By Mark Cartwright
The ancient Celts produced magnificent bronze shields in Iron Age Britain which were most likely for ceremonial purposes and display. Several fine examples have miraculously survived as evidence of the imagination, skill, and artistry of Celtic craftworkers. The outstanding example is the Battersea Shield, now in the British Museum, but there are several other complete bronze shields and bosses which amply illustrate that the Celts commonly decorated shields whether they were intended for battle, display, or as votive offerings.
Celtic Shields – Design and Function
Celtic warriors had distinctive shields which were most often large and oval or rectangular in shape. These shields were made of wood and leather with buckles in metal with a central boss for added strength. The reverse side typically had one handhold. Such shields are frequently represented in art from the Gundestrup Cauldron to figurines of warrior gods. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 1st century BCE, described Celtic shields as:
…man-sized shields decorated according to individual taste. Some of these have projecting figures in bronze skilfully made not only for decoration but also for protection.
(in Allen, 22).
Another category of shields was those made not for the battlefield but to impress off it. Such shields were made from sheets of bronze and are so thin and fragile as to be of no practical use in actual Celtic warfare: the millimetres-thick bronze could have easily been slashed by a sword blade. However, some bronze facings would have originally been attached to a wooden or leather backing for greater strength. These shields were probably carried in processions and important tribal events as they displayed the wealth and power of the Celtic rulers who were the most likely owners of them. Buried in the tombs of such important figures or given as votive offerings in religious rituals, remarkably, several of these shields have survived for posterity. They were typically found by accident by workers and not archaeologists. As the historians J. Farley and F. Hunter state:
Many of our finest pieces of Celtic art are chance finds like this, often from wet or out-of-the-way locations such as rivers, bogs, lakes or mountains. These were not just casual losses; it is unlikely people would be so repeatedly careless with such valuable things. It is also unlikely they were buried for safekeeping; a river is not a good place in which to hide something. These items were deliberately deposited, perhaps as sacrifices to unknown gods, during rites of passage, or to seal agreements between individuals or groups. (103)
The Battersea Shield
The Battersea Shield was recovered from the River Thames by workers in 1855 CE and so is named after the area it was found in south-west London. The shield today resides in the British Museum in London. Actually only the facing of a shield (its organic backing disappeared over the centuries in the Thames), it is made up of several pieces of sheet bronze attached together using hidden rivets and a binding strip. The shield measures 77.7 cm (30.5 in) in length and 35 cm (13.7 in) in width. It weighs 3.4 kilos (7.5 lbs). The shield has been dated to between 350 and 50 BCE, with more precision being difficult since no other object like it exists.
The Battersea Shield is decorated with reliefs, engravings, and repoussé work (relief hammered from the reverse side). There are three large roundels with a pronounced central boss in the central and largest roundel. It is this boss which identifies the shield as being manufactured in the British Isles. There are scrolls and 27 framed studs once filled with red glass paste which analysis suggests is of Mediterranean origin. Palmettes and S-shaped motifs in repoussé connect the studs within each roundel.
The Witham Shield
The Witham Shield was recovered from the River Witham in Lincolnshire, England in 1826 CE. This bronze shield dates to 400-300 BCE and is also in the British Museum. It has a similar form to the Battersea Shield – oblong with rounded corners – and was likewise intended to be attached to a backing of wood or leather. The Witham Shield is less decorative, and the boss and spine are slightly off centre. It measures 1.09 metres (43 in) in length and 34.5 centimetres (13.5 in) in width. The shield is composed of two sheets and a semi-tubular binding around the edge.
There is a large central boss but only two roundels; all three are attached to the sheet behind by rivets and connected via a raised central spine. The two roundels have a central raised rosette design with a raised outer ring much like a Celtic torc – in this case, the ends resemble an elongated snail shell. An abstract head design joins each roundel to the spine, perhaps intended to represent a cow, bull, or horse. The central boss has abstract repoussé decoration with the addition of red coral pieces. The shield has a faint design of a male boar with elongated legs, visible today only as a difference in the shade of patina. Originally, the boar was likely made of perishable material as the attachment holes are still visible. Such animal totems, believed to protect the bearer and instil the animal’s characteristics of strength and ferocity, are common in Celtic arms and armour. The boar with long legs, in particular, was a motif commonly used on Celtic Iron Age coins.
The Chertsey Shield
The Chertsey Shield was discovered accidentally in 1985 CE when a digger was removing gravel from a silted-up channel of the River Thames in Abbey Meads, Surrey, England. The shield was crumpled by the digger but has since been restored to its original shape and is now in the British Museum. It was made in the period 400-250 BCE. It measures 83.6 cm (33 in) in height and 46.8 cm (18.5 in) in width. The oval shield weighs 2.75 kilograms (6 lbs). It is made of bronze and is the only surviving example of a European Iron Age shield that was made entirely of bronze without a backing of another material. Composed of nine separate sheets, it has a broad binding around its edge. Less decorative than either of the shields already mentioned, it has a raised central spine and two very small roundels at the top and bottom. The spine rises and widens to enclose the shield’s central boss.
The inner side has an ash wood handle covered in a copper alloy sheet. The carrier’s hand fitted inside the hollow cavity of the boss and there are snake decorations on either side. In Celtic art, a pair of animals was considered particularly protective and so this design would have protected the carrier at his most vulnerable point, the hand in which he did not carry a weapon.
The Wandsworth Shield Boss
The Wandsworth Shield Boss was discovered in the Thames River near Wandsworth, south London sometime prior to 1849 CE. It is now in the British Museum. The circular shield boss measures 32.8 cm (13 in) in diameter, is 4.2 centimetres (1.6 6in) thick, and weighs 629 grammes (1.4 lbs). It dates to the period 350 to 150 BCE. The decoration on the boss takes the form of stylised birds’ heads with hooked beaks and elongated bodies in repoussé. The extremities of the birds morph into scrolls or tendrils as the two creatures seem to fly around the circumference of the shield boss. Within the wings of the larger birds are small engravings of other birds and scroll-like elements. In the very centre of the boss is a depression which likely contained a decorative piece of glass paste or coral. The eyes of the birds would also have had some decorative material placed in them.
Six holes are visible around the edge and towards the centre of the boss where rivets would have been placed to attach it to the rest of the shield, likely made of wood or leather but now lost. The shield has two cracks which were repaired in antiquity. The repairs were made using strands of wire threaded through a hole on either side of the crack so that they were almost invisible from the outer, decorative side of the shield. Clearly, even in antiquity, these shields were considered precious objects which were taken care of until their final use as a votive offering to the Celtic gods.
- Allen, Stephen & Reynolds, Wayne. Celtic Warrior–AD 100. Osprey Publishing, 2001.
- British Museum – Battersea Shield Accessed 16 Feb 2021.
- British Museum – Chertsey Shield Accessed 16 Feb 2021.
- British Museum – Wandsworth Shield Boss Accessed 16 Feb 2021.
- British Museum – Witham Shield Accessed 16 Feb 2021.
- Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford University Press, 2018.
- Farley, Julia & Fraser, Hunter. Celts – Art and Identity. British Museum Press, 2015.
- Laing, Jennifer & Laing, Lloyd. Art of the Celts. Thames & Hudson, 1992.
- Maier, Bernhard. Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture. BOYE6, 2000.
Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02.17.2021, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.