Shield - Prehistory and Antiquity

Prehistory and Antiquity

The oldest form of shield was a protection device designed to block attacks by hand weapons, such as swords, axes and maces, or ranged weapon sling-stones and arrows. Shields have varied greatly in construction over time and place. Sometimes shields were made of metal, but wood or animal hide construction was much more common; wicker and even turtle shells have been used. Many surviving examples of metal shields are generally felt to be ceremonial rather than practical, for example the Yetholm-type shields of the Bronze Age or the Iron Age Battersea shield. The shield was used to make the Greek Phalanx formation.

Size and weight varied greatly. Lightly armored warriors relying on speed and surprise would generally carry light shields (pelte) that were either small or thin. Heavy troops might be equipped with robust shields that could cover most of the body. Many had a strap called a guige that allowed it to be slung over the user's back when not in use or on horseback. During the 14th-13th century BC, the Sards or Shardana, working as mercenaries for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, utilized either large or small round shields against the Hittites. The Mycenaean Greeks used two types of shields: the "figure eight" or "fiddle" shield, and a rectangular type, the "tower" shield, curved on the top. They were made of wood and leather, and were of such a large size that a warrior could hide completely behind his shield. The Ancient Greek hoplites used a round, bowl-shaped wooden shield called an aspis. Examples of Germanic wooden shields c350 BC - 500 AD survive from weapons sacrifices in Danish bogs.

The heavily armored Roman legionaries carried large shields (scuta) that could provide far more protection, but made swift movement a little more difficult. The scutum originally had an oval shape, but gradually the curved tops and sides were cut to produce the familiar rectangular shape most commonly seen in the early Imperial legions. Famously, the Romans used their shields to create a tortoise-like formation called a testudo in which entire groups of soldiers would be enclosed in an armoured box to provide protection against missiles. Many ancient shield designs featured incuts of one sort of another. This was done to accommodate the shaft of a spear, thus facilitating tactics requiring the soldiers to stand close together forming a wall of shields.

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