Watch and Review: Shields from Iron Age Britain – Art, Violence and the Body | 17/10/2019 | Matt Hitchcock

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The Battersea Shield | Wikmedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

On the 17th of October 2019, I had the pleasure of watching Matt Hitchcock (@ArchaeologyMatt) deliver a paper on his PhD topic, this is a review of that presentation.

This paper dealt with an extremely interesting topic, though one I wasn’t familiar with. Iron Age Britain was a place where style mattered, and amongst the elite of Iron Age society shields provided this. Matt Hitchcock puts forward the view that shields were an important part of Iron Age society. In this review I plan to discuss the content of the paper, Hitchcock’s thesis and the evidence he provides for that and his presentation style.

“To throw away one’s shield is the supreme disgrace” – Tacitus, Germania, 6.

Hitchcock opened his presentation with this quote by Tacitus, to demonstrate the importance of the shield in the mindset of the Celtic peoples. It also put the Classicists in the audience at ease! From this he moved on to discussing the history of Shields in Britain, how they were present in the Bronze Age and then disappeared around 800 BC, at the turn of the Iron Age. Shields reappeared at around the same time as La Tene culture (an artistic style from mainland Europe) came to Britain (around the 4th century BC). However, although elements of La Tene art are featured on shields (swirl designs and abstract animals), it is emphasised that the development of decorative and artistic shields was a British phenomenon.

As time progressed the designs on the shields became more and more elaborate. From this Hitchcock challenged the consensus, since Barry Cunliffe (a very well-regarded Prehistorian) has previously stated that these highly decorated shields were ‘parade shields.’ To this Hitchcock replied, “Did they even have parades!?” Hitchcock points out that there have been assumptions about these shields simply being status symbols and not used in combat. Hitchcock’s thesis is that in British Iron Age shields style wins over practicality, and that the shields have a much more complicated purpose that simply as conspicuous consumption.

What followed was a quick round up the evidence for this. Confirmation bias is an issue, since it is much more common for the metal shields and shield bosses to survive, when in reality wooden shields would have been more common. Hitchcock cited archaeological evidence of a recent find in a waterlogged deposit of a wooden shield, made of woven wood. What the prevalence of these shields mean is that there is a very skewed idea of what they represent, since it is the highly decorated ones often found in what is assumed to be in ritual context, giving this idea that they are simply sacred objects, rather than weapons of war.

The next strand of evidence was his examination of a shield boss found in the River Trent. This boss had damage on it that consistent with sword strokes. This boss was highly elaborate and contained interesting aspects of Celtic art, such as the creation of an abstract creature that had talons (perhaps representative of prowess in battle). This combination of the art and battle damage shows the complexities of these artefacts and helps to support Hitchcock’s thesis that these shields had a more practical purpose than first thought. The art upon this shields may also be linked to ideas of social control, with the shield user asserting themselves over society, with the symbols representing power; the shield itself then becomes a symbol of control.

I really enjoyed Matt Hitchcock’s presentation, since it was thoughtfully presented and catered to a wide audience. I have already mentioned how he used Tacitus to bring the conversation towards to the Classicists amongst the audience, and he also used the Fallen Gaul statue in a similar manner. This combination of visual and literary evidence meant that the Q&A at the end was more varied as the different disciplines brought together their own knowledge towards the topic. He handled this very well, especially when questioned about very obscure passages of Tyrtaeus. He was very comfortable and passionate about his subject and this helped with how engaging the presentation was, and how much retention there from the audience.

As a paper, it aimed to challenge conventional wisdom and to create new avenues of research. This was done by examining older views and challenging those assumptions, particularly those of a particular scholar (Cunliffe). It also draws together new archaeological evidence, this has the affect of showing that these previous assumptions are out of date, and that his new argument is essential to continuing the discourse on the topic of Iron Shields.

To conclude, the content of this paper was memorable and extremely interesting. It was able to be understood by an audience with very little prior knowledge and this allowed a cross department discussion about the implications of the research, making it all the more interesting and valuable to all involved. I look forward to reading the finished paper, as I believe that the challenges Hitchcock makes towards the consensus seem important to make our understanding of Iron Age Britain both more modern and closer to the complex reality of the past.

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