Living because of linen? Professor's project takes a shot at ancient armor

It may be a quiet time on campus, but for Prof. Greg Aldrete — whose project exploring the ancient use of linen-based armor has garnered widespread media attention – it’s yet another chance to showcase his signature research for an audience that has become international in scope.

Aldrete this week hosted a film crew from Kensington Communications Inc., a Canadian company that produces a documentary series titled “Museum Secrets.” The program explores the mysteries surrounding treasured relics housed in museums worldwide.

For the past six years, Aldrete and his students have been studying a mystery of their own, researching and constructing ancient armor created by laminating together layers of linen. Because of the perishable nature of the armor, no ancient examples survived into the modern day — meaning Aldrete, a professor of Humanistic Studies, and his Linothorax Project had little but images and literary references on which to base their work.

Prof. Greg Aldrete

“So we take those, and then we kind of tried to backwards engineer,” Aldrete said, “and say, well, if this is what it looked like in the end, what would the constituent parts have looked like, and how might they have been put together?”

And if solving a centuries-old mystery weren’t intriguing enough, Aldrete and his students have taken the project a step further through various tests — including those that involve shooting arrows at gutsy volunteers who don the armor in the name of experimentation. This week’s filming included an on-campus demonstration of just such a test, temporarily turning a popular UW-Green Bay green space from Frisbee golf venue to firing range.

Scott Bartell '07

UW-Green Bay alumnus Scott Bartell, a 2007 grad who helped initiate the project with Aldrete, was on hand to help with filming, both outdoors and in a makeshift studio on the fourth floor of the Studio Arts building. Bartell’s been on the receiving end of demonstrations before, he said — so he can personally vouch for the armor’s efficacy.
“I was a little nervous” initially, he said. “You know, I had confidence in the armor; I knew it would hold up. But still, you never want to be, sort of, on the other end of an arrow pointing straight at you, especially from less than 10 feet away. … (But) I had confidence in the armor; I had confidence in the archer.”

The armor also has held up through other tests that include slashing — as if from a sword — and blunt force impact, Bartell said. Advantages of linen-based protection include that it’s cooler, more flexible and easier to repair than its more-well known metal counterpart. Alexander the Great is among the ancient warriors known to have used this type of armor.

The “Museum Secrets” episode featuring the Linothorax Project likely will air this fall, according to David New, director of the episode. The program is set to begin its second season on Canadian television.

Bartell, meanwhile, is heading to graduate school — planning, perhaps unsurprisingly, to become a history professor. And Aldrete will continue the study of linothorax with students yet to come.

“I think it’s a nice example of faculty-student collaboration,” Aldrete said, “and also of how you can really sort of bring the ancient world to life — that, you know, it’s not just this dead, remote time, but by this sort of reconstructive archeology … it lets you kind of get a hands-on exposure to the ancient world.”

For more information on the Linothorax Project.

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