Byzantine Lamellar Armour: Conjectural Reconstruction of a Find
from the Great Palace in Istanbul, Based on Early Medieval Parallels
Peter Beatson - NVG Mikligard
The ruins of the Great Palace of Constantinople were explored in excavations carried out in 1935-38 under the direction of Prof. J.H. Baxter of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, which revealed the now-famous 5th century floor mosaics displayed in situ in the Istanbul Mosaic Museum. Among the small finds were a quantity of weapons and armour, including parts of one or more lamellar armours. The armour was described in a disappointingly cursory fashion1 :
Find No. 292. Found in Ec VI 3 in the debris covering the paved street. A quantity (more than 200 pieces) of fragments of strip armour. Large numbers had been fused together by fire, and in the process of cleaning a coin of Manuel I (A.D. 1143-80) was found sticking to a group of fragments.
The normal fragments were found in six regular sizes. They varied in width from 3 to 6 cm.; where the whole piece was found, the length was approximately twice the width. All were pierced with holes for attachment; the regular arrangement was three along one end, one on the other, and two along each side. On more than half the examples of each size a flange along the centre was beaten out from back to front.
A photograph2 accompanying the report shows 3 or 4 pieces comprised of corroded and fragmentary lamellae (Fig. 1 A-D). All seem of the flanged (or better, ridged) variety, the original widths can be estimated as 3.0, >=2.8, 3.3, and 4.2 cm, but none appear to have the whole length preserved. On only one (fragment A) are holes preserved (diam. ~2.5 mm), presumably a pair of side holes. Although not stated in the report, the ends (one, or both?) of the lamellae appear rounded.
Figure 1. Fragmentary lamellae from the Great Palace, Istanbul. Late 12th century 3. Sketch after photograph in Martiny et al., pl. 58.7.
Figure 2. Reconstruction of single lamella, and a row showing overlapping edges butting against the centre ridge, as in fragment D (see Fig. 1). The shading indicates the surviving part of fragment A.
Figure 3. The standard method of fastening lamellar. a. one lamella; b. outside view; c. lengthwise section; d. inside view. Though from a recent Tibetan lamellar cuirass in the collection of the State Ethnographical Museum, Stockholm, numerous medieval finds of lamellae have the same pattern of holes, and are supposed to have been fastened similarly. From Thordeman, 1939, Fig. 238.
Figure 4. Lacing pattern (partially exploded) of lamellar armour from grave 2589, Krefeld-Gellup, 6th century AD. After Pirling, 1986.
Figure 5. Proposed lacing system for the Great Palace lamellar, exploded.
Figure 6. Other finds resembling the reconstructed Great Palace lamellae.
Locations: 1. Börg (the fortress), Birka, Sweden. 2. Grave 121, Homokmégy-Halom, Hungary. 3. Doneshkoe gorodishe, Russia. Dating: 1. 10th cent. 2. late 7th-8th cent. 3. 950-1250AD. Sources: 1. Thordeman 1939; 2. Garam et al. 1975; 3. Kirpitchnikov 1971. All to same scale.
Arena, M.S. and L. Paroli. Museo dellAlto Medioevo Roma (guide). Rome: Instituto Polygrafico e Zecca dello Stato 1993.
Dawson, T. (1992). Banded lamellar- a solution. Varangian Voice iss. 23 (July 1992), p.16.
Franceschini, E.B.R. (1995). Winter in the Great Palace: the persistence of pagan festivals in Christian Byzantium. Byzantinische Forschungen 21, p.117-132.
Garam, É., I. Kovrig, J. Gy. Szabó and Gy. Török. Avar Finds in the Hungarian National Museum. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó 1975.
Kirpitchnikov, A.N. Drevnirusskoe Oruzhie 3: Dospech, Kompleks Boevich Sredstv IX-XIII v.v. (Arkheologiia SSSR). Leningrad: Nauka 1971. (trans - Old Russian Arms 3: Armour, Armaments and their Usage, 9-13th centuries).
Martiny, G., G. Brett and R.B.K. Stevenson. The Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors: Being a First Report on the Excavations Carried Out in Istanbul on Behalf of the Walker Trust (The University of St. Andrews) 1935-38. London: Oxford University Press 1947.
Pirling, R. Römer und Franken am Niederrhein. Katalog-Handbuch des Landschafts-museum Burg Linn in Krefeld. Mainz am Rhein: Phillip von Zabern 1986.
Robinson, H.R. Oriental Armour. London: Herbert Jenkins 1967.
Roth, H. Kunst der Völkerwanderungzeit (Propyläen Kunstgeschichte, supplementary series: vol. 4). Berlin: Propyläen Verlag 1979.
Thordeman, B. Armour From the Battle of Wisby 1361 (Vol. 1, Text). Stockholm: Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien 1939.
Appendix - Some finds of Avar-type lamellar in and near Europe
The Krefeld-Gellup cuirass is not an isolated find, lamellar seems to have been briefly adopted by neighbouring Germanic tribes during the period of Avar ascendance. All four burials listed below contained hundreds of plates, probably a complete armour.
The Byzantines also keenly appreciated and copied Avarian war technology, as Maurices Strategicon clearly shows. As the only European power where lamellar remained continuously in service in the medieval age, the Byzantines may well have preserved the lacing system introduced by the Avars.
1. Kertch (Crimea), Ukraine. Avarian, later 5th century (post 457AD). Ref. Thordeman, 1939. Held: State Historical Museum, Moscow. Note - possibly a mixture of lacing systems.
2. Krefeld-Gellup, Germany. Grave 2589, Frankish, 6th century. Ref. Pirling, 1986. Held: Landschaftsmuseums Burg-Linn, Krefeld Germany.
3. Castel Trosino, Italy. Tomb 119, Lombardic, early 7th century. Refs. Arena and Paroli, 1993; Thordeman, 1939. Held: Museo dellAlto Medioevo, Rome. Note - reconstruction drawing of entire panoply displayed at museum.
4. Niederstotzingen, Germany. ?Grave 12b/c, Alamannic, 7th century. Refs. Pirling, 1986 (includes reconstruction drawing of cuirass with skirt); Roth, 1979. Held: Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart.
1. Martiny et al., 1947, p.99.
2. op. cit., pl. 58.7.
3. Franceschini (1995) conjectures that the burnt layer in which the armour was found may be a trace of the catastrophic fires set during the seige and capture of Constantinople in 1204.
4. Armour 25 from the Visby mass war grave of 1361. Thordeman, 1939, p.218-219, fig.199.
5. op. cit., 245-248, figs. 236-238.
6. see footnotes 3 and 4. Variants of this system are frequently illustrated in popular works, and are well known to medieval reenactors.
7. Pirling, 1986. This form of lamellar was probably introduced to Europe by the Avars: see Robinson 1967, fig. 29, and Thordeman 1939, fig. 232 nos.11-15.
8. Examples: The Joshua fresco, Hosios Lukas 10th cent. (near Delphi, Greece), steatite icon of St. Theodore Stratelates, 11th cent. (Vatican Museum 982).
9. It is perhaps relevant that in the Visby armour a few crudely-made lamellae were of double or greater width, representing replacements made during later repairs. All the lamellae were, however, the same length. Thordeman 1939, p. 403.
10. A recent visit to St. Andrews University failed to uncover the notebooks of the excavation, however some archived materials, including personal correspondance, as well as the original figures for the Report (Martiny et al. 1947) are held in the papers of Sir David Russell, Prof. J.H. Baxter and the Walker Trust. It is to be hoped that the artefacts themselves are still extant, the excavation permit required that they remained in Turkey.
11. Dawson, 1992.
BACK TO START PAGE
Webbed by Peter Beatson, 1999-2000.
All rights to materials herein belong to the original owners.