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The Museum Conservation Institute


Linking the Past

Mail armor (chain mail) is an obvious source of early wire, though it was also fabricated from sheet and from strands.  Unexpectedly, the opportunity came to SCMRE to study links from the controlled excavation of a well-dated site.

The Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto (b.1500) led an entrada (expedition) from Florida to the Mississippi River, where he died in 1542. He and his companions landed at Tampa Bay and spent their first winter, from October 1539 to March 1540, encamped somewhere in Florida. The site of the encampment was finally located in 1987 in Tallahassee. There the excavator, Dr. Charles R. Ewan, found a number of links of mail armor.

Mail armor is sometimes called, incorrectly, chain mail. The small links of iron were assembled into the 16th-century equivalent of a bullet-proof vest. The men of the entrada were also equipped with firearms called arquebusiers, and crossbows whose bolts were tipped with iron quarrels. The native Americans of this area were the Apalachee, who were armed only with bows, and arrows with stone points, yet it quickly became evident that the iron armor of the Spanish was no protection against the Apalachee arrows. Perhaps some of the Spanish were unconvinced of this. In any case, according to the contemporary account by Garcilasco de la Vega, de Soto arranged a test of the protectiveness of their mail armor. A captured Apalachee warrior was ordered to shoot at a basket covered with mail at a distance of 50 paces. His arrow passed completely through it. In fact, his arrows could pierce two sets of mail. From this moment mail armor was obsolete. The Spanish substituted quilted cloth.

The links that Dr. Ewan excavated in Tallahassee were heavily corroded, some totally mineralized. Most were in fragments. Some of these fragments were sent to the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research & Education for study. In order to find any uncorroded metal that might remain, we cut them open metallographically and examined the resulting surfaces in a scanning electron microscope. We concluded that he links were not made of steel (an alloy of iron with carbon) but of a nearly pure iron. The grain structure in the metal was extended lengthwise, showing that the links were made from pieces of iron wire, and in one link we were lucky enough to find the tiny rivet used to join the two ends.