The “knight in shining armor” is a notion popularized through folklore and historical events of a European origin and therefore represents only a portion of what people around the world envision when they think of an armed warrior. The idea of armor as protective covering for bodies and/or objects actually allows for quite a bit of interpretation and is remarkably diverse among various cultures. This is especially true when options are constrained to what is accessible in the surrounding environment. The following examples from NHM's Ethnology collections introduce an array of alternatives to metal plates and demonstrate remarkable skill and ingenuity in their fabrication.
An extraordinary source material for armor in the Far East and Oceanic region is stingray skin. Japan was probably the first observed by outsiders to use the skins to armor their weapons but it was the southern Oceanic islands that extended the use of the skins to their protective clothing.
Preparing the skin for use is labor intensive. Unprepared, it is smelly and dirty so the surface must be scrubbed with wire brushes to remove excess accumulations and the underside must be scraped to remove any remaining flesh. It is then bleached to render an almost white, pearly result that has a luxurious appeal.
The Japanese have used stingray skin on their swords for centuries. The handles of samurai swords are often wrapped with cord and the bumpy surface of stingray skin provides a good grip to prevent the cord from slipping. It also makes the handle stronger and more durable to withstand multiple battles.
It may be difficult to see on this samurai sword but the bumpy, whitened stingray skin is visible under the cords wrapping the handle.
This weapon is composed of a stingray tail with cloth wrapped at one end to create a handle. When turned to the side, it is possible to see the stingray’s sharp, serrated barb tied to the tail near the handle. Unfortunately the tip of the barb has separated from the pressure of being so tightly bound over the years.
This was collected in New Guinea c. 1920 by William F. Alder, a famous director during the silent movie era. He and a small film crew joined a scientific expedition for the Southern California Academy of Sciences and while in New Guinea, they used the opportunity to cast local natives in an exaggerated, exploitative, and highly sensational film entitled, Shipwrecked Among Cannibals. This film wound up being very lucrative for Universal Pictures.
From the collection of the Museum of Anthropology, British Columbia University
This image shows a Kiribati warrior’s suit of armor that is not part of NHM's collections but is housed at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. It is included here because it is a better example for how stingray skin was used to protect the body than any other example NHM's Ethnology collections can provide.
The Republic of Kiribati is a collection 32 atolls and 1 raised coral island near the center of the Pacific Ocean. Kiribati’s low-lying land offers few options in the way of raw materials to use for fabricating armor but it is often in these scenarios of scarcity that people’s creativity soars.
The wide stingray skin belt of this suit is resistant to burns, punctures and tears, and provides waterproof protection of vital organs. The rest of the suit is made of tightly woven coconut fiber, a surprisingly durable material widely available on the islands.
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It seems unlikely that a woven plant could be considered strong enough for use as armor but the following examples beg to differ. Rattan, a general name for many different types of climbing palm, is a lightweight, durable material that can be made flexible for weaving into a variety of shapes without splintering. It has been used by many peoples to make furniture and baskets but in New Guinea, it’s also been used to make battle armor.
Photo by Daniel Watson
This cuirass made of woven strips of rattan was collected in New Guinea in the 1930s by a prospector exploring the land for mining resources. New Guinea’s indigenous history is filled with battles between tribes, particularly when a tribe’s need for more land to farm and raise pigs encroached on another tribe’s established territory. It was observed that similar rattan armor was worn as protection during these battles with neighboring tribes. This cuirass is higher in the back to prevent penetration by arrows and spears from behind.
These woven rattan armbands also come from New Guinea. They’d be useful to block the face from oncoming arrows and to fend off blows from clubs when in closer, hand-to-hand combat.
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Thick sections of tree bark can be manipulated into shapes using hot water or steam to construct protective armor. This was done to create defensive belts and armbands in parts of Southeast Asia and Oceania. As an added feature, the surface of the bark could be painted or carved with geometric patterns, or decorated with designs meant to appeal to the protective powers of the ancestors.
Photo by Daniel Watson
Though this belt made of thick bark is wide enough to protect vital organs in battle, the elaborately carved decoration indicates that it more likely functioned as a status item worn by a man with standing in the community. In New Guinea’s past, male adolescents received undecorated bark belts to mark their entry into life as an adult warrior, while the belts with intricate designs were reserved for men of power. Today these belts are worn for special occasions and ceremonies.
This curved bark armband from New Guinea would’ve served a similar function to those made of rattan, adding extra protection for the wrists and lower arms during close combat.
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Turtle & Tortoise Shell
As close observers of their surrounding environments, it would seem that indigenous groups of Southeast Asia and Oceania who coexisted with turtles and tortoises for centuries would try to emulate the protection the carapace provides the animal by using the shells to protect a human body as well. However, few examples of turtle or tortoise shell armor exist in these regions which probably has more to do with the reverence people held for these animals. Turtle and tortoise meat was usually reserved for high ranking individuals and therefore their shells became associated with wealth and status. Still, a few examples do exist and these are some of the more beautiful specimens that a person can wear for protection.
This helmet from Luzon, Philippines is made of expertly formed strips of sea turtle shell that are sewn together and attached to a woven headband with a chin cord. According to its documentation, this helmet was “captured near Malolas by a scouting party guarding the route between Guingas and Malolas”. When this helmet was “captured”, the United States was fighting in an armed conflict with the Philippine Republic established at the end of the Spanish-American War. The conflict arose when the Philippine Republic objected that possession of their land was being transferred from Spain to the U.S. and the U.S. government regarded their objections and desire for independence as an insurrection.
This surface of these armbands from New Guinea are incised with intricate designs and the one on the left is accentuated with red pigment. Turtle and tortoise shell can be softened with heat, making it malleable enough to shape into curves. Plant fiber cordage threaded through holes drilled into the shell at the back hold the armbands together though it doesn’t seem to matter since once cooled, the shell is nearly impossible to bend without snapping.
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