Two very unusual pieces of leather have been uncovered during the excavation of a pre-Hadrianic cavalry barrack (c. 100 CE) at the Vindolanda Roman fort in Northumberland, northern England.
The earliest evidence of boxing dates back to Egypt around 3000 BC. The sport was eventually acquired by ancient Greece and was introduced as an Olympic sport in 688 BC, when soft leather thongs were used to bind boxers’ hands and forearms for protection.
Boxing was a popular spectator sport in the Roman Empire. In the context of the Roman Army, it was a recorded pursuit, a martial activity designed to increase the skills and fitness of the boxers. Boxing competitions also took place with crowds and supporters and it was also the sort of activity that the Roman garrisons would have gambled on.
“I have seen representations of Roman boxing gloves depicted on bronze statues, paintings and sculptures but to have the privilege of finding two real leather examples is exceptionally special,” said Dr. Andrew Birley, CEO and Director of Excavations at the Vindolanda Trust.
“What really makes Vindolanda so unique is the range of organic objects that we find. Every one of them brings you closer to the people who lived here nearly 2,000 years ago but the hairs stand up on the back of your neck when you realize that you have discovered something as astonishing as these boxing gloves.”
Unlike modern boxing gloves, the Vindolanda gloves have the appearance of a protective guard, designed to fit snugly over the knuckles protecting them from impact.
“The larger of the two gloves is cut from a single piece of leather and was folded into a pouch configuration, the extending leather at each side were slotted into one another forming a complete oval shape creating an inner hole into which a hand could still easily be inserted. The glove was packed with natural material acting as a shock absorber,” Vindolanda Trust experts said.
“This larger glove has extreme wear on the contact edge and it had also undergone repair with a tear covered by a circular patch.”
“The slightly smaller glove was uncovered in near perfect condition with the same construction but filled with a tight coil of hard twisted leather.”
The Vindolanda boxing gloves can still fit comfortably on a modern hand. They have been skillfully made, with the smaller glove retaining the impression of the wearer’s knuckles.
“It is likely that the gloves functioned as sparring or practice caestu each has a stiffened contact edge being a softer representation of the of the more lethal metal inserts used in ‘professional’ ancient boxing bouts,” the archaeologists said.
“The larger glove may have been unfit for purpose due to prolonged use and may have survived alongside the ‘newer’ model resulting from a personal attachment given to it by the owner.”
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