2,300-Year-Old Bark Shield Showcases a Previously Unknown Iron Age Technology

By George Dvorsky on at

A one-of-a-kind bark shield dating back to the Iron Age has been unearthed in England. Archaeologists have never seen anything like it, describing the artefact as “lost technology”.

The bark shield was discovered four years ago in what was once a livestock watering hole, according to a release issued by the University of York. Normally, items made from organic materials, such as bark, don’t preserve well, but in this case, the moist, soggy conditions prevented the shield from degrading. The bark shield is the only one of its kind ever found in Europe, according to a University of Leicester release.

The artefact, called the Enderby shield, was discovered by archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Service at the Everards Meadows site in 2015, which is south of Leicester. This area once hosted a vibrant Iron Age farming community. The bark shield, which was made from either alder, willow, poplar, hazel or spindle tree, was radiocarbon dated to between 395 and 255 BCE, according to the University of Leicester. The outer layer of bark formed the inside of the shield.

ULAS archaeologist Adam Clapton recording the shield when it was still in the ground. Image: ULAS

Archaeologists have previously documented the use of bark to manufacture other objects, but this is the first time the material has been seen in an Iron Age weapon. This discovery is consequently changing our conceptions of the materials and techniques used to create defensive weapons thousands of years ago.

“This truly astonishing and unparalleled artefact has given us an insight into prehistoric technology that we could never have guessed at,” University of York archaeologist Michael Bamforth, who headed the analysis of the shield, said in the university’s press release. “Although we know that bark has many uses, including making boxes and containers, it doesn’t survive well in the archaeological record.”

An experimental archaeologist reconstructing the bark shield. Image: Mike Bamforth

The bark shield measured 67 centimetres (26.3 inches) long and 37 centimetres (14.5 inches) wide when it was still in the ground, according to the University of Leicester. The manufacturer of the shield used wooden laths – thin, flat strips of wood used to form a base – to stiffen the structure. The shield also featured an edging rim made of wood, and a woven stud at the centre, called a boss, to protect the shield’s wooden handle.

“This is a lost technology,” Matt Beamish, the lead archaeologist from the University of Leicester Archaeological Service, told the Guardian. “It has not been seen before as far as we are aware, but presumably it is a technique that was used in many ways for making bark items,” he said.

Analysis showed that the shield was once coloured in red and decorated with a chequerboard pattern. The shield was “severely damaged” before it ended up in the watering hole, as noted in the University of York release. This damage was likely caused by spear tips, but the researchers aren’t entirely sure.

“The first time I saw the shield I was absolutely awed by it: the complex structure, the careful decorations, and the beautiful boss,” Rachel Crellin, a professor at the University of Leicester who assessed the shield, in the University of York statement.

The finished experimental bark shield. Image: ULAS

Initially, the archaeologists figured the thin bark shield was too flimsy and impractical for use as a defensive weapon, and that it might have instead served a ceremonial purpose. To assess its functionality, the researchers engaged in some experimental archaeology. Using materials sourced from the area where the shield was found and a simple tool kit, they reconstructed the shield from scratch. This exercise offered important insights into how the shield was created – and possibly how the design may have inspired the more sophisticated metal shields that followed.

“The shape of the finished items is fascinating, with differential shrinkage of the wood components causing the shields to curve as they dried. When viewed from the front the rectangular shields appear ‘waisted’ or hour-glass shaped,” according to the University of Leicester. “This may be of some significance, as some metal shields from the period, such as the Battersea Shield in the British Museum, are similar and may be copying the design.”

Tests of the experimental shield showed that it was light, but durable.

“It was only through experimentation that we realised it could be tough enough to protect against blows from metal weapons,” according to Bamforth. “Although a bark shield is not as strong as one made from wood or metal, it would be much lighter allowing the user much more freedom of movement.”

The University of Leicester has donated the shield to the British Museum, and it is scheduled to go on display in 2020.

Featured Image: Mike Bamforth/ULAS