Rare ‘bionic’ armor discovered in 2,500-year-old China burial

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The Yanghai burial in northwest China, with the leather scale armor circled in red. (Image credit: Dongliang Xu/Turfan Museum)

About 2,500 years ago, a man in northwest China was buried with armor made of more than 5,000 leather scales, a military garment fashioned so intricately, its design looks like the overlapping scales of a fish, a new study finds.

The armor, which resembles an apron-like waistcoat, could be donned quickly without the help of another person. “It is a light, highly efficient one-size-fits-all defensive garment for soldiers of a mass army,” said study lead researcher Patrick Wertmann, a researcher at the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies of the University of Zurich.

The team called it an early example of bionics, or taking inspiration from nature for human technology. In this case, the fish-like overlapping leather scales “strengthen the human skin for better defence against blow, stab and shot,” said study co-researcher Mayke Wagner, the scientific director of the Eurasia Department of the German Archaeological Institute and head of its Beijing office.

Researchers unearthed the leather garment at Yanghai cemetery, an archaeological site near the city of Turfan, which sits at the rim of the Taklamakan Desert. Local villagers discovered the ancient cemetery in the early 1970s. Since 2003, archaeologists have excavated more than 500 burials there, including the grave with the leather armor. Their findings show that ancient people used the cemetery continuously for nearly 1,400 years, from the 12th century B.C. to the second century A.D. While these people did not leave written records, ancient Chinese historians called the people of the Tarim Basin the Cheshi people, and noted that they lived in tents, practiced agriculture, kept animals such as cattle and sheep and were proficient horse riders and archers, Wertmann said.

The armor is a rare find. Leather scale armor discovered in the ancient Egyptian tomb of King Tutankhamun, from the 14th century B.C., is the only other well-preserved ancient leather scale armor with a known provenance. Another well-preserved leather scale armor, housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, dates from the eighth to the third century B.C., but its origin is unknown.

Conservators examine the 2,500-year-old leather scale armor found in a man’s burial in northwestern China. (Image credit: Patrick Wertmann)

It was a “big surprise” to find the armor, Wagner told Live Science in an email. The researchers found the garment in the grave of a man who died at about age 30 and was buried with several artifacts, including pottery, two horse cheek pieces made from horn and wood, and the skull of a sheep.

“At first glance, the dusty bundle of leather pieces [in the burial] … did not arouse much attention among the archaeologists,” Wagner said. “After all, the finds of ancient leather objects are quite common in the extremely dry climate of the Tarim Basin.”

A reconstruction of the body armor revealed that it sported 5,444 small leather scales and 140 larger scales, likely made of cow rawhide, that were “arranged in horizontal rows and connected by leather laces passing through the incisions,” Wagner said. The different scaled rows overlap, a style that prompted the Greek historian Herodotus to call similarly fashioned armor, worn by fifth century B.C. Persian soldiers, just like “the scales of a fish,” Wagner noted.

A plant thorn stuck into the armor gave a radiocarbon date of 786 B.C to 543 B.C., the researchers found, indicating that it was older than the fish-like armor worn by the Persians. According to the team’s reconstruction, the armor would have weighed up to 11 pounds (5 kilograms).

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