Thursday, June 25, 2009

Celtic Shields

The Celtic and German tribes of the 5th century BC – 2nd century AD appear to have used very similar shields in battle. These shields were made in a variety of shapes in sizes. Archaeological (actual finds) and representational (art such as sculpture) evidence suggests that warriors on foot favored a tall shield, which offered great protection to the body. Cavalry used this tall shield or a smaller round shield. The tall body-shield was roughly a meter long (4-5 ft.). When resting on the ground it would have come up to just above the warrior’s waist. The shield’s shape could be any of a number of variations of an oblong form (see image below). The shield board was comprised of solid wood or vertical planks, covered in hide. The hide protected the wood from warping in the rain, and it prevented splintering when struck in battle. Round shields were often used by cavalrymen. Attached to the center of the shield face was the boss. This hollow object provided room for the user to hold the horizontal metal or wooden hand-grip. The boss protected the hand and could be used offensively to punch the enemy. A wooden boss was often covered on the front by an iron plate. A typically all-metal boss was made of iron. It appeared as a hemisphere with circular flange or as an oblong shape with butterfly wing-shaped flange.


The celtic shield was primarily made of organic materials, wood and hide. As a result, direct archaeological evidence is very limited. Ian Stead composed a list of all known shield parts found in Britain. (#145;Many more Iron Age shields from Britain’, The Antiquaries Journal). Here is a listing of major finds from across Europe:

Witham Shield 400-300 BC (fig. A)
Discovered in 1826 in the River Witham, near the village of Washingborough, which is outside the city of Lincoln. Length: 109.22 cm. Currently housed in the British Museum. This is not the whole shield, rather it is a thin bronze sheet which was mounted on a wood backing. A leather stylized boar once was once riveted to the face. The central boss was decorated with pieces of Mediterranean coral. The delicate nature of this shield indicates that it was not meant for battle. (James)
See detailed photo on the British Museum website.

Chertsey Shield, 400-200 BC (fig. B)
Discovered in 1985 in Chertsey, Surrey, England. Currently housed in the British Museum. Length: 83.6 cm, Width: 46.8 cm, Weight: 2.75 kg. The body of the shield is made entirely of bronze. The handle is made of ash. (Stead 1991; Ritchie)
See detailed photo on the British Museum website.

Battersea Shield, 350-50 BC (fig. C)
Discovered in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge, London, England. Currently housed in the British Museum. This is a facing of multiple sheets of broze that were riveted to a now rotted shield-board. Decorated with glass inlay. Length: 77.7 cm. As with the Witham and Chertsey shields this apparently was a ceremonial, rather than battle shield. (Stead, 1985)
See detailed photo on the British Museum website.

Hjortspring shields, 4th-2nd century BC (fig. D)
Discovered in a bog on the island of Als, near Hjortspring farm. The site is on the modern border of Germany and Denmark. Remains of up to 80 wooden shields were found. 50 were able to be re-assembled. These shields appear to be an offering of captured enemy equipment originating from the western Baltic. Although these objects did not come from a Celtic area, the shields and weapons found here display an influence of Celtic technology. The wooden shields were preserved by the anaerobic conditions of the bog. All are similarly shaped. They are rectangular in a range of proportions, all with shallow curved sides and corners. Length: varies among the shields from 61 - 88 cm, Width: 22 - 52 cm. The largest shield is 88 x 50 cm. The smallest is 66 x 29 cm. The shields are thickest at the middle, in most cases 1 - 1.8 cm. The edges get thinner at .3 - .6 cm. The majority of the shield boards were carved from a single piece of wood. Others were formed of 2 or (more rarely 3) planks glued together with resin (sometimes with the addition of tennons). The shield bosses are of wood. They are mostly alder and lime, but some are harder woods. It is not known if they originally had a hide or cloth covering. (Rosenburg)

Votive British shields, 2nd-1st century BC (fig. E)
In 1988 the British Museum acquired a collection of 22 miniature bronze shields. 6 of the 22 have decorated faces. The longest shield is 8.7 cm. At their purchase the shields were unprovenanced. However, the detective work of arcaheologist, Ian Stead, has since confirmed that these are indeed from a hoarde in Salisbury, England. These objects were probably votive offerings to the gods. These miniatures seem to realistically represent shields of actual use. As evidence of this, their form matches the shape of a near complete set of bronze edge bindings found at Spettisbury, Wilford Down and in a burial at Mill Hill, Deal. (Green)(Stead, 1991)(Parfitt)

Note: Ian Stead wrote about his investigation into these shields in his book, The Salisbury Hoard.

La Tène shields, 250 BC (fig. F)
Fragments of three oak plank Celtic shields were discovered at the lake at La Tène on the north side of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The find was made in the late 1800s. The now dissintigrated shield remains are housed in the Neuchâtel Museum, Switzerland. When found, they were roughly 1.1 meters long, and 1.2 cm thick at the center. All three were made of oak. Two of the three had a wooden boss. The third shield’s boss was missing. (Connolly)

Clonoura shield (pictured at left)
In the 1960s a small plain Iron Age shield was found in a bog in Clonoura, Co. Tipperary, Ireland. The shield board is made of thin sheets of wood, covered on the face and back in leather. The edging is also leather. The umbo is wood, covered in leather. It is 55 x 35 cm. (Moody) (Raftery). It is now held in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. (Cunliffe).


The shield face was decorated with floral, geometric and figural designs. The designs were probably painted or attached as separate pieces of leather or metal. The shield found at Mill Hill, Deal, UK was accompanied my small metal decorations, which would have been mounted to the shield board.(Parfitt) Various animal decorations made of sheet bronze were found at Tintignac, a religious site in ancient Gaul. These included 2 boar heads, 1 horse head, and some detached legs of an identified animal. They are thought to be meant as the top to a military standard, but they may also have been intended to decorate a shield. (Maniquet) The Witham Shield shows traces of a boar design that would have been attached as a separate sheet of metal (now missing).

The Roman Arch of Orange in modern France depicts a variety of designs applied to Celtic shields. One might expect these sculpted designs to be accurate representations, as they could have been based on captured arms and equipment. However, the designs do not mesh well with the Celtic La Tène style. The image below illustrates a few. German shield blazons have not been recorded well at all. The Roman representations that have survived (Column of Marcus Aurelius, coinage, sarcophagi, etc.) are very obviously impressionistic depictions of generic ‘barbarian’ shields, rather than accurate renderings.

1. Connolly, Peter, Greece and Rome at War. Greenhill Books, 1998.

2. Cunliffe, Barry, The Ancient Celts

3. Green, Miranda, Celtic Art. Sterling Publishing Company, New York, 1997

4. James, Simon and Rigby, V., Britain and the Celtic Iron Age The British Museum Press, London, 1997.

5. Maniquet, Christophe. Discovery at Tintignac (web)

6. Moody, Theodore. A New History of Ireland. Oxford University Press. 2005

7. Parfitt, Keith. Iron Age Burials, from Mill Hill, Deal British museum Press, London 1995.

8. Raftery, B. “La Tène in Ireland: Problems of Origin and chronology” in Veröff Vorgeschicht Seminars Marburg, Sonderband 2. Publisher: Philipps-Universität Marburg 1984.

9. Ritchie, W.F, ‘The army, weapons and fighting’, Part II of The Celtic World (Edited by Miranda Green) Routledge, London, 1995.

10. Rosenberg, Gustav; Knud Jessen, Fr. Johannessen, Hjortspringfundet, Volume 3, Issue 1, With English Summary, København, 1937

11. Stead, I.M., The Battersea Shield The British Museum Press, London, 1985

12. Stead, I.M., ‘Many more Iron Age shields from Britain’, The Antiquaries Journal, 71. 1991

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