Experts Solve ‘Ancient Jigsaw Puzzle’ by Reassembling Roman Armor Broken Into 100 Pieces

The fragments of the brass arm guard were discovered at an ancient fort complex in Scotland over a century ago

Roman arm guard
A recently reconstructed brass Roman arm guard, now green and discolored, "gleamed gold" 2,000 years ago. Duncan McGlynn

Experts with National Museums Scotland (NMS) have carefully reconstructed a nearly 2,000-year-old brass arm guard. Found in over 100 tiny pieces, it once protected the sword arm of an ancient Roman soldier.

“The transformation is striking,” says Fraser Hunter, the principal curator of prehistoric and Roman archaeology at NMS, in a statement. “Now that it’s been reconstructed, you can picture the legionary who once wore it.”

The fragments were found by James Curle, a British lawyer and archaeologist, at the ancient Trimontium fort complex in Scotland in 1906. At the time of the discovery, he thought the sleeve was meant to protect a soldier’s chest or shoulders.

Researchers didn’t classify it as an arm guard until the 1990s, and only recently have they successfully reassembled the pieces. NMS will now loan the artifact to the British Museum for its upcoming exhibition on Roman military life, which opens in February.

Roman arm guard piece
The ancient arm guard, now fully reconstructed, was once in over 100 pieces. Duncan McGlynn

Only three arm guards from the Roman Empire are known to exist, and this one is the most intact. “It’s the only complete brass arm guard known from anywhere,” says Hunter in a video.

The ancient Romans typically used iron to craft such objects. The fact that this arm guard is made from strips of brass, a rare and expensive metal at the time, suggests that the wearer was a high-ranking official. Although the armor is now discolored, it would have been a glossy, reflective statement piece.

“It’s absolutely amazing. You get the sense of the protection this person had—and also the prestige,” Hunter tells the Observer’s Dalya Alberge. “It would have gleamed gold and would have looked absolutely spectacular when he was wearing it.”

Richard Abdy, curator of Roman and Iron Age coins at the British Museum, says in the NMS statement that this type of armor is more commonly associated with Roman gladiators, a look that may have inspired the design.

Bethan Bryan and Fraser Hunter
Conservators Bethan Bryan and Fraser Hunter examine the restored armored sleeve, once worn by a high-ranking Roman official. Duncan McGlynn

“The flexible arm guard is an iconic piece of equipment for Roman gladiators, so it is unusual to see it as a sword-arm protection for Roman soldiers, too,” he says. “Its display, posed with classic legionary segmental body armor, is stunning.”

Parts of the armor have been on display in the past. The upper section was at the National Museum of Scotland for 25 years, while the lower section was on loan at the Trimontium Museum. Dozens of additional fragments sat in storage.

The upcoming exhibition at the British Museum—“Legion: Life in the Roman Army”—will mark the first time the public will see the sleeve fully assembled in nearly two millennia. After that, the arm guard will go to the National Museum of Scotland, where it will be on permanent display.

“It’s been a privilege to work on such an extraordinary piece of Scotland’s history,” says Bethan Bryan, assistant artifact conservator at NMS, in the statement. “Approaching this ancient jigsaw puzzle required careful consideration, and 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.”

She adds: “I’m thrilled that it can now be seen by audiences in a new light and has been preserved for generations to enjoy.”

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