A Later Bronze Age Shield from South Cadbury, Somerset, England

Article excerpt

Introduction (JMC)

Readers of ANTIQUITY will be familiar with most of the features of Later Bronze Age Europe -hillforts, urnfields, metalwork and the like. Museums throughout Europe are full of bronzes, and weaponry figures large in most displays; slashing swords, spearheads and various axes make up the bulk. Among the glittering array are much rarer objects exhibiting high degrees of technology and craftsmanship, such as beaten metal cauldrons, buckets and shields. This paper focuses on one such object, a bronze shield, found in unusual circumstances.

Beaten metal shields are rare in European Bronze Age contexts. Perhaps 70-80 are now known from an area stretching from Ireland to the Carpathians, and, when recorded, they appear to have come from wet or watery contexts, either peatbogs or rivers and ponds. Almost all are stray finds, found during peat-cutting or ditching, or by the plough, or by divers. A large proportion of European metal shields comes from Britain and Ireland [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] and the South Cadbury shield is the first to be recorded from southwest England. Few shields are associated with any other object, and when some relationship has been claimed it is generally vulnerable to critical examination; almost the only clear associations are shield with shield. Some fragments appear in hoards of the Later Bronze Age of eastern Europe, but the dating of beaten-metal shields depends as much on their technology of manufacture and their typology of decoration as on any clear contextual association. Shields appear on rock carvings in various regions of Europe, but their chronology is not made more precise by such representations.

The shield from South Cadbury is the first to be discovered on an archaeological site in Britain, and it has a position and context that offers us a new, if puzzling, insight into the ceremonial activities that demanded the production and disposal of such precious objects in the Later Bronze Age. This short paper will present the evidence from the site, the steps taken to recover and conserve the shield, a description of the shield and others of the type, and some comments on the circumstances of deposition just below the hillfort of Cadbury Castle.

South Cadbury Environs Project (PL & RT)

The South Cadbury Environs Project is a continuing programme of research run by the Universities of Birmingham and Glasgow, with the support of local colleges and amateur archaeological organizations. The core study area comprises 64 sq. km of southeast Somerset and north Dorset, centred on Cadbury Castle [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 1 & 2 OMITTED], a multiphase hillfort excavated under the direction of Leslie Alcock from 1966-70 (Alcock 1972; 1995; Barrett et al. forthcoming). The study area is a distinctive geological niche between the chalk Downs of Wiltshire and Dorset to the east and south and the low-lying clays and peat of the Somerset Levels to the west. The project aims to show successive patterns of landscape division and has made extensive use of geophysical survey, supported by systematic test pitting, ploughzone and surface sampling. Selective excavation has been used to test the potential of data acquired through sampling.

The excavation site where the shield was found is situated on a narrow spur (called Milsom's Corner) projecting westwards from the lower slopes of Cadbury Castle [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. The hillfort itself is an outlier of a Jurassic ridge which dominates the eastern part of the study area, with light calcareous soils on an Inferior Oolite cap over sandstone. Clay is the principal component of the spur, although proximity to east-west and north-south faults, the effects of long-term human activity and downslope movement of hillwash have contributed to a rich variety of soils.

On Cadbury Castle surface scatters of microliths discovered in the 1950s testified to human presence during the Mesolithic, and the excavations revealed more tangible activity in phases ranging from the Early Neolithic to Late Saxon. …