First Bark Shield Uncovered in England is Changing Celtic History
Archaeologists in England have announced the findings from their study of an ancient shield that was made from tree bark. The shield was unearthed in 2015 and is around 2,300 years old. The experts believe that this is the first example of such an object being found, not only in England but also Europe.
Archaeologists, from the University of Leicester made the discovery during a dig close to the River Soar in Leicestershire. It is very rare to find perishable materials such as this bark shield. The Guardian reports that the lead archaeologist Matt Beamish stated that “the shield had been found in waterlogged soil and may have been deposited in a water-filled pit.” The anaerobic conditions in the peaty soil preserved the organic material over the millennia.
A Celtic Bark-Shield
The team was perplexed by what they found and then they established that it was a shield type that they had never seen before, particularly as it had been made from tree bark. According to the Guardian, it is the “only example of its kind ever found in Europe.” Based on an analysis, the shield dates from approximately 400 to 250 BC, a period when Britain was ruled by the Celts.
The team determined that the bark shield was the first of its kind found in Europe. (University of Leicester / Fair Use )
The bark shield was a Celtic military technology that was previously unknown to researchers. It was believed that they had only used solid wooden and metal shields for protection in war. The Independent reports that “many cutting-edge analytical techniques have been used to understand the construction of the object.” The analysis of the artifact was overseen by Mike Bamforth of the University of York.
The shield is about 1 inch thick (3 centimeters) and its surface was originally curved. It once measured 21 x 12 inches (67 x 37 centimeters) but it has become shrunken and misshapen after centuries in the water. The shield is similar in design to other Celtic shields such as the renowned Battersea shield, which is made from metal.
The bark shield had become shrunken and misshapen after centuries in the water. (University of Leicester / Fair Use )
Aboriginal Shield Making
The shield was made from the woody outer layer of a tree and had been reinforced by a row of laths (thin strips of wood). The material would have been moistened and as it dried it would have become tough and hard. This technique was probably not dissimilar to the way that Aborigines made their shields until the 19th century.
The shield was once highly decorated with a red paint. There are also some score marks on the item, and this indicates that it was probably used at least once in a fight or battle. The reasons as to why the Celts, who were renowned metal workers, used bark was something that interested the experts.
The team created several copies of the shield with alder and willow bark and they demonstrated that it was surprisingly resilient. According to the Independent, bark “is more resilient than metal or wood – so sword blows (and arrows) tend to fully or partially rebound off them.” Then there is the weight of the piece of equipment . The bark shield is believed to weigh only 1 pound (450 grams) at most, while wooden and metal shields from the period are much heavier. This type of equipment not only protected a warrior it also allowed him to move much more quickly.
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The team created copies of the bark shield. (University of Leicester / Fair Use )
The shield is helping researchers to better understand the military strategy of the Celtic warriors. It is now thought they placed more emphasis on speed and mobility, based on their probable use of light-weight tree-bark shields. It appears that the Celts, who once dominated much of Europe, used these shields in similar ways to the Aborigines and other peoples in battles and skirmishes.
The location of the find is possibly near an ancient settlement and an important Iron Age trade route. The shield may have been deliberately deposited in a man-made pit, as part of a ceremony. This may have been intended to be a sacrifice to some god.
The area of the excavation of the bark shield. (University of Leicester / Fair Use )
The discovery of the shield has been hailed as an internationally important find because it is forcing researchers and historians to rethink their ideas about the people who dominated the British Isles before the Romans. The bark shield has persuaded them to change their views on Celtic military technology and even how ancient Britons fought their battles.
Top image: The bark shield is made from green bark that has been stiffened with internal wooden laths. Source: (University of Leicester / Fair Use )
By Ed Whelan