Marines combat-test mysterious 3,500-year-old armor: ScienceAlert

Marines combat-test mysterious 3,500-year-old armor: ScienceAlert

The Bronze Age suit of armor is one of the oldest of its kind, and was only just debunked some 3,500 years after it was cast.

The suit was discovered in 1960 after a failed looting attempt in the richly decorated tomb of a fallen warrior at an archaeological site near the village of Dendra in southern Greece.

Believed to be one of the oldest complete suits of armor from the European Bronze Age, the suit, which came to be known as the Dendra Panoply, has puzzled archaeologists for more than 60 years since its discovery.

Though it was perfectly intact and appeared sturdy, early testing of replicas suggested it was unsuitable for prolonged combat, leading archaeologists to wonder whether the suit was purely ceremonial, or only worn by those riding into battle in chariots.

Not so, a new study finds, when researchers tested the suit on 13 Greek marines in an 11-hour simulation of a combat situation recreated from history books: They found the Dendrasuit to be “fully adapted for combat use” and up to the demands of war.

A panel of two images depicting figures wearing bronze armour and holding swords.
Marines test a replica of Dendra Armor in a laboratory simulation of the Trojan War. (Max Haniyeu/Azgaar’s Fantasy Map Generator/Flouris et al., PLOS ONE, 2024/CC-BY 4.0)

Historical re-enactment enthusiasts will be enthralled by the efforts of researchers who have extracted information about ancient Greek warfare and tactics from a widely accepted translation of “The Iliad,” a long poem that describes the final battle of the Trojan War, which took place around 1300-1200 BCE.

“As no historical records or descriptions of the extent and use of Dendra-type armour remain from the Late Bronze Age in Greece, we turned to the only significant and detailed early record of warfare, battles and single combat: Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, which describes the ten days of the Trojan War,” the researchers explain in their published paper.

The team analysed the texts and examined other documents to find details about the battlefield environment, how long each day’s fighting in the Trojan War typically lasted, what warriors ate and drank, and what tactics, fighting techniques and weapons were typically used.

They combined this with published sedimentological and geomorphological data that suggest the final battle of the Trojan War took place in a low-lying 4 square kilometres (1.5 square miles) marsh plain near the Scamander River that surrounds the city of Troy.

Map showing the location of the ancient Greek city of Troy and its surrounding coastline.
The Trojan War was a legendary conflict that took place on a marshy plain near the ancient Greek city of Troy. (Andreas Floris/Marija Markovic/Floris et al., PLOS One2024/CC-BY 4.0)

They estimate that warriors in the late Trojan War fought sweating in June temperatures of 24-29 °C (75-84 °F) with a relative humidity of 70-85 percent. The army’s daily operations probably lasted for 11 hours, after a typical breakfast of dry bread, goat cheese, olives, and red wine.

The team also found in records from the Battle of Troy that both sides in the conflict constantly attacked, retreated, reconquered, reestablished ground, then retreated — combat activities similar to what we call high-intensity interval training today.

All of this was done “to create a combat simulation protocol that would replicate the everyday activities of elite Late Bronze Age warriors,” write exercise physiologist Andreas Floris of the University of Thessaly in Greece and his colleagues.

Ultimately, thanks to the rigorous efforts of Marines wearing replica Dendrasuits, the team found that the armor did not limit a warrior’s combat capabilities or impose any significant strain on the wearer.

Three graphs showing the volunteers' heart rates and core temperatures over an 11-hour period.
Heart rate and core temperature of Marines undergoing an 11-hour protocol simulating the daily activities of the Trojan War. Activities included moving to positions in tanks and on foot, and engaging in one-on-one combat. (Flouris et al., PLOS One2024)

They acknowledge that the Iliad may not be an accurate representation of the fighting tactics of Greek Mycenaean warriors, but it is “arguably” the best description we can work with.

“Our results support the idea that the Mycenaeans had such a great influence in the eastern Mediterranean because of their armour technology, at least in part,” Floris and his colleagues conclude.

“This may provide much-needed insight into one of the most horrific turning points in history: the collapse of the Bronze Age civilisations in the eastern Mediterranean towards the end of the second millennium BC, a period of destruction and upheaval that marked the beginning of the Iron Age.”

This study From PLOS ONE.

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