The Enderby Shield

A unique 2,300-year-old bark shield found near Enderby in Leicestershire.

The Project

Everards Meadows excavation © ULAS
The Everards Meadows excavation in 2015 © ULAS

In 2015, archaeologists from University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) found a unique artefact, a 2,300-year-old bark shield, during an excavation on the Everards Meadows site south of Leicester. The discovery was made as part of a routine investigation on the site on behalf of local family business Everards of Leicestershire.

The shield was made in the Middle Iron Age when local people lived in roundhouses in farmsteads and small villages, tended fields of wheat and barley and raised sheep and cattle. Excavations nearby, have revealed a busy farming landscape along the Soar Valley, used and managed by Iron Age and Roman communities, with small farmsteads scattered along the drier high ground of the valley sides overlooking meadows and controlled grazing along the valley floor. The Roman Fosse Way road also runs close by.

Adam Clapton records the Enderby shield in the ground © ULAS
Adam Clapton records the Enderby shield in the ground © ULAS

The Enderby shield facedown in the ground © ULAS
The Enderby shield facedown in the ground © ULAS

The Enderby shield after conservation © Mike Bamforth / ULAS
The Enderby shield after conservation © Mike Bamforth / ULAS

Iron Age evidence from the site consists of ditches and a pit alignment forming land boundaries, an area of trackway and a deep pit in which the shield was found. These probably relate to stock rearing – animal pens and enclosures – associated with nearby farmsteads. The shield was found buried deeply within the waterlogged fills of the pit, which was probably used as a livestock watering hole. Radiocarbon dating tells us that the shield was made sometime between 395 and 255 BC.

The shield

The shield, which measured 670 x 370mm in the ground, is unique, the only bark shield every found in Europe. It 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. The stiffening laths were made of apple, pear, quince or hawthorn whilst the rim was a half-split hazel rod. Analysis to date suggests that the boss was formed from a willow core stitched together with a flat fibre of grass, rush or bast fibre, 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 underside of a shield fragment during conservation showing a lath and the handle beneath boss © Mike Bamforth
The underside of a shield fragment during conservation showing a lath and the handle beneath boss © Mike Bamforth
Scored decoration and paint visible on the shield during conservation © ULAS
Scored decoration and paint visible on the shield during conservation © ULAS
The basketry boss removed from the shield during conservation © AS Lab
The basketry boss removed from the shield during conservation © AS Lab
The edge of the shield during conservation showing the split hazel rim © Mike Bamforth
The edge of the shield during conservation showing the split hazel rim © Mike Bamforth
Damage to the shield possibly caused by the tip of a spear © Mike Bamforth
Damage to the shield possibly caused by the tip of a spear © Mike Bamforth

The shield was severely damaged before being deposited in the watering hole.  Analysis by Dr Rachel Crellin (School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester) suggests 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. Further research is planned to help understand if this occurred in battle or as an act of ritual destruction.

The Reconstruction

An experiment to remake alder and willow bark shields was carried out over two days in the spring of 2018 in woodland just north of Leicester. This showed that similar shields could be quickly made using products sourced from mixed woodland with a simple tool kit. The shape of the finished items is fascinating, with differential shrinkage of the wood components causing the shields to curve as they dried. When viewed from the front the rectangular shields appear ‘waisted’ or hour-glass shaped. This may be of some significance, as some metal shields from the period, such as the Battersea Shield in the British Museum, are similar and may be copying the design.

1 Bark is taken from a willow tree © Mike Bamforth
1. Bark is taken from a willow tree © Mike Bamforth
2 Removing the willow bark leaves a distinctive scar © Mike Bamforth
2. Removing the willow bark leaves a distinctive scar © Mike Bamforth
3 The willow bark is cut to shape and excess outer bark is removed © Mike Bamforth
3. The willow bark is cut to shape and excess outer bark is removed © Mike Bamforth
4 Channels are cut in the alder bark for the laths © Mike Bamforth
4. Channels are cut in the alder bark for the laths © Mike Bamforth
5 Wooden laths are inserted through the channels to stiffen the willow shield © Mike Bamforth
5. Wooden laths are inserted through the channels to stiffen the willow shield © Mike Bamforth
6 A split hazel rim is added to the willow shield © Mike Bamforth
6. A split hazel edging is added to the willow shield © Mike Bamforth
7 Making the basketry boss © Mike Bamforth
7. Making the basketry boss © Mike Bamforth
8 The basketry boss is made from willow rod stitched together with flat bast fibres © Mike Bamforth
8. The basketry boss is made from willow rod stitched together with flat bast fibres © Mike Bamforth
9 The boss is fixed to the willow shield © Mike Bamforth
9. The boss is fixed to the willow shield © Mike Bamforth
10 A scored chequerboard decoration is added to the alder shield © ULAS
10. A scored chequerboard decoration is added to the alder shield © ULAS
11 Paint is added to the chequerboard decoration on the alder shield © ULAS
11 Paint is added to the chequerboard decoration on the alder shield © ULAS
12 The finished experimental alder shield © ULAS
12. The finished experimental alder shield © ULAS

The shield’s significance

Iron Age shields are rare in the archaeological record and to find one constructed from bark is unprecedented making this finely crafted and carefully decorated artefact completely unique in European archaeology.

Although we know that prehistoric people used bark to make bowls and boxes, this is the first time we have seen the material used for a weapon of war. Most of our known examples of complete, or partially complete, Iron Age shields were dredged from rivers in the 19th century – such as the Witham Shield from Lincolnshire, or the Battersea and Chertsey shields, both dredged from the River Thames. These tend to be of metal construction and were probably the facing for wooden board shields. Other, incomplete shields have been found in ‘warrior burials’, whilst further evidence comes from shield miniatures, artwork and sculpture – the Glauberg Warrior from Germany and the Gundestrup Cauldron from Denmark, for example. Shields made entirely of organic materials survive less frequently, usually in bogs, such as the hide shield from Clonbrin in Ireland, or the wooden board shields from Clonoura (Ireland) and the Hjortspring Boat in Denmark.

Iron Age warriors depicted on the Gunderstrup Cauldrom © Trustees of the British Museum
Iron Age warriors depicted on the Gunderstrup Cauldrom © Trustees of the British Museum

However, whilst the Enderby shield’s survival is unique, this type of shield may well have been common place in the Iron Age, although the circumstances for preservation and recovery are extremely rare leaving our knowledge biased by the survival of metal. There is good ethnographic evidence for bark shields in the southern hemisphere, from Australia, Borneo and the Phillipines, and in Europe Julius Caesar did record in his Commentarii De Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War) that the Gauls had “shields made of bark or interwoven wickers, which they hastily covered over with skins”.

Our initial thoughts that a bark shield would be too fragile for use in battle were turned on their head by our experimental work which showed that the shield could stand up to heavy impacts, including protecting from arrows. A bark shield, although not as strong as a solid wood or metal shield, is much lighter, allowing for speed and movement.

The front of an experimental willow shield © ULAS
The front of an experimental willow shield © ULAS
The Battersea Shield © Trustees of the British Museum
The Battersea Shield © Trustees of the British Museum

It’s not clear why the shield was in the bottom of the watering hole – perhaps it was thrown away because it was broken, or perhaps it was deliberately placed there as a ritual act. Radiocarbon dates for the shield and for other material in the watering hole suggest that more than a decade had passed between the shield’s manufacture and its disposal. The damage to the shield may well hold the answer to this question. Was the shield damaged in battle or deliberately destroyed? Further detailed scientific analysis of the artefact and further experimental archaeology are planned to investigate these questions.

Acknowledgements

The project analysis was managed by Matthew Beamish, Project Manager for ULAS, with the analysis of the shield managed by Mike Bamforth, Project Manager in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. Many cutting-edge analytical techniques have been used to understand the construction of the object including CT scanning & 3D printing (Leicester Royal Infirmary), RTI imaging, Near Infra-Red photography, ZooMS analysis & Raman spectroscopy (University of York). ULAS would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed to the project, particularly Heidi Addison, Steve Allen, Gareth Beale, Francesca Beamish, Michael Biggs, Konstantinos Chatzipanagis, Adam Clapton, Matthew Collins, Rachel Crellin, Julia Farley, Mags Felter, Michael Hawkes, Roger Kipling, Roland Kröger, Ian Panter, Diederik Pomstra, Claire Robinson, Helen Sharp, Luke Spindler, Penelope Walton Rogers, Chloe Watson, Paul Windridge and Michael Winterton. The shield has now been conserved by York Archaeological Trust and will be deposited with the British Museum by University of Leicester in agreement with Leicestershire County Council on behalf of Everards of Leicestershire, who funded and supported the project.

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