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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). 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). Elisabeth Nowotny, who published the site in an extensive book, said in a personal discussion that she had never heard of the find. 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 (Macháček et al. 2021; 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) and Prušánky (Klanica 2006a: Tab. 51.9; Klanica 2006b: 184). In the past, a find from Čáčov was also understood as a Great Moravian mail (Bernart 2019: 16; Eisner 1947: 150; Kudrnáč 1948: 84), but turned out to be from the Roman period (Pieta 2002; Šemmer 1940-1). A mail is the only type of metal protection 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; see Wijnhoven 2023). 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.

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.


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