What Woods were Used for Shields in Iron Age Europe?
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What Woods were Used for Shields in Iron Age Europe?

two bundles of planks on a yellow plastic deck chair. One bundle is longer thin white planks, the other is shorter thicker red planks
16 linear feet of 5/16″ thick tilia Americana (left) and 9 linear feet of 2″ thick alnus rubra (right)

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.

Further Reading:

  • 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)

I don’t have a salaried job to subsidize my writing. Support my work on Patreon or paypal.me or even liberapay

(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

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13 thoughts on “What Woods were Used for Shields in Iron Age Europe?

  1. dearieme says:

    Elderberry? I’m astonished. Those weak trees that we vandalised as boys, that pulled apart so easily? Stone the crows.

    1. Sean says:

      I’ve never worked it myself (not sure it grows around the Salish Sea), but the Woodland Trust in the UK says its OK for whittling and carving https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/a-z-of-british-trees/elder/ Of course, sometimes Pliny didn’t know as much as he thought – he was a sedan-chair scholar not someone who went out and talked to working people. I think if you focus on woods which are light and flexible and don’t split and crack easily you will find something which the ancients would have approved of.

  2. dearieme says:

    “don’t split and crack easily”: the ‘green’ wood of elder does split and crack easily. Eight year old boys can pull young trees apart. (To our credit, part of the point was to stick bits of the tree in the ground in expectation that they’d take root and eventually flourish. To give them a good start in life we’d pee on the ground around them. It seemed to work.)

    I don’t know anything about the characteristics of properly dried out old wood from a mature elder. We have a dead elder in one of our garden hedges so I’ll keep an eye on it.

    Mind you, in our wine-making years we thoroughly enjoyed elderflower wine (white).

    Also elderberry wine (red) which we made from a mixture of elderberry juice and grape juice.

    Foraging for the flowers and fruit was all part of the fun.

    Now that we are older and less poor we’ve given up home-made wine but still enjoy elderflower cordial diluted with cold fizzy water. Simple joy on a hot day.

  3. Jaojao says:

    Interesting! As you say, they are rather different from common shield woods in pop culture

    1. Sean says:

      It seems to be a rule that if people can’t quote the inventory number or site report they are working from, their interpretations of ancient arms and armour are 50% to 100% overweight and move like beached whales instead of feeding hummingbirds. Both the companies in South Asia and L.K. Chen in Longquan, China find that the weight starts to drift up unless they watch the workers (Chen does, the South Asians mostly don’t).

  4. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Hi Sean, I hope You can do some impressive study about shields from the age of Tutankhamun till Late Antiquity?

    I didn’t find much about Western Africa https://www.reddit.com/r/ArmsandArmor/comments/eihfzm/ekpeke_wicker_shield_of_the_igbo_people_in_nigeria/ https://okwuid.com/2020/07/07/igbo-weapons/#jp-carousel-5505 One study, please read it carefully https://jambo.africa.kyoto-u.ac.jp/kiroku/asm_normal/abstracts/pdf/ASM%20%20Vol.8%20No.3%201988/Bala%20ACHI.pdf Ok I’m teasing You from page 149, but the whole article is interesting. I’m not an expert for the African pre-colonial warfare but I sense, there is a large potential for using parallels for Greeks and other old acquaintances…

    For the informations about shields from China, Southeast Asia I have to search my books. But I’m not sure, there will be exact archeological reports, maybe nothing more than educated guesses… I’ll let You know by email (along with my other news, book tips).

    1. Sean says:

      And there are often samples of 19th century African weapons in all kinds of different museums. Someone would just need the funds to have them looked over and X-rayed and photographed and so on.

    2. Sean says:

      I have a bibliography on shields from Tutankhamun to Late Antiquity, but I am not sure what I will do with it. Especially since I do not have access to the reports on the bog finds from the Baltic. I have several stalled writing projects which count on my CV, which blog posts do not.

  5. russell1200 says:

    I have a Tulip Poplar in my back yard. The flowers are way up high and hard to see: but they are tulip-like. It’s main relative that I know of is the Magnolia: another flowering tree. I read somewhere that the two of them are throwbacks to the original flowering trees.

    1. Sean says:

      I am told there is a liriodendron chinense native to Southeast Asia . I’d be interested to hear from an experienced shield-maker who has used both the traditional Old World woods and tulip poplar. It just seems like many people use tulipwood and tell themselves it is the best wood or a traditional wood and don’t know that the name is a ‘false friend.’

      Most people in the USA and Canada should be able to buy some red alder (alnus rubra), basswood (tilia americana), or black willow (salix nigra), and most people in Europe should be able to buy some linden (Tilia x europaea) – I chose the woods for my shields from that list. I will probably try Liriodendron tulipifera one day if I like making shields.

  6. Sedo says:

    Tulip poplars are a great example of the East Asia-Eastern North America ‘floristic disjunction’. East Asia (especially southern China) and eastern North America (especially the southern Appalachian mountains) have a number of similar plant genera that do not occur in between – they are the remnants of flora that was widespread in the northern hemisphere in the warmer parts of the Cenozoic, but were then separated by aridification and, eventually, the Pleistocene glaciations.

    https://arboretum.harvard.edu/stories/land-bridge-travelers-of-the-tertiary-the-eastern-asian-eastern-north-american-floristic-disjunction/

  7. B says:

    Thanks for this information, Sean. I’d like to commission a traditional hoplite aspis, but I’m having trouble sourcing white willow (salix alba) timber, from which, of all available varieties, I presume ancient European willow shields were made. It sounds like you’ve made or commissioned your own reproductions. I’d be happy to know any resources you’ve used in sourcing materials or hardware or craftsmen. Cheers!

    1. Sean says:

      Hi B, willow wood is hard to buy, I think its hard to machine and the main commercial use is cricket bats https://www.thegns.org/blog/princely-shields-part-2

      Of the two shields I am making, one is basswood (tilia americana, in-progress photo of the basswood shield here) and the other is red alder (alnnus rubra, in-progress photo of the alder shield here). I think linden, which is another tilia sp., is commercially available in central Europe. I think if you gave some milled timbers of any of the three to an ancient shieldmaker, they would probably have accepted them even if they were not their favourite quality of their favourite wood.

      For weapons tests you could try pestering university groundskeepers, botanical gardens, and local garden service companies for the next big chunk of willow they have to remove. Its easier to get enough wood to make one board to drop spears on (or whatever) than enough wood for a whole shield.

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