Most people are not unfamiliar with the idea of a shield. It is something which, either figuratively or literally, protects, defends, or shelters another thing. The most common association being that of a handheld object used as a piece of protective equipment in warfare or combat.
Now, such a dry and clinical opening description may seem odd to those reading. “Don’t be daft, I know what a shield is,” you think to yourself, but it is just that kind of thought with which I am trying to contend! The term ‘shield’ is very general and relates to wildly different things depending on whom, when, and why we are referring to it. A shield today, designed for riot control or with the purpose of resisting shrapnel, will be very different from a Late Medieval buckler, a heater shield for jousting, a Norman kite shield, or a Classical Greek aspis or hoplon – each of these being just as different from one another.
This month’s Hands on History session at the museum on Saturday 15th December will see us getting to grips with some of the shields in our collection that have come to us from around the world. Investigate with us and work out how things like size, shape, and material might effect how one might best utilise a particular shield and, just as important, how needs, technology, and resources impact how and why shields get made.
Take, for example, the shield pictured here from Queensland, Australia. It is, as a shield and in relation to other forms in Australia, smaller in size, with a narrow and elongated shape, and carved from a thick piece of wood. As it would be unable to cover a large part of the body, this shield was likely used to assist in dodging, parrying, or deflecting blows rather than attempting to absorb them. The shape, as well as the grip, suggest that the shield was held in front of the wielder in a forward and ready position. This would allow full use of the senses to determine threats and relied on agility and dexterity. The material is a single, thick piece of carved wood which would have been a strong yet light and somewhat pliable material. Its thickness would also lend an ability to absorb some blows and receive, without significant damage, piercing attacks.
These factors well suit the context in which this shield was produced and used. The most common weapons faced by the wielder of this shield would have been javelin-style missiles, spears, and clubs. While a thinner and broader shield would be preferable for a massed spear fight, this shield’s form is ideally suited for tracking and dealing with light missiles, as well as countering and occasionally absorbing strikes from clubs.
So shields are more complex than you may have believed. If you are curious and want to know more, or are interested in seeing and handling some historic shields from our collection join us on Saturday from 11am to 4pm. We look forward to seeing and hearing from you!