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Mongol Warrior Helmet

Mongol Warrior Helmet


The Ancient Mongols Warriors, Horse Hats, Whistle Arrows

The ancient Mongols loved hats! They even made hats that their horses could wear, when their warriors rode their horses into battle. The hats were made out of colorful felt. Most of these hats were designed with felt antlers similar to the antlers of a reindeer or stag.

They also braided their horses tails with long colorful pieces of felt. They made saddles. They covered the saddle with soft cushions to make the warrior's ride more comfortable. They put a colorful blanket under the saddle to protect the horse.

This was done in part to give their horse a more impressive look, and in part to keep evil spirits away.


Genghis Khan is actually a title meaning Warrior Khan or Conqueror Khan. Genghis Khan's birth name was Temujin (which when translated to Mongolian means either Smith or Blacksmith). Born about 1162, was raised until he was around the age of 12 in his father Yesugei's tribe (Kiyad-Borjigin). Yesugei was the Khan of the Mongol tribe that Temujin spent most of his childhood in. After the assassination of his father, he and his family (Mother, 6 brothers and newborn sister) were cast out of the tribe by the right hand man of his father, who succeeded him after his death. He then, lived off of wild berries, animal carcasses, and small game. Supporting his family, he killed his elder brother Begter for his selfishness while the family was trying to survive in the wilderness. Begter was killing game and finding food only for himself, Temujin, infuriated realized this and killed his older brother. From his rough childhood, he came to unite the many, hostile Mongol tribes into a military force able to conquer half the known world. 

Genghis died at the age of 65 in August 1227, during his invasion of the Tangut Empire. Due to conflicting accounts, it's difficult to confirm his exact cause of death. However it was either from falling off his horse, from an injury received in battle, or from an illness.

Genghis Khan was cruel to his enemies, but kind to his own people. He was also kind to those civilizations who swore allegiance to him, allowing them to continue virtually unhindered. However, if a nation resisted, they were annihilated (including the Tangut, Khwarazmian and Song Empires). The Khan was so successful that it is believed nearly 200,000 present-day Mongolians and .5% of the world population (16 million as of 2015) are related by blood to him.


Rajput warrior weapons

Spike TV From Left to right: Katar, scissor Katar, shield for the Katar, Khanda sword (sheathed), Khanda sword (unsheathed), and Chakram.

David Baker: "The Rajput [of India] showed an amazing talent for designing fearsome and deadly weapons, and those that we used and tested are some of the best in the arsenal. The Katar and scissor Katar are punch daggers on steroids. The Khanda sword has a straight, double-edged blade and is one of the most powerful swords we have ever tested. The Chakram is a simple steel circle with a sharp edge--once thrown, all your opponent can do is try their best to get out of the way."


Chinese Helmets

Armor has played a major role in Chinese society from the depths of prehistory to the modern era. The topic of Chinese armor is so very large that it is hard to choose one aspect of the subject. Should I show the Chinese god of war Guan Yu, resplendent in his plate mail or the gorgeous silk portraits of warrior emperors from yesteryear? Should I write about the Red Army’s mechanized armor program–which began by producing feeble copies of Soviet tanks and has haltingly evolved in its own direction by adding watered-down copies of NATO tank technologies to Russian designs? I could write about how China’s medieval military leadership adopted and modified the armored mounted archery tactics of the Mongols or about early pre-dynastic armor suits made from turtle shells.

Perhaps the best way to present this topic as a sweeping overview is through pictures. Therefore, here is a series of photos of Chinese helmets from different eras. I have tried to arrange them chronologically, but, due to the eccentricity and exiguousness of internet sources, I may not have fully succeeded. Likewise some of these are priceless museum pieces and others are worthless forgeries (I have my eye on you, peacock helmet).

Chinese Shang Dynasty bronze helmet dating from about 1500 BC found at Anyang.

Chou Dynasty helmet from Emperor Wu Wang tomb complex (circa 1020 BC)

A Bronze Helmet from the Yan Kingdom in the Warring States period (ca. 475-221 BC)

A second bronze helm and an iron helm from the Warring States period (476 -221 BC)

A Qin Helmet (circa 221 to 207 BC.)

I'm afraid this picture was the best I could find for Tang Dynasty Helmets (618 AD - 907 AD). It's a pretty remarkable picture though!

Alleged Song Dynasty style helmet/headdress

A Gold and Iron Helmet from the late Yuan (1271 AD–1368 AD)

Late Ming Helmet (end of the17th century)

Emperor's helmet: Qianlong period (1736 AD-1795 AD)

Mass Produced Chinese Helmet from Late Quing Dynasty (circa 18th Century AD)

British Mark II Helmet Used by Chinese troops in World War II

Chinese Cold War Crash Helmet Based on Soviet Design (1950's)

Contemporary Chinese Combat helmet

Kevlar Combat Helmet (ca. present)

One thing that is striking (other than the loveliness of the helmets) is the liberal borrowing from other military traditions from the Mongol era onwards: the Yuan cavalry helmet is a literal Mongol cavalry helmet the 1940’s era helmet is a British doughboy helmet with a Chinese symbol, and the cold war crash helmet is a Russian knock-off. The most recent helmet seems to be quite similar to the Kevlar helmets used by United States forces (which probably owe their shape to “Fritz” Helmets from Germany). It will be interesting to see what comes next on this list as material science meet military necessity in the future…


Traditionally among the Mongols, women managed the affairs at home, while men went off to herd, hunt or fight.

As the war campaigns extended farther away and grew ever longer during the 13th century, women expanded their control and assumed public office as rulers.

This is especially true for most of the years between the reign of Genghis Khan, which ended in 1227, and that of his grandson Khubilai, which commenced in 1260.

Genghis Khan’s son Ogodei became Great Khan in 1229. However, he increasingly spent his time in drunken binges. As a result, power gradually conveyed to Toregene, the most capable, although not the senior, wife.

The oldest surviving evidence of Toregene’s authority in the Mongol court appears in an order to print Taoist texts issued by her as Yeke Khatun, Great Empress, under her own name, but still under the seal of Ogodei on April 10, 1240. The document shows clearly that she already controlled part of the civilian administration of the empire.

While the men fought, she pursued an entirely different line of activities supporting religion, education and construction projects on an imperial scale.

Soon thereafter Ogodei died, probably in an alcoholic stupor &mdash and in 1241, Toregene assumed complete power as regent.

In pursuit of her own policies, she dismissed her late husband’s ministers and replaced them with her own, the most important of whom was another woman, Fatima, a Tajik or Persian captive from the Middle Eastern campaign.

The Persian chronicler Juvaini, who seemingly disapproved of women’s involvement in politics, wrote that Fatima enjoyed constant access to Toregene’s tent. According to him, she “became the sharer of intimate confidences and the depository of hidden secrets.”

Fatima played a political role while the older “ministers were debarred from executing business, and she was free to issue commands and prohibitions.”

During Toregene’s reign, foreign dignitaries arrived from the distant corners of the empire to her capital at Karakorum or to her nomadic imperial camp. Emirs, governors and grandees jostled along the same roads as princes and kings.

The Seljuk sultan came from Turkey &mdash as did representatives of the Caliph of Baghdad. So did two claimants to the throne of Georgia: David, the legitimate son of the late king &mdash and David, the illegitimate son of the same king.

The highest-ranking European delegate was Alexander Nevsky’s father, Grand Prince Yaroslav II Vsevdodovich of Vladimir and Suzdal, who died suspiciously just after dining with Toregene Khatun.

In addition to the rule of Toregene and Fatima from Karakorum in Mongolia, two of the other three divisions of the empire also had female governors.

Sorkhokhtani, the widow of Genghis Khan’s youngest son Tolui, ruled northern China and eastern Mongolia. Ebuskun, the widow of Genghis Khan’s second son Chaghatai, ruled Central Asia or Turkestan.

Only the Golden Horde of Russia, under the control of Batu Khan, remained under male rule.

Not only were most of the rulers women, but surprisingly, none had been born Mongol. They had married into the family from a conquered steppe tribe, and aside from Fatima, most of the women were Christians. In the Mongol world, neither gender nor religion hindered these women’s rise to power.

Never before, or since, has such a large empire been ruled by women.

Toregene passed power onto to her inept son Guyuk in 1246, but within 18 months, he lay dead under still unexplained circumstances. In the continuing political struggles at the center of the empire, the fringes began to unravel.

With his great love of metaphors, the chronicler Juvaini wrote: “The affairs of the world had been diverted from the path of rectitude and the reins of commerce and fair dealing turned aside from the highway of righteousness.” He described the land as being in darkness, “and the cup of the world was filled to the brim with the drink of iniquity.”

The Mongol people and their subjects, “dragged now this way, now that, were at their wits’ end, for they had neither the endurance to stay nor did they know of a place to which they might flee.”

After Guyuk’s brief reign, it was time again for a woman &mdash his widow Oghul Ghamish &mdash to step forward and take control of the empire &mdash just as her mother-in-law Toregene had done a decade earlier.

However, the other powerful woman of the empire &mdash Sorkhokhtani &mdash quickly contested her rule. With the full support of her four capable sons and a lifetime of preparation and waiting, Sorkhokhtani organized the campaign of election of her son to the office of Great Khan.

On July 1, 1251, the assembled Mongol throng proclaimed the election of her son, the 43-year-old Mongke.

Whereas Genghis Khan himself had produced sons who were relatively weak, prone to drink and self-centered, Sorkhokhtani had produced and trained four sons destined to make a major mark on history.

Each of her sons was a khan. In the coming years, Mongke, Arik Boke and Khubilai would all carry the title of Great Khan, for various lengths of time, and her other son, Hulegu, became the conqueror of Baghdad and founded a new dynasty of the Persian Ilkhante.

So great was her achievement that a Persian chronicler wrote that if history produced only one more woman equal to Sorhokhtani, then surely women would have to be judged as the superior sex.

The Mongol women presented a strange sight to the civilizations that they helped conquer. They rode horses, shot arrows from their bows and commanded both men and women.

In China, the Mongol women rejected foot binding &mdash and just as in the Muslim world, they refused to wear the veil.

Yet, quickly after settling down in their newly conquered lands, Mongol women lost public power. Only in Mongolia did they continue to rule and to fight.

While Khubilai Khan ruled from the Chinese capital he founded at Beijing, his cousin Khaidu continued to fight against him from Central Asia and, true to the Mongol traditions, Khaidu’s daughter fought with him.

According to Marco Polo, who referred to her as Aiyaruk, she was both beautiful and powerful &mdash and skilled as an archer and wrestler. She supposedly never married, because she vowed only to marry the man who could defeat her at wrestling, and none did. Her story, in part, inspired the 20th century opera Turandot by Puccini.

The empire of Genghis Khan ultimately lasted for a century and a half. By 1368, the Mongols were overthrown &mdash and most of them withdrew to their steppe homeland.

While the men returned to squabbling over sheep and stealing horses, the women kept the imperial spirit alive. In the late 15th century, a new conqueror arose determined to restore the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan.

She was Manduhai, known forever to the grateful Mongols as Manduhai the Wise Queen. She took to the battlefield and, one by one, re-conquered the steppe tribes and united them into a single nation.

But this time, they were no match for the Chinese who rapidly expanded the Great Wall to keep her out and who now used the new artillery of gunpowder to defeat her troops. The era of the great warrior queens of Mongolia had passed.

And yet, on cold winter nights to this day, parents whisper to their children the stories of the great queens of Mongolia who ruled the largest empire in world history, and who still ride the wind.

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from the author’s book, “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.” Published with permission of the author.


Mongolian Hat

Mongolian hat is a primary representation of one’s social status and is the most respected of the traditional clothing items. The toortsog, loovuuz, and four-lugged shovgor hats are a few of the more than 200 different kinds of hats. Those are used by the Mongolians in accordance with various customs. Hats are classified by the season as well as the wearer’s age and gender.

Mongolian Hats Design

Mongolian hats are also classified by the shape and design of their top, such as the “skullcap,” “helmet,” and “flag.” Generally, the Mongolian hat has a pointed or domed top with red tassels, and a downward line of stitches resembling rays of the sun. It can vary in number and other features by ethnic group. The hat symbolizes eternal prosperity of Mongolia in the world. Various furs and skins are sometimes attached to different parts of Mongolian hats depending on their purpose and style.

Buryat Hat

The Buryats use the “sublimation” tapered cap. The front of the lettuce is designed to fit the longitudinal and the tails of the glass to fit the glass. In the cooling season, the jacket is worn in the cap and put it in warmth.

The elbows of Marge were eleven rows of vertical walls, the number of eleven poisons, and eight wolves (eight tribes), and they were like the Mountains, the Sunflowers, the flames, and the wick. The Mongolian hat is rounded from the top to the four corners of the eight eyelids. In addition, there are hat types, such as octopus, hat, cap hat with headphones, short hair hat.

Zahchin Hat

The men and women wear different Mongolian hats such as eyebrows, masks, tops, whistles, and dyes. The most common of these are “Halban” hat. The helmet was red, colored with 32 wigs, with a crown of blue, with a small mosque, with both sides rubbed with cheek, whip, beaver and black velvet.

The women wear worn hats or mugs in winter or summer. That means the tip is flat and round. It has a round blue tip, 64 beams wrapped, rounded in red on top, with silver on it, with a coral or red cloth.


Rise to power

After a few years, Temujin felt that he was strong enough to return to Dai Sechen and take Borte&rsquos hand in marriage. He overestimated his own strength, and Borte was kidnapped in a raid by a tribe called the Merkit. Temujin had to seek out the help of his friends Jamuqa and Toghrul (also called the Ong Khan or Wang Khan) to free her (they were both glad to help, as they hated the Merkit).

Chinese historical sources say that at some point Temujin was captured by the Jin Dynasty (who controlled part of China) and was held there for a number of years. Whether this is accurate or not is unknown.

The records do show that around 1200 Temujin had allied himself with Toghrul and would launch a campaign against the Tatars, which they defeated in 1202. The two would later have a falling out, and Toghrul was killed after his forces were defeated by Temujin. Temujin also had a falling out with Jamuqa and eventually had him killed also.

In 1206, Temujin had conquered most of Mongolia and the remaining tribes were forced to acknowledge him as their leader. He took the name Genghis Khan (also spelled Chingiz Khan or Tchingis Qaghan). The name has different translations, one of them being &ldquooceanic sovereign,&rdquo writes Raux.


Kublai Khan vs. Kamikaze

For more than a decade maritime archaeologists working in the murky waters off Takashima Island on Japan’s Kyushu coast have raised shattered ships’ timbers, armament, provisions, and the remains of lost soldiers and sailors associated with one of history’s most significant naval invasions—Kublai Khan’s 1281 assault on Japan.

The invasion fleet comprised thousands of ships and hundreds of thousands of men—an operation not again equaled until the 1944 Allied landings in Normandy. The invasion is perhaps better known, however, for the fleet’s destruction by a legendary typhoon known as kamikaze (Japanese for “divine wind”). The legend of the kamikaze resonated again in the 20th century, when a desperate Japan invoked the term as a tokko, or suicide tactic, at the end of the Pacific War in 1944 and 1945.

The search for the remains of Kublai Khan’s lost fleet began in 1980 when Torao Mozai, an engineering professor and veteran of the World War II Imperial Japanese Navy, set out to learn whether the story that had inspired his shipmates and his nation was a myth.

Mozai knew of the recorded invasions by Kublai Khan in 1274 and 1281. Marco Polo, a visitor at the khan’s court, had written of Kublai’s failed efforts to conquer Japan and how the khan’s commanders had blamed storms for their failure. Mozai also knew of Japan’s enduring legend of the invasions, and that shrines in Fukuoka on Hakata Bay, site of one of the battles, commemorate Japan’s godsent victory. At Tokyo’s Museum of the Imperial Collections he found a late 13th century scroll that depicts samurai warrior Takezaki Suenaga in combat both on the beach and aboard the invading Mongols’ ships. Whether the legend and the scroll were accurate was another matter.

Mozai was determined to find Kublai Khan’s sunken fleet and, through careful study of the physical evidence, determine what had actually happened. Mozai started his search in the early 1980s with the Kyushu fishermen, who, like their ancestors before them, had hauled artifacts to the surface in their nets. Swords, pots, a bronze Buddha and an inscribed bronze seal that had belonged to one of the khan’s generals all appeared to be remnants of the invading fleet, and they all pointed to the waters of Imari Bay, south of Fukuoka and off the island of Takashima, as the site where Kublai’s lost fleet littered the seafloor. Using sonar, Mozai pinpointed areas where he believed the Mongol ships lay beneath a thick layer of mud.

Mozai’s survey paved the way for more extensive investigations by a team of Japanese maritime archaeologists led by Kenzo Hayashida, who in the 1990s began excavating the seafloor to find the broken ships. The dig continued through the early 2000s, as thousands of artifacts emerged from their long burial, providing both a tangible link to a legendary event and insights into the invading forces, their ships and possible reasons for the khan’s defeat.

The story of Kublai Khan’s lost fleet begins more than a decade before Mongol ships first sailed for Japan, when Kublai gained the mantle of great khan of the Mongols and continued the ambitious invasions launched by his famous grandfather, Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227), to extend Mongol power across the known world.

Under Genghis’ leadership the Mongols surged out of the Eurasian steppes to forge the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen. Genghis consolidated the Mongols, long a disparate and feuding group of clans of horsemen, into a formidable cavalry that launched a series of bold strikes west into the Middle East and then into Europe. By 1242 Mongol invaders stood at the gates of Western Europe after occupying much of Russia and sweeping into Hungary. Fierce resistance and their own disorder eventually led them to retreat not only from Europe but also from the Middle East the Egyptian Mamluks halted the Mongol advance south in 1260 and retook Mongol-occupied Mesopotamia. The Mongols then turned their attention east, subjugating Korea, northern China and, finally, the Sung empire of southern China.

The Sung Dynasty, then the world’s mightiest naval power, had battled northern invaders for centuries. Trading regularly with Asia, Indonesia, India and the Arabs, it was a wealthy state but weakened by corruption and internal dissension. When Kublai gained the Mongol throne in 1260, he resumed the campaign against the Sung that his grandfather, father, uncles and cousins had begun. Kublai succeeded in conquering China by swelling his ranks with Sung defectors and adding Sung ships to a fleet he was amassing to invade China’s rivers and coasts. Adaptable and quick to assimilate his enemy’s technology and strengths, Kublai had by 1279 defeated the last Sung emperor. His new empire, centered in China as the Yuan Dynasty, now controlled the largest country on earth.

Expansion into other regions of the Far East was possible, but only through naval action. Thus Kublai turned to the large fleet he had used to defeat the Sung. He also wisely continued the Sung policy of expansive maritime trade, using his navy as both a tool of trade and a means of Mongol expansion.

The shogunate of Japan was the khan’s first overseas target.

The Japanese were regular trading partners of the Sung and, therefore, no strangers to the Mongols. Even as he waged his war against the Chinese, Kublai Khan sent envoys to the Japanese in 1266 and 1268 to demand their subservience— and to cut off vital trade that was filling the Sung court’s coffers. The bakufu, or Japanese military dictatorship, ignored the Mongol demands. Kublai’s response was to order his vassals in the subjugated Korean state, Koryo, to build a vast fleet of some 900 ships and prepare to invade Japan. For centuries a lucrative trade route, the relatively narrow Korea Strait—spanning some 120 miles between Koryo and Japan’s Kyushu coast—would now be a highway of war.

The khan’s fleet departed Koryo on Oct. 3, 1274, with 23,000 Mongol, Chinese and Korean soldiers and 7,000 sailors aboard. Two days later the force overwhelmed the 80-man island garrison of Tsushima, in the middle of the strait. Next to fall was the island garrison of Iki, closer to the Japanese coast. The fleet attacked the coastal port of Hirado on October 14, then moved north to land at various points along Hakata Bay, near modern-day Fukuoka. Thanks to spies in Koryo, the Japanese had been forewarned of the Mongol advance and had rushed groups of samurai and their retainers to Hakata Bay. Japanese historians estimate that some 6,000 defenders stood ready to fight the much larger invading army.

The battle was unequal in numbers and in tactics. The Mongols advanced en masse and fought as a unit, while the samurai, true to their code, ventured out to fight individual duels. In a week of fighting the Japanese slowly gave way. By October 20 the Japanese had retreated from the beach, falling back 10 miles to an ancient abandoned fortress at Mizuki.

Things were not all going the khan’s way, however. Japanese reinforcements were pouring in from the surrounding countryside, the senior Mongol commander was wounded, and sailors aboard the ships were wary of an incoming storm that threatened the fleet in its crowded anchorage along the rocky shores of Hakata Bay. Deciding a strategic withdrawal was in order, the invaders burned the town of Hakata, reboarded their ships and departed. The storm grounded some 50 ships of the Mongol fleet, which the Japanese then boarded, executing the crews. But the loss to the khan was not catastrophic, and he had succeeded in cutting trade between Japan and Sung China.

Alarmed at their near defeat, the bakufu ordered defenses built at Hakata Bay and troops massed to meet another invasion. Laborers erected a 25-mile-long, 5- to 9-foothigh stone wall, set back some 150 feet from the beach, and the samurai organized their vassals into a compulsory defense force. The bakufu also requisitioned small fishing and trading vessels to build a coastal naval force. Angered at the reticence of some samurai to engage the Mongols in battle, the bakufu replaced many of the feudal lords around Hakata Bay with samurai allied with the ruling shogun.

Despite his initial setback, Kublai Khan did not forget Japan. In April 1275 he sent an envoy to Nagato demanding a Japanese capitulation. The bakufu let the envoy and his entourage cool their heels for four months, then summoned them to the shogunal seat of Kamakura for summary execution. Kublai renewed his appeal for surrender in June 1279, even as the last remnants of the Sung dynasty crumbled before the Mongol onslaught in China. But Mongol power obviously still did not impress the bakufu, who this time executed the khan’s emissaries on the beach at Hakata as they landed to negotiate. Furious, Kublai ordered Koryo to build a new fleet of 900 ships and assemble an invasion force of 40,000 Mongol and Korean warriors and 17,000 sailors. In China the khan assembled an additional fleet of nearly 3,500 ships and an invasion force of 100,000 Chinese warriors.

Kublai ordered the two fleets—the Koryo Eastern Route Division and Chinese Chiang-nan Division—to rendezvous at Iki and coordinate their attack. The Eastern Route Division sailed first on May 3, 1281, retaking Iki on June 10. But within a week, without waiting for the arrival of the Chiangnan Division, the impatient Eastern Route commanders sailed for Hakata Bay. The stone defensive wall thwarted a landing, so the troops instead occupied Shika Island in the middle of the bay. The Japanese used small coastaldefense vessels to harass the Mongol fleet, slipping armed samurai aboard the enemy ships to kill their crews and soldiers. Badly mauled, the Eastern Route Division retreated to Iki, the Japanese in hot pursuit.

The Chiang-nan Division finally sailed from China in mid-June, joining forces with the battered Eastern Route Division at Hirado. In an attempt to bypass the defenses at Hakata Bay, the combined Mongol fleet struck the garrison on the small island of Takashima in Imari Bay, some 30 miles south of Hakata, and then landed its invasion force. The Japanese were waiting ashore, and a two-week battle raged across the rugged countryside. Meanwhile, the Mongol crews, in preparation for the inevitable assault by Japanese coastal craft, chained their ships together to form a massive floating fortress, complete with a planked walkway. The Japanese vessels—including fire ships—did strike the floating Mongol fortress, but to little effect. The principal fight was ashore, where losses on both sides mounted.

As the Mongols prepared to launch their final offensive, legend has it Emperor Kameyama—by tradition the descendant of gods and a god himself—beseeched his ancestors for Japan’s deliverance. His prayer was apparently answered on July 30, when a massive storm smashed into the Mongol ships. Legends describe the kamikaze as “a green dragon” that “raised its head from the waves” as “sulfurous flames filled the firmament.” Driving rain, high winds and storm-driven waves lashed the sprawling Mongol fleet as it tried to flee through the narrow harbor entrance.

As the khan’s visitor Marco Polo later related the story:

Such a gale was blowing from the north that the troops declared that, if they did not get away, all their ships would be wrecked. So they all embarked and left the island and put out to sea.…When they had sailed about four miles, the gale began to freshen, and there was such a crowd of ships that many of them were smashed by colliding with one another. Those that were not jammed together with others but had enough sea room escaped shipwreck. Those that succeeded in clearing this island made good their escape. The others who failed to get clear were driven aground by the gale.

According to legend, the kamikaze sank nearly 4,000 Mongol ships and drowned some 100,000 men. The exultant samurai dragged exhausted survivors ashore and killed them. They then rounded up the stranded Mongol invaders and executed them. The shores were littered with debris and bodies. According to Japanese accounts, the entrance to Imari Bay was so clogged that “a person could walk across from one point of land to another on a mass of wreckage.”

Kublai Khan considered a third invasion of Japan but dropped his plans in favor of a sea and land invasion of Vietnam and a military mission to Java. The story of the khan’s invasion of Japan, now firmly part of the island nation’s history and legend, lasted through the centuries and 700 years later inspired the archaeological quest to learn exactly what had happened in 1274 and 1281.

The artifacts divers have pulled from the seafloor since the 1980s speak both to the khan’s preparations—the types of ships he deployed, the composition of his forces, the arms they carried—and to the reasons for their defeat.

Japanese maritime archaeologists working in 40 feet of water off Takashima’s Kozaki Harbor dug through 20 feet of gelatinous mud to reach the seabed of 700 years ago. There, a jigsaw puzzle of broken timbers, ceramics, rust-encrusted iron and other finds required painstaking mapping and recovery, particularly since the centuries of immersion had rendered much of the wood the consistency of cheese.

The wide dispersion of the finds suggested a violent end to the fleet, perhaps through a storm surge. What was unclear to Kenzo Hayashida was whether the jumbled wreckage was the result of one massive storm or several centuries of storms. His team eventually concluded that a single storm had indeed wrecked the fleet, but that the level of destruction was due to subsequent storms on a coast frequently lashed by powerful seasonal typhoons. They also noted fire damage to certain timbers, suggesting that at least some of the ships had burned before sinking.

The broken bones of a soldier amid what appear to be his weapons, armor and personal possessions offer compelling evidence as to a sudden loss. Not much was left of the soldier—just the top of his skull and a hip. Fragments of red leather in the mud represent the remains of a suit of lamellar armor, and a nearby helmet may well be his. Divers also found a sword, two bundles of iron crossbow bolts and a lone rice bowl. Written on the latter’s base, in the time-honored tradition of soldiers and sailors, were the name WANG and the rank COMMANDER OF 100. Wang is a common surname even today in southern coastal China, and it indicates that this centurion in Kublai Khan’s army was a subjugated Chinese warrior incorporated into the Mongol forces.

Most of the armament at the site is from China, as are the ships, according to analyses of the surviving timbers. The archaeologists also traced the large oak-and-granite anchors to China. In all, Hayashida’s team found that 99 percent of the recovered artifacts were of Chinese origin the remaining 1 percent could indeed be Mongol.

Among the most surprising finds was a series of ceramic bombs of a type historians had not thought existed at the time. One panel of the painted scroll of samurai Takezaki Suenaga depicts him falling from his horse, both rider and mount bleeding, as an aerial bomb explodes above him. Some historians had suggested the bomb was a later addition, and that Suenaga was in fact wounded by a flight of arrows. But archaeologists at Kozaki recovered several fragments of such bombs, known as tetsuhau, as well as intact examples. X-rays revealed these lethal Chinese-made weapons to be loaded with gunpowder and bits of metal shrapnel.

Randall Sasaki, a Texas A&M University graduate student who joined Hayashida’s team, made a detailed study of the ships and digitally reconstructed the Chinese-built fleet of troop transports and supply ships that merged with Korean-made shallowdraft landing craft to assault Japan’s shores in 1281. He discovered that the fleet had been hastily assembled, with some vessels showing their age and others in poor repair. But Sasaki also found ships that were the epitome of exceptional Chinese naval construction, many likely veterans of the Sung navy Kublai Khan had assembled to conquer China.

While archaeologists have excavated only a portion of the vast naval battlefield of 1281, they can now offer a reconstruction of the failed invasion that separates fact from legend. Kublai Khan’s forces embarked on an armada of ships of different types. Assembling off the Japanese coast, they were denied a landing spot of sufficient size by waiting samurai and the stone defensive wall that ringed the site of the 1274 invasion. From small boats the samurai harassed the invading fleet, forcing it to anchor close to shore in tight quarters. Fire ships took out some of the Mongol transports, and as the battle of attrition dragged on, a seasonal typhoon’s fortuitous arrival smashed into the larger ships, sending their crews and cargoes to the bottom. The lighter ships had more room to maneuver and were able to escape the harbor. (Only a handful of timbers Sasaki analyzed appear to be from the Korean-built landing craft.)

To the victorious Japanese the storm seemed god-sent, and while the legend of the kamikaze that resonated through Japanese history over the centuries inspired the suicidal—and ultimately futile—aerial assaults against Allied ships in the latter stages of World War II, it also prompted the decades-long quest to find Kublai Khan’s lost fleet and learn what really happened so long ago off Japan’s Kyushu coast.

For further reading James Delgado recommends his own Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada.

Originally published in the July 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.


Microscopic Marks Provides Evidence of Female Warriors

A New Scientist article tells of Lee and her colleague Yahaira Gonzalez spending several years collecting data from China and Mongolia, and they re-examined 29 skeletons from ancient Mongolian burial sites looking for arthritis, trauma, and musculoskeletal markers, including three Xianbei women skeletons, two of which were potentially female warriors. This conclusion was drawn after Lee and Gonzalez studied marks left on the bones where the muscles once attached, which were comparable to how mounted warrior skeletons are marked, indicating that these two woman also “practiced archery.”

Remains of a husband and wife burial (wife is on the left) from the Airagiin Gozgor site, Orkhon Province, Mongolia. ( Christine Lee / California State University)

Lee thinks this expanded role for certain women might be associated with the increasing political instability and social violence, which clouded the centuries following the collapse of China's Han Dynasty in 220 AD, and in contrast to these two possible women warriors, the skeletal remains of three Turkic women had no signs of developed shoulder muscles, therefore they didn’t practice archery.

Lee admits the skeletons only show minimal signs of horse riding and that no evidence of trauma was found around the marks, but the researcher thinks this might be because the women belonged to the elite class, who while highly trained in the martial arts and war crafts, didn’t actually partake in hand-to-hand combat, in contrast to other Chinese and Mongolian skeletons that all have battle scaring. The theory that the two women had belonged to the upper classes is greatly supported in that their skeletons were excavated from a 20-30 feet (6-9 meters) deep, tomb-like burial mound with several anti-chambers.

Top image: Representation of a Mongol female warrior / the legendary Mulan. Source: katalinks / Adobe stock


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