An “astonishing and unparalleled” 2,300-year-old shield made of tree bark has been discovered in Leicestershire, the only example of its kind ever found in Europe. Archaeologists say the discovery of the shield, made between 395 and 250BC, has completely overturned assumptions about the weapons used in the Iron Age.
Although the news was only made public in May 2019, the shield was discovered in 2015 by archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Service. According to lead archaeologist Matt Beamish, organic objects from the period very rarely survive but the shield was preserved in waterlogged soil and may have been deposited in a water-filled pit.
The shield is made from green bark which had been stiffened with internal wooden strips and surrounded by a rim of hazel, with a twisted willow boss. The malleable green wood would then tighten as it dried, giving the shield its strength. It had previously been assumed that tree bark would have been too flimsy for use in battle. However experiments to make a similar weapon using alder and willow showed the 3mm-thick shield would not only have been tough enough but also incredibly light. “This is a lost technology” says Beamish, “it has not been seen before as far as we are aware, but presumably it is a technique that was used in many ways for making bark items.”
Julia Farley, curator of British and European Iron Age collections at the British Museum, said: “So often it is gold which grabs the headlines, but this bark shield is much rarer. Because so little organic material survives from the period, we are left with the earthworks, the shiny metal work, some of the ironwork, but we don’t really see the everyday world of these people: the wooden houses they lived in with their thatched roofs, their clothing.”
The shield has been donated to the British Museum where Farley said she hoped it would go on display next year.
Text: Alun Harvey, based on a report by Esther Addley in The Guardian newspaper.