Monday, October 25, 2010

Lecture wrap-up: "Classical Kevlar: The UWGB Linothorax Project: Reconstructing and Testing Ancient Linen Body Armor."

 On Thursday, the UTSA Classics Club attended a lecture given by Greg Aldrete, University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, entitled "Classical Kevlar: The UWGB Linothorax Project: Reconstructing and Testing Ancient Linen Body Armor." Mr Aldrete has been working on the project for four to five years, reconstructing linen body armor based upon ancient depictions, and testing it out.

Alexander the Great is the most famous user of the linen armor. He managed to conquer most of the known world, but little is known about the armor he wore to do so. The topic has been mainly ignored by scholars due to the lack of belief that linen could actually protect a warrior, and the lack of physical evidence that exists, as most ancient linen is long-gone. Aldrete and his students chose to find out.

"Linothorax" means, "Linen chest" or a chest plate made of linen.

The project has located several accounts in ancient literature that the ancients did use linen armor, including Homer's Illiad, and twenty other ancient authors mention its use. The highpoint of use of the armor seems to have been from the 6th to 1st centuries, BC.
Cross-section of the armor
Linen comes from flax, which is widely found all over the Mediterranean, which made it widely available to be used to make linen. Anyone could get it, and anyone could make linen. Pliny the Elder said that flax is a fast grower, well suited to poor growing conditions, and easy to grow. Once made, linen is versatile.

Linothorax is considered to be "Type IV" armor- and there are ample examples of it in ancient art. Aldrete and his team have so far discovered 765 images on 407 objects of art, including one from our very own San Antonio Museum of Art. He and his team had to comb thousands of pictures of ancient art to find these hundreds of of examples of the linothorax.
The Linothorax was made out of two conjoining pieces of layered linen. The linen was glued together in sheets by an authentic rabbit glue or flaxseed paste, until it was 12 mm thick. This made a rigid, yet flexible material that could be wrapped around a warrior's body.

Aldrete and his team then tested various designs of the armor, and tested it for protection against varying degrees and methods of attack. They shot arrows from different types of bows from various angles and distances, and scientifically measured the levels of penetration. They found that their linothorax armor was incredibly effective at stopping arrows from penetrating, and thus protecting the soldier who would be wearing it. The material acts like modern day Kevlar, by flexing as it is hit, and absorbing the energy of the projectile, diverting it away from the wearer. Aldrete was so sure of his findings that he did shoot an undergraduate student who was wearing the armor. The professor's armor held, withstood the direct shot to the chest, and the student survived.

Armor with various puncture marks
In conclusion, the linothorax had many advantages to a comparable bronze armor chest plate, in that the linothorax is lighter, cooler, more comfortable, and cheaper. Aldrete certainly showed that this technology, made up of easily available materials, could have been used very effectively by the ancients.

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