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Armor from Mycenaean Greece turns out to have been effective

Give the armor to the tank —

People suspected the Dendra armor was ceremonial, but new tests show its utility.

Two images of a person wearing unusual armor that covers his torso in bands of metal, with a deep collar and high helmet.

Enlarge / Armor based on the Dendra artifact being tested.

Andreas Flouris and Stavros Petmezas

The Dendra armor, one of the oldest suits of bronze armor ever found, had been considered a purely ceremonial piece. It seemed impossible to use in battle due to its cumbersome design.

It took over a decade of research, elaborate numerical models, and 13 Greek marines fighting in it from dawn till dusk to prove it was surprisingly good at its job, despite its odd appearance. “This made the Mycenaean warriors some of the best equipped in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age,” says professor Andreas Flouris, a researcher at the University of Thessaly, who led the study.

Mycenaean Conquests

“The Mycenaeans were an ancient Greek civilization that flourished during the late Bronze Age, roughly from 1600 BC to 1100 BC,” explains Ken Wardle, an archeologist at the University of Birmingham and co-author of the study. With their power centered around major cities like Mycenae, Thebes, Tiryns, and Pylos, the Mycenaeans peaked between 1400 BCE and 1200 BCE, when they occupied much of mainland Greece and gained influence over Aegean islands and Asia Minor.

The Dendra armor, a full-body bronze plate suit made by the Mycenaeans in 1450 BCE, was found in a tomb in the early 1960s in the village of Dendra, in southern Greece, just a few kilometers from the ancient city of Mycenae. Right off the bat, it caused a lot of turmoil in the research community.

The prevailing opinion in the 1960s was that the Greeks in the late Bronze Age used leather or linen armor at best. The famous hoplite-style armor and helmet (the one from the Ars logo) appeared seven centuries later, around 750 BCE. This wasn’t just the product of hunches or bias; warriors were prominently featured in the Mycenaean art with numerous depictions showing their helmets, swords, spears, bows, and arrows in great detail. Armors, however, were mysteriously absent.

There was a lone dissenting voice that went against all the Mycenaean armor naysayers: Homer. In his Iliad, an epic account of the most famous Mycenaean conquest—the destruction of Troy—claimed the Greeks wore full body armor. So, when some armor consistent with his descriptions was found, one would think it was case closed. But it wasn’t.

The armored puzzle

“The doubts about the Dendra armor’s purpose—whether it was battle-worthy or purely ceremonial—rose from a combination of its physical characteristics, the context in which it was found, and interpretations of historical texts,” says Wardle. The armor weighed roughly 18–19 kilograms, was quite rigid, and was made out of thick bronze plates. “It was thought this would restrict the wearer’s movements, making it cumbersome for combat where agility and speed were crucial,” Wardle told Ars.

Another issue was that grave goods (items buried with their owners) often had symbolic purposes, which led researchers to suspect the Dendra armor was an indication of the buried man’s status rather than military equipment.

Finally, Homer was the only source describing how an armor of this kind was used in combat. Yet he also claimed Achilles could jump “the length of a spear’s cast” with the speed of an attacking eagle. The current javelin throw record is 98.48 meters, and a golden eagle can reach 320 km/h in a dive, so neither of those seems consistent with heavy armor. Of course, Homer also says Achilles’ armor came into his possession via divine intervention.

The Iliad also describes aspects of battle we know to be true of the Mycenaean world,” says Flouris. Among all the embellishments added to boost The Illiad’s epicness, it describes things like the daily activities and maneuvers of the Greek army, and those seem to be in line with realities of late Bronze Age warfare, according to Flouris’ team. Homer’s poetry originated in stories told in the 8th century BCE to live audiences that included aristocrats, many of whom had military experience. Flouris’ assumed that Homer just couldn’t make everything up at will without being challenged.

Still, using Homer’s works as a source of knowledge about military operations was a bit like reconstructing modern warfare’s practicalities based on Rambo movies. The best way to determine whether the armor-clad Greek warriors besieging Troy were a fact or fiction, Flouris’s team decided, was to go and try to fight like them.

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