Whitening Shields and Panels
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Categories: Ancient

Whitening Shields and Panels

a colour photo of a painted terracotta model of a Greek shield with the head of a god crowned with rays of light
Model shield from the ‘Tomb of the Erotes’ on Eretria (c. 350-250 BCE, not from a documented excavation). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, accession number 97.322

Xenophon once uses the verb λευκόω “to whiten” to describe how anti-Spartan Athenians made shields to fight the pro-Spartan oligarchs:

The Thirty thereupon retired to Eleusis; and the Ten, with the aid of the cavalry commanders, took care of the men in the city, who were in a state of great disquiet and distrust of one another. In fact, even the cavalry did guard duty by night, being quartered in the Odeum and keeping with them both their horses and their shields; and such was the suspicion that prevailed, that they patrolled along the walls from evening onwards with their shields, and toward dawn with their horses, fearing continually that they might be attacked by parties of men from Piraeus. [25] The latter, who were now numerous and included all sorts of people, were engaged in making shields, some of wood, others of wicker-work, and in whitening them (ἐλευκοῦντο).

Xen. Hell. 2.4.24-25

As I was studying Aeneas Tacticus before the conference on Stadtbelagerungen zwischen Ost und West (Innsbruck, 12-13. October 2023) I found a passage which helps interpret this one!

Aeneas Tacticus uses the same verb in his chapter on how to send hidden or enciphered messages (steganography and cryptography).

Another device recorded is to write on a boxwood tablet (πυξίον) with the very best ink, let it dry, then whiten it over (λευκώσαντα) to conceal the writing. When the tablet reaches the man to whom it was sent, he must take it and put it in water: and in the water every word will come out clearly.

[15] Again, you may write any message you wish on a votive tablet (πινάκιον ἡρωϊκὸν): then whiten it thoroughly (καταλευκῶσαι), dry it, and draw on it a picture, say, of a horseman with a torch, or anything else you like; his dress and horse should be white, or, if not white, any colour but black. Then give it to someone to set it up in some temple near the city, as if you were paying a vow. [16] The man who is to read the message must come into the temple, identify the tablet by some prearranged mark, carry it home, and dip it in oil: then all the writing will become visible.

Aeneas Tacticus 31.14-16 http://aeneastacticus.net/public_html/ab31.htm

In the first century CE Dioscorides liked ink (μέλας) made from the soot of torches (5.183) or pitch pine (1.86) or rosin (1.93) with gum for a binder, and later Arab writers also thought that soot from oily substances made the best pigment in ink.

A plywood panel covered with Cennini’s gesso sottile (hide glue and slaked gypsum) and scraped down with instructions for the painter sketched in India ink (carbon, water, and an animal-based binder)

I see all these passages as referring to a applying a smooth, white, calcium-based surface (cp. Theophilius’ albatura “whitened”). This was the traditional preparation for painting wood before and after the fourth century BCE. However, there are many slightly different versions of these processes. Classic European gesso is hide glue and calcium carbonate or calcium sulphate. I think there is some evidence that Bronze Age Egyptians sometimes used plant gum instead of hide glue. Whitewash can be as simple as slaked lime (calcium oxide) or chalk (calcium carbonate) and water, or can include glue or pigment. I would also want to experiment with the water and oil: does he want to remove the covering entirely? Ancient ink was generally water-soluble so it could be washed off. Perhaps most important is the expectation that any reasonably intelligent man will know how to cover a surface with white calcium so it is ready to paint or write on.

PS. In Libraries in the Ancient World (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2001), Lionel Casson notes a votive lexical tablet from the Eanna at Uruk which blesses anyone who returns it and curses anyone who removes it from the Eanna (p. 14). So the practice of people walking off with things which had been placed at a shrine and devoted to the gods was not limited to Greece. Luke Pitcher’s Writing Ancient History (I.B. Tauris: London, 2009) reminds me that Cicero, de Oratore 2.52 tells us that “from the beginning of Roman history to the pontificate of P. Mucius Scaevola (d. around 115 BCE), the pontifex maximus used to commit the events of each and every year to writing and copy them on white (in album) and place the tablet in front of his home, so that the people would have the power of knowing, and even today these are called the annales maximi.” (Latin on the Perseus Project). LSJ refer me to Greek λεύκωμα “white thing, whitened tablet with writing”

Further Reading

Fredrik Hagen, “An Eighteenth Dynasty Writing Board (Ashmolean 1948.91) and The Hymn to the Nile,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 49 (2013), pp. 73-91

Wooden tablets consist of several thin boards attached to one another side by side in the form of a rectangle, which was then covered with a piece of linen and finally plastered with a layer of stucco (although from the Late period onwards linen and stucco seems not to have been used). Many have a hole drilled through the board near one of the short sides, presumably for a piece of string to be pased through, which would enable the board to be attached to another object or to be suspended. Chronologically writing boards appear in the archaeological record already in the Old Kingdom, and they continue to be used throughout Egyptian history (eg. in village Koran schools in the 19th century – ed.)

There is some evidence that shields after Alexander the Great were often decorated with a white ground which was not completely overpainted: see the reconstruction shop Res Bellica on Roman scuta or the stele of Dioscorides and stele of Salmamodes from Sidon.

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(scheduled 8 September 2023)

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