Wooden Armor

Michael Halila 3 minute read

Did the ancient Finnic people use wooden armor?

The trouble with making a game inspired by Finnic prehistory is, quite simply, that we just don’t know that much about it. As we saw with Finnic paganism, this is certainly true of what people thought and believed, because quite often they’ve left no traces whatsoever. When it comes to how people in the past lived, archeology can usually tell us quite a lot about their everyday existence. But even this isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. A particular problem in Finland is that the soil is quite acidic. This means that most organic substances decay quite quickly and totally. So when it comes to something like wooden tools or even entire buildings, they almost literally vanish without a trace. Prehistoric and even historic villages are reconstructed based on stones, bone remains and depressions in the ground, because these are all that’s left of entire settlements.

This simple archeological reality is why so much of what we’re doing in Goblin Camp is necessarily speculative. Sure, we know some things about our ancestors, but from a game development perspective, we don’t even know what their houses looked like. With very few exceptions, the wood is completely gone. When it comes to weapons for hunting and warfare, archeologists have found some spear- and arrowheads made of bone, stone and later metal, so we certainly think they had bows and spears.

But did they wear armor?

We know they hunted, so they probably made clothes from the pelts of animals they caught, maybe even processing them to tougher leather; most traces of leather-crafting would have vanished. Some leather armors also make use of bone or metal plates. Later, we have traces of metal armors. But there’s also an interesting third option: wood armor.

Even though wood rarely appears in classic fantasy as an armor material, it’s far from useless as protection. In fact, most shields tended to be made of wood, with metal only present in the shield boss and possibly the rims. The trouble with wood is that it’s quite inflexible, and in order to reliably deflect heavy blows, wooden armor needs to be thick. So a wooden coat of armor would be fairly bulky and probably difficult to move around in.

Despite these disadvantages, some of the native people of Siberia and Alaska are known to have used wood armor. The Chukchi and Yupik people of Siberia had a kind of laminar wood armor that they used: coats of heavy leather with bone and wood plates attached. The Tlingit of Alaska took this even further, with some spectacular wooden coats of armor. Some examples survive in museums, and they really are wooden body armor.

So could the ancestors of the Finns have used wooden armor? There’s no evidence that they did, but then again, there wouldn’t be. We know that metal armor was introduced later, and it would have made wooden armors obsolete very quickly. Prehistoric wooden armor would only have survived in very exceptional conditions. Since both Finnic paganism and the Finnic languages have clear signs of Siberian influence, it certainly doesn’t seem impossible that Siberian armor styles might also have made their way to these parts. Barring an incredibly lucky archeological find, we’ll probably never know.

In the spirit of speculation, and also because it looks kind of cool, Goblin Camp will feature wooden armor. We’ll look at laminar and similar armor technologies when we get around to leather production, but the first coat of armor available to our goblins will be what we’re calling plank armor: a suit of armor and helmet built from wooden planks. It’ll be bulky, so it will slow down anyone wearing it, but it will provide some protection, especially against attacks from animals and wooden or stone weapons.