Dating Bronze Age Shields
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Categories: Ancient

Dating Bronze Age Shields

the front of a round bronze centergrip shield with a boss and a decoration of alternate solid ribs and rings of embossed dots
A Yetholm type shield from Rhyd-y-Gorse, Wales. Currently dated 1200-900 BCE. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum

Most archaeologists focus on metal, stone, and ceramic objects which are common and easy to conserve, but this has problems! Back in 1962 John Coles studied European Bronze Age shields by beginning with complete bronze shields (or shield covers) from Cyprus, the Aegean, southern Germany, Czechia, Denmark, and the British Isles. Because the oldest finds in the Aegean could be dated to around 850 BCE, Coles created an elaborate theory that the surviving wooden and hide shields and shield moulds from Ireland were copies of Southwest Spanish copies of the shields from the Aegean and Cyprus. Because the shields from Ireland were found loose in bogs, there was no way to date them by the other objects they were found with. Then in 1991 specialists started to collect radiocarbon dates from the Irish shields and shield-moulds, and consistently got dates before 1000 BCE! Since most parts of Europe don’t have as many peat bogs as Ireland, and ancient wood and hide rarely survive outside of bogs, this sparked some rethinking!

As you would expect, the fancy bronze shields were copies of forms usually made in wood or hide. You can make a perfectly adequate shield with nothing but wood and hide, and a good shield with a few hundred grams of iron or bronze, but if you are very rich (and very good at bronze-working) you might be able to make so many bronze-covered shields that you can give some to the gods. These days the whole series of European bronze shields has been re-dated to begin around 1200 BCE, and scholars are much more cautious about when round, centergrip shields with a boss first appeared in Europe. They fell out of fashion around 400 BCE and reappeared around 200 CE but that is another story.

Further Reading

Coles, John M. (1962) “European Bronze Age Shields,” Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, Vol. xxviii (1962) pp. 156-190

HEDGES, R.E.M., HOUSLEY, R.A., BRONK, C.R. and KLINKEN, G.J.V. (1991) “Radiocarbon dates from the Oxford AMS System (Archaeometry Datelist 12),” Archaeometry, 33: 121-134. {see p. 129, the article which Molloy meant to cite}

HEDGES, R.E.M., R.A. HOUSLEY, C.B. RAMSEY & G.J. VAN KLINKEN. 1991. “Radiocarbon dates from the Oxford AMS system (Archaeometry datelist 17),” Archaeometry 35 pp. 305-326 {see p. 316}

Molloy, Barry (2009) “For Gods or men? A reappraisal of the function of European Bronze Age shields,” Antiquity, Vol. 83 pp. 1052–1064

Uckelmann, Marion (2012) Die Schilde der Bronzezeit in Nordt-, West- und Zentraleuropa. Prähistorische Bronzefunde III.4 (Franz Steiner Verlag: Stuttgart)

(scheduled 10 February 2023)

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