Evidence #193 | May 18, 2021

Mesoamerican Armor

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The use of armor, including thick clothing, described in the Book of Mormon is consistent with various forms of protective armor used in ancient Israel and Mesoamerica.

Armor in the Book of Mormon

While armor was known and used by some peoples during some periods of Book of Mormon history, at other times it was not. The text’s first mention of amor is set in Jerusalem around 600 BC, when Nephi wore Laban’s armor to impersonate him (1 Nephi 4:19).1 In other instances, armor is spoken of metaphorically, as in Lehi’s admonition to his sons to “put on the armor of righteousness” (2 Nephi 1:23).2 Most references to armor are in relation to military conflicts set in the New World.

The first mention of armor among the Nephites is among Limhi’s people during their conflicts with the Lamanites (Mosiah 21:7). The Lamanites, for their part, often fought without armor, especially during early periods of Book of Mormon history. Enos mentioned that the Lamanites in his day only wore “a short skin girdle about their loins” when they fought (Enos 1:20). Several generations later, Zeniff recorded that the Lamanites “were naked; and they were girded with a leathern girdle about their loins” (Mosiah 10:8). In later times, however, the Lamanites are said to have been girded with armor as well (Alma 3:5).

Painting of Captain Moroni by Walter Rane

The materials with which armor was made are not always specified (Mosiah 21:7; 3 Nephi 3:26; 4:7). During a conflict with Zoramite dissenters who had allied themselves with their Lamanite enemies, Moroni’s armies “were dressed with thick clothing” (Alma 43:19). This armor of thick clothing, as well as the adoption of protective shields, gave the Nephites a strategic advantage over their opponents, most of whom “were naked, save it were a skin which was girded about their lions” (Alma 43:20). Later, the Zoramites and the Lamanites adopted a similar form of armor. “And they had also prepared themselves with garments of skins, yea very thick garments to cover their nakedness” (Alma 49:6).

Armor in the Bible

In pre-exilic Israel, some individuals such as King Saul and his son Jonathan had suits of armor (1 Samuel 14:1; 17:38–40). However, T. R. Hobbs observes that the “extensive use of body armor was both costly to a land with few resources, and probably unnecessary.”3 The scarcity of archaeological examples and textual references to armor “suggests that average Israelite and Judean soldiers were not equipped with such armor.”4 It seems instead to have been reserved for kings and elite soldiers, such as Laban (1 Nephi 4:19).

Nephi Dressed as Laban. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Mesoamerican Armor

Various forms of armor were known to pre-Columbian armies, including armor made of thick cloth, as the Book of Mormon suggests.5 Armor, however, could be costly to make. At Teotihuacan, for examples, “not all soldiers could have been equipped with costly armor, and most doubtless did without.”6 Among the Lowland Maya, “ordinary warriors seem to have worn only a loincloth,”7 just as did the unarmored Lamanites in the Book of Mormon. Ross Hassig, an authority on pre-Columbian warfare explains, “Although armor offers substantial protection, it also reduces mobility, seriously disadvantaging shock-weapon fighters seeking to close with the enemy.”8

Mesoamerican warriors without protective armor. Image via research.mayavase.com. Photo by Justin Kerr.

Although not all pre-Columbian peoples made use of armor, evidence from Mesoamerican art and historical sources indicate that it was a key element of Mesoamerican warfare from an early period. Figurines from the Early Formative site of Tlatilco (1400–1100 BC) in the Valley of Mexico portray warriors donning what some scholars have interpreted to be armor.9 Terracotta figurines from Jalisco Mexico show warriors donning helmets and bucket-like armor which extends from above their shoulders to their waists (100 BC–AD 250).10

Standing Warrior with Club, between 100 BCE and 250 CE, from Jalisco. Image and caption info via dia.org.

 

A Warrior between 100 BCE and 250 CE, from Jalisco. Image and caption info via dia.org.

Another figurine from Colima, Mexico (200 BC–AD 200) shows a warrior brandishing a large club and what appears to be a similar form of armor.11 The armor shown in these examples is similar to a much later ceramic figure from the Tarascan region.12 Together, these examples suggest that forms of armor were known in parts of western Mexico from an early period down to Aztec times.

According to Hassig, several forms of armor were also known at Teotihuacan, as depicted on figurines from the Xolalpan phase of the site (AD 450–650).

Made of quilted cotton, this armor was as much as two or three inches thick and found in two basic types … one covered the entire body and limbs like mail, whereas the other was a type of tunic that extended only to the knees. This armor was effective against atlatl darts at a distance and could stop glancing or weak spear thrusts but was not completely proof against darts cast from close range or powerful spear thrusts. Nevertheless, it was very effective against slingstones which relied on impact rather than penetration, and this protection grew as atlatl fire forced slingers back to greater and less effective distances. However, the armor was too bulky to wear on the march and was used primarily in set-piece battles rather than ambushes or other guerilla-type actions.13

Maya Warrior Figurine. Image via latinamericanstudies.org.

Spanish historical accounts describe the use of armor among the Aztec and the Maya. The Aztec’s cotton armor “was stuffed and quilted and was so thick that an arrow or dart could not penetrate it.”14 A similar form of armor “that could resist many blows to the body” was used by the Maya of the Yucatan.15

The Maya of highland Guatemala had sleeveless jackets which extended to the waist. “These were made of “doubled blankets with layered cotton in between and then back-stitched with heavy cord so that no type of arrow could pass through, nor would a macana of knives cut through it.” These “resisted arrow and fire-hardened sticks the enemy threw at them.”16 Pedro de Alvarado said that the Quiche “wore cotton breastplates three fingers thick, and armor down to their feet.”17

Decorative Metal Armor

There is only one reference to metal armor in the Book of Mormon. King Limhi’s men who discovered the ruins of the Jaredites brought back a number of artifacts as evidence of what they had seen. “And behold, also, they have brought breastplates, which are large, and they are of brass and of copper, and are perfectly sound” (Mosiah 8:10). The content of the passage suggests that such metallic objects were rare and therefore worthy of note. It is not clear from the text whether these breastplates were entirely of copper and brass or if those metals ornamented breastplates of other materials.

A Jaredite wearing amor. Painting by James Fullmer (The Death of Lib). 

While no examples of metal armor from the time of the Book of Mormon have been found, there is evidence that some armor had metallic ornamentation in pre-Columbian times. Juan Diaz described a gift of decorative armor given to Juan Grijalva during his expedition to Mexico. One chieftain of Tabaco “dressed him with a breastplate and bracelets of gold, lace-shoes ornamented in gold, and on his head he placed a gold crown which was of very delicate leaves of gold.”18

This description is notable. As Daniel Brinton observed, “Nowhere else do we find such complete defensive armor. It consisted of helmet body pieces, and greaves for the legs and arms, all of wood, covered neatly with copper or gold plates, so well done that the pieces looked as if they were of solid metal.”19 The armor was clearly ceremonial in nature, as the gold ornamentation would have had no practical value.

Conclusion

The Book of Mormon’s references to armor are consistent with evidence from biblical times and ancient Mesoamerica. In the Old World, Laban was the type of elite military commander who might be expected to possess armor in ancient Israel. In the New World, the variability of military attire among Book of Mormon peoples, with some groups fighting in loin cloths while others were protected by armor, is reflected well in ancient Mesoamerican societies, including during Book of Mormon times.

As appears to have been the case in the Book of Mormon—where thick clothing was an effective deterrent against weapons such as the bow and arrow, and slingstones (Alma 43:20)—most Mesoamerican armor appears to have been fashioned from cloth materials to create a thick barrier of protection from enemy weapons, particularly projectiles.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 348, 418–419.

William J. Hamblin, “Armor in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 400–424.

1 Samuel 14:11 Samuel 17:38–401 Samuel 31:9Mosiah 21:7Alma 3:5Alma 43:19Alma 43:21Alma 46:13Alma 46:21Alma 49:63 Nephi 3:263 Nephi 4:7

1 Samuel 14:1

1 Samuel 17:38–40

1 Samuel 31:9

Mosiah 21:7

Alma 3:5

Alma 43:19

Alma 43:21

Alma 46:13

Alma 46:21

Alma 49:6

3 Nephi 3:26

3 Nephi 4:7

 

  • 1 This narrative, which must have been widely known among Nephite society, ensures that whether or not they regularly wore armor into battle, the earliest Nephites surely were familiar with the concept. This is especially certain considering how often armor is mentioned in books of the Old Testament that were likely featured in the Brass Plates.
  • 2 See Book of Mormon Central, “What Does the Book of Mormon Say about the Armor of God? (2 Nephi 1:23),” KnoWhy 378 (November 2, 2017).
  • 3 T. R. Hobbs, A Time for War: A Study of Warfare in the Old Testament (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989), 127.
  • 4 Hobbs, A Time for War: A Study of Warfare in the Old Testament, 132.
  • 5 William J. Hamblin, “Armor in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed., Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 400–424; John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 348, 418–419.
  • 6 Ross Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), 83.
  • 7 Ralph L. Roys, “Lowland Maya Native Society at Spanish Contact,” in Handbook of Middle American Indians, 16 vols., ed. Gordon R. Wiley (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1965), 3:672; Prudence M. Rice, Don S. Rice, Timothy W. Pugh, and Romulo Sanchez Polo, “Defensive Architecture and the Context of Warfare at Zacpeten,” in The Kowoj: Identity, Migration, and Geopolitics in Late Postclassic Peten, Guatemala, ed. Prudence M. Rice and Don S. Rice (Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2009), 132.
  • 8 Hassig, War and Society, 16.
  • 9 Ignacio Bernal, The Olmec World, trans. Doris Heyden and Fernando Horcasitas (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969), 134.
  • 10 See https://www.dia.org/art/collection/object/warrior-49600; https://www.dia.org/art/collection/object/warrior-49600
  • 11 See https://www.arizonamuseumofnaturalhistory.org/explore-the-museum/exhibitions/cultures-of-the-ancient-americas/mesoamerica
  • 12 See https://art.seattleartmuseum.org/objects/13839/a-warrior-holding-club;jsessionid=3CDC2C0D6C121851F048978E741D84B3?ctx=be1ff6ec-0d1e-490f-885a-f15d61d6981f&idx=30
  • 13  Hassig, War and Society, 82–83.
  • 14 Diego Duran, History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 205–206.
  • 15 “Relacion de Cansahcab, in Relaciones Historico-Geograficas de la Gobernacion de Yucatan (Merida, Valladolid y Tabasco), 2 vols., ed. Mercedes de la Garza, et. al. (Mexico: Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 1983), 1:95.
  • 16 “Descripcion de la Providencia de Zapotitlan y Suchitepequez,” Sociedad de Geografia e Historia de Guatemala, Anales 28 (1955): 74.
  • 17  Patricia de Fuentes, ed., The Conquistadores: First-person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 193.
  • 18 Fuentes, The Conquistadores, 10. See also, Francis Augustus MacNutt, De Orbo Novo: The Eight Decades of Peter Martyr D’Anghera 2 vols (New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912), 2:16: “They began by giving him gilded shoes; afterwards leggings, and cuirasses, and all the parts of the iron and steel armor a cuirassier ordinarily wears when going into battle, only these were made of gold, beautifully worked; this done the cacique paid homage to Grijalva.”
  • 19 Daniel G. Brinton, The American Race (Philadelphia: PA: David McKay, 1901), 138.
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