Recently, archeologists unearthed an unexpected tool at an iron-age excavation site. They found one of the sturdiest of their wartime implements–a shield–that had been made from tree bark, one of the more fragile materials available. While archeologists knew that bark had been used by iron-age humans for other things, these uses were typically for items like bowls or boxes. Learning that humans had used tree bark for something that was supposed to protect their warriors in battle was a jaw-dropping development.

About the rare shield

The shield was found in 2015 in a dig southwest of the city of Leister, near the town of Enderby. It was located in the bottom of what was once a watering hole used by both Roman and Iron Age people. According to radiocarbon dating, it was made between the years of 295 and 355 B.C., placing it firmly within the Iron Age time period. In examining it, archeologists measured it at 26.3 inches long by 14.5 inches wide. As part of the excavation, the team found that it was severely damaged and broken in half before being thrown to the bottom of the watering hole. They’re not entirely sure why it was damaged, but they suspect that it was either battle-scarred or that it was broken in half and thrown into the hole as part of the community’s ritual.

The site where the shield was found was a fairly well-known location for Iron Age archeology, so why is this the first example of a shield of this kind?  Possibly because bark isn’t necessarily a long-lasting material. It decomposes easily so that, if there were similar shields that were buried on sites, there’s just not enough left of them to recognize they were there. The rarity of a find that was made by such delicate material makes it even more exciting.

How can bark be made to withstand battle?

Archeologists suspect that the shield was made with one of five possible types of bark: alder, willow, poplar, hazel, or spindle. To ensure the fragile bark would stand up in battle it was heartily reinforced by strips of other wood from fruit trees and featured a woven boss that protected the handle and a wooden frame that reinforced the outer edges. The outside of the shield was painted in a checkerboard pattern.

While bark wouldn’t be anyone’s first guess of something that would make good material for a battle shield, upon further consideration, the benefits of using bark become apparent. While it may not be as sturdy as wood or metal, it certainly is lighter. Also, when used the right way, the material can be firmed-up enough to be able to withstand impacts from weaponry during an attack.

Reconstructing the shield reveals more secrets

While it is possible to envision the shield was strong enough to withstand battle, archeologists also wondered if a real-world application could hold up to what they imagined or if the shield could only serve at ceremonial events. To test out what the shield was capable of, they reconstructed a similar shield from scratch and using materials from the area.

The reconstruction taught them a lot. One of the most dramatic things they noticed was that the wood shrunk once the shield was constructed, it shrunk as it dried. This caused it to curve into almost an hourglass shape which reminded experts of the appearance of metal shields from later centuries. Scientists wondered if this kind of shield was the precursor of the later models.

Just as importantly, however, was the fact that they confirmed the strength, and durability, of the lighter, bark-made shield. It seemed as if the shield could, as light as it was, protect a warrior by standing up to blows from spears and swords. It was an exciting find that, it appears, was likely to have served its time on a battlefield.