Unique Iron Age bark shield found in Leicestershire

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The remains of the shield after conservation.
The remains of the shield after conservation. (IMAGE: Michael Bamforth)

Post-excavation analysis of an Iron Age bark shield – the only one of its kind ever found in Europe – is greatly enhancing our understanding of how such objects were made and wielded during this period.

Found in 2015 during excavations at Everards Meadows, near Enderby, south of Leicester, the fragile remains were recovered by Adam Clapton from University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) from a pit believed to have been a livestock watering-hole. The shield appears to have been badly damaged before being deposited; analysis by Dr Rachel Crellin from the University of Leicester suggests that at least one elliptical-shaped hole was probably caused by a spear, while groups of parallel incisions may have been inflicted by edged blades. It is currently unknown, however, whether this damage was incurred during a battle or as an act of ritual destruction – a question that it is hoped ongoing analysis might help clarify.

Other Iron Age evidence from the site includes land boundaries and an area of trackway, while nearby excavations have also revealed a bustling farming landscape that was in use from the Iron Age through to the Roman period.

Post-excavation analysis led by Michael Bamforth from the University of York has shown that the shield was similar in shape to known metal examples of the same period, but made from bark stiffened using wooden laths and a wooden edging rim, with a woven boss protecting the handle. The shield’s outer surface appears to have been painted and scored to create a red chequerboard pattern, and radiocarbon dating places the object in the Middle Iron Age, between 395 and 255 BC. Dates taken from other material in the pit in which it was found suggest that it was already more than a decade old at the time of its deposition.

An experimental reconstruction of the shield.
An experimental reconstruction of the shield. (IMAGE: ULAS)

When it was discovered, it was assumed that a bark shield would have been far too fragile to have been used in combat, but recent experimental recreations of bark shields (undertaken by a team led by Matthew Beamish of ULAS) have shown they were not only easy to make, but also surprisingly sturdy, able to withstand blows from blades and arrows. While they are not as strong as solid wood or metal, they are much lighter, which may have allowed for greater manoeuvrability and speed. The team now suspects that such objects were probably commonplace in Iron Age Britain, but due to their organic makeup rarely survive in the archaeological record.

‘This is an absolutely phenomenal object, one of the most marvellous, internationally important finds that I’ve encountered in my career,’ said Dr Julia Farley, Curator of British and European Iron Age Collections at the British Museum, where the shield is set to go on display next year once conservation and analysis are complete. ‘So often it is gold that grabs the headlines, but this bark shield is much rarer. Bark and basketry objects were probably commonplace in ancient Britain, but they seldom survive, so to be able to study this shield is a great privilege.

This article appeared in CA 353.

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