Basic Leather Tent
IntroductionThere has been much debate around the possibility that late Roman soldiers used material tents to protect themselves from the elements. Hemp, linen and felt are all possibilities. But there is a large body of evidence for the use of leather tents throughout antiquity.
I wanted to make a simple two-man tent made of goat skin that was strong, functional and fit for purpose.
The Deurne TentThere is a surviving leather tent, deposited around AD 320 and discovered by workmen digging peat in 1910. The tent was part of an assemblage including the famous Deurne helmet of which I am lucky enough to own a copy.
The tent was a simple ridge tent without doors, consisting of 16 leather panels, roughly 75cm by 52 cm. It was made by sewing the panels together like gluing playing cards together to make a large rectangular sheet. One corner was re-enforced as if for a loop. Overall the tent measured around 288cm by 208cm, which could just about fit two men or one man more comfortably with his equipment. The tent and other items had either been lost in the marsh or deposited deliberately as some sort of votive offering.
Xenophon and Saint PaulXenophon (Anabasis 1.5.10) describes basic one-man bivouacs made from animal hide, probably also built up in panels. One man tents, skenai, could be made of leather panels stegasmata, probably goat, which could also be used as basic rafts when stuffed with hay. Saint Paul supported himself by the manufacture of leather tents which was seen as a lower to middle class occupation. All of which led me to purchase large numbers of goat skins.
The DesignGoat skin is a great material for making carry bags, kit bags and a host of other items. So I laid in a supply of nearly thirty of them. I grouped them into fours of roughly the same size. I then cut out a template so all the panels would be the same width, although the larger panels would be a greater length. As long as four panels were the same length and sewn together edgewise the tent could be built up using the “playing card system”, and this would maximise the use of my goat skins.
My panels were smaller than the originals found at Deurne and so I used twenty skins to produce a very palatial tent.
Stitches, Seams and Re-enforcmentI used volume 2 of “The Carlisle Millennium Project, Excavations in Carlisle 1998-2001”. I regularly consult this volume to study Roman saddle covers, and it was convenient to use it for information on stitch types and seams.
Nine different seam types were identified from tents and I opted for a seam type II, a simple tunnel stitch which was the most popular type throughout the Roman occupation. Out of the four possible hem types I likewise chose the most simple, just a turned and sewn hem. I re-enforced the four corners and the mid-points of all four sides so loops could be added. I also re-enforced the seams along the ridge where the tent pole was likely to wear the stitching.
The leather was easy to sew with a modern sewing needle, and an awl was not needed. I used waxed linen thread throughout and the stitching was a relatively simple process.
WaterproofingI wanted to add moisture to the leather in the form of oil to keep water out. I then wanted to try and seal the moisture in the leather. I used five litres of neatsfoot oil, rendered and purified from the shin bones and feet, but not the hooves, of cattle. This darkened the leather considerably, and I then covered the tent in lanolin and beeswax to seal it. I use both products regularly on saddles and tack and can recommend them. The oil added 5kg to the weight of the tent.
UseI suspended the tent over a frame of birch. I really do not like to see tents suspended from javelins and spears, and my uprights and cross piece were cut from the local wood. They are roughly 5cm diameter, since the weight of the tent is far greater than a simple material tent. In its carrying basket, with six small pegs, it weighs a heavy 29kg. Some have suggested that the tents Xenophon describes would not really weigh much, and so getting rid of them to speed his march was relatively pointless.
But the weight of this tent suggests that leaving tentage would help lessen the load of the pack animals considerably. Donkeys were relatively cheap, perhaps predominating over mules by a ratio of four to one. Wooden framed pack saddles could have been used, but a simple twin pannier technique was perhaps more common. Overloaded animals were a common sight, but loads were relatively light by modern standards, in the region of 80-90 kg. On that basis a 29kg tent would make up over a third of the load on a donkey.
On the tent’s first outing the temperature fell below freezing at night. Olive oil in my tent froze and so did the neatsfoot oil on the tent. This worried me but as it thawed out the next morning things returned to normal.
I put the tent together quickly in my spare time over about four weeks. My stitches were done quickly and not always neatly. Some tunnel stitches were pulled apart under strain when the tent was at tension and these areas leaked a little rain water which thankfully ran down the inside of the tent. These areas were easily repaired although I suspect I may have to repair other such areas in the future.
People often suggest to me that sleeping in a simple ridge tent without doors is cold and open to the elements, before they go off and sleep with nothing but a paper thin plastic tent to keep them warm and dry. With a shield in a goat skin cover covering one side, helped out buy the tent’s carrying basket you are always sheltered from the wind and rain. A fire in the other entrance makes the tent positively cheerful. The leather does give the tent a feeling of great solidity, something perhaps less permanent than a house but far more permanent than a canvas tent. They are relatively easy to make, appropriate for the whole classical period and not that much more expensive than a modern plastic tent. .