Roman body armour undergoes analysis

In 2018, a rusty lump of more than 400 fragments of iron was discovered in Germany at Kalkriese, the site of the Varus Battle, where a catastrophic defeat was inflicted on Rome in AD 9 (see CWA 104). In the five years that have passed since this material was found, it has been painstakingly restored at the Kalkriese Museum. The result is a nearly complete set of lorica segmentata, a type of Roman armour made of strips of sheet metal and closely associated with legionary soldiers. It comprises 30 plates, with brass edges and tin- and silver-foiled embellishments.

The Kalkriese lorica segmentata after restoration. Image: Manfred_Pollert_frei

The Kalkriese cuirass was made in the early stages of the production of this type of armour, and was manufactured more elaborately than its successors. Over time, Roman smiths reduced the amount of material and time needed to create the armour. But they also improved its handling and protective function. The various repairs and adaptations seen on the Kalkriese cuirass reveal some of the technical weaknesses present in early examples of this style of armour.

What is most astonishing about this find, however, is that it was made at all. Previously, no complete or nearly complete set of lorica segmentata has ever been discovered, which has always been a great mystery to researchers. Kalkriese was not expected to be any different. After all, the victors had systematically looted the battlefield and taken everything of value. Why did this cuirass remain? The explanation could lie in a Roman neck cuff found at the neckline of the armour. Was it worn by a Roman legionary exhibited after the battle as part of a triumph ritual, whose remains thus became untouchable, along with his armour? Further research should bring clarification.

The restored cuirass has now been placed on display for the first time in a new exhibition at Kalkriese Museum, Cold Case: Tod eines Legionärs (‘Death of a Legionary’).

Text: Stefan Burmeister