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shield

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.

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Achaemenid Shields are a Puzzle

Figure 6-2 from my forthcoming book from Franz Steiner Verlag. Some types of gerron (wicker shield) used in the Achaemenid empire in the time of Darius I and Xerxes. Top: peltē and wooden imitation of a sticks-and-leather shield from Tuekta in the Altai (different sections of ‘sticks’ are painted red, white, and black; similar shields appear in Neo-Assyrian art). Middle: rectangular wicker shields. Bottom: violin-shaped or figure-eight shields. Note that they are worn on the arm like a peltē or an Argive shield, not held in the fist like the Tuekta shield. Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu CA, no. 83.AE.247 (digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program), State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, no. 2179/96 (photo by author); Gerhard 1847: Taf. CLXVI; western entrance of the Tachara of Darius (sketch by author), Persepolis; two reliefs on the Apadana, Persepolis (photo by author)

If you look at modern paintings and miniatures, you would think we have a good idea of the type of shield used by Achaemenid infantry in the time of Darius and Xerxes. They cite Herodotus book 7 chapter 61 and show the large rectangular kind on the middle row of the picture above. But as I argue in chapter 6.5.2 of my forthcoming book from Franz Steiner Verlag, things are more complicated. These large rectangular shields appear on the doorposts of two buildings at Persepolis and on two or three vases from Athens (out of thousands of soldiers at Persepolis and Susa and thousands of Red Figure vases). The person who published the sketch on the middle left thought it showed a battle against the Phrygian allies of the Amazons. And this type of shield does not agree with Herodotus’ words that quivers were hanging beneath the shields, unless we understand ‘beneath’ quite loosely.

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The Cult Wagon from Strettweg bei Judenburg

A bronze model of a four-wheeled wagon with several dozen naked men and women and horses standing on it and a central figure, twice as tall, holding a flat dish over her head with the help of two X-frames
The “Kult-” or “Kesselwagen.” Archaeologisches Musuem Graz, Schloss Eggenberg, no. 184. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

This blog has been wordy of late, so this week I decided to post about one of the strangest relics I saw on my recent trip to Graz. It comes from a grave of the so-called Halstatt Culture which was discovered in 1851, and it was deposited there sometime around the end of the seventh century BCE. Since I know so little about the Iron Age in central Europe, I can’t be tempted to make a lot of wordy comments.

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The Pazyryk Shield

Closeup photo of a shield of sticks thrust through zigzag slits in a sheet of leather
The shield from Pazyryk kurgan 1. Label not legible in my photo of it. Located in The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo by author, September 2015.

I recently had the opportunity to visit St. Petersburg and see some things which I had wanted to see for very many years. One of these was the shield excavated by S.I. Rudenko from the barrows at Pazyryk in the Russian part of the Altai mountains where Russia, Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Kazakhistan come together. The structure of the barrows and the local climate caused permafrost to develop beneath them, preserving some of their contents despite the intrusion of grave-robbers. Shields made in a similar way appear in Greek paintings of Persian soldiers from just over another border of the Achaemenid empire. The barrows (Russian singular kurgan) at Pazyryk are usually attributed to the fourth or third centuries BCE, but many of the objects found in them are older. To the best of my knowledge, the next surviving examples come from the siege of Dura Europos at least 500 years later (a photo is available in Nicholas Sekunda, The Persian Army, p. 21).

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