Researching and experimenting these paints, exploring the evidenced designs, and how they relate to decorative motifs seen in other media across both Anglo-Saxon material culture and adjacent cultures, we were finally able to finish our replica princely shield with a plausible painted design.
Having completed installation of the replica’s metal fittings, the result was an ultra-light weight but robust shield representative of the remains found in the princely burials, and consistent with our hypothesis that rather than being merely ordinary shields, these examples were carefully optimised for weight reduction and performance. Nevertheless, the shield at this stage still looked rather plain.
As previously discussed, the shield represents the single largest display surface in the typical Anglo-Saxon warrior panoply, which surely would’ve been utilised to great visual effect. Elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon material culture we see the principle of ‘horror vacui’ – that, generally being time-rich and material-poor, early medieval people tended to decorate every available surface of objects made of hard-won materials. Metal figural appliques are very rare on early Anglo-Saxon shields and notably absent from this class of princely burial shields but, despite a lack of direct archaeological evidence (due to poor preservation) painting has always been a firm possibility (Dickinson & Harke, 1992; Stephenson, 2002) albeit a risky one.
Despite this, we have hitherto avoided painting any of our early Anglo-Saxon gear. The reasons for this are threefold; firstly the lack of direct archaeological evidence to inform technical aspects (pigments, binders, surface treatments) of early Anglo-Saxon painting; secondly lack of archaeological clarity regarding how painting was achieved on shields of related cultures (especially with respect to binding agents, and overcoming the technical challenges of painting onto flexing, skin-product surfaces) and thirdly and most significantly, lack of evidence to inform what designs are appropriate to paint. We have always been aware, however, that this cautious, conservative aesthetic in general runs contrary to what we know of Anglo-Saxon taste, the ‘horror vacui’ principle which runs through all Anglo-Saxon material culture, and perhaps risks reinforcing a plain, drab and rough, perhaps even ‘Dark Age’ ‘Barbaric’ visual impression that mostly cannot be justified.
At Nydam preserved fragments of shields sacrificed as part of one of the latest deposits show traces of paint on both sides of shields, which in a couple of cases (on the backs) are well preserved enough for general designs to be inferred. Paint was mostly applied in narrow concentric bands, with occasional interlacing and figural elements. Colours included red (cinnabar / mercuric sulfide, and iron oxides), black (graphite and burnt bone), yellow (yellow orpiment - arsenic sulfide), grey or white (barium sulfate), and mixtures thereof. A number of paints, including a blackish green, contained traces of calcium copper silicate (Egyptian blue) and may therefore have appeared blue originally before degradation in the bog (Holst & Neilsen, 2020).
Many of these pigments are surprisingly exotic, and although most of these were used, sparingly, in later insular manuscripts (and directly on leather, as in the case of the Cuthbert Gospel cover - Breay, 2015) their use in early Anglo-Saxon material culture remains unclear.
At Prittlewell, a small wooden box in the late 6th century princely burial had been painted fairly crudely in yellow-orange, red, and white, using easily locally sourced iron-oxide earth pigments - red and yellow ochre, and allegedly, white gypsum (Blackmore et. al, 2019). Locally sourced earth pigments - also conveniently mostly non-toxic, likely formed the backbone of the early Anglo-Saxon paint palate as they had during the Iron Age. The white is unlikely to have been purely white gypsum, which is quite optically neutral and works as an additive rather than a pigment on its own. Although the shield in Prittlewell was too badly degraded to show decoration, spear shafts also showed zoomorphic and two-strand guilloche carving seemingly highlighted with a reddish pigment (though none was identified) and strongly resembling both the motifs seen on the Nydam shields, and the great many carved spear and arrow shafts from that site.
Preserved early Anglo-Saxon woodwork is otherwise effectively non-existent, but the resemblance of the precious wood fragments from late c6th Prittlewell to the abundant material from 4-5th century phases of the Nydam demonstrates that woodwork - including shields- were likely intricately and colourfully decorated throughout the early Anglo-Saxon period - with designs and techniques highly conserved. Though high-status gear could conceivably have been painted with exotic pigments such as those identified on the Nydam shields, Prittlewell suggests that even for high status gear, in the more isolated context of 6th century Britain, local earth pigments predominated, together with perhaps organic pigments such as indigo/woad, which conveniently, unlike many of the brighter imported mineral pigments, are non-toxic.
To these precedents might also be added the famous c7-8th Cuthbert / Stonyhurst Gospel; a beautiful palm-sized, Coptic-bound copy of St John’s Gospel in capitular uncial script, in a tactile cover of foundation-moulded, imported cinnabar-dyed alum tawed goat leather over thin wooden boards (Breay, 2015). The front features rectangular fields (picked out with foundation-moulding achieved with cord), tooled guilloche patterns, and a central vines and chalice motif which appears to have been stamped into a soft clay matrix behind, while the back panel features a tooled design reminiscent of carpet-pages in illuminated manuscripts. This and the guilloche patterns on the front are picked out with pigments – yellow orpiment (arsenic sulphide) and blue woad/indigo (Breay, 2015). These painted details are extremely delicate, and now barely visible. The Stonyhurst Gospel was added to Cuthbert’s tomb at some time during the late 7th or early 8th century, and is the oldest surviving European style book still in its original binding, which in turn is a beautiful example of the 7th century leatherworker’s art (more later). Importantly the pigments listed above were used to decorate leather moulded over wooden boards, in a manner homologous with shield-painting.
Egg tempera was favoured for painting religious icons and altar boards through the medieval period and has a number of advantages, including being quick drying, durable, easily layered, and opalescent. Crucially, made of protein and fats, it is archaeologically fugitive enough to be consistent with the absence of identifiable binding agent in both the Nydam and Prittlewell contexts, and as a bacterial growth medium might explain some peculiarities of decay observed in association with certain paints on the Nydam boards (Holst & Neilsen, 2020). Tempera’s translucency, however, presents other challenges - it is traditionally painted on a white ground (gesso - chalk combined with animal glue, also described by Theophilus) but no such gesso has been identified on AS or pre-AS shields, and it’s thought to be too brittle to be durable on a thin, flexing shield board, with risk of flaking or chipping off, as those applying it to reconstructions of Viking shields have found (Warzecha, 2017).
Having experimented with offcuts, we decided to go ahead with (yolk) egg tempera applied directly to the un-oiled/waxed leather surface, allowing the initial layers of paint to penetrate and bond with the porous surface. With a 1:1 mixture of yolk and distilled water, the paint can be applied neatly without bleeding through the leather like a stain, and in layers thin enough to be durable.
For pigments, we chose to use natural red ochre, and yellow ochre, combined with light and dark under-painting with chalk and finely-ground charcoal respectively, and for blue, precious natural woad/indigo powder.
Although the red ochre is a joy to work with, the dark leather background made the yellow (yellow ochre) and blue (woad) more of a challenge; the transparency of these required many paint layers for the colour to overpower the dark background. The use of a layer or two of chalk-white underpainting, effectively acting as a localised gesso, helped to lift these colours. Nevertheless, it’s clear that these paints would work far better with a lighter background; our experiments on offcuts of lighter modern veg-tan for example were extremely pleasing. This insight combined with lack of gesso our any kind of base-coat on the remains of the painted shields from Nydam (Holst & Neilsen, 2020) raises interesting questions about the state of (now degraded) skin-product used on these shields; were the covers dark veg-tanned hide, like on our shield, or could they have been lighter products – such as alum-tawed skins (Cameron, 2000) or more minimally tannin-impregnated tanned hides closer to modern veg-tan? (For more on the archaelogical evidence for the state of tanning on prehistoric to Viking-Age shields see Warming et. al. 2016)
These questions aside, through much experimentation we had found a method to use for the painting of the shield, and now turned to the difficult question of what design we ought to paint.
Inevitably any design which is painted on such a shield will be conjectural, but it is possible to draw clues both from designs seen on shields of related cultures, similar designs in Anglo-Saxon material culture and, where it is evidenced, some crosstalk between different media.
The 4-5th century shields from the “pigment trench” of the Nydam votive weapon deposit show abundant evidence for painting, though most are too poorly preserved to provide full coherent designs (Holst & Neilsen, 2020). What is clear, however, is that the dominant scheme for all of these round-shields was the division of the board into concentric circular fields using delicately painted borders. Many also had a solid red field around the shield boss. Interestingly both these features are also seen on Roman shields from Dura Europos (circular fields on the so-called Troy shield, and a rectangular field on the more famous heavy scutum). Although early Anglo-Saxon iconography is rarely detailed, pressblech foils which show warriors with shields (such as those from the Staffordshire Hoard – Fern et. al., 2019) often appear to show concentric bands on the boards, perhaps suggestive of similar decoration.
The Nydam shield interlace can also be viewed as a simplified overlapping guilloche, seen in more detailed painting on the rectangular Roman shield from Dura, extremely popular in mosaics, and in turn, occurring frequently on early Anglo-Saxon jewellery - particularly gold brooches and pendants, which may have sought to emulate designs visible in surviving Roman mosaics as part of the “Romanitas” fashion of the 7th century. With discoveries at Chedworth confirming that Roman mosaics continued to be produced in Britain well into the 5th (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-gloucestershire-55256415) and possibly even the 6th century, it is now clear that they formed part of the early Anglo-Saxons’ visual landscape and very likely influenced their own work in other media. Other common elements both from Roman shield painting and mosaics include wave and saw-tooth patterns to mediate transitions between colour blocks.
Painting our Shield
The main decorative motif was built from a flat two-strand interlace in red, like the design from Nydam, with the diamonds within filled with yellow-ochre and woad blue, rather than Nydam’s yellow-green and black-green (possibly degraded blue). The application of fine, dark overpainted lines converted the red borders into a more intricate-looking 3D twisting guilloche. Around the central field framing the boss, a mosaic-inspired saw-tooth pattern was added to help integrate the painted and unpainted zones.
The interlace elements, quite accidentally, are evocative of fine bands of tabletweave encircling the board. It is likely that AS shields were often more extensively painted than this, but based on the limited clues available we feel this design is a plausible representation of what a more sparingly painted board may have looked like.
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