Encased in bronze

The panoply from a Mycenaean tomb at Dendra

When it comes to the history of warfare in the Late Bronze Age Aegean, an important find is the bronze panoply recovered by Swedish archaeologists from a tomb at Dendra in 1960.

Josho Brouwers

In 1939, a team led by Swedish archaeologist Axel W. Persson (1888-1951) started excavating at Dendra, in the Argolid (Greece). The team had originally intended to excavated at Mylassa in Turkey, but the threat of war made this impossible, and they decided to do fieldwork in Greece instead.

Dendra is the site of a Mycenaean cemetery, about 1 km away from the citadel of Midea, as the crow flies; by car, it’s a 7 minute drive. In 1926 and 1927, a set of “Royal Tombs” was unearthed here. Figuring that more could be found at Dendra, the team happily set to work in the cemetery. They also dug some trial trenches on the acropolis of Midea.

The excavators unearthed several chamber tombs. These tombs consist of a long entrance passage (dromos) that leads to a doorway (stomion) that opens onto a central burial chamber (thalamos). They are typical for the Mycenaean era; the grander tholos or “beehive” tombs, such as the Treasury at Atreus near Mycenae itself, are essentially a variation on the basic design of the chamber tomb.

For chamber tomb no. 8, three different building phases could be distinguished, and the presence of four skulls indicated that the tomb had once housed at least this many deceased individuals. Burials with multiple occupants are a characteristic of Mycenaean funerary customs; during the preceding Middle Helladic period as well as the succeeding Early Iron Age, graves in general contained only a single body.

Among the finds recovered from tomb no. 8 was a bronze object, “found in the angle between the rock ledge and the stone bench” of the tomb (Persson 1942, p. 43). The excavator identified the object as a helmet, and described it as follows (ibid., p. 43):

On the top two large holes for attaching helmet adornment. Round the whole edge, which wound around a bronze wire, there are holes, interspaced about 1 cm, for fastening the lining. At a distance of about 17 cm from the outer edge of the strongly projecting cheekpieces there is, on both sides, an infolding of the edge of the helmet which runs in the shape of a shallow groove, first in a somewhat backwards-slanting straight line, then in a forward-curve, about 15 cm above the edge, marking the position of the ears.

Persson referred to this as “a new Mycenaean helmet type” (p. 119), and the first known example made of bronze. Persson notes that the “right side of the helmet is somewhat deformed and shows several defects” (ibid., p. 119), but nonetheless assumes that his identification is correct. The excavation report even includes a reconstruction of this object, and one of the pictures has a moustachioed man model the thing.

The two pictures in the top left depict the bronze object recovered from Dendra tomb no. 8 and identified by Persson as a “helmet”. The photos in the bottom left show the reconstruction of this object, including a horsehair plume. On the right, a moustachioed man models the “helmet”. After: Persson 1942, p. 120 fig. 114.

Persson notes that there are no parallels for the helmet. “It is therefore,” he writes, “all the more astonishing that it corresponds perfectly to a type of helmet described in Homer and which has so far puzzled its commentators” (p. 122). One must remember that this was written during a time when the idea that Homer preserved at least some elements of the Mycenaean Bronze Age was still common.

In 1950, only two years before Michael Ventris would announce his decipherment of the Mycenaean script known as Linear B, H.L. Lorimer discussed this helmet in her Homer and the Monuments. She writes that this helmet bore (pp. 225-226):

a rude resemblance to the Corinthian type inasmuch as it is fashioned from a single piece of metal and has cheek-pieces. These, however, do not fit close to the face but project in front of it, cutting off, almost like blinkers, the wearer’s side-view and leaving his face exposed.

Lorimer also included the reconstruction of the helmet in her book (plate XIII), including the photo of the moustachioed man. Lorimer sides with Persson in regarding this helmet, with its somewhat weird shape, as a failed attempt to reproduce a Cretan form of helmet.

It is clear from reading Persson and Lorimer that both were slightly mystified by this bronze object, as if it were a thing that they couldn’t quite place. If they indeed had any misgivings, these were entirely appropriate. Only ten years later, further research at Dendra would reveal that this bronze object from chamber tomb no. 8 wasn’t a helmet at all.

A complete panoply from Dendra

Our focus here is on tomb no. 12 at Dendra, excavated as part of a joint mission between the Greek archaeological service, represented by the Ephor of the Argolid, J. Papademetriou, and the Swedish school, of which Paul Åström was the director. In his report on the finds, Åström sketches the scene (p. 4):

One day in November 1959 Papademetriou’s successor Dr N.M. Verdelis, Dr C.-G. Styrenius and I inspected the site. The roof of a chamber tomb had collapsed leaving a fissure in the earth […]. It is an irony of fate that the late Professor Axel W. Persson had dug a trial trench above the roof of the tomb before its collapse without noticing it. If he had dug a little to the west he would have discovered the open entrance shaft and excavated the tomb long ago.

The tomb had been partially plundered by the time it was excavated in 1960. Still, it featured a large number of finds, including pottery fragments, a silver toggle pin (probably used to fasten an item of clothing), a bronze oinochoe (jug), as well as various other objects of bronze, including at least one knife and a dagger, a bronze mirror, a gold-plated ring, fragments of a silver cup, and so on.

The tomb also contained several items connected to warfare. These included fragments of the tusks of boars that were once part of a boars’ tusk helmet, as well as a pair of swords identified as “ceremonial” by Åström because they featured elements made of gold and ivory (p. 18). But the most impressive find from the tomb was a complete panoply of bronze, rather squashed at the time it was unearthed but since then restored.

The panoply consists of several different pieces (Åström et al. 1977, pp. 28-34). There are two plates that protected the torso: a back plate and a breast plate, which essentially encased the entire upper body. Along the bottom edge of the cuirass were fixed a further six bronze plates: three in front and three behind. A throat guard protected the wearer’s neck, an area where warriors were particularly vulnerable to judge from Aegean art of virtually all periods. Two triangular pieces were attached to the front of the breastplate to further protect the chest.

The panoply also included two objects that were virtually identical to the object retrieved by Persson from tomb no. 8 and identified as a “helmet”. It was obvious from their location relative to the rest of the panoply that they were not helmets, but rather shoulder guards or pauldrons. Two pieces of bronze armour were attached to the underside of these shoulder guards to protect the upper arms.

The panoply from Dendra, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Nafplio. Other finds from the same tomb have been included in this display case. Note the boars’ tusk helmet that was found with the panoply. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

The tomb also yielded a single bronze greave. Diane Fortenberry has argued that single greaves were used to indicate rank in Mycenaean Greece, so it is possible that the tomb only ever had one greave (Fortenberry 1991). It is not clear whether the greave belonged to the left or right leg.

There are also several bronze fragments from the tomb that may have belonged to other pieces of armour, including, perhaps, a second greave. Another flat piece of bronze has been interpreted as a forearm guard, which means that the panoply covered almost every inch of the wearer, especially if the leftover pieces of bronze belonged to a second greave and perhaps also a second forearm guard.

Armour like the panoply from Dendra is usually made to fit a specific person, and it stands to reason that it belonged to one of the bodies that had been interred in the tomb. Many scholars have argued that it was too cumbersome a suit of armour to have been used by anyone except someone associated with a chariot. As Joost Crouwel notes in his book on Bronze Age wheeled vehicles (p. 126, original emphasis):

While it is certainly difficult to visualize a warrior thus equipped marching to and from a battlefield in the Greek summer, it is equally difficult to see him as fighting in a chariot. If we look at contemporary oriental armour, we see that the corselets worn by Asiatic and Egyptian chariot crews are long, flexible, short-sleeved tunics, covered with many scales of bronze or leather. This type of armour […] is much less cumbersome than the Dendra panoply.

Crouwel argues that the armour would have made it difficult for the wearer to stretch a bow. “Instead,” he argues (ibid., p. 126):

he would have fought with a sword, a dagger or thrusting spear, all close-range weapons which are useless from a moving chariot […]. Such weapons, together with the metal greaves [sic] that were found in the Dendra panoply tomb and which seem a peculiarly Aegean piece of armour (they are not known in the Near East or Egypt), must have been designed for fighting on foot.

Crouwel suggests that the Dendra warrior would have been driven to the battlefield by his charioteer, where he would dismount to fight on foot. This means that he would not have needed to wear himself out walking long distances, instead driving to exactly where he had to be to face his opponents.

The armour may also not have been as cumbersome as is often assumed, as experiments with a replica have shown. Since the Dendra tomb contained a set of two swords, Piotr Taracha suggests that whoever wore the cuirass was a swordsman (Taracha 2007, p. 150-151), which seems a reasonable supposition if we assume that the assemblage in the grave is supposed to represent a complete set of equipment for one of the bodies who was buried there. The armour would have made the use of a shield redundant; Taracha even proposes that the owner of the panoply fought with two swords (ibid., pp. 151-152).

This photo shows the shoulder of the cuirass, with the throat guard and the shoulder guard. Note the loop that points towards the front, which means that the wearer would have been able to fasten this himself. Also note the holes along the edges of the different pieces: the different elements had originally been lined with felt or something similar, to make it more comfortable to wear. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

The various finds in the tomb form a familiar assemblage that is characteristic of elite burials of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages. Bronze armour would have served to enhance the physical appearance of the warrior, making him seem more formidable. In Homer, the gods are often described as “shining”, and any warrior encased in bronze, gleaming in the sun of the Greek summer, may indeed have seemed godlike in appearance. Bodily appearance was important to high-ranking members of society, as Paul Treherne emphasized in an article published in 1995. The presence of a bronze mirror, associated with the panoply, underscores that the owner would have taken care of his physical appearance.

Fine pottery used in the consumption of alcohol, found in this tomb, would have played an important role in the feasts where high-ranking members of society told each other stories, took measure of their rivals, and demonstrated their skills in negotiating social relations. Whoever owned the panoply, his family ensured that there would no doubt regarding the man’s elevated status.

A Mycenaean “Age of Plate”?

The tomb of the Dendra cuirass has been dated to Late Helladic IIIA, in absolute terms to around 1400 BC. Dendra tomb no. 8, where Persson found the pauldron that he misidentified as a helmet, is slightly earlier and dates to Late Helladic II, probably around 1450 BC. Absolute dates are an issue for the Late Bronze Age, so most archaeologists prefer to use ceramic phases instead.

Aside from the finds at Dendra, evidence for metal armour has since been found in a small number of Mycenaean sites. For the most part, these are all bits and pieces, including a bronze gauntlet from a chamber tomb near Mycenae, many fragments of armour plates from a tholos tomb near Nichoria, and so on (see Taracha 2007, p. 145, for a brief summary and references). A very similar panoply to the one recovered at Dendra was found in Thebes in 1964, but has yet to be published.

The armour from Thebes on display at the museum. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

There are no examples of metal armour that predate the Late Helladic II period. Metal armour also seemingly disappears from the archaeological record at the very end of Late Helladic IIIA or beginning of Late Helladic IIIB, or ca. 1300 BC, only to reappear sporadically during the Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Mycenaean palaces in ca. 1200 BC.

While the archaeological evidence for body-armour is fairly slight, there are ideograms in the Linear B tablets that resemble the Dendra panoply and that suggest that these suits of armour may have been more common than the material remains suggest. These are the Sc and Sk tablets from Knossos and the Sh tablets from Pylos, as well as a fragment from Tiryns (Si5). There is some discussion about the interpretation of the ideograms, but overall most people assume that they do indeed represent armour, and in some cases cuirasses similar to the one excavated at Dendra (Fortenberry 1990, pp. 46-55).

Still, bronze armour in general would have been expensive and was undoubtedly limited to high-ranking members of the palatial armies (Fortenberry 1990, p. 34), such as the heqetai or “followers” mentioned in the tablets and associated with chariots. A full panoply like the one unearthed at Dendra must have been even rarer still. But it is also worth pointing out only a tiny amount of material is preserved compared to what may once have existed, and many of the Mycenaean tombs have been looted over the course of time or have been subjected to repurposing as new bodies were added to the graves.

Anthony Snodgrass referred to the period between Late Helladic II and Late Helladic IIIA2/IIIB (or ca. 1500 to 1300 BC) as the Mycenaean “Age of Plate” (Snodgrass 1965, p. 106). It should be stressed that the term “Age of Plate” is mostly based on limited evidence from several Late Bronze Age palatial centres from Crete and Southern and Central Greece (but note the wide-ranging survey of European body-armour in Mödlinger 2017). Some high-ranking warriors in these regions may have been equipped with heavy armour during this period, but these will almost certainly have been a minority.

In any event, we can use the “Age of Plate” as a convenient shorthand for now. Chronologically, it follows the so-called “Shaft Grave” period, named after the burials unearthed in Mycenae’s Grave Circles A and B, which date to the very end of the Middle Helladic period and Late Helladic I. Again, the evidence we have is limited, but the challenge of archaeology is to do the best you can with what you have on hand.

During the “Shaft Grave” period, there is little evidence for armour. Schliemann found the remains of thick linen, which may have been used for a corslet, but the evidence is far from clear. Metal discs have also been recovered from the tombs which may have been used to reinforce linen or leather corslets, as may also have been the case in the twelfth century BC and perhaps all through the Mycenaean era (Fortenberry 1990, pp. 35-36).

The tombs have yielded swords as well as daggers, including the famous “Lion Hunt Dagger” from Grave Circle A. The latter gives an idea of what warriors were imagined to look like by the Minoan artist who made the object. They were almost naked, relying on large “body-shields” for protection. Their lack of armour may be realistic or may be an example of “heroic nudity” – we cannot really tell. Such warriors were, in any event, commonly depicted in the art of the period. For example, similar warriors are shown on the “Combat Agate” from Pylos that was unearthed not too long ago.

The dagger shows two types of shields: the more or less rectangular “tower” shield and the curious “figure-eight” shield. The latter carried some kind of religious significance, as it was also used as a decorative motif, in jewellery, and in iconographic scenes where it appears to be associated with deities. One of the warriors fights as an archer; the others use long thrusting spears typical of all military scenes of the Late Bronze Age. By contrast, short javelins are only ever depicted in hunting scenes before ca. 1200 BC (Fortenberry 1990, pp. 208-209). After 1200 BC, shorter spears, often carried in pairs, are a feature on Late Helladic IIIC pottery and beyond.

The blade of the Lion Hunt Dagger from Grave Circle A in Mycenae, dated to Late Helladic I. It is conventionally thought to have been made by Minoan craftsmen on Crete. The equipment is typical for this period. Men in kilts but otherwise naked engage in hunting lions. One of them is armed with a bow, while others carry large body-shields and fight using long, thrusting spears. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

With the start of the “Age of Plate”, shields appear to have fallen into disuse, and would only appear again in the succeeding period, i.e. “Late Mycenaean” (the thirteenth century BC, often including the Postpalatial period of the twelfth century BC). There is a pottery fragment from Tiryns dated to Late Helladic IIIB that depicts body-shields again, but its significance is hard to gauge (Fortenberry 1990, 5ff).

Toward the very end of the thirteenth century BC, or possibly the twelfth, we get the earliest pictorial evidence for the use of small, round shields. Shields of various form, including crescent-shaped ones as well as round and rectangular ones, become popular in the art of the twelfth century BC. The Warrior Vase from Mycenae offers a good example of what warriors may have looked like after the fall of the palaces.

Why did the Mycenaean “Age of Plate” end around 1300 BC? We can probably connect this with the final destruction of the palace of Knossos. As readers of Ancient World Magazine may remember, all the Minoan palaces on Crete were destroyed at the end of Late Minoan IB, marking the end of the so-called Neopalatial phase in roughly 1450 BC. The palace of Knossos is the only palatial centre that continued in use after these destructions.

During the succeeding phase, Late Minoan II (ca. 1470/1460 to 1420/1410 BC), it is clear that there is a Mycenaean presence of some sort in Crete, and that Knossos serves as the administrative centre for the entire island. We know that Greek-speaking people (Mycenaeans?) must have dominated the island politically because Linear A is no longer used in the tablets. Instead, we find the earliest examples of Linear B, which was used to write an early form of Greek and would also be used in the Mycenaean palatial centres on the Greek mainland.

The Warrior Vase from Mycenae, dated to the twelfth century BC. Note the crescent-shaped shields. These men are going on an expedition; they have small knapsacks tied to their spears. They do not appear to wear metal armour, but the image is less than clear. National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo: Sharon Mollerus.

Eventually, Knossos itself was destroyed yet again, in what is referred to as its final destruction. As a recent article by Chris Adamson makes clear, this “final destruction” did not mean that Knossos disappeared from the face of the Earth, but rather that it lost its significance as a centre of power on the island. The date of this destruction is a subject of hot debate, with some favouring a date around 1360 BC, while others argue for a later date, closer to ca. 1300 BC.

Whatever the date of the destruction, it has been suggested that Knossos was perhaps destroyed by a jealous prince – or a group of jealous rulers – from the mainland, since the Mycenaean palaces in the Peloponnese and Central Greece would reach their zenith in the thirteenth century BC. In mythological terms, this final destruction has been associated with the hero Theseus, even though the story of Theseus did not include the physical destruction of Minos’ palace.

Whatever the details, the material culture of the Aegean changed dramatically after ca. 1300 BC. Other sites also suffered destructions. It seems that the bronze trade and bronzeworking were interrupted, and large bronze objects such as vessels, but also armour like the Dendra panoply, disappear from the archaeological record. Minoan influence markedly decreases during this period, while the number of Mycenaean objects outside of the core mainland territories increases (Fortenberry 1990, pp. 65-66).

European plate armour

As outlined above, the evidence for plate armour in the Aegean after ca. 1300 BC is scant. There are some finds of metal armour, mostly helmets, that date to the Dark Ages. Plate armour reappears in Greece only in the late eighth century BC. The earliest evidence is a bronze panoply from a Late Geometric tomb in Argos (T45).

This tomb included a helmet – a so-called Kegelhelm – as well as a bronze cuirass, referred to as a “bell-shaped” cuirass on account of its shape. It consists of two plates, front and back, which are connected to each other by hinges on one side and leather straps on the other. The shape of the cuirass would have allowed the wearer to sit comfortably. Indeed, Anderson notes that it would have served a horseman well, since it allows one to sit without chafing the upper legs (Anderson 1961, p. 143). Paul Treherne notes that plate armour, along with the slashing sword and the spear, are associated with fighting from horseback in Central Europe (Treherne 1995, 110).

This tomb also included two iron firedogs in the shape of galleys, with the characteristic forefoot (where later vessels had a ram) and stern shaped like a scorpion’s tail. This may suggest that the owner of the tomb was associated with seafaring, a common élite endeavour in this time. Certainly, the fact that these were firedogs used in roasting meat associates the finds with feasting, a core activity of the élite in every period of history (Brouwers 2010, pp. 51-52).

A picture of the bronze bell-shaped cuirass and helmet unearthed at Argos in 1953. Snodgrass emphasized how primitive the helmet was in comparison to the cuirass itself. The helmet has a top-heavy crest and must have been impractical; it disappears before 700 BC and apparently transformed into the simpler and stronger “Illyrian” type helmet. The cuirass is almost identical to the breast- and back plates of the Dendra cuirass. Photo: AlMare.

The basic shape of the “bell-shaped” cuirass, as Snodgrass puts it, “does reproduce, in developed form, the basic features of the inner cuirass of the Dendra armour 700 years earlier” (1967/1999, p. 41). Snodgrass then wonders if there could be a link between the two. Despite the gulf in time that separates the Dendra panoply from the Argive one, the geographical distance is a mere 16 kilometres.

But Snodgrass doesn’t believe there is continuity from the Late Bronze Age to the Archaic period when it comes to plate armour (p. 41):

It seems to me impossible that there was direct descent […]. But to the north of Greece the situation was very different. In time, the Dark Age of Greece falls in the middle of a long and apparently prosperous culture-phase, centred in the middle and upper Danube: the Urnfield period, a feature of which is the varied bronze industry. The Urnfield peoples and their predecessors had been in prolonged contact with the Mycenaeans, and there was a substantial two-way trade in artefacts between Greece and Central Europe. It is very likely that the bronze plate-corslet was one of the commodities included in this traffic, for a whole series of bronze cuirasses has been found on sites in Central Europe, France and Italy.

Snodgrass doesn’t say explicitly, but the idea is that the plate cuirass was invented in the Aegean and then exported to Central Europe, where it persisted from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age. He points out that none of the cuirasses from Central Europe include the additional plates that were part of the Dendra cuirass (p. 42):

This fact, and the historical situation in eighth century Greece, make it quite credible that the Argos corslet (with, no doubt, its lost contemporaries in Greece) was freshly modelled on the European type, which the Greeks must have encountered at this time in their colonial ventures in Italy. (Specimens of the European corslet have been found at Naples and in Etruria.) As with the art of writing in Greece before and after the Dark Age, so with armour there is a change in attitude as well as a lacuna in time; and these together argue strongly against continuity.

There is another point that argues against continuity, and that is the fact that, as Ian Morris puts it, “Around 1025 BC bronze more or less vanishes from excavated sites in central Greece, being replaced by a previously rare metal: iron” (Morris 1989, p. 502). One of the reasons that the Bronze Age ultimately gave way to the Iron Age is that the trade in copper and/or tin was interrupted, making it too expensive, cumbersome or both to produce objects made of bronze (Morris 1989, pp. 503-506).

Two bronze cuirasses recovered from Marnesse (Haute-Marne) in France and dated to the ninth-eighth centuries BC. These are typical examples of the type of plate corslets encountered in Central Europe towards the end of the Bronze Age and first few centuries of the first millennium BC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

As such, the emergence of bronze plate cuirasses in Greece must be set within the context of expanding contacts with overseas regions (to procure the copper and tin necessary) and renewed trade with the peoples of Central Europe (to obtain the idea of making plate cuirasses). This corresponds to a general increase in wealth and overseas activities in the Argolid from the eighth century BC onwards.

Closing thoughts

The history of Mycenaean warfare is a fascinating subject of study, but also one that is little understood. Most non-specialists assume that the Homeric epics may shine some sort of light on the period, a point of view that I actively try to resist, which is why I have tried to keep references to Homer to an absolute minimum.

The discovery of the Dendra cuirass also demonstrates how quickly our view of a particular period may change. When Persson discovered a single bronze object in tomb no. 8, what was he to make of it? We may find it funny that he interpreted it as a helmet, but trailblazers are bound to make mistakes. The discovery of the full panoply in tomb no. 12 allowed archaeologists to re-interpret Persson’s “helmet” as the pauldron that it really was. It also revealed how advanced Mycenaean bronzeworking was at that time.

As archaeologists, we make do with scraps and try to write cohesive narratives about the past. Thanks to more than a century of archaeological research, we have reached a point where we are able to write a more or less cohesive history of Mycenaean warfare, where the Late Bronze Age is divided into roughly three or four periods: the “Shaft Graves” era, the “Age of Plate”, and the “Late Period”, with the latter incorporating the Postpalatial era of the twelfth century BC, according to the taste and intent of the author in question.

Still, the work is never done. Debates continue to rage about the date and interpretation of the armour tablets, the exact date of the final destruction at Knossos (and what this means with respect to Snodgrass’s “Age of Plate”), the connections between “Minoan” (Cretan) artists on the one hand and “Mycenaean” (mainland) warfare on the other, the military-political structure of the Mycenaean palaces, the role of chariots in combat, the possible Bronze Age elements in the Homeric epics, and so on.

One point that is clear, is that warfare in the Late Bronze Age Aegean is a fascinating topic of study. And among the many different types of evidence that we have available for studying this period, the panoply from Dendra tomb no. 12 will certainly continue to play a large role in the narratives we write about the Late Bronze Age.