For Gods or Men? A Reappraisal of the Function of European Bronze Age Shields

Article excerpt


From heraldic coats of arms to the badge of US police officers, the shield is a powerful symbol of authority and strength. In Western society it is an assertive if non-aggressive representation of power, a fossil from the heart of combats throughout the millennia where edged-weaponry dominated the battlefields of Europe. Today the shields of the Bronze Age in Europe are still visually striking artefacts seen in museums around the continent, highly decorated and pleasing to the eye. Though dull and tarnished with age when rediscovered, the shields of metal would once have been polished to a rich golden hue.

In important research carried out nearly five decades ago, John Coles conducted experimental tests on replica shields of the Bronze Age, innovatively combined with a catalogue of the then known shields of Europe, so integrating methodical analysis with practically informed interpretation (Coles 1962). Coles developed a two-tier model of functionality, arguing that leather and wooden shields were functional, whereas shields of bronze were not, a model which has been widely accepted.

The purpose of this paper is to re-examine the basis for this distinction using new experiments and metric data from the surviving shields. It will be demonstrated that a strict functional divide by material of construction is inappropriate and that both metal and organic shields could be highly effective articles of defensive weaponry. Conversely, it will be argued that shields of any material may have functioned in non-martial roles and that we need not conceive their multiple functions as being mutually exclusive. As with contemporary swords and spears, shields would have had a plurality of meanings in society and so any single item may at various times have been a symbol of identity, a tool of combat or a votive offering. Evidence for organic shields of wood and leather survives today only from Ireland, though artistic depictions from Iberia in particular indicate they were once much more widespread (Coles 1962; Harding 2007). Metal shields are found throughout much of Europe, and in particular in the British Isles, Germany and Scandinavia (Coles 1962; Raftery 1982; Osgood 1998; Harding 2000, 2007; Uckelmann 2006, forthcoming).

The shield in context

As a weapon on the field of battle, the shield was used in unison with offensive weapons. There was a wide range of attack weapons available to the Bronze Age warrior. The first swords emerged around 1600 BC, and were light, thin, rapidly deployable weapons offering a limited repertoire of cutting and thrusting attacks, typically dubbed 'dirks' and 'rapiers' in English language literature (Burgess & Gerloff 1981; Ramsey 1989, 1995; Molloy 2006, 2007). These were superseded around 1200 BC by a range of leaf-shaped swords originating in the Balkans and northern Italy (Cowen 1955, 1966; Catling 1961; Kilian-Dirlmeier 1993) which spread in various forms throughout most of Europe, from Greece in the southeast to Ireland in the north-west (Cowen 1951; Eogan 1965; Bridgford 1997, 2000; see also various volumes in the Prahistorische Bronzefunde series IV). More numerous again than the sword, the spear was a weapon which perhaps best typifies the diversity of the Bronze Age battlefield (Ehrenberg 1977; Hockmann 1980; Avila 1983; Ramsey 1989; Rihovsky 1996; Davis 2006). Spears came in all shapes and sizes throughout the Bronze Age, bur it was typical for two and three forms to be current in any given area at the same time, and these usually occurred in a variety of sizes (Ramsey 1989).

The Bronze Age axe is demonstrably a tool well suited to cutting down trees (Mathieu & Meyer 1997), bur its role as an implement of violence is suggested by its deposition in hoards containing nothing else but weapons and occasional personal ornaments (in Ireland, for example, see Eogan 1983: nos. 14, 17, 43, 76, 95, 98, 110, 119, 155). One also finds a wide variety of daggers and stone mace-heads which would have served well in combat. …