The image of a Bell Beakers holding shields is not something that immediately comes to mind when we think of the classic personal inventory of the warrior. But did they have them?
Origin of Hardened-Leather, Wood-Backed Shields?
|"Clonbrin Shield" 800 B.C. Irish National Museum|
The Kilmahamogue shield remains the oldest European example with the radiocarbon date slightly post-dating the Amesbury Archer, 1,950-1,540 B.C. (AF Harding, 2000)
The wooden frame dates to the first part of the second millennium, putting it within the tail end of the Beaker period of County Antrim, Ireland.
Early shields, like the much later Clonbrin to the right, were made of thick, hardened leather and formed over a wooden backer. The impregnation and conditioning of the leather with wax and other materials hardened it to a Kevlar-like state which would have provided considerable protection against arrows and tanged daggers.
In fact, most of early (tentatively dated) Middle Bronze Age shields (below) were either non-functional or not-very-functional and merely mimicked "real shields" although growing more useful with time. We shouldn't assume the Kilmahamogue represents the very first shield ever made which was subsequently thrown into a bog, and then more subsequently tripped over by an archaeologist. Uckelmann and Mödlinger give a good overview with maps on known European shields to the Middle Bronze Age (Bronze Age Warfare: Manufacture and Use of Weaponry
|Bronze Shield, Found in River Thames, c. 1200 B.C.|
(British Museum, 1856,0701.1350)
It is an easier leap to suggest that shielding was common in the Early Bronze Age of the Northwest facade, however it is much more difficult to suggest that shields were used over the entire Beaker world. But, I think there are some important indicators within the arms inventories of Beaker graves that tell us a little about how they were equipped.
All of this stemming from a deeper look into the Beaker Bow which I should have
named "Estimating the Draw Weight of a Beaker Bow"
instead of "Calculating" but in any case..it's a blog.
Did the Palmela Point evolve because of shields?
Every design has a hierarchy in what it needs to do functionally.
A wheel is round because it needs to roll. A long rifle is long in order to be accurate at distance.
The copper Palmela Point
used by Beakerfolk presents a design problem to me because it doesn't do most everyday arrow jobs better or cheaper, but instead presents several drawbacks to everyday Chalcolithic use despite being positively identified with archery.
Palmela Points were:
- too heavy for small game (grain + shaft)
- too valuable to lose on long shots
- too valuable to bury on a short shot (lose in ground)
- too valuable to bury in a tree
- too valuable to lose in the underbrush
- not barbed, so not really a good arrowhead to have run off in an animal
- not barbed, so not the torturous, un-removable murder weapon of the Late Neolithic
And if you did hunt large game with a Palmela Point, despite not being barbed, there's always a chance that the animal will take off with the arrow in its hindquarter never to be seen again. Rarely do animals just drop in place, even with a fatal shot.
We do know however, the average grain of the points and the size of the tangs. Therefore, we know the approximate diameter of the arrowshaft. Taken together, we can guess the Palemela Point was delivered with sizable force. Also, we can look at similar points of the Bronze Age, Iron Age and through the Medieval Period to gain a better understanding of its usage. As iron and steel body armor reaches increasing hardness in the Medieval period, armor-piercing arrowheads also continue evolving into narrower, nippled blunts.
Looking at Palmela Points, it would appear that their purpose in life was to punch holes in things; like shields. Of course, copper may have been too soft to do this effectively. The simple explanation is the current one, that it is just a high status item.
Tanged daggers and close combat, another view
Metal allowed knives to get longer and wider. In hand to hand combat, reach is half the battle, which is why knives progressively grow to about four feet long in the Middle Ages.
A single punch from a tanged dagger anywhere on the body would have been followed by a quick bleed-out. There were no second chances for the individual being assaulted. At some point though, a Beaker man was forced to throw down his bow when the assailant came within close range and fight mano to mano.
Because all early shields on Earth were organic, it's hard to know when or where they came from, but they seem to be of enough antiquity to have been familiar to Late Neolithic Europeans. The length of tanged daggers seems to grow through the Beaker Age, and I will guess that with it the instinctive desire to protect an increasingly shrinking and vulnerable footing.
Of course this is all speculative on my part, but I would be interested to know if there are any representations of shields from rock art of Neolithic Europe. (?) Perhaps depictions of ditched enclosures may in fact be depictions of the leather shields??
>>> I'll be adding page three to the Beaker Blog soon. (Thirty random Bell Beaker burials!)<<<
* I'll add from my own archery experience in the woods: I've buried
a few aluminum arrows in the woods that archaeologists might find a
thousand years from now.
(1) Osgood, Richard; Monks, Sarah (2011) "Bronze Age Warfare" ISBN-13:
(2) Modlinger, Marianne; Uckelmann, Marion (2011) "Bronze Age Warfare: Manufacture and Use of Weaponry" [link in text]