This 3,500-Year-Old Ancient Armor Is Marine Tested, Archaeologist Approved

The Bronze Age saw the creation of complex societies and complex warfare, and served as the setting of some of the world’s most famous myths. In fact, the Aegean Bronze Age was the time of Achilles and Odysseus — of the legendary Trojan Horse and Trojan War — memorialized in the works of Homer.

Not so mythical were the cultures that arose around the Aegean throughout the Greek Bronze Age, between 3000 B.C.E. and 1000 B.C.E., including the Minoan civilization on Crete and the Mycenaean civilization on mainland Greece. It was these cultures that developed the Aegean’s first systems of writing, as well as some of its most innovative technologies.

Not the least of these developments was the titular metal of the age, which started to appear in Bronze Age Greece around five millennia ago, made by smelting copper and mixing it with other metals like tin. In time, bronze was made into jewelry, weapons, and in some cases, armor.

But how widespread was this early armor, and how effective? Not all cultures seemed to have employed it in military campaigns, and there is still some dispute about how intensely people like the Minoans and Mycenaeans used it.

Part of this debate is due to the relative rarity of surviving armor in the archaeological record. But recent research, involving carefully crafted replicas and modern marines, reveals that some ancient armor could’ve certainly given warriors a leg up.

“It was perfectly evident that this armor could have been used in battle,” says Ken Wardle, a Greek prehistorian at the University of Birmingham.

Uncovering Ancient Armor

Several decades ago, only scattered evidence had been discovered of Bronze Age armor in the Aegean. This included tablets from the Minoan city of Knossos on Crete, which showed soldiers wearing suits of armor. Written in Linear B (an ancient form of writing adapted from the Minoans by the Mycenaeans), these tablets indicated the possibility of Bronze Age armor in the civilizations of the Aegean.

Still, when a strange suit of armor was discovered in a relatively unimposing tomb in the Mycenaean village of Dendra in 1960, it was a revelation. Archaeologists hadn’t discovered anything but fragments of armor up until that point, and tablets like those in Knossos were rare.

Some archaeologists questioned whether the Dendra armor, dated to the 15th century B.C.E., was practical or purely ceremonial due to its bulky appearance, as well as a lack of other evidence. Aside from the tablets at Knossos, many more depictions showing the Homeric heroes from this age had them sparsely clothed or completely naked.

But Wardle believes that the absence of armor on many statues may be due to artistic license taken centuries after the period in which the subjects were supposed to have lived. “It’s more heroic to be naked,” he says.

Diana Wardle, an archaeologist from the University of Birmingham and Ken Wardle’s late wife, suspected that the Dendra armor had a practical use. In the 1980s, she and her colleagues created a replica of the suit, one that Ken Wardle then decided to test with real marines in simulated combat situations.

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Modern Marines, Ancient Armor

As detailed in a May 2024 study published in PLOS ONE, Wardle took the replica to Greece, where he worked with researchers from the University of Thessaly and Porto University. There, they recruited 13 marines from the Hellenic Armed Forces and asked them to wear the replica while running simulations of Bronze Age warfare. The simulations were based on the battles in “The Iliad,” which served as a “rational starting point” for fighting in the 15th century B.C.E., Wardle and his team wrote, despite being written down by Homer in the 8th century B.C.E.

Each day of testing lasted for 11 hours, with Wardle and his team team monitoring the participants’ physical condition (including heart rate, blood sugar, skin temperature, and core temperature) as they mimicked on-foot fighting, on-chariot fighting, and other types of activity. During these testing days, the participants also ate diets mimicking those from Bronze Age Greece, such as wine, honey, dry bread, goat’s cheese, and meat.

Ultimately, the tests revealed that the replica, which weighed a whopping 51 pounds, wasn’t just for show. “It looks clumsy, but it’s actually perfectly practical,” Wardle says.

Additional computer simulations accounted for changes in temperatures, wind speeds, and fighting intensities, and found only one case in which the soldiers could fight for only 7.5 hours instead of the full 11 hours: when the temperature was improbably high, the wind uncharacteristically low, and the fighting very intense.

The tests also revealed that the Dendra armor is quite protective, covering open spots at the base of the neck when the arm is lifted, for instance.

“We now understand, despite its cumbersome appearance at first sight, that it is not only flexible enough to permit almost every movement of a warrior on foot but also resilient enough to protect the wearer from most blows,” Wardle and his team wrote in the study.

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Providing Protection in Bronze Age Battle

Wardle says that this armor would have given a significant advantage to Mycenaean warriors against their adversaries, protecting them from arrows and slingshot projectiles, and even in close combat.

While other Bronze Age armor is known from around the world — warriors in the Carpathian Basin wore armor — this armor is much lighter than the Dendra suit and features only a few plates of bronze patched onto leather.

Other tests of the Dendra suit and other armor — including those of Barry Molloy, an archaeologist at University College Dublin — reveal that arrows may have been able to pierce the armor, though not at any significant depth, resulting in flesh wounds rather than serious or fatal injuries.

“These warriors were better defended than anyone else on the battlefield,” Wardle says.

If the depictions on the Knossos tablets are true, “suddenly we’re talking about a large military force largely equipped with bronze armor,” he adds.

As an interesting aside, Wardle speculates that there may be a more visceral connection between Homeric legend and the armor suit of Dendra. One of the only weak points of this formidable suit of Bronze Age armor is at the back of the heel — the famous weak spot of Achilles. It’s thus possible that this known vulnerability in Mycenaean armor inspired the telling of his tale.

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Joshua Rapp Learn is an award-winning D.C.-based science writer. An expat Albertan, he contributes to a number of science publications like National Geographic, The New York Times, The Guardian, New Scientist, Hakai, and others.

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