Metal archaeological artefacts such as mail armour can be examined in numerous ways to extract information from the object. It can be assumed that, as textiles, different mail armours have different characteristics and behave accordingly and may have changed through time or geography. The behaviour and characteristics of mail armour depend substantially on the physical and mechanical properties of the mail fabric. These properties are contained within the archaeological remains and can still reveal important information on the characteristics of mail armour. However,
none of current methods and techniques is able to determine the physical and mechanical properties of the mail garment in its entirety.
Actually, there are three challenges to overcome. First, archaeological artefacts must be treated with care and should preferably not be submitted to tests that can be harmful to their condition. Second, archaeological mail is usually fragmented, damaged or corroded. And lastly, there are currently no standards for physical and mechanical testing of mail.
In the paper Testing archaeological mail armour in a virtual environment: 3rd century BC to 10th century AD by Martijn A. Wijnhoven et al., published on the Journal of Cultural Heritage, Volume 48, 2021, Pages 106-118, doi.org/10.1016/j.culher.2020.12.002, the authors develop a method for physical and mechanical testing of mail fabrics by using a virtual environment. The method uses digital technologies to reconstruct the items of archaeological mail, simulate their behaviour under the influence of external forces, and then calculate the properties of the mail fabric. Instead of testing the archaeological artefact, the developed method performs virtual tests by means of digital reconstruction and physically based rigid body simulation. The rigid body simulation reproduces the movement and interaction of solid objects in special computer software.
Ten archaeological finds, dating between 300 BC and 1000 AD, were parameterized and reconstructed. Testing procedures were developed to measure the properties of the mail fabrics. A physics engine was employed to simulate the behaviour of the specimens under the influence of external forces. Six important characteristics (i.e. stretch, stiffness, number of rings per unit area, mass per unit area, thickness, and covered area ratio) were calculated for each specimen and compared to each other to identify distinctive features. This was followed by a correlation analysis to understand how the rings’ geometrical parameters influence the properties of the mail fabric and how these properties are balanced.
This method is unique in that it is able to retrieve information on the physical and mechanical properties of mail otherwise unknown. The data generated can shed light on numerous topics, such as: the role of the person that wore the armour in combat; how the mail garment would work together with other protective garments worn under and over it; comfort and protection of armour, as well as the balance between the two. Moreover, the reconstructions made for the analysis are also useful for virtual archaeology, the digitalization of museum collections, and the explanation of an artefact to a museum visitor.
This particular study has demonstrated how the properties of mail changed over the period under review. Further research can shed light on the reasons behind these changes taking into account a wide range of factors that could result in the evolution of armour, e.g. the manner in which armour was produced in different societies, the changes in war strategies and battle tactics, technological advances, and the interplay with other military equipment.
The paper has received a great resonance and an interview to the authors, published on National Geographic’s website, can be found here: