Archaeologists Find 2,300-Year-Old Bark Shield in England

A unique bark shield from the Iron Age has been discovered by a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester and elsewhere.

Archaeologist Adam Clapton records the Enderby shield in the ground. Image credit: University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

Archaeologist Adam Clapton records the Enderby shield in the ground. Image credit: University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

The bark shield was found in 2015 at the Iron Age site of Everards Meadows near Enderby in Leicestershire.

The object, which measured 26.3 x 14.6 inches (67 x 37 cm) in the ground, is unique, the only one of its kind ever found in Europe.

“Prehistoric people used bark to make bowls and boxes, but this is the first time we see the material used for a weapon of war,” said University of York archaeologist Michael Bamforth and colleagues.

The researchers used several cutting-edge analytical techniques, including CT scanning and 3D printing, to understand the construction of the shield.

They found that the object was carefully constructed with wooden laths to stiffen the structure, a wooden edging rim, and a beautiful woven boss to protect the handle. The outside of the shield was painted and scored in red chequerboard decoration.

“Detailed analysis shows that the bark was from either alder, willow, poplar, hazel or spindle tree with the outer layer of bark forming the inside of the shield,” they said.

“The stiffening laths were made of apple, pear, quince or hawthorn whilst the rim was a half-split hazel rod.”

“The boss was formed from a willow core stitched together with a flat fiber of grass, rush or bast fiber, and the handle was of willow roundwood, flattened at the end and notched, and fixed to the bark with twisted ties.”

“The outer surface of the shield was scored with lines forming a chequerboard pattern, with parts painted with red hematite-based paint.”

“The shield was severely damaged before being deposited in what is believed to be a livestock watering hole. At least one irregular elliptical hole was likely to have been damage caused by the pointed tip of an iron spear, whilst other groups of parallel incisions may show where edged blades have hit and rebounded.”

The Enderby shield. Image credit: University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

The Enderby shield. Image credit: University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

Radiocarbon dating shows that the Enderby shield was made sometimes between 395 and 255 BC.

“We have learned a great deal from fragile evidence which could have been so easily overlooked, and the project has been a wonderful collaboration providing a rarely seen glimpse of our prehistoric past,” said Dr. Matthew Beamish, an archaeologist with the University of Leicester.

“This truly astonishing and unparalleled artifact has given us an insight into prehistoric technology that we could never have guessed at,” Dr. Bamforth said.

“Although we know that bark has many uses, including making boxes and containers it doesn’t survive well in the archaeological record. Initially we didn’t think bark could be strong enough to use as a shield to defend against spears and swords and we wondered if it could be for ceremonial use.”

“It was only through experimentation that we realized it could be tough enough to protect against blows from metal weapons.”

“Although a bark shield is not as strong as one made from wood or metal, it would be much lighter allowing the user much more freedom of movement.”

“The first time I saw the shield I was absolutely awed by it: the complex structure, the careful decorations, and the beautiful boss,” said Dr. Rachel Crellin, also from the University of Leicester.

“I must admit I was initially skeptical about whether the shield would have functioned effectively, however the experimental work showed that the shield would have worked very effectively, and analysis of the surface of the object has identified evidence of use.”

“Bark and basketry objects were probably commonplace in ancient Britain, but they seldom survive, so to be able to study this shield is a great privilege,” said Dr. Julia Farley, Curator of British and European Iron Age Collections at the British Museum.

“It holds a rich store of information about Iron Age society and craft practices.”

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