Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Bell Beaker Shields?

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'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 Point
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

Tanged Dagger, Beaker grave, British Museum
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: 9780752476025

(2) Modlinger, Marianne; Uckelmann, Marion (2011)  "Bronze Age Warfare:  Manufacture and Use of Weaponry"  [link in text]


  1. The oldest representations of shields I know of are from SW Iberian Late Bronze Age (and not Chalcolithic, as it corresponds to BB). Make an image search for "estela extremeña bronce" and you will find plenty of them: circular and with the characteristic V-shaped incision, for a spear or maybe just for visibility? This would be the c. 1300-800 BCE period. Often they are accompanied by engravings of schematic men (the deceased) and very long swords (common in Bronze Age Iberia).

    This seems a dedicated page (in Spanish):

    The first slab shows two warriors carrying long swords and one may also be carrying a small bow. There's a spear under them and also a shield to their right. If you scroll down, you will see more, similar in essence and many details, although they usually represent a single man, apparently lying dead. From these slabs (and actual findings) it would seem that in the Bronze Age the warrior usually was armed with long sword, spear and round shield with the characteristic V-shaped incision. Some slabs even depict chariots.

    1. I thought I remember seeing rock art depictions of what was interpreted to be henges or enclosures, but I can't remember where. With the oldest Irish shield being 2000-1600 B.C., I wonder if some shields already had a deep history in the pre-Atlantic Bronze Age?

      Spears are the other question mark which I didn't mention. I haven't seen too much evidence for spear or javelin use in the Chalcolithic in Western Europe, unless larger Palmela points were javelin heads.(?)

    2. For the dates you mention for the shields above, these seem to be of Bronze Age epoch; even the Kilmahogue shield seems to be dated to 1950–1540 BC, median: 1745, already in the Bronze Age. And in the Bronze Age there were spears and swords for sure, as well as efficient metallic axes, so it was probably a whole new era in the military aspect.

      You say that the Kilmahogue shield "slightly" post-dates the Amesbury archer but this guy is from 2300 BCE, what is aprox. five centuries before the beginning of the Bronze Age and 350 years before the oldest possible date for the Kimahogue shield. I would say that the difference is notable and even if the Amesbury guy would have been from a later date, c. 2000, the change in weaponry began after that time, not before.

      Of course, I can't absolutely reject the possibility of shields earlier but they seem dysfunctional with bow and arrow weaponry, although they could have been used together with axes or by auxiliary shield-bearers maybe. For single man equipment they seem to work better with spears, swords, axes and the like, and these (axes, daggers and bludgeons excepted) did not exist before bronze metallurgy made them possible.

      So I would say that it seems quite possible that shields became common as the Bronze Age set in.

    3. Thanks for making the comment. Actually, now that you mention the age-system, which is convoluted, it might be a good add-on page with reference to Beakers within various regions.

      Essentially, the (British) Early Bronze Age is the Beaker culture in the British Isles, regardless if copper only or tinned bronze. This would be confusing enough, except that beakers lingered the longest in the Isles, especially Ireland.

      On the Kilmahamogue shield, the median carbon date is still within the Irish Beaker Age. Even with the latest carbon date, it doesn't leave too much statistical room for one of the earliest shields to be found in a bog bordering the Beaker age. On the other hand, I'll confess I'm somewhat skeptical of radiocarbon dates from bogs. I suppose time will tell with new discoveries.

    4. That would be a great idea. Because we tend to think (pan-European processes) that Bronze Age = no BBs but, as you say, this varies and, in some areas (not just the Islands but also Portuguese Estremadura and maybe other places), it may last quite a bit longer, well into the Bronze Age.

      What I would not do is talking about "Beaker culture" and stick to the "phenomenon" term, because "culture" implies way too many things that BB is almost certainly not, including being a standard, when it is actually often rather a complement or even peripheral to the main cultural roots, which more often than not are Megalithic. So it is always interesting to deal with BB in the wider cultural context because it's not the same BB in Moravia than BB in Portugal, etc., although they obviously have some sort of relationship. Even in the NW BB province there are surely very different background realities between Megalithic Ireland and post-Corded Rhineland, even if the beakers are similar.

  2. PS- I would say that these Bronze Age "hopilites" actually replaced the Chalcolithic bowmen, so it is a different and post-BB development in fact.

    It at the beginning of this period when one of the last BB-related cultures, VNSP/Zambujal, collapsed definitively. Even if the trigger may have been a tsunami, judging on the silting of the canal that linked Zambujal to the sea, the fact that post-BB Bronze cultures had already become dominant almost everywhere suggests that the BB era was actually being defeated by shields and bronze weapons since much earlier. The Bronze Age was a change of era in all Europe, one could well say that Middle Ages began then (senso lato).

    1. yes i'd agree with that.

      it seems to me the chalcolithic BB archers may have had a significant edge over others until the transition to the big bronze hoplite style fighters.

  3. That's an interesting theory. In one of the 30 random Beaker burials (posting soon on page 3), there is a recently discovered cemetery in Northern Germany that has a mix of wares from the Corded, Beaker and a single, closely associated cup from the Unetice Culture. It would be interesting to see how Central Europe entered the Bronze Age.

  4. - 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 a projectile in center of a tree
    - too valuable to lose in the underbrush
    - not barbed, so not really the Late Neolithic+ idea of a hunting arrowhead
    - not barbed, so not the torturous, un-removable murder weapon of the Late Neolithic

    my first thought reading that list is big targets (so hard to miss) with a lot of padding/fur to punch through like natural armor.

    (or it could be human targets with some kind of armor)

    i wonder what kind of arrows american indians used to shoot bison?

    as you say i doubt very much an arrow would kill a very large animal straight away (not even close) so i think the idea would be to shoot it and then follow the blood trail as it bled out.

    1. "i wonder what kind of arrows american indians used to shoot bison?"

      scrub that, they used to shoot from short range while riding so i guess they wouldn't need high penetration arrows

  5. As far as thick hide, wild boar might be a possibility where something really penetrating might be useful. Their vital region is very small and it's under the head which is heavily padded with fat and bone. But I'm still kind of skeptical on this (below)

    As far as large animals, I think the strategy around the world has been mostly to injure / exhaust the animal until the hunter can get close enough for a kill. This is why primitive hunting is not legal in much of the US because of the ethics involved. But for the Chalcolithic hunter, it would seem to me that a barbed arrowhead is the right tool for these jobs. The barbs will keep the animal bleeding spots on the ground for the hunter to track.

    A Palmela point will kill and keep going, so that's not the issue. It's a choice of pulling something out of a quiver that another arrow can do better and cheaper. Of course, to be honest I may be over-rationalizing the situation. Bell Beaker people were perfectly capable of making bad decisions. Also, copper may not have been as scarce as we think it was.

    In any case, Beaker archers were very proud of their boar kills, and rightly so since it would have been the most challenging animal for the archer. Their sense of smell is several hundred times better than deer or hounds, and I know from experience shooting at them, they are very, very fast. They are also a great menace, to both Neolithic farmers and modern farmers.

    1. "Also, copper may not have been as scarce as we think it was".

      Copper was definitely not scarce in Iberia for example, and for all I know neither in Ireland nor surely in other places either. The maps I've seen of actual Bronze Age copper mines in Iberia are just full of mine-indicating dots almost everywhere. Notice that Iberia was once extremely rich in minerals in general, not just copper, but the more valuable tin (concentrated in the NW), as well as silver and gold. All this mineral wealth would eventually attract more advanced populations from the Eastern Mediterranena who were probably decisive in the colonial degeneration since the Middle Bronze Age onwards.

      Just like today's Congo or the Persian Gulf are prey of international ambitions, usually very destructive, exactly that happened to ancient Iberia (mentioned in legend as Hesperides, Tartessos and probably also as Atlantis) precisely because of its mineral wealth.

      This mineral exploitation extended even into the Industrial era, although more localized (copper from Huelva, iron from Bilbao, etc.) because most resources were literally exhausted by the end of the Roman Empire, which was the last colonial power of the Metal Ages.

    2. "As far as thick hide, wild boar might be a possibility where something really penetrating might be useful."

      Yes, or if boar maybe even stopping power? The magnum 45 of the neolithic?

      I was thinking of this

      "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."

      and it reminded me of longbow war arrows being very thick shafted and heavy - enough to stop a charging boar?

  6. The first shields for defence against the copper dagger may be in plain view, but mis-labelled for over a hundred years.
    According to re-enactment forums and old treatises then a vambrace; a hardened leather or metal plate on the wrist-bones is useful to catch the dagger thrust of your opponent with greater confidence and less chance of injury. This I propose was the real function of the stone 'archer's wrist-guard. My un-academic document on the subject can be found on as 'A bracelet to die for: The Beaker Vambrace and Community Defence against the copper dagger.' but with that title you hardly need to read the whole thing! Graham Hill.

    1. Link is broken.

      With what weapon would you argue that the vambrace was used with? Another dagger? I mean: seems hard to actually stop and effectively counter your enemy's attack with just your wrist, although it may have worked against dogs.

    2. The hand is what makes the lunge to catch the dagger bearers wrist. This is long-standing martial arts practice.
      The dis-incentive is that a less than perfect move leaves the gripping outer wrist vulnerable to pricking and slashing from the dagger. Hence the wrist -guard or vambrace as I define this Beaker object.
      'Beaker Vambrace' is found as a draft document by Google search.