Dimensions of Continental and Scandinavian shield-bosses

While swords, their dimensions and anatomical principles are given a great deal of attention by academics and swordsmen, the same cannot be said of shields that stand in seclusion, which is surprising mainly because they were originally no less important parts of the equipment. As stated in the article “Lesser Known Aspects of the Viking Shield“, the production required tens of hours of preparation of quality basic raw materials and the procedures were chosen with the highest regard for subsequent use.

In the text below, we present a set of more than 55 shield-bosses of the 9th-11th century. The aim is not to bring quantity, but to indicate typical dimensions by means of random specimens, which can help the users and producers of these widely spread objects of Viking Age reenactment. A secondary goal is to collect finds from Haithabu, Birka and Gnězdovo, popular sites among the reenactors. In addition to the place of origin, we will be interested in the typological classification (R562, R563, R564, R565, standing outside Rygh’s typology), height, diameter with and without the flange and thickness. Geographically, we will stick to Scandinavia and the Continent. As some bosses from British Isles follow their own line of development, the following conclusions do not apply on them.

If you are a reenactor or manufacturer, you can skip to final implications and notes for reenactors.

Chronology and typology of Scandinavian shield bosses. Hjardar – Vike 2011: 185.


Selection catalog

Germany

Haithabu, chamber grave I
Typology: R564.
Total height: 8 cm.
Diameter with flange: 16 cm.
Diameter without flange: 11.3 cm.
Thickness: 0.3-0.4 cm (flange).
Literature: Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: 94.

Haithabu, chamber grave I, Arents 1992b: Taf. 93.3; Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: Taf. 32.3.

Haithabu, chamber grave V
Typology: R564.
Total height: 7.1 cm.
Diameter with flange: 15 cm.
Diameter without flange: 11.3 cm.
Thickness: 0.3-0.45 cm (flange).
Literature: Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: 101.

Haithabu, chamber grave V, Arents 1992b: Taf. 96.1; Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: Taf. 37.4.

Haithabu, chamber grave VI
Typology: R564.
Total height: 6.8 cm.
Diameter with flange: 14.5 cm.
Diameter without flange: 10.9 cm.
Thickness: 0.3 cm (flange).
Literature: Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: 103.

Haithabu, chamber grave VI, Arents 1992b: Taf. 97.1; Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: Taf. 38.1.

Haithabu, chamber grave VII
Typology: R564.
Total height: 8.2 cm.
Diameter with flange: 13 cm.
Diameter without flange: 10.6 cm.
Thickness: 0.4 cm (flange).
Literature: 
Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: 104.

Haithabu, chamber grave VII, Arents 1992b: Taf. 98.1; Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: Taf. 39.1.

Haithabu, chamber grave VIII
Typology: R564.
Total height: 8.3 cm.
Diameter with flange: 16.1 cm.
Diameter without flange: 11.8 cm.
Thickness: 0.4 cm (flange).
Literature: 
Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: 106.

Haithabu, chamber grave VIII, Arents 1992b: Taf. 99.2; Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: Taf. 40.2.

Haithabu, chamber grave X
Typology: R562.
Total height: 5.2 cm.
Diameter with flange: 12.3 cm.
Diameter without flange: 9.5 cm.
Thickness: 0.4 cm (flange).
Literature: 
Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: 108.

Haithabu, chamber grave X, Arents 1992b: Taf. 100; Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: Taf. 42.1.

Haithabu, boat chamber grave 
Typology: R564.
Total height: 5.2-5.7 cm.
Diameter with flange: 14 cm.
Diameter without flange: 11 cm.
Literature: 
Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: 114; Müller-Wille 1976: 50.

Haithabu, boat chamber grave, Müller-Wille 1976: Abb. 24.1-3.

Haithabu, boat chamber grave
Typology: R564.
Total height: 6.5-7 cm.
Diameter with flange: 13.5 cm.
Diameter without flange: 9.5 cm.
Literature: 
Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: 114; Müller-Wille 1976: 50.


Haithabu, boat chamber grave, Müller-Wille 1976: Abb. 24.4-6.

Haithabu, boat chamber grave
Typology: R564.
Total height: 7.3-8.6 cm.
Diameter with flange: 14.9-15 cm.
Diameter without flange: 11-12 cm.
Literature: 
Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: 117; Müller-Wille 1976: 78-9.


Haithabu, boat chamber grave, Müller-Wille 1976: Abb. 35.1-3.

Haithabu, boat chamber grave
Typology: R564.
Total height: 7.5 cm.
Diameter with flange: 15.3-16.3 cm.
Diameter without flange: 11.7-12.7 cm.
Literature: 
Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: 117; Müller-Wille 1976: 78-9.


Haithabu, boat chamber grave, Müller-Wille 1976: Abb. 35.4-6.

Oldenburg
Typology: R565.
Total height: 6.4 cm.
Diameter with flange: 15.3 cm.
Literature: 
Kempke 1991: 40; Rudziński 2009: 66.


Oldenburg, Kempke 1991: Abb. 22.

Arkona
Typology: R564.
Total height: 6.4 cm.
Diameter with flange: 13.6 cm.
Literature: Berlekamp 1974: 239; Rudziński 2009: 66.


Arkona, Berlekamp 1974: Abb. 23b.

Arkona
Typology: R564.
Total height: 5.6 cm.
Diameter with flange: 13.2 cm.
Literature: Berlekamp 1974: 239; Rudziński 2009: 66.


Arkona, Berlekamp 1974: Abb. 23d.

Raelswiek
Total height: 5 cm.
Diameter with flange: 11 cm.
Literature: Herrmann 1985: Abb. 143b; Rudziński 2009: 66.


Raelswiek, Herrmann 1985: Abb. 143b; Herrmann 2005: Abb. 171w.


Russia and Ukraine

Ščukovščina
Typology: R565 / Kirpičnikov II.
Total height: 7.8 cm.
Diameter with flange: 15.6 cm.
Literature: Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 1; Rudziński 2009: 67.

Zaozerje
Typology: R565 / Kirpičnikov II.
Total height: 8.5 cm.
Diameter with flange: 17.5 cm.
Literature: Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 4; Rudziński 2009: 67.

Staraja Ladoga
Typology: R562 / Kirpičnikov I.
Diameter with flange: 15 cm.
Literature: Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 5; Rudziński 2009: 67.

Gnězdovo
Typology: R562 / Kirpičnikov I.
Total height: 6.2 cm.
Diameter with flange: 14.5 cm.
Literature: Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 8; Rudziński 2009: 67.

Gnězdovo
Typology: R562 / Kirpičnikov I.
Total height: 7.3 cm.
Diameter with flange: 16 cm.
Literature: Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 9; Rudziński 2009: 67.

Gnězdovo
Typology: R562 / Kirpičnikov I.
Total height: 6.5 cm.
Diameter with flange: 14.7 cm.
Literature: Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 10; Rudziński 2009: 67.

Gnězdovo
Typology: R562 / Kirpičnikov I.
Total height: 8 cm.
Diameter with flange: 15.3 cm.
Literature: Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 11; Rudziński 2009: 67.

Gnězdovo
Typology: R562 / Kirpičnikov I.
Total height: 7 cm.
Diameter with flange: 15 cm.
Literature: Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 12; Rudziński 2009: 67.

Gnězdovo
Typology: R562 / Kirpičnikov I.
Total height: 7 cm.
Diameter with flange: 16 cm.
Literature: Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 13; Rudziński 2009: 67.

Gnězdovo
Typology: R562 / Kirpičnikov I.
Total height: 7 cm.
Diameter with flange: 13.7 cm.
Literature: Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 14; Rudziński 2009: 67.

Gnězdovo
Typology: R562 / Kirpičnikov I.
Diameter with flange: 14.5 cm.
Literature: Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 15; Rudziński 2009: 67.

Gnězdovo, Kainov 2019: Рис. 75.

Šestovica
Typology: R562 / Kirpičnikov I.
Total height: 6-6.5 cm.
Diameter with flange: 13-13.2 cm.
Diameter without flange: 11 cm.
Literature: Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: Fig. 191; Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 18; Rudziński 2009: 68.


Šestovica, Blifeld 1952: Рис. 6.

Kyiv
Typology: R562 / Kirpičnikov I.
Total height: 6 cm.
Diameter with flange: 14 cm.
Diameter without flange: 12 cm.
Literature: 
Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: 81.

Kyiv, Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: Fig. 46.


Sweden

Birka, Bj 581
Typology: R562.
Total height: 6 cm.
Diameter with flange: 13.5 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 189.

Birka, Bj 581
Typology: R562.
Total height: 6 cm.
Diameter with flange: 15.5 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 189.

Birka, Bj 628
Typology: R564.
Total height: 5.5 cm.
Diameter with flange: 16 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 208-9.

Birka, Bj 628
Typology: R564.
Diameter with flange: 14.8 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 208-9.

Birka, Bj 798
Typology: R564.
Total height: 8 cm.
Diameter with flange: 15.5 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 289.

Birka, Bj 798
Typology: R564.
Total height: 10 cm.
Diameter with flange: 17 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 289.

Birka, Bj 644
Typology: R563.
Total height: 6 cm.
Diameter with flange: 15.5 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 224.

Birka, Bj 914
Typology: R563.
Diameter with flange: 12-13 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 357.

Birka, Bj 944
Typology: R563.
Diameter with flange: 13.5 × 15 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 368.

Birka, Bj 955
Typology: R562.
Diameter with flange: 15.5 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 379.

Birka, Bj 958
Typology: R562.
Diameter with flange: 14.5 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 383.

Birka, Bj 985
Typology: R563.
Total height: 5 cm.
Diameter with flange: 14.8 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 411.

Birka, Bj 1035
Typology: R565.
Total height: 6.2 cm.
Diameter with flange: 14 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 432.

Birka, Bj 1098
Typology: R564.
Total height: 8.8 cm.
Diameter with flange: 15.5 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 458.

Birka, without grave number
Typology: R565.
Total height: 6.5 cm.
Diameter with flange: 15 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1943: 432.

Birka, Arbman 1940: Taf. 16-18.

Tuna, Alsike, grave VI
Typology: R564.
Total height: 6 cm.
Diameter with flange: 16.3 cm.
Literature: 
Arne 1934: 32.


Tuna, Alsike, grave VI, Arne 1934: Taf. X.3.

Tuna, Alsike, grave XII
Typology: R562.
Total height: 6 cm.
Diameter with flange: 13.2 × 13.8 cm.
Literature: 
Arne 1934: 44.


Tuna, Alsike, grave XII, Arne 1934: Taf. XIX.2.

Vendel, grave II
Typology: R564.
Total height: 7
.5 cm.
Diameter with flange: 
15.25 cm.
Literature: 
Stolpe 1927: 18-19.

Shield components from the mound Vendel II. Stolpe 1927: Pl. XI.


Norway

Gjermundbu
Typology: R562.
Diameter with flange: 13.7 cm.
Literature: 
Grieg 1947: 19-22.

Gjermudbu, catalog UNIMUS.

Kolkjøn
Total height: 
5.7 cm.
Diameter with flange: 15.1 cm.
Literature: catalog UNIMUS.


The boss from Kolkjøn (C19723). Catalog UNIMUS.

Skjefte
Typology: R564.
Total height: 
8 cm.
Diameter with flange: 15.3 cm.
Literature: catalog UNIMUS.


The boss from Skjefte (C13976). Catalog UNIMUS.

Kyrkhus
Typology: R562.
Diameter with flange: 14.2 cm.
Diameter without flange: 10.2 cm.
Literature: catalog UNIMUS.

The boss from Kyrkhus (S2584). Catalog UNIMUS.

Bjoraa
Typology: R565.
Diameter with flange: 15.4 cm.
Literature: catalog UNIMUS.

The boss from Bjoraa (C27132). Catalog UNIMUS.


Latvia

Tira bog
Diameter with flange: 13.1 cm.
Diameter without flange: 10.5 cm.
Literature: 
Urtans 1961: 222; Warming et al. 2020: 171-2.

Tira bog, Kiulkys 2010: 2 pav.


France

L’Ile de Groix
Total height: 9 cm.
Diameter with flange and lobes: 17.37 cm.
Diameter without flange: 12.8 – 13.3 cm.
Thickness: 0.7 cm (dome), 0.5 cm (flange).
Literature: 
Arbman – Nilsson 1969: 181-2; Du Chatellier – Le Pontois 1908: 22-3; Müller-Wille 1978: 53.


L’Ile de Groix, Du Chatellier – Le Pontois 1908: Fig. 6; Müller-Wille 1978: Abb. 4.6.

L’Ile de Groix
Total height: 9.8 cm.
Diameter with flange and lobes: 17.5 cm.
Diameter without flange: 14.5 cm.
Thickness: 0.6-0.7 cm.
Literature: 
Arbman – Nilsson 1969: 180-1; Du Chatellier – Le Pontois 1908: 24; Müller-Wille 1978: 53.


L’Ile de Groix, Du Chatellier – Le Pontois 1908: Fig. 7; Müller-Wille 1978: Abb. 4.1.

L’Ile de Groix
Diameter with flange and lobes: 17-17.5 cm.
Diameter without flange: 13-13.5 cm.
Thickness: 0.4 cm.
Literature: Arbman – Nilsson 1969: 183; Du Chatellier – Le Pontois 1908: 24; Müller-Wille 1978: 53.


L’Ile de Groix, Du Chatellier – Le Pontois 1908: Fig. 10; Müller-Wille 1978: Abb. 4.5.


Great Britain

Cumwhitton, grave 4
Typology: R562.
Total height: 7.5 cm.
Diameter with flange: 14.5 cm.
Diameter without flange: 11.7 cm.
Literature: 
Paterson et al. 2014: 97-9.


Cumwhitton, grave 4, Paterson et al. 2014: Fig. 77.

Ballateare
Diameter with flange: 15.4 cm.
Literature: 
Bersu – Wilson 1966: 59.


Shield remains from Ballateare. Bersu – Wilson 1966: Fig. 36; Hjardar – Vike 2011: 187.


Denmark

Rends
Typology: R562.
Diameter with flange: 16.5 cm.
Literature: 
Brøndsted 1936: 122-3; Pedersen 2014a: 100-1; Pedersen 2014b: 98-99, Pl. 44.


Shield remains from Rends. Pedersen 2014b: Pl. 44.


Implications and notes for reenactors

The first remark that must necessarily be made concerns distribution. In Scandinavia alone, we know thousands of bosses – by 1927, 3410 pieces were known in Norway (Grieg 1947: 20-1), ie about twice as many as swords (Petersen 1919: 6). If the number of bosses remained double the number of swords to this day, the Norwegian material would number about 7000-8000 pieces. In any case, the number of bosses is higher than the number of swords, which is possible not only due to combination with other weapons, but also the accumulation of bosses in some monumental graves – for example, the ship grave from Gokstad contained the remains of 64 shields and the ship from Myklebostad contained 58 bosses (Grieg 1947: 19, 21). In the context of Central and Eastern Europe, it should be emphasized that metal bosses are unusual finds that can in almost all cases be directly linked to the Scandinavian or Frankish cultural circle (Rudziński 2009). The Slavic shields most probably did not have metal bosses.

While modern bosses are often pressed from sheet metal of homogeneous thickness and quality, Rolf Warming’s experiment from 2019 showed that about 40 kg of bog iron ore is needed to produce the boss and nails. By smelting the ore, a bloom weighing 4.5 kg was obtained, from which an ingot weighing 1.5 kg was got after forging. It is therefore not surprising that there are also wooden alternatives that are significantly less demanding to produce. The small dimensions of the original bosses indicate not only a possible effort to minimize production costs, but above all an effort to achieve the lightest possible product: the R564 boss from an unknown Oppland site (T20534) weighs 0.3111 kg in a damaged condition, the R562 boss from the same site 0.2776 kg, the remains of the R562 boss from the Drognes Nedre site (C60102) weigh 0.3326 kg (catalog UNIMUS). The weight was distributed unevenly so that the greatest thickness of the boss was located at the top of the dome, from where it thinned towards the flange (Bäckheden 2006: 10). This effect was related to the production process and was of practical importance – the mass concentration at the absolute center of the shield in the boss area increases the controllability of the entire shield. The mentioned examples indicate a common thickness of about 0.3-0.4 cm at the flange and 0.6-0.7 cm at the dome, although some are thinner (Kainov 2019: 205). Such a thickness, as well as the reinforcing plate around the neck of the boss from the chamber grave I in Haithabu, clearly testifies to the deliberate use of the bosses against hits.


Production of R564 type boss. Society for Combat Archeology.

In general, Early Medieval bosses do not exceed a diameter of 21.5 cm (including the flange); the largest specimen we know is the find from Millhill (21.4 cm; Harrison 2000: 68), with the entire 10 cm width of this specimen forming a flange. The largest Continental boss is the find from L’Ile de Groix (19 cm, Arbman – Nilsson 1969: 184). However, the bosses rarely reach these dimensions. Martin Jonsson collected over 40 Scandinavian R565 type bosses with measurable dimensions: the total diameter varies between 12-17.8 cm and the height between 5.5-9.1 cm (Jonsson 2011: 12-136). The author gives interesting comparisons of averages and medians for individual types – R565: average 14.1 cm, median 13.9 cm, R564: average 14.7 cm, median 14.8 cm, R562: average 14.4 cm, median 14.6 cm. Kainov’s conclusions regarding R562 type bosses from Gnězdovo point to a similar number (diameter 13.5-15.5 cm, height 5.5-7 cm; Kainov 2019: 205). Jonsson’s observation can be confirmed: 19 R564 type bosses mentioned above reach an average diameter of 14.99 cm, while the 21 R562 type bosses have the average of 14.53 cm. Therefore, necked bosses which are based on Merovingian models and often cannot be fully distinguished from them (Hübener 1989) seem to achieve larger diameters than neckless bosses, which must be related to their production process. A number of necked bosses (R562 and R564) and some R565 specimens have a flange that is suitable for placement on a convex shield. Subsequent research must focus on this phenomenon.

Differences in the size of the bosses point the idea that they were tailored to the wearer’s specific hand and their reconstructions should be approached in the same way. This theory is also supported by the fact that the bosses are sometimes oval, as shown by finds from Raelswiek or the grave Bj 944 in Birka, which rather copy the shape of a clenched fist. The hole of the shield found in Trelleborg also has an oval shape measuring 9.1 × 10.5 cm (personal discussion with Rolf Warming). While the edges of the opening of the Trelleborg shield were coarse, the holes of Gokstad shields were ground off from practical reasons (personal discussion with Rolf Warming). An interesting and as yet unemphasized aspect of the shields that must be further investigated is the number of rivets holding the boss – in the case of an even number the rivets (the handle is attached by two opposite rivets), the hole can be bisected symmetrically, while in the odd number rivets points to the handle that always was placed asymmetrically. With an odd number of rivets and an asymmetrically placed handle, it is likely that the shield can be gripped in just one way, not by two as in the case of a symmetrically placed handle. A cursory glance at the material from Scandinavia and Old Rus seems to show that even number of rivets dominated in these regions. From the above, it can be seen that there is no ratio between the diameter of the overall shield and the diameter of the boss, because the size of the shield depends on human height (about half the height of the wearer ± 6 cm), while the boss diameter depends on the width of the palm.

The inner space of the Continental and Scandinavian bosses we collected reaches dimensions of 9.5-15 cm, most commonly around 10.5-11.5 cm, while the flange is usually about 2 cm wide. It follows that the handles of the shields were on average longer than the sword grips, which most often range between 8.5-9.5 cm, 9-10 cm respectively (Androshchuk 2014: 105; Hošek – Košta – Žákovský 2021: Fig. 79). The depth of the bosses is such that it takes into account the height of the clenched fist and especially the R564 type offers a significant spare space. However, it does not seem likely that users would wear gloves on their shield hands – the goal was to have perfect control over the light shield and use fine motor skills. To achieve the maximum possible performance, it is essential that the hole in the shield board encloses the clenched palm as tightly as possible. Based on experiments and everyday practise, we recommend bosses with inner dome diameter about 2 cm larger than the user’s palm width.

Shield bosses of different sizes compared to a 9.5 cm wide palm. The smallest boss (left, inner diameter of the dome 11.5 cm) proves to be the most practical, the middle boss (diameter 12.5 cm) is still usable, the largest boss (right, diameter 13.5 cm) is not suitable.

Visually correct bosses, corresponding to the historical average.
Production: Society for Combat ArchaeologyAuthentic Viking ShieldsKim HjardarPeter Kocúr.


Visually oversized bosses.
Production: WulflundMedievalUALarpMedievalMI2MedievalWorkshop.


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