"Armed with the precedent set by the Sutton Hoo Mound 1 shield, pieces of possible shield-decoration from the Staffordshire Hoard, and current understanding of 7th century shield evolution, we embarked on a project to produce a shield that would not look out of place in the hands of Penda, Oswald, or one of their lieutenants. "
Armed with the precedent set by the SHM1 shield, pieces of possible shield-decoration from the Staffordshire Hoard, and current understanding of 7th century shield evolution, we embarked on a project to produce a shield that would not look out of place in the hands of Penda, Oswald, or one of their lieutenants.
The Iron Fittings
First came consideration of the shield’s iron fittings; the boss and grip-reinforcer. As an assemblage almost exclusively made up of precious metal fittings torn from larger objects, it almost goes without saying that the Hoard contains no shield bosses or grips, and it is by no means straightforward extrapolating what iron-fittings would have accompanied the later elements of the Hoard. It would not be appropriate to raid the rather “Vendel Culture” shield boss from the SHM1 shield with its deeply curved low dome, rather old-fashioned wide flange, and florid decoration; we were convinced this shield should integrate a more “English” and contemporary boss. Earlier styles may still have been in partial use in the mid 7th century, especially in more remote (with respect to
The true, fully developed sugarloaf shield boss form (Evison’s “tall curved cone”, Hines SB5-b/c) appears to have gradually emerged via, or in tandem with a short-lived phase of tall but relatively straight-coned bosses (still within Dickinson’s Type 7, or Hines SB5) with relatively tall, straight, sloping walls and limited overhanging carination (Evison’s “Tall straight cone”, or Hines SB5-a), in the second to third quarter of the 7th century. Notable examples of this form come from Wenden and Melbourn (Cambs), Croydon (Surrey), Faversham (Kent), West Knoyle Farm Stourton (Wilts), a particularly tall-walled example from Bury St Edmunds (Suffolk), and (at least according to Evison) somewhat lower (transitional?) examples from Salisbury Race-Course, Coombe Bisset (Wilts) and the famous 16th grave of the cemetery at Mount Pleasant, Alton (Hants). With a relatively smooth continuity from “low” to “tall” bosses, sorting transitional examples (as noted by Evison) is an arbitrary business; a perhaps defining characteristic of tall sugarloaf bosses (as opposed to low insular bosses) given significant weight in the Hines (2013) analysis appears to be the number and shape of rivets, as sugarloaf bosses (including the tall-straight form) tend to be attached with small dome-headed rivets, often greater in number than the typical 4-5 larger disc-headed rivets of earlier boss types. Of course, especially given evidence for re-fitting of bosses, sorting and dating shield-bosses based mainly on the shape of their rivets could be unwise.
We therefore chose the “tall straight cone” shield-boss for this shield, taking the boss from Melbourn, Cambridgeshire, as our exemplar. As with previous shield projects, we turned to Jason Green of Wieland Forge to produce the boss for us.
Tall bosses are challenging, especially as limited data suggests they were similar in weight, to earlier (smaller) boss forms; the same mass stretched further to produce a thinner but steeper-sided boss which would encourage blows to glance rather than bite into the thinner walls. The boss Jason produced was exactly the shape we’d hoped for, and wonderfully light. To compliment this, again foregoing the rather “Vendel Culture” (and in an English context, retro) long grip and florid decoration of the SHM1 case, we made a simple Dickinson Type 1a(i) grip reinforcer (a slightly bow-tie shaped strap of iron, riveted at each end) – the simplest type, but the only one which commonly occurs with sugarloaf bosses (Dickinson & Härke, 1992).
Another critical detail was the thickness and shape of the board. The SHM1 shield board was slightly dished at the edges, and was thinner at its edges than at the strap-holder (half way out from the boss), while another shield from Pewsey (grave 34) was at least 2 mm thinner at the edge than at the boss (from 7 to 5mm). The careful carving of these boards in this manner may be for weight management, with thinner edges both reducing overall weight, but also, if carved off the front edge, subtly shifting the centre of mass of the shield closer to the grip, and bringing the weight closer to the grip improving manoeuvrability. With the SHM1 shield, its slightly dished shape would place the grip-point actually forward of much of the board, thereby helping the carrier manage its considerable weight.
Our shield would not be so large, but following these precedents we carved down approximately the outer third of the board, on the front only, to an almost blade-thin edge which, after application of skin product, would reach approx. 5mm in total.
We also took care to slightly recess the shield-boss into the front of the board. If this was done, it would be almost impossible to detect archaeologically, but is one of the possible solutions for the problem identified by Dickinson and Härke (1992) of the sloping flanges of Anglo-Saxon bosses, which if mounted flat, leave a gap beneath. By carving a complimentary recess into the board prior to application of the skin-product layers, a tight fit is guaranteed, as well as a pleasingly smooth surface on the front of the board, from the iron flange to the board cover. This also brings the heaviest element of the shield – the iron boss (and therefore, along with it, the shield’s centre of mass) a couple of millimetres closer to the grip, making the shield less cumbersome.
The Grip, and Assembly
Grips for Anglo-Saxon shields were formed in various ways; most commonly a piece of wood was lap-jointed in some manner (most commonly off-centre) spanning a pre-cut hole in the board with the joints reinforced with rivets; the iron element which typically survives, attached by those same rivets, is merely to reinforce the structure. Our own preference, however, is for an approach Dickinson termed “Type D”; forming the grip from the board wood, or rather, cutting two unequal lunate holes rather than one circular one, with the (off-centre) bridge between forming the basis of the grip. This approach is evidenced, accounting for approx 20% of cases, and is associated with slightly higher burial wealth among a sample which excludes Sutton Hoo (Dickinson and Harke, 1992). This grip was carved such as to be rounded on the front face to fill the hand, and wrapped tightly with a strip of leather; an approach seen on various finds including, importantly, preserved texture of binding on the grip reinforcer with the tall-straight sugarloaf boss from Melbourn. Shield grips were often off-centre, as this produces a more ergonomic and comfortable result; more space is needed for the back of the hand than for the fingertips (for archaeological examples see Dickinson & Harke, 1992).
The boss was installed with eight small dome-headed rivets, shined up to contrast with the forge-blued surface of the boss. Although far plainer than the Sutton Hoo shield boss, or more typically “Anglo-Saxon” bosses from the 6th century, we were keen not to spoil Jason’s precise work by embellishing it beyond what is evidenced for its type. The Melbourn boss, according to one old report, had silver rivets, though this has not been confirmed, and the contrasting iron seen here is a small but conservative gesture towards that aesthetic.
Given the size of the board we decided on 12 decorated clips; four with rectangular plates (in this case made by pressblech) with Salin Style-2 interlace designs of a kind represented among the countless foil fragments from both Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, four with wyrm-heads with garnet cabochon eyes borrowed from one of the two designs seen on the Sutton Hoo shield (produced for us by George Easton / danegeld.co.uk) and four adapted from the so-called “horse head” terminals from the Staffordshire Hoard (STH 678 et al). These terminals, though commonly referred to as "horses", could in fact be a different style of dragon-representation or even boar - the latter typically only distinguishable from other beast terminals by the presence of tusks. If they do indeed represent horses, they would be the first representation of this animal on Anglo-Saxon war-gear outside of pressblech foils. We have discussed the significance of horses in this context previously, here (link).
The Eagle and the Fish
Finally, we came to the board fittings. The Staffordshire Hoard contains a number of fittings which could conceivably have come from a shield, and yet due to the lack of context which typifies this find, will likely forever be described with that so usefully ambiguous archaeological term “mount”. One such item, the so-called “Eagles and Fish” fitting was identified as possibly having come from a shield early in the Hoard’s story, and this remains one of the best interpretations for it. It was fabricated from multiple pieces of gold sheet, yet had been wrenched from its mounting, and twisted and folded deliberately before deposition, rather like the processionary cross.
In this context the bird; probably a white-tailed sea eagle (Earn) one of the three Wodanic beasts of battle, pulls its catch through the boundary between worlds, from its living world to its death; perhaps symbolising the harvesting of heroes by Woden. The placement of this object on the original shield board was, perhaps, a symbolic reminder that in battle, the veil between the world of the living and the dead was the shield itself.
George produced a wonderful replica of this piece for us, and with it still falling into the category of “bird fitting” we, following the precedent set by the SHM1 shield, placed it on the right side, with the birds facing inward.
The frequently placed attachment holes along the whole length of the slender body of the piece are reminiscent of another, familiar piece of similar form though quite different decoration, and close examination reveals that some of the dome-headed pins are still in situ, appearing perhaps a shield-thickness, in length. Like this Hoard piece, the Sutton Hoo shield’s wyrm fitting features a gradually tapering, narrow body, with frequently placed small dome-headed pins along its borders, and a central field formed of decorated sheet runs up the middle of the tapering body. The tail is crimped, widening again to a fin, like the more crudely shaped triangular tail fin of the Hoard piece, and the fearsome head is attached by a narrow, easily broken or mangled neck; could a head have once sat on those silver-niello shoulders, to be
deliberately broken off to “remove its power”, just like the fish mentioned above, or even the lone dragon-head of Sutton Hoo Mound 2?
The fiery-dragon, serpent or wyrm, like the eagle, symbolises death; both in the form of the devouring-fire of the funeral-pyre and the burial mound, which it guards and which is described in Beowulf.
Hē gesēcean sceall hord on hrūsan þǣr hē hǣðen gold warað wintrum frōd· Beowulf, 2275-6.
“He is doomed to seek hoards in the ground, where he, old in winters, defends the heathen gold.”
Integrating a total of 10 individual zoomorphic elements and a bronze rim, but a conservative mid 7th century boss and grip, this build is, we hope, representative of the kind of shield that may have been carried into battle by the warrior elites who wore the Staffordshire Hoard.
Bruce, S.G., 2015. The St. Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John (BL, Additional MS 89000).
Dickinson, T.M. and Härke, H., 1992. Early Anglo-Saxon Shields (Vol. 110). London: Society of Antiquaries of London.
Dickinson, T.M., 2005. Symbols of protection: The significance of animal-ornamented shields in early Anglo-Saxon England. Medieval Archaeology, 49(1), pp.109-163.
Ellis Davidson, H.R. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe
Evison, V.I., 1963. Sugar-loaf shield bosses. The Antiquaries Journal, 43(1), pp.38-96.
Fern, C. 2014. "Dramatic golden fish and eagle: A link to Anglo Saxon kings?", [Online: Video]. History West Midlands, IDM Media production. Youtube. [URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsYzrmO3jn8 ]
John Hines., 2013. Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor] https://doi.org/10.5284/1018290
Mortimer, P., 2011. Woden’s Warriors. Warriors and Warfare in 6th-7th Century Northern.
Stephenson, I.P., 2002. The Anglo-Saxon Shield. Tempus.