People often guess that particular kinds of wood were used for shields in ancient Europe, including hard, dense woods like oak and soft, brittle woods like pine. But did you know that we can just examine the objects they left behind and see what woods the ancients used? Or that ancient writers tell us which woods are best for making shields and why? This week, I will list the woods used in some surviving ancient shields and then quote those ancient writers.
- Argive shield in Basel: willow strips “laminated and pegged together”
- Argive shield in the Museo Gregoriano: glued boards of poplar
- Argive shield from Olynthos: species unknown
- Argive shield from Olympia: willow or poplar (all four Argive shields from Krentz, “A Cup by Douris,” pp. 193, 194)
- Celtic shield from Kasr El Harit, Egypt: three-layer plywood, possibly birch, certainly a wood which is not native to Egypt: Kimmig 1940 p. 106 n. 3
- First Celtic shield from La Tène, Switzerland: glued boards. The excavator in 1912 said “probably oak” but I would like a second opinion! Vouga 1912 p. 14
- Danum / Doncaster shield from Roman Britain: three-layer plywood of alder, oak, and alder: Buckland 1978 p. 251 right
- Dura Europos round shields: glued boards of poplar wood (populus euphratica) or pine (pinus sp.) wood: James, Excavations at Dura-Europos, p. 160, Anne Gunnison, Irma Passeri, Erin Mysak, and Lisa Brody (2020) “16. Painted Roman Wood Shields from Dura-Europos.” In Marie Svoboda and Caroline R. Cartwright (eds.), Mummy Portraits of Roman Egypt: Emerging Research from the APPEAR Project https://www.getty.edu/publications/mummyportraits/part-two/16/
- Dura Europos rectangular scutum #629: three-layer plywood of plane wood (planatus orientalis): James, Excavations at Dura-Europos, p. 163
- Shields in graves in England, 400-700 CE: 11 alder (alnus, 37%), 11 willow (salix) or poplar (populus) (37%), 3 maple (acer, 10%), 2 birch (betula, 7%), 3 other (10%), total 30 shields: Dickinson and Härke 1992 pp. 48, 49
- Shields from graves in West Heslerton, England (roughly 6th century CE): 2 willow or poplar, 3 linden, 1 maple (!), 1 lime or maple (!), 1 unknown, total 8 shields (Haughton and Powlesland vol. 1 p. 123)
- total 47 shields (or statements about a group of shields) of which 39 are ‘northern’ (specifically British) and 8 southern
Theophrastus, a contemporary of Aristotle, explained why Greek shield-makers chose the wood which they did:
The wood again of willow (ἰτέα) and grapevine (ἄμπελος) is tough; wherefore men make their shields of these woods; for they close up again after a blow; but that of the willow is lighter, since it is of less compact texture; wherefore they use this for choice.Theophrastus, On Plants 5.3.6 (slightly altered Loeb translation)
Pliny the Elder had read Theophrastus (and had not talked to woodworkers like Theophrastus has) but he adds more details:
The coldest woods of all are those of the aquatic trees; but they are the most flexible also, and for that reason the best adapted for the construction of shields. On an incision being made in them, they will contract immediately, and so close up their wounds, at the same time rendering it more difficult for the iron to penetrate: in the number of these woods are vine (vitis), chastetree (vitex), willow (salix), linden (tilia), birch (betulla), elderberry (sabucus), and both kinds of poplar (populus).Pliny, Natural History 16.77 Bostock/Riley, 16.96 Mayhoff
As you can see, the ancients did not commonly make shields from softwood (which to woodworkers means specifically “the wood of conifers” and not “wood which is soft”), and they only rarely used hard dense woods like oak, ash, and maple. People today who use these woods, or suggest that shields were of these woods, have different ideas of what makes a good shield than the ancients had.
It is good to know that the wood marketed as poplar in the USA and Canada is actually a kind of tulipwood (liriodendron tulipifera Wikipedia) and not a populus species. It is light and cheap but I don’t know if it has anything else in common with Old World poplar, and people who have used it to make shields have mixed experiences. Many people find it is brash (prone to breaking suddenly all the way through rather than splintering), but Paul Bardunias found that the tulipwood in his local hardware store closed up around weapons like willow. We can decide whether we think tulip poplar is a good material for shields, but we can’t know whether the ancients would have agreed, because they did not have any kind of liriodendron. True poplars in North America are called aspens and cottonwoods. It is also good to know that European lime or linden is a kind of tilia like American basswood and not related to the citrus tree with green fruit.
Which woods can we document in multiple sources (preferably both archaeological finds and the words of Theophrastus and Pliny)?
- In the Mediterranean, desirable woods for making shields were willow (salix sp.), poplar (populus sp.), and possibly birch (betula sp.)
- Around the North Sea, good shields were made from willow, poplar, alder (alnus sp.), linden (tilia sp.), and possibly birch
European shields were traditionally composites of layers of gesso, bovine hide (either tanned or raw), cloth, felt, and wood. Although the total thickness of all the layers in a plank shield was only 3-5 mm at the edges and 6-12 mm in the centre, the composite construction makes composite shields tough and resistant to penetration. From the bog deposits in the Baltic Sea, we can see that many poor warriors made do with shields completely made of natural materials without expensive iron or bronze reinforcements. So a shield is much more than its wooden board. But if you want to understand traditional European shields, understanding the wood they used is a good first step. For example, if you just want something which moves like an ancient shield, a low-density wood such as pine or hemlock would be a better choice than a dense wood such as cherry or hickory.
Do any of my gentle readers know about the wood in shields in other regions such as China, South Asia, or West Africa? Let me know in the comments or by email.
- Buckland, Paul (1978). “A First-Century Shield from Doncaster, Yorkshire.” Britannia, Vol. 9 pp. 247–269 https://doi.org/10.2307/525941
- Dickinson, Tania Marguerite and Härke, Heinrich (1992) Early Anglo-Saxon Shields. Archaeologia Monograph 110 (The Society of Antiquaries of London: London) https://academia.edu/
- Christine Haughton and Dominic Powlesland, West Heslerton: The Anglian Cemetery, Volume 1 (The Landscape Research Centre: n.p., 1999)
- Simon James, The Excavations at Dura-Europos 1928-1937, Final Report VII: The Arms and Armour and other Military Equipment (The British Museum Press: London, 2004/ reprinted Oxbow Books: Oxford, 2010)
- Kimmig, Wolfgang 1940. “Ein Keltenschild aus Ägypten.” Germania Bd. 24 Nr. 2, pp. 106-111 http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:bsz:16-ger-413717
- Peter Krentz, “A Cup by Douris and the Battle of Marathon,” in Garrett G. Fagan and Matthew Trundle (eds.), New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare (Brill: Leiden, 2010) pp. 188-190
- Sean Manning, “Wood,” Reenacting the Archaic and the Long Sixth Century (link)
(scheduled 28 February 2022, updated 9 April 2022)
Edit 2022-05-07: removed reference to the Baltic since I do not have access to data on shields from there
Edit 2022-05-21: added data on West Heslerton