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This bark shield of 2,400 years was beaten in an Iron Age fight

Photo of ancient shield in pieces.
enlarge / This was how the shield looked after being excavated and preserved.

When they found the shield, archaeologists at York University, Michael Bamforth and his colleagues thought it must have been ceremonial, because surely the bark could not stand against heavy iron-tipped spears and iron axes. After all, all the other archaeologists of the Iron Age shield have found in Europe that so far it has been made of wood or metal. But it turned out that the hard, elastic crust would have been perfectly capable of repelling the arrows. Its lightness may even have made an Iron Age warrior more agile on the battlefield.

Welcome to the Iron Age; We have swords and spears.

Around 400 a. C., even the small villages of Great Britain were surrounded by ditches, embankments and palisades. In the farms scattered among the villages, people grew wheat and barley or sheep and cattle. Local or regional chiefs ruled these agricultural tribes. No declaration of the source, or if the bearer of this shield would see more action in the cattle raids or in the field combat, but the spliced ​​settlements hardly suggest a peaceful bucolic landscape.

"The amount of fighting between these groups is debatable," Bamforth told Ars Technica. "However, the Iron Age is a time of increased wealth and personal power, and one imagines that violence may have erupted in access to resources, trade and all the other things that groups struggle for. of people today. "

Most of the Iron Age battles would have been done with swords or iron axes, or with iron-tipped spears on long, heavy wooden trees. It would be crazy to hide behind the fragile bark of a tree if you were against all that, right? Most of the shields of archaeologists have unearthed that other Iron Age sites in Europe are made of solid wood or metal.

Must have a "Stark Industries" logo somewhere

Archaeologists working on the site of Everard Meadows, south of Leicester in the United Kingdom, found the bark shield buried in the mud of a pound of cattle. Made of willow or age bark (microscopic badysis could further shorten the species), it had the same elongated shape, slightly narrow at the waist, like wooden and metal shields of the same period.

Radiocarbon dating suggests that sometime between 395 and 255 a. C., the shield manufacturer was detached with bark several feet wide to the right of the trunk of a willow or tree of age. Then they folded it in half, with the inside of the bark facing out (the freshly peeled bark is something surprisingly flexible). Small flat strips of wood inserted between the layers helped strengthen the shield; He also made a strip of hazelnut wood around the edges. The result was approximately 10 mm (0.39 inches) thick, 67 cm (26.38 inches) high and 37 cm (14.6 inches) wide. 2,400 years later, we can only use the meaning of the checkerboard pattern on the surface of the bark, painted red with pigment from the iron-rich mineral hematite.

  • The layers of mud where the shield was found were once in pounds of cattle from the old cattle.

  • This was how the shield looked after being excavated and preserved.

  • This replica suggests how the shield would have been at its best.

  • Traces of red pigment still cling to the surface of the shield.

  • An iron spear could pierce this hole in the shield 2,400 years ago.

"Finding this shield has taught us about Iron Age technology that we did not know before," Bamforth told Ars. "The shield is a complex complex of artifacts that uses a series of different elements together to produce a light but effective shield. This article represents one of the most complex excavated artifacts of the time. "

The bark shields are not totally unpublished. Julius Caesar, who wrote a few centuries later, described the Gallic warriors on the European continent using bark shields covered with animal skins. And people in Australia, Borneo and the Philippines have also used bark shields on several occasions. However, because the bark does not last long when buried, it is almost totally absent from the European archaeological record, so modern archaeologists can see how common the bark shields might have been.

When you doubt it, hit it with a sword.

Bamforth and his colleagues decided that there was only one way to really understand how the shield would have succeeded in combat: they built theirs and shot it with arrows. "As the bark of the shield dried and was in its final form, we realized how strong it would be. The bark, which had been soft and easy to cut when "green" (the law was still part of a tree) hardened quickly, "said Bamforth." We threw some arrows from a wooden arch and were surprised to see them bounce. "

Archeologists at the University of Leicester, Rachel Crellin and Matt Beamish, are in the process of testing heavy weapons, such as iron-tipped spears and iron swords, against the design. The original shield seems to have quite a few hits in its day. According to Crellin, a spear point appears to have pierced an elliptical hole hidden in the shield, and several groups of parallel cuts seem to mark where weapons are struck and bounced.

"It is possible that this device has been thrown in the hole because it broke and is no longer needed." Think of the old flies, "suggested Bamforth (fly tips is a common term in the UK for dumping illegal garbage). But after the battle, people of the Iron Age in Britain and northern Europe often ritually broke weapons and captured shields and then placed them in lakes or swamps. Crellin's experiments may shed some light on whether the shield was broken in battle or in a ritual, but until then, archaeologists can rule out any possibility.

However, if the shield was used in battle, its light weight could have been an advantage. The replica of the archaeologists weighed only 0.6 kg (1.3 pounds), about a quarter the weight of a wooden shield. That could have offered the shield bearer greater speed, endurance and agility on the battlefield. And if the shield was strong enough to resist reasonably well against spears and swords, though not as much as a heavier shield, the compensation might have been worth it.

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