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How were shields fastened to soldiers' backs?

How were shields fastened to soldiers' backs?

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I'm researching armor (from all time periods, though most of my reference is from the medieval era) and I found there's little reference for how soldiers traveled with shields. Some shields have a long strap (in addition to the straps used to hold the shield in battle) on their backside. I assume it was used to keep it on the wearer's person, but most of the shields I've looked at don't have this strap.

So, how were shields worn on soldiers' backs? Were soldiers able to sling a shield off their back with ease like they do in the movies?

Thank you for your time!

The long strap you are referring to is called a "Guige" strap, and the original intention was likely not to allow the shield to be transported on one's back (although it would have been an added bonus) - the primary purpose was likely to distribute the weight of the shield during use. Given that a shield could weigh upwards of 5-10kg, being able to support the majority of the load on the shoulders would be a considerable advantage even with any loss of mobility.

For soldiers wielding spears, the guige also allowed a shield to be used in combat while freeing both hands for the shaft of the weapon. In addition, they were also used on horseback to either entirely support the shield to allow a free hand on the reins or again lighten the load enough to allow the shield hand to do so more effectively.

In fact, you can sometimes see how they were used in period art, such as this plate from the St.Etienne Bible for Cîteaux.

See Bronze Age Military Equipment by Dan Howard, Daily Life in the Middle Ages by Paul Newman, Hastings 1066: The Fall of Saxon England by Christopher Gravett.

There would usually be loops attached to the sheild to allow a strap to attached. You can wear the shield on your back using the strap or rope. Here is the reverse of one of the Behaim tournament shields:

I wanted to comment, but an actual google search gave some sort of answer for me, maybe there will be better answers than mine, I see the practical side of the fastening problem. The handles are typically sort of "D" shaped where the straight side is the shield or some straps with two fixed points on the shield body having enough space between them for an arm or hand. The shape is ideal to apply independently from the shield any regular rope, leather strap to fasten it to your armour, or clothes and make it easily accessible.

Let's see some examples:

First picture is Arc d' Orange shield with handle. A strap would perfectly fit in, and could be used for fastening it to armour.

Second picture is a Viking shield replica. There you can see an applied strap for carrying/apply on the arm, but the handle here has enough space to put a rope or strap in it, so even without the applied strap, it would be easily attachable to anywhere.

If I was a dark age soldier and I would have to carry a shield without having a purposely attached fastener, I would use a rope, tie it into handle, if the shield is moving, make a triangles around the shield to make it stable, and fix it on myself, like a backpack, maybe there are better ideas, this is my first one to try. Here is the illustration I made in paint:

Shields(or, How Not To Get Hit with Something Really Heavy or Sharp)

This article originally appeared as a post on Strongblade's blog, the Strongblade Edge, with the title Shields (or, How Not To Get Hit with Something Really Heavy or Sharp). The post was written by award-winning author Roberto Calas.

Strongblade offers a wide variety of metal, wood and foam shields. Please visit our Shields Page for a complete view of our product line.

We all have primal instincts. Hard-wired impulses that are key to our survival. The search for food. The need for shelter. The fear of spiders (okay, that may not be hard-wired in everyone, but it is with me). And, an often overlooked instinct: The overwhelming desire to not get hit with something really heavy or really sharp. Or really heavy and sharp, for that matter.

Humans have used a variety of methods to address this impulse. They have developed leaping skills. Learned to dodge and duck. Mastered the 'look-out-behind-you' technique. But perhaps our most successful tool for avoiding death by sharp-and-heavy is the shield.

The Spartans held a pass for three days using hoplons.

Examples of shields go as far back in history as we have the ability to look. But perhaps the most well-known shield from classical history is the Greek aspis (or hoplon if your lips are feeling frisky).

The aspis was round shield, made of wood and often covered in leather. Sometimes a layer of bronze was added for added nose-breaking strength. This shield was the template for most of the shields in the Greek and Roman empires for centuries. In fact, the round shield is the most common style in all of history. Something about holding a wheel in your hand just feels right, I guess.

The Romans extended the shield, making it oblong for better coverage of the body and to show the Greeks they didn’t need their damn round shields. These shields were called the parma, and tasted great on pizza. After a while, the Romans decided that an oblong was still too similar to the damn Greek shields, so they added corners and made them rectangles.

The scutum is the shield normally associated with the Roman legions, and it was *way* effective. While the Greeks had created the phalanx (a shield wall held in place by ranks of soldiers), the Romans perfected it. The legionnaires were not only good at the phalanx, they came up with trick formations, like the testudo.

Can’t hide behind a wall? Bring one with you. The Roman Scutum

What is the testudo? Well, it’s not a battle formation used to guard the male genitals. (Found that out the hard way). It’s box of shields formation. The first rank kneels, setting the bottom edge of the shield on the ground. The second rank stands, holding their shields above the first rank. The third rank holds their shields straight up in the air. And the formation is mirrored behind and to the sides. Opponents see nothing but shields no matter where they look. Take that, Greeks!

And since we’re talking about Greeks, we should probably mention the Persians, who became the arch-enemies of the Greek city-states. Soldiers in the Persian army typically used oblong wicker shields. Wicker shields? Like, wicker? Patio-furniture wicker? Yeah, it may sound kind of useless, but the Persians kicked the crap out of just about everyone (using those wicker shields) and had one of the largest empires in the history of the world, so who’s laughing now? Besides my crazy neighbor in the room next door.

Let’s move up in history to the next big Shield Event: The kite shield, made famous by the Normans. These shields were what armor scholars like to call “roundish” at the top, and tapered to a point at the bottom. They were great for horsemen because they weren’t *round.* And the human body, as we know now, is *not* round either. Except for my high school shop teacher. But I digress. The longer shields covered the torso and legs of a rider. Footmen liked them because they *weren’t round.* And they could protect much of their body in combat. They could also be hung around the neck and worn as a sort of armor wall, leaving their hands free to fight or drink beer or whatever.

Can’t hide behind a wall? Bring one with you. The Roman Scutum

The Viking shield was popular around this time, too, and a century or so earlier. These shields were round, often with a metal boss at the center and painted in the colors of the user. Vikings brought back the whole phalanx thing with their shield wall. What is a shield wall? Well, imagine a rugby scrum with weapons. Sort of. Vikings would meet their enemies on a field of battle by crashing into them, their shields slamming into their opponent’s shields. The front lines of both armies would shove at each other, while simultaneously jabbing with swords and spears at legs, over the top at heads, and basically through any crack they could find. The description of these shield walls made them sound absolutely hellish. If you were up front, you couldn’t retreat. Think a mosh pit where you’re being shoved toward a blender.

The kite shield and Viking shield eventually gave way to the heater shield, which was especially popular in the winter. Okay, I made that up. Heater shields have nothing to do with heat. Except that fighting in armor makes you really hot. Okay, that has nothing to do with heater shields either. They were named that because they look kind of like the bottom of an iron. Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not in charge of naming stuff, or I would have named it the Gruelthorpe shield. Because it sounds bad-ass. And stuff.

Can’t hide behind a wall? Bring one with you. The Roman Scutum

Anyway, the heater shield was typically flat on top, and curved to a point at the bottom. It’s the shield most people think of when they imagine a medieval knight. Me, I imagine a person-shaped shield, made of diamonds. Because why shouldn’t your shield be shaped like you? And because diamonds. These shields were popular from the 12th century to about the 14th century. Because in the 14th century, plate armor started getting silly hard to penetrate (which reminds me of a girl I knew in high school…). So, knights ditched shields and started carrying big-assed swords and axes that could be swung with all their might in the hopes of maybe scratching another knight’s breastplate.

Another shield that was popular at this time was the pavise. These were huge shields used by crossbowmen to hide behind while they reloaded, or prayed, or cowered. Pavises had spikes on the bottom edge that could be driven into the earth so they would stand on their own, or they could be held up by assistants

Bucklers started becoming popular around he 15th century. These were small shields (10-18 inches or so in diameter usually) that could be held easily and used to block attacks, and to strike with. Although typically made of metal, buckler shields were light, easy to carry and gave rise to the Frisbee craze of the 60s. Sword-and-buckler combat became wildly popular in the 16th century, and dozens of manuals on fighting techniques were written.

After the 17th century, shield use became less and less popular. There were some shields still in use after that, most notably the Scottish targe—a small round shield used highlander’s against the British. But guns kind of took away our hard-wired impulse to block sharp-and-heavies, and replaced it with the new duck-and-cover impulse.

How were shields fastened to soldiers' backs? - History

The Shield: An Abridged History of its Use and Development
An article by Patrick Kelly, Greyson Brown, Sam Barris, Nathan Bell, Bill Grandy, and Alexi Goranov
Compiled and edited by Patrick Kelly

Here at the dawn of the 21st century we are experiencing a resurgence in the study of ancient arms. Not since the Victorian age has there been such an interest in the arms of the Middle Ages and the renaissance. Fine copies of swords, daggers, polearms, and a number of other weapons are being manufactured, and the craft of the modern armourer has also reached new heights of quality and authenticity. Students of the sword enjoy Web sites, discussion forums and exciting new books dedicated to this most famous of edged weapons. On the other hand, there is a dearth of new material on the shield. Books such as Medieval Sword & Shield (Paul Wagner and Stephen Hand), and The Anglo-Saxon Shield (I.P. Stephenson), are welcome additions to this field of study, but these works are in the minority.

This is truly unfortunate, considering the shield's historic role. For over two-thousand years it was a vital piece of military equipment. Everyone, from the lowest peasant to the highest noble, would have used one. In many cultures the shield was the mark of a warrior, even more so than the sword or spear. The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus wrote, "To lose one's shield is the basest of crimes," and we have all heard the familiar legend of the Spartan mother telling her son, "Come back with your shield or upon it."

The intent of this article is to give the shield a bit of increased exposure. A myriad of types and styles of shields have been used throughout history, and it would be nearly impossible for us to cover them all here. Instead, we have chosen to cover several classic shield designs in use during key periods in history. Hopefully, we will be able to illustrate just how important the shield was to the ancient warrior.

Athena shown carrying her shield

The core of a hoplon was constructed of a thin wood which was approximately 0.2 inches thick. They were lined with thin leather, and then the strap through which the arm passed was attached to the back of the shield. Occasionally, there was also a rectangular reinforcing plate mounted between the strap and the wooden core. The front of the shield was then covered with bronze and was usually painted. There are surviving examples of hoplon shields that have bronze figures or designs mounted on the front of them, but these were most likely intended for ceremonial or dedication purposes as such decoration would not have survived long on the field of battle. Because of the way the hoplon was gripped, a good portion of the shield extended past the user's left side. This meant that, in a phalanx, a soldier's shield would provide a degree of protection to the man to his left. It was very common for soldiers to shift to the right in an effort to take full advantage of their neighbor's shield and this resulted in a general crowding to the right to the point that the right wing of a phalanx would often end up past the left flank of the opposing formation. When this occurred, the right wing of the phalanx could turn and attack its opponent in the flank. This technique often resulted in the right wing winning the battle, and it is for this reason that the right end of a phalanx became a position of honor.

When used in the close proximity of a phalanx, a shield cannot be used to deflect blows, as was often the purpose of shields in other times and places. Instead, it had to absorb the force of a blow or projectile so as not to redirect that same attack onto the next man. The great weight of these shields would have helped in that respect, as more force would have been required to move the shield. In order to better protect the hoplites' legs and feet, this shield was sometimes fitted with a leather apron or curtain suspended from its bottom. Because of its great size, however, a hoplon could get in the way as a soldier advanced and this would be even more noticeable with the leather curtain attached. Hoplon shields are often described as covering a man from chin to knee, and it is easy to see that a soldier's legs would constantly be bumping into the shield when he tried to move forward. In order to avoid this problem, Greek soldiers would hold the shield horizontally while advancing. This technique would still provide some protection, but would also get the shield out of the way of the legs. When not in battle, these shields were very often placed in leather covers, but it is uncertain if they had any kind of strap for carrying the shield. It is likely that a soldier on the march would simply have rested his shield on his shoulder, holding it at his side rather than in front.

The hoplon, or argive shield, made the Greek phalanx possible. It was uniquely suited to the style of combat employed by the Greeks, and was such an integral part of their panoply that the soldier himself was named after this piece of equipment. According to Plutarch, a foreigner once asked King Demaratos of Sparta why it was that warriors who had lost their shields in battle were dishonored while those who had lost their helmets and breastplates were not. He responded by saying, "Because the latter they donned for their own protection, but the shield for the common good of the entire line." This story demonstrates the enormous value the Greeks attached to this particular item. To say that Hellenic tactics were heavily influenced by the shield would be too simple a statement. It is far more accurate to say that the Greeks recognized the great potential of the shield and built the tactics of the day around its use. With their overlapping shields forming a virtually impenetrable wall, the Greek phalanx was one of the most lethal troop formations in the ancient world.

A Roman soldier engaging barbarians

Legionaries marching, from Trajan's Column

The scutum was made of plywood covered with leather, making it both strong and flexible. The plywood construction of these shields consisted of three layers of thin wooden strips, about 2.5 inches to 4 inches wide. The outer two layers ran horizontally, while the strips of the inside layer were oriented vertically. This was sometimes backed with ribs of wood pegged or glued into place to help reinforce the shield. A horizontal handgrip was attached behind the centrally located boss. In earlier scuti, this boss fit over the wooden spine that ran down the center of the shield, later models did away with the spine and used a more simplified square plate with a hemispherical dome attached directly to the shield face.

The scutum was about 0.5 inches thick in the center, while its edges, measuring 0.4 inches, were slightly thinner. Obviously, the weight of these shields varied. In general, the oval scuti were heavier and weighed around 22 pounds, which is even heavier than the Greek hoplon, while the rectangular variety tended to weigh about 15 pounds. The earlier oval scutum usually had a rim of either bronze or iron only on the top and bottom edges, but the rectangular scutum most often had a full metal rim around. The scutum would have been decorated, usually painted, with the insignia of the unit, and often was stored in a leather case which bore the same insignia formed from pieces of leather sewn onto the face of the cover. Many such covers survive, and have helped provide information on the size and shape of the scutum.

Because of the curvature of a scutum, it would have been very difficult for a soldier to draw a sword—even one as short as the Roman gladius—from across his body. To avoid this potential snag, the legionary carried his gladius suspended on his right side. In battle, the Romans began an engagement by advancing close to their enemies, at which point they would deliver a volley of pila (singular pilum), a distinctive type of javelin with a long, slender head designed to penetrate or stick in an opponent's shield and make it too awkward to use. Depending on the situation, the Romans might hurl another volley of pila, and then they would charge the enemy with swords drawn. During the charge, the legionary would hold his shield in front of himself so that the force of the impact would, hopefully, knock his opponent to the ground. In this way, the scutum could serve as an offensive weapon by battering the enemy with the central boss and by hacking at him with the metal-bound edge.

Once he had reached, and overbalanced, his enemy, the legionary would often rest his scutum on the ground and fight from behind it while crouched. This would lower his center of gravity, making it harder for him to be pushed back or knocked off-balance, and would also allow for more of his body to be protected by the shield. From this position, subsequent ranks could also more easily fight or throw additional pila. It should be stressed that this technique would result in a rather static position, and Roman tactics tended to rely on moving forward, so the soldier might have advanced with subsequent short charges whenever possible, and it is certain that, when called for, he would have held his shield in front of himself and continued to press forward. Regardless of which method was used, it is clear that the scutum was a body shield used in a relatively fixed manner, and not something that would have been wielded like the smaller, lighter shields of the late medieval period.

In siege warfare, the scutum could be employed in a unique formation known as the testudo, or tortoise. In the testudo, the soldiers on the front and sides of the formation would hold their shields outward, while the remainder would overlap their shields above the heads of the formation. The result was a box enclosed on the front, sides, and top, leaving very few vulnerable openings. The testudo allowed the Romans to approach and undermine walls without much fear of arrows or rocks from above. It could be disrupted by weapons such as burning fat, but the testudo still served well as a quickly and easily deployed siege weapon.

The scutum was a very versatile shield that was well-suited to combat with tightly-packed or loosely-arrayed troops, and was also very useful in a siege. This shield played an important role in the conquest of the known world, and is more that worthy of the recognition that it still receives today.

Top: Two Hjortspring shields. Bottom: The Clonnoura and Chertsey shields

Celtic shield,
first century AD

Bronze-faced shield, circa 400-300 BC

The Celtic shield is known from approximately the 6th century BC to the early centuries AD through artwork, scattered remains of fittings, and in a few rare instances, wholly preserved shields. The site of La Tène produced such preserved Celtic shields. Related finds in Celtic influenced areas—Hjortspring in Denmark and Clonnoura in Ireland—have provided more examples of preserved Celtic shields to provide rare insight. An additional find in Fayum, Egypt, near where Celtic mercenaries were given land, revealed yet another remarkably well-preserved shield. This last is not definitively Celtic or Roman, but has been alternately claimed as both.

This basic shield form varied little through the centuries. From 6th century Halstatt scabbard engravings to post-conquest British votive carvings, we see the Celtic barbarian armed with the spindle-bossed ovoid shield. On the Continent, the shape was generally seen as an ovoid: not a true ellipse rather more like a rectangle whose sides have been curved slightly. In some cases, the shape is very curved and ovoid, as seen in the Pergamon arch, the Chertsey shield, and the surviving shields from La Tène. The rectangular form with rounded corners is typified by those seen on the Civitalba frieze, the Bormio relief, and the surviving shields from Hjortspring. The victory arch at Orange shows both rectangular, ovoid, rounded rectangles, and elongated hexagonal shapes.

Several thin bronze votive shields have been found in Britain. One of these, the Chertsey shield, depicts a very typical ovoid shield with a spindle boss extending the length of the shield. However, the Witham and Battersea shields show a form that appears to be distinctly British: an elongated rectangle with rounded corners but slightly concave lines along its length. This waisted shape does not appear to have a Continental counterpart.

Typical of the Celtic shield is a spindle-shaped boss, with spines of varying length, in cases extending nearly the full length of the shield. On the shield preserved at La Tène, the spine extends only about 1/2 the length of the shield. In other instances, the spine is virtually nonexistent, making the boss shape more a pointed oval, as typified by the Hjortspring shields. In the last days of the Celtic culture, 1st century BC to the early centuries AD, the wooden umbo was increasingly supplanted by a domed hemispherical metal boss shields of this form have been found at the site of Caesar's siege of Alesia (1st century BC). However, Alesia also yielded the strap-type boss, indicating that the spindle-shaped umbo was also still in use.

British shields show evidence of both the full-length spindle (Chertsey shield) and the pointed oval variety (several Salisbury votive shields). Nonetheless, votive shields and carvings seem to indicate a preference for a spherical umbo with or without attached spines. This does not necessarily indicate a metal domed boss as such metallic fittings are quite rare in the British archaeological record. The Irish Clonnoura shield, by way of reference, has a domed, nearly round boss of alderwood covered in leather.

Unlike the Roman shields, the barbarian Celtic shield was flat. Extant surviving shields possess a solid umbo of wood, and a shield body of plank construction. However, the surviving Fayum shield was of slatted construction, with a shield body composed of three layers of birch strips glued together at right angles: a form of primitive plywood. No existing Celtic shield of plied construction has yet been found. However, the carvings of the Pergamon arch and the Mondragon warrior both have carved detail depicting broad diagonal bands with grained texture. This may indicate planks set at diagonals, or may indicate diagonal slatted construction in a form of plied shield board not yet found.

The Fayum shield had a covering of glued and stitched-on wool felt. It is presumed that Celtic shields would be similarly covered in fabric, or in leather like the Clonnoura shield. Rims could similarly be reinforced with organic material: the Fayum shield had the wool felt fabric doubled up over the rim, forming a wide thickened band to strengthen the edge. The Clonnoura shield had a thin edging of stitched on leather to reinforce the edge. Either method of rimming would be effective for Celtic shields, and could explain the wide rim or binding carved on the Pergamon relief shields.

In earlier Celtic graves, the shields were all organic, as described above, since the only grave remains are the occasional metal grip reinforcement, or a pair of nails which would have attached the handgrip. By the early 3rd century BC, more metal shield fittings appear with grave goods. Shaped metal plates nailed onto the wooden umbo to strengthen it appear during this period, to gradually be replaced in the late 3rd century BC by a band-shaped metal strip which fit over the wooden umbo to reinforce the hollowed grip area. Metallic edge bindings also appear from time to time in this period thin gutter-shaped strips in iron on the Continent, bronze in Britain. As the centuries progressed, the band-shaped boss became larger, and the flat portion attached to the shield board developed aillettes (or wings), making an almost butterfly-shaped boss. By the 1st century BC, some warriors had eschewed the wooden umbo altogether in favor of a hemispherical boss.

Generally speaking, the Celtic shield covered the warrior who bore it from just above the shoulder to the knee or upper shin, but surviving shields, few as they are, also show size variance. The Clonnoura shield is a tiny 22.8 by 14 inches the Fayum shield measures 50.25 by 25.4 inches. The La Tène shields are more moderate, measuring about 43 by 24 inches.

Judging from surviving shields, and also surviving elements such as the nails securing umbos and metallic rimming, the thickness of a typical Celtic shield would be about half an inch in the center, tapering to about a quarter of an inch at the rim. A large shield like the Fayum would weigh about 22 pounds. A smaller shield like the oaken La Tène shield would weigh around 14 pounds. The shield was held via a transverse horizontal wooden grip beneath the umbo. Occasionally the grip is reinforced by a rather plain iron strip nailed at either end of the grip piece. The method of grip is palm-down, most clearly shown in the famous carving of the Flannery Celtic warrior brooch.

The Anglo-Saxon/Viking Shield
Other than in certain areas of aesthetic decoration, Anglo-Saxon shields and those used by the various Nordic or Viking countries were of the same design and construction, so they will be discussed together in this section.

Warfare was an important part of Nordic and Anglo-Saxon society. Men in these cultures were warriors first and foremost, farmers and traders second, and the shield was a powerful symbol of the warrior. Unfortunately, this important piece of equipment has been neglected in favor of the much more glamorous sword, and in some cases, even the common spear and axe. But the shield is by far the most common piece of military gear found in Anglo-Saxon and Nordic graves, being found in 45% of all grave excavations. It is unknown whether the shield that was placed into the grave was the personal shield of the deceased, or simply a representative piece. Indeed, the seeming fragility of some of these finds may indicate that they may have been made strictly as a symbolic addition to the grave goods, and were never meant for actual use.

From the Golden Psalter of St. Gall, 10th century

The boss's flange was set at an angle to the boss itself, so that it would seem that boards attached to the flange would have resulted in a cone-shaped shield. However, the flange's angle was instead meant to act as a spring against the shield board, keeping the rivets under tension and thus preventing a loosening of the assembly. The boss was attached to the shield board by a number of these evenly spaced rivets, which very rarely seem to also have been used to secure the hand-grip. Traces of textile have been found in the interior of several surviving bosses, indicating that padding may have been placed within the boss as an additional form of hand protection. Some recovered bosses display obvious combat damage. Often, this damage and the resulting repair work left no corresponding marks on the surviving shield boards. This gives a clear indication that ferrous fittings of the shield were often recycled back into new construction.

The other ferrous component of the northern shield's construction was the grip, although wooden examples may have also been used. The only depiction of the shield's grip is found on the Franks Casket, and this is far from a clear illustration. There is also an illustration in the Cotton Claudius B IV, an 11th century manuscript housed in the British library. All surviving Anglo-Saxon shield grips are made from iron, with the exception of one copper-alloy grip found in grave 25 at Orpington, England. The shield's grip tended to be formed of a piece with a supporting strip of iron. This component could either be short or long, and we do not know the rationale for length choice. This component was typically secured with two to four dome-headed rivets. More would be used as the supporting strip became longer. The grip was riveted to the shield across the grain of the central shield board, and usually in an off-center position in the board's hand-hole. There is no surviving evidence to indicate that carry-straps were ever used on shields of the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic cultures. Both the Franks Casket and Cotton Claudius B IV sources clearly show the shield being gripped with one hand, so from these we can assume the shield was normally held in this fashion.

All surviving Anglo-Saxon and Viking shield boards are of circular shape. Square, rectangular, or oval shapes do not seem to have been used by the northern peoples, and shields found in the Thorsbjerg bog deposit, as well as the Gokstad ship burial, bear this out. The cross-sectional shape of this shield type is far more difficult to determine. Some ancient writings seem to describe the shield as hollow, or curved, although this is open to debate. While all surviving shield board fragments indicate a flat circular shield, some excavated shield grips are curved along their length which might indicate a convex shield. The problem with this interpretation is that it is impossible to separate those grips that are intentionally curved from those that have been damaged or bent post-deposit. The shield found in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo is convex. However, this convexity occurs only within the last few inches of the shield's outer rim rather than at an even rate across the entirety of the shield's surface. This feature has been determined through a reconstruction using the shield's metal ornamentation.

Literary evidence indicates that the shield's body was typically made from planks of linden, also known as lime wood. Sources such as the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf repeatedly speak of linden shields. Recent analysis of the organic composition of surviving shield boards has, however, indicated that a wide range of woods were actually used. Woods such as alder, beech, ash, birch, poplar, and willow were also used. The term "linden" may in fact have simply been used as a catch-all phrase to describe the general nature of shield construction, much like the term "Kleenex" is used today to describe facial tissue. All shields thus far discovered, with the exception of the Gokstad shields, have been found to be covered with leather of one kind or another. Given the age and find-composition of this leather, assigning it to a particular species of animal is doubtful at best. However, a comment in the 10th century laws of Aethelstan state that no shield will be covered with sheepskin, so perhaps cowhide was the preferred covering. The exact composition of this leather covering is further muddled by the fact that the Anglo-Saxons also used cuir bouilli (hardened leather) and rawhide in their goods manufacturing. A cuir bouilli shield covering may have been used on the shield found in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, however, no evidence remains to indicate that rawhide was used. Still, the material was known to these cultures so its use should not be discounted. The leather covering seems to have been intended primarily as a means of adding structural stability to the shield, as well as a field for artistic expression.

The shield's rim construction is also open to debate. Many illustrations show a distinct rim to the shield. Whether this depicts a reinforced rim or simply a decorated one is debatable. U-shaped strips made of iron as well as copper alloy have been found in excavations. These items point to some kind of rim reinforcement. Leather and rawhide may have been used, although no definitive evidence survives. Whatever form the shield's rim took it was obviously meant as an attempt at reinforcing the structural integrity of the shield.

The size of Anglo-Saxon and Viking shields can be determined by the location of the ferrous elements within the find-place. The size of the shield seems to have varied widely from 1 1/2 feet to 3 feet. Whether this difference in size was due to availability of materials, personal preference or social station is uncertain. The shield's face was often decorated with artistic elements. The Nordic cultures seem to have preferred painting their shields in simple geometric patterns. Anglo-Saxon shields followed the same trend, although examples owned by high ranking individuals, such as the shield found in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, display elaborate and costly decoration in the form of non-ferrous metals.

Anglo-Saxon poetry tells us, "A shield necessarily goes with a soldier." It is clear that the shield was more than just a piece of disposable battle gear to the Anglo-Saxon and Viking cultures. The shield was not only an indispensable piece of equipment for the warrior, it was also the hallmark of the man himself.

Kite shields,
circa 1140-50

German shield,
13th century

Buckler use, I.33 manuscript

From the end of the Viking period at 1066 until the beginning of the 13th century the most widely used form of shield was the kite-shaped shield. The single best source for the shape and form of this shield during the 11th century is the Bayeux Tapestry. It portrays many of the Norman warriors carrying kite shields of half-body length. These shields have rounded upper edges, central bosses and an outwardly convex shape. During the 12th century the main shape of the shield remained the same, though not all depicted shields had central bosses. The so-called Temple Pyx bronze casket fragment from 1140-1150 shows knights carrying bossed kite shields much like the ones from the Bayeux Tapestry, but the Winchester Bible, 1170, and an illustration from the 12th century work The Life of Guthlac depict smaller size kite-shaped shields without bosses. The shields still featured a convex shape to offer better protection. As the 12th century progressed, the curve at the top of the shield became less prominent and at the beginning of the 13th century it flattened completely (Victory of Humility over Pride, 1200, from the Trier Jungfrauenspiegel, Kestner Museum, Hanover).

With the flattening of the top, the shield of the 13th century acquired a more triangular form (see the effigy of William Longespée, 1240). It was still convex but became even smaller in length. The majority of depicted shields do not have central bosses, although some did (Relief from Church of St. Justina, Padua, 1210). Towards the end of the 13th century the shield became even smaller and the shape changed to the so-called "heater" shield, due to its resemblance to the bottom of a heating iron. This is the shape that predominated until the early 15th century. This is, of course, an oversimplification, since in Italy the kite-shaped shield seems to have been as popular as the heater-shield. The heater shield was much flatter than its predecessors and did not feature the same convex shape. Towards the end of 14th century the top-right corner of the heater shield was notched. This allowed the shield to be used to guide the lance during mounted charge, likely during tournament jousting, but perhaps also on the battlefield.

Painted Bohemian
tournament shield,
circa 1450

Tournament shield,
early 15th century

Late medieval
tournament shield
Several surviving shields from the 12th to 14th century give us much detail about how the shields were constructed. One in the Landesmuseum, Zurich, dating from circa 1180, was made of lime wood covered inside and out with leather. Another shield from the late 13th century in the Armeria Real de Madrid is made from cedar-like wood with parchment covering on both sides, the parchment being thicker on the front. Both faces of this shield were painted black. Another late 13th century triangular shield bearing the arms of Von Nordech from Rabenau in the Nationalmuseum, Munich was made from three planks of wood, covered with leather and gesso (gypsum) and then painted. One of the most well-known examples of a surviving 14th century shield is the purported shield of Edward the Black Prince in the Canterbury Cathedral. This shield is thought to have been made especially for Edward's funeral achievements as it lacks any of the attachment straps that are required for military use. The shield measures 28 3/4 inches in height and 23 1/4 inches in width. It is made of joined poplar wood planks. The wood is covered with canvas and gesso, which are overlain by parchment and finally, leather. The front is painted and the Plantagenet coat of arms, made from molded leather, is glued on top. The three vertical metal bars on the shield represent Edward's rank in the family as first-born son. The back of the shield was painted green.

The way the shields were carried is most easily understood by studying the effigy of Sir Robert de Shurland (1330) and a surviving shield from the first half of the 14th century, currently in the Tyroler Landesmuseum, Innsbruck, which retains all its original straps. Both shields have two sets of straps. The first set consists of two buckled, adjustable straps forming a single loop called a guige, which is used to carry the shield over the shoulder. The second set of straps consists of three loops called enarmes, through which the left arm of the user goes. The left-most strap is near the elbow, the middle one is near the wrist, and the right-most strap could be grasped within the hand of the user if his hands were not used to hold the horse's reigns. The distancing and location of the three enarmes appears to have varied according to personal taste.

Italian targets,
circa 1540-1560

From Marozzo's Opera
Nova, circa 1536

Parade shield of
Henry II, circa 1555

Some forms of shields were still used, however. The pavise, a long, generally rectangular or oblong shield, was still used to protect archers. It would generally be held up by a prop although sometimes a special shield-bearer would hold the pavise. Like earlier medieval shields, the pavise was often brightly painted and decorated, sometimes with a coat of arms or Biblical or martial scenes.

Burgundian pavise,
circa 1480

Bohemian pavise,
circa 1440

circa 1485-1490
Variants of the round shield existed and were known by names such as the Italian rotella, the Spanish rodela and the English target. In the late 17th century many European armies had units of targeteers, soldiers armed with sword and target whose job was to storm breeches in walls during sieges. Even though the shield no longer enjoyed as large a role as it had in the Middle Ages some armies still favored it. An account by Beranl Diaz, a soldier in Herman Cortez's 1519 expedition to Mexico, records that the vast majority of Cortez's troops during his campaigns in the New World were rodeleros, or shield bearers, and outnumbered arquebusiers and crossbowmen. This was atypical, as other armies in Europe relied far less on the shield, and may have more to do with other factors of the New World, such as climate or availability of gun powder.

While the shield may have become less popular on the battlefield, it became more popular as a civilian form of defense. An interesting point to note is that, with the exception of specialized shields and bucklers, there is no surviving manuscript detailing the use of the shield prior to the Renaissance, when shields were more common. Yet in the Renaissance, when the personal duel became more common, there are several fencing manuals explaining the usage of the round shield. While other weapon combinations seem more common in these manuscripts, it would make sense that some combatants would prefer the defensive qualities of a shield since gentlemen usually were unarmoured in the duel.

The small shield known as the buckler survived throughout the Middle Ages into the renaissance, both on the battlefield and in civilian life. One of the reasons for the long life of the buckler was probably its convenience. It could be hung on a belt, out of the way of an archer who kept a sword and buckler handy for when the enemy closed, and was compact enough for everyday civilian wear.

Bucklers were constructed, variously, of hardened leather, wood and metal or solid steel. Although the buckler is commonly imagined as round, it took on many shapes and sizes, including the square targa depicted in Italian fencing manuals. Many civilian variants featured cutouts or projections intended to trap sword blades. A targa in The Wallace Collection has on its face raised circular bars similar in appearance to the heating coils on a modern stove top. In theory, these could catch a sword and possibly even break it. Such devices were more common for one-on-one duels as opposed to the battlefield, where having one's shield immobilized by an opponent's weapon would leave one vulnerable to attack from other opponents.

The Scottish Targe
The targe (targaid) is the Scottish version of a small wooden shield worn on the arm. According to Dr. Stephen Bull (curator of the Lancashire County and Regimental Museum), the targe was in use in Scotland from the 12th century until late in the 18th (long after shields had disappeared from military service elsewhere) but most of the surviving examples date to the 16th century or later. The Glasgow workshops appear to have made the majority of mass-produced targes. The overall shape and face embellishments on the targe make it one of the easiest shield types to spot and distinguish. This type of shield is almost invariably circular with diameter of about 20 inches. The face of the shield is usually covered with leather, often heavily ornamented by tooling elaborate patterns onto the leather and/or by developing complicated designs with metal tacks. Stewart Maxwell recently developed a typology of the Scottish targe based on these decorative elements. The targe often featured a central boss sometimes fitted with a metal spike projecting forward. Such spikes were removable and could be stored in scabbards in the back of the targe. Carrying straps appear to have been uncommon.

According to Collin Rolland, most surviving targes appear to have been made from oak or pine. The oak examples appear to be a bit thinner, as oak is heavier. On average targes were about half an inch thick. Damage or X-ray inspection of surviving examples reveals that all targes were of two-ply construction. Each ply consisted of irregular number of boards simply butted together. The boards were of different width, and were laid cross-wise to the other ply. The plies were held together by concentric rows of wooden pegs.

The backing of the targe varied from simple leather and calf or cow skin, to dear skin, seal or mountain goat skin. Often the skin used for the backing of the targe retained some of the animal hair. It typically also was stuffed with hair, straw, animal skin, etc. under the portion of the backing contacting the user's arm. The stuffing was held in place by a pair of parallel leather bands about 7 inches apart.

The targe is usually depicted as worn on the left arm to protect the upper body from cuts and thrusts. It was secured to the user's arm by a wide leather band (or two narrow, closely spaced bands) at the forearm (arm-loop) and by a leather or metal handle held in the palm (hand-grip). The forearm loop was secured to the targe by means of a metal staple or nails and so were the hand-grips when made of leather. These leather hand-grips had the thickness of a sword grip (by virtue of the wooden or rope core of the grip). The metal grips (the less common of the two types) were attached to the targe by means of two split pins and usually were inwardly concave to allow the user to pass his arm through the hand-grip and grasp a dirk (the popular Scottish fighting knife). Used in this manner, the dirk is held point-down and projecting for most of its length beneath the targe. The painting, An Incident in the Scottish Rebellion� by P.D. Morier depicts this use, which has two advantages. First, the dirk is available for immediate use when needed. Second, the projecting blade of the dirk can be used to effectively parry oncoming attacks to the lower part of the body with a simple lateral motion.

From the Greek hoplon to the Scottish targe, the shield was more than simply an afterthought in the warrior's kit. Not only was the shield an integral part of the soldier's equipment, but it was also responsible for the development of the basic tactics used by armies throughout the centuries. More than simply a defensive tool, the shield was a weapon in its own right and the definitive symbol of the warrior caste in many cultures. For much of the history of edged weapons the shield marched hand-in-hand with the sword in terms of prestige and importance. It is an object worthy of intense study, and any collection of antique or replica arms is incomplete without it.

Editor's Note
The term hoplon more correctly refers to the entire equipment of the Greek warrior. In period, the shield was called an apsis. Calling the Greek shield a hoplon is quite common and we have used that term within this article.

About the Author
Patrick is a State Trooper serving with the Kansas Highway Patrol. He has been fascinated with edged weapons, particularly the medieval sword, since early childhood. Not only is Patrick thankful for any opportunity to indulge in his favorite hobby, he is also blessed with a wife who tolerates a house full of sharp pointy things.

About the Author
Greyson Brown is a soldier in the United States Army, and a student of European history. He has been interested in arms and armour for as long as he can remember. That interest has also inspired him to become a hobby blacksmith.

About the Author
Sam Barris is a native of Northern California who has had a passion for military history for as long as he can remember. He received a BA in Political Science and History from the University of California, San Diego, where he was also a fencer on the men's epee squad. Following graduation, Sam was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Navy. In his off-duty time, Sam enjoys swordsmanship, fly fishing, hunting, horseback riding, music and reading as many obscure, eclectic tomes as he can lay his hands on.

About the Author
New father and Cincinnati native Nathan Bell has been interested in ancient arms and armour since before he hit double digits in age. His interests of late have been arms and armor of the Celts.

About the Author
Bill Grandy is an instructor of Historical European Swordsmanship and sport fencing at the Virginia Academy of Fencing. He has held a strong passion (obsession?) for swords and swordsmanship for as long as he can remember. He admits that this passion comes from a youth spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, but he'll only admit that if there are no girls around.

About the Author
Alexi is a doctoral student in the biological sciences at MIT. He has had an outstanding interest in medieval military history and weaponry for many years, but only started collecting in late 2003. His main interests lie towards European weapons and warfare practices of the 13th and 14th centuries.


Although some late Roman shields were still the same length and width as previous ones, they were now more rectangular and curved to fit the body. A mid-third-century rectangular shield excavated at Dura Europos measures 40 by 33 inches (102 by 83 centimeters). They continued to be made of wood glued together in layers—the Dura Europos shield was made of strips measuring 1.2–3.1 inches (3–8 centimeters) wide and 0.6–0.8 inches (1.5–2 centimeters) thick—and covered in leather. However, they now had applied gilded or silvered decoration, a large metal domed boss, and rims of wrought iron or bronze around the edges. Oval shields also appeared at this time. An example from Dura Europos measures 42–46.5 by 36–38 inches (107–118 by 92–97 centimeters) and is constructed of 12–15 poplar wooden planks 0.3–0.5 inches (0.8–1.2 centimeters) thick glued together. A horizontal bar, riveted only on each side, reinforced the inside of the shield and provided a wooden grip that was anchored on the front by a large domed boss measuring 7.3–8.5 inches (18.5–22 centimeters). The shield was covered in leather or fabric, like earlier examples.

The clipeus was the Roman version of the Greek aspis. Although the clipeus was used alongside the rectangular legionaire or great scutum, after the 3rd century the oval or round clipeus became the standard shield of the Roman soldier.

Based on examples discovered at archaeological sites, the clipeus was constructed of vertical glued planks, covered with painted leather and bound on the edges with stitched rawhide.

A sculpture of a clipeus from the 1st century AD, featuring Jupiter-Amon, an amalgamation of Roman and Egyptian gods. Credit: National Archeological Museum of Tarragona.

How were shields fastened to soldiers' backs? - History

Put on the full armor of God

In this time of concern for the whole World, we who are Catholic Christians know that we can pray about and on behalf of all the people, places, and things affected by this affliction. We especially need to pray for our leaders in health, politics, and faith that all of them will work together in one accord to restore hope, healing, and health to all. This era of COVID-19 VIRUS is not just a battle against the diseases that attack our flesh, but indeed also against the "wickedness and snares of the devil." Many of us are praying to St. Michael, Prince of the Heavenly Host, to defend us against the army of evil that attempts with such vigor to oppress us. We are called to be in that Army of God which is commanded by St. Michael and includes the Angels &ndash especially our own Guardian Angels. Like any army, we must be equipped and thoroughly furnished to enter into battle. God himself is our Armorer, so let us learn about how he has given us everything we need to fight the good fight. In four installments we will learn about the Armor of God and about Spiritual Warfare.

We begin with The Full Armor of God Part 1:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil&rsquos schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord&rsquos people.

Here is the plan for the discussion that follows:

2. Breastplate of righteousness

7. Spiritual warfare through prayer

Paul, like everyone in the Roman Empire, was very familiar with Roman soldiers. A Roman solder had saved his life in Ephesus and Jerusalem, there were Roman solders with him on his travels to Rome for his trial, and Roman soldiers were his guard in his long imprisonment. The Roman Army was the best trained, best prepared, most efficient, and best outfitted army in the world at that time. The uniform they wore was indeed "uniform." Paul describes it on the basis of, and probably in the order of, the way the uniform was put on. First was the belt.

This was not a belt like the one we think of today holding up a pair of trousers. The Roman soldier's belt was the foundation of the uniform, and its use was far more important than just decoration and its purpose far more important than simple utility it was the ultimate Utility Belt. This belt was a remarkable tool that carried a wide variety of basic fighting equipment. It was this very wide belt which was used to fasten the sword to the soldier's side. It had places to attach rations, smaller weapons like darts, lengths of rope, and other weapons for close combat. The belt was so important that it was always put on carefully, tied in several places so that it would not shift. This ensured the soldier would always be able to find and use the implements attached to the belt without fumbling or hesitation. No matter how he moved or what terrain he was covering, the belt stayed in place and assured him the quickest-possible access to weapons of defense and offense. The belt even contained "testimony" of the soldier's valor, battles, and victories. This belt, when properly prepared and correctly set up and mounted, marked the man as a true soldier of Rome. The completeness of his training in using this belt and everything carried on it made him a formidable foe and a pragmatic protector.

Paul tells us to put on the Belt of Truth. Bearing in mind this description of the soldier's belt, we see first that Paul is telling us that Truth is the foundation of our uniform. The Truth we learn through careful and accurate training is the foundation of everything a Christian does. Everything we need to keep handy in our spiritual battle with The Accuser is right at our fingertips, supported and organized by Truth. No matter what we're going through, if our belt has been well-made (accurate and valid) and our training has been carefully learned, we will be well-prepared to take on the enemy. The Truth will also bear testimony to the virtue, valor, and victory we achieve when in uniform.

This was a carefully crafted device which covered the front and back of the upper torso ("thorax"). There were a number of designs and each design was based on the purpose of the protection needed. The idea was to protect the vital organs of the wearer without compromising his ability to move. It had to be lightweight and could not restrict movement. It also had to be strong enough to protect the wearer from the kind of battle he was likely to encounter. Seasoned, more senior warriors with the highest skills would have the best armor. Newer soldiers whose function was to be part of an initial skirmish often had lesser-quality armor. As one might expect, the breastplate had an intimate connection with the belt. The two were attached is such a way as to make them quite nearly a single, flexible, strong unit. The solder put on the belt first, and next came the breastplate. Once these were secured and tested, other pieces of the armor were added however, without these two pieces, the other parts of a soldier's armor were almost ineffective &ndash certainly ineffective for war and close combat.

Paul assigns to the breastplate the term "righteousness." I confess form many years I thought this meant the righteousness of the soldier &ndash my righteousness. I believed that my lack of righteousness &ndash such as feigned virtue, personal immorality, easy duplicity, and lack of integrity &ndash which created "holes in my armor." This made sense to me &ndash until I learned that the righteousness Paul intends is the Righteousness of God. It is His righteousness that protects me, not my self-righteousness. If I had to rely on my own righteousness, well, I'd be at a considerable disadvantage against our enemy. God's righteousness, however, is unassailable, invincible, and impenetrable. When I connect God's Righteousness to well-ordered Truth, I have basic protection that will help preserve my life, make it more difficult for the enemy to wound or overcome me, and a foundation upon which I can place additional armor that further protects me. What I gain in protection is strong enough to last but easy enough to carry that it is not a burden it does not weaken me before or during battle by wearing me out.

Whatever, whenever, wherever, whoever, however, if ever, forever
&mdash at your service, Belovéd!

The Heater shield is a medium sized wooden or metal shield, and was mainly used by knights on horseback. The Heater shield was not as long as the Kite shield, which made it perfect for the cavalry. It was very common for this shield to have coats of arms or heraldry emblazoned on the front of them, to show who the holder was or who he fought for.

History of Plate Armor - Coat of Plates

Plate Armor is today remembered as one of the most popular armors in European middle ages, even though historical records are very clearly describing that rise of the plate armors and their extreme version “suit of armor” were most prominent during 15th and late 16th centuries. Period of time that promoted plate armor the most was Hundred Years' War that introduced many advances in the military gear of that time. Today, plate armor plays a very important part in the history of personal armors as the most distinct and easily recognizable type of the armor in the entire world. As soon as someone sees plate armor in any of its forms (whether it is full plate suit for both soldier and horse, or just breastplate protector named cuirass), modern people are immediately thinking about medieval times, numerous wars that happened during early Renaissance, and romanticized vision of fully-armored knights and pre-gunpowder warfare. However, history of plate armor is not only connected to medieval Europe. Its origins go back all the way to the 2st millennia BC, when advances in metallurgy enabled for the first time creation of Bronze tools, weapons and of course armor pieces.

The oldest plate armor ever made comes from ancient Mycenean-era Greece from around 1400 BC. Armors from that period (which were discovered by archeologists around city of Thebes, Mycenae and Troy) consist from several single-piece plate items that protected body (body), shoulders, lower protection plates, and neck protectors, all made from bronze. Because of the difficult manufacture and weight, body plate armors were mostly used in a form of cuirass that was split into front and back section. Those two parts were connected together either with leather straps. Greece introduction of this type of armor morphed into new forms of plate armors, most notably in Rome where Lorica Segmentata became popular during several centuries. However, after fall of Roman Empire single-piece chest plate armors fell from popularity for a long period of time because of difficulties with manufacture and very high cost.

Almost one thousand years after fall of Roman Empire, plate armors returned in fashion after rise of metallurgy techniques enabled medieval blacksmiths to start easier manufacture of larger metal pieces. Reintroduction of larger plated armors started with chest pieces, and slowly expanded to the protection of the other body parts. Even though it was very expensive and hard to maintain, full body plate armors became commonplace after 1420s with blacksmiths being responsible for creation of up to 20 individual metal parts that soldier had to wear (most commonly those items were helmet, gorget, pauldrons, besagews, rondels, couters, vambraces, gauntlets, cuirass, fauld, tassets, cutlet, mail skirt, cuisses, poeyns, greaves and sabatons). The average full metal plate armor that covered soldier from head to toe was heavy, but those create for ground combat were made to be not more heavy than 25-30kg. Armors that were made for mounted combat were heavier, with specific armor pieces being placed on the horse, covering his entire body except legs. Even though they were expensive and hard to use, full plate armors were deemed to be cost effective because they offered great protection against bladed weapons, spears and to some extent against blunt trauma. However, expansion of full plate armor use also caused inovations in the field of weapons, most notably larger swords, longer pollexes, halberds, stronger longbows, hammers, maces, and introduction of crossbows that had enough power to pierce full plate armor even at larger distances.

Popularity of full body plate armors reached its popularity during 15th and 16th century, with records showing that several battles were made utilizing up to 10 thousand soldiers that wore these types of armor. This happened mostly during Wars of the Roses, Italian Wars and Hundred Years War. Arrival of gunpowder during early Renaissance lessened the impact of full plate armored soldiers on the battlefield, but they remained in use for specific heavy troops (especially in the New World where opposing natives did not have access to crossbows and gunpowder weapons) and for ornamental purposes. Many of those armors from the time of Renaissance were made by master blacksmiths, ornamented to the highest degree and used by royalty and nobility during parades and various ceremonies.

After arrival of gunpowder, full plate armor became obsolete, but that did not mean end for all types of plated armor. Chest protection remained popular for a long time, with most of the Renaissance soldiers wore cuirass breastplates with some additional lighter protection for other parts of their body. Special type of plate armor set was created specifically for jousting. Plate armors remained in use until 18th century, mostly in specific cavalry military units. Some isolated uses were also present during World War 1 with soldiers using plate cuirass armors to protect their vital organs against shrapnel.

Ancient Greek Shields Showed Allegiance, Struck Fear Into Enemy

Ancient Greek pottery showing Achilles and Penthesileia by Exekias, c. 540 BC British Museum, London. Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Public domain

As far back as the eighth century BC, the ancient Greeks had invented a large, round shield called an aspis that would serve as an essential part of warfare through the Hellenistic era. The designs, or blazons, on these shields would go on to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies.

Often called an “Argive” shield, it not only protected its owner in battle but showed his allegiance to a particular city-state or leader. And the figures painted on its exterior were also often meant to show the courage of its bearer and to strike fear into the enemy.

Arguably the most famous such decoration is that of the Spartans, also called the Lacedaemons, with a capital lambda (Λ). Beginning in the late 5th century BC, Athenian hoplites, or soldiers, commonly used an owl, the emblem of the goddess Athena, to signify their identity, while the shields of Theban hoplites could be decorated with a sphinx, or the club of Heracles.

Greece’s great contribution to the use of the shield in battle was the double grip it employed. Known ever after as the Argive grip, it involved one handle for the hand placed at the edge of the shield, with a leather fastening for the forearm at the center of the shield.

A “hoplitodromos” on pottery dating back to 550 BC. Credit: MatthiasKabel/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5

At a hefty sixteen pounds, this allowed the shield bearer to have more mobility and to better support the strategies of the phalanx. The shield would rested on the warrior’s shoulders and stretch all the way down to the knees.

They were designed for a mass of hoplites to push forward into the opposing army, a move called othismos, and it was their most essential equipment. That the shield was convex made it possible for warriors to use it as a flotation device for crossing rivers, and its large round shape allowed it to be used for hauling the bodies of the dead from the battlefield.

Hence, of course, the famous phrase uttered by Spartan women at one time to their men as they left for battle: “Come home with your shield or on it.”

These sturdy shields of the hoplites were much stouter than those of the Persians, who fought with the Spartans and other Greek soldiers at Thermoplylae.

The Persian soldiers, called Sparabara, held only wicker shields in front of them in battle, which were far inferior to the heavier wooden shield of the Greeks.

Although even larger than the Argive shields of the Greeks, the wicker shield naturally had no such protective capacity — despite the two meter-long spears that the Persians used in battle.

This small bronze relief panel dating back to 575 BC was once sewn onto the leather strap inside a shield. Perhaps most amazing of all its even still bears an inscription — of a man called Aristodms of Argos. Measuring 16.2 x 8 x 1.5 cm (6 3/8 × 3 1/8 × 9/16 in.), this piece is one one of the earliest known signatures of a Greek artist.

A bronze badge, part of a shield strap, signed by the creator Aristodamos the Argive. J. Paul Getty Museum. Public Domain

At the top edge of the lower square, the signature of the bronzeworker is written in retrograde, from right to left: “Aristodamos the Argive made (this).” I

The intricately-made strap depicts two myths that were favored in that region of Greece. The upper panel represents the recovery of Helen of Troy by her husband Menelaos, king of Argos. Athena, the protectress of the Greeks, stands watching to the right.

The lower scene shows the Centaur Nessos abducting Deianeira, the wife of the hero Herakles. The names of the figures are inscribed beside them.

The ancient Greeks sometimes considered shields to be valuable religious dedications, and shield straps are often found in the excavations of sanctuaries. Many such examples come from the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, where worshippers left elaborate bronze shields as gifts to the gods.

The city of Argos in southern Greece was the major production site of this art form. Because the maker of this shield strap, Aristodamos, names himself as an inhabitant of Argos, this work can be taken as important evidence for the style of Argive art in the early Archaic period.

A Boeotian shield is pictured on each side of a coin minted in Ancient Greece. Credit: http://www.cngcoins.com/ CC BY-SA 2.5

Shield blazons appear first on pottery dating back to the late eighth century.

Not all shields featured blazons, however — there are plenty of vase-paintings that leave the shield surface blank or painted a single color. Other shields featured abstract patterns, such as spirals or a number of flat circles, according to historians.

The most striking to our eye today are of course, the shields that were bedecked with animals, monsters, or even human figures by artists of these ancient times. While most of these designs appear to have been painted, there are examples of bronze blazons from the Panhellenic sanctuary at Olympia, for example — that were cut from sheets of bronze and featuring finely-carved details.

The blazons showing the faces of Gorgons or other figures from mythology were clearly meant to instill fear into the enemy. The Gorgon, a mythical creature with snakes instead of hair, of which Medusa is the best known example — was one such creature that once was portrayed on Ancient Greek shields.

However, Ancient Greek soldiers also employed symbols that represented themselves or the qualities they would like themselves to be known by, including a lion, which would symbolize strength and courage.

The snake, another common blazon, was a representation of wisdom and immortality since snakes sloughed off their skins at regular intervals, and they were thought to renew themselves continually.

The Greek historian Herodotus wrote the following about Sophanes, the son of Eutychides, the bravest of the Athenian fighters at Plataea in 480 BC:

“Two different stories are told about him: one, that from the belt of his breastplate he carried an iron anchor slung from a bronze chain, which he would throw whenever he drew near his enemies so that when they broke out of their position in the ranks to assault him, they would be unable to budge him then, when his opponents were in flight, his tactic was to pick up the anchor and chase them with it.

“That is one of the stories according to the other …, he did not actually wear an anchor attached to his breastplate, but instead had an anchor as an emblem on his shield, which never ceased moving and was always in swift motion.”

The Greek military commander Alcibiades (ca. 452-404 BC) had a golden shield which according to Plutarch’s history of the time sported an image of a thunderbolt-wielding Eros.

You might notice this wasn’t Zeus throwing his famed thunderbolt – but the god of erotic love since he was the son of Aphrodite. Alcibiades’ shield emblem therefore was a rare and not so subtle reference to his sexual prowess, according to historians.

Even as far back as the fifth century BC, some Greek observers criticized the individual designs on shields. As historian Hans van Wees stated, some blazons were criticized for “betraying boastfulness and aggression, in contrast to the ‘modest’ undecorated shield of the wise man, and the simple white-painted shields of the common soldier.”

Fifth and fourth century BC saw rise of nation-state symbols as blazons

The lambda Λ, mark on the shields of Spartan warriors do not appear to have been used prior to the Peloponnesian War, in 431-404 BC, when they were referenced by the Attic playwright Eupolis.

Historians believe that it wasn’t until the end of the fifth and the early fourth century BC that the hoplites from some Greek city-states started to sport “national” emblems on their own shields, showing their allegiance to one particular area.

Thebans, of course, decorated their own shields with the club of Heracles. Soldiers from Sikyon were known to paint sigmas on their shields and the Mantineans displayed the trident.

Athens oddly stands out as one are in which soldiers did not use any kind of state symbol on their shields. Any symbols found, for example on Attic pottery, appear to be those that appealed to the soldier for personal reasons.

Surely many other warriors from other city states also chose shield blazons that represented their own personal expression.

How were shields fastened to soldiers' backs? - History

W alter Glazier was born near Albany in upstate New York. He joined the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War and was captured by Confederate troops in October 1863. Over the next year, Glazier was moved from prison to prison throughout the South until he was able to make an escape in November of 1864. His freedom was short-lived, however, as he was soon recaptured.

Following the war, Glazier wrote a book recounting his experiences that became a bestseller. His experiences during the war not only brought him financial independence but imbued him with a wanderlust that inspired a plan to travel America from coast to coast on horseback. In early May 1875, Glazier mounted his horse in Boston and headed west. His journey ended on November 26 when he waded in the waters of the Pacific near San Francisco. The time in between was filled with adventure that resulted in another book published in 1896.

We join Glazier's story as he leaves the town of Cheyenne, Wyoming in the company of two horse herders. Glazier describes his fellow travelers as "rough men and plain of speech, but apparently reliable and trustworthy." They are escorting a group of mustangs to Salt Lake City for sale. As the travelers clear a rise in an area known as "Skull Rocks" about thirty miles west of Cheyenne, trouble appears on the horizon:

". . . over a slight elevation appeared a body of Indians - thirteen in number. This caused us no surprise at first, as Indians are often seen on the Plains. We soon discovered, however, that they were on no friendly errand, and were pronounced by the herders to be a raiding party of Arrapahoes [sic]. They were decked in their war paint, and as soon as they saw us raised a shout.

My companions, fearing that they were in the presence of an enemy who would doubtless endeavor to relieve them of their mustangs and ponies, made friendly signals. The signals, however, were ignored by the Indians, who continued to advance and gradually formed a circle around us. This is the common Indian mode of attack. The circle is contracted while a fire is kept up upon the centre where the victims are effectually imprisoned - the Indians by rendering themselves a constantly shifting target are thus comparatively safe from the fire of the centre.

Riding around rapidly and firing at us, I and my two companions returned the fire over the backs of the mustangs and ponies which were used as a breastwork. The circle gradually became smaller in diameter, when a shot from the gun of one of the herders killed an Indian. A rush was now made upon us, our arms wrested from us, and ourselves speedily bound together with thongs. The mustangs and ponies were promptly seized, and we were prisoners. Further resistance was useless. We were helpless in the hands of twelve powerful Indians. We were soon ordered to mount, and the entire party, less one Indian, killed, started off in a northerly direction.

Skull Rocks
The site of the attack

We rode at a trot until about ten o'clock at night, when a halt was ordered by the leader - a chief called &lsquoLone Wolf&rsquo - and all dismounted a fire was kindled and some antelope meat partially roasted, a portion of which was given to us. We were all squatted around a big fire, the Indians being engaged in earnest conversation. One of the herders understood enough of their language to explain that the discussion referred to their captives - that the friends of the Indian who was shot at Skull Rocks, and who were in the majority, were in favor of putting us all to death for having killed one of their number. Lone Wolf, however, interposed, saying it would be enough to take the life of the one who had killed their brother.

The supper over, four of the Arrapahoes approached us and seized the herder who had fired the fatal shot. They forced him towards a stout stake which they had previously driven into the ground about fifty yards from the fire. The whole party of Indians then, without ceremony or talk with their victim, commenced dancing around and torturing him in the most fiendish manner. They had heated their arrowheads in the fire and held them in contact with his naked flesh, while others, at a few feet from their victim, cast at him their sharp-pointed knives which, penetrating his body, remained embedded in the flesh until he nearly died from agony. One of their number then advanced and shot him in the head, and this ended his sufferings.

In the meantime, the other herder and I were seated on the ground bound together and unable to offer any assistance to our tortured companion. Several of the Indians now approached us, and dragging me to the stake, bound me to it and commenced a series of dances accompanied by much gesticulation and taunting which they doubtless intended as a sort of introduction to tortures which were to follow. Lone Wolf who at this time was some distance from the camp-fire, rushed forward and dispersed them.

One of the Indians removed the scalp from the head of the dead man and fastened it to his waist after which they all squatted around the fire again, engaged for the most part in shouting and speechmaking. I had never before witnessed a case of torture by Indians and trust I may never see another.

The horses of the Indians had been tethered by long ropes to stakes. A guard of two Indians was placed in charge of us, and we were made to lie down, still bound together, with an Indian on each side of us to prevent our escape. The other Indians disposed themselves around the fire and slept. . .

. . .At the first streak of dawn, the Indians in a body leaped to their feet. The herder and I were each given a mustang which we mounted under the close scrutiny of our guards and the entire party started northward at a brisk trot."

The Indians and their captives rode for three days, resting at night. We rejoin Glazier's story as dawn breaks on the fourth day and the prisoners, their hands bound, see a chance for escape:

Powder Face
An Arapaho chief, 1870

"I now worked at the cord on my wrist and found I could unfasten it. While making the attempt one of the Indians moved in his sleep, and we ceased our efforts for the moment and all was quiet again. The opportunity arrived, at length, the knot was loosened, and the noose slipped over our hands which gave us our liberty. We knew where the arms lay, and each of us quickly and quietly secured a navy revolver without disturbing our guards. We then, together, struck the two sleeping guards a strong blow on the head with the butt of the revolvers. The one struck by the herder was nearly killed, while my man was only stunned. We now made for the ponies, leaped into the saddles, and, before the other Indians had shaken off their slumber, had struck out with all our might in the direction from which we had come.

Not many minutes elapsed before a pursuit commenced in right earnest, the Indians shouting and yelling as they urged their ponies forward but this had the effect only of spurring us to still greater speed. I turned in my saddle and sent a bullet among them. Another and another followed, and one Indian was dismounted, but the darkness prevented our seeing if the other shots had told. The Arrapahoes returned the fire, but luckily without any worse result than increasing the pace of our flying ponies.

Away we tore at the top of our speed and soon entered a canyon. Only two or three Indians could now be seen in pursuit, and my companion saying it would be safer for both if we took different directions, at once dashed off through a ravine to the right. One Indian was observed following, but I sent a bullet into his horse, and this put a stop to further pursuit. I now dropped into a gulch where I remained hidden until daylight. Finding the coast clear in the morning, I emerged and set out walking in a southwesterly direction which brought me to a cattle ranch, the owner of which, after hearing my story, supplied me with food and a fresh mustang. Again turning my face to the westward I pursued my course over the Rockies."

This eyewitness account appears in: Glazier, William, Ocean to Ocean on Horseback (1896) Davis, William C. (ed) The American Frontier (1992).

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