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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.