Symbols of Protection: The Significance of Animal-ornamented Shields in Early Anglo-Saxon England

Symbols of Protection: The Significance of Animal-ornamented Shields in Early Anglo-Saxon England

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Symbols of Protection: The Significance of Animal-ornamented Shields in Early Anglo-Saxon England

Dickinson, Tania M.

Medieval Archaeology (2005) 


The significance of shields with animal ornament on the boss and/or board in early Anglo-Saxon society is sought in the coincidence of artefactual, stylistic and iconographic symbolism. Twenty shields buried in the 6th to earliest 7th century, together with seventeen further mounts which were probably originally designed for shields, form the basis of a systematic typological review; decoration in Salin’s Style I is emphasised. Analysis of dating, distribution and use in burial establishes cultural and social contexts. The meaning of the ornamental repertoire is sought through iconographic analogies, notably with Scandinavian bracteates and their putative association with a cult of Óðinn/Woden. It is proposed that the animal ornament invested the shields with a specific apotropaic quality, which emphasised, and amplified, the protective role of select adult males, and hence their authority over kin, community and even kingdom.

Anthropomorphic and zoomorphic decoration of shields can be evidenced, at least sporadically, from Roman to Viking times. While textual and pictorial information contributes to this knowledge, detailed archaeological analysis depends primarily on the survival of metal fittings. In post-Roman Europe, with its custom of burial with weapons, shields with such fittings are famously known from later 6th- and 7th-century northern Italy, parts of Germany and Vendel-period Sweden, with the most magnificent being the great shield buried in mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. Standing behind these, qualitatively and partly also chronologically, there is, however, a significant group of Early Anglo-Saxon shields which have their iron bosses and/or wooden boards embellished with zoomorphic metal fittings. They have been the subject of many, albeit brief, discussions, which have dated them to he mid-6th to early 7th century and established that they were buried mainly in eastern England in graves of men of elite status or at least of high-standing within their local community, though some were also adapted for jewellery in female burials. Far less agreement has emerged on the role and meaning of the animal decoration itself. Suggestions for its purpose encompass military insignia, including practical means of identification in battle, ostentatious social display, and protective symbolism. Its ideological reference points have been located in Late Antique tradition (Romano-British and post-Roman North Italian), religious belief (Christianity and Scandinavian paganism), and ancestral or ‘clan’ (Germanic) totems.

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