Tag Archives: linothorax

Strange love of linen, or how I learned to stop an arrow (and enjoy the process)

Guest post by Scott Bartell

aldreteI blame Alexander the Great. Because of him, I’ve had to pore over close to a hundred ancient Greek and Roman texts, repeatedly scan and document armor variations on over a thousand Greek vase paintings and sculptures, learn more about the flax plant than I ever thought was possible, and get shot multiple times with arrows by my former history professor (who was, thankfully, a skilled enough archer for me to be here today and writing this post). And yes, I was wearing armor. Fortunately, these experiences have all been extremely rewarding.

It has been just about a decade since the team of Gregory Aldrete, Alicia Aldrete, and I first began the research and reconstruction phases of what would eventually turn into the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay Linothorax Project. Our overall goal was to research and reconstruct a type of body armor made of linen, known as the linothorax, that was used by numerous ancient peoples around the Mediterranean, then subject the replica armor to a number of weapons tests. The end result was the publication of Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor: Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery.

What started from humble beginnings has now blossomed into something I would have never imagined. It all began with a desire to learn as much as possible about Alexander the Great and, more specifically, the type of armor he wore. In the famous Alexander Mosaic that was recovered from the ruins of Pompeii, the Macedonian king can be seen wearing a type of body armor far different than the typical bronze cuirass ancient warriors are so often portrayed as wearing.

Three versions of reconstructed linothorakes. The one on the left is modeled after the linothorax worn by Alexander the Great in the "Alexander Mosaic" from Pompeii.

Three versions of reconstructed linothorakes. The one on the left is modeled after the linothorax worn by Alexander the Great in the Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii.

I knew little about this armor and I instantly wanted to know more. Exactly what kind was it? I plunged into the history books, searching for an answer. Unfortunately, aside from brief references, there was little information about Alexander’s armor in either the ancient texts or the modern ones. Unsatisfied by the results, I wanted to get to the bottom of this mystery. After turning to research in other periods of history, I decided to try my hand at experimental archaeology and attempted to construct a version of the armor for myself. I settled on a technique using glue and fabric, laminated together in numerous layers much like modern Kevlar. The result was a near-perfect match for linothrax in both form and function.

The Linothorax workshop.

The Linothorax workshop.

As stereotypically poor college student, however, I made my first replica set of armor out of inexpensive materials: cotton cloth and Elmer’s School Glue. It wasn’t long before I had constructed three replica suits of my own and had a fourth on the way, now using more accurate ancient equivalents. At any given time throughout this project it wasn’t uncommon to see fabric spread out and glued together on every surface I could find, from kitchen tables to the family room floor to a ping-pong table that served as my main workspace. Armor-making supplies covered them all. I showed each new suit around like a proud father, extolling its unique new features and designs. Linen armor was now a part of who I was. Never did I think that a simple question about armor would end up being such a large and constant part of my life.

The continued development, enduring nature, and surprising success of the Linothorax Project is in large part due to Gregory and Alicia Aldrete, my coauthors and co-principle investigators. Their drive, enthusiasm, knowledge, and friendship made nearly every phase of the project possible. Together, we have presented our research and displayed the armor at many different venues around the nation, and even a few places around the world. Due to the surprising nature of the Project, particularly our decision to recreate ancient armor and test it with ancient weapons, our work has attracted an equally surprising amount of attention. It’s been the subject of documentaries and TV shows shown in the United States, Europe, and Canada. Most recently, our book and the Project was the subject of an article in the New Yorker.

Greg Aldrete takes aim at Scott Bartell.

Greg Aldrete takes aim at Scott Bartell.

Interestingly, film crews loved seeing an actual person shot with an arrow while wearing the linothorax, so I often volunteered (perhaps against my better judgment). Over the course of the research, I was shot approximately a dozen times while wearing the armor. There is nothing like the thrill of looking directly at an archer taking aim a mere ten feet away from you, about to shoot an arrow straight at your chest (especially when the archer is your former history professor, coauthor, and friend). Thankfully, the armor worked each time!

From gluing together random scraps of cloth in a basement, to being shot with an arrow on national TV, to being published with Johns Hopkins University Press, the journey of the Linothorax Project team continues to astound us all.

Scott Bartell

Scott Bartell

Scott Bartell is an independent scholar who has published and presented on linen body armor and Alexander the Great. He is the author, with Gregory Aldrete and Alicia Aldrete, of Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor: Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery.

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Filed under Classics, History, Military, War and Conflict

Unraveling the linothorax mystery, or how linen armor came to dominate our lives

Guest post by Alicia Aldrete

As the wife, research assistant, and sometimes coauthor of an ancient historian who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, I had expected to spend many hours in libraries, wandering through foreign museums, and climbing around ancient sites. However, I had not foreseen large groups of weapon-wielding students in our yard, or my husband, Gregory Aldrete, shooting arrows at them.

When one of Greg’s students—our coauthor, Scott Bartell—decided to make himself a replica of the armor that Alexander the Great is shown wearing on the famous “Alexander Mosaic” from Pompeii, none of us realized that the next six years of our lives would be dominated by the quest to understand and evaluate that armor. Known as the linothorax, it was a popular form of armor from at least the time of Homer through the Hellenistic period. Apparently made primarily out of linen, the armor had been afforded little attention by scholars because no extant specimens have survived. In order to appreciate how the linothorax might have been constructed and its effectiveness on the battlefield, we worked on reverse engineering it after extensive study of ancient images of linothorax-wearing warriors depicted in vase paintings, reliefs, sculptures, and tomb paintings. I spent countless hours in libraries examining every page of the hundreds of oversized volumes of the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, which catalogs the Greek vases in museums around the world; I’m sure that the students assigned to reshelving duties during those weeks dreaded my arrival every morning. Every time we visited a museum, we kept our eyes peeled for possible linothorakes; and while one expects to find plenty represented in the museums of Greece and Italy, we were pleased to find them in Kansas City and Odessa (in the Ukraine) as well.  Suddenly, as so often happens during research, the linothorax was everywhere.

We encountered some special challenges when constructing our linothorakes. At first, like fashion designers, we made numerous patterns out of paper and then cardboard, until we achieved our optimal design. Then came the tricky part. Because we wanted to employ only materials that would have been available in the ancient Mediterranean, we had to get a hold of handspun, handwoven linen. Since most linen these days is machine-made, we couldn’t just go to the local fabric store. However, we soon discovered that even linen purporting to be handwoven was still typically machine-harvested and processed using modern methods, such as treatment with chemicals. To achieve as much historical authenticity as possible, we needed linen made from flax that had been grown, harvested, and processed by hand as well, using only traditional methods. As we discovered, not many people have the dedication to do this. After much searching, we managed to find a woman who actually grew and harvested her own flax and then spun and wove it into linen, practically in our own back yard—in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Rabbit glue, which sounds more challenging, was actually easier to acquire, since artists who paint using traditional methods still prime canvases with it; we ordered it from an art supplies catalog, and merely needed to rehydrate and heat the rabbit powder in a double boiler.

Three versions of reconstructed linothorakes. The one on the left is modeled after the linothorax worn by Alexander the Great in the "Alexander Mosaic" from Pompeii.

Three versions of reconstructed linothorakes. The one on the left is modeled after the linothorax worn by Alexander the Great in the “Alexander Mosaic” from Pompeii.

Another challenge was perfecting the construction process. By trial and error, we discovered the ideal tools: a turkey baster to squirt the rabbit glue onto a piece of linen and a putty knife to spread it evenly. We also figured out—the hard way—that the ancients probably cut each layer of linen to the proper shape before gluing them together. For our first linothorax, we glued together 15 layers of linen to form a one centimeter-thick slab, and then tried to cut out the required shape. Large shears were defeated; bolt cutters failed. The only way we were ultimately able to cut the laminated linen slab was with an electric saw equipped with a blade for cutting metal. At least this confirmed our suspicion that linen armor would have been extremely tough. We also found out that linen stiffened with rabbit glue strikes dogs as in irresistibly tasty rabbit-flavored chew toy, and that our Labrador retriever should not be left alone with our research project.

While we subjected our laminated linen patches to hundreds of carefully measured arrow tests, we also engaged in some less scientific testing of their durability. Greg’s students enthusiastically stabbed, hacked, slashed, and pounded them with various maces, axes, spears, and swords, helping us to demonstrate what kind of protection laminated linen armor would have provided. While all of this mayhem (both scientifically controlled and free-form) convinced us that our linothorax was ancient-battlefield-ready, we still felt compelled to try a real-life scenario, so Scott donned the armor and Greg shot him. And while we had confidence in our armor, our relief was still considerable when the arrowhead stuck and lodged in the armor’s outer layers, a safe distance away from flesh.

The aim of our research had been to go back in time, reconstruct something over a millennium old, and experience what it would have been like to use it. The process of doing so certainly led to some memorable and unexpected experiences for all of us.

aldreteAlicia Aldrete is coauthor, with Gregory S. Aldrete and Scott Bartell, of Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor: Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery. The website of the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay’s Linothorax Project contains more behind-the-scenes information on this unparalleled effort, including an eight-minute mini-documentary and additional images.

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Filed under Ancient, Behind the Scenes, History, Writing