It's time we talked about metallurgy. Or, more precisely, the Armourer. I'm planning another post that'll deal with the role of materials, i.e., beskar steel, for next week. This week, I'm going to concentrate on the Armourer, like I promised. Because for once, I'm trying to set up a plan and actually follow through.
The Armourer is the core of Mando's life from the start of season one on. She has a combined role, because she isn't just the sect's metalworker and his source of Mando-approved armour. She also acts very much as a ritual expert, a dispenser of knowledge and arbiter of the rules of Mando's sect. At first, you might think these are two entirely separate roles, and that they bear little resemblance to blacksmithing and ritual life in the real world.
Well, that's not exactly true.
We have evidence both from the ancient world and from various communities that metalworkers often play this kind of role in societies (see, for example, the work of Melanie Giles (2007) and Nión-Álvarez (2022)). Metalworking itself has both a practical and a magical or ritual element to it, so the Armourer's role as both a ritual specialist, leader, and producer of objects using beskar steel is actually pretty spot on for this society.
There are two useful ways to think about the way the Armourer's roles overlap with each other. They interlock perfectly in the first episode of season three, where we see her prepare the helmet for the young foundling standing in the water. She then takes the helmet out and is clearly the central figure responsible for transitioning the boy from his excluded or liminal space to his place in the sect.
From an Actor–Network perspective, we might say argue that it's not just the Armourer doing that work of integrating the boy into the sect, but also the helmet. Once he wears it, he will be suitably attired to join the rest of his people. I'm not sure in this scene what kind of ritual this is. Is the boy a recent foundling who has just come into the group, or is this a coming-of-age ceremony? The two are different, because I'd love to know if there is a phase prior to first wearing a helmet, when children's faces can be exposed.
OK, I'm getting sidetracked here, off on one of my typical ADHD-style tangents. But let's stick with clothes for a second here and think about what the Armourer wears and where she typically is. The Armourer as a person is set apart both by her clothing and by her environment.
Spaces, Spaces, Spaces
For most of the first two seasons, we only see the Armourer when Din Djarin visits her. She's hard to reach, in an underworld environment only discoverable if you can see the signs on the right walls. Aside from the symbolic fact of her underworld environment mimicking a mine, she operates literally underneath the world she only seems to access remotely via the words and deeds of other Mandalorians.
Her world is one with the forge as its centre point. Even when we meet her in The Book of Boba Fett and she has access to a cavernous space suitable for training Din Djarin with the Darksaber, the forge is the core of this environment. It is a metallic world, one of girders and clanging walkways, with no natural light.
Clothes and Bodies
Throughout the show, the Armourer is dressed differently to Mando and other members of the sect. We don't see many of them, so it's hard to know whether her clothing is explicitly and only for a Mandalorian Armourer, but I'm going to assume these choices were conscious and deliberate on the part of the designers.
I noticed early on that the Armourer wears fur epaulettes. In fact, I think she's the only member of her sect ever shown wearing animal skin in this way. We don't know what material the fabric sections of Mandalorian outfits are made from, but I suspect that even if other Mandalorians don't mind, this sect may well be stricter in the fabrics that are approved to be worn, and even determine who can wear what by their status in society.
The epaulettes inform us that the Armourer is special, even before we get to the fact that she fires up a very modern-looking forge in order to work the beskar into items for Din Djarin. While images of beskar being worked might, from a narrative perspective, symbolise Din Djarin's evolution as a character, they also demonstrate the very real physical and skill-based function the Armourer plays in this culture. Which is how we get to the next bit...
Body and Skill
The Armourer isn't just built different on the outside. This research is fairly new, but there has been a growing trend in archaeology to consider the significance of skill in these overlapping practical and cultural roles. One of my favourite studies is by Peatfield and Morris, but it's one of a growing number that attempt to recreate various aspects of history through experimental archaeology.
In Peatfield and Morris's study, they attempted to make small models like those found at the sanctuary they were studying. I had the idea that I'd love to try this out with some of the figurines described in the handbooks I was studying. But this raised a whole bunch of questions, which Peatfield and Morris highlight in their work. The most critical of these is that when we repeatedly perform actions, we begin to develop the neurons needed to do those actions.
I was pretty sure I couldn't recreate the figurines with the required skill, because I hadn't practiced enough. This also applies to the Armourer. We don't know anything about how she has been selected for her role, but she also has a great deal of skill and expertise built up from years of working at her forge. She will know how to interact with her tools and materials in a manner that will have fundamentally altered not just who she is in the sect she runs, but also the structure of her brain.
The Armourer as Assemblage
This is where I'd like to introduce some of the work of Jane Bennett. Back in 2009, she published Vibrant Matter, which deals with how objects, humans, and materials work together to form complex and ever-changing assemblages. I used this idea to show that even when a magical object might be at the centre of a ritual, all the other materials, objects, bodies, and even the environment where it all takes place, must work together to make the object effective.
We can see the same thing in the Armourer. Her clothing, her tools, and her environment, all tell us that she is a being separate from the world. Not just that, but I suspect they continually reinforce both to her, her physical and cultural environment, her status, role, and her work. This only breaks down when her forge-temple is invaded at the end of the first season. It's a very effective narrative not only to have Din Djarin break the code of his sect by lifting his helmet but also to show that the Armourer's sacred space can be invaded. It is not inviolable.
Next week, I'm going to carry on this little adventure into the world of the Mandalorian and materiality by looking at beskar steel and its role as a social agent in the management of the sect and Din Djarin's relationships.
Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.
Giles, M. (2007). Making Metal and Forging Relations: Ironworking in the British Iron Age. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 26(4), 395–413. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.14680092.2007.00290.x
Nión-Álvarez, S. (2022). The Metalworker as Social Agent: A longue durée Approach from Northwestern Iberia Atlantic Façade (Ninth–First Centuries bce). Cambridge Archaeological Journal,32(3), 489-506. doi:10.1017/S0959774321000615
Peatfield, A. A. D., & Morris, C. (2012). Dynamic Spirituality on Minoan Peak Sanctuaries. In K. Rountree, C. Morris, & A. A. D. Peatfield (Eds.), Archaeology of Spiritualities (pp. 227–245). Springer New York. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-3354-5_11