What Woods Were Used for Shields in East Yorkshire?
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What Woods Were Used for Shields in East Yorkshire?

An oblong bronze shield with a rib down the long axis which swells into an elipse over the center
This all-bronze shield from around 400-250 BCE represents the shape of northern European shields in the first millennium BCE (exact shapes and sizes vary and most were of wood with a few iron or bronze parts). The Chertsey Shield, British Museum, Museum number 1986,0901.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1986-0901-1

I am writing a post with this very specific title because I have added some more archaeological sites to What Woods Were Used for Shields in Iron Age Europe? Most importantly, I added sites from the pre-Roman “Arras Culture” of the wolds of East Yorkshire (and more shields from early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in Yorkshire). In this post, I will give more details than I can include in a list in the original post!

The peoples of Britain from around 400 to 100 BCE did not all leave much trace. The Arras Culture are an exception because they sometimes buried their friends and relations under barrows with archaeologically visible grave goods. These graves have been excavated since the 19th century. The locals had a custom of throwing spears at some bodies after placing them in the ground, and sometimes these spears pierced a wooden shield. (Virgil’s Aeneid mentions a similar practice where murderers build a mound over their victim but leave the spears they killed him with in the body so they stick out of the ground). As the iron of the spearheads rusts, it can preserve traces of the wood which archaeologists can examine. Six graves at Rudston (R) or Garton Station (GS) contained traces of the wood in shields. Although the shields are badly preserved, they probably resembled early ‘Celtic’ and ‘Germanic’ shields. In other words, they were vaguely oval, rectangular, or hexagonal, with a wooden boss in the center, a wooden spine down the front of the shield, and a handgrip behind the boss. The most expensive shields had the boss and spine reinforced with iron or bronze. Graves were numbered, so that R123 means Rudston grave 123.

  • R148 (with an iron covered boss and spine): traces of acer sp. (maple), prunus sp. (“cherry”), or tilia sp. (lime) “although maple seems more likely”
  • R154: salix sp. (willow) or populus sp. (poplar) near the edge of the grave
  • R163 (with an iron covered spine): spine possibly betula sp. (birch), board not identified
  • R174: 5× alnus sp., probably alnus, or possibly alnus (alder); 1× possibly salix sp. (willow) or populus sp. (poplar)
  • GS4: spine of alnus sp. (alder)
  • GS5: board near the middle of alnus sp. (alder)

Shields in Yorkshire both before the Roman conquest and after the Roman withdrawal were often made of alder, willow, or poplar. That suggests to me that these woods were seen as suitable by very many shield-makers over a long period.

a Roman relief of captured arms and armour standing inside  a room
The hexagonal shields on this carving are also common in sites from the Baltic and Roman pictures of European barbarians. A slab from a 1st century CE monument in the Museo Archaeologico, Verona.

It seems plausible that the board of a shield might be made of a light wood, while the boss and spine might be made of a harder, heavier wood. Viking Age shields often have an ash-wood handle, and so does the Chertsey shield above. The bark shield from Everards Meadows near Enderby in Leicester has spars of apple, pear, quince or hawthorn (which I read as “unknown maloideae sp.“) behind the face of the shield but split hazel rods bent around the rim. Unfortunately, the wooden Arras Culture shields are too poorly preserved to show such a tendency. If anyone wants to make a maple wood shield let me know about your results!

Stead gives some information about the thickness of the wood traces, although not about what part of the shield the measurements come from. His diagrams of some graves do not sketch the apparent location of the shield in the grave. Traces of wood on the spears which pierced shields were 5 to 16 mm thick. The shield in R148 was 5-6 mm thick in two places and 3 mm at one place at the edge (which place? There is no diagram of this grave at all). The shield in R163 (fig. 113) was 5 mm thick under the spine (where? Near the handhole or near the edge?)

The shields in GS5 and GS10 had been covered with hides on both sides. The shield in R148 had hide at the edge.

Further Reading

Stead, Ian M. (1991) Iron Age Cemeteries in East Yorkshire: Excavations at Burton Fleming, Rudston, Garton-on-the-Wolds, and Kirkburn. English Heritage Archaeological Report, 22 (London: English Heritage in association with British Museum Press) https://doi.org/10.5284/1028203 ISBN 1-85074-351-7 pp. 61-64

(scheduled 28 December 2022, updated 13 January 2023, fixed broken link 16 May 2023)

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