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Defining Slavic shields of 9th-11th century

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The following text, which is dedicated to all reenactors, academics and those interested in history, is focused on a topic that repeatedly emerges over time – the shape, construction and materials of Slavic shields in the 9th-11th century. Our intention is to collect all types of sources and provide an updated evaluation of how the Slavic shield can be defined. We will bring new testimonies that have accumulated over the last 10 years due to detailed focus and international cooperation.

If you are a reenactor, you can skip to the final chapters.


Research to date

Slavic shields have been the subject of interest for researchers in the past, while it is true that we have registered an increased interest beyond the scope of one short chapter in a comprehensive monograph only in the last twenty years. The most prominent bastions of research on early medieval shields are those countries that have many military objects and have a long tradition of their study and high-quality reconstruction. Belarus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Russia and Ukraine are naturally included in the list. As a rule, research takes place at national levels and there is minimal mutual interaction, which makes it difficult to create general judgments. As far as we know, none of the previous works on Slavic shields have been translated into English.

Czechoslovak works on Slavic shields are among the oldest. We must mention Niederle (1925: 146–147, 512–523, 581–587), who notes the rarity of metal elements and the general organic nature of wood, reed and bast. Červinka (1928: 218-9) makes a short note about the existence of Slavic shields. The first synthesis of archaeological finds from Staré Město and written sources was presented by Kudrnáč (1948: 95-6), which was subsequently elaborated by Hrubý (1955: 181-2) in a chapter that influenced subsequent generations (e.g. Choc 1967: 174-5) and which comments on the approximate size, appearance and material composition of Great Moravian shields. Lutovský (2001: 324) takes into account the depiction from Libušín in the encyclopedic entry and leans towards the organic nature of the shields. The reenactors Bernart (2010: 82-104) and Luňák (2007) brought a new direction to the problem, who in their university theses carried out an important revision of the West Slavic material. Luňák’s work is probably the most significant summary of all theoretical starting points for construction, material and appearance, and also offers an experimental reconstruction. For the sake of completeness, let’s mention Vencl’s extraordinary book (1984), which deals with the issue of recognizing organic military objects in archaeological material and the study of what was not found as a whole.

In Poland, the study of medieval weapons and armour, including shields, was significantly associated with the works of Nadolski, who coincides in the absence of metal elements and the organic structure of shields (Nadolski 1954: 75-6). Żygulski (1982: 41-2) commented on the topic shortly, and Niesiołowska-Wędzka (1977) also summed up encyclopedically. Hensel’s chapter on shields offers an unprecedented international comparison of Slavic finds (Hensel 1987: 300-303). Interesting shield components were discovered by Łosiński (1966; 2000) during his excavations. Strzyż’s contribution to the discussion mainly concerns the analysis of coins depicting shields of the 11th-12th century (Strzyż 2006: 101-2). Wrzesiński offered an article that deals purely with shield-bearers and the presence of shields in grave goods, concluding that the shields must have been organic in nature (Wrzesiński 2007). An important work that attempts to map the entire Slavic terrain with an inventory of metal bosses is Rudziński (2009). The most recent and extensive summary is offered by Górewicz (2020: 391-442). Shields found on the territory of the Slavic part of Germany are associated with the names of researchers Babij (2021: 126), Berlekamp (1974: 239), Herrmann (1985: Abb. 143b; 1998: Abb. 126e; 2005: Abb. 171-2), Kempke (1991: 40), Kennecke (2015: 91–2), Müller (Müller – Müller-Muči 1999: 25-6), Neugebauer (1964: 229-230), Roskoschinski (2019), Ruchhöft (2018: 115-7) and Schuldt (1985: 171-2 ).

Regarding the countries of the former Soviet Union, the most seminal and still widely cited work comes from the pen of Kirpičnikov and offers a revision of the Old Rus material with a remarkable inventory of metal bosses (Kirpičnikov 1971). This initiative in Russia was well followed up by Kainov with his analysis of the arms and armour from Gnězdovo (Kainov 2019). In Belarus, a similar revision was published by Plavinski in his university thesis and its reworked book form (Plavinski 2010; 2013). In Ukraine, Androschuk (Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: 81) and Papakin (2023: 120-1, 134-5, 138-140) dealt with shields. Due to the presence of metal bosses, shields in these countries are commonly depicted and described with these metal accessories.

A hypothetical reconstruction of a fully organic shield to date. Author: Luňák 2007: 89-90.


Written sources

Written sources belong to strongly biased sources, which in the early Middle Ages quote a lot from older templates, usually classical one. Therefore, these sources should be approached with great caution. Most of the early written references to Slavic shields were collected by Bernart (2010: 84-88) and Luňák (2007: 78-83), who only omitted a passage from Christian’s Legend (4). The sources can be divided into local, Frankish, Byzantine, Arabic and Persian.

The picture we can make of these sources is quite complete and forms a good springboard for the next chapters. Shields are listed as a common part of war gear, appearing in large numbers as well. They are described as locally produced, not imported. Arabic and Persian authors state that horses are the prerogative of the elite, indirectly implying that common shield users practiced combat on foot. However, mounted units with shields are explicitly listed elsewhere. Shields are usually used in combination with spears and one or two javelins, less often with swords. They become spoils of war, which shows their worth. The number and quality of shields are used to measure the strength of armies.

Shape and construction are usually not commented on. In one case, a non-circular shape is mentioned (Leo VI the Wise: Tactica 107; MMFH III 1969: 362). An important and oft-cited report is Ibn Jákúb’s assessment of the Prague shields as “not very durable“, indicating a weak construction (MMFH III 1969: 413). Painted decoration is indicated in at least three cases. For the sake of completeness, let us add that Pseudo-Maurice (Strategikon XI:5) writes about Slavic shields that they are “difficult to transport” in the 6th century (Havlík 1987: 43).

Hypothetical reconstruction of a bossless shield. Author: Pracownia Projektów Historycznych.


Toponomastics

A surprising extension of the above is offered by toponomastics, i.e. the study of place names. In essence, the point is that the so-called service villages in the early and high Middle Ages were expected to regularly deliver a certain number of goods and services to the lords, which is still reflected in their names today. Toponomastic records of service villages producing shields are not numerous, but they are known, e.g. Štítary in Moravia (Krzemieńska – Třeštík 1965: 653) or Szczytniki in Poland (Nadolski 1954: 75). Not only does this fact confirm local production, but it also indicates its seriality, even outside big town. Krzemieńska and Třeštík (1965: 654) comment on these findings that “shields could be made at home, no special knowledge was needed for this, therefore it was possible to demand them even from servants“. The theory of service villages has received criticism though (Klápště 2005: 299-301). As Kudrnáč (1948: 95) reminds us, shield makers are called artifices scutelarum, bukularii or scutarii in documents written in Latin.


Archaeological material

Archaeological finds are a unique and irreplaceable source of information, which approximates the construction details of the shields. The problem that accompanies the study of Slavic shields from the very beginning and that provokes discussions and conjectures is the difficulty of capturing these military objects in grave and settlement contexts. More than 15 years ago, Petr Luňák (2007: 20–22) formulated the following reasons why shields may be missing in grave situations:

  • The shields were made only of organic materials and were subject to decay quickly.
  • It was not customary to place shields in graves.
  • The shields did not fit in the graves.
  • Shields were destroyed during funeral rites.
  • Shields were used rarely or not at all.
  • The remains of shields were not recognized in the grave goods or were misinterpreted.

We can compare these assumptions with more recent facts, which we will present in the form of five stations.


Station one: the rarity of metal bosses

It is a well-known fact that in all territories inhabited by Slavic tribes and peoples, metal bosses are unusual and rare. As a rule, metal bosses are found in those regions that often interacted with Germanic peoples, Scandinavians and Franks. In 9th-11th century, booses appears to be an indicator of imported shields of Frankish or Scandinavian provenance.

In the Czech Republic, four bosses are known in connection with Slavic shields, and all of them are accompanied by problems of interpretation. The boss from Vlastislav (Váňa 1968: 148) has a diameter of 5 cm and a height of 1.8 cm, so it is obviously not a full-sized central boss, at most a shield application (Luňák 2007: 51–2). The boss from the Pohansko hillfort near Nejdek is preserved only fragmentarily, and its preserved shape indicates that the dome was slightly pointed and without a neck and a wide brim (Novotný 1963: 7, 10). This shape is typical for significantly older bosses. Rudziński (2009: 67) dates it to the 6th-7th century, which is not completely impossible, but we do not find identical shapes in the typologies for these centuries (Hübener 1989; Kiulkys 2010: 70; Pihlman 1990: 148). The closest form is published by Kiulkys (2010: 70) for the 5th century. The third boss is a find from Brodek – Žeravice near Přerov, which has a diameter of 20-23 cm, a large rounded dome and a narrow brim (Baarová et al. 2006: 241). The size and shape of the boss make it a good candidate for the remains of a high medieval buckler (see Hložek – Ławrynowicz 2020: 193-4). A boss from an unknown location, which is stored in the Military Historical Institute Prague, can be evaluated in a similar way (Luňák 2007: 67). From the period 9th-11th century, we do not know of a single proven full-sized shield boss from the Czech Republic. Luňák (2007: 54-5) expressed the idea that some “Silesian bowls” could have served as bosses, which does not seem likely in the light of the new revision (Kieseler 2017).

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

So far, the only early boss from the territory of Slovakia has been published, which comes from Nitra. It comes from a poorly documented and today imperfectly located burial site that also yielded a sword, a winged spear, an arrowhead, a clay vessel, a bronze strap belt and glass beads (Kasparek 1956). The material culture of this burial site is assessed as Frankish. The current academia is inclined to the opinion that the burial site is pre-Great Moravian, assignable to the 8th century (Bednár – Ruttkay 2014: 230; Fusek 1998: 88; Ruttkay 1976: 337). The appearance of the boss is known from a single schematic drawing; as far as we can believe it, the boss was of medium height, pointed, and had a beveled brim. This shape could indeed correspond to Hübener’s types VII/VIII, datable to the 7th-8th century (Friedrich 2016: 114). Such dating is also confirmed by the newly published discovery of a shield from late Merovingian grave 71 from the Harheim site, classified in the first half of the 8th century (Freeden 2020: 36, 188-9, Taf. 43).

All metal bosses from the Slavic part of Germany come from the coastal area and can be assumed to be of Scandinavian origin. This is the case for all four Rygh type R564 bosses from Arkona (Berlekamp 1974: 239, Abb. 23; Ruchhöft 2018: 115), type R562 boss from the Giekau hillfort (Struve 1972: Abb. 6; Vogel 1972: 16), type R565 boss from Oldenburg (Kempke 1991: 40, Abb. 22) and three typologically unclassifiable bosses from Alt Lübeck (Neugebauer 1964: 229-230) and Ralswiek (Herrmann 1985: Abb. 143b; 2005: Abb. 171-2). The fragmentary boss from Schleswig dates from the 13th century at the earliest (Saggau 2000: 78-9). Two bosses (openworked and gilded) that are known from Berlin – Spandau (Müller – Müller-Muči 1999: 25-6, Abb. 4) belong to the 11th-12th century horizon and are miniature applications from kite shields, the closest parallels of which are known from the Finnish site of Nousiainen – Myllymäki (Kivikoski 1951: 39-40, Abb. 1100), the Swiss site of Füllinsdorf and the German Gammertingen-Baldenstein (Martin et al. 2013: 159-161).

The situation in neighboring Poland is identical, and we are aware of only one boss find. It is the boss from a seaside burial site in the Świelubie locality, specifically from grave 12/15/17 (Łosiński 2000: 73-4; Rudziński 2009: Fig. 5). The boss corresponds to Rygh type R564, so it is of Scandinavian origin. A boss from the early medieval hillfort of Sąsiadka is assessed as significantly older (Strzyż 2006: 101). 9th-11th century metal shield bosses are not even known from Belarus, Bosnia, Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia or Serbia (Belošević 1980: 98; Hanuliak 2004; Plavinski 2013: 74-5; Skrivanič 1957: 122-3). From Bulgaria, we know a single copper alloy boss of type R562 from the Silistra locality (Yotov 2016: 246, 249); a piece of boss from Preslav (Momčilov 2003: 303, 313) is actually the socket of a 12th-14th century helmet. Surprisingly few metal bosses are also known in the Baltic republics – Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. In Latvia, there are at least six bosses of types R564 and R565 (Bauskas Dreņgeru–Čunkānu 446; Daugmale; Doles Vampeniešu I 22 a 30; Salaspils Laukskola 315; Turaidas Pūteļi 31; see Atgāzis 2019: 160-2; Tomsons 2014; Tõnisson 1974: 113). At least seven bosses have been found in neighboring Estonia: R565 type boss from the Kuusalu site (Tvauri 2012: 202), R565 type boss from the Uugla site (personal communication with Indrek Jets), Maidla boss (Mandel 2017: 75), Rahu and Viltina bosses (Mägi 2002: 88), a boss from Lööne (Mägi 2018: 71, Fig. 2) and a boss fragment from an unknown locality on the island of Saaremaa (personal communication from Indrek Jets). No boss is known from Lithuania (see Kiulkys 2010). We know a total of 10 bosses from the Kaliningrad region, but they only come from a single locality, Wiskiauten (Dworschak 2018: 118; Mühlen 1975: 116), which is known for its Scandinavian character. We do not know of a single bosses from local Prussian graves (Gaerte 1929: 340; Kulakov 1990; Širouchov 2012). 9th-11th century bosses are not even known from Finland, where they were popular in the Merovingian period (Lehtosalo-Hilander 1982: 41).

Puklice from Gnězdovo, Russia. Source: Kainov 2019: Рис. 75.

In the area of Old Rus (today’s Russia and Ukraine) the number of metal bosses is the highest, which is due to the presence in elite graves with a strong Scandinavian component. Kirpičnikov (1971) names 19 metal bosses from Cimljansk, Černihiv, Gnězdovo, Kirilino, Kyjev, Ščukovščina, Sjaznega, Staraja Ladoga, Šestovica and Zaozerje sites. Kainov (2019: Табл. 14) revised the number of Gnězdovo bosses and found eight instead of Kirpičnikov’s nine. However, this number does not include the magnificent shield with a boss from mound Л-206, which was discovered in 2017 (Novikov 2017a; 2017b). Therefore, the current number of Gnězdovo bosses is really nine. In Kirpičnikov’s list, the boss from the chamber grave from Kyiv, discovered in 1989, is missing (Androšchuk – Zocenko 2012: 81). One more boss was found in mound 202 in the site of Zalachtovje (Chvoščinskaja 2004: Tabl. XL). Bosses from Kirilino, Sjaznega, Ščukovščina, Zalachtovje and Zaozerje belong to graves with Finnic material culture. The total number of bosses is therefore 21 pieces. In eighteen cases it is Rygh type R562, in the remaining three cases the bosses belong to Rygh type R565. This means that the main era of the importation and use of bosses falls in the 10th century and probably the beginning of the 11th century. Type R564, characteristic of the 9th century and the beginning of the 10th century, is absent in Rus.

For comparison, let’s state that the number of bosses in Norway can be roughly 7000-8000 pieces (Vlasatý 2021). In all Slavic countries, bosses are outnumbered by all types of weapons, including swords, which necessarily leads to the following conclusion: shield bosses made of metal are among the truly unusual items in Slavic countries, and it is very likely that ordinary shields did not use them at all, or used organic variants that were not preserved.

Distribution of full-sized shield bosses in the Slavic and Balto-Finnic territories in 9th-11th century.


Station two: the presence of edge clamps

In some graves, there are not metal bosses, but edge clamps of the Scandinavian type, which indicate the placement of the shield. This is a case of eight mounds of Gnězdovo, which contain one to three clamps, namely graves Ц-74 (Sizov 1896-97), Ц-74 (Sergeyev 1901), Дн-86 (Sergejev 1901), Л-7, Л-113, Ц-99, Ц-106 and Ц-265 (according to modern numbering) (Kainov 2019: Table 14). 15 or 16 iron clamps from the edge of the shield were also found in mound 1 in Michalovskoje, Volga Region in 1902, while this grave does not contain a metal boss (Smirnov 1963: 61; Zozulja 2007). The collection is also expanded by three remarkable finds from the Polish site of Świelubie (Łosiński 1966Rudziński 2009). Grave no. 3 contained four iron clamps, one clamp was found in grave 21 (Rudziński 2009: 46) and around ten clamps were found in grave 65 (Rudziński 2009: 48). No metal boss was found in any of these graves.

We know that separate clamps are also used in the case of Scandinavian shields as a repair or a way of effectively fixing the edge of the shield, but we have no way of proving that complete shields were deposited in the listed graves with one clamp. It is equally possible that only their destroyed torsos were placed in the graves. On the contrary, in the case of graves with a larger number of clamps, we can expect that the shields were placed in the grave in a complete state, which leads us to think that the bosses were either intentionally removed in case of burial, or the shields did not use metal bosses at all.

Distribution of edge shield clamps made of copper alloy (orange), iron (blue) or unknown material (black).


Station three: the shield from the Lenzen hillfort

One of the possible solutions for Slavic shields is the find from house no. 8 from the Slavic hillfort of Lenzen in Germany, which is interpreted as the remains of a shield (Kennecke 2015: 91–2; Vlasatý 2023b). The potential shield is not complete – it is a fragment of a slightly oval board measuring about 70 cm in diameter. The board is made of two-layer plywood, the layers of which have been glued together in such a way that the fibers are perpendicular to each other. Another exceptional feature is the unusually reinforced rim: an area approximately 10 cm from the very edge is filled with at least six concentric circles of square holes. In the concentric circles between the holes, there were placed strips of plaited bast, which were also sewn with bast. Roland Warzecha and Ingo Petri, who had the opportunity to examine the shield, are of the opinion that the woven material is grass, which was attached using willow bark. In the central part we also find six copper rivets with iron heads. The rivets are arranged in two triangles and two more square holes are placed nearby. It is believed that the rivets and holes were used to attach the handle. The metal boss is absent. The analysis noted traces of red paint on the front side. The dating points to settlement horizon 7, dated to the second half of the 11th century.

Shield of Lenzen. Source: Kennecke 2015: Abb. 63; Erik Panknin.

Unfinished reconstruction of the shield from Lenzen. Author: Roland Warzecha, Dimicator.

The construction, size, form of the rim, the arrangement of rivets and the application of colour really support an interpretation as a shield. Laminated construction is known from Roman times (Rostovtzeff et al. 1939: 456-7), but we do not record many finds from the early Middle Ages. The 10th century Song of Waltharius mentions three-layered and seven-layered shields (Dickinson – Härke 1992: 50). The only shield with a layered construction from the 10th century is a shield from a chamber grave from Kyiv, which had a metal boss and clamps (Borovskij et al. 1989). The last shield with a multi-layer construction is the two-layer kite shield from Trondheim, Norway, dated to 1075-1175 (Nordeide 1989: Fig. 29). It should be noted that “two-layered plywood is impossible to produce without very effective glue and powerful pressure tools” (Dickinson – Härke 1992: 50). The glue may have been hare glue, which is recommended by Theophilus in the 12th century for making shields (Theophilus I:17). The carved rim seems to be a local solution similar to the tanned leather bands, clamps and metal fittings we know from Scandinavian shields (Vlasatý 2023a; Warming et al. 2020). Luňák drew attention to a find from grave 1 of Kloubouky, Moravia made of braided willow rods, which he considered to be a hypothetical fragment of a shield (Luňák 2007: 30-1). The official interpretation understands the object as a piece of basket (Dostál 1966: 134, Tab. XX.2), but it is true that the knitting style of this find really resembles the edge of the shield from Lenzen. Rivets and holes in the central part of the Lenzen find indicate that the boss and handle may have been replaced by a strap system. The red colour used to paint the shield is known from shields of the Scandinavian type (see Vlasatý 2023a).

All in all, the shield using a wooden and wicker component is extremely similar to the shields mentioned by Ekkehard in 926 (the text itself was created in the 11th century). When the monastery of St. Gallen is threatened with a Hungarian invasion, Abbot Engilbert successfully convinces the brothers to defend the monastery, which Ekkehard comments with the words: “They make spikes, armour is made from rough textiles, slings are woven, shields are made from joined boards and wicker, sharpened clubs and maces are hardened in the furnaces” (Ekkehard IV: Fortune and Misfortune at Saint Gall 51). Bachrach (2014: 121, 145) understands the shields as “wicker shields with a heavy core of closely fitted wooden boards“, which well defines the shield from Lenzen, but at the same time he understands the listed equipment as training substitutes. However, the source does not say anything about training or exercise, it talks about preparing for war. Theoretically, we can agree with Werther when he considers weapons to be temporary (Werther 2013: 258).

Fragment of braided twigs from Klobouky. Source: Dostál 1966: Tab. XX.2.


Station four: shields from the Tira Bog

The second solution to the problem of Slavic shields is represented by paired shields from the Tira Bog from Latvia. This find has so far been published in a not very detailed manner and is still awaiting its evaluation (Atgāzis 2019: 158-9, 162; Urtāns 1961; 1962; Warming et al. 2020). The traditional source for the study of these shields is offered by Urtāns, who adds that the discovery of the shields and accompanying finds occurred in 1936 during peat mining. Urtāns states the following about the more complete shield: it has a circular shape with a diameter of 85.5 cm and is made of six fir planks 0.6 cm thick. Both sides of the shield are covered with leather covers, under which there is compressed grass. The covers were sewn to the edge and center of the shield. In the center of the shield there was a 13.1 x 10.5 cm wooden boss that covered a 11.5 cm hole in the board and was attached with 14 rivets. Weapon strikes are visible on both the board and the boss. The second shield is represented by a single conifer board measuring 68 × 11.8 × 1.4 cm. It can be assumed that the diameter of the shield was about 73 cm. There is a rectangular hole in the center of the board, apparently for attaching a handle. According to Urtāns, the shield was apparently convex and did not have a boss. The author dates the hoard using the accompanying artefacts (fibula, belt components, a bracelet, a drinking horn and a massive textile ensemble) to the 1st of the 9th century or to mid 9th century (Urtāns 1964: 50-1).

A more complete shield from the Tira Bog. Source: Atgāzis 2019: 158.

In 2020, a preliminary article was published that slightly modifies and supplements Urtāns’ observations (Warming et al. 2020). The entire hoard was apparently wrapped in a cloak (Warming et al. 2020: 171), which was found at this location (see Žeiere 2008). The more complete shield consisted of eight planks that were made of spruce (picea abies) or larch (larix), with a maximum measured diameter of 86.3 cm (Warming et al. 2020: 172). Both sides were covered with untanned, parchment-like cowhide that was treated with tar to repel moisture (Warming et al. 2020: 205). The hides were small in size, so both covers had to be sewn together from a total of four pieces and fixed to the board, which is the reason why the shield is equipped with a system of holes in the middle in the line of the boss (Warming et al. 2020: 169). Under the front leather covering there is a layer of grass or bast, which was an additional protection against damage (Warming et al. 2020: 165). There is a system of additional holes around the rim, but it is uncertain at this time how the rim was handled. The boss is made of knot of birch wood (Warming et al. 2020: 172). The work does not comment on the presence of nails, however, in a private discussion, the author is of the opinion that the shield did not have any metal elements, from which we can infer that the boss was nailed to the board using wooden pegs or sewn using a cord. An interesting finding is also the presence of a wooden handle, the form of which is not commented on in any way (Warming et al. 2020: 172). Weapon damage to the board can be confirmed, both in the face and at the edges. The plank from the second and less well-preserved shield is said to be indeed a remnant of a convex shield (Warming et al. 2020: 171). The hoard set was dated using the radiocarbon method and the result is a compromise dating to around 875 (Warming et al. 2020: 172).

In connection with the Tira shields, Urtāns draws attention to one more relevant find, namely the shield from the double grave 17 from the Latvian site of Krimulas Tālēni (Urtāns 1961: 222-3, Atgazis 2019: 162). We have nothing at our disposal but a sketch of the grave and a cursory textual description. The deceased were covered in the waist area with a shield with a diameter of approximately 80 cm, which was made of coniferous wood and which lacked a metal boss. Based on the rich material culture of the grave (axe, fibula, knives, belts, comb, rings, etc.), dating to the 11th century is possible.

Reconstruction of the shield from the Tira Bog without metal components.
Author: Benas Simkus.


Station five: other potential fragments

From the stations so far, it appears that there was a shield-making tradition that normally avoided the use of any metal elements. We will therefore now turn our attention to some other and less obvious wooden finds, nails and rivets from potential handles and imported metal components.

If we talk about wooden finds, we cannot leave out a potential wooden boss from the Slavic hillfort in Groß Raden, Germany from 9th-11th century (Schuldt 1985: 171–2), which was well summarized by Petr Luňák (2007: 57-61):

A wooden object was found near the Slavic cult hall, which was interpreted as a shield boss (…). It is part of a round plate made of oak wood with an original diameter of about 30-35 cm. In the middle of the board a dome is carved. Its inner depth is about 3 cm, inner diameter about 15 cm, the top of the dome is raised about 4 cm above the face of the plate. The board itself has an average thickness of around 1 cm. A hole is drilled in the middle of the dome and a conical point made of hard wood is inserted into it (…). The 1.5 cm long end of the of the point protrudes on the inside of the dome and is fixed with a wooden wedge. This inner part is about 2 cm thick and is sharply offset from the rest of the point. The point itself has an approximately conical shape, its diameter at the base is approximately 3 cm, its preserved length is 4 cm. Its tip was apparently partially broken off, or it may have been originally rounded – due to its uneven, preserved character, it cannot be clearly determined. The inside of the dome was hollowed out asymmetrically. Irregularly spaced holes with a diameter of about 0.3 cm are drilled in the board – one pair is located approximately 1.5 cm from the inner edge of the boss, the other pair, on the contrary, at the very edge of the board. The other two holes are placed separately, both about 1 cm from the inner edge of the boss. The edges of the other two holes are visible where the boss is broken – the first near one of the individual holes at the boss, the second near the pair at the edge of the board (…). While the reverse side of the object has the usual colour of oak wood, the front side is black and slightly shiny (…). The holes are supposed to testify to the nailing of the boss onto a larger board, the black colouring of the front side was supposed to be caused by the hardening of the surface in the fire.

Luňák himself is skeptical of the interpretation of the find from Groß Raden and suggests that if it really was a functional boss, it must have been combined with a two-point strap handle (Luňák 2007: 60-1).

Possibly a wooden boss from Groß Raden. Source: Schuldt 1985: Abb. 158, Taf. 25f.

A hypothetical reconstruction of a fully organic shield with a wooden boss.
Author: Dmitrij Chramcov, Truin Stenja.

In 1991-3, V. Baran and B. Tomenčuk explored a 20-meter-wide barrow, the so-called Galicia grave (Галичина могила) above the village of Krylos in western Ukraine (Baran 2002; Tomenčuk 2006: 14-21; 2008a: Fig. 381; 2008b). In the center, at the bottom of the mound, they discovered a wonderful find: a 3.5-meter-long and charred dugout boat, placed in a prepared trench. An assemblage of war and craft equipment was placed on the bow of the boat – a 46 cm long knife, 3 axes, a 37 cm long spear, 2 arrows, an adze and a 42.6 cm wide circular object covered in gold foil, which is interpreted as a coated shield. No bones were found in the boat or elsewhere. The boat was covered with a fabric with gold threads that stuck to the surface of the objects.

Unfortunately, none of the available works deals with the shield in more detail. The only drawing available shows a perfectly circular plate with a rivet-like feature in the middle. From the photograph of the current state of the object, it can be seen that it is broken into small pieces and that it is a relatively strong object, which may indeed have had a base in the form of a flat wooden board. The method of applying the gilded metal plate is unclear. All in all, the interpretation of the object as a shield is more based on the lack of a better idea than on a clear and convincing identification. A cremation mound with such large diameters can be compared with mounds from Gnězdovo, Černihiv and Šestovice, where they are dated to the 3rd quarter of the 10th century. This dating would correspond to the form of axes with a cap-shaped butt (see Kotowicz 2018: 83, 97), a long knife (Vlasatý 2020) and also gold textile threads, which appear more prominently in Rus in the second half of the 10th century (Jakovčik 2018: 116-120).

A gilded circle, interpreted as a shield. Source: Tomenčuk 2006: 181; Ukrinform.ua.

Luňák (2007: 61-4) identified two wooden finds from Mikulčice, which in his opinion are potential fragments of shields. The first is the remains of a round oak board with the current dimensions of 46.5 × 31.7 cm and a thickness varying between 0.3 and 0.8 cm. The board becomes thinner towards the edges, the edge is rounded and pointed in places. The current official interpretation of the object is “the bottom of the barrel” (Poláček et al. 2000: 220, 252, Abb. 13). The second object is a roughly shaped handle made of unspecified wood, 45 cm long, with a 22 cm long indentation (Poláček et al. 2000: 232, 279, Abb. 40.2). None of the objects allow a clear assignment to shields.

Finds from Mikulčice. Source: Poláček et al. 2000: Abb. 13, 40.2.

Luňák’s work brought a certain revision of the potential metal elements of shields from the Staré Město – Na Valách locality (Luňák 2007: 34-41), which was previously published by Hrubý (1955). In his opinion, we can consider three graves that with a high probability contained shields (119/AZ, 223/51, 224/51) and two theoretical candidates (119/50, 190/50). These are warrior graves with weapons. The potential shield from grave 119/AZ was placed on the abdomen of the deceased surrounded by weapons and consisted of a bent iron sheet from which a massive 2.8 cm long square nail protruded (Hrubý 1955: 181, 381; Niederle – Zelnitius 1929: 14; Zelnitius 1948: 5). In addition to a set of weapons, grave 223/51 contained a probable shield made of wood and leather of an oval shape with dimensions of about 60 × 40 cm, which lacked metal elements (Hrubý 1955: 182, 525). In this grave, the shield was placed on the deceased in the space from the pelvis to the knees. A similar shield was found in grave 224/51, where a wooden and leather-covered shield without metal elements was located on the left side of the deceased (Hrubý 1955: 181, 525). Possible shields from graves 119/50 and 190/50 are derived based on unconventionally placed nails.

Another find, which is often evaluated in the literature as the remains of a shield, comes from grave 67-18/56 from Lahovice and is dated to the second half of the 9th century (Krumphanzlová 1974: 80; 2013: 32, 96; Luňák 2007: 31-2). The chest of the deceased person, who according to the anthropological analysis was more likely to be a woman, was covered with a decayed and corroded object, which was interpreted as a wooden board with metal fittings in the shape of an oval. Beneath this board, roughly in length from the right shoulder to the chest, there was a thicker band of rust, understood as a metal handle or “band”. The shield is described as “large”. The item could not be removed and its quality documentation is missing. A shield would not be an illogical choice given the attached scabbard chape. However, Sandanusová (2019: 42-3) is more reserved in her assessment of the object and considers the find to be a plate that covered the body like a lid. Judging by the size, it was certainly not a typical bucket.

Hypothetical reconstruction of a bossless shield with a minimum of metal elements.
Author: Roman Král, King’s Craft.

Finds from the Late Slavic Usadel burial ground (Mecklenburg-Strelitz) in Germany are identified in the literature as theoretical remains of shields. Relatively uniform and clearly recognizable remains of wood, leather and rivets were found in graves 38, 100 and 119, while only fragments of wood and rivets were found in graves 83, 94 and 120 (Kennecke 2015: 92). A metal and difficult-to-date rivet, originating from the Belarusian site of Lukoml from the 9th-13th century, is referred to in the literature as a possible remnant of a shield (Plavinski 2010: 77; Štychov 1978: рис. 17.27). The rivet from Poznań has an identical interpretation (Nadolski 1954: 75). The fitting with the remains of wood, placed near the right femur of the deceased in mound 2 from Stěbořice (Dostál 1966: 171), which Luňák identifies as a possible shield fragment (Luňák 2007: 42), is considered in a more recent work on the site to be the petrified remains of a knife in a sheath (Kouřil – Tymonová 2013: 23-24). The fitting from the Slovak site of Kráľovský Chlmec, which was designated as shield (Eisner 1933: 259), is actually part of a bucket (Luňák 2007: 17). Fittings from Hradec nad Moravicí, graves 154, 229 and 246 from Pohansko, Oškobrh and grave 6 from Mikulčice-Kostelisko, which Luňák mentions as hypothetical shield fittings, are similarly inconclusive (Luňák 2007: 23-9; 32-4). A remarkable find comes from the Polish grave 3/1883 from Turowo, which, in addition to a long spear point and a bucket, contained four almost identical staples, 5.9-7.9 cm long, which are interpreted as the remains of the inner part of the kite shield, where they fixed the straps (Kurasiński 2021: 247, 628, Tabl. CCLXIV; Wrzesiński 2007). However, the shape of the shield is suggested rather based on the dating, which is the middle of the 11th – the first half of the 12th century, so it is not impossible that it could still have been a circular shield. The fittings from the Behren-Lübchin hillfort (Schuldt 1965: 111, Taf. 81), which was roughly identified by Luňák (2007: 64-5), belongs to the group of kite shield metalwork and can be dated to the end of the 12th century (Martin et al. 2013: 161; Webley 2017).

A numerous category of metal objects associated with shields are metal handles. The only demonstrable group are the imported handle terminals of Scandinavian shields, which do not appear often in the Slavic environment. Two mounts come from the aforementioned Świelubie burial ground, namely graves 3 and 6 (Łosiński 1966Rudziński 2009), which do not contain metal bosses. Both are copper alloy. The handle from grave 3 is analogical to the finds from Rurikovo gorodišče (Nosov et al. 2017: 138-9, Рис. 56.24) and Bj 467B from Birka (Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.5); according to Duczko, the fittings are so similar that they look as if they were made by the same hand (Duczko 2020: 169). The handle from grave 6 is most similar to the find from grave Bj 942 from Birka (Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.3). Another cross-shaped handle made of copper alloy comes from Poland, found in 2007 at the Janow Pomorski site (Strobin – Żołędziowski 2021: 71, 267, Tab. XXII.1), which is similar to the handle from grave A37 from burial ground 116 at the Helgö site in Sweden (Androshchuk 2007: Fig. 6.6). Another copper alloy handle comes from Arkona (Ruchhöft 2018: 117, Abb. 145) and has the closest parallel in a detector find from Denmark (see Vlasatý 2022a). A total of three mounts come from Russia: in addition to the aforementioned find from Rurikovo gorodišče, there are pieces from Staraja Ladoga (Kainov 2002: 6) and Šnitkino (Novikov 2016).

Distribution of short metal handles with terminals (blue) and long handles with widened ends (orange).

This is followed by finds similar to handles, which are here and there attributed to shields in the literature. A handle from the Groß Strömkendorf burial site, previously identified as a shield handle (Jöns – Mazurek 1998: 201), turned out to be a bucket handle (Gerds 2015: 152, Abb. 247). Another example is a curved bronze handle from the court at Ralswiek, dated around 1100 (Herrmann 1998: Abb. 126e). A similarly curved handle made of sheet iron, 22 cm long and 5-6 cm wide, was found together with three other fittings at the bottom of the ash coffin of grave 93 in the St. George’s Basilica in Prague Castle, which could theoretically have belonged to Boleslav I and his wife (Borkovský 1975: 37-9, Fig. 61). Thirdly, we can mention the 24 cm long twisted handle from the Slovak hillfort of Bojná (Pieta et al. 2006: 24, Fig. 2.7), which Luňák puts in a possible connection with shields (Luňák 2007: 45-7). In all three cases, we are talking about ambiguous objects that could have come from a piece of furniture, for example chests.

Metal handles, associated with shields in the literature.
Source: Herrmann 1998: Abb. 126e; Borkovský 1975: 38; Pieta et al. 2006: Obr. 2.7.


Iconography

Enriched by the analysis of written and material sources, we have reached the point where we have to read pictorial sources in detail. Their pitfalls are frequent schematicity, lack of detail and, in the case of official scenes, copying of widespread models, usually of Roman origin. We have at our disposal a rather varied mosaic of sources, which seems to be in line with archaeological knowledge and which is a certain extension of it.

Let’s start with a very schematic scene from an engraved stone that formed the southwest corner of the inner walls of the Libušín hillfort and which was part of a set of 18 engraved stones (Váňa 1973: Fig. 42). The scene depicts a rider on a horse with a marked head that is depicted above a large circular shield, below which the feet in stirrups can be seen. One hand holds the reins, the other a long leaf-tipped spear with wings and a banner with the sign of the cross. The horse is of smaller stature and shown schematically, the body is hidden behind a shield. The shield has no boss or signs of painting. According to Luňák (2007: 83-4) and Bernart (2010: 91), the author’s attempt was to indicate a shield with a width of at least 100 cm with a slight taper in the lower part. We do not fully agree with this opinion: the engraving is rudimentary, with rough and connected lines that create a sharp point in several places of the engraving. We are of the opinion that the shape is proportionally most similar to a circle or an oval. Váňa dated the Libušín hillfort to the 9th and 10th centuries (Váňa 1973: 82-3), but stylistically placed the equestrian scene at the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries (Váňa 1973: 66). This estimate is relatively accurate, as Varadzin’s revised survey places the existence of the Libušín hillfort between the second third of the 10th and the second third of the 11th century (Varadzin 2012).

Libušín engraving. Author: János Mestellér.

A similar representation is a 2.7 × 3.5 cm filigree jewel from the Polish locality Lisówek, also known by the German name Lisów (Gabriel 1993; Neumayer 2000). It is a figure of a rider on horseback, holding an approximately circular shield and spear and apparently equipped with a helmet. The horse has skilfully depicted bridles, reins and other straps. The shield is quite detailed – in its center there is a circular formation, which in position and size could correspond to a boss, and in the space between this and the edge there are six arched lobes, which may indicate decoration or fittings on the cover. The jewel was buried as a hoard together with other silver pieces in the 1st quarter 11th century, which leads some authors to date it to the 10th century. Jewellery of this type are part of prestigious Slavic earrings (Frolíková-Kaliszová 2023: 138-9; Profantová 2022).

Equestrian figure from Lisówek. Source: Gabriel 1993: 336; Kieseler 2022: Abb. 7.

The third equestrian scene is represented by a pre-Romanesque stone relief from the church of St. Martin in the Croatian locality of Pridraga (Josipović 2013: Tab. I.5; 2016a: 295). The relief depicts a horseman with a spear and a circular shield, the inside of which is visible. The shield has a relatively small diameter and its inner side is divided into circles, while the outer circle may indicate a border or division of the board from the edge. The wearer’s hand points towards the center, where a long handle is absent, which may indicate that the shield is wielded by a system of two straps or a short handle. The equestrian scene has a secular feel. The relief belongs to the group of products of the Master of Zadar Ambos, which was a workshop operating at the end of the 8th and the beginning of the 9th century in the Croatian principality under strong Carolingian and Byzantine influence. In this group, significant influences from Italian sculpture are evident, but at the same time, it is assumed that the products depict syncretic scenes with possible pagan traces (Jurković – Krleža 2020: 283, 288).

In the same church, there is another scene depicting a shield, which belongs to the same narrative cycle, but is fragmentary (Josipović 2013: Tab. I.3; 2016a: 295; 2016b: Fig. 6a). It depicts a male figure in a circular medallion holding a drawn sword in his right hand, a small circular shield in his left hand, and a winged spear beside the figure. The scene below the character’s waist level is missing. The shield is shown at an angle and offers a view inside, however we are unable to see any detail. The shield matches the shield from the previous scene in size.

Pluteus with a rider scene from the church of St. Martin from Pridraga near Novigrad.
Picture kindly offered by Ivan Josipović.

Pluteus with a warrior scene from the church of St. Martin from Pridraga near Novigrad.
Picture kindly offered by Ivan Josipović.

Two bronze figurines from the Greek site of Velestíno have a similar tone to the previous reliefs (Rácz 2014: Abb. 3; Werner 1953). The figurines are part of a large hoard from the end of the 7th or the beginning of the 8th century, which is traditionally interpreted as Slavic (Váňa 1983: 44; Werner 1953), but a new opinion about its Byzantine origin is currently emerging (Curta – Szmoniewski 2019). The more familiar figurine shows a male figure in a fighting or dancing stance, with an axe raised in the left hand and a small circular object in the right hand. This is traditionally interpreted as a small shield. Recently, a theory has been proposed that the tools shown are not axes and shields, but musical instruments (Curta – Szmoniewski 2019: 47), which we cannot agree with. The possible shield does not have a boss, but the edges are wrinkled and structurally resembles a sewn border. The second figurine is an equestrian scene of a man on horseback, equipped with a drawn sword and a circular shield without a boss. The shield has a larger diameter than the previously named circular object from the same hoard.

Figurines from the locality Velestíno, Greece.
Source: Curta – Szmoniewski 2019: Fig. 3.8; Rácz 2014: Abb. 3.

We know a total of three scenes from Bulgaria, which are set in the period of the First Bulgarian Empire (see Ovčarov 1982). The first two are equestrian scenes from Pliska (Vaklinov 1977: 103) and Preslav (Jotov 2004: Обр. 66), which are similar to the previous scenes. The carving from Pliska is described as a leader or divine figure who sits on a horse with an ornate harness and who has a large circular shield, a bridle and a spear. The shield does not have an indicated boss, but there is an edging line at the edge. This scene is dated to the first half of the 9th century (Georgiev 1991). The carving from Preslav shows a horse with part of a rider holding a small oval label without a boss. The third scene was found in the Hyrlec locality and comes from a bone (Hrisimov – Petrov 2012: ил. 6). The depiction shows three male figures in a boat holding medium-sized shields with circular boss-like formations in the center. One of the shields is equipped with a decorated border. There are opinions that it is a depiction of Scandinavians (Kamburov 2021: 112).

Carvings from Pliska, Preslav and Hyrlec. Source: Jotov 2004: 117.

Perhaps the most important in the context of our research are secular and ecclesiastical frescoes and engravings from the Saint Sophia Cathedral of Kyiv, dated to the 11th century (Nikitěnko 2018: 186, 224, 330, 338, 352; Šamenkov 2022: Мал. 2). Shields are present in at least six scenes. In five situations they are being held by a footman, once by a horseman. In two scenes shields are used together with spears, once with a sword, once with an axe. They are bossless, circular or slightly oval, with a wide, accentuated edge. Three scenes allow a view inside and show the hands of the wearers wielding the shield in the center of the board, two of which clearly show the dual strap system. The clearest reading is provided by a stone relief depicting a man fighting a lion: the shield is small, circular, equipped with a system of two short straps that are held by the man’s palm. The expanded possibilities of straps are shown in the scene depicting the baptism of the centurion Cornelius, where we see the figure of a soldier with a shield holding the shield inside out. The shield is equipped with two straps in the central part, which the wearer uses during transport by putting his forearm through the both straps. It can be assumed that the mosaics and reliefs were significantly influenced by the Byzantine style, but it is impossible to say to what extent this assumption refers to the direct copying of Byzantine shields.

A selection of iconography of 11th-century Kyiv bossless shields.
Source: Nikitěnko 2018: 186, 224, 330, 338, 352; Šamenkov 2022: Мал. 2.

For completeness, let us also mention a 10.8 cm high silver cup from the Polish locality of Włocławek, traditionally dated to the 10th century (Kóčka-Krenz 2000). The scenes on this cup are unusually detailed, depicting wargear with at least ten circular shields. Shields are highlighted with niello and are shown from the inside or certain angles. These are convex shields, equipped with a pointed boss and a long handle reaching the edges. They appear to be decorated inside and outside and can be worn on a guige. They are used in combination with spears in almost all scenes.

The origin of the cup is placed in a Swabian or Lorraine workshop. The wargear component consisting of long mail without slits, schematized low pointed helmets with nape protection and convex circular shields with a boss is datable to the turn of the 3rd and 4th quarter of the 10th century. The scenes from the Fulda Sacramentary (Göttingen, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek, Hs.Theol. 231, 87r) from the 970s (Winterer 2009: 177) and the Exultet Roll of Benevento (Vatican, Vat. Lat. 9820) from years 981-987 (Robb 1973: 168) are exceptionally close. This corresponds to the conclusions of Skubiszewski, who evaluated the cup as a product created before the last quarter of the 10th century and imported to Poland by Benedictines after 966 (Skubiszewski 1965). In any case, this is not a depiction of Slavic shields.

Cup from Włocławek. Source: Małopolski Instytut Kultury w Krakowie, www.muzea.malopolska.pl.

It is necessary to add that in the 10th and 11th centuries, bossless shields of circular or oval shapes were also popular in some other non-Slavic parts of Europe. One of them is Byzantium, where shields in illuminations and reliefs are circular and convex. A number of depicted shields are decorated with a circular formation resembling a boss in the center of the outer part (e.g. Vatican, Vat. Gr. 333, 30v, 31v; Vatican, Vat. Gr. 1613, 215), but when looking at the shield from the side, the bosses are not emphasized even in the most realistically painted manuscripts. It is possible that it is a painting or some kind of indication of a boss that arose when copying late Roman models. The reason may also be their low height, but it is obvious that from the 9th century the bosses lose their importance in Byzantine iconography (Grotowski 2010: 218-9). The edges of the shields are usually decorated on both sides. A view inside the shield is not unusual, but the straps are not among the ordinary details. The shields were evidently equipped with a guige for carrying on the back (Vatican, Vat. Gr. 333, 36v; Vatican, Vat. Gr. 1613, 170, 212; mosaic from a Byzantine monastery on the island of Chios). The manner of holding the shield is visible only in the manuscript Vatican, Vat. Gr. 333 (36v, 38r): the shield is equipped with paired, opposite and relatively long straps, which are held by the warrior’s hand in the center. A similar method of carrying can be depicted on a Byzantine chest from Rome, dated to 898-900 (Cutler – Oikonomides 1988). The chest underwent significant repair and we have no idea whether the creation of new reliefs with shields was part of the repair. Not dissimilar straps can also be seen in the Chludov Psalter from the 9th century (Moscow, State Historical Museum, Add. Gr. 129, 44), but the scene is not perfectly legible (Ščepkina 1977). The tendency to use round shields without bosses continues in Byzantine art into the 12th century, as shown by the Madrid Manuscript of the Chronicle of John Skylitzes (Tsamakda 2002), where round shields coexist with kite ones (e.g. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, vitr.26-2, 26v, 127r , 142y). The shape of the shield has an ethnic dimension in the work (circular shields are often placed in the hands of Arabs).

Ways of wearing circular shields using straps.
Left: chest from Rome; Vatican, Vat. Gr. 333, 36v, 38r.
Right: Vatican, Vat. Gr. 333, 36v; Vatican, Vat. Gr. 1613, 170, 212; mosaic from the Chios island.

Round and oval shields without bosses are also common in iconography from what is now Spain in the 11th century, in both the Muslim and Christian traditions. We are talking about the richly carved ivory chest from the monastery of Leyre from the years 1004-1005 (Navarro – Fernández 1996: Fig. 67), the chest from Silos from the years 1026 (Dodds 1993: 273) and the Ripoll Bible from the 1st quarter of 11th century (Vatican, MSS Vat. lat. 5729). The shields shown on the chests are circular, relatively small, have lined edges, and can be wielded in the fist. The Bible from the monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll depicts a large number of circular medium-sized and small kite shields, usually without a central boss. Shields are held in the palms and are not attached to the forearms. A number of circular shields have nail-like dots depicted inside the face, which may have held straps. Some shields are bordered with a line at the edges.

Chest scenes from Leyre and Silos. Source: warfare.gq, elarteencuenca.es.

Scenes from the Ripoll Bible.

Ottonian art also works with shields, which may and may not have a boss. The most illustrative example of a bossless shield of this provenance is a set of at least three nicely executed shields on an ivory situla deposited in Aachen and created around 1000 (Hoffmann 2018; Kahsnitz 1993). The shields are oval or lenticular, equipped on the front side with two quartets of rivets, which reflect the strapping system on the back side, which we do not see. One of the few depictions of comparable strapping comes from the manuscript Bruxelles, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, Ms. 10066-77 (133r) (Babcock 2017). Shields are worn both on ground and on horseback, and the relatively long straps are oriented horizontally. The shields have a guige for hanging on the back. With one rider, we see that he holds the shield and the reins at the same time. A final promising source is the manuscript Leiden, UBL, Cod. Perizoni F.17, which on folio 16r shows a fallen rider with the inner side of the shield exposed. The shield has two straps located on opposite sides and a guige.

Oval bossless shields in Ottonian art.
From left: situla from Aachen (bildindex.de); Bruxelles, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, Ms. 10066-77, 133r; Leiden, UBL, Cod. Perizoni F.17, 16r.

Round shields without bosses rarely appear in iconographic sources even in the 12th-15th centuries. We find a large concentration of them in the manuscript New York, Morgan, M.429 from the 1220s. This manuscript on one folio (128r) even reveals the reverse side of the shield: the shield is suspended from a guige around the wearer’s neck and is simultaneously held in the left hand by a pair of opposing straps. The space under the hand appears to be supported by a square located on the board under the back of the wearer’s hand. A similar scene with a circular shield can be seen on a stone relief of a church in Andlau in Alsace, which is dated to the 1230s (Berthold – Petri 2019: Abb. 2). Here the shield is equipped with two vertical straps and a relatively wide rim. The manuscript Jena, Thüringer Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, ThULB Ms. Bos. q.6 (54r) from the years 1157-1185) also contains shields of similar size and design with a handle in the form of two straps. According to Janowski, these late 12th-13th century circular shields are depicted “as an anachronism intended to emphasize the civilizational distance between Western European knights and their opponents” (Janowski 2009: 127).

Bossless circular shields of the 12th and 13th centuries.
From left: New York, Morgan, M.429, 128r; relief from Andlau (Berthold – Petri 2019: Abb. 2); Jena, Thüringer Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, ThULB Ms. Bos. q.6, 54r.

Circular shields with two straps have continuity in Orthodox iconography until the 14th and 15th centuries, when they appear in church frescoes in the hands of saints. They undoubtedly are strongly anachronistic. In at least one case, the straps are seen to be attached to rings that are fixed to the shield with staples. We managed to find at least four shields that retain a rectangular shape in the center under the straps.

Bossless circular shields of the 14th and 15th centuries.
From left: fresco of the church in Episkopi; fresco from the Gračanica monastery; fresco from Athos; frescoes from the monastery in Kalenić.


Comment on the organization of the inner side

The above iconography suggests that the circular shields were wielded approximately at the geometric center, using two straps. However, these are relatively random depictions, and a discussion of the method of wearing cannot be complete without a comparison with the generally better-attested strapping of kite shields.

11th-12th century kite shields almost always depict a pair of parallel placed straps that are organized vertically or horizontally. Accompanying forearm straps are shown in a minimum of cases (see Dos Reis 2017), but are visible, for example, in Bayuex tapestry. The main logic of the kite shield straps is to quickly change the positions of the shield, and the forearm straps are only for better transport on the horseback and to reduce hand fatigue. The guige helps carry the weight of the shield, allows the shield to be placed on the back, and can even form the second half of the shield’s handle. For non-circular shields in iconography, when worn on horseback, the straps are oriented in a horizontal direction, while in ground combat, the straps are oriented both horizontally and vertically. For circular shields, the straps are always oriented vertically. The rationale lies in the basic mechanics of the shields: the vertical straps allow the extention of the entire arm, and thus better distance control, feeling the pressure exerted on the shield and changing positions more accurately and quickly. A horizontal hold, accompanied by possible forearm fixation straps, is more suitable for heavier and, shall we say, more passive shields, and it holds the reins better when riding. With it, the shield is directed along the horse’s body, it can be leaned against the horse’s back and thus relieves the hands. It is typical that a pair of straps is a relatively universal solution also in the sense that one of the straps can function as a strap for the forearm, as shown, for example, in the manuscript Paris, BnF, Ms. Lat. 8878 (201v) from the 11th century.

Different variants of two straps of kite shields.
From left: Dijon, BM, Ms. 14, 13; Dijon, BM, Ms. 168, 4v; Dijon, BM, Ms. 173, 7r; St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 863, 77; Limoges, Bibliotheque Mazarine, MS.02, 104r; the floor of the Basilica of San Savino; Jena, Thüringer Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, ThULB Ms. Bos. q.6, 54r; Vatican, Vat. Gr. 333, 36v, 38r.

If we apply these conclusions to Slavic circular or oval shields, we can say that the fixed handles made of wood or metal, which Luňák proposed, do not have much support for bossless shields. Circular and smaller oval shields were far more likely to use a pair of vertical, opposing leather straps that could be gripped in the palm of the hand, or, if necessary, one of the straps was held by palm and the other fixed the forearm. Larger oval shields intended for mounted combat rather used a horizontal arrangement of the same straps. Shields could be equipped with a guige. We can expect that the guige was divided and could be shortened. All types of straps could be attached using rivets, eyelets clamped in staples (see Vlasatý 2022a) or locking toggles made of rolled leather (Kohlmorgen 2002: 105, 181). Overall, the division of the inner side of the shields may have resembled the straps of some medieval and later kalkans (for example Tsurtsumia 2018: 267). It is a convenient, flexible and multifunctional solution that has been proven for centuries in different parts of the world.

What we still do not know the full answer to is whether padding was used to prevent chafing and injury to the back of the hand. The idea that padding was not used at all cannot be completely ruled out. Since the users do not seem to be wearing even thin leather gloves, any penetration in the center of the shield would mean injury to the hand, not to mention possible chafing at the knuckles. If we were to look for ways in which the theoretical padding could be applied, we need to focus on any formations on the inside of the shields. The only promising candidate is a square or rectangular formation in the center of the circular and kite shields. The most illustrative view of this formation is provided by the Bayuex tapestry: in one scene, the wearer can be seen holding the shield by the edge of this formation, which allows us to say that the square is actually formed by four straps that allow both vertical and horizontal grip (Kohlmorgen 2002: 32). Such a solution would be very useful, as it provided the wearers with functionality in both ground and mounted combat. However, the given scene from the manuscript New York, Morgan, M.429 shows the border of the square shape even when the wearer is holding the straps, i.e. the straps must be backed with a square material. This material could have been a cushioning layer made of leather, felt or similar material. In essence, everything appears to be that organic layers could have been attached under the leather straps with the same rivets, which were intended for greater comfort and safety of the hand. The padding layer could also be glued on. This is consistent with the fact that we lack the number of nails in the graves to keep the given padding nailed to the board. For the sake of completeness, the rhombic structure on the inside appears to be present in the aforementioned depiction of the shield from the island of Chios. The correctness of our line of reasoning is indicated by the circular shields from the 14th and 15th century frescoes, where the square also occurs as an obvious padding, but this may be because padding was common in shields at the time and the authors simply placed it on archaic shields.

Detail of square and rectangular formations on back of shields.
Source: Bayuex tapestry; New York, Morgan, M.429, 128r; mosaic from the Chios island.


Summary

All types of sources entitle us to the conclusion that the 9th-11th century Slavs made and used shields. Production took place both in the centers and in the peripheries, and could take a serial form. Shields were an irreplaceable warrior equipment that was combined with all types of weapons depending on the current situation and financial possibilities of the owner. Shields could be used in both dismounted and mounted combat.

We can agree with Hrubý (1955: 181), Luňák (2007: 20), Měřínský (2002: 396) and Nadolski (1954: 76) when they write about Slavic shields as products of an organic nature with a minimum of metal elements. This is the reason for their difficult capture in archaeological material. The basis was a circular or oval wooden boards, made of simple or layered planks. The board could be flat or convex, which gave the advantage of better coverage, and could be covered with double-sided tanned or untanned leather, tarred and painted leather. We do not have a document of the textile cover of the board. There may have been a layer of grass or similar material between the cover and the board. The edge of the board may have been reinforced with strips of bast, grass or willow wicker, indicating that the edges of the wooden board may have been thinned. On the territory of today’s Poland, Russia and Ukraine, metal edge clamps were exceptionally used. Boards completely made of straw or wicker, which have been tested by reenactors in the last 20 years, cannot be noticed archaeologically. In theory, one can speculate about board formed from the bark (see Kipling – Beamish 2019).

Hypothetical reconstruction of a bossless shield with a minimum of metal elements.
Author: Tomáš Vlasatý; Authentic Viking Shields.

For Slavic 9th-11th century shields, it is typical that they did not use metal bosses. In total, we know of 30 bosses from this period in the Slavic territories, which generally correspond to Scandinavian types. Metal bosses were demonstrably used in roughly half of Europe during the observed period (Scandinavia, Great Britain, Ireland, the Frankish Empire, the Holy Roman Empire), so Slavic shields were not exceptional, and it is certainly not the case that Slavic shields were the only European pieces in opposition to Germanic shields. One alternative solution was to use wooden bosses that were sewn to the board and combined with a long wooden handle. After all, wooden and wicker bosses had a long tradition (eg Kipling – Beamish 2019: Fig. 58; Martens 2001; Matešić 2015: 416, Taf. 74). In the territory of Poland and Russia, we have rare remains of Scandinavian handles with metal handle terminals. The second option was a bossless version, which worked with a system of two opposing straps (so called enarmes) that could be gripped in the palm of your hand. The space between the straps may or may not have been padded. It must be added that, for mechanical reasons, full-sized bosses have a strong connection to the circular shape, while shields without a boss more often vary in shape and, in addition to the popular circular shape, also take on an oval shape. The shields had a shoulder strap (so called guige) that allowed the shield to be placed on the back or active cover while wielding the spear in a two-handed manner. This strap was split and could be shortened as desired. All in all, the shield was not a heavy thing and its weight did not significantly exceed 4.5 kg, rather one can expect a weight of around 2-4.5 kg.

At the beginning of the 11th century, the fashion for kite shields, which arose from oval shields, began to spread through Europe. The first almond shields were small with approximate dimensions of 60 × 40 cm, as evidenced by the oldest physical find from Liétor, Spain (Navarro – Fernández 1996: 139; Vlasatý 2022b). We know that this fashion reached Byzantium during the first half of the 11th century (Vatican, Vat. Gr. 333), England (London, BL, Harley MS 603, 29v, 30r, 30v, 32v, 33r, 34v), present-day Germany, Italy (Cava de ‚Tirreni, BM, Codices Cavenses, Cod. 4, 15v), Luxembourg (Nürnberg, GNM, Hs. 156142, 18v), Spain (Vatican, MSS Vat. lat. 5729) and Switzerland (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 863, 77). It would seem logical that the existence of an oval shape and a system of two straps could facilitate the rapid adaptation of the Slavs to kite shields, however, along with quality pictorial sources, we also lack any evidence of kite shields before the second half of the 11th century. The first depiction of kite shields in the Czech lands comes from the so-called Vyšehrad Codex (Praha, Národní knihovna, XIV.A.13, 42r) from the year 1085. In Poland, kite shields are confirmed by the representation on the denarii of Bolesław II the Bold in the 1070s at the latest (Strzyż 2006: Fig. 39.1-2). The oldest physical evidence of kite shields in Slavic territories comes from Poland as far back as the 12th century (Dowen et al. 2019Głosek – Uciechowska-Gawron 2011; Kurasiński 2021: 247, 628, Tabl. CCLXIVB; Schuldt 1965: 111, Taf. 81). Let us recall that at the time of the creation of the Lenzen shield and the Kyiv mosaics and reliefs in the 11th century, circular and oval shapes were still used. Kite shields did not completely replace circular specimens, as evidenced by the earliest bucklers (Schmidt 2022).

The oldest display of kite shields on Czech territory. Source: Praha, Národní knihovna, XIV.A.13, 42r.


A note for reenactors

Beyond what was said in the final summary, we would like to comment briefly on the current form of reconstruction of Slavic shields by reenactors and museum workers. It is typical that the shields discussed in this article – i.e. almost completely organic shields without metal bosses – form a minority in early medieval reenactment and museum displays. Shields equipped with central metal bosses, shields of the Germanic type, are dominant instead. There are two main reasons for this.

Early medieval reenactment around the world has its roots in Viking reenactment, which began to establish itself in the 1970s. It can therefore be said that the reenactment of the Viking Age has a roughly fifty-year tradition and, thanks to its constant popularity, overshadows the reenactment of all other centuries and regions. Specifically, the reenactment of the Slavic countries is actually a new thing that is still taking shape and that is not widely known. The negligible number of shields without bosses in the Slavic reenactment is a consequence of the long-standing tendencies of the community, which is evolutionarily, personally and informationally strongly rooted in the Viking line.

Surprisingly, the problem does not lie in the unavailability of finds or information about them. As the example of Latvia shows, not even the finds of at least three 9th-11th century shields without metal bosses do not lead to the numerous use of their reproductions. In the same way, even fifteen years later, Luňák’s bachelor’s thesis did not impress to the extent that it would have eradicated the metal bosses in the Slavic reenactment. The complementary problem of the first reason is the ubiquitous attempt to copy. In reenactment, an unwritten and very incorrect rule was introduced that if I use the same things as my colleagues, I am not making a mistake. And since a quality reenactment based on in-depth research and detailed reading is a matter for individuals and not for the community as a whole, the result cannot be other than that most will take the easiest route, i.e. buying an object that has a rich tradition in the history of the community and for which the artisans are used to. Shields without metal bosses are doomed to be made to order at this point, and we know that carefully defined custom orders are not the main source of income for most sellers. We cannot rule out the possibility that bossless shields do not appeal to reenactors for other reasons: aesthetic, mechanical, safety.

If there is to be a turnaround, a community statement must be issued renouncing the use of metal bosses in Slavic reenactment. Once this requirement is formulated by groups and event organizers and becomes part of the rules, everyone involved will know about it, including those who would never have learned about the absence of metal bosses in Slavic countries through self-study. Of course, it is necessary to take into account the fact that it is a long run, which will take, for example, five years of active promotion. In any case, it will be a positive activity that will raise authenticity and collective awareness to a new level, give the audience and participants a more credible picture, and finally offer interesting insights to academics who study military objects. It also presents a challenge to reenactors: deciphering whether there are any advantages or disadvantages to bossless shields versus bossed shields. However, the result will be a more nuanced view of the past.

Hypothetical shield reconstruction with a minimum of metal elements. Source: Knížecí družina Morava.


Acknowledgment

In our research, we relied on the previous inspiring works of fellow reenactors Pavel Alekseychik (Medieval Advisor), Miloš Bernart, Nathanaël Dos Reis (De Gueules et d’Argent), Roman Král (King’s Craft), Petr Luňák (CustomHistory) and Roland Warzecha (Dimicator) and interviews with them. Without them, this work would not have been possible, so we express our gratitude to them. We also thank everyone who gave permission to use their photos.

We hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact us or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support our work, please, fund our project on PatreonBuymeacoffee or Paypal.


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