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An unexpected knight

Early 1st millennium BC Assyrian-style leather armour found in China.

In 2013, a nearly complete set of Assyrian leather scale armour came to light in the burial of a 30-year old man discovered near the modern city of Turfan. Fortunately, very dry conditions preserved the perishable armour, fabricated from small, shield-shaped plates arranged in horizontal rows and sewn onto a backing. Such garments were very labour-intensive to manufacture, extremely valuable, and a privileged possession of the elite. So prized, in fact, that it was rarely buried with its owner.

The armour has now been radiocarbon dated to between 786 and 543 BC. Fitted with leather laces and a lining, some 140 larger scales and 5,444 small scales formed the waistcoat-like garment. It was built to protect the front of the torso, the lower back and the sides (as pictured in the Assyrian wall relief, shown above). For all its complexity, it could be donned rapidly by the wearer, and could fit people of different sizes. Eventually superseded by the bronze and iron protection adopted by standing armies in the west, Assyrian leather armour became commonplace during the 9th century BC – and was much used as protection for horsemen across the Neo-Assyrian empire from modern-day Iraq through Egypt, Syria, and Turkey.

How this set of Assyrian armour came to China is a mystery. Perhaps it belonged to a soldier who fought in the Assyrian army, then took it home with him. Or perhaps its owner had captured it from someone else who had been west. Whatever the story, it is an unusual case of West to East technology transfer from Eurasia during the early first millennium BC.

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