The Royal Armouries Leather In Warfare Conference

Recently the Royal Armouries played host to a wealth of knowledge and passion as we, in partnership with the Archaeological Leather Group, held the Leather in Warfare conference here in Leeds. We were fortunate to hear from a wide variety of fantastic speakers, each providing delegates with a fascinating new perspective on leather and its uses on the battlefield and in arms and armour.

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Yvette Fletcher, Head of Conservation, Leather Conservation Centre.

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Dr David Nicolle, Honorary Research Fellow, Institute for Medieval Research, Nottingham University.

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Nicholas P. Baptiste, Archivist-Curator Morges Castle (Swi), Doct-Researcher, University of Savoy (Fr).

Attendees were treated to a range of presentations on subjects as diverse as Roman army tents and mamaluk armour. Royal Armouries Emeritus Curator, Ian Bottomley, enthused the audience with his paper on Japanese leatherwork, and Helen Adams’ porcupine fish helmet from the Pitt Rivers museum also caused much excitement. Other Royal Armouries speakers included Senior Curator of Armour Karen Watts, Conservation Manager Suzanne Kitto, Assistant Curator of Edged Weapons Henry Yallop, and Assistant Curator of Armour Keith Dowen. Dr Thom Richardson, Deputy Master of the Royal Armouries, chaired the conference as well as providing his own paper.

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Japanese leather items presented by Royal Armouries Emeritus Curator, Ian Bottomley.

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Helen Adams, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, presenting on Ethnographic examples of animal skin armour – with a porcupine fish helmet pictured.

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Deputy Master of the Royal Armouries Thom Richardson.

Debate arose on the final day of the conference when Barbara Wills, senior curator at the British Museum (department of Conservation and Scientific research) presented her project on crocodile skin ‘armour’ from Egypt.

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Barbara Wills, Senior Conservator, British Museum Department of Conservation and Scientific Research – presenting her crocodile skin armour project.

Fellow speaker Carol van Driel-Murray questioned whether this discovery was indeed armour at all, and if it were purely intended for ceremonial use should we not avoid describing it as such altogether? However it was also argued whether this armour was representing specific Egyptian religious beliefs through symbolising Sobek – the crocodile warrior god who signifies strength and power. Was this therefore an example of ‘costume armour’ and therefore should be called such? Was this a complex ceremonial layering of a human, dressing as crocodile, dressing as a solider? No doubt this isn’t the last we will hear of this fascinating project!

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Carol van Driel-Murray, University of Leiden, presenting on Roman Military leatherwork.

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Barbara Wills, British Museum.

The event was organised by Curatorial Manager Alison Watson, who commented, “it was fantastic to work with the Archaeological Leather Group to produce such a successful conference and we look forward to working with them on the proceedings, due out 2015.”

A study day commemorating the Battle of Waterloo is currently proposed at the Royal Armouries for spring 2015, and Armouries staff will be speaking at a number of conferences throughout the upcoming months, for more information please contact enquiries@armouries.org.uk. For more images from the Leather in Warfare conference, please visit our Facebook and Twitter pages.

The Force Awakens: The Weapons Behind Star Wars.

IMG_3490-FWW-YEP-PhotocalIn light of the recent teaser trailer for the eagerly anticipated ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, our curator of Firearms Jonathan Ferguson, couldn’t resist inspecting the new trailer’s weapons for both changes and similarities to their alien predecessors. Below are his expert thoughts and ponderings of the weapons of Stars Wars both past and future.

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When George Lucas was looking for imaginary weapons to arm his heroes & villains in ‘Star Wars’, he had a relatively small budget to work with. Although he wanted his swords & guns to project pure energy; he turned to real-world technology to make his ideas a reality. His ‘lightsabers’ were built from camera flash tubes and various found objects including jet fighter parts, whilst the ‘blasters’ were modified from conventional firearms of the 1940s and 50s. These were plentiful in 1970s Britain, where much of production took place. Master propmakers Bapty & Co were engaged to turn these mundane weapons into futuristic (yet ancient!) plasma-firing wonders.

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A lightsabre and its camera components.

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Han Solo’s (modified) gun.

One of the most iconic designs in the Star Wars universe is the Imperial blaster used by the Stormtroopers. This was actually the Sterling Mk.4 submachine gun, or L2A2 in British Army parlance. Still a service weapon at the time of production, this was modified with additions including a WW2 German machine gun sight, black flanged ribs (actually plastic drawer runners from B&Q!) and a photocopier part. The distinctive curved magazine of the ‘Sterling’ was also cut down to hold only a few rounds, to alter the fairly well-known silhouette of the weapon and suggest a ‘power pack’ in place of a conventional box magazine.

Left: a Stormtrooper blaster. Right: a Sterling sub-machine gun from the Royal Armouries collection

Left: a Stormtrooper blaster. Right: a Sterling sub-machine gun from the Royal Armouries collection.

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The firing versions used blank rounds, which produce no real recoil, but the design of the Sterling meant that a big heavy metal bolt was cycling back and forth every time an actor pulled the trigger. This caused the gun to jump slightly, making the energy bolts that it ‘fired’ (a pre-CGI optical effect) appear more real. The heavy steel guns also made for convincing weighty props in the hands of the actors.

The prequel movies featured precursor blaster carbines in the hands of Battle Droids and later Clonetroopers, but these were bespoke designs quite far from the low budget yet iconic originals.

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When the new sequel movies were announced, fans wondered how much would change. As we now know, many of the classic vehicles and even the white armour of the Stormtroopers have received major facelifts, inspired by the original movie’s concept art by Ralph McQuarrie.

But as the teaser trailer for Episode VII shows, the classic blaster carbine has survived almost intact. Some components, like the end cap and folding stock (which, of course, Stormtroopers don’t know how to use!) are now white in colour, there’s a new optical sight, and for some reason the magazine appears on the wrong side – possibly a case of flipped film – or perhaps with no brass to eject, Imperial forces have moved the power source to the right hand side.

Screenshot from the new Star Wars Trailer 'The Force Awakens'

Screenshot from the new Star Wars Trailer ‘The Force Awakens’

There is a red glowing light; possibly a means of checking ammunition/power levels. But all the main features of the host weapon remain. Even if these upgraded blasters no longer fire blanks for that authentic look and feel, one of cinema’s most recognisable weapons is alive and well.

We’re certainly looking forward to seeing what other new, or old, Star Wars weapons will be making an appearance in the highly anticipated ‘The Force Awakens’.

Northern Film School Premiere

On Thursday 26th May the Royal Armouries hosted the premiers of six short films produced by students at the Northern Film School, part of Leeds Met University.

The Royal Armouries and the Northern Film School have collaborated on projects for their year two students for the last few years. The Museum provides briefs for the films and the students then pitch their ideas to a panel from the Film School, Museum and other industry specialists. The chosen briefs then go into production.

The films were shot last December and several of the productions faced problems caused by the heavy snow fall. The final six films were premiered at the Museum to Film School staff, students, and guests from the Royal Armouries.

Northern Film School students

Northern Film School students

The evening started with Za App, a unique film using arcade game graphics, sounds and narration to explore the idea of an iPhone app which has devastating consequences. The film La Resistance showed the conflict faced by many in the Second World War who sought revenge and the possible repercussions this may cause. Like Father Like Son was a touching short following a young solder returning home, to the words of his father’s thoughts on his experiences of war and its impact on the individual.

The next two films dealt with the reporting of war, raising issues of the dangers faced by photographers for their art and also the possibility of provocative images being falsified. Reporting the War was notable for its very engaging tone, music and very well constructed flashback sequence. The final film, Two Soldiers was a visually engaging piece showing two soldiers as they prepared for battle – cleverly comparing and contrasting a crusader with a modern day soldier both in conflict in the Middle East.

All the films are available to view on the Royal Armouries YouTube channel along with previous year’s films.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher