At Large  January 24, 2024  Rebecca Schiffman

Conservators Reconstruct Rare Armor Dating to Roman Empire

Photo © Duncan McGlynn

Conservator Bethan Bryan (pictured with the Roman arm guard) was among the conservators from around Edinburgh who spent weeks rebuilding the arm guard.

This week, the National Museums Scotland announced that their conservators have reconstructed an exceptionally rare piece of armor that dates back to the Roman Empire. The piece in question, a brass arm guard, was found in 1906 at the site of the Trimontium fort near Melrose, a town in the Scottish Borders and it was shattered into over a hundred pieces. To celebrate this major conservation achievement, the armor will be on view next month in the British Museum’s upcoming exhibition, “Legion: life in the Roman army.” 

According to the Museum’s announcement, the upper section was on display for 25 years at the National Museum of Scotland, while the lower section was at the Trimontium Museum, not to mention dozens of pieces stored elsewhere. Thus, this will be the first time that the fragments have been brought together. 

Dr. Fraser Hunter, Principal Curator at the National Museums Scotland said that the British Museum exhibition was the catalyst for this conservatory transformation. The show, which opens February 1, will explore the empire at large, as well as show visitors the life and service from the point of view of a real Roman soldier. With the idea to reconstruct the piece of armor and an exhibition to display it in tow, conservators from around Edinburgh spent weeks rebuilding the arm guard.

Photo (c) Duncan McGlynn

The Roman arm guard during conservation. 

Bethan Bryan, an assistant conservator at the museum who worked on the arm guard called it an “ancient jigsaw puzzle.” She said, “It was important to make sure we could display the piece in a manner as near as possible to how it would have looked 2,000 years ago. I’m thrilled that it can now be seen by audiences in a new light and has been preserved for generations to enjoy.”

Initially, researchers believed that it was just general body armor or perhaps a thigh guard for a cavalryman, but it was made clear in recent years that it was for a Roman soldier’s arm. The piece follows the design of a traditional arm guard: it stretches down from the wearer’s shoulder and ends in a thin square of metal, designed to protect the hand. 

Dr. Hunter shared that the transformation was striking and gave researchers new insights to Roman military wear: “Now that it’s been reconstructed, you can picture the legionary who once wore it. It was both protection and status symbol – brass was expensive and would have gleamed like gold on his sword arm.” 

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