Renaissance festivals have brought shields, chain metal and armor suits back to life to illustrate their uncomfortable yet vital roles in protecting ancient warriors against swords, lances, spears, maces and morningstars. What did they use before the advent of metallic armor? Archeologists in Leicester, England, have discovered a well-preserved bark shield dating back to the Iron Age that may change what is known about Celtic history.
“The shield was severely damaged before being deposited in what is believed to be a livestock watering hole, with some of the damage likely to have been caused by the pointed tips of spears. Further analysis is planned to help understand if this occurred in battle or as an act of ritual destruction.”
In a recent press release, the University of Leicester reveals the results of four years of research on a bark shield discovered 2015 by a team of its archeologists searching for artifacts prior to the building of a retail development for the Everard company near Enderby. Radiocarbon dating placed its origin between 395 and 255 BCE, a remarkable survival for anything made of tree bark. However, this wasn’t an ordinary piece of tree bark.
“The shield has been carefully constructed with wooden laths to stiffen the structure, a wooden edging rim, and a beautiful woven boss to protect the wooden handle. The outside of the shield has been painted and scored in red chequerboard decoration.”
The bark shield (now referred to as the Enderby shield), measuring 670 x 370mm (26.4 x 14.5 in.), had been dried to give it a curvature and a pierce-resistant strength that, although not quite as strong as metal, was more efficient in battle because of its light weight. (A large number of photos of the shield and an attempt to recreate a similar one can be seen here.) This strength explains why bark had been used for bowls and containers, but it was still a surprise to these researchers that Celtic warriors would use it as a battle shield.
“This is an absolutely phenomenal object, one of the most marvelous, internationally important finds that I’ve encountered in my career. So often it is gold which grabs the headlines, but this bark shield is much rarer. Bark and basketry objects were probably commonplace in ancient Britain, but they seldom survive, so to be able to study this shield is a great privilege. It holds a rich store of information about Iron Age society and craft practices.”
Dr. Julia Farley, Curator of British and European Iron Age Collections at the British Museum, echoed the sentiments of many of the experts studying the shield – the first and so far only complete example of an Iron Age bark shield ever discovered in Europe. The shield has been relocated to the British Museum where analysis moves from its construction to its eventual demise and depositing in the ancient watering hole. The research will attempt to determine if the piercings in the shield were made during battle — which would be an impressive confirmation of its strength — or in a ritual signifying the end of its use — which would shed more light on the Celtic culture that made and used it.
Given the choice, would you go with a lightweight bark or heavy metal shield? Or would you run like hell in the opposite direction?