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Old 2nd March 2021, 12:30 PM   #1
Panoleon
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Default African cuirass?

I have bought this unusual cuirass. It is an iron cuirass with a crocodile skin lining. The skin is riveted to the cuirass with brass/copper rivets. On the front a cross made with ornamental studs. Dimensions 30 x 40 cm.
Can someone shed some light on the origins and date of this piece?
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Old 3rd March 2021, 02:01 AM   #2
Jim McDougall
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This is an incredibly interesting item, and in my view is likely an armor from Benin, in West Africa. These kinds of armor were worn by warriors of a kind of society known as a leopard hunting guild (in western perception). The leopard is highly feared in these regions, and typically the armor worn is a kind of cataphract style (overlapping scales) of the scaly anteater (pangolin).

However, the helmets accompanying these were often of crocodile hide, so it would seem possible that material would be used as well. It is noted that occasionally the materials might vary, and these are depicted iconographically in many figurines and art .While noted as a 'hunting' society these warriors were soldiers as well and these 'totemic ' identities of animals and reptiles seem prevalent in other West African 'societies' .

There was a 'crocodile society', whose activities like some of the other societies were pretty nefarious.

It could be this armor might have been from such a group as the 'crocodile society' as the members were believed to become crocodiles during the duration of activity.

Most armor of hides etc. in earlier times were strictly of animal material, along with magic talismans and imbuements which were foremost apotropaics.
It seems quite likely that with the advent of firearms, the addition of an iron under covering would be deemed reasonable in the latter 19th c.

So I would say, West African warriors cuirass, probably Benin, late 19th c.
The cross is a common holdover in West Africa from the Portuguese who deeply influenced the tribes. Rather than religious affectation, it was seen more in a talismanic or magic sense.
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Old 3rd March 2021, 06:20 AM   #3
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Thanks Jim, I am verry happy with your reaction.
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Old 3rd March 2021, 07:19 AM   #4
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So you'll hate me, but please remember, that our forum is open to discussions. And we never know what we will get when we post an item.

This armour looks like a 1950ties or 1970ties film prop.

The forging technique doesn't look African, from the inside. The rivets don't look Africans. The leather on iron plate doesn't make any sense to me.

The bad condition is another thing, may be it was stored in a basement with a lot of humidity.

The only thing that I can see as African is the crocodile skin, or maybe an alligator's skin from Florida...

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Old 3rd March 2021, 07:27 AM   #5
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Thanks Kubur, ups and dows, thats how it goes.
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Old 3rd March 2021, 07:35 AM   #6
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Some more detail on the rivets. They look like leather rivets.
It's a well made piece for a film prop. The cuirass does show hammer marks.
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Old 3rd March 2021, 02:51 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Kubur
So you'll hate me, but please remember, that our forum is open to discussions. And we never know what we will get when we post an item.

This armour looks like a 1950ties or 1970ties film prop.

The forging technique doesn't look African, from the inside. The rivets don't look Africans. The leather on iron plate doesn't make any sense to me.

The bad condition is another thing, may be it was stored in a basement with a lot of humidity.

The only thing that I can see as African is the crocodile skin, or maybe an alligator's skin from Florida...




Not at all Kubur! You have always made most astute and valuable observations here, and your suggestion is of course a viable consideration.
In looking at this most unusual item, it does not correspond in many ways to the West African armor I have described, however, as Christopher Spring notes in "African Arms & Armor", there seems to have been of course a degree of variations in styles and materials.

I think it is worthwhile to think of what sort of a movie or theatrical subject this would apply to. This sort of armor does not look 'Roman' or other classical types and surely would not be regarded as 'medieval' as the mail armor further east in Nigeria, Bornu into Chad which was actually often authentic European product.

When considering reproductions or 'props', there are certain 'nuances' which really would not be regarded as necessary to carry off the kind of allusion which such staged elements were intended for.
This pertains of course to the cross emplaced among the ornamental studding. A prop would require only normal linear studding.

Then the case of the actual 'iron' material. The use of such iron 'armor' to repel bullets was well known in a kind of 'experimental' stage in the last quarter of the 19th century. In clearly distant cases (to this African context) in Australia for example was the notorious outlaw Ned Kelly, who fashioned an elaborate suit of armor which looked almost like a theatrical robot for this very purpose. In the Civil War, there were instances of steel plates worn under clothing (usually quickly discarded for weight and discomfort).

As I had mentioned, in West Africa there were groups of warrior men (there was at least one womans as well) which were considered 'secret societies'. Much as with the Masonic situation and Freemasonry, there were often elaborate rituals, regalia and other such elements of organized protocol.

These groups were often engaged in subversive activity given the colonial occupations, as well as certain intertribal warfare. The traditions of these groups called for magically imbued armor (such as the pangolin hide or crocodile/cayman) as had been used for almost centuries.

With the modern threat of firearms becoming a key factor, why wouldnt a tribesman wear the traditional armor cleverly cloaking the bullet proof iron?
As mention, this is why I suggest late 19th century, in the period when these kinds of bullet deterrents were being tried.

In analogy, I was once researching an unusual Spanish leather armor (cuera), which defied any possible resemblance to the known rawhide jackets of the 18th century soldados. It looked more like a Roman toga with tassets and more strangely, was boiled bull hide (cuir boulli as had been used in earlier centuries in Europe for such armor).
The museum authorities insisted this had nothing to do with such armor, and was actually a 'santo' costume, figures used in Catholic churches.
This however did not explain the pragmatic process of the cuir boulli.

What I discovered was that this was a type of cuera indiginous to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and had been produced there during the Pueblo uprisings of 1690s. It had been found in a storage unit in Arizona after having been in it for decades. It was described as 'old Spanish leather armor', which of course was a stretch as it did not correspond to any such form known.

However, the break through was when an old painting (known as the Segesser) was discovered in Switzerland. The painting was by Indian artists (many Peublo were loyal to the Spaniards) from c. 1715. It was of an obscure and little known battle in Nebraska of Spaniards vs. French and Pawnee. In this, the Indian guides with the Spaniards were wearing THESE UNUSUAL CUERA!
The form had never been included in material on Spanish colonial arms as this painting, the only visual reference to it, had been sent to Switzerland by a Jesuit priest during their expulsion in 1770s. The painting was not found and recovered to New Mexico until 1980s. long after the references on Spanish arms had been produced.

Here I would submit, variations and curiosities cannot always be relegated to lesser context by absence of inclusion in references. The 'secret societies'of Africa, like these kinds of groups in many cultures etc. are often a kind of 'X factor' in studying certain types of anomalies in various fields.
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Old 3rd March 2021, 03:24 PM   #8
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I am not knowledgeable in this area of collecting however I would like to make a couple of observations based on past experience.
First, the piece is well made and somewhat complex, and manufactured out of expensive materials. This armor would not be conducive for mass production for a movie prop(s), both in regards to the cost and assembly time. I have seen modern armor movie props and they are quite cheaply made.
Next, if this armor had been procured in the 1950s through the 1970s, it would have been much cheaper to obtain these pieces from a firm such as the now-defunct Bannermans which had these items en masse. I personally procured at auction several very fine authentic pieces in the 1980s(or 1990s), when a major motion picture studio deaccessioned hundreds of items.
I am only speaking from a layman's point of view and not from a scholarly knowledge of this field; plus I really like the item!
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Old 3rd March 2021, 03:40 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by drac2k
I am not knowledgeable in this area of collecting however I would like to make a couple of observations based on past experience.
First, the piece is well made and somewhat complex, and manufactured out of expensive materials. This armor would not be conducive for mass production for a movie prop(s), both in regards to the cost and assembly time. I have seen modern armor movie props and they are quite cheaply made.
Next, if this armor had been procured in the 1950s through the 1970s, it would have been much cheaper to obtain these pieces from a firm such as the now-defunct Bannermans which had these items en masse. I personally procured at auction several very fine authentic pieces in the 1980s(or 1990s), when a major motion picture studio deaccessioned hundreds of items.
I am only speaking from a layman's point of view and not from a scholarly knowledge of this field; plus I really like the item!



Well noted!!! I had not thought of the expense factor !!
A few years back I had a pair of 'gator' boots made,......eeeaaughh! and I got a good deal. This stuff is expensive!

Bannerman's stuff flooded the markets and in my opinion literally fueled the arms collecting phenomenon. The movie studio decaccession's, I knew guys who really cleaned up on this stuff back in the 80s.
Hollywood in the golden years did indeed use many authentic items of arms and armor. Actually the famed Rudolf Valentino ('The Sheik') became so intrigued by the swords he experienced in the sets,he became a bonified sword collector with the ones he admired most.
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Old 3rd March 2021, 05:09 PM   #10
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Red face The poorest opinion

Can we take for certain that the 'nobility' of the outer part, croc hide and elaborated rosettes, has nothing to do with the inner iron lining? I have a problem in digesting that the original owner of this hide cuirass was the one who had the inside addition made. The time span between the two parts appears to be significant. Or could it be that someone else, in the greatest of fantasies, had the iron part made in order to prop up the historic hide and keep the cuirass upright and 'alive' ?.
Panoleon, how come that you can't be sure that the rivets are leather ? Can you take a closer look ?
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Old 3rd March 2021, 05:19 PM   #11
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The rivets are made of brass. They remind me of rivets that are used for combining pieces of leather. See the picture of the rivets I mean below. I'll make some better pictures tomorrow for some more detail.
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Old 3rd March 2021, 05:29 PM   #12
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Did you notice the two missing pieces and the kind of glue at the location of the missing pieces?
Are they the horses from Gladiator?
I wonder what was there...
It seems to have been circular, look at the marks in the leather...

Jim I wish to believe the African track, but this thing is too strange and as I said it doesnt make any sense. Some film prop are very well made.
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Old 3rd March 2021, 05:42 PM   #13
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At the British Museum there is a crocodile skin "cuirass", apparently used for cult purposes rather than for war, dating back to the Roman domination of Egypt (about 300 AD).

https://britishmuseum.withgoogle.co...-suit-of-armour
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Old 3rd March 2021, 05:56 PM   #14
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That would be the item you find in a zillion sources when googling on the subject. But doesn't seem to be one to help defining the the apparatus being discussed.
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Old 3rd March 2021, 06:03 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Kubur
I wonder what was there...

Perhaps I'm wrong, but my intuition tells me that there should be lead seals with protective spells in this place. Or with an inventory number and owner / arsenal name. Which is less likely.
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Old 3rd March 2021, 06:03 PM   #16
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Thanks for al the reactions. I have made some detail pictures.
The model of the rivets don't look extremely old. I dont know when this type of rivets got in to use.
@ Kubur. Indeed. It looks like two round pieces are missing. Maybe some sort of atachment for leather slings to carry the cuirass. The grey stuff isn't glue, its some sort of molten metal. Probably lead.
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Old 3rd March 2021, 06:46 PM   #17
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Which would be the points fixing the hide to the inner part and those of the cuirass decoration ...


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Old 3rd March 2021, 07:01 PM   #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ren Ren
Perhaps I'm wrong, but my intuition tells me that there should be lead seals with protective spells in this place. Or with an inventory number and owner / arsenal name. Which is less likely.



well noted!!! in a number of the statues and art relating to these armored men there seem to be attachments of some kind. There were often amulets in the form of written invocations etc. in small containers attached in strategic places.
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Old 3rd March 2021, 07:04 PM   #19
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Duccio
At the British Museum there is a crocodile skin "cuirass", apparently used for cult purposes rather than for war, dating back to the Roman domination of Egypt (about 300 AD).

https://britishmuseum.withgoogle.co...-suit-of-armour



This is exactly the circumstance I was referring to, 'cults' , These cults remained quite active well into the 20th century.
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Old 3rd March 2021, 07:36 PM   #20
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Quote:
Originally Posted by fernando
Can we take for certain that the 'nobility' of the outer part, croc hide and elaborated rosettes, has nothing to do with the inner iron lining? I have a problem in digesting that the original owner of this hide cuirass was the one who had the inside addition made. The time span between the two parts appears to be significant. Or could it be that someone else, in the greatest of fantasies, had the iron part made in order to prop up the historic hide and keep the cuirass upright and 'alive' ?.
Panoleon, how come that you can't be sure that the rivets are leather ? Can you take a closer look ?



Exactly. I had meant to suggest that by saying 'the traditional old armor ' implying that the animal hide as used in older armor, may have been modified to protect the wearer against the modern threat of firearms. Here I noted that the use of iron sheeting (as used by Ned Kelly in Australia) was known by the end of the 19th c. and that members of these cults (I called societies) may have 'upgraded' their traditional armor to 'bulletproof'?

In ethnographic cultural context, traditional old items are often refurbished n order for use as heirlooms in the traditional convention.
Yes, in native sense arms and armor are in a sense 'alive', however in the addition of material to continue the 'life' of the armor, why not use leather liner instead of this heavy, hot, and extremely uncomfortable shield...unless it was infeed meant to deflect bullets.

Blades on swords are known to exist in native spheres for not only generations, but centuries. One of the oldest blades I recall us finding in the Sahara was medieval, around 15th c. and had apparently been in circulation for probably several hundred years. These blades are traditionally rehilted as they pass down through either family or trade.

Kubur, it is indeed an unusual item, and your idea of a prop of some kind is of course possible. Here I would note that another item I was involved in researching was a leather armor of cataphract (scaled) form was found in Texas desert near El Paso in the 1890s by an army trooper. It was heralded as evidence of Spanish exploration in the area from 16th c. The item was known as a 'mantle' and worn over shoulders.
Subsequent research revealed that the item had possibly been a costume element with a theater troupe or ceremonial item perhaps from fraternal group regalia. While the item was of significant age, it was certainly not 16th c. and likely repurposed in later use as suggested.
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Old 4th March 2021, 11:29 AM   #21
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This is an interesting and enigmatic item, thanks for posting. Was there any provenance to the piece ?

From the images, I am doubtful the cuirass was made in Africa, taking into account the style, method of construction and materials used. Although there is a possibility it was used in Africa. The brass/copper studs have a distinctive and recognizable pattern and are surely European made. The two flat round metal studs with remains of lead covering, the one one the left... is there a number "5" showing ? are they coins ? "

My feeling is there are two possibilities of origin :-

1. Its an early movie prop of the "Sword and Sandals" or "Peplum" genre. These in fact date quite far back to pre WW1 days and cuirasses in the style were popular. This is before the days of plastics, fibre-glass etc. I had a quick look at "Scipio Africanus : The Defeat of Hannibal" 1937 on YouTube. There are lots of cuirasses, although I didn't see one with crocodile hide.

2. Its a an object made up in Europe as a gift to a West African chief or potentate in the 19th century or earlier (either for his use or his bodyguards). Either a genuine breastplate or a Victorian reproduction could have been used and the croc hide covering would be deemed an appropriate touch. The crocodile being an important symbol in West Africa. Giving showy and gaudy items (such as uniforms, swords etc) to African rulers was common at the time, to facilitate the ivory and slave trade. Ridiculous as it may seem there is precedent ... when the Polynesian Omai was returned to Tahiti in the late 18th century by Captain Cook, one of the gifts he was provided with was a suit of armour !

The wet climate of coastal West Africa could account for the poor condition of the cuirass, which eventually found its way back to Europe as a curio.

Anyway, those are my hypotheses such as they are.
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Old 4th March 2021, 11:39 AM   #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Panoleon
@ Kubur. Indeed. It looks like two round pieces are missing. Maybe some sort of atachment for leather slings to carry the cuirass. The grey stuff isn't glue, its some sort of molten metal. Probably lead.


I don't think that the missing round pieces were for attachment, they are too low and studs are placed above and will disturb any leather slings.

Have you seen the cross in the middle (studs) maybe it's a Christian thing...
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Old 4th March 2021, 12:45 PM   #23
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Given all that has been said, and on a second (third) thought, i would start from square one ...
... In that a guy had a piece of croc hide and decided to make a cuirass with it; a mock one, as for purposes other than for combat. The iron sheet he used looks too thin to avoid bullet penetration; look at the foldings. On the other hand, the decorative rosettes were not original to the hide, or their beaten nails would not show up in the present interior.
It also looks as the iron shell was a piece of iron salvaged from previous purposes, as denounced by those vertical series of useless holes.
This would takes us to two options; a theatrical prop or, some native setup ... this for fun or symbolism purposes. I would chose the indigenous setup, simply because i wouldn't see a prop maker getting hold of such old and fragilized piece of skin for modern purposes; after a couple takes in action, all those scales would crack and fall apart.
I bet you guys find this a feeble approach; but just don't tie me to the whipping post .


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Old 4th March 2021, 02:20 PM   #24
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No provenance, unfortunately.

The cuirass is actualy quite heavy. The arrows are pointing to a leather piece. Not the folded ends of the iron.

I'm happy with al your reactions. It's a remarkable piece and I have learned a lot!
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Old 4th March 2021, 02:48 PM   #25
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So ... how heavy is it, Panoleon ?
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Old 4th March 2021, 04:17 PM   #26
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Hmmmm,
I WONDER if this could be a kind of regalia for use by a member of one of the secretive guilds or societies known in West Africa, one that comes to mind is the 'Crocodile guild'. There are others known as 'Leopard hunters' etc. who used the scaly anteater (pangolin) hide, however they wore crocodile hide helmets, so the use of crocodile hide is quite possible, if not likely (as per Spring, op.cit. noting variations of materials used).

Whether bullet proof or not, natives tended to believe something would be bullet proof if the 'magic' afforded it was intended to make it so. Examples are the war shirts emblazoned with symbols worn by American Indians, amulets used in the Sudan with the jibbahs worn etc. Native peoples were not necessarily well informed in the dynamics and ballistics of firearms, but were inclined to follow more the word of their shamans, medicine men etc.

To take an old cuirass, bolster it with iron for structure and protection from bullets to me, makes sense. This especially if within the protocols, ritual and regalia of thee West African warrior societies.

As for diplomatic gifts, it has been my understanding that such items were notable quality examples representing the culture of the presenter, not imitations of those they are giving it to.

The cross, as I had previously noted, was a commonly applied device from the Portuguese presence in West Africa, and adopted by the native people as a significant symbol of power or magic. It seems this became a well used element in West African material culture.

The use of European components simply reflects the influence, which was of course well established there.

Basically, why would anyone ship crocodile hide to Europe, to make a cuirass to send back to Africa?

The cueera (leather cuirass I mentioned earlier) made in New Mexico, by Pueblo artisans for the Spaniards, was fashioned using the long obsolete (in Europe) cuir bouilli process and styled in an ancient classical fashion of Rome.

The 'recyclng' and repurposng of materials is well known in Africa, in Sudan and other regions sword blades are made of old truck springs. Old coffee tins and misc. products are found in all types of native made items.
I still recall the Sudanese helmets embellished with forks and spoons .

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Old 4th March 2021, 04:23 PM   #27
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Quote:
Originally Posted by fernando
So ... how heavy is it, Panoleon ?


2,2 kg.
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Old 4th March 2021, 04:45 PM   #28
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Kubur
I don't think that the missing round pieces were for attachment, they are too low and studs are placed above and will disturb any leather slings...

Tht's a good reasoning; but whatever devices they were, and for whatever reason, the owner found them dispensable. A riddle by itself.
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Old 4th March 2021, 06:59 PM   #29
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall
... I WONDER if this could be a kind of regalia for use by a member of one of the secretive guilds or societies known in West Africa...

Here you beat me, Jim; esoterica falls out of my jurisdiction .

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall
.. bullet proof or not, natives tended to believe something would be bullet proof if the 'magic' afforded it was intended to make it so...

Perhaps those under such influence wouldn't even need to armour the cuirass with iron in the first place ? .

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall
.. peoples were not necessarily well informed in the dynamics and ballistics of firearms, but were inclined to follow more the word of their shamans, medicine men etc...

A bit of a reducive approach, i am afraid.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall
...To take an old cuirass, bolster it with iron for structure and protection from bullets to me, makes sense...

You mean taking an old reptile skin, not a cuirass; we don't know if it was already an armour implement before the present assembly, do we ?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall
. The cross, as I had previously noted, was a commonly applied device from the Portuguese presence in West Africa, and adopted by the native people as a significant symbol of power or magic. It seems this became a well used element in West African material culture...

More precisely, managing to christianize their kings, giving them diplomatic gifts (quoting you) which in such way became symbols of power, although not easily accessible to their subjects. But that is another story.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall
...the use of European components simply reflects the influence, which was of course well established there.

Like saying that this discussed cuirass shape follows European patterns ? could well be.
For your archives i will here upload a rare XV century breastplate, with the Cross of Christ embossed (collection Rainer Dahenhardt).

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall
Basically, why would anyone ship crocodile hide to Europe, to make a cuirass to send back to Africa?

You got me wrong, Jim; my bad english fault. My understanding places both croc hide and the hard chest piece in the same environment.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall
.The 'recyclng' and repurposng of materials is well known in Africa, in Sudan and other regions sword blades are made of old truck springs.

Like in other continents; comes to mind cangaceiros (and not only) swords made of truck springs in Brazil.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall
... I still recall the Sudanese helmets embellished with forks and spoons .

Yet Panoleon cuirass shows us an austere posture.


Yours faithful.


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Old 5th March 2021, 01:27 AM   #30
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Quote:
Originally Posted by fernando
Here you beat me, Jim; esoterica falls out of my jurisdiction .


Perhaps those under such influence wouldn't even need to armour the cuirass with iron in the first place ? .


A bit of a reducive approach, i am afraid.


You mean taking an old reptile skin, not a cuirass; we don't know if it was already an armour implement before the present assembly, do we ?


More precisely, managing to christianize their kings, giving them diplomatic gifts (quoting you) which in such way became symbols of power, although not easily accessible to their subjects. But that is another story.


Like saying that this discussed cuirass shape follows European patterns ? could well be.
For your archives i will here upload a rare XV century breastplate, with the Cross of Christ embossed (collection Rainer Dahenhardt).


You got me wrong, Jim; my bad english fault. My understanding places both croc hide and the hard chest piece in the same environment.


Like in other continents; comes to mind cangaceiros (and not only) swords made of truck springs in Brazil.


Yet Panoleon cuirass shows us an austere posture


Yours faithful.


.




Excellent redaction of my synopsis Fernando !!!

Looking into the esoterica of symbolism in the study of ethnographic arms and armor is pretty essential to help identiify and classify items which are not neatly categorized in the usual references.
It is rather like the study of Masonic swords and regalia in the 'Western' sense. Personally I find it one of most fascinating aspects of research, and I guess that evolved from the study of markings and inscriptions in sword blades over many years.
Actually, you helped me many times with numbers of those.

It is quite true that if a native warrior was sufficiently convinced of the apotropaic potential of the talismanically imbued armor (actually reptilian hide fashioned into a cuirass possibly European influenced in form)...the iron shield would be redundant.
However, even tradition bound to wear the armor which has been faithfully worn in the earlier years of these societies, it would not be surprising to see the use of the iron under shield pragmatically , given the more modern dynamics of firearms.

While it is true that this metal would not deflect a bullet of high velocity, it must be remembered that in the 19th century, black powder rounds were of low velocity. In many instances, rounds barely penetrated the target owing to many circumstances, quality and condition of powder, improper loading etc.
Getting into the debate on these ballistics issues of the effectiveness of these firearms used in these regions in the 19th century is beyond the scope of this discussion, but certainly pertinent with respect to my observation.

One analogy I would add however, was the case of an American Indian chief in Texas territory in 19th c. known as Chief Iron Shirt. He apparently wore either a cuirass remnant or perhaps mail from an earlier Spanish explorer, and the warriors believed he was magic and impervious to bullets, as they literally bounced off of him.
His luck ran out one day when a sharpshooter's round entered his body through an exposed spot from likely an upraised arm.

That said, whether the natives who wore these types of armor believed the assurances of metaphysics or took the pragmatic approach would be a matter of considerable speculation in qualifying, so my comment was perhaps too broadly noted.

The presence of the Christian cross is simply noted to recognize the West African likelihood of the European styled 'cuirass' (made from reptile hide) as seen often in their material culture there. This feature is also seen in the stylized interpretations of European swords with these on the quillon terminals (usually regarded as Congolese but the influence was from Portuguese traders in West Africa). It has been my understanding that these crosses were seen more in a magic or power sense than any sort of religious quantification.

Best
Jim
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