Laminated Linen Protected Alexander the Great

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This mosaic of Alexander the Great shows the king wearing linothorax -- an armor made from laminated linen.
Martin Beckmann

Presented at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Anaheim, Calif., the study suggests that Alexander and his soldiers protected themselves with linothorax, a type of body armor made by laminating together layers of linen.

"While we know quite a lot about ancient armor made from metal, linothorax remains something of a mystery since no examples have survived, due to the perishable nature of the material," Gregory Aldrete, professor of history and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, told Discovery News.

"Nevertheless, we have managed to show that this linen armor thrived as a form of body protection for nearly 1,000 years, and was used by a wide variety of ancient Mediterranean civilizations," Aldrete said.

Indeed, Aldrede and co-investigator Scott Bartell discovered that linothorax was widely mentioned in ancient records.

"Currently we have 27 descriptions by 18 different ancient authors and nearly 700 visual images on objects ranging from Greek vases to Etruscan temple reliefs," Aldrete said.

The main visual evidence for Alexander wearing linothorax is the famous "Alexander Mosaic" from Pompeii, in which the Macedonian king is depicted with this sort of armor.

Indeed, in his "Life of Alexander," the Greek historian Plutarch states that Alexander wore "a breastplate of folded (or doubled) linen" at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 B.C. This battle a was a huge victory for the Greeks and led to the fall of the Achaemenid Empire.

According to the researchers, there is further evidence that linen breastplates were standard equipment in the Macedonian army.

"When Alexander was in India, and received 25,000 new suits of armor for his army, he is described as having ordered the old worn-out suits of armor to be burned. This would only make sense if they had been made of fabric rather than metal," Aldrete said.

In order to determine how wearable this armor was, and how effective it would have been in protecting its wearer from arrows and other battlefield hazards, Aldrete and Bartell reconstructed several complete sets of linen armor using only material that were only available in the ancient world.

"The hardest part of the project was finding truly authentic linen. It had to be made from flax plants that were grown, harvested and processed, spun and woven by hand," Aldrete said.

The other key ingredient was glue, which was placed over various layers of linen. The researchers chose to work with two simpler glues that would have been available everywhere: a glue made from the skins of rabbits and another from flax seeds.

Tests included shooting the resulting patches with arrows and hitting them with a variety of weapons including swords, axes and spears.

"Our controlled experiments basically dispelled the myth that armor made out of cloth must have been inferior to other available types. Indeed, the laminated layers function like an ancient version of modern Kevlar armor, using the flexibility of the fabric to disperse the force of the incoming arrow," Aldrete said.

According to Heidi Sherman, linen expert and professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, the researchers have achieved some very convincing results.

"One cannot know with complete certainty how close the model is to the linen armor used by Alexander the Great's army, but several layers of fused linen can indeed withstand quite a rigorous battering. They would have provided ample protection under rather extreme conditions," Sherman told Discovery News.

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