Reconstructed Mycenaean fresco of a figure-of-eight shield
By Periklis Deligiannis
In the Minoan and Early Mycenaean period (until the 14th century BC) the main types of shield (called σάκος in Mycenean Greek) used by the early spearmen of the Aegean was the ‘tower’ shield and the figure-of-eight shield, both invented in Minoan Crete as it is demonstrated archaeologically.
These full-body shields protected the warrior from chin to ankles. They were made primarily of a dense grid of willow branches which was adapted into a strong wooden frame. The reported structure was covered by a series of successive layers of bovine skin and as it is demonstrated in the Theran frescoes, of goatskin. The shield was used hanging from the left shoulder of the warrior, with a diagonally hung bandolier, a leather strap (τελαμών in Classical Greek), and had at least a central handle on its interior. Those two types of full-body shield were used simultaneously in the 16th century B.C. and were rather not related to any particular units of the Aegean armies. It seems that their random use within the same battle line, was due to the personal preferences of the warriors and their socioeconomic status (because the figure-of-eight shields were technically superior compared to the tower shields and therefore more expensive).
The castellated or tower shield was quadrangular, rectangular, curved and often had a semicircular or rectangular extension on its upper part, to protect the head of the warrior. In the aforementioned frescoes excavated at the town of Akroteri in the Aegean island of Thera (inhabited by Cycladics and possibly Minoan settlers but surely under strong Minoan politico-cultural influence) there is the largest concentration of tower shields’ depictions. It seems that the tower shield was older than the figure-of-eight one. The shield of the Telamonian Ajax in the Trojan War was rather of the tower type, but covered with bronze according to Homer’s description. The main drawback of the tower type was that, in contrast with the figure-of-eight shield, it was preventing the hand movements of the warrior due to its width. So it fell into disuse since around 1500 BC as it is demonstrated archaeologically (it disappears from the depictions earlier than this chronology). On the other hand, the case of Ajax denotes that it was not completely abandoned, but it was used by very few and robust warriors.
The figure-of-eight shield was thus named by the archaeologists because of her shape that looks like the figure 8. It was so popular in the Aegean world that it additionally became gradually an emblem of power and a religious/cult emblem of the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, probably representative of some (unknown) deities. The archaeologist Arthur Evans and others, who were involved after him with the problem of the origins of the figure-of-eight shield, concluded that the Minoans were its first users. The Mycenaeans introduced it from the latter. The archaeologist D. Danielidou in her study for the figure-of-eight shield, concluded that it appeared in Crete later than the Early Minoan II period (second half of the 3rd millennium BC) and from there spread to mainland Greece during the Late Helladic I (17th-16th centuries B.C.). From there the Mycenaean improved ‘version’ of the figure-of-eight shield spread in Crete of the Late Minoan I B period, as a “military loan by return” from the Achaean conquerors of the island. The use of the figure-of-eight shield as a defensive weapon and a cult symbol peaked during the Late Helladic II and III. The findings with depictions of figure-of-eight shields come from the entire Mycenaean world, mostly from Boeotia. Two of them come from Egypt and from Gezer of Palestine. The last two findings may be products of commerce or belonged to Mycenaean mercenaries.
The figure-of-eight shield, in contrast with the tower one, had a transverse umbilical ‘hump’ on its surface which allows the warrior to use it offensively in order to break the enemy shield wall. Additionally, its curved shape would be effective for the ostracism of the incoming strikes or projectiles. But the main feature of the figure-of-eight shield is the two lateral “notches” on its middle, which gave it the shape of the figure 8. Several theories have been proposed for their utility, but the most likely is that they served the ease of the handling of the sword and the spear. The notch allows the warrior to strike a thrusting blow with his sword on his opponent from the side, a view which (as the archaeologist N. Grguric correctly notes) is supported by the fact that the early Minoan-Mycenaean swords were designed mostly for thrusting. The same could be achieved with the spear, managing a low blow on the opponent (the high blow was obtained using the spear above the shield). In general, in the battle line (a kind of “phalanx”) of the spearmen, the aforementioned notches would create empty diamond-shaped spaces on the shieldwall of the figure-of-eight shields (with each shield embedded on the next one), from which spaces the spearmen could strike their opponents with their spear or sword. If some tower shields were inserted among the eight-shaped ones in the shield wall, then the mentioned spaces between the shields would be quite smaller and would be triangular-shaped.
An archaeologically accurate representation by Peter Connolly of the heroes of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War, depicting as well most of the shields that I describe in the text. Ajax has an outdated brass-covered tower shield (as Homer quotes), Odysseus has hung at his back a simple round one, Achilles and Agamemnon bear peltoid shields. On the Trojan side, both Hector and Aeneas bear an early form of proto-Boeotian or proto-Dipylon shield, coming from evolution of the older figure-of-eight shields. The reconstruction of the Trojans is an apt point by Connolly, demonstrating the unity of weaponry on both sides of the Aegean coasts in the Late Bronze Age (artwork credit: Connoly P., The Legend of Odysseus, Oxford 1991).
Another theory which does not contradict the previous one, argues that the notches of the figure-of-eight shield were reducing its weight, thereby relieving the warrior.
The size of the full-body shields provided full protection to the warrior; however it constituted their main disadvantage because they restricted very much his movements, forcing him to fight almost statically. However this was not a decisive disadvantage for the tactics of that period.
It must be considered a certainty that other types of shields, of smaller size, were in use during the Early Minoan and Mycenaean period but they were not appropriate for the tactics of the heavy spearmen. Those shields were suitable for the light infantry and other light troops and perhaps for the skirmishers, and we can assume that the wicker or willow branches and the skin of cattle and goats were again the basic materials of their construction.
The dramatic changes in warfare and tactics during the Late Mycenaean period (13th-12th centuries BC) introducing new mobile tactics and the more extensive use of bronze armor by the heavy infantry, threw the figure-of-eight shield into disuse. But the archaeological evidence indicates that its use was not abolished everywhere. A Cypriot statuette of the 7th century BC, depicts a warrior with a full-body figure-of-eight shield at this very late period. The shield of the statuette has two wheel-shaped lobes of the figure 8, which are connected by an intermediate part. The figure-of-eight shields generally did not disappear but were greatly reduced in size in order to have approximately the same length as the new smaller shields of the Late Mycenaean age. It seems that the figure-of-eight shield evolved into the later Boeotian shield of the Greek Archaic era (700-479 BC).