Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egyptian weapons: Protective equipment - shield, helmet, body armour
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Shields, helmets and body armour


Man-high shield, 20th century BCE     The shield was used to any large extent since the second millennium. It restricted the warrior who wanted to protect himself with a shield in his choice of weapon. Bows for instance had to be handled with both hands. Thus sometimes a shield-bearer accompanied the archer: The Hittite chariots Ramses II fought at Kadesh were manned by a driver, an archer and a shield-bearer. This in return required bigger, heavier and thus less fast and manoeuvrable chariots.
    Big shields were heavier, limiting the time they could be carried, the speed with which the soldiers could advance and their field of vision. Protection was paid for with the effectiveness of the attack.
    The shield's size was also dependent on the main weapon it was to protect from and changed over the times. In the 20th century, when Egyptians had not yet come into conflict with Asiatics, man-high shields behind which the whole body could be hidden, gave good protection against showers of arrows.

    When defending oneself against directed blows of battle axes or swords, smaller shields, which were more easily handled, were a better choice. Thus the tall shields disappeared during the 2nd millennium.

20th century BCE     Shields were made of wood, often in conjunction with leather or rawhide.
Production of the New Year's gifts: chariots of silver and gold; statues of ivory and ebony; necklaces of every costly stone; weapons of warfare, works of all craftsmen
and the list includes pictures of seven shields with the words
leather of [///] 680
Tomb of Amenken, treasurer of Amenhotep II
J. H. Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two § 801f
    During the New Kingdom bronze was sometimes used. Metal plate shields were heavier than leather shields with wooden frames, and did not necessarily afford better protection.
    At Oxford University a leather covered wooden frame shield and a bronze shield were constructed similar to shields used in ancient times. Attempts at piercing them with a sword and a lance were made. While the bronze shield was split by the sword and pierced by the spear, the leather shield with its higher elasticity was not penetrated.
Shield     The shields were held by a handle or a leather strip fastened to the centre of the frame (see photograph below). At times attempts were made to free the shield arm for offensive action, or at least for carrying another weapon. The shield was carried by a strap slung over the shoulder and was thus reduced to a passive piece of armour protecting one side of the body.
Warrior of the Sea Peoples with a round sword, 20th dynasty     The round shield was an import from the Aegean. The Sea Peoples were depicted using them in Egypt, at first against Ramses III and later as mercenaries against the pharaohs' enemies. The form doesn't seem to have had any intrinsic military value, but was rather a local tradition which spread over much of the eastern Mediterranean.
Amenhotep III - Source: L.Casson, Ancient Egypt


    Just as in civilian life, Egyptians at war rarely covered their heads, the pharaohs being the exception.They often wore special headgear. At the festival in Luxur during Horemheb's coronation
came forth to the [rear] in the palace the majesty of this august god, Amon, king of gods, his son before him. He embraced his beauty crowned witht the royal helmet, in order to assign to him the circuit of the sun. The Nine Bows are beneath his feet.
J. H. Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three § 30

Mercenaries     The Asiatics which the Egyptians fought, were often helmeted:
List of booty which the army of his majesty brought away from [these foreigner]s: .... 13 inlaid corselets; 13 bronze [suits] of armour ////; 5 bronze helmets for the head; 5 bows of Kharu; ...
J. H. Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two § 501
    Foreign mercenaries serving in the Egyptian army continued their own traditions, which, if they were Europeans like the Sherden or Philistines, or Asiatics, generally meant wearing helmets. Nubians on the other hand are never shown helmeted.

Body armour

Ramses fighting as charioteer     Because of the climate, very little armour was ever worn in Africa. Sometimes broad leather bands covered part of the torso of charioteers, but generally soldiers are depicted without any body protection.
    Again the pharaohs were - not surprisingly - the exception. Ramses II fighting as a charioteer was portrayed wearing scale armour with sleeves, covering the whole torso. His legs were of course protected by the chariot.
He seized his weapons of war; he girded his coat of mail; he was like Baal in his hour.
The Poem of Pentaur
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume II, p. 64
Armour scales made of copper and iron

Scales made of copper (top) and iron (bottom)
The scales had holes and were sewn onto the fabric.
Source: Petrie Museum website

    A large number of the Asiatic enemies of the Egyptians seem to have worn armour. Thutmose III captured at Megiddo
One fine bronze coat of mail belonging to that enemy. One fine bronze coat of mail belonging to the prince of Megiddo. [Leather] coats of mail belonging to his wretched army: 200.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume 2, pp. 33f

    Often the use of armour was symbolical or for ostentation. Golden corselets of mail with precious stones were made for members of the royal family and gods are at times depicted wearing armour.
Amen is clad in red and green chain armour [1]. The skirts of the goddesses are inconceivably scant ; but they are rich in jewellery, and their headdresses, necklaces, and bracelets are full of minute and interesting detail.
Amelia B. Edwards A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, Chapter VII: Siut to Denderah


Battering ram     Soldiers attempting to destroy walls or batter gates were especially vulnerable. As early as the 20th century BCE attempts were made to protect them by shielding them with portable shelters. Egyptian siege warfare was never very effective compared to that of the Mesopotamians who developed battering rams on wheeled carriages, which protected sappers quite well.
Picture sources:
[  ] Linedrawing of warrior with shield and battle axe: R. Gonen Klay nesheq qdumim
[  ] Head of Amenhotep II: L. Casson, Ancient Egypt
[  ] Sherden mercenaries, excerpt: L. Casson, Ancient Egypt
[  ] Linedrawing of shelter: R. Gonen Klay nesheq qdumim
[1] Scale armour rather than what we today think of as chain armour.

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-Impact weapons: The club and the mace
-Edged weapons: The axe, the sword, the spear
-Projectiles: the throwstick, the javelin, bow and arrows, the slingshot
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Update: December, January 2004