What is a Shield?


'A broad piece of armour carried on the arm' (Collins English Dictionary)

'An article of defensive armour carried in the hand or attached by a strap to the left arm of a soldier, as a protection from the weapons of the enemy. Sometimes spec. as an article of the kind larger than the buckler or smaller than the pavis...' (Oxford English Dictionary)

'Shields vary greatly in material and form. In Africa hide and basketry are much used, the former mainly in the east and south among the cattle-rearing peoples. In Indonesia, Australia and the Pacific region those of wood are more common, though basketry ones are also found. The Australian shields are small and light, suitable for parrying blows, and in this are similar to those of the Dinka and Mundu of the Sudan; elsewhere they are mostly for covering the most vital parts of the body. The shield is essentially the means of defense for those who use the club or spear and who fight mainly in the open. It is not convenient for a bow and arrow people since it interferes with the free use of both hands. In New Guinea, however, this difficulty has been overcome. Among the Tapiro pygmies of Netherlands New Guinea [now Irian Jaya], a small shield is hung around the neck in a net bag in such a way as to protect the chest. Among the Gulf tribes of Papua a large wooden shield, which has on its upper edge a deep slot for the passage of the left arm, is suspended over the shoulder.' (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1962)

Weapons as a class of thing are usually subdivided between those that were defensive and those which were mainly used offensively. Shields were defensive; spears, clubs, bows and arrows etc. were all offensive. The weaponry displays in the Pitt Rivers Museum show the variety of uses to which weapons have been put. Probably their principal use was for subsistence through hunting and fishing and for basic survival, though almost all weapons were also used for fighting. Some may have been used in ritual and ceremonial contexts, often to symbolize power. The variations show how people's ingenuity has created new forms to match different circumstances. Some weapons were elaborately carved, ornamented and decorated to a high degree which made the object aesthetically pleasing to its original owner (as it is to the museum visitor) as well as of practical use.

The shield was the most widespread defensive weapon in the world. It protected a warrior from his enemy's blows and could be used to deflect thrown spears and other missiles. Although a simple stick used to ward off a blow could be considered a shield, a true shield always had some form of grip. Almost all shields could only be used defensively though some were made in such a way that they could be used in attack if required, for example, some Indian shields had long animal horns attached that could be used for piercing (there were some of these shown on Screen 2 of the Bethnal Green Museum display, featured in this project [click here to go to Pitt Rivers catalogue descriptions of these shields]).

Different types of shields were developed to take account of the forms of offensive weapons used in battle and the degree of protection and mobility required by the warrior. Light hand-held shields were better suited to hand-to-hand fighting and mounted cavalry whilst tall, heavy shields set in the ground offered more effective defence in pitched battle. The shape and size of shields can vary from, at one extreme, East African and Australian parrying shields which were long and very thin with the grip often being the widest part, to some Naga shields from north east India, which were larger than the warriors that carried them. These shapes reflect the different uses of the shields - the parrying shield was used to deflect blows and did not protect the warrior's body by its presence, while the larger shields were often designed to act as a shelter for the whole body.

All shields had some form of grip or handle on the inside. Some had grips in the middle that were grasped in the hand and held at arm's length whilst others had larger loops through which the arm was passed. The latter type may have been designed to leave the hand free to hold an offensive weapon, though some had combinations of adjustable arm loops and fixed hand grips. Occasionally shields had loops by which the shield could have been suspended from the neck to give greater protection, additional support and allow more freedom of movement. Many shields had bosses: circular metal projections at the centre of the front. In some shields the bosses formed part of the rivets for the handle on the inside, in others they were used for their decorative qualities alone.

Many materials have been used to make shields: wood, leather and rawhide, basketry, metal and cloth. Most shields were made to a very high standard reflecting the fact that a shield was usually designed for long term use and to save the owner's life.

Some shields were designed purely for show at ceremonies: these were often light and highly decorated and would not have been suitable for use in warfare. Sometimes shields were used for both purposes and in that case the ornamentation on the front was often removable. Other shields were designed only for use in ritual contexts: for example, special dance shields were made for Kikuyu boys' initiations and a Malinke basketry shield was used to hide initiates' faces from adult men.

The surface of the shield was an obvious area for decoration and because shields protected the warriors from harm, many of the embellishments also had protective properties. In many cultures, such as the North American Plains, the shield was believed to be full of magic power which could adversely influence the enemy and protect the owner. Throughout the world, the fronts of shields have been decorated so that the identity of the owner or his group can be recognized. In Europe for example, it was difficult to distinguish knights from each other when they were fully armoured without the help of heraldic devices on the fronts of their shields. By the end of the medieval period, heraldry had become a very complex code which allowed marriage alliances, descent and allegiances to be represented through the use of images and emblems. In some areas such as Kalimantan (Borneo), designs were painted on both the inside and outside of the shield. Other forms of information have been codified on to the shield front and this information was sometimes used to intimidate the enemy or to celebrate prowess. The Angami Nagas [from Northeast India], for example, often decorated their ceremonial shields with representations of human heads made from bear-skin. These symbolized the number of heads taken by the warrior.

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