Reconstructing The Newstead Lorica

A Critical Review of the Bishop Version 1.01 Newstead Lorica Segmentata

in the Wake of A Prototype’s Creation

by Dr. L. Arik Greenberg, PhD.

As a professor in the field of Religious Studies, with a concentration in Christian Origins and the Religions of Greco-Roman Antiquity, I spend most of my time dealing with texts of the Hellenistic and early Roman-Imperial periods. Being a member of the Legion Six Historical Foundation in Los Angeles, California (a Roman military reenactment society), I have had the distinct pleasure of engaging in experimental archaeology within the period of my academic research, a refreshing departure from text-based research. It has also been my distinct pleasure to be the first member of any group to complete a physical copy of M.C. Bishop’s newest reconstruction of the Newstead lorica segmentata, and to have fashioned with my very own hands the first of these physical reconstructions of Bishop’s conceptualization. On Thursday, April 17, we displayed this armor in public for the first time during a presentation to the Classics and Theological Studies Departments of Loyola Marymount University. We all owe a great debt to Dr. Bishop for having seen fit to update earlier reconstruction attempts by H. Russell Robinson, adjusting certain features to reconcile with recently uncovered archaeological evidence.[1] I would also like to acknowledge that Matthew Amt of the Legion XX reenactment group[2] has also begun an attempt at fashioning a copy of Bishop’s reconstruction, but to the best of my knowledge has not yet completed his project. It was Mr. Amt’s notes on the Legion XX website that gave me numerous pointers in fashioning and completing my own Newstead. We do, indeed, ‘stand upon the shoulders of giants.’

In the current article, it is my intention to give a relatively detailed account of the process of building the first physical copy of the Bishop Version 1.01 of the Newstead Lorica, giving my assessment of Bishop’s blueprints in light of the archaeological evidence, noting places of difficulty in the construction, offering suggestions for improvement of the design, and leaving words of advice for other reenactors and armor enthusiasts alike regarding future attempts to fashion copies of Bishop’s Newstead V1.01. This article is not a ‘work in progress’, but a preliminary report, chronicling the first stage, called by Bishop “construction”, of the reconstruction process of ancient military equipment through the adjunct field of experimental archaeology.[3] As such, I accept his universally broadcast summons to publish and confer amongst ourselves on the subjects at hand. As he states, “In order for the results of any sort of experimental archaeology to be taken seriously, they must be published” (italics his).[4] Due to the nature of this review, my sources are few, and my footnotes will focus primarily on Bishop’s recent, brilliant monograph, as well as his blueprints for a full reconstruction of the Newstead, made available on the website of the Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies, Vol. 10 (1999).[5] While evidently, Bishop’s ideas have changed on some points over the last four years, and his newest conceptions are chronicled in his 2002 monograph, the blueprints on the aforementioned website are currently the only ones available for usage and I therefore must treat both sources as concurrent. His monograph offers ideas and reconstructions supercessory to that in the JRMES vol. 10 website, but it contains no printed plans for reconstructing a Newstead lorica segmentata.

We began with 18 gauge mild sheet steel to approximate the level of flexibility and resilience of the Roman iron used for the original loricae. The brass for the lobate hinges, rosette discs and vertical fastener enclosure fittings, was cut from .030″ sheet brass, having been designed on a computer assisted design (CAD) program by the head of our group, fashioned to match Bishop’s blueprints. The rivets used were a combination of #9, ½” copper belt rivets and 1/8″ x ½” dome headed brass rivets. The leather straps which joined together the segments of the armor were of 5/6 ounce cow hide infused and made supple with olive oil. The three straps joining each half of the shoulder sections were 3/4″ wide. The three straps connecting the plates of each half section of the girdle (known as girth hoops) were 1″ wide.

The brass of the hinge sections was annealed, shaped and joined around a hinge pin, then tempered to return to its original hardness. Brass discs and vertical fastener enclosures were also annealed, stamped with patterns of repoussé, and then re-hardened through tempering. Next, all steel plates were cut from the sheet steel matrix to the scale of Bishop’s blueprints. The breast- and backplate sections were drilled to accept 1/8″ brass rivets and then joined to the mid-collar plate with the brass lobate hinges. The three-piece upper shoulder guard sections were joined in the same way as the breast-, backplate and mid-collar sections. The lesser shoulder guards were cut to scale as per the blueprints.

It is difficult to tell in many of the diagrams and photos published of Newstead type pieces, whether the linch pins of lobate hinges were positioned directly over the gap between plates, or whether the plates overlapped, leaving the lobate hinges set deeper into the center of one of the pieces joined, as we see with many Corbridge examples. The majority of the diagrams of Newstead-type artifacts, provided by Bishop in his book, do not readily provide an answer to this question. The hinges on most of these examples have been have been worn away. Neither is his blueprint extraordinarily clear on this issue of overlap. The hinges found at Carnuntum, however, seem to display a possible mixture of types of backset upon the plates, while the Carlisle backplate clearly shows a placement of the hinge that would indicate a sizeable overlap. Due to my lack of experience in fashioning armor, my initial assumption was that the plates do not overlap beneath the hinges; thus this may be seen as a mistake in my manufacture that should be corrected in future models and should serve as a caveat for other novice armorers.

The breast- and backplates were drilled and cut to fit the front and rear turnkey closure devices. Brass fittings for the closure were riveted in place. Three turnkeys were fashioned out of 3/16″ brass bar stock. These were inserted through holes drilled in the left side breast- and backplates framed by the brass furniture, then peened in the rear or the stem. This is a modification of Bishop’s employment of the turnkeys from the Alba Iulia sports breastplate.[6] Bishop’s method suggests a turnkey having a cross piece perpendicular to the shaft, with the steel plate around the hole being cut with a slit to accept the turnkey and then re-flattened to retain it. My modification lacks the cross piece perpendicular to the shaft, instead peening the rear of the shaft. The strength of the whole device should be comparable to the Alba Iulia type. While strength of the inserted shaft is compromised in eliminating the cross piece, the strength of the overall assembly is retained by refraining from slitting and bending the steel around the hole. The main advantage to this is that there is less excess material to cause a secondary injury to th individual, should a direct blow be sustained to the chest. With the Alba Iulia type, a parade and ceremonial piece not intended for combat, the excess material of the cross-piece extends too far behind the plate and could potentially cut the wearer in combat. There is no reason to assume that the very pragmatic Romans might not have employed a simple modification of the parade model, such as this one, especially since no male pieces have yet been found in conjunction with incontestable Newstead-type contexts. I would not consider this a significant modification of Bishop’s design, but a necessary adaptation for combat usage of an ideal type used only in pomp and circumstance.

Next, all shoulder guard pieces were drilled to accept rivets for leathering. All pieces were bent, curved and shaped to conform to the shoulders of the wearer, and then riveted, starting from the lesser shoulder guards first, and consecutively up to the back- and breastplate sections. Copper belt rivets were used for all holes in the lesser shoulder guards covered by superior plates. The exposed holes in the upper shoulder guards and breast- , collar- and backplates were filled with brass, domed rivets. The central strap was riveted to each consecutive segment, beginning with the extreme of the lesser shoulder guards, at 1″, 1″, 2″, 1 3/4″, and 3 1/4″, ending at the hole in the mid-collar plate. The front and rear straps were riveted at similar distances and locations, save for those that splay progressively downward. In these cases, every effort was made to follow Bishop’s blueprint, even when certain designs seemed inefficient. It occurred to me that modifications could be negotiated later. However, one other modification was made out of necessity. The leathering point of the backplates is at a location too low to be feasible. The strap would take such a sharp turn from the rivet of the upper shoulder guards to the backplate that excessive strain would be placed on the strap, causing it to buckle or tear rapidly. A modification was introduced out of necessity, while still trying to stay true to Bishop. The strap was continued from the upper shoulder guard in a natural line to the top of the backplate, riveted to a new hole just below the lobate hinge. A short section of strap was extended from the same rivet on the upper shoulder guard to the original hole designated by Bishop on the backplate. It was this lower, original hole that was fitted with the rosette-decorated disc spacer beneath the rivet. As such, Bishop’s original design was honored, but the cuirass was altered to preserve the integrity of the leathering. Overall, with minor modifications, the completed shoulder guard assembly proved an extremely versatile and well-fitting piece providing excellent mobility. The tendency of the longest of the lesser shoulder guards to bind against adjacent segments is minimal, compared with previous reconstructions of the Newstead.

Next, the girth hoops were cut and fitted according to the scale of Bishop’s blueprints. With the bottom hoop rolled and flared to suit the dimensions of the wearer, the widths of the hoops, from top to bottom, were 2 1/4″, 2 1/4″, 2 5/8″, 3″, 3″, and 4 1/8″, respectively. The lengths of the hoops were cut to fit the body of the wearer, allowing for a sufficiently thick subarmalis worn beneath, adding 2″ of overlap to the front and rear of the girth hoops. Each plate was bent to fit the curve of the wearer’s midriff. As per Bishop’s blueprint, hooks were fastened to the outside of the top girth hoop to act as male vertical fasteners, one in front and two in the rear of each girdle half. For strength, 3/16″ steel rod was used for these fasteners, following Matthew Amt’s example of forging hooks out of thick brass rods. The flat, forged section of each steel hook was then riveted to the girth hoops with two rivets. Ultimately, holes were drilled in the breast- and backplates to accommodate these vertical fastener hooks. Brass fittings decorated with repoussé, were placed to frame said holes.

Next, an important modification of Bishop’s plan needed to be added. The progressively widening girth hoops of Bishop’s reconstruction, coinciding with the tab-in-hole closures he has included according to archaeological evidence, result in a system of overlapping and dovetailing plates. The system proposed by Robinson in which the entire right half of the girdle overlaps the entire left half, employed also in the Corbridge lorica, will not work with this reconstruction. It is my contention that for the current reconstruction to function, there must be sufficient mobility in the girdle section for combat. The amount of overlap in the progressively widening plates would preclude normal movement if the right half overlaps the left half or if the closures are located in the middle of the width of the plate. Flexion at the waist would be severely limited to an unreasonable level, due to the minimal space between the closure rings and the next plate. With the Zugmantel girth hoop configuration, if the closures are directly centered on the width of the girth hoops as per the blueprints, the closure rings will most probably contact with the bottom of the next higher plate, thus effectively limiting the wearer’s range of motion to an unacceptable level. Bishop’s diagram of the Zugmantel girth hoops is not clear as to the placement of the closures.[7] In the blueprints on the JRMES site, they are centered as to the width of each hoop. In my construction, the closure is moved to the lower extreme of each plate. Therefore, each plate must overlap, right over left, and dovetail with the next layer of paired, overlapping plates. This way, mobility is preserved and the Zugmantel style of progressive width is employed to its best capacity. I will return later to this to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this overall design. As such, special fittings of brass were placed over holes in the right half cuirass to frame the openings. Closure rings were cut from 3/16″ bar stock brass, inserted in holes cut in the plates of the left half cuirass to match the openings in the right; holes for split rings were then drilled in the closure rings.

Next, the girth hoops were connected by the leather straps, using #9 copper belt rivets. The overlap of each plate increased from top to bottom. The distance between each rivet and the next was as follows: 1 3/4″, 1 3/4″, 2″, 2 1/4″, and 2 1/4″, respectively. As per Bishop’s plans, the bottom plate is left unclosed, to be cinched by the military belt (balteus or cingulum).

Fitting adjustments were accomplished as necessary, including cutting excess steel from the front and rear of the girth hoops to cause the edges of the plates to line up with one another. The overlap of descending plates causes a natural taper in the shape of the girdle section and the result is that the excess overlap in front and rear increases with each descending plate, causing an unsightly diagonal graduation of the closure mating that could also interfere with the leathering straps internally, preventing proper closure. Lastly, the shoulder section of each half-cuirass was joined with its half-girdle section. The male vertical fasteners were bent back upon themselves to join upper and lower sections permanently and securely.

The piece, as constructed, offers excellent flexibility and mobility. The range of motion when using the arms, for tasks such as throwing pila or drawing gladii, is very good, with little or no binding of the various plates of the lesser shoulder guard. Bending at the waist is also unimpeded by the style of girth hoops employed, since the front and rear closures had been adjusted to suit this dovetailing design. Overall, the piece is very versatile and sturdy. Even Bishop mentions that there is a supreme amount of rigidity in the torso region of the cuirass that has not been experienced in other types of lorica, particularly the Corbridge types. As such, this may be one of the advantages to this type of armor, providing superior protection for the wearer.[8] In future months, the cuirass will undergo more rigorous testing during events attended by the Legion Six Historical Foundation. In keeping with Bishop’s earlier mentioned tripartite scale of degrees of reconstruction of the lorica segmentata, the piece will undergo the second and third stages of passive and active usage. Bearing in mind the obvious limitations of experimental archaeology (ibid.),the results will certainly be very enlightening.[9]

One of the disadvantages of this style of armor is the difficulty associated with donning it. Due to the overlapping design of the girth hoops, there is little room for the plates to be moved aside and adjusted while setting them in place during the initial task of interweaving them and fastening the closure rings. With another legionary assisting, the whole process can take as long as ten minutes! I suspect that tricks will be learned and methods refined, the more frequently this armor is worn, just as I am sure the Romans must have had certain methods of donning the armor efficiently and quickly. It seems the most efficient way is to fasten the rear first, since there are more closures and they run higher on the body than the front. The front would then follow, to secure the cuirass on the wearer. I suspect that versions of this armor patterned after the Stillfried , Iza and Carnuntum finds would leave girth hoops with an even wider range of motion and less difficulty in fastening, due to the nature of the narrower and more numerous hoops. Essentially, there would be more distance between the closure ring and the lower edge of the nearest girth hoop.[10] It is this point over which I would like to take issue with Bishop. Despite the uncertainty of the Newstead designation of the girth hoops found at Zugmantel[11], and also the rarity of that style, Bishop nevertheless chose to employ this design and incorporate it into his abstract of the Newstead cuirass. In his book he even states explicitly, in his general description of the Newstead type, that there are typically seven or eight girth hoops of equal width.[12] As such, he makes the exception the rule, creating a standard based on the rarer finds, ignoring the more numerous examples of girdle sections that have seven or eight girth hoops of equal widths. While it is important to employ the Zugmantel girth hoops in a Newstead cuirass, for the sake of experimental archaeology, it is not entirely appropriate to call this a “Newstead” cuirass if the girdle section cannot be definitively proven to have belonged to the Newstead type. Perhaps the reconstructed version that incorporates the Zugmantel girdle should be called the Zugmantel-Newstead variant. Nevertheless, what we have proven in this endeavor is that the Zugmantel style of girdle can in fact be effectively combined with a Newstead shoulder section. This suggests that it was entirely possible for a variant to have existed in units that employed Newstead-type armor in which the girth hoops progressively widened toward the lower sector. This may have reduced the labor involved in fashioning a set of lorica, increased protection of the wearer, while leaving flexibility uncompromised. This is indeed a very worthwhile discovery.

Also regarding the girth hoops of this Zugmantel-inspired girdle, Bishop suggests in his book that on the standard Newstead type, there would be an upset or bound edge on the top hoop just below the arm. Citing the Stillfried and Iza examples, as well as evidence from León, he suggests a copper alloy binding as well to the top edge of the top girth hoop and to the bottom edge of the lowest girth hoop.[13] These innovations are lacking in his blueprint, once again opting to incorporate Zugmantel rarities as the standard, rather than treating it as the exception. The vertical male fasteners which connect the upper section to the girth hoops is depicted in the blueprints as being on the outside of the hoops. In his text, Bishop states that on the Stillfried find, they are fastened to the inside of the hoop and are directed through a hole at the leathering point to the exterior, then passing through the holes in the breast- and backplates.[14] This is one of the reasons I used steel in my prototype construction. As the hooks were to be fastened to the exterior, in keeping with the blueprint (so as to rule out any variables in the maiden voyage of this cuirass), I knew that the hooks would be pulled outward by the weight of the cuirass and would require extra strength in the material used. Indeed, more than one steel hook began to bend at the riveting point after only one usage. I have since begun modifications to my cuirass, replacing these with brass fasteners more in keeping with the archaeological finds, positioning these in the inside, as per the Stillfried finds.

Additionally, there is no evidence for the leathering point of the mid-collar plate to have been so close to the rolled edge of the neck opening. Even Bishop suggests in his monograph that the leathering point is close to the outside edge.[15] His reason for placing it where he does on the blueprints of the Newstead is unclear to me.

Lastly, there is conflicting evidence as to the placement of the leathering points on the breast and backplates. Many of the artifacts are badly worn in the areas that would correspond with these leathering points. Bishop’s blueprint suggests leathering points at the outer edges of the breast- and backplates, approximately halfway along the vertical edge of the plate. While the breastplate leathering point will work with Bishop’s plan, the backplate will not. The curve of the strap would be too sharp, traveling from the upper shoulder guards to the backplate rivet. This would cause the leather to tear rapidly. As earlier stated, I was forced to modify this location. However, regarding the physical evidence, none of the examples diagramed by Bishop in his book clearly demonstrate a leathering point in accordance with the location proposed by his blueprint. Even his general description of the Newstead indicates a leathering rivet toward the center of the breast- and backplates.[16] Some of the physical artifacts clearly display a copper alloy, disc-headed leathering rivet in a centrally located position on the breast- or backplates. The Zugmantel and Carlisle finds are two examples of this.[17] The backplate from Eining clearly displays a copper alloy rivet in a central position, despite the lack of a disc-shaped head.[18] Only the Newstead type-find pieces are ambiguous enough to suggest that the missing material may have been occupied by leathering rivets in either the central positions or in the edgeward positions suggested by Bishop’s blueprints. Additionally, the copper-alloy, disc-headed rivets, decorated with repoussé, would be obscured by the upper shoulder guards if they were allowed to remain in their edgeward position on the back- and breastplates. This would obviate the usefulness of the repoussé. These contradictions between his very clear descriptions of archaeological evidence and his earlier work within the blueprint launched on the JRMES website are merely points of interest which I wish to bring to the attention of anyone attempting to construct a Newstead after mine. Essentially, I find no error with Bishop’s descriptions of the standard lorica segmentata in his 2002 monograph, nor do I have any quarrels with his scholarship. It is the blueprints of his Newstead V1.01 that need to be updated to match the detailed descriptions of the Newstead-type in his book.

We owe Dr. Bishop a debt of gratitude for having undertaken his newest reconstructions of the Newstead lorica. My criticisms are not meant to be disrespectful in any way, but rather in the spirit of a scholarly partnership which is naturally shared by those of us in the varied ends of academia, paid or volunteer, professional or recreational. I mean to respond, as would a gentleman, to Dr. Bishop’s ideas, offering correctives where I see problems, and using this forum to help direct the overall knowledge about the physical remains of what was once the glory of Roma.