In 1923-4, the participants in an excavation of a large mixed-rite early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Bidford-on-Avon uncovered a unique warrior grave. While items such as a bronze hanging bowl indicated the individual's high status, it was the remains of a shield which caught most attention. The boss, uniquely, had been augmented with elaborate animal-style fittings in gilded copper alloy, coexisting with tinned or silvered rivet caps. Few parallels exist, to this day, of the shield of Bidford-182, which remains one of the most elaborately decorated bosses in England's archaeological record.
Despite the impressive nature of Bidford-182, the find is not well known, and not on public display. Instead the now delicate remains sit in the careful keeping of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
The effort began with substantial research; first to track the find down, and then to explore its context. With Bidford-182 sitting in the "borderlands" between the Wessex-influenced upper Thames valley region and the tribal regions that would later form Mercia, it was particularly important to investigate the affinities of the Bidford finds, and the items from grave 182 in particular. Before recreating the artistic elements, it was also worthwhile exploring their meanings. (Our discussion on the cemetery, its finds, affinities, and the meaning of the 182 shield art can be seen here).
A shield boss closely matching the dimensions of the original was commissioned from our associate smith, while replicas of the decorative gilded copper-alloy fittings were commissioned from our associate historic jeweller. It was necessary to be extremely precise with these items so as to ensure that the gently curving fittings would, in shape, to the sweep of the boss flange. Our jeweler was also able to produce gilded disc fittings corresponding to the reported measurements of the originals.
The board was constructed by Thegns members Dr Andrew Thompson and Æd Thompson, using 10-year seasoned ash which had been cut from trees felled less than 14 miles from Bidford-on-Avon itself. The board planks were thinned using authentic adzes and chisels to an appropriate thickness, then glued together using hot animal-glue, producing strong bonds between the plank edges. (More detail on the reconstruction here). With no evidence to infer the size of the board of the Bidford-182 shield, a diameter of 68cm was chosen, taking into account inferences from neighboring finds.
The board was then covered with oak-tanned leather, fixed in place using hot animal glue, while an edge, again of oak-tanned leather was sewn in place through pre-drilled holes with strong linen thread. The leather was then treated with a beeswax and oil mixture, applied warm and with considerable polishing, to achieve a rich, water-resistant and scratch-resistant finish. Meanwhile, a grip had been prepared (Dickinson and Harke type 1a(I) ) corresponding closely to the degraded remains of the original. This was fixed in place using soft iron clench-nails (again corresponding to extant remains) atop a wooden component continuous with the boards themselves, then bound with thin calf-skin for added comfort - a technique well evidenced from other 6th century finds. Although previously skeptical about the security of this rather simple type of shield grip (and preferring the common and more sophisticated type 1b) we found the result to be both surprisingly sturdy and comfortable.
Following installation of the decorative pieces, the boss was installed using soft iron rivets peened onto roves on the reverse, while, for security, the decorative disc fittings on the board were attached in a similar manner. The shield boss rivets themselves were capped, prior to installation, with tin, as the originals had been, resulting in an impressive juxtaposition of black iron, gold mounts and silver-coloured rivet caps.
The result, we hope, reflects well what the original shield may have looked like before deposition at some time in the 6th century, with the elements available for study effectively recreated, and conservative choices made with respect to aspects which could not be inferred from the archaeology.