The mail presented below belongs to the absolute top of early medieval armour production. In terms of construction and material, it goes beyond everything we thought until recently on the basis of better-known European mails. Although it has already been published in English, it remains generally unknown.
The position of Mihailovo on the map of Europe.
Finding situation and dating
The context of the finding is far from being well known. As far as can be read from the literature, the armour was accidentally found before World War II in a mound near the village of Mihailovo (Михайлово), which lies near Stara Zagora, Bulgaria. The mound was covered with a settlement layer of 10th-12th century (Zlatkov 2014: 134). Almost all other authors locate the site of the find in the town of Stara Zagora, only Haldon mentions Serdica as the locality (Haldon 2002: 73). The armour is currently located at the National Archaeological Institute (Национален Археологически Институт) in Sofia under inventory number 3245. It has been published at least nine times since the 1980s (Angelov – Čolpakov 1989: 192; Angelov – Petrov – Primov 1981: 170-1; D’Amato 2012: 53; Grotowski 2010: 159; Haldon 2002: 73; Kolias 1988: 283, Taf. VIII.2; Nicolle 1999: 30, Cat. No. 15; Zafirov – Aleksandrov 2009: 65; Zlatkov 2014). The mail is surprisingly missing in the work of Valeri Jotov (2004).
Regarding dating, there are three suggestions: 9th-10th century (D’Amato 2012: 53), 10th century (Angelov – Petrov – Primov 1981: 170; Grotowski 2010: 159; Haldon 2002: 73; Kolias 1988: 283; Nicolle 1999: 30) and 10th-11th century (Zlatkov 2014). Taking into account the limited dating possibilities (location in the mound, settlement layer of the 10th-12th century covering the mound and the length of the armour), the origin in the period 9th-11th century really seems likely. The theory that this is a remnant of Old Rus activities in the Balkans from 968-971 is not supported (Zlatkov 2014).
Black and white image of the front of the armour. Source: Zafirov – Aleksandrov 2009: 65.
More than half of the armour is preserved. At the moment, it is mainly missing the right sleeve and a piece of torso. The mail is 75 cm long (150 rows of rings) and weighs 4,201 kg. The maximum width is 59 cm and seems to widen slightly towards the bottom edge. The preserved left sleeve is 16 cm long and is not narrowed. The armour was short and reaching below the groins. The construction of the armour is remarkable because it is made of two separate parts with different parameters: the chest part with a length of 61 cm is attached to the second part, which consists of the back, sleeves and skirt. The skirt is badly damaged, but according to Zlatkov, it is divided into three parts on the front, while it is undivided on the back. According to the same author, the head hole has an oval shape.
The front of the armour. Source: Angelov – Petrov – Primov 1981: 171.
The back of the armour. Source: Zlatkov 2014: 133.
Detail comparison: thick chest mail and fine back mail. Source: Zlatkov 2014: 134.
The linking style is the classic “four in one”. All rings are riveted and are made of round wire. The chest part is made of slightly smaller rings (outer diameter 0.47-0.5 cm) and thicker wire (0.07-0.1 cm), while the rings of the second part are larger (outer diameter 0.45 × 0.5 cm – 0.48 × 0.55 cm) and of weaker wire (0.05-0.08 cm). Both parts are connected by a third type of rings with a diameter of 0.58 cm. More attention has been paid to the manufacture of the chest part to provide better protection. Accroding to the personal communication with Metodi Zlatkov, the rivet heads are located on the visible outer side only. The direction of overlap of the riveted rings is counterclockwise. X-ray fluorescence revealed that the armour rings were made of brass and the finished armour was silvered with mercury amalgam (Cu – 69.16%, Ag – 16.3%, Zn –11.99%, Hg – 1.40%, Pl – 0.85%, Ni – 0.48%) .
The armour from Mihailovo, together with the St. Wenceslas armour, is undoubtedly one of the best early medieval mails (Bravermanová et al. 2019). We do not find any parallels to a two-part construction with different wire strength. The silvering of the surface of the rings is also unique. The only other armour with a potential surface treatment may be a find stored in the Greek monastery of Iviron, whose rings bear signs of gilding, according to D’Amato (2012: 54). The new revision of Iviron mail by Maniotis shows there is no gilding (Maniotis 2022). The ring density and surface treatment show that the Mihailovo armour was an excellent product, apparently designed for a Byzantine prominent soldier.
Scene from manuscript London, BL, Egerton MS 3763, 116v. Dated between 998-1018. Mihailovo armour can match the size.
Angelov – Čolpakov 1989 = Ангелов, Димитър – Чолпанов, Борис (1989). Българска военна история : От втората четвърт на Х до втората половина на ХV в., София.
Angelov – Petrov – Primov 1981 = Ангелов, Д. – Петров, П. – Примов, Б. (1981). История на България, 2. Първа българска държава, София.
Bravermanová, Milena et al. (2019). Nová zjištění o přilbě a zbroji zv. svatováclavské. In: Archeologie ve středních Čechách 23, 235–310.
D’Amato, Raffaele (2012). Byzantine Imperial Guardsmen 925–1025: The Tághmata and Imperial Guard, Oxford.
Grotowski, P. Ł. (2010). Arms and Armour of the Warrior Saints. Tradition and Innovation in Byzantine Iconography (843-1261), Leiden – Boston.
Haldon, John (2002). Some Aspects of Early Byzantine Arms and Armour. In: Nicolle, David (ed.). A Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour, Woodbridge, 65-79.
Jotov 2004 = Йотов, Валери (2004). Въоръжението и снаряжението от Българското средновековие VII— XI в., Варна.
Kolias, T. G. (1988). Byzantinische Waffen: ein Beitrag zur byzantinischen Waffenkunde von den Anfängen bis zur lateinischen Eroberung, Wien.
Maniotis, Errikos (2022). Byzantine zaba: A case study of the mail coat from the Iviron monastery (Athos / Gr). In: Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt 52, 4, 563-573.
Nicolle, David (1999). Arms and Armour of the Crusading Era, 1050-1350. Islam, Eastern Europe and Asia, London – Mechanicsburg.
Zafirov – Aleksandrov 2009 = Зафиров, Димитър – Александров, Емил (2009). История на българите том V (Военна история), София.
Zlatkov, Metodi (2014). Silver-coated chain mail shirt from Stara Zagora district. In: Tsar Samuil ( † 1014) in battle for Bulgaria, Sofia, 133-135.