Soldiers Put an Ancient Greek Suit of Armor to the Test, and It Passed

Researchers outfitted Greek marines in replicas of a Mycenaean suit and simulated combat to see if the armor was usable in its day

Lead armor
The soldiers fought in replicas of a suit of armor found near the ancient site of Mycenae in Greece. Andreas Flouris and Marija Marković / PLOS ONE

For decades, archaeologists have wondered whether a suit of Bronze Age armor found in Greece—boar's tusk helmet, bronze plates and all—would really have protected its wearer in combat. Now, after allowing 13 soldiers to fight in a replica of the suit, researchers have declared the 3,500-year-old design fit for battle.

Discovered in the southern Greek village of Dendra in 1960, the outfit is one of the oldest complete suits of European armor in existence, the researchers write in a study published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE. It was found near the site of Mycenae, an ancient city about 70 miles west of Athens, and the center of the Mycenaean civilization, which dominated Greece from about 1600 to 1100 B.C.E.

The Mycenaeans were engineers, artists and warriors who had a “powerful impact” in the eastern Mediterranean, the researchers write, and the new study proves that such impact came “at least partly as a result of their armor technology.”

Dating to the 15th century B.C.E., the Dendra armor is composed of 15 copper-alloy sheets held together with leather, which covered the wearer from neck to knees, reports the Telegraph’s Sarah Knapton. The suit is complete with arm and leg guards and a helmet decorated with pieces of boar tusk. As National Geographic’s Tom Metcalfe writes, the armor “isn’t sleek or dashing, but a massive and unwieldy suit resembling a mobile furnace.” And because the outfit was found in such good condition, some have wondered about its true purpose.

Volunteers were fed an ancient Mycenaean soldier's typical meal before the simulation. Andreas Flouris and Marija Marković / PLOS ONE

“Since its discovery, the question has remained as to whether the armor was purely for ceremonial purposes, or for use in battle,” researcher Andreas Flouris, a professor of physiology at the University of Thessaly in Greece, and his colleagues tell Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki.

Other studies have concluded that the suit was battle-worthy, per National Geographic, but Flouris and his colleagues’ recent experiment is the first of its kind. They gathered volunteers from the 32nd Marines Brigade of the Hellenic Army—Greece’s military—and fed them the pre-battle meal of a Mycenaean soldier: bread, beef, goat cheese, green olives, onions and red wine. The marines were outfitted in replicas of the Mycenaean suit, given replicas of Mycenaean cruciform swords, and placed in a temperature-controlled room set to a geographically accurate 64 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then, the researchers conducted an 11-hour simulation, recreating battles that might have been fought in Late Bronze Age Greece. The “combat simulation protocol” was choreographed based on descriptions of the Trojan War from Homer’s Iliad, which was fought a few centuries after the Dendra armor was made and half a millennia before Homer’s life.

“To suggest that Homer’s epics were precise accounts of events which took place some five hundred years earlier … would invite both censure and disbelief,” the researchers write. But the Iliad “does describe aspects of battle we know to be true of the Mycenaean world,” study co-author Ken Wardle, an archaeologist at England’s University of Birmingham, tells National Geographic.

The volunteers simulated duels between foot soldiers, as well as soldier-chariot and chariot-ship encounters. Researchers found that the armor withstood these challenges without straining or limiting its wearer.

“We now understand, despite its cumbersome appearance at first sight, that it is not only flexible enough to permit almost every movement of a warrior on foot but also resilient enough to protect the wearer from most blows,” they write in the study.

In its heyday, the Mycenaean armor was highly advanced and would have given elite warriors “considerable advantages” in combat, the researchers tell Live Science. As Barry Molloy, an archaeologist who has conducted separate research on the Dendra armor’s combat suitability, tells National Geographic, “its importance for understanding the long history of development of weapons and warfare cannot be understated.”

He adds, “Suits of armor like this would have transformed the battlefield.”

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