A pair of hands stiches a woven cone onto the centre of a bark shield

How to make an Iron Age shield (out of bark)

Sophia Adams stands in front of bone artefacts in a chequered dress, raising a hand

By Sophia Adams, Curator of First Millennium European and Roman Conquest period Collections

Publication date: 5 January 2024

See the Enderby Shield in Room 50.

The Enderby Shield is a rare find, made in Britain 2,300 years ago from the bark of a willow tree. By reviving ancient skills and with specialist knowledge, could we try and make our own?

Bark shield

Two thousand three hundred years ago a shield was made from the bark of a willow tree. It ended up in the bottom of a wet pit in Enderby, Leicestershire, where it remained until 2015, when it was discovered during excavations by the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS). This fragile artefact has since been preserved with Polyethylene Glycol, known as PEG, and is now part of the British Museum collection thanks to the generosity of the landowner, Everards of Leicestershire. It is on display in Room 50, Britain and Europe 800 BC–AD 43.

A man sits in an archaeological trench of layered earth, next to a bark shield still in situ
The shield as it was found, being recorded by the finder, archaeologist Adam Clapton. Photo © University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

Incredibly rare

The shield is the only known example of its kind in Europe. Before 2015, pre-Roman shields had been found made of wood and animal skins, but it was not known that they were also made of bark. Most of the evidence for shields comes from the metal details added to organic backings: bronze fronts, rims, bosses (the protruding central part), handles and decorative details. To find an ancient shield made entirely of plant materials is incredibly special and important for understanding weaponry and craft skills in the first millennium BC. Ancient wood specialist Mike Bamforth shares his thoughts on the use of bark…

The survival of ancient bark artefacts in Britain is scant at best, being limited to a few stitched bark vessels and the odd well lining. However, internationally there is abundant evidence for a wealth of uses from beautiful, folded bark containers to full-on bark canoes.

The remains of a bark shield with a conical central point
The Enderby Shield ready for display after some repairs by Organics conservator Barbara Wills.

Recreating the Enderby shield

The shield is almost complete, but missing parts of the body, the edge and half of the handle. Most of the boss, a small part of the rim and a large part of the body do survive. Examining this object raised questions about how it was made, whether parts of the design had a practical function, and how effective it was in protecting a person.  

To test some theories, the team decided to reproduce the shield using the same materials, keeping as close to original techniques as possible. This research was led by Matt Beamish of ULAS and the first attempt in 2018 raised more questions than answers. So with a revised design in mind, we tried further experiments in 2021 and in 2022.

The shield team

Seven people in raincoats smile before a large tent and hold shields made of bark to the camera
Shield recreation team. Front row: Sophia Adams, Mike Bamforth, Nick Harris and Diederik Pomstra. Back row: Andrew Parry, Matt Beamish and Paul Windridge.

Who we are

Vital to the whole project were three people: Matt Beamish, Diederik Pomstra and Paul Windridge. Matt is a Project Manager at ULAS. His archaeological knowledge of, and fascination with, the shield has driven this project forward since it was discovered in 2015. Diederik joined us from the Netherlands, bringing his incredible skill, knowledge in working with plant materials and calm dedication. Paul is a highly skilled woodsman, maker and brilliant storyteller. Paul and Matt also contributed their knowledge of the local ecology and arranged access to materials and a place to make the shields.

Two white men work together on a piece of tree bark. One sits and one kneels in the grass.
Diederik Pomstra (left) and Paul Windridge (right).

I had the pleasure of becoming part of this dedicated and enthusiastic team when I became a curator at the British Museum in September 2021. We were supported on site by Mike Bamforth, a specialist in Ancient Wood who examined and interpreted the original find alongside specialists at York Archaeological Trust. Nick Harris and Andrew Parry from the production team at the British Museum kindly joined us to record the process with videos and sound, encouraging us all to share our thoughts and theories on camera.  

Three white men stand holding shields made of tree bark under a large green tent roof, the middle man raises his fist as if running into battle
Nick Harris, Mike Bamforth and Andrew Parry.

With us in spirit were a team of highly skilled and knowledgeable scientists, conservators and archaeologists from the British Museum, York Archaeological Trust and ULAS, including Caroline Cartwright who identified the bark was indeed willow, and Barbara Wills, who picked out the finer details of how the basketry boss was made. 

The team gathered in Leicestershire, only a few miles from Enderby where the shield was discovered, armed with high-definition photos, videos and scaled drawings of the original shield. Thirty-six hours later we had made a viable, physically and visually appealing recreation of the shield. 

Stage 1: Gathering the materials

First, supplies of willow bark, lime bast, crab apple wood and hazel sticks used in the original shield had to be gathered and prepared. Late spring to early summer is the best time for harvesting the willow bark, as later in the year the tree holds onto its protective covering so it cannot be peeled away easily. In late spring 2021, pandemic restrictions meant the team couldn't gather to make the shield so, instead, the bark was harvested and frozen to preserve it. Not an authentic process but a necessary adaptation. For the final attempt in June 2022 the bark was harvested straight from the tree the day before making the shield.

A white man in a black raincoat and flatcap holds a piece of bark next to the tree from which it was cute, in green woodland
Matt Beamish holding bark harvested from a tree ready to cut to shape.
A tree ribbed with yellow lichen has a rectangle of bark removed showing smooth grey wood underneath
One of the willow trees from which bark was removed, one year later. New growth can be seen down the sides of the scar.

Stage 2: Making the wicker boss

Close study of the basketry boss showed it was made with willow foundation rods wound into a domed shape, starting from the middle, with lime bast (Tilia species) stitched over the willow rods. Diederik wove the boss at home in the Netherlands, using notes, photos and high-definition videos of the original shield boss. It was such a thrill to see the recreated version reflecting all the details that could be seen in the original.

A conical object made of woven wooden material or bark
The original woven boss from the Enderby Shield, England, 400 BC–190 BC.
Sophia Adams with purple hair and a red top points to a computer screen on which can be seen the original boss of the Enderby shield. In her hand is the neatly woven replica
Sophia Adams compares the reproduction woven boss with a photo of the original. Photo © Mike Bamforth. 
A man in a dark shirt and cap stiches a woven conical centre to a bark shield.
Diederik stitching on a woven boss to the replica bark shield.

Stage 3: Cutting the shield, creating and inserting the laths

The harvested bark was kept wet in a nearby lake ready for working. A template was used as a guide for cutting the right shape, which was based on the dimensions of the surviving parts of the shield and comparison to other contemporary shields in wood and metal.

A man in a navy raincoat films a man in a navy jumper and patterned hat as he bends to work on a bark shield. They are in front of a lake or river, with a forest behind and reeds in the water. The cameraman is smiling.
Andrew films Paul as he cuts the bark for the replica shield. Photo © Mike Bamforth.
A bald man wearing a check shirt, khaki trousers and a grey vest cuts along the edge of a large plate of red bark
Diederik cutting bark that will be used for the shield.

The bark was used inside-out so that the rough outer bark forms the inside of the shield against the body of the bearer, and the smooth inner bark forms the exterior of the shield facing their opponent. This intentional design may have helped weapons glance off the shield rather than snag on the rough, fissured outer bark. The bark had to be encouraged to bend against its natural curve around the tree. In the original shield, thin wood batons referred to as laths were found inserted into the bark board. We had wondered if these were to help the bark to bend against its natural curvature and this proved to be the case. When all the laths were inserted into the reproduction, the bark lay flat instead of in its natural curve, seemingly increasing its rigidity.

Before cutting out the hole for the boss, Diederik and Paul began the tricky process of carving the strips of crab apple wood to form the laths and inserting these between the layers in the bark. In 2021 we thought the design used long thin strips of wood passed through loops to create a woven effect. These proved too weak to be of any use. Looking again at the original shield, we realised that the laths were actually short, thick and pushed into narrow tunnels cut into the bark.

Stage 4: Attaching the rim, boss and handle

With the laths successfully inserted, the bark around the rim was attached, then the basketry boss was added and finally the round wood handle. Only a small section of the rim had survived on the original shield, so a good deal of time was spent working out how it was attached. It is made of split, roundwood hazel. Single stitches proved inadequate at holding the rim to the edge of the shield. Scrutiny of the original revealed small groups of about four slits at intervals around the edge of the shield. Flat lime bast stitches were still present in some of the slits, which must be the remnants of the stitches that held the rim on. We were still uncertain of the efficacy of this design so added some pins made from hawthorn thorns for extra security. As the shield dried, we found that our plan was still not entirely successful because the rim had pulled away from the edge of the board.

A pale strip of wood is stitched tightly with natural fibre to the edge of the bark shield
A single stitch on the edge of the replica shield. Photo © Mike Bamforth and Sophia Adams.
Two pairs of hands work on stitching groups of stitches around the edge of the bark shield
Groups of stitches around the edge of the replica shield. Photo © Mike Bamforth and Sophia Adams.
A pair of hands holds a blue and black instrument against the edge of an ancient bark fragment.
Investigating the stitches on the original Enderby shield.

The boss was stitched to the shield with twisted lime bast cord. Diederik replicated this process using a bone needle similar to Iron Age examples to sew a running stitch through holes made with a pointed tool called an 'awl'.  

Next came the handle. Diederik removed the bark from a poplar branch and swiftly ran it through a flame to char it. It was then carved with notched and sloped ends and stitched to the shield around the notches. The sloped ends meant the attached handle pulled the bark into a shallow curve towards the holder, giving it more strength. 

A hand hold a coil of twisted cord made of natural fibre
Twisted lime bast cord.
A wooden handle, shaped to hold in the hand at one end and cut in a straight line at the other. The wood is partially charred.
The handle from the original Enderby Shield, found with one half missing, cut away before burial. England, 400 BC–190 BC.

Stage 5: Drying the shield

Ta da! A bark shield is made. At this stage it was quite heavy with moisture, which made it difficult for the shield-bearer to hold close to the body, but once dry it became light and manageable. Drying proved the biggest challenge in the cool, damp environs of the East Midlands. The shield needed to be in a relatively warm and dry place with good airflow around it to dry without distorting or going mouldy. Perhaps the original shield was hung from the rafters of a roundhouse to dry in the ambient warmth from the hearth. This process has been added to the to-do list for future attempts.

A large rectangular bark shield, braced with branches, hangs from the roof of a large green tarpaulin
The replica shield braced and hanging to dry in 2022.

Stage 6: Decorating the shield

Finally, we decorated the shield like the original. Fine scored lines and traces of red colouring on the front were analysed during the early stages of conservation. The design was reproduced with paint made from ochre and boiled linseed oil, materials that would have been available 2,300 years ago in Britain. Paul and Matt scored and painted the dried shield to achieve the sharp lines seen on the original. The result is a geometric pattern quite different to the swirling designs found on contemporary bronze-fronted shields like those from Battersea and Witham, also on display in Room 50.

What happens next

Plans are afoot to test the capabilities of the reproductions with support from the Engineering department at the University of Leicester to confirm whether any of the holes in the original are weapon damage. And we might just try making another one. 

Four men sit on tree stumps and examine a wooden shield laid out on a large tree stump. One of the men holds a large film camera. Behind them are lush trees, and a large green tent.
The popular BBC archaeology programme Digging For Britain takes an interest in the shield experiments (see Season 10, Episode 3).

With thanks to...

Everards of Leicestershire, University of Leicester Archaeological Services, The British Museum Research Grant and Mike Winterton and family.

Matt Beamish, Diederik Pomstra, Paul Windridge, Mike Bamforth, Nick Harris and Andrew Parry.

Julia Farley, Barbara Wills, Caroline Cartwright, JD Hill, Melanie Giles, Matt Hitchcock, Steven Allen, Gareth Beale, Michael Biggs, Konstantinos Chatzipanagis, Derek Hamilton, Claire Robinson, Luke Spindler, Chloe Watson, Heidi Addison, Mags Felter, Chloe Watson, Penelope Walton Rogers and Rachel Crellin.