Saturday, 26 March 2016

Shields: How small is too small?

Shields: How small is too small?

 Few, or perhaps no items of personal warrior gear are more important to our image of an Anglo-Saxon, or Viking warrior than the shield. Our understanding of this most essential piece of war-gear is informed, to some extent by pictoral depictions and written references, but, mainly, by patchy but nonetheless reliable inferences from cemetery archaeology.

Of the studies of Anglo-Saxon shields, arguably the most frequently cited, and informative, is Dickinson and Härke (1992) which, among other issues, seeks to shed light on the murky subject of shield size. Many readers, particularly those from the reenactment community, will be surprised to read that shields could often be as small as 34cm – certainly of no use for building interlocking 'shield-walls' described in later poetry, which we are led to believe was the dominant combat strategy as far back as the period of pagan burials.

Over 20 years on from the publication of this still critically important work, this observation has gradually exerted influence on some modern impressions of warriors from the period, and even beyond, given the limited evidence for late Anglo-Saxon shields, and limited availability of information on 'Viking' ones. It is further, not uncommon to hear, repeated by respected historians, the assertion that most early Anglo-Saxon shields were “little more than bucklers”. To what extent is this statement accurate? Just how small were Anglo-Saxon shields?

Depictions of early to middle Anglo-Saxon shields, and the shields of associated cultures, seem to support the notion that shields were small in diameter. The Repton Stone (8th century CE, left) shows a shield smaller than the figure's head, while the roughly contemporaneous Franks Casket depicts shields of various sizes, from a roughly head-sized shield from the box's right panel, to slightly larger, but nevertheless diminutive shields (relative to the figures carrying them) on the box's lid. The validity of this latter depiction is somewhat muddied by the fact that the figures depicted carrying these shields aloft to defend themselves from a rain of arrows are believed to be giants.

The 9th-10th century Middleton “warrior” cross depicting a figure in funereal display shows a shield barely half the size of the figure's head, while depictions of shields on pressblech foils from the Sutton-Hoo mound 1 helmet, and their Vendel-culture parallels are more variable.

c8th 'Franks Casket' right panel, showing shield-bearing figure (left)
c8th 'Franks Casket' lid, believed to depict Ægil the Archer fending off shield-carring giants
 While processing warriors on the Valsgarde 7 helmet are shown holding shields aloft, no larger than their heads, similar warriors depicted on a foil from the helmet from Vendel 14 show shields somewhat larger, although still not so big in diameter to cover the whole width of the figures' bodies. Shields of mounted warriors depicted on pressblech foils tend to be larger; that depicted on the Valsgarde-8 helmet's mounted-warrior foil is easily wide enough to cover the width of the warrior's body. It is worth noting that, regardless of the size of the shields in these depictions, the shields which accompanied the helmets in many of these graves were of considerable size.

Mounted warrior pressblech foil designs from Vendel I (above) and Vendel XIV (below)

Shield depictions appear on four different foil designs represented in the Staffordshire Hoard (link); the leftward marching warriors' shields are depicted scarcely big enough to cover their chests, the rightward marching (bird-crested helmeted) warriors hold tiny shields aloft, no bigger than their own heads, and the tiny shields of the 'crouching warriors' foil are, once again, of no practical size. The tiny fragment of what is believed to be a mounted warrior foil (Neilsen, 2010), similar to that from the Sutton-Hoo helmet, bears a shield, although there is too little else on the fragment to make judgments about its size relative to other depicted objects.

The fact that later depictions of shields show them considerably larger need not invalidate the notion that early shields were small. Indeed, the archaeological evidence hints that shields grew, gradually, towards the end of the furnished burial rite in the 7th century – a trend which, if continued, would be consistent with considerably large shields by the end of the 8th (Dickinson & Härke, 1992).

What unites these earlier depictions of shields is the need to constrain proportions of certain items to fit into a particular frame. A shield of any practical size, designed to “cover the body”, will naturally obscure details one might wish to show on a portrait, be it in silver foil or in stone. In the case of the Repton Stone and many of the pressblech foils, shields are held aloft by the figures depicted precisely for the purpose of occupying empty space above the shoulder, and allowing less of the warriors' bodies to be obscured, exposing more visually interesting details such as belts, armour, and weapons. It's highly likely, too, that shield depictions were sized with this aim in mind.

Thegns member Matt (6 ft.3) with his 78cm diameter shield
Inferring shield size from written descriptions is a stretch at best, as most are understandably vague, focusing poetically on the shield's aesthetics or role, rather than anything so mundane as technical details. Belonging to a time at least a century or two later than the bulk of shield remains, their relevance is also fairly limited.

Judging shield size from archaeological remains is fraught with difficulty; soil stains – not always present or reliable, can give an estimate of probable diameter (Dickinson and Härke, 1992). Maximum diameter can be inferred from the position of any edge-fittings, although these fittings are extremely rare anyway, and can shift. Alternatively, maximum shield diameter can be inferred from position of the shield boss relative to the edge of the grave cut; this depends on the cut having a definable edge, and depends on the boss' position not having shifted.

Means of inferring shield board size based on remains
Minimum shield diameter, is easier to infer; the length of a grip, or position of any board fittings, can be used. The problem is the validity of minimum shield diameter estimates; as I. P. Stephenson (2002) remarks; “Determining the minimum diameter provides no information on the actual size of the shield and, as a result, no meaningful conclusions as to how the shield was used can be drawn from such a calculation”.

The reason for this, is that 'short' and 'medium' iron grip remains (Dickinson types I and II) could not have extended across the full diameter of the shield board – the former typically being no longer than the diameter of the boss, and the latter barely being twice that length. Even 'long' grips (Dickinson type III) should be treated with suspicion; the one case of a long-gripped (albeit rather atypical) shield for which the board diameter is conclusively known – the shield from Sutton Hoo mound 1, had a board which clearly extended well beyond the ends of it's elaborately embellished grip.

British Museum reconstruction of the kingly Sutton-Hoo mound-1 shield. Curvature of the preserved rim means the diameter (90cm +/-6cm) is known, yet it's long grip extended only across approximately 2/3 of the board. This illustrates that grip length cannot be relied upon to infer board diameter.
Where board fittings were used, there is no reason to believe that such fittings would have sat perching on the very edge of a shield board, rather than comfortably in an empty field perhaps half way between the boss and the board edge. It is obtuse, but necessary to point out that 'minimum shield diameter' indicates a threshold below which any proposed diameters for a shield find are not feasible. It is incredibly unlikely that any shield studied had a diameter even approaching its estimated “minimum shield diameter”, and yet it is this data which has been used to justify the notion that the so-called “small” shield (defined by Dickinson and Härke, 1992, as being between 0.34 and 0.42m) both existed, and was perhaps more common than larger, more practical boards.

With Dickinson and Härke's minimum diameter data from their national sample (102 cases), most were between 35cm and 45cm (69 cases), with some finds as small as 20cm, but none larger than 60cm. However, if the minimum diameter data is discarded and only more reliable and informative 'maximum diameter' estimates are used, as suggested by Stephenson (2002), the vast majority of cases (68% of 112 cases) are between 49cm and 73cm. Of the remaining 32%, most are larger than this range – up to 92cm, while relatively few are smaller; between 32 and 45cm. Crucially, shields of a size-range which seemed to be overwhelmingly most common when inferring from the minimum diameter data (the so-called “small shield”, 34-42cm) become little more than a rare oddity when one switches to using more reliable, maximum diameter data.

An almost full range of shield sizes; New 6th century 'small shield' reconstruction (41cm) beside an older 92cm shield reproduction inspired by Sutton-Hoo mound 1. 
This is not to say that relatively small shields do not exist in the archaeological record, and do not deserve some degree of explanation. The few, real “small” shields in Dickinson and Härke's national sample are, indeed, “little more than bucklers”, while a good proportion of the well-evidenced and common “medium shields” (45-66cm) are still rather smaller than a warrior of modern proportions might want to protect his body in battle!

One possibility; that early Anglo-Saxon warriors were simply much smaller than us, can be dismissed. As previously discussed (click here), we can tell from skeletal remains that weapon-bearing Anglo-Saxons often achieved similar heights to modern men, probably thanks to nutritious and reliable diets during upbringing, made possible by their membership of an advantaged elite. Strong bones with substantial muscle attachments show many warriors were quite muscular. Although no doubt substantially leaner, an Anglo-Saxon warrior would have, broadly, as much 'body' to protect with his shield as would a typical modern man.

It is not impossible that smaller shields served some kind of purpose in looser, skirmishing combat. A small shield has a number of advantages; certainly cheaper and easier to manufacture, requiring fewer planks, it also has fewer plank-joins, therefore potentially being stronger. All shields trade off protection against weight, and a smaller shield could allow a warrior to be more manoeuvrable in loose combat, and could conceivably be made thicker and therefore more reliable in battle, while still being light enough to not exhaust the warrior using it. Dickinson and Härke note, however, that as shields grow larger over time, they also grow thicker. There would seem to be no evidence that smaller shields were indeed built more robustly; the opposite seems to be true.   It is, further, worth repeating that a small shield can protect little of the body at any given moment, and certainly cannot be interlocked with neighbours to form a shield-wall.  While it is conceivable that a small shield could be used in a dynamic, 'point-defence' fashion, even for the well trained, such protection would surely be more taxing for the user while also introducing a greater element of chance. Why not just use a larger shield?

Members Rich and Connor demonstrating more dynamic combat approaches inferred from depictions in later artwork (65 and 75cm shields shown)
The most reasonable explanation for some of the grave shields' small size seems to be related to convenience during the burial rite, rather than utility in battle. All too often we assume that items deposited into graves are fully representative of the items that the deceased used in life, but this need not necessarily be the case (for more on these issues, see “Grave Problems). As we have already seen, it would seem that the Anglo-Saxons were perfectly comfortable with making gestures towards depicting items of war-gear in their art without necessarily devoting the space to do so accurately, and, although we know little about their burial practices or the rationale behind them, it is not unreasonable to consider that they might have done the same when making lavish displays of burial goods during the funeral rite.

The ideal diameter for a shield is at least equal to the width of a body, but arguably would be wider; this provides that more of the body can be protected while static, and allows for room for the edges of boards to be interlocked in a shield-wall (if this practice was indeed as dominant in the early period as is often assumed). Yet precisely the opposite is desirable where a shield is being buried in a grave. Here, a shield would ideally be no wider than the body, so that a grave-cut need not be enlarged to accommodate it. Inclusion of a 90cm shield would increase the effort needed to dig a typical grave-cut by at least a third, and it may be no coincidence that the median shield diameter in the Dickinson and Härke sample – around 60cm, is very close to the minimum width of a grave-cut necessary to accommodate an average male. Smaller-than-average shields are also, overwhelmingly, of earlier date. More easily included in the burial rite, a smaller, more symbolic shield, perhaps re-boarded in preparation for the grave, would have saved valuable resources – seasoned and carved timber and valuable leather, and allowed a more valuable combat shield to be passed down.

Perhaps, then, burial with large and sturdy combat shields was a rite usually reserved for the most wealthy elites, who's relatives, companions and subjects could afford such lavish and wasteful conspicuous consumption, exemplified by cases such as Sutton-Hoo mound-1, Taplow and Ford.

While the debate regarding the intended purpose and utility of these small-to-medium sized shields will no doubt continue to rage, the notion that the majority of early Anglo-Saxon shields were tiny can be comprehensively dismissed.
To reiterate, it would seem that the vast majority of early Anglo-Saxon shields were between 49 and 73cm diameter, with some rare cases confirmed to be smaller, and quite many substantially larger.

Dr Andrew Thompson with our 6th century 'small shield' reconstruction; 41cm diameter. 
( The shield reconstruction pictured, built by members Æd and Andrew Thompson for the purposes of this article, has a diameter of 41cm, and features a replica of a fairly typical group 3 boss (Jason Green / Wieland Forge) and Ia(i) grip, with a board of 6mm thinned to 4mm at the edge, with 2mm thick leather on the front, and 1mm thick leather on the back.
Although when held as if ready for battle, this shield looks quite absurd, it by no means represents the smallest of its kind; a number of finds have been confirmed to have been far smaller – examples such as Stretton-on-Fosse II g96, Westgarth Gardens g50 and g60 had diameters of 38cm, 34cm and 36cm respectively. This reconstruction's diameter sits in the middle of the “small shield” class defined by Dickinson and Harke (1992) and, were it not for more reliable 'maximum' diameter data, would sit close to the average board size for their sample of early Anglo-Saxon shields.)


(Footnote: Viking Shields – Information on 'Viking-Age' shields is relatively scarce. Unconstrained contemporary depictions of shields from the 9th century onwards tend to show shields being quite large. The early 10th century shields from the Gokstad ship (Norway) have been estimated at 94cm, although it is not clear if they were intended for land battle. The relatively well preserved combat shield from Trelleborg, Denmark, is 85cm across, while estimates for diameter of shields from 10th century Birka, Sweden range from 70 to 95cm. Other finds from Scandinavia and the Baltic states have had estimated diameters ranging from at least 63cm to around 95cm (for more information, click here). The range of sizes represented in this admittedly small sample is consistent with the sizes represented in contemporaneous art, and poetry. It would seem, therefore, that round shields from the Viking Age were really quite large. )


Dickinson, T.M., Harke, H., 1992. Early Anglo-Saxon Shields (Archaeologia). First Edition Edition. Society of Antiquaries.

Dickinson, T.M., 2005. Symbols of protection: The significance of animal-ornamented shields in early Anglo-Saxon England. Medieval Archaeology, 49(1), pp.109-163.

Stephenson, I.P., 2004. The Anglo-Saxon Shield. illustrated edition Edition. Tempus Pub Ltd.

Neilsen, K.H,. 2010 Style II and all that: the potential of the hoard for statistical study of chronology and geographical distributions. [ONLINE] Available at: https://finds.org.uk/staffshoardsymposium/papers/karenhoilundnielsen. [Accessed 25 March 2016].

Beatson, P. 2016. Viking Shields. [ONLINE] Available at: http://members.ozemail.com.au/~chrisandpeter/shield/shield.html. [Accessed 25 March 2016].

Thompson, A.,: Size Matters. 2013. Thegns of Mercia: Size Matters. [ONLINE] Available at: http://thethegns.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/size-matters.html. [Accessed 25 March 2016].

Thompson, A.,: Grave Problems. 2013. Thegns of Mercia: Grave Problems. [ONLINE] Available at: http://thethegns.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/grave-problems.html. [Accessed 25 March 2016].

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