Why Did Colonists Trash This Piece of Armor After Settling in Maryland 300 Years Ago?

The metal plate was unearthed in the cellar of a storehouse dating to the mid-1600s

Tasset Unearthed
The metal slab is called a tasset, a piece of armor worn over the upper thigh. Historic St. Mary’s City

Researchers have discovered a 300-year-old piece of armor belonging to European colonists in Maryland. Unearthed on the site of a 17th-century colonial fort, the artifact sheds new light on settlers’ penchant for battlewear and ability to acclimate to life on the Mid-Atlantic coast.

“At first, it looked like a small piece of iron sticking out of the ground,” archaeologist Travis Parno, who helped excavate the object, tells Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki. “But as we continued digging, it became larger.”

The slightly concave metal slab turned out to be a tasset, a piece of armor “designed to hang from a breastplate and protect one of the wearer’s thighs during battle,” writes the Washington Post’s Michael E. Ruane. It was discovered at St. Mary’s, the capital of the British colony of Maryland from 1634 to 1695.

X ray
An X-ray image of the tasset revealed its decorative rivets. Historic St. Mary’s City

Once England’s fourth permanent settlement in North America, St. Mary’s is now Historic St. Mary’s City, an archaeology and history museum devoted to the colonial capital. Parno is the museum’s director of research and collections. His team had ideas about the mud-caked piece of metal they found on site, but their suspicions weren’t confirmed until they performed an X-ray scan.

“Seeing the X-ray image of it really brought it to life,” Parno tells Live Science. “We could see the individual bands of steel affixed together and the rivets decorating the piece.”

The tasset’s decorative rivets are arranged in three hearts, and researchers think it was part of a set of armor that included a second tasset, breastplate and helmet, per the Washington Post. St. Mary’s founders were advised to bring arms and armor on their voyage to the colony, according to the museum. While the identity of the artifact’s owner remains a mystery, it was probably “the possession of someone who likely had military experience of some sort, either in England or Europe,” per a statement from the museum.

Researchers found the tasset while excavating the cellar of a storehouse built by St. Mary’s first residents—“one of the earliest and largest buildings ever built in colonial Maryland,” Parno tells the Washington Post. The site also boasted musket parts and 1,200 pieces of lead shot—mostly hunting ammunition—as well as stone and glass beads that colonists likely traded with Native Americans.

Fort Excavation
Researchers outlined the fort at St. Mary's during a major archaeological project in 2021. Historic St. Mary’s City

After the storehouse fell, its cellar may have served as a “natural repository for trash,” which could explain the tasset’s residence there, says Parno to Live Science. Maryland is a “hot, humid environment,” he tells the Washington Post, and tassets are heavy. While the colonists kept their breastplates to protect their chests, Parno thinks they scrapped the less-vital tassets to stay cool.

The storehouse and cellar lay within the boundary of St. Mary’s long-lost fort, erected in 1634 and outlined during a major search in 2021. Within the fort’s boundary, researchers have also unearthed the skeleton of a teenager, who may have been among the colony’s first arrivals; 17th-century scissors; and a braided metal decoration that may have adorned a coat or glove.

In the 1690s, Annapolis became the capital of Maryland, and St. Mary’s was abandoned. Today, its relatively undisturbed colonial remnants are ripe with historical material. Parno tells the Washington Post that the fort’s perimeter may hold many more undiscovered structures.

“We’re scratching the surface,” he says. “We’ve got years ahead of us to dig into this time period.”

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