Shields were arguably the most crucial and universal tool of the Anglo-Saxon battlefield, and their degraded remains - mainly iron fittings - are fairly frequent finds from early Anglo-Saxon graves. While most shields appear. at least in terms of metal fittings, to have been relatively plain, the famous kingly shield from Sutton Hoo Mound 1 was enormously elaborate and ostentatious, with fierce and glittering golden animal fittings, a bronze rim, and an elaborately decorated shield boss integrating embossed foils and garnets. Between these extremes its fair to assume the visual impact of shields reflected the status of its owner, but what of the shields from the other famous treasure-filled princely burials? Were they similarly impressive?
Detailed examination of the remains of these lesser-known 'princely' shields reveals a number of surprises....
Like later types they have diminished apical buttons, and were also the first type to forego the large disc-headed rivets universal on most 6th century bosses, for much smaller dome-headed rivets which would become universal on 7th century “sugarloaf” bosses (Evison, 1963). Smaller domed rivets are less easily caught and wrenched by enemy blades, and we have also found them, counterintuitively, to be easier to install and insure a tight-fit of boss onto board. Of course, they also allow for a narrower boss-flange, achieving further economies in terms of weight. Contrasting strongly with the extravagant and heavy types of the earlier 6th century, these bosses appear to have been optimised for efficiency, of simplified shape, of the smallest size practicable, and built thinner than other types.
The savings made, in terms of precious iron, were probably fairly negligible from Dickinson Type 3 to this innovative type 6, and could easily have been overlooked by the wealthy occupants of the princely burials, so instead, the adoption of this type seems to be motivated by a desire for weight-reduction. The shield boss’ crash-diet in the late 6th century was an essential stepping stone towards their increase in height in the 7th culminating in the magnificent blade-glancing sugarloaf.
The shield from the Prittlewell princely burial, Broomfield, Sutton Hoo Mound 17 (the horse warrior), and all three shields from the Taplow princely burial had SB-4b shield bosses, of which the SHM17, Prittlewell, and 2/3 of the Taplow bosses were all of extremely narrowly defined subtype SB4-b2. Importantly this class of shield-boss has never been found with elaborate decorative fittings (either for the boss or board).
All were associated with the simplest and commonest type of iron grip reinforcer – Dickinson type 1a(i) which would become universal in the 7th century. These shields were not entirely without decoration, however; although we only have the boss from the Broomfield shield (due to a botched 19th century excavation) we know that the Prittlewell and SHM17 shields all had
Although we should expect some degree of concordance between items in burials of the same phase / which took place within a generation of each-other, the resemblance between these shields (or rather, their combination of metal fittings) is uncanny, and leaves us wondering why, or how, the highest-status burials of three distinct kingdoms in the late 6th century could contain what appear to be almost identical shields.
The best explanation we can come up with, based on the particular characteristics of these shields (and hinted at by their simplified, ultra-light-weight bosses) is that they represent an innovative class of shields being produced not with ostentation in mind, but designed to be “high-performance”. For these early Anglo-Saxon princes, perhaps leading armies of newly formed kingdoms into battle, the cumulative effect of modest weight reductions – by foregoing ostentatious embellishments, rationalising the shield boss, and perhaps other tweaks to the manufacture of the board itself (including the choice of wood) may have added up to significant improvements in agility, and the ability to sustain dynamic use of the shield during prolonged, intense battle.
Nevertheless, the discovery of an almost ‘universal’ shield specification for a late 6th to early 7th century princely burials provides us with an exciting opportunity – as an “all in one” reconstruction of such a shield could fit perfectly into impressions of any of these assemblages.
In 2020-21 we therefore embarked on a project to produce such a shield… (part 2 to follow).
Blackmore, Lyn, et al. The Prittlewell Princely Burial: Excavations at Priory Crescent, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, 2003. MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), 2019.
Bayliss, Alex; Hines, John, et. al Anglo-Saxon graves and grave goods of the 6th and 7th centuries AD: a chronological framework. Routledge, 2013.
Carver, Martin. Sutton Hoo: a seventh-century princely burial ground and its context. British Museum Press. 2005.
Dickinson, Tania M, and Härke, Heinrich. Early Anglo-Saxon Shields. Vol. 110. London: Society of Antiquaries of London, 1992.
Dickinson, Tania M. "Symbols of protection: The significance of animal-ornamented shields in early Anglo-Saxon England." Medieval Archaeology 49.1 (2005): 109-163.
Evison, V. I. Sugar-Loaf Shield Bosses. The Antiquaries Journal 43 (1). Vol 43. 1963
Mortimer, Paul. [Personal Communication]. 28/07/2021
Stephenson, Ian P. The Anglo-Saxon Shield. Tempus, 2002.