I’d like to introduce you all (again!) to my favourite Bronze Age object in South West England (and possibly Bronze Age Europe): the South Cadbury shield. I first encountered this shield a few years ago and all of the studies I’ve done since have somehow led me back to it. The dynamics of this object and its context are so interesting that I simply can’t get enough of it!
So first things first, what is it? The South Cadbury shield is a tin-bronze shield, of the “Yetholm” type (named after three shields that were recovered from a peat bog in Yetholm, Scotland).
These shields are usually a hammered sheet of high tin bronze (c.11-14%), with numerous concentric ribs alternating with concentric rows of repousse (bossed) decoration. At the centre is a large round boss, with a handle usually riveted on behind. At least twenty five of these shields survive today, largely from Britain and Ireland, though one has been found in Denmark.
The South Cadbury shield is about 665mm in diameter, with 25 concentric ribs, alternating with 25 concentric rows of 6030 bosses. The shield is less than 1mm thick the whole way across. The sheer level of skill involved to achieve this without breaking through the bronze is phenomenal.
Evidence on the shield indicates it was well-maintained and polished. So, no doubt this object looked impressive, and anyone who has ever seen polished bronze in the sunlight can attest to its magnificence.
However, upon deposition this shield, still in a largely pristine state, was laid face-down in a ditch and penetrated three times from behind by a blunt non-metal object, perhaps a crude wooden stake. This happened in situ (rather than in a combat scenario) because fragments of the bronze were carried into the soil below when it was penetrated.
While all other Yetholm shields to date have been recovered from wetland deposits, the South Cadbury shield was found on dryland and was excavated in archaeological conditions.
The shield was deposited in the ditch of a Middle to Late Bronze Age enclosure called Milsoms Corner, South Somerset. Milsoms Corner sits on the western slopes of Cadbury Castle Late Bronze Age/Iron Age hillfort and the shield was found at the junction of two ditches forming the south and east boundaries, in the uppermost (i.e. the latest) phase of the ditch.
Immediately below the shield and in contact with the shield rim was a red deer or cattle hip bone, below which was a stakehole in which the shield boss was set. This stakehole has been linked to a carefully constructed small pit, one metre to the west of the shield within the ditch, which was deliberately filled with layered stones and a human lower leg bone.
This was by far the most elaborate deposit made in or around these ditches, but other contemporary deposits included numerous cattle bones (largely mandibles) and pits/holes filled with burnt stone. Preceding all this was an Early Bronze Age Beaker coffin burial with a fully flexed inhumation that was disrupted during the initial phase of the Middle Bronze Age ditch construction. So all in all it’s a pretty fascinating arena.
This is where the whole situation gets really interesting. Yetholm shields were typically produced and in circulation during the Penard period (c.1300-1125 BC). The composition and manufacture of this shield is indicative of this period and so it seems likely the shield was produced during this time.
However, the radiocarbon date from the hip bone in contact with the shield came out at 1056-843 cal. BC 1ơ. This date theoretically means the shield may have been a century or more old when it was deposited!
But wait! There’s more…
When the ditch was cut through the Beaker burial, it disrupted the legs of the skeleton so some of the remains are missing. However, the human lower leg bone that was deposited in the posthole to the west of the shield appears to belong to the poor individual that was disrupted. However, what this means is that the leg bone was found during the Middle Bronze Age (i.e. when the ditch cut through the burial) and retained for maybe a couple of centuries for deposition in the final phase of the ditch fill in the Later Bronze Age.
You should hopefully appreciate at this point that this is not a simple depositional act of an object, but rather one that seems to have a significant social element that we are able to interpret and gain some insight into.
If we take as a starting pointing that the shield was at least a century old when it was deposited, we can hypothesise that it possessed an inherent heirloom quality. The impressive aesthetics of the object would have made it instantly memorable, and it could easily have been an object of ceremony, potentially owned by an elite individual or else a community. Over the course of a hundred years or more, it would have become part of a social memory propagated by oral histories, perhaps attaining a certain mythology. Ethnographic studies indicate that oral histories can be retained for approximately five generations (or 200 years) before they cease to possess their original meaning. It is thus not difficult to imagine that such an object was passed down within a kinship or community over the years, gaining a mythical status.
The deposition and destruction of the object also fits this theory. The deliberate destruction of objects is often a process of forgetting. If this shield were linked with a kinship or community, it is possible the lineage had died out, or a new community was being established, and this shield was deposited and destroyed as a symbolic ending of the previous regime. The shield was, after all, destroyed at a time when the Late Bronze Age enclosure at Cadbury Castle seems to have been established not 200 metres up the hill.
The retention of the Early Bronze Age leg bone appears to indicate the importance of the dead to Bronze Age society, potentially as ancestors. It is highly unlikely the community at Milsoms Corner would have been able to actively remember the individual buried in the Beaker period, but the presence of the dead in their enclosure appears to have held some significance – why else would one retain the leg of an individual for over the centuries?
Therefore, the destruction of the shield could have been a reverential act. The deposition appears to have been a careful process, not simply one of discard. Deposition in boundaries was clearly important in the Bronze Age and even if the physical function of the shield no longer held importance (for instance as an object of war, power or ceremony), it became significant again in its deposition and destruction, which both symbolised the end of the shield’s life-cycle and simultaneous established a mark upon the land within a boundary that may have served to commemorate and empower those who conducted it.
Notes and Acknowledgements
The South Cadbury shield can be found on display in all its glory at Taunton Castle Museum. I must thank Steven Minnitt and the staff at the museum for opening the case for me to drool over this object so thoroughly! All photos are my own courtesy of the South West Heritage Trust (Museums Service).
I avoid referencing blog posts as they are not intended as academic pieces of work, but I am obliged to credit the various sources from which the details of this blog post were taken. The work on this shield has been excellently conducted and reported so if you would like to read more around it the following articles and books are remarkably accessible:
> Coles, J.M., Leach, P., Minnitt, S.C., Tabor, R. and Wilson, A.S. 1999. ‘A Later Bronze Age shield from South Cadbury, Somerset, England’, Antiquity 73 (279), 33-48.
> Needham, S.P., Northover, P., Ucklemann, M. and Tabor, R. 2012. ‘South Cadbury: The Last of the Bronze Age Shields’, Archaologisches Korrespondenzblatt 42 (4), 473-91.
> Tabor, R. 2008. Cadbury Castle: The Hillfort and Landscapes. Stroud: The History Press.