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Closeup photo of a shield of sticks thrust through zigzag slits in a sheet of leather

The shield from Pazyryk kurgan 1. Label not legible in my photo of it. Located in The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo by author, September 2015.

I recently had the opportunity to visit St. Petersburg and see some things which I had wanted to see for very many years. One of these was the shield excavated by S.I. Rudenko from the barrows at Pazyryk in the Russian part of the Altai mountains where Russia, Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Kazakhistan come together. The structure of the barrows and the local climate caused permafrost to develop beneath them, preserving some of their contents despite the intrusion of grave-robbers. Shields made in a similar way appear in Greek paintings of Persian soldiers from just over another border of the Achaemenid empire. The barrows (Russian singular kurgan) at Pazyryk are usually attributed to the fourth or third centuries BCE, but many of the objects found in them are older. To the best of my knowledge, the next surviving examples come from the siege of Dura Europos at least 500 years later (a photo is available in Nicholas Sekunda, The Persian Army, p. 21).

A photo of a shield of sticks and leather as above

Another view of the shield from Pazyryk kurgan 1. Label not legible in my photo of it. Located in The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo by author, September 2015.

The shield from Pazyryk kurgan 1 is about the size of an A4 or US letter sheet of paper. The body is 35 sticks stripped of their bark, thrust through slits in a sheet of leather, and laced together in a row. Its grip is a flexible leather strap. Duncan Head says that it was found at the left rear of one of the saddled horses in the barrow (The Persian Army, p. 47). I wonder how it was supposed to be used. The small shields which I have wielded have a boss and a solid central grip, so they can protect the sword hand or push firmly with the edge against the opponent’s body or weapons. This shield would not protect the fist so well, and the flexible grip would not be so good at transferring force from the wielder to a target, while it is too small to be very helpful against arrows. Small shields with flexible grips of leather, rope, or chain are common in the history of arms and armour, so they must have been a good solution to some martial problem.

While it is wonderful to have this shield, it is good to remember that it does not represent the only kind of shield made from sticks. I already mentioned that this shield is only about a foot tall, a quarter the size of the Persian shields in pictures which it is sometimes used to reconstruct. It is also made from twigs, a material which might have been more available in the Altai highlands than some parts of the Achaemenid empire.

There are shields made from bundles of reeds attached side by side. These must have been very effective at stopping missiles, but heavy, so they often appear in Mesopotamian carvings of troops besieging a city with one end resting on the ground.

There are also shields made from basketwork, often round or oblong with a reinforced boss at the centre to protect the hand and arm where they rest closest to the face of the shield. These were popular in India, China, and the Ottoman Empire in recent times, so many survive in museums. Round shields about half as tall as their wielder and a foot deep which seem to be made in this way appear in the hands of tribute-bearers on the reliefs on the Apadana at Persepolis. Because I am sick, I can’t spare the time and energy to find, copy, and paste photos of them.

An armour on a stand consisting of a long-sleeved shirt of mail, a shallow round steel helmet with a skirt of mail suspended from it, a domed wicker shield with a steel boss, and a broad-bladed spear

A Turkish armour from the end of the sixteenth or beginning of the seventeenth century. The shallow wicker shield with a boss was typical of Ottoman soldiers at this time, although many no longer bothered carrying them since they would not stop a bullet. Dritte Rustkammer, Schloss Ambras, outskirts of Innsbruck, Austria. Copyright by author, 2013.

Even worse, almost any shield covered with hide or cloth could have wickerwork under the cover to give structure and provide another layer of defense. The “violin-shaped” shields in the reliefs at Persepolis might have been made in this way, as might their cousins in Late Bronze Age Anatolia and Archaic Greece. Unless a source shows the back of such a shield with a pattern indicating that it is rough, it is impossible to show that there is wicker inside. Frustratingly, no Greek source which I have read specifies both a wicker shield’s shape and its material, and all of the references to γέρρα (“wicker things”) could refer to a variety of types of shield made from sticks or reeds depicted in contemporary art.

Two earlier shields from the kurgans at Tuekta, a site in the same general region as Pazyryk, show another danger. On the left we have a shield made the same way as the Pazyryk shield but about 50% larger and with a different pattern of slits:

A photograp of a square shield of branches inserted through diagonal zigzagged slits into a sheet of leather

Shield from Tuekta kurgan 1. Sixth or fifth century BCE. Wood, leather (деребо, кожа). Inventory Number 2179/959. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo by author, September 2015.

At first glance, a second shield appears similar, although it has retained its colours better through the long centuries of darkness and ice.

Square wooden shield with its face carved to imitate sticks and leather and a short leather strap on the back to grip it

View of the second shield from Tuekta kurgan 1. Sixth or fifth century BCE. Wood, leather (деребо, кожа). Inventory Number 2179/960. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo by author, September 2015.

A closer look reveals an important difference between this and the first two shields.

Grip of the second shield from Tuekta kurgan 1.  Sixth or fifth century BCE.  Wood, leather (деребо, кожа).  Inventory Number 2179/960.  The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.  Photo by author, September 2015.

Grip of the second shield from Tuekta kurgan 1. Sixth or fifth century BCE. Wood, leather (деребо, кожа). Inventory Number 2179/960. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo by author, September 2015.

This shield is solid wood, carved and painted to imitate branches thrust through slits in a sheet of leather or rawhide. There are fundamental limitations to what can be learned about military equipment by studying pictures of it, because ancient craftsmen often worked one material to look like another. What is obvious in person can be impossible to tell from a distance or through a painting or carving. So I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to gaze upon the shield from Pazyryk.

Further Reading: S.I. Rudenko, tr. M.W. Thompson, Frozen Tombs of Siberia: The Pazyryk Burials of Iron-Age Horsemen (Bookfinder link; this is an academic book so good that it was translated from Russian in the US in the 1950s). Duncan Head, The Achaemenid Persian Army (Montvert, 1992) (Bookfinder link- warning, usually costs $150-300). Nicholas Sekunda, The Persian Army, 550-330 BC. Boris A. Litvinsky, “Shield: In Eastern Iran.” Encyclopaedia Iranica (link). Godehardt, Erhardt et al., “The Reconstruction of Scythian Bows.” In Barry Molloy ed., The Cutting Edge, pp. 112-133. Tempus: Stroud, 2007. {Description of enlarged reconstructions}

Novosibirsk State University has a virtual exhibition with some of the other finds from the Altai (link)