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Seeing beneath the surface

CT scans give insight to how ancient Japanese armor was crafted
Portland Art Museum Japanese armor
Portland Art Museum conservation intern Mari Hagemeyer (left) and conservator Samantha Springer position a helmet from a Japanese suit of armor on the CT scanner at OHSU, August 9, 2017. Hopes are the information from the scans will give insight as to how the armor was created. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Portland Art Museum curators recently connected with radiography experts at OHSU, hoping to gain information about the construction of a Japanese suit of armor.

The “Nimaidō tōsei gusoku armor with Tokugawa crest” dates to the 1740s and was made for a high-ranking samurai in the Tokugawa clan that ruled Japan between 1603 and 1868. Though the suit of armor was crafted after more than a century of peace in Japan, the ornate battle attire still reflects the work of the country’s best metalsmiths, silk weavers, leather tanners and lacquerers.

The Portland Art Museum team is hoping to learn how certain parts of the armor were constructed.

“Like all suits of Japanese armor, this work is a complex symphony of many parts,” says Maribeth Graybill, The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Asian Art at the Portland Art Museum. “The documentation that came with the armor tells us that the solid iron pieces — the bowl of the helmet, the mask, parts of the sleeves and the shin guards — were already ancient when the armor was assembled in 1749 by famous craftsman Myōchin Munemasa.”

Munemasa incorporated the solid iron pieces into a unified ensemble by adding a cuirass (torso armor), sleeves, skirt and thigh protectors. Those parts were coated entirely in lacquer, masking the underlying material and construction technique.

OHSU imaged four pieces of the armor with a CT scan. CT, or computed tomography, makes use of computer-processed combinations of many X-ray measurements taken from different angles to produce cross-sectional, or tomographic, images -- virtual "slices" -- of specific areas of a scanned object.

Graybill explains, “Traditional armor was made from hundreds of small iron scales laced together, which made it effective for defense but heavy and expensive. By the mid-18th century, when this suit was made, some armorers were cutting corners by substituting strips of iron for individual scales, less time-consuming to make, or even substituting lighter and cheaper bamboo for iron. The OHSU images should reveal what choices Munemasa and his patron made for this suit of armor.”

The armor will be back on display in mid-October, accompanied by the scans and new research.

 

 

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