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Thread: Viking lamellar no more

  1. #1
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    Viking lamellar no more

    http://www.vikingsna.org/translations/birkaarmour/

    The lamellar armour found at Birka has been demonstrated to be from Central Asia or Siberia. Since it was found in a building with other foreign artefacts the likely scenario is that it was worn by a Kazar living in a foreign garrison in Birka.

    This is the last remaining piece of evidence suggesting that native Scandinavians might have worn lamellar in Scandinavia. Now there is nothing but empty speculation. Hopefully more evidence in the future might pull a few nails out of this coffin.

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    Re: Viking lamellar no more

    Originally posted by Dan Howard
    [url]

    Now there is nothing but empty speculation.
    Of course, some speculation is more empty than others.

    Sometimes what we know and what we think we know are very different, and I look forward to the next 50 years of research and discoveries.* It's sort of the same with what we "knew" about Viking vessels in the 1950s and what we know now (and what we still have to find out).

    Still, we have endless clones of the Oseberg and Gokstad ships still sailing the illustrated seas of endless books as "typical" longships; ignoring the variety of vessels that have been found since.

    *(I come from a very long-lived family. )
    Retired civil servant, part time blacksmith, seasonal Viking ship captain.

  3. #3
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    Re: Viking lamellar no more

    Originally posted by Dan Howard
    Since it was found in a building with other foreign artefacts the likely scenario is that it was worn by a Kazar living in a foreign garrison in Birka.
    How about... Brought in from outside Scandinavia. Not native Scandinavian manufacture. Either worn by a "Kazar", or bought/stolen by a Scandinavian and brought back as an exotic foreign armor.

    I agree that this indeed buries the idea of lamellar manufactured in Scandinavia in this period.
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    Re: Viking lamellar no more

    Originally posted by Dan Howard
    This is the last remaining piece of evidence suggesting that native Scandinavians might have worn lamellar in Scandinavia.
    In this period maybe, but Gotlanders were definitely wearing lamellar in 1361, as the excavations of the graves of the Battle of Wisby show.

    Matt

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    There were no examples of genuine lamellar found at Wisby. The plates from Wisby were made into a type of COP or primitive brigandine which *may* have been salvaged from some sort of earlier lamellar armour. In any case there are 3 centuries between the Battle of Wisby and the Viking period.

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    Yes, it is much later, however, I was replying to the comment regarding lamellar in Scandinavia.

    What do you call 'genuine' lamellar?
    Several of the harnesses recovered from Wisby had no sign of riveting to a fabric covering or base, having only groups of holes in the plates, and were probably laced together (some calcified lacing survived I think). That sounds like genuine lamellar to me .

    Matt

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    A question, if you don't mind, Dan. We know that the Norse served in the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Emperors and we also know that the Byzantines used lamellar armors. Now, please explain to me why it is not possible that the plates found at Birka could not have come from some trader or mercenary who had acquired them on his travels? And, since he had them, why not use them? The one thing one can say about the Norse is that, like the Romans, they were not terrible affected by the NIH syndrome.
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  8. #8
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    A few random observations.

    I haven't read much on the Birka find but apparently the garrison in which the armour was found was populated by foreign troops not natives. This is apparently based on other items found nearby and the burial practices of that portion of the burial ground which are not Scandinavian. Add to that the above article which indicates that the lamellar originated in Tibet or Siberia and there is nothing to indicate that a "viking" wore that lamellar.

    It is apparent that if a member of the Varangian Guard couldn't supply his own armour, he would have been allocated some from a Byzantine arsenal. There is nothing to indicate that he would have been permitted to take it back home after his service.

    Why would the vikings have preferred lamellar over their native mail constructions? Hardrada could have afforded any sort of armour he liked, yet he preferred a nice heavy hauberk called "Emma". Even if they could afford armour many didn't. One example is the wealthy brothers Torolf and Egil Skallagrimsson. They fought only with helmet and shield which apparently better suited their way of fighting.

    Viking metal body armour was rare and expensive. A mail hauberk was worth the cost of a small farm. Lamellar, being imported, would have been even more so. So we have a rare item amongst rare items. If lamellar was more expensive than mail and vikings preferred mail if they could get it, then it seems unlikely that lamellar would have been worn.

    For a reenactor's kit to be considered "period" it has to be supportable by literary, iconographical, or archaeological evidence. If it can be reasonably demonstrated that the Birka find was not of Scandinavian origin and not worn by a Scandinavian, which I think has been successfully done, then there is nothing left. Even so, one lamellar-clad viking does not an army make. A reenactor should be portraying the "typical" not the rare exception.

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    Just a thought - as has been pointed out above, the presence of lamellar armor at Visby is still a very important piece of evidence regardless of the Birka finds (and the interpretation thereof). In any case, there is enough evidence that lamellar armor was in use throughout much of Europe in the early middle ages. Whether it was manufactured locally or not is a different question as it is quite impossible to prove either way. But that really goes for any kind of early medieval armor.

    My research suggests that lamellar armor may in fact have been more common in Europe than is usually supposed. Unfortunately, it is one of the least known armor types and not well understood even in scholarly circles. Fragments of armor may be notoriously difficult to interpret for someone who does not specialize in medieval warfare.

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    The Visby find would be relevant if it could be dated to the Viking era. A lot of changes occurred during those intervening 300 years. At the moment there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that lamellar was worn in Scandinavia by Scandinavians during the viking period. That may change in the future.

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    "For a reenactor's kit to be considered "period" it has to be supportable by literary, iconographical, or archaeological evidence. If it can be reasonably demonstrated that the Birka find was not of Scandinavian origin and not worn by a Scandinavian, which I think has been successfully done, then there is nothing left. Even so, one lamellar-clad viking does not an army make. A reenactor should be portraying the "typical" not the rare exception."

    This is the same problem that I had before. In a world where absolutes are the exception and where almost all things cultural fall on a continuum, we have those who wish to enforce a binary methodology upon us. People are not computers and we do not keep things as neatly compartmentalized as computers. There tends to be rather more cultural overlap than you would have us believe, Dan, for that is how people work. It isn't as if it were someone trying to place a Japanese samurai in Viking Age Scandanavia. No, it is people trying to say that the Norse, in their Viking form or in their Frankified Norman form, could not possibly have borrowed anything from their neighbors.

    BTW, Dan, lamellar armor has advantages over mail when it comes to stopping arrows, spears, and other such pointed weapons. I have seen illustrations, I believe in Bytine or Russian ikons or manuscripts, of lamellar cuirasses over mail. That would seem to combine both advantages.
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    I don't really have a problem with the claim that vikings could have borrowed lamellar from their neighbours. I'd simply like to see someone actually do some research and build a case to support this argument instead of relying on speculation. A good place to start might be with the references in the sagas to "spangen byrnies" (spangabrynja).

    Yes I know that lamellar was sometimes worn over mail. I think that Alexios might have been doing this in the anecdote recounted by Comnena when he was hit simultaneously by two Frankish lances, knocking him partly out and then back into his saddle, but leaving him unscathed. However, a case still needs to be made that vikings wore this combination.

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    I have to go with Dan on this. There are a lot of things that could have been, but were they? Sure, the Vikings might have borrowed lamellar from their neighbors or maybe even made it themselves on rare occasions. But did they? Without SOMETHING to go on to indicate such, it's just speculation. And the trouble with speculation is that you can imagine that all kinds of things might have been.

    Maybe the Vikings invented the longbow, but it didn't catch on so only a few ever used it. Then some of those few took part in a raid on Wales and the Welsh were impressed by it and adopted it. See what I mean? You can speculate all kinds of things and end up getting pretty wild if you've nothing to back up your speculation.
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    Perhaps the Visby finds are more relevant than it seems. The presence of a complete lamellar vest is really significant. It must have been quite old at the time of the battle already. Had it been a relatively new import in 1361 (as an import it most likely was in any case) it would most likely correspond to one of the Central Eastern/Mongol steppe types (long, very narrow lamellae, loose construction). But the Visby lamellar is a 7-hole solidly laced construction that would look much more at home in the Middle East or Byzantium of the early middle ages (interestingly, it also differs from the Birka finds). That is an important albeit overlooked clue.

    I really do think people should refrain from making any absolute statements regarding early medieval armor at this point. The best and pretty much the only reasonably comprehensive analysis of lamellar armor was done by Thordeman in the thirties. A lot of material has surfaced up since then but so far it has never been compiled and interpreted properly. Anyway, considering the above and all the evidence of lamellar armor in the early medieval Europe I do not think the image of a Viking wearing a lamellar vest is necessarily impossible to justify.

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    I have attempted to refrain from making blanket statements. My position is that no-one has bothered to do the research to back up their claim for viking lamellar and have instead relied upon empty speculation. If someone can prove that the Visby lamellar was assembled during the viking period then it becomes much more useful. As it stands it cannot be used as a foundation upon which to build a case but it could be used to support an argument based upon more solid evidence.

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    Originally posted by Brock H
    Maybe the Vikings invented the longbow, but it didn't catch on so only a few ever used it. Then some of those few took part in a raid on Wales and the Welsh were impressed by it and adopted it.
    not the best example. There is some evidence to suggest that the European longbow was Scandinavian in origin and introduced to the British isles during one of the many Danish invasions.

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    Originally posted by Dan Howard
    not the best example. There is some evidence to suggest that the European longbow was Scandinavian in origin and introduced to the British isles during one of the many Danish invasions.
    I didn't know about that. Maybe I should have speculated that a few Vikings might have used crossbows. Learned about them when serving in the Varangian Guard.
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    Mail

    where did the Vikings get mail from ?
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    Probably the same place that the Romans did - the Celtic regions of Europe.

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    Mail etc

    is it not likely that they would have aquired other forms of armour too ?

    I am thinking here of the Vendel helmets being similar to late Roman types ( though in construction very different ) and that the Romans employed scale & lamellar ?
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    I'm not aware of any examples of lamellar being used by the Romans. Every example I have seen or read about is either scale or "locking scale." I don't think you will find lamellar until the Byzantine era. Even the so-called lamellar at Dura Europas has turned out to be ordinary scale armour. It is likely that Scandinavians wore scale armour at some point but I'm not aware of any evidence for it during the Viking period.

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    Conal Moran,

    where did the Vikings get mail from?
    Dan,

    Probably the same place that the Romans did - the Celtic regions of Europe.
    It is possible that the Norse first encountered mail through contact with the native tribes of Europe who are also the ones credited with being the people who develpoed mail. It is also possible that the Norse got it from the Romans. I don't think we will ever no for sure.

    My personal belief is that they learned it from the Romans. This is based on certain link characteristics that both of them share.

  23. #23
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    Dan, please define "locking scale". I have studied Roman armors for a number of years, reading books and articles by any number of experts in the field such as Peter Connolly and Michael Bishop and cannot remember encountering that term before.
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    Perhaps Dan's reference was to lorica plumata? In this construction, the scale is integrated into a backing of mail. I do not presume to speak for him but it might be a good guess.

    Dan, if I am wrong, please correct me.

    I have never heard of locking scale and it sounds intriguing.
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    Locking scale is basically regular scale armour in which lacing or staples are added to further reinforce it by locking adjacent scales together. I think in Europe it might have been an evolutionary step between scale armour and lamellar. It was very widespread in the Iron Age. Most of the early types of armour that have been described as lamellar (such as the Assyrian stuff) are actually locking scale since the lames are fastened to a backing material.

    The modern use of "plumata" is wrong. The Romans used "plumata" to describe any sort of scale armour in which each scale had a vertical medial ridge. This reinforcing ridge added strength without increasing weight. A corselet of these scales is very attractive and gives the distinct appearance of feathers, hence the term plumata ("pluma" = "feather").

    This is a piece of Roman locking scale from Matt's site.
    http://www.larp.com/legioxx/squamata.html

    If the lames are fastened to a backing material then the armour can't be classified as lamellar. The term "locking scale" covers a lot of armour types though. Some that could be lamellar if there was no backing and some that resemble traditional scale armour with a little additional lacing.


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