Friday, May 25, 2012

Shield yourself from this

Update 12/10/13:  This post contains information that is probably incorrect.  Please see here.

The Achaemenids knew of four or five styles of shields:  round or oval (possibly), violin-shaped, rectangular, crescent and the Greek Argive shield.  Of these, only the rectangular style is attested as having been used in the Graeco-Persian wars period.  In addition, some illustrations have been found of imperial troops (the Negro Alabastrons) and Persian hunters with cloaks draped over their left arms presumably as makeshift protection.

The only attested material for Persian shields is called by the Greeks gerrha ("wicker").  While to my knowledge no Achaemenid shields have been found, four shields dating to the Sassanid dynasty were found in the 1922-37 excavations at the Hellenstic (later Roman) city of Dura-Europos in Syria, and their construction could offer a model for that of earlier shields.  They were not technically wicker, but consist of wood dowels (sometimes incorrectly referred to as reeds) woven vertically through a single sheet of soaked rawhide.  The rawhide was folded over the ends of the sticks and sewn between them.  One or two horizontal sticks were attached to the back, preventing the shield from rolling up as the rawhide dried, and the grip appears to have been a wooden rod tied to the back.

These shields were unpainted.  The holes through which the sticks were threaded form chevrons down the shields' faces.  There is a Greek vase showing a Persian soldier with a rectangular shield bearing an elongated checker pattern which could have been produced the same way.

Round or oval
An enigmatic, slightly elongated shield appears in at least one scene in the reliefs at Persepolis (middle, second from top).  It's roughly the same size and shape as the violin.  Its face is smooth, showing no evidence of wickerwork, boss or rim (though the violin shields in the same scene also lack rims, which they have elsewhere).  If it's a representation of the Argive shield (and that's a big if), it would indicate that the Persians adopted this type far earlier than my research otherwise suggests.  I suppose it's even possible that they are violin shields to which the artists for some reason didn't add the cutouts or bosses, but that seems very unlikely to me.

This double-gripped style is known, as far as I know, almost entirely from Persepolis.  It had a rim (even around the cutouts, which were located halfway or slightly more than halfway down from the top of the shield) and had a round boss right in the middle with four round dimples or cutouts.  It's shown with a smooth face and inside, unlike the rectangular shield (also shown at Persepolis, with its stickwork construction clearly visible), so it may have been made of wood planks and/or had a facing and lining of metal, leather or fabric.  (In fact, a solid bronze shield facing of similar shape is or was held in the Axel Guttmann collection, although I can't find out much about it.)  A bronze boss from one was found on the island of Samos off the coast of Turkey (close, in fact, to Mount Mycale).  However, I've never seen it in battle art and never in Greek art of any kind.  This at least suggests that it wasn't very typical of Persian arms in the war.

I can think of several reasons for this disconnect.  The violin shield may have been relegated to parade wear, perhaps an artifact of a previous generation of soldiers, or it may have been inherited as an item of ceremony from an older culture, perhaps the Elamites. It may have still been in use, but not nearly common enough for the Greeks to think of it as "the" Persian shield.  Search as I might, I can't find anything to back up any of these speculations.

Some people call this style the Dipylon or Boeotian shield, after similar types seen in Greek art.  But I feel this is incorrect.  These are Greek types, with significant differences in details:  Persian shields had large bosses and cutouts that are almost full circles, while the Greek ones had no bosses and their cutouts were more semicircular.  One may be copied from the other via intermediaries or they may derive from the same prehistoric source, but they could just as likely be totally unrelated.

Being perhaps up to five feet high, the rectangular shield was a kind of pavise which could be propped up to stand on its own and (according to Herodotus) attached to others to form a wall.  Of course, against the press of a Greek phalanx, this structure couldn't stand up very long, but it likely served very well against showers of arrows, and would be useable in one-on-one spear combat.

From what I've seen, this type appears to be the most common Persian shield attested in Greek art.  There's at least one picture of one at Persepolis as well.  An RAT member once uploaded a photo of it, which has since been lost, but you can see a line drawing at Mark Drury's site.

This type of shield is usually referred to as a spara.  This word comes from a glossary of Hesychius of Alexandria, who roughly a millennium later defined sparabarai as gerrhophoroi ("wicker-bearers").  While -bara meant "bearer" (and comes from the same PIE root as -bearer and -phoros), the Middle Persian word spar and its Modern Persian derivative sipar mean "shield," so it's possible that *spara also simply meant a shield of any kind.  If, as I suspect, all types of Persian shields were what the Greeks would call wicker, then "wicker-bearer" doesn't indicate what type of shield a soldier bore.  I suppose the reverse might also be true: that *spara did refer to a particular type of shield, but by Middle Persian had become more generic.

Showing up in Greek art late in the 5th century, the crescent shield resembled the Thracian pelte and some Scythian shields.  It could be single- or double-gripped and was somewhat smaller than an Argive shield (which is roughly two-and-a-half to three feet in width).

The Hoplite Association has reproduced crescent shields using 3mm (about eight-ounce) vegetable-tanned leather and wooden dowels; the edging is the same leather, laced on.  Andy Cropper used two grip systems:  one to be held in the hand and the other to be strapped to the arm, allowing archers to hold it while shooting.

In modern literature, this shield in Persian context is called a taka and its bearers takabara, but in fact we have no reason to think the ancients called them that.  The word takabara comes from the Persian phrase Yauna Takabara ("taka-bearing Ionians"), found at Persepolis and generally thought to be a reference to the Macedonians (Yauna or "Ionian" being the generic Persian word for Greeks).  Many researchers think that taka here refers to the petasos, or Greek sun hat, which was round and dished and shaped pretty much like a shield.  The phrase is translated into Akkadian as "who bear shields on their heads."  Nicholas Sekunda in Achaemenid Military Terminology states that taka means "hide," and should by extension be taken to mean a leather shield.  It is, however, difficult to be certain, and of course the petasos isn't crescent-shaped.

One of the main tools of the Greek hoplite, eminently suited for phalanx combat.  Putting aside the possibility that the round Perspolis shields are of this type, so far as I know Persians are only attested as using them in the 4th century, and then only rarely.  Since a great deal of literature on the construction and use of the Argive shield is available elsewhere, I shall refrain from going into it here.

Next up:  You'll need a few other things.

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