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Τετάρτη, 18 Σεπτεμβρίου 2013

Dermatothorax 5th Century BCE ,and Combat Sandals in practice at Amasya / Turkey 2013 - An Experimental Archaeology Report

Article by Aristodemus Nikiteas

It was early summer  2012 under the cool shadow of the Acropolis rock , where three friends met to talk amongst many things the making of a thorax. Spyros Bakas, Dimitris Katsikis  (Hellenic armours - http://www.hellenicarmors.gr/) and myself (Aristodemus Nikiteas) exchanged views and knowledge. The challenge and inspiration came from a crater by Altamura painter (470-460 BCE), now in the collection of The British Museum, showing the departure of a young light hoplite/archer to  battle. The young hoplite/archer was carrying a shield with the symbol of the Lacedemonian Mora of Gerothron, - the scorpion! 

Bell-Krater by Altamura Painter 470-460 BCE
It was early summer  2012 under the cool shadow of theAcropolis rock , where three fr
The shield was  clearly shown on the crater and a copy has been made to my personal specifications and needs. Size, around 60 cm in diameter, and  the weight  5 kilos -  standard for a small bronze concave shield. The quiver was also made from light materials of linen and sailing canvas.  Our expert in historical armoury, Stefanos Dorieas, had given  us some very valuable advice about the nature of the thorax and footwear - even if our depicted hoplite was bare- footed.

So the dilemma was linen or leather ? How heavy it should be, how many copper scales to be used, where  the protective copper scales should be etc. A year later the armour, and the sandals were ready in my possession to test at  two Traditional Archery Festivals in Turkey, Istanbul and then Amasya. The armour was a dermatothorax (leather thorax), with copper scale protection on the left side, going  from the back where the spine is to almost the middle of my belly in the front. Also three lines of copper scales were placed in the front of the two epaulets (shoulder guards). (Photo 1 ).  The leather throughout is 5 mm thick  and the feathers were cut large and in two lines. All the fastenings are with bronze wire, and it  is entirely  hand made. I have to emphasise this -  " there is not a single machine made piece".

The shield

The quiver

  Photo 1.  Archer's  Dermatothorax - Testing the thorax by it's maker.

There were many reasons for these choices but above all it had to be functionable for me. Why? After many exchanges of information amongst our researchers and,  most importantly Dimitris, the maker of this armour,  using both his expertise and knowledge we took in to consideration the following factors. Our young light hoplite/archer  must have  been an officer of an archers' unit consisting of  non- Spartan citizens i.e. Perioikoi, helots and possibly mercenaries, but, Spartans always had as commanding officers one of their own and the scorpion on the shield is the testimony of this. On the crater it is not clear what kind of material his thorax is made of but we thought that leather would be lighter than the 15 layers of linen.

According to Tim Everson in his book "Warfare in Ancient Greece" / Chapter: The Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, the shoulder-piece corslet (a term coined by Jarva - 1995, p.33) type of armour was most used by hoplites from 525 BCE to the end of the 5th century and beyond. These are often referred to as linen corslets, especially in the early period when material seemed to dominate; but later corslets were made of leather (after 500 BCE), and could have metal scales attached as extra protection. This type of armour also known as a composite corslet.

Homer is mentioning that the leather of "aigis" (goat-skin) has possibly used for an armour and again in Tim Everson's book there is a reference of probably a shoulder piece of a composite corslet (Ashmolean Museum) from the Crimea dating to the late 5th BCE and we know that the scales were sewn onto sheep- or goatskin leather, and edged with calf hide. The leather is two layers thick. 

It seems that the corslet also had a large, bronze elk's-head plaque attached to the chest which is of distinctly Scythian manufacture. Despite the Scythian influences, the other finds from the graves in this part of the Crimea are overwhelmingly Greek and , if these are not part of a Greek corslet, then they are a close Scythian copy.
So  my Spartan's Dermatothorax is made from cow hide and edged with the same material but it could have been goatskin. In my opinion possibly even more flexible than cow hide -  even in two layers, but that is something to test another time !

Dimitris also thought that leather  in time it would be more flexible and much more durable. We decided that the copper scales were not to cover the front of the thorax but mainly my left side, the most vulnerable to incoming arrows. The total weight of the dermatothorax came to 8 kilos.  So, if I was a young (I wish) light hoplite/archer from a prominent Spartan family and a Toxarhis (Τοξάρχης) this is the kind of thorax I would have liked to make. Relatively light, looking good, hardwearing,  flexible, offering good protection from other projectiles but also good for  close combat  if I had to get involved. The Chalkidian type of helmet gave me protection but most importantly it allowed  good vision for archery. 

Bearing in mind that the position of the Toxarhis didn"t have to be involved with the combat tactics of the phalanx. According to our historical research fighting units of this kind with smaller shields and lighter armour were very often  guarding borders and practising gorilla warfare.  Probably  our young hoplite/archer would have had a prominent role to play in the battle of Platea. 

I first came in to contact with my armour and my sandals in Istanbul/June 2013. They were lying on the floor amongst other classical and medieval armoury and 8 kilos may sound not very heavy but when I put it on I felt the weight of History on my shoulders !!!!
 Istanbul gave me the first contact with my armour. Two short days wearing it, and competing, but the real test came in Amasya. Four long days from early in the morning to almost midnight, a real test of endurance. It wasn't just me. Two other hoplite Koryvantes had their armour on most of the time. Lykourgos, with a Hellenistic armour  around 5 kilos and Apollonius with a Achaean armour/Trojan war (Photo 2 & 2a) - the heaviest of all around 15 kilos. The medieval armour  was worn only occasionally  by our members which  was down to   personal preferences.

Photo 2a. Apollonius
Photo 2. Apollonius


The first two days in Amasya the weather was cool compared to  the norms of a Hellenic summer but the last two days the temperate reached 30 Celsius + , and the thorax was "remarkably cool".  Of course the Chlamys,  and the absence of trousers had a cooling effect on the body but somehow the direct sun had no effect on the natural leather. It has to be noted that after more than a half an hour's exposure to direct midday sun, the copper scales on my shoulder guards were very hot to touch, but not the leather. 

The leather by the fourth day had softened and  was much more comfortable in movements such as bending down to pick up something from the ground, or being able to sit more comfortably on a stool. Chairs were OK, but only those without arms. In a few words I did everything that  was required on the field, but also everything that a modern man  does. Travelled on buses for many hours, ate  three course meals for  lunches and dinners offered by the organisers, went to toilets, European and Turkish type ( the latter being far more convenient ), etc. 

After a couple of times of doing and undoing the thorax first thing in the morning, the second day  I made the decision late in the night after returning from a cultural event, to release the leather strings from the  epaulets and let the thorax to slip on the floor like a tube. The next morning I placed the thorax high above my head, arranged the feathers (tunic) away from my shoulders and let the thorax slip on to my body. In 2 minutes flat it was tied up in the front and ready for the action of the day. The sandals took  more time to tie up on my feet then  putting on  the thorax. 

Spyros witnessed the action. This means that a hoplite/archer can be ready for duty in a very short time and most importantly, he doesn't need the help of a second person if the thorax is kept well tied up on the waist. The way that the thorax is constructed inside means that it has  a totally  smooth surface and nothing would catch on the Chlamys as it slides down the torso.  The next morning I followed the same technique  and again was ready in 2 minutes flat! 


Shooting arrows with the thorax was a much more pleasant experience (Photo 3) then I had thought in the first place.First of all I would like to make clear that winning in traditional archery competitions is something that  does not interest me as much as  shooting with armour and  experiencing some of the conditions of a hoplite archer. I say some because under no circumstances  can we compare real battle experience in  a cultural festival.  

So under the festival conditions we can make some assumptions of at least how it feels to shoot wearing a thorax. In Istanbul I took part in a parade and one day games inside a modern stadium. The shooting was not very comfortable at the beginning, but after some time I adapted my body to the constraints of the thorax and things started to improve. Unfortunately my bow twisted on my second shot and which may have happened as a result of whilst stringing the bow  I think I twisted one of the arms  and that  was because I had my  thorax on. So I had to use four different bows from  members of our team and from Eren - a very good friend from the Turkish team. In the end Istanbul did not give me the "road test" I was hoping for, mainly because of the bow incident. 

In Amasya and after some advice from two Turkish master bowmakers and the help of "William" from the Korean team, my bow was back in action and ready for the experience. Dimitris had designed the shoulder guards and the back of the thorax quite wide. (Photos 4 ) Plenty of room for me to move my hands in all archery shooting positions and the design of the back gave me no restriction, but above all the flexible  movement  of the leather  worked like a fan, cooling my back and this without compromising the protection. I have to say here that my shield would have been hung on my back whilst I was shooting standing up or kneeling on the ground. 

In the beginning the shooting was undisturbed apart from my right arm that was catching the leather on my right shoulder every-time I took an arrow from my quiver positioned at my left. By the fourth day that was no longer happening. My body had adapted completely to my thorax, and so had my shooting. Looking at photographs and videos  I can now see me bending more then I usually do (Photo 5)  to be in a forward position and I think  that this new body position  had an effect on my arrow release early in the games but by the end of the festival all felt natural.  

The shoulders felt inflamed for the first couple of days by  taking on all the weight of 8 kilos, but all was well by the end of the festival. A sheepskin padding will be in place for the next time.  A  scarf  made from light linen material placed around my neck  protected the side of my neck from the hard leather of the shoulder guards - also it was historically correct and  can be used as first aid to stop bleeding on open cuts! 

Photo 3.
Photo 4.
Photo 5.


I can see many people around the world wearing hoplite armour and re- enacting famous battles and periods of our ancient history. But  wearing a Hellenic type of armour does not make one a Hellene. When I was wearing my thorax I felt younger, stronger, responsible, motivated, timeless and I do not  re-enact but I "represent". Huge difference!

 I represented and I honoured the 3000 years of Hellenic tradition and the fight for independence, freedom and choice of lifestyle. I represented our fight  of centuries of oppression, and  the  memory of my father who fought for 10 years in order for me to stand here today and enjoy a free life. So, when I am wearing the thorax and I shoot my arrows at  some kind of a target I think of all  these things and every arrow is a testimony to my history, an offering to my tradition, a metaphysical action against all the things that wanted  to stop me/ us, from  existing. It is an act of defiance but at the same time a recognition and  respect for other peoples' cultures!

Every arrow I shoot  is not about  being better then others but another stone on the foundation of my/ our civilisation.  Every arrow is not pointing at a target but it is an attempt to discover the special "ancient" moment, the  "Apollonian light" !!


(Photos 6, 7 & 8).  Dimitris said to me." I will make you  real combat sandals not like the the ones for tourists". And he did!!!  Totally handmade with strong leather and straps and put  together with bronze wire. Very keen to try them and having many questions in my mind  about how the wire will hold, I was proofed wrong with my concerns. Yes, a  bit hard for the first two days in Istanbul and for that reason I had to wear a pair of felt socks which was  historically correct, and a common practice later for Roman armies. 
The real test came again in Amasya. 

After the first two days the heat, the marching in the parade and generally the activity during the festival the sandals started to mould around my feet. Every morning the tying of the leather string was more comfortable and despite the thickness of the sole (15 mm), a gentle impression of my foot was forming on it. The heel of my foot was feeling the strain at the beginning but by the fourth day it wasn't there. As for the bronze wires, - absolutely perfect, not a single damage! 

The large rim of the sole gave me perfect protection against stones and other things and the fear of me hitting my toes completely relaxed after a few hours walking around not only on the festival grounds but also on the streets of small villages and towns that we visited!  The last day I had a run of about 30m, and they were steady and secure.

Photo 6

Photo 7

Photo 8


The Koryvantes' team (Photo 9 & 10) had eight participants in Amasya with armour from 1500 BCE to 1454 CE, a representation of 3000 years of history. There were many countries represented in the festival (Photo 11 ) and nearly 250 archers in total. Many with beautiful traditional clothes and armour and some that  needed bit a more "motivation" of how to present themselves, but  all with good will. Many types of traditional bows and arrows, enough to keep you busy looking and testing them.

The Mongolian team came first in the national team competition with China and Malaysia to follow. Excellent performance also from the Korean team. The Bulgarian team "bara-Typ" gave the best demonstration in fighting techniques with real swords and superb athleticism. The Mongolian team also gave an excellent demonstration on accurate long distance (90 m) shooting.

The performance of the Koryvantes team was good on individual shooting. Three of us hit a series of targets of a  distance of 75 m away and generally our presence was noted by our armour. Three of us were shooting with Hellenic armours on - Mycenaean, Classical, and Hellenistic -   and in fact we were the only participants shooting with armours. 
The festival organisers were extremely hospitable and the festival was scheduled on a very busy timetable. We all felt that we worked hard for our bed and food and  that is how it should be. Our new team learned  from this experience but also our contribution to this festival was inspiring  and educational. 

Photo 9
Photo 10
Photo 11


With the climatic conditions we encountered, both thorax and sandals were ideal for my needs, my body shape and my psychology.  We did not encounter wet weather to see how the equipment would behave in the wet, but that  is  for another time perhaps!
As for my age....... it is irrelevant - the age of the hoplite lives on!!!

Copyright :  Aristodemus  Nikiteas

KORYVANTES - Defenders of young life !

was down to   personal preferences.

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