Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ain't talkin', just walkin'. Carrying a dead man's shield

This decorated bronze shield was discovered in the River Shannon at Barrybeg, Co. Roscommon. When I was in university, it was taught that these beautiful shields (known as Yetholm type, after the discovery of three examples at Yetholm in southern Scotland) were ceremonial. How could they be anything else? They’re made of sheet bronze, just 0.6mm thick – a sword would cut right through that! If the inquisitive student questioned this dictum, they were quickly directed to Prof John Coles’ experiments from the 1950s. Coles had a replica shield made and then hit it with a replica sword. The result? Not good! The shield may as well have been made of tinfoil, as it was cleft in two with a single stroke. I have vague recollections of attending an Experimental Archaeology conference many years ago where Prof Coles spoke about his work.* While my memories of the gathering as a whole are somewhat hazy, I still clearly recollect the sound of the sharp intake of breath that ran through the room as Prof Coles described how he nearly clove a colleague in the name of science. I’ve told this story many times before, all with the tone of ‘well, that settles the argument.’

Fast forward to a little while ago when I shared the above image on social media. I was asked a couple of questions about it and the type generally. As I couldn’t remember some key facts (including the correct spelling of ‘Yetholm’ … I had a notion that it contained an extra ‘n’), I sought out the Wikipedia entry. While it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise that scholarship had moved on in … you know … the last 25 years … I was rather taken aback that this particular cherished touchstone had come under scrutiny and revision. Recent work by Barry Molloy notes that Cole’s replica shield was only 0.3mm thick – two to three times thinner than the average shield of this type. Wikipedia also notes that Coles’ replica shield was made of hardened copper, substantially softer than the bronze of the original shields.  Molloy’s experiments suggests that while the thinnest shields may not have been effective in combat situations, the more robust examples would have functioned well. Not only were they effective, he notes that the three metal examples created for experimentation were ‘in most regards’ superior to their leather counterparts.

Molloy also notes a detail that had escaped me. The damage to the Barrybeg shield (above and to the right of the central boss in my image) may have been inflicted by a spear thrust. In his experiments, he observed that penetration by spear could happen, but mentions that in no instance did the spearhead penetrate far enough to pose a threat to the shield bearer. The Barrybeg shield also has some damage to its rolled edge that appears to have been inflicted by a sword. Experiment has shown that rolling the edge in this manner gave a broader area of contact that dented rather than allowing the sword to cut into the shield. In particular, the Barrybeg shield’s rolled edge incorporates a thick wire, further strengthening and supporting the edge.

I was initially attracted to the piece for the quality of its craftsmanship and the beauty of its design. In contemplating the shield, I was drawn to the hand grip – particularly visible as the central boss is now missing. There seemed to be something very human and evocative about that strip of metal meant to fit the hand of a long gone warrior. Whether it was carried with pride as part of a ceremonial occasion or gripped with grim determination against an oncoming enemy, a human hand held it there. These shields are dated to 1200-800 BC and their owners are long gone. Knowing a little more about the manufacture of the piece, how it was used, and the damage it suffered only brings the human element into sharper focus for me. Go see it for yourself and think past it as a piece of beautiful metal to the people who stood behind it …

* Long story. Don’t ask.

The Barrybeg shield is on loan from the National Museum of Ireland to the Ulster Museum. The Ulster Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays & is free! Go explore!

You can read a good introduction to the Yetholm shield type on Wikipedia, where I got much of the general substance of this post [here]

You can also read Barry Molloy’s excellent paper: ‘For Gods or men? A reappraisal of the function of European Bronze Age shields’ is available on his page where I got much of the rest of the detail for this post [here]

The title is taken from Bob Dylan’s song Ain't talkin', from his 2006 album Modern Times. But, of course, you knew that.