Discovery of ancient bark shield dramatically changes views of the Celts and ancient warfare

A major discovery in England has changed the way academics are viewing pre-historic warfare after archaeologists unearthed a 2,300-year-old Celtic bark shield, an unheard of object that has never been found before now.

Previously, it was thought that ancient peoples of Europe, especially the Celts, only used heavy shields made of solid wood and metal to defend themselves from sword blows and arrow strikes. But during excavations of a field that used to be the site of a pool of water, University of Leicester Archaeologist Matthew Beamish and his team uncovered the rare shield.

The existence of such a shield suggests that the Celts, and perhaps, other cultures, were far more mobile during warfare than once believed as the shield is very light but strong enough to withstand weapon strikes, which bounced right off the dried bark as if it were rubber.

According to The Guardian:

It was likely that, contrary to assumptions, similar weapons were widespread, Beamish said.

The shield is made from green bark that has been stiffened with internal wooden laths, described by Beamish as “like a whalebone corset of split hardwood”, and surrounded by a rim of hazel, with a twisted willow boss. “This is a lost technology. It has not been seen before as far as we are aware, but presumably it is a technique that was used in many ways for making bark items.”

The design is simple, yet ornate, as the University of Leicester reports:

The shield has been carefully constructed with wooden laths to stiffen the structure, a wooden edging rim, and a beautiful woven boss to protect the wooden handle. The outside of the shield has been painted and scored in red chequerboard decoration. Radiocarbon dating has revealed that the shield was made in the Middle Iron Age, between 395 and 255 BC.

The shield showed evidence that it had been used in battle, sporting what appears to be damage from a spear, and experiments with newly made copies of the shield demonstrate that they were effective.

“The first time I saw the shield I was absolutely awed by it: the complex structure, the careful decorations, and the beautiful boss!” University of Leicester pre-history professor Dr. Rachel Crellin explained. “I must admit I was initially skeptical about whether the shield would have functioned effectively, however the experimental work showed that the shield would have worked very effectively and my analysis of the surface of the object has identified evidence of use! It is a truly unique object – but – was probably commonplace in the period!”

You can view an experimental Celtic bark shield below:

Image via University of Leicester

“We have learned a great deal about a lost technology from fragile evidence which could have been so easily overlooked, and the project has been a wonderful collaboration providing a rarely seen glimpse of our prehistoric past,” Beamish said. “Every now and again, archaeological sites produce organic artifacts that remind us of the richness of the past, and this is one of those sites. I have been thrilled to play my part in managing the overall analysis, coordinating the bark shield experimentation and reporting the Everards Meadows site – this has been a highpoint in my archaeological career.”

Indeed, it easily could have been overlooked as just a piece of bark in the mud. But the sharp-eyed archaeological team did not dismiss it, and they have changed the history books and given us new knowledge and renewed excitement about ancient warfare.

Mike Bamforth of the University of York, who led the analysis of the shield, also felt honored to work on the project.

“This truly astonishing and unparalleled artifact has given us an insight into prehistoric technology that we could never have guessed at,” he said. “Being part of the team working to tease apart the complex secrets of the shields construction has been incredibly interesting and rewarding.”

Image via University of Leicester

The British Museum intends to put the shield on display in the near future, which excites museum curator, Dr. Julia Farley.

“This is an absolutely phenomenal object, one of the most marvelous, internationally important finds that I’ve encountered in my career,” she said. “It is possible this incredibly rare organic object is giving us some little hints about why we see what we see when we look at the metal objects. The Battersea shield might be pretending to be a shield like this.”

The Battersea shield is an ancient metal shield that looks similar to the Celtic bark shield that was found in the Thames river in the 1800s. It hails from the same pre-historic time period.

Battersea shield image via Wikimedia

“We are left with the earthworks, the shiny metal work, some of the ironwork, but we don’t really see the everyday world of these people: the wooden houses they lived in with their thatched roofs, their clothing, and so really the visual world of the iron age is lost to us,” Farley continued. “But something like this is just a little tiny window into that, which for me is fabulous and so exciting. So often it is gold which grabs the headlines, but this bark shield is much rarer.”

This is one of the most important finds archaeologists have ever made. It completely changes our view of the Celts and ancient warfare as a whole. Another such shield may never be found. Then again, we didn’t think this one would be found either, nor did we know they existed. Now we do.

See an in-depth discussion of the Enderby shield below:

Featured Image: Screenshot via YouTube

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