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Reconstruction of the so-called “Shield frieze” fresco in the Old Palace at Tiryns with depicted figure-of-eight shields (photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
By Periklis Deligiannis
Most scholars believe that also the Dipylon shield of the Geometric period (10th-8th centuries BC) came from the evolution of the full-body figure-of-eight shield. The Dipylon shield, which was named after the Athenian Dipylon gate where the first pottery with images of the former, was discovered, had much in common with the figure-of-eight shield. It had a large size, covering the warrior from the chin to the knees. It was made of wicker branches and leather, without excluding its further enhancing with more wooden parts. It was curved to a degree that “encapsulated” the body of the warrior, like the figure-of-eight shield. In the middle of its surface, it had two semicircular notches which facilitated the handling of the spear and the sword. But many other scholars believe that the Dipylon and the Boeotian shield came from the main Hittite type of shield which had roughly the same shape.

Evans concluded that the Boeotian shield came from a transformation of the figure-of-eight one and that the Dipylon shield came from Danubian and Asiatic influences on shield design. Danielidou considers that the proto-Boeotian shield of the Sub-Mycenaean (11th century BC) and the Geometric period is a small figure-of-eight shield, which evolved into the Archaic Boeotian shield. The strongest evidence in favor of the use of the proto-Boeotian shield since the Late Mycenean era is another, less famous “vase of the warriors” of the 13th century B.C. from Iolkos in Thessaly, with a depiction of warriors bearing proto-Boeotian shields.
Most archaeological findings with Mycenaean depictions of figure-of-eight shields come from Boeotia, where that shield type seems to have been very popular. So it seems consequential that the figure-of-eight shield survived there as a symbol of worship and also as a functional defensive weapon and thus evolved into the proto-Boeotian shield and the subsequent Boeotian shield of the Archaic era. The latter was possibly in use until the early 5th century B.C.
During the Late Mycenaean period the new tactics brought about the adoption of two new shield types, the simple round one and the peltoid type. The latter is best described as an “inverted” pelte (πέλτη) because it had almost the same shape as the later Thracian pelte but the Bronze Age warrior was holding it inverted. The inverted pelte had a round shape, but on the lower part there was a large semicircular notch for the usefulness of which, several theories have been proposed. However it is certain that the large notch on the shield was useful in the new tactics which included several duels during the battle due to their mobile character. The notch was enabling the warrior to move fast or run without his thighs being blocked by the bottom of his shield. We can assume with certainty that the round shield existed before the Late Mycenaean period, due to the simplicity of its shape, but its construction was weaker and not used by the heavy infantry. The same may be true for the peltoid shield.
The materials of the new shields were identical to the aforementioned proto-Mycenaean full-body shields: lattice of wicker in a wooden frame, covered with successive layers of bovine or goat skin. But it seems that the frame could be metallic (bronze) in some peltoid or round shields. During the conflict, the new shields were no longer hung with a bandolier, but the warrior was holding them on his left hand as the Archaic and Classical hoplites used to do. The telamon (bandolier) was now only useful for the shield’s hanging on the back of the combatant. Most had a brass reinforcing navel, often nail-shaped, probably in order to be used combatively. Sometimes they had a few more, smaller navels. The new shields had the appropriate area to cover the human body which was usually protected with armor as well, but also to be easy to use in battle. They had different sizes but they were significantly smaller than the old full-body shields.
It is probable that some nobles of the Aegean of the Late Mycenaean period were using shields of the Herzsprung type. The bronze Herzsprung shield was named by the archaeologists after a site in northern Germany, where the first samples of it were found. Actually the name refers to a group of shield types, used in most regions of western and central Europe, in the Aegean area and in Cyprus. They belonged to the weaponry of the Urnfield cultural cluster of Central Europe (gradually widespread to a large part of the European continent), and possibly of the Late Mycenaean world. The Aegean types of the Herzsprung shield are considered local rather than Central European. It must be considered almost certain that the shield of Achilles, enthusiastically described by Homer in the Iliad, belonged to this type. It has been postulated that this description is one of Homer’s typical anachronisms because the Herzsprung shield was used up to his time, the 9th-8th centuries BC, but this does not exclude the particular shield type to be already in use among the Mycenaeans since the 13th century B.C., the most possible date of the Trojan war (mid-13th c.). However, rather few wealthy warriors could afford it, because it was the most expensive type of shield up to the late 8th century BC, when it fell into disuse because of the emergence of the Argive (hoplite) shield. The Herzsprung shield was covered with brass and was typically decorated with wrought-bronze motifs, often elaborate. The typical Herzsprung shields of proto-Celtic Europe had a hammered decoration of concentric circles, interrupted by a V-shaped or U-shaped geometric interference. Herzsprung shields of the Geometric era have been excavated at Delphi in central Greece and at Idalion in Cyprus.

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A depiction of combatants in the so-called “Vase of the Warriors” of the Late Mycenean or the Sub-Mycenaean period. They bear peltoid shields.

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Another Reconstruction of a Mycenaean fresco with a figure-of-eight-shield.


Geometric Age depiction of a warrior with a Dipylon shield.

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A terracotta model of a Dipylon shield (8th century BC) depicting the wicker grid on the curved side, and the internal wooden tensioners on the hollow side.

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Currency of the Classical Boeotians bearing the depiction of a Boeotian shield and the first letters of the name of the renowned Theban commander Epameinondas (ΕΠΑΜ).

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Stater of Classical Thebes bearing the depiction of a Boeotian shield.

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Herzsprung shield found at Delphi in central Greece.

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One of the more than twelve Herzsprung-type bronze votive shields, found together at Fröslunda farm near Lidköping, Västergötland, Sweden. The shields are on display at Västergötlands Museum, Skara (Wikipedia commons).

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Late Bronze Age bronze shield of Herzsprung type, from Nackhalla, Halland, Sweden. 9th – 8th c. BCE

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• Danielidou D.: The figure-of-eight-shield in the Aegean of the 2nd millennium BC, Μελέτες της Ακαδημίας Αθηνών.
• Demargne, P.,  Aegean Art, London 1964
• Vermeule Emily: Greece in the Bronze Age, Chicago, 1972.
• Collective work: Polemos, Le contexte guerrier en Egee a l’Age du Bronze, Liege, 1999
• Connolly, P., The Greek Armies, Oxford, 1977
• Collective work: Archaeologia Homerica, vols. I-III, Gottingen, 1967-1970.
• Grguric, N., The Myceneans, c.l650-1100 BC, Oxford, 2005
• Deligiannis P., The Trojan war : an archaeological, historical and military approach, Athens 2010
• Luce J.V.: Homer and the Homeric Iliad, London, 1975.


Periklis Deligiannis