Toby Capwell, our Curator of Arms and Armour, reports back from his trip to Germany and the successful attempt to solve the mystery of the ‘Puzzle Armour’.
A few years ago the Bavarian Army Museum in Ingolstadt, Germany, acquired the very intriguing fragments of a mid fourteenth-century body armour, or ‘coat-of-plates’. Since very few examples of this once common form of medieval armour survive, this find was extremely important. The pieces were found in the ruins of a German castle by an amateur archaeologist, who did not record anything about the context of the find. He also, unadvisedly, attempted to clean and reassemble them himself, having no apparent knowledge either of historical armour or modern conservation practices.
When the pieces were offered for sale in Munich, the fragments were hastily assembled on a torso mount. The pieces remained in this assembled configuration until early this year, when the BAM invited a small group of arms and armour specialists from other museums to come to Ingolstadt to formulate a new and better informed reconstruction of these fascinating bits of medieval metal. I was pleased to join the team, and off we went to Bavaria.
Joined by, among others, my fellow curators of arms and armour Dirk Breiding (Philadelphia Museum of Art), Alfred Geibig (Kunstsammlungen Veste der Coburg) and Dr. Raphael Beuing (Bavarian National Museum, Munich), and hosted by the BAM’s curator Dr. Tobias Schönauer, we began by taking the previous assemblage apart completely. This way we can examine and interpret each of the forty or so fragments separately, preventing the examination from being influenced by anything other than the nature of the given piece itself.
The attempt to put all of the fragments back together in something resembling the correct locations was challenging to say the least. It felt very much like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with forty or fifty percent of the pieces missing, the available pieces having had their original external surfaces completely removed, and with no box cover image to work from.
Nevertheless, quite a lot of progress could be made. The pieces still could tell us quite a lot. Their degree and type of curvature, the presence or absence of rivets (and if present, their number and orientation), and their basic shapes all could potentially reveal quite a lot about where on the armour they came from.
Certain parts, such as what was obviously the main chest plate, could immediately be located with certainty. The nature of the original edges on some other of the plates helped us to understand where they belonged on the body- whether they came from an edge of the garment, or from somewhere in its midst, whether they were likely to belong on the front or the rear, and so forth. Comparing what we were beginning to understand about the original garment’s type, design and date, we were also able to start matching up the developing new assembly to mid fourteenth-century depictions of similar armours in German medieval art, in manuscript illustrations but most importantly on sculpted funerary effigies.
One of the most significant features of this armour are its surviving ‘arming chains’. These were mounted on the main chest plate and originally used as ‘safety lines’ of a sort, to attach the wearer’s sword, dagger, shield and helm to his body, to prevent them from being lost in combat. While students of arms and armour are familiar with such chains from artistic depictions, these are the first surviving ones to be discovered. This important aspect makes this armour a crucial type-specimen and primary reference for our understanding of the evolution of medieval armour.
When completed, the new reconstruction had several important advantages. First, it made use of all the surviving pieces, which the previous attempt did not. Secondly it revealed that parts of the sides and back of the garments apparently had survived, while the previous assembly had concentrated solely on the front. Finally, enough of the armour was shown to survive that a much enhanced overall impression of the piece could be formed.
The reconstruction project was a wonderful example of how curators of different collections, with different interests and different kinds of experience can collaborate in order to better understand an enigmatic object which might seem utterly confounding and mysterious to any one person working on their own. It also demonstrates how a curator’s duties can extend out far beyond one’s own museum, and how collections of a similar type all over the world are dependent on each other for mutual inspiration and support.
I am very grateful to Dr. Schönauer and to Dr. Ansgar Reiß, Director of the Bayerisches Armeemuseum, for inviting me to contribute to the project and for the rare opportunity to handle this extraordinary object. During the recent visit we also discovered a number of fascinating connections between our two collections, which I hope we will be able to explore in future research projects.
Dr. Tobias Capwell
Curator of Arms and Armour