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GOT MAIL?

WE’VE GOT MAIL

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

We are selecting objects for a new permanent display of metalwork on the first floor (Lower Gallery). Whilst searching through the museum’s reserve collections at our off-site storage facility  we found this wonderful board mounted with different types of mail armour. Mail is often referred to as ‘chain mail’ – terminology introduced by Sir Walter Scott in his 1822 novel “The Fortunes of Nigel”.

This assemblage was collected – and possibly arranged – by General Pitt-Rivers himself. Pitt-Rivers collected from many sites in London during the 1860s, often as part of early ‘salvage archaeology’ excavations during groundworks for civic construction projects such as the London Underground and the Victoria Embankment.

C17th-centruy mail with rounded jumped (butted) rings and f
lat, welded rings. 1884.31.41. 5 © Pitt Rivers Museum

The pieces of mail are described in an early catalogue of 1874 as “Twenty fragments of Chain armour. European and Oriental”. The hand-written labels date some of them to the XVII (17th) century, and several are recorded as being recovered from the “Thames Embankment”. The board has clearly been put together as an exhibit rather than a cataloguing or storage device. We have no record of whether it was ever displayed at the Pitt Rivers Museum but it may well have been displayed in Bethnal Green Museum (now the V&A Museum of Childhood) and South Kensington Museums (now the V&A) where the General’s archaeological and ethnological collection was first shown to the public in London from 1874-1878 (Bethnal Green) and from 1878-1882 (South Kensington), before being donated to the University of Oxford in 1884.

The board was arranged to show a variety of different types and gauges of linkage variations within the single category of ‘mail armour’ – a neat demonstration of Pitt-Rivers’s concept of ‘typological’ arrangements. Some samples are of butted or ‘jumped’ mail, arranged in alternating rows with solid welded rings. Butted rings were the cheapest type of mail to make and buy, though the most vulnerable to a well-placed thrust from a sword or spear. Each ring is linked to four others in the European ‘4-in-1’ style.

There were also examples of what seemed to be imitation rivets – perhaps to give the illusion of quality or strength – plus large-gauge hooked mail with spiral links, which may have been worn by horses in conjunction with solid barding armour.

Mail with possible imitation rivets (left) and hooked mail, possibly for horses (right)
1884.31.41. 15 and 1884.31.41. 13 © Pitt Rivers Musuem

The different pieces of mail were fixed to the painted wooden board with metal staples. Many of the metal rings were suffering from corrosion and rust and some links were missing. When the items were sent to our Conservation lab, our conservator Andrew rearranged tangled links and cleaned the metal with a sponge and stiff brush.

Of the twenty small pieces, a handful demonstrating the different mail types were chosen for the new Metalwork display. One substantial piece of fine mail was arranged flat on the left side of the board, rather like a half-folded T-shirt, but in fact consisted of a tube that opened out into a flat piece. Perplexed, we consulted the experts. Staff at the Royal Armouries were very helpful and Thom Richardson, Keeper of Armour and Oriental Collections, suggested it was part of C17th-century pajama zereh (mail trousers), worn by an Indian Mughal warrior.

Half riveted mail armour, identified as being part of Indian pajama zereh (mail trousers), India. 1884.31.41. 3
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Next, Andrew considered how to create a mount that would both support the mail for display and illustrate how it would be positioned on the body. Using a template from the armour, and based on his own leg, he made a liner out of calico, and filled it with polyester wadding. After padding it out to form a rough leg shape, he then tacked the mail to the calico with cotton thread. Research indicated this is not too dissimilar to how the armour would have been worn, as it would originally have been sewn to fabric trousers. Mail armour can adjust to many shapes and is very heavy, so this mount should support most of the weight and hopefully help visitors understand how it was worn.

Andrew at work in the Conservation lab making a new display mount for the pajama zereh leg armour
© Pitt Rivers Museum

You can see just how much work has to go into preparing just a few objects. You will be able to see the mail armour, alongside up to 200 other objects, in the new Metalwork display on the first floor this summer. In the meantime, you can still find examples of full mail shirts, plus various other armours (plate, lamellar, brigandine) upstairs on the Upper Gallery or here on our Arms and Armour site.

Helen Adams
VERVE Project Curator
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