Update On The Newstead Cuirass

The Bishop-Model Newstead: A Progress Report

By David S. Michaels / T. Flavius Crispus

This year, 2003, has seen the completion of Legio VI’s first three Newstead-type lorica segmentatae fully in keeping with the latest archaeological research, primarily by M.C. Bishop in England. As these are the first three cuirasses built to this pattern anywhere in the world, Legio VI’s experience with this price of equipment is of considerable scholarly interest. This article is a preliminary report on our experience with the Newstead; a more thorough treatment, with contributions from several re-enactors, will be included in a future edition.

There are many major differences between the venerable H. Russell Robinson reconstruction of the Newstead, which has been widely reproduced over the past two decades, and the M. C. Bishop model, as detailed in his book “Lorica Segmentata Vol. 1: A Handbook of Articulated Roman Plate Armor.” From the scanty archaeological finds available ca. 1970, Robinson envisioned a greatly simplified cuirass, without the hinges, brass tie loops and decorative bosses found on the earlier Corbridge models. Important finds in subsequent years, particularly a complete girdle section from Stillfried, Austria, have added considerably to the knowledge base available to Robinson. Bishop’s new model incorporates these new finds, and reveals the Newstead to be at least as complex as, but well as far more robust than, the older Corbridge. It utilizes large hinges to hold the collar section and upper shoulder guards together, a turnkey system to hold the upper left and right collar sections together, brass hooks and eyelets to hold the collar section to the girdle section, and an entirely new system of closing the girth hoops utilizing cast loops on one set of girth hoops which fit through brass-rimmed slots on the other set, held in place by a brass “split pin.” While an obvious improvement on Robinson’s foundational reconstruction, Dr. Bishop’s work raised some questions. For example, on first glance, the new girth hoop closures seem likely to result in a very rigid girdle section and make it virtually impossible for a soldier to don the cuirass without help from an “arming buddy.” Would these factors make the cuirass difficult to put on and / or uncomfortable to wear? Only a full-scale reconstruction could answer this and other questions.

Arik Greenberg (aka Darius Draconius Syracusius) completed the first of Legio VI’s new Newsteads in April of this year. His girdle section was based on Bishop’s original drawings, which were in turn copied from a set of plates comprising one half of a girdle section found at Zugmantel, Germany. This consisted of six curved plates, all getting slightly larger as they descended, culminating in a bottom plate about twice the width of the top one. Details of Arik’s construction of his Newstead can be found in his excellent article in the Spring edition of Ad Signa (and destined for the scholarly journal ARMA), now permanently posted on the Leg VI website under the “Equipment” heading.

Arik’s first attempts at donning his Newstead cuirass proved a little daunting. Getting the two sides of the cuirass onto his body, then overlapping the turning pins on the upper section and the tie-loops over their corresponding slots on the girth section, required several minutes of exacting effort from Arik and at least one companion. The girdle section provided the biggest challenge, as the natural tension of the metal and the tightness of the overlap between the upper and lower plates made for a lot of frustration. Once the loops were all fitted into their correct slots and the split pins inserted into the loops, however, Arik reported that the armor felt fully flexible, functional and even comfortable. He was even able to bend over at the waste and touch his toes.

The advantages over the older Corbridge-style cuirass, held together with leather straps, buckles and ties, were immediately apparent. Despite its flexibility, the Newstead has a much more solid, robust “feel” than the Corbridge. Once inside it, there is very little shifting of the plates relative to one another, and the overlap of the girdle section makes it particularly resistant to blunt force or penetrating blows. The use of turn keys, hooks, and the new girth-fastening system meant there were no leather straps or ties vulnerable to slashing, cutting or snapping under the stress of hand-to-hand combat. However, balanced against this was the apparent difficulty in putting on the Newstead relative to the Corbridge, which can be laced up in the back, then pulled on like a vest and quickly laced up the front. Although having an army buddy helps speed things along, a Corbridge can also be donned with no outside help.

As time went on, Arik and his helpers became much more adept at donning and removing his Newstead, cutting the required time to around 2-4 minutes. Experienced Roman soldiers, who must have put on their cuirasses daily, often during strenuous pre-combat conditions, no doubt became even more expert at the process and cut the time down further. Still, the inability for Arik to put on his cuirass without substantial outside help left us all wondering if there was some other factor or technique relative to the Newstead that we had yet to discover.

Legio VI member Jeff Bielor (Caius Marius Saturnius) completed his Newstead cuirass in September of this year. His upper section was fundamentally the same as Arik’s, however, his girth section was modeled on the Stillfried girth section, which employed seven girth hoops of the same width, instead of steadily increasing in size as on the Zugmantel find. The result was a notable improvement in the ease of donning the cuirass, particularly the girth section. With plates all the same width, it proved much easier to overlap the ends and fit the brass loop on one side into its corresponding slot on the other. Still, Jeff required an arming buddy to help him put his cuirass on. Did the Romans simply accept this as a limitation with the Newstead type, or did they consider it a limitation at all? After all, in legionary camp, there were plenty of helping hands available from among a soldier’s tent-mates.

I completed my own Newstead conversion early in November. I had actually started with an already finished cuirass made by Blacksword Armory to the old H.R. Robinson model Newstead. Since this already fitted my body rather closely, I used it as a prototype to determine whether it was feasible to turn the old Robinson Newstead into a more accurate Bishop model. I undertook the work in two phases, first disassembling the old riveted-together collar section and reassembling it with all the proper hinges and turnkeys in place. I wore the corrected upper section along with the old lace-up girth hoops for a few months as sort of a “Bishop-Robinson hybrid” before tackling the girdle section in October.

The girdle section was already midway between the Zugmantel and Stillfriend plates, with five sets of plates of the same width and a double-width bottom plate. Just to add a little more variety to our look, I based my girdle section on a single plate found at Iza, Bulgaria, in which the entire end of the slotted “female” iron girth hoop was covered by a brass plate (versus smaller rectangular brass plates surrounding the slots of the Stillfried find).

Upon completion of my girth section late one night, I was faced with the prospect of trying to put on my completed cuirass without the skilled help of any of my fellow soldiers, who had gained plenty of experience helping Arik and Jeff into and out of their cuirasses. I was excited by having a finished product and certainly didn’t want to wait until help became available. I remembered an idea suggested by Dr. Bishop in his book that most re-enactors had dismissed out of hand—that is, that the cuirass might be put on over the head in the same fashion of a mail shirt. It seemed a far-fetched notion that a rigid armor cuirass could be donned in the same fashion as a flexible mail shirt, but it was worth a try.

I fastened the back of the cuirass up on a bench, slipping turnkeys through slots on the collar section and slots over hoops on the girdle section, inserted the split pins into the turnkeys and hoops. To provide a little more flexibility, I left the front unfastened. I donned my padded subarmalis, then put my arms over my head, bent over, dove into the cuirass, stood upright, and left it slip down my body. As my head passed inside, I had a flash of insight that this was a foolhardy enterprise, that I could easily get hopelessly hung up halfway in, and that I lacked any plan to extricate myself if I got stuck, aside from screaming for help from my neighbors. To my surprise, my arms easily found their openings and my head popped out of its hole with almost no effort. After that, it took an estimated 30 seconds to fasten up the front and slip the split pins into
place. The whole process took a maximum of one minute. Thus did I learn that it is possible for a lone soldier to put a Newstead cuirass on by himself, although having a comilito nearby in case something goes wrong is certainly a good idea!

After putting on my Newstead, I was immediately struck by the same sensation reported by Arik and Jeff—a feeling of solidity, almost invulnerability, far greater than experienced wearing a Corbridge cuirass or the earlier model Newstead. I felt like a walking Abrams tank. Yet there was still plenty of flexibility where it was needed. I wore my Newstead for an entire day at the following weekend’s Marching Through History event and felt no discomfort while wearing it, nor any special aches or pains after taking it off.

To summarize, the Bishop-model Newstead presents no problems relative toconstruction, wearability, flexibility and comfort. Arik experienced a few minor problems in the first instance trying to come up with a quick andeasy way to put his cuirass on. Time and experience solved this difficulty, and Jeff’s Stillfried-based girdle section proved much easier to put on from the outset. Finally, my own experience established that, if needed, a soldier could put on his own Newstead without outside help.

Furthermore, our experience with the Newstead relative to the Corbridge points to why the Romans evidently considered it a superior evolution of the earlier type. The Newstead provides a greater sense of strength and invulnerability, and seems to be less susceptible to the snapped straps and popped hinges that surely plagued the earlier Corbridge and Kalkriese models. As more Bishop-model Newsteads come into use in Legio VI and we gain more experience in their use in the field, we will publish additional articles relating our observations. Until then, vale!