It seems to have passed through more hands than The Maltese Falcon. And it’s proving to be nearly as mysterious.
Two pieces of iron armor — reportedly first found in the desert of West Texas about 150 years ago — have recently been analyzed by scientists in Nebraska, where the artifacts have been sitting for decades in museum storage.
Archaeologists have been able to determine that some of the armor’s components are at least 200 years old, but details about who made it, who wore it, and where exactly it came from remain a total mystery.
“I don’t know where this thing came from,” said Dr. Peter Bleed, a University of Nebraska archaeologist who led the study.
“I hope researchers will look for more evidence about this.”
Bleed supervised two anthropology students at the University of Nebraska — Lindsay Long and Jessica Long, who are now graduate students at other institutions — in their investigation of the armor as a research project.
The Nebraska History Museum acquired the armor in 1990, consisting of a black helmet and a neck covering called a gorget, made of a cotton twill backing covered with small iron scales.
But despite its storied past, the artifact — and the lore that came with it — had never been thoroughly studied.
“I thought the armor itself deserved to be documented, in part because it had been in a private collection since the 1890s,” Bleed said.
The few records of the armor that exist came from U.S. cavalry officer and anthropologist Capt. John Gregory Bourke, who was given the gorget, helmet, and a breast- and backplate in 1870, from an army doctor who claimed to have found them “enclosing the bones of a man in the arid country between the waters of the Rio Grande and the Pecos.”
Bourke took the armor with him from post to post throughout the West during his career, losing the breast and backplates to thieves in Arizona along the way.
But before his death in 1896, Bourke gave the helmet and gorget to a judge’s wife in Nebraska, and by the early 20th century, it was in the possession of an Omaha attorney, in whose family it remained until it was donated to a museum in 1961, and then to the state historical society.
One of the first questions that Bleed and the Longs wanted to tackle was Bourke’s assertion, made in his journals, that the armor belonged to “a Spanish foot-soldier of the sixteenth century.”
Historical records describe the equipment used by Spanish soldiers at that time, but the team found that it included little armor, the Spanish instead having used mostly padded leather or shirts of chain mail.
“It just is not very much like armor known to have been used by colonial Spanish forces,” Bleed said of Bourke’s armor of iron scales.
“The Spanish apparently had some [chain] mail, but the idea of taking a fabric and attaching little fish scales to it, this is not something they did.”
However, the possibility that Bourke’s armor was not Spanish didn’t mean that it may not still be very old.
Radiocarbon dating of the cotton backing of the gorget showed that the fabric dated to between 1660 and 1950 — a broad range, but one that suggests that the armor could have been nearly 200 years old when Bourke received it.
Still more clues were found at an even higher level of detail: in the microscopic structure of the iron scales themselves.
The team submitted one of the gorget’s shield-shaped scales to the metallurgy lab at the University of Arizona.
There, analysis revealed that the iron in the armor contained unusually high amount of slag — impurities like clay, quartz, and other non-metallic rock.
This high slag content is the signature of an early smelting process known as bloomery, and it’s further evidence of the armor’s age, the team said.
Bloomery was obsolete in the U.S. and Europe by the early 1800s, having been replaced by more refined smelting techniques. So the amount of bloomery iron being produced in the U.S. and Europe was “minuscule” by the middle of the nineteenth century, the team noted.
“If the bloomery iron in the Bourke scale armor was imported from Europe, then at least the iron almost certainly arrived prior to the early 1800s,” they write in journal Plains Anthropologist, where they describe their findings.
The researchers also considered another noteworthy material in the armor: the cotton.
“I was surprised that there was a lot of cotton in the armor along with pre-blast furnace, or bloomery, iron in the armor,” Bleed said.
“People tend to think of cotton as something that got big after the gin and that is often treated as a 1830s, 1840s development.
“But by that time, bloomery iron was not being produced – at least in Europe and the U.S.
“That makes the combination of material somewhat surprising.”
A few variables remain, he added, which could still explain the provenance of the armor.
Little is known about manufacturing practices in Mexico in the early 1800s, for example, and whether bloomery iron became as scarce there as it did in the U.S. and Europe.
“We know very little about industrial production in Mexico, so I suppose it might have been made in Mexico,” Bleed said.
Another alternative, he posited, is that the Bourke armor wasn’t military armor at all.
The use of iron scales like those in the Bourke gorget are not found in European armor after the 1400s, Bleed said.
Nearly the only place they appear in 19th century material culture is in costumes, like those used in plays and operas, or as ritual dress for fraternal organizations, like the Freemasons.
That, to Bleed, may be the most likely origin of the armor — although operas and fraternal organizations were presumably rare to non-existent in West Texas in the pre-1800s, when the iron seems to have been smelted.
“I still think that it could be fraternal ritual costumery, but the iron seems too old,” he said.
“I can’t explain it.”
As for the tale that the armor was found on a skeleton, Bleed added, “It also does not look like it was buried, especially with a body. The story just seems apocryphal.”
If nothing else, the researchers were able to determine that the Bourke armor was made centuries ago, and likely very far from where it was found.
And this offers its own share of insights into how exotic goods moved around the Great Plains of the mid-19th century.
“This is a complex and well-made item, the kind of artifact that shows frontier trade to be more complex than people might have suspected,” Bleed said.
“Wherever it was made, I assume that it was traded to the Plains through the fur trade,” he added.
“It shows that the frontier trade really was international and capable supplying a wide range of stuff.
“If folks wanted armor, frontier traders would get it for them.
“The Plains were not isolated – or poor.”