1800-year-old chain armor reconstructed using video game tech

The new approach reveals how flexible armor was used in antiquity—and how “barbarians” innovated without the Romans.

About 200 A.D., a high-ranking Germanic warrior was slain in battle somewhere in modern-day Denmark. When the battle was over, his killers stripped off his precious coat of mail armor, painstakingly made by hand from nearly 20,000 tiny iron rings. Then they threw it in a bog as a sacrifice to their gods in exchange for victory in battle.

Known as the Vimose coat, the 22-pound piece of armor was discovered by archaeologists near Vimose, Denmark in the late 19th century. The armor is nearly complete, preserved by unusual low-oxygen conditions in the bog.

More than 1,800 years after it was deposited, researchers are using technology developed to power video games to figure out how the mail coat was worn, and how it might have hung on its long-dead owner—all without actually putting it on. A final report on their research was published Wednesday in the Journal of Cultural Heritage.

Researchers trying to understand how people in the past dressed have it relatively easy: The way fabrics stretch, fold and hang is familiar. “The texture is stretchable and soft and not so heavy. It responds to gravity in a certain way,” says Aleksei Moskvin, a co-author of the study and computer scientist at the Saint Petersburg State University of Industrial Technologies and Design. 

Reconstructing how mail armor (sometimes referred to as chain mail) was worn, however, is a deceptively difficult challenge. The thousands of tiny, interlocking metal rings that make up a coat of mail—a type of armor that emerged around 300 B.C. and was worn into battle for centuries by everyone from Germanic tribes to Roman legionaries and Spanish conquistadores—are different. The way gravity tugs on one link ripples out to influence the way the others hang and move. Mail laid flat on a table bunches differently than it might when draped over a warrior’s shoulders.

That’s not the only reason researchers struggle to understand how ancient armor was worn and used. “You cannot put on such an ancient artifact,” says Martijn Wijnhoven, an archaeologist at the VU University Amsterdam and co-author of the study. “If you want to interact with it in order to test how it behaved, you have to come up with other solutions.”

Using cutting-edge technology developed for the video game industry, Moskvin and Wijnhoven led an effort to do just that. Curators at the Danish National Museum allowed Wijnhoven to put the coat on a mannequin to see how the real thing looked when worn.

Then the team used computer code written to power video games, called engines, to individually model individual rings in the Vimose shirt and “hung” the digital version on a virtual mannequin. The biggest challenge: Calculating the physics behind the way nearly 20,000 individual rings interacted. “Twenty or 100 rings—it’s not a problem,” Moskvin says. “But it’s difficult to simulate the interactions between 19,000 rings.”

Once the research team demonstrated that a computer could accurately recreate the mail armor, they used computer models of clothing found in similar bog deposits to see how the virtually reconstructed mail armor would look, fit, and function on a fully-dressed warrior in battle. “I really like this kind of approach,” says Gregory Aldrete, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay who was not involved in the research. “You can only get this kind of information when you run these kinds of simulations and explore different variables, and that’s what they did. This is the payoff.”

The model showed, for example, that wearing a belt on top of the mail coat would distribute the weight of the chain links more evenly and prevent it from shifting in combat. And it was roomy and stretchy enough to accommodate a thick felt undergarment for extra padding and protection in battle.

Because most mail recovered from archaeological excavations is fragmented and often badly corroded or damaged, the Vimose coat was a perfect proof-of-concept. As one of the best-preserved coats of mail in the world, it’s “a great choice of piece to feature in such experimentation,” says Jonathan Coulston, an archaeologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who was not involved in the research.

In the future, the researchers hope to apply their technique to other samples of mail armor from the distant past. “Based on just two or three well-preserved rings,” Wijnhoven says, “we can reconstruct the entire weave.”

That, in turn, could offer insights into the priorities of ancient armorers and their clients. Did they make their mail heavy and stiff, prioritizing protection? Or did they prefer light and flexible weaves? “It’s possible to test things in virtual reality we would never be able to test in real life,” Wijnhoven says. “Can you sit on a horse with it? Can you run around with it?”

The work could be “very helpful,” Coulston says. “It would be interesting to see … how far it could be applied not just to movement while worn, but for studies in actual protection against missiles and edged/concussive weapons, to measure blunt and sharp-force trauma.”

Although it started as a proof-of-concept for the computer simulation, the research is already yielding new insights. The simulation suggests the Germanic warrior who once wore the Vimose mail favored flexibility, choosing large, thin rings that resulted in a lightweight coat of armor.

And their close inspection revealed something else. Wijnhoven says archaeologists used to think “barbarians” beyond the borders of the Roman empire weren’t sophisticated enough to make their own mail, instead relying on imported armor or gear looted from Roman legions.

But the neck opening of the Vimose mail was fastened with an ingenious strap system on either side of the neck that made it possible to widen or narrow the opening, altering the fit at the same time. “It’s a unique feature not found in the Roman Empire,” Wijnhoven says. “That alone tells us a lot about technology and society.”

The technique, meanwhile, could feed back into video games or movie special effects, allowing designers to realistically depict armor on screens big and small as video game platforms get powerful enough to handle the intense computing required. And someday, Wijnhoven hopes, it might arrive at a museum near you.

“How cool would it be to fit yourself out digitally with this clothing?” he asks.

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