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The shield from Liétor, Spain

While browsing Spanish literature, we found a remarkable and unknown find – an early medieval shield, which was discovered in a hoard from Liétor in 1985. The hoard, which provides a unique insight into the wargear of Córdoba Caliphate of the 10th-11th century, also included a short sword, a spearhead, spurs, a bit and metal bridle applications.

The shield is fragmentary and was determined based on European parallels. It has been published in the literature at least twice – in a monograph on the finds from Liétor (Navarro – Fernández 1996) and in an article on weapons from the period of the Córdoba Caliphate (De Keukelaere 2022). As the Iberian Peninsula is a generally unknown region from the point of view of the militaria, after the description of the shield we will talk about the iconographic sources for the study of shields in the territory of today’s Spain.

The position of Liétor on the map of Europe.


Description

The shield currently consists of approximately 25 fragments of an incomplete board that was originally oval, one-piece and flat. The board is made of common walnut (Juglans regia) wood. The front side is smooth while the back side has an irregular surface. The length of the largest preserved piece of the board in its current state is 58 cm, width 16 cm. In the case of a symmetrical design, approximately 60 × 40 cm can be considered the approximate original dimensions. Weight: 0.51 kg. Due to the curvature, it appears that at least a piece of the original edge is preserved. The cross-section indicates that the board tapers slightly at the edge. The thickness is unknown.

In the center of the largest preserved piece of the board there is a small regular opening that passes through. This may have been involved in the strap fastening system. One more hole can also be found in separate fragments. At the edge, there are the remains of at least three other regularly spaced holes, which the literature believes were used to fix the shield cover. According to the literature, iron oxides originating from nails are preserved in these holes. All holes are approximately identical in diameter.

On the visible side, we find two fine engraved lines with a regular spacing. The reasoning for these lines is not simple – it could appear to be decoration, as suggested by the attempt drawing of a symmetrical version in literature, but the same source states that the lines could be caused by a weapon strike. The regularity of the lines rather indicates deliberate and careful execution.


Putting into context

There is general agreement that shields during the period of the Islamic Caliphate took on a circular or oval shape, bore a wide variety of names – turs, daraqa, tariqa, ganuwiya, lamt and others – and the material for their manufacture was wood, leather or their combination (Monteira Arias 2010: 193). Despite the fact that the iconography of the 10th and 11th centuries from the territory of today’s Spain is relatively rich, we find shields in only a few pictorial sources.

Small and medium-sized round shields are mainly represented. The León Bible (Codex Biblicus Legionensis), completed in 960, shows round shields with a more pronounced central boss, but it is not clear whether this is a full-sized boss or whether the shield is held at one point. The visible sides of most shields are divided by swastikas into four identical parts, which are further filled with smaller bosses or circular ornaments. Compared to the wielders, the shields appear to be shorter than the length of an outstretched hand.

The León Bible. Source: araceliregolodos.blogspot.com; shutterstock.com.

Shields of the same size and shape can be seen in the copy of Beatus of Liébana, which is kept in Girona Cathedral and which is dated to 975. One of the shields is shown from the inside, thus showing that it is held at one point and that it is sufficiently light so that it can be held simultaneously with the spear. A similar scene with identical shields is depicted in another copy of the same author, which is dated to 1047. Shield-like circular objects with identical decoration are also included in other copies of Beatus, but they lack the central bosses (see New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS 644 , 174v). All four mentioned manuscripts were created by Mozarabic Christians living in Muslim-dominated territory.

Copies of Beatus of Liébana from 975 and 1047. Source: historiadesdebenavente.blogspot.com; bdh.bne.es.

Small round shields are also found on a richly carved ivory casket from the monastery of Leyre, which dates from 1004-1005 and is now kept in Navarre (Navarro – Fernández 1996: Fig. 67). The shields are not equipped with bosses, but at the same time it seems possible to wield them in the fist. The center of one of the shields is decorated or reinforced with circular formations, the surface of the other shield is decorated with an inscription. The edge of all the shields is lined by the edge, which may indicate the fastening of the cover.

Scenes from the carved casket of Leyre. Source: warfare.gq.

Small circular bossless shields of similar size can be found on a casket from Silos, the panels of which were carved in 1026 (Dodds 1993: 273). All we can say about the shields is that they are decorated with two intertwined lines around the edge.

Scenes from the carved casket of Silos. Source: elarteencuenca.es.

Another source is an ivory casket, kept in Bryn Athyn (Glencairn Museum, 04.CR.49). It is dated to 8th-10th century (Dodds 1993: 141), alternatively to the 10th-11th century (Perratore 2021: 24). One side of the casket depicts warriors with shields that appear to be lenticular, but it is possible that the original intent was to depict circular shields from an angle. The shields have central bosses and are edged with lines.

The scene depicted on the casket. Source: glencairnmuseum.org.

The Bible from the monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll (Vatican, MSS Vat. lat. 5729), created in the 1st quarter of the 11th century, depicts a large number of circular shields of medium size, usually without a central boss. The shields are held in the palms and are not attached to the forearm, which may account for the fact that all the shields have nail-like dots depicted on the surface that may have held straps. Some shields are bordered with a line at the edges, which may indicate the attachment of the cover.

Scenes from the Ripoll Bible. Source: digi.vatlib.it.

Iconography depicts oval shields as well, but less often. A good example is the named Ripoll Bible, which shows small to medium-sized kite shields without bosses, nails and other decoration. The only thing we can claim about the shields is the fact that it is possible to hang them on the back.

Scenes from the Ripoll Bible. Source: digi.vatlib.it.

Shields similar in shape and size can also be found in the Roda Bible (Paris, BNF, Latin 6 [3]), dated to the second half of the 11th century. The shields here are not attached to the whole forearm, the surface of some of the shields shown is decorated with lines and the edge is lined with a perimeter line.

Scenes from the Roda Bible. Source: manuscriptminiatures.com.

Despite the above, it is not clear whether the shield from Liétor belongs to the Islamic weaponry tradition. It seems that the closest iconographic sources of the shield are the Ripoll and Roda Bibles. The dating of the bibles to the 11th century is consistent with the suggestion that the Liétor hoard was created in connection with the civil war sometime during the 2nd decade of the 11th century (Navarro – Fernández 1996: 139). If this were the case, the shield could belong to the kite shield fashion that began to spread in Europe during the 11th century. The oldest document of it comes from Byzantium and is dated to the 10th century (Venice, BNM, Mss. Gr.Z.454, 4r). In addition to today’s Spain, we can also find shields of these shapes in the first half of the 11th century in iconography from the territory of modern-day England (London, BL, Harley MS 603, 29v, 30r, 30v, 32v, 33r, 34v), Italy (Cava de ‘Tirreni, BM, Codices Cavenses, Cod. 4, 15v), Luxembourg (Nuremberg, GNM, Hs. 156142, 18v) and Switzerland (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 863, 77). During the second half of the 11th century, they spread to almost all of Europe. However, the physical evidence is scarce and includes only the shield from Trondheim, Norway, dated to 1075-1175 (Nordeide 1989: Fig. 29), and the shields from Szczecin, Poland, which can be classified between 1170-1197 (Dowen et al. 2019; Głosek – Uciechowska-Gawron 2011). The shield from Liétor can thus extend a rather limited corpus and can be its oldest representative.

Drawn reconstruction of military equipment from Liétor. Source: Navarro – Fernández 1996: Fig. 68.


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Bibliography

De Keukelaere, Pauline (2022). La lanza de Alá. Armamento andalusí en época califal. In: Desperta Ferro XXXI: Ejércitos medievales hispánicos (III). Condes, reyes y califas (929-1031), 46-51.

Dodds, J. D. (1993). The Art of medieval Spain, A.D. 500-1200, New York.

Dowen, Keith et al. (2019). Two Twelfth-Century Kite Shields from Szczecin, Poland. In: Arms & Armour 16/22, 1-28.

Głosek, Marian – Uciechowska-Gawron, Anna (2011). Wczesnośredniowieczna tarcza z podgrodzia w Szczecinie. In: Materiały Zachodniopomorskie 2009/2010, 1, 269-283.

Monteira Arias, Inés (2010). La escultura románica hispana y la lucha contra el Islam (mediados del siglo XI mediados del siglo XIII), Madrid.

Navarro, Julio – Fernández, A. R. (1996). Liétor. Formas de vida rurales en Sarq al-Andalus a través de una ocultación de los siglos X-XI, Múrcia.

Nordeide, S. W. (1989). “… De bæste bønder i kiøbstæden …”. En funksjons- og aktivitetsanalyse basert på gjenstandsmaterialet. Fortiden i Trondheim bygrunn: Folkebibliotekstomten. Meddelelser nr. 20, Trondheim.

Perratore, Julia (2021). Spain, 1000–1200: Art at the Frontiers of Faith, New York.

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