovered in the fort.
The fragments found in grave no. 14 from Slite, Gotland (SHM 23248:14) clearly belong among the best documented mail with non-ferrous rings. Two separate pieces, numbering 20 × 5 rows, have the edging of “copper” rings that form two side rows (Thunmark-Nylén 1995: Abb. 261: 7–8; Thunmark-Nylén 2000: 577; Tweddle 1992: 1185, Fig. 589l–m). It seemed to be a vertical hem, not unlike the edge of a sleeve. Iron rings reach diameters of 8.5-9 mm, while non-ferrous rings 8.15-8.76 mm. The outer row of non-ferrous rings is riveted and is made of oval wire, which is 1.1 mm thick. The holes for the rivets in the non-ferrous rings are about 1 mm wide, slightly oval and conical. The rivets are iron. The second row of non-ferrous rings is made of solid rings; the rings have a material diameter of 1.7 × 1.2 mm. Non-ferrous rings are provided with a groove on their outer circumferences.
The second and lesser-known Swedish find comes from the so-called Black Earth in Birka (SHM 5208:30), where it was discovered by H. Stolpe in 1871–1873. It is a fragment of 15 rings with a diameter of 7.5 mm. It can be seen from the figures that the fragment consists of 11 × 3 rows, the central rings being riveted with bronze rivets, while the edges give a more solid impression and do not show signs of rivets. Until this day, this fragment has not been published.
A total of 5 different mail fragments were found in the Oldenburg / Starigrad fort (Kempke 1991: 41–44, 77, Abb. 23–26). Three of them consist of “bronze” rings. The first fragment (Cat. No. 149), dated to the 9th century, consists of eleven rings arranged in seven rows. The alternation of rows of riveted rings and rows of solid rings is obvious. The rings have a diameter of 8-9 mm with a wire thickness of 1 mm and together weigh 3 grams. The second fragment (Cat. No. 150), dated to the 11th or 12th century, consists of nine rings arranged in three rows. All rings are riveted, have a diameter of 10-11 mm with a wire thickness of 1 mm. The weight of the second fragment is 4 grams. The third fragment (Cat. No. 151), dated to the year 1000, consists of two parts – the first counts 16 rings arranged in ten rows, the second contains 15 rings arranged in three rows. All rings are riveted, have a diameter of 6 mm with a wire thickness of 1 mm. Some rings are made of wire of circular cross-section, others are made more of flat wire. The total weight is 6 grams.
Another mail fragment was found in the southern part of the archaeological area at Cape Arkona in 2015 (Ruchhöft 2018: 112, Abb. 139-140). The fragment is heavily corroded. At its edge there is at least one row of rings made of copper alloy, which is fastened by larger iron rings. The inventory number of the object is ALM 2015/301, 112.
Archaeological research of the settlement in Ralswiek has revealed a mail fragment, which is about 4-5 rows wide and which is made of a copper alloy (Herrmann 2005: 155, Abb. 172e). The object is marked in the literature as Obj. 125/17 C and has inventory number 81/0022.
In 1980, the Avar grave (1980/2) from Fénekpuszta, 6th-7th century, was excavated, in which oxidized “bronze” rings were found (Straub 1999: 182, 182, 2. kép 5, 3. kép 5). They were placed on the left side of the pelvic bone below the level of the belt buckle. The mail consists of 5 fragments of interconnected rings and 6 fragments of individual rings. It is a combined mail composed of riveted and solid rings, the diameter of the rings is 12 mm. The number of rows cannot be determined, but the longest fragment appears to be around 8 rows long.
During the excavations in the Coppergate district in York, the so-called Coppergate helmet was found in 1982 (Tweddle 1992: 851), the best-preserved Anglo-Saxon helmet ever. It dates back to the 8th century and is equipped with a mail aventail, which in its current state includes 1947 rings arranged in 28 × 81 rows (Tweddle 1992: 999). Rows of riveted and solid rings alternate. The rings have an outer diameter of approx. 8 mm with a wire thickness of approx. 1 mm. The aventail was attached to the holder (formed by a folded brass plate) using a series of butted copper alloy rings, which were on average larger (8–8.5 mm) and more massive (1.2–1.4 mm) than the rings on the rest of the mail. The other three non-ferrous rings were found at the lower edge of the mail – it is possible that the aventail was originally provided not only with a top but also a bottom edging, or this was never completed.
In 2009-10, a mail fragment was found in Aarhus Bispetorvet, dated to late 10th century (Pind 2012). The fragment, measuring 5 × 3.5 cm, preserves 3 copper alloy rings that represent the upper row of rings, now represented by three pieces, is formed by copper alloy rings. Originally, it could have been the decorative edge of mail product. Iron rings have an outer diameter of about 8.5 mm, while copper alloy rings have about 7 mm. Lars Krants Larsen from the Moesgård Museum told us that the wire thickness is between 0.8-1 mm, but it cannot be determined exactly due to corrosion (Vlasatý 2020).
One of the most spectacular mail find of the Early Medieval period is represented by the mail found in the mound near Mihailovo, Stara Zagora, Bulgaria (Zlatkov 2014). The mail is dated to 10th-12th century and is made of brass rings that are silvered (Cu – 69.16%, Ag – 16.3%, Zn –11.99%, Hg – 1.40%, Pl – 0.85%, Ni – 0.48%). The rings belong (together with the rings of St. Wenceslas mail) to the smallest ones known from the period (4.7-5.5 mm external diameter). Wire thickness 0.5-1 mm. Size: 75 × 47 cm, 16 cm long sleeve, weight 4,201 kg.
In the catalog we were able to collect a total of 21 different European mail examples from the period 6th-12th century, which are completely or partially made of non-ferrous metal. The material is often a copper alloy (hence the designation copper, brass, bronze), more rarely gold. It can be assumed that the brass best meets our definition of copper alloy. Both in cases of fragments or more or less complete pieces, non-ferrous rings form 1-10 rows, which could serve as decorative edging or stripes on the collars, sleeves and lower edges of ring armours, aventails for helmets or flags. A similar tendency is also found outside Europe, as can be seen in the chainmail from Balyk-Sook, Altai (8th-9th centuries), where the helmet aventail is decorated with several strips of “bronze” rings (see Kubarev 1997). In addition, the grave from Sutton Hoo, England, preserved the finds of iron rings that were riveted with “copper” rivets (Evans 1994: 41). The fragmentary nature indicates the frequent use of these mail pieces for symbolic and protective purposes. Sparse evidence of the use of rings of various materials can also be found in iconography (NAL 1390, 7v) or in written sources: “Some make chest protection, especially mails of iron and gold” (Dudo: Three Books on the Manners and Deeds of the First Norman Dukes II: 2, ed. Lair 1865: 142). The only exception is the Mihailovo armor, which is completely made of copper alloy and silver-plated.
Mail armour was a very expensive part of armament in the Early Middle Ages, the cost of which was based on extraordinary laborious production, requiring the making of rings of wire with a thickness of 0.7-1.5 mm, rectangular or round cross-section, their perforating, riveting, welding and cutting from sheet metal. It took 20 to 55 thousand rings and about 1000 working hours to make a complete armour, and the armour made in this way, protecting the torso down to the elbow and thigh, was not heavier than 10 kg (Kirpičnikov 1971: 13; Kola – Wilke 2000: 63; Pleiner 2002: 78). Experiments have shown that it is possible to produce a fully-fledged armour weighing 4.5 kg with a circumference of 140 cm and a length of 95 cm. An important conclusion of this work is to point out the number of preserved mails, among which – contrary to general belief – there were obviously qualitative differences, which consisted in custom production, material used, density, absorbency and additional modifications that enhanced the magnificent appearance. I will allow a small analogy from the present: the price of a mass-produced, functional bulletproof vest starts at around 350 EUR, while the most expensive custom vest I have been able to find is decorated with black diamonds and costs 2,5 million EUR. In light of this reasoning, I consider decorative edging made of non-ferrous rings to be a sign of higher quality ring armour. An illustrative example is the St. Wenceslas armour, which not only could have a collar decorated with gold, but its rings belong to the smallest rings used in the period (outer diameter 6-7 mm with a wire thickness of 0.8-1 mm). Fragments from the Gnezdovo or Black Mound were found in the contexts of royally equipped tombs, which also stand out when compared to other mounds.
Several decades ago, the staff of Royal Armouries (UK) experimented with the subject of copper alloy edged mail; they wet mail reproduction and observed the water ran down and settled on the bottom rows before dripping, these would be the first to rust. Therefore, making these rows non-ferrous could have a practical reason. The results, however, remain unpublished.
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