Arms & Armor Around the World
South of the Sahara lies a continent of enormous size, diversity, and cultural wealth. The arms and armor of precolonial Africa mirrors the complex cultural map of the region, from the Islamic styles near the Saharan trade routes, to the diverse local forms of the central African tribes, to the spears and shields carried by southern African herders to protect their livestock from predators.
The Islamic World
Islam emerged at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and Asian worlds. At its height, the empire of the Caliphs extended from Spain to India. The arms and armor that emerged in this region reflected both a shared Islamic culture and also the influx of a variety of external influences. The traditional mail shirt worn by warriors from the Maghreb to the Mughals had its origin in ancient Byzantium and Persia; the curved sword that became emblematic of Islam was rooted in the weapons carried by nomads from Central Asia.
The Higgins Armory has a particularly rich collection of arms and armor from the Indian subcontinent, reflecting the cultural variety of the region. Traditional “Hindu styles of sword can be traced back to the first millennium; with the coming of Muslim invasions in northern India after 1000, Islamic influences began to appear; and the arrival of European traders in the 1500s brought yet another strand into the mix.
The dominant presence in East Asia from ancient times has been China. Bronzemaking technology was developed here by 2000 B.C.E., and ironmaking after 1000 B.C.E. The Higgins collection tracks the evolutions and transformations of Chinese society, from the feudal weaponry of the ancient Zhou Dynasty, to the mass-produced infantry equipment of the classical Han Empire, to the antiquarian sidearms carried by officers in the army of the late Qing on the eve of the revolution of 1911.
The Japanese collection at the Higgins Armory is especially strong. Japanese arms and armor was at first heavily influenced by China, but after 1000 C.E. it began to evolve along its own highly distinctive pathway. With the end of centuries of civil wars in 1603, arms ceased to play a practical role, but took on profound cultural significance, as samurai were encouraged to practice their traditional martial skills, and ambitious courtiers commissioned elaborate armors to win attention from the shogun.