Umbo shields – because your hand has not only to be safe, but also to feel comfortable
How do we call a knight without a decent shield? Dead. Ok, maybe not in all cases, but wielding a good shield in battle definitely increases your chances of surviving the battle – or a duel, if you are taking part in a tournament. Not for years, but for decades – or even ages – one type of shields seemed to be quite popular across our continent: shields with umbones. It was in the center of the Roman shields, but they existed even before the Roman Empire even emerged. They were also crafted by the tribes of the Barbaricum. Even in the Northern part of Europe they were discovered from the lands now belonging to United Kingdom to Scandinavian countries. Some of them have been also unearthed in Poland.
What is an umbo and how does it incorporate into a shield?
What do you think of when you hear – or read – the word “umbo”? Does it ring any bell? The explanation is much easier than you could suspect and it is of an… anatomic nature. So umbo is an anatomical term that comes from Latin and it simply means… a bellybutton. So there is no surprise that some authors compare Roman shields with umbones – the so-called scutums – to a human corpse with a bellybutton. The purpose of an umbo is simple: to protect the hand of a legionnaire/knight and to make holding the shield a bit more comfortable.
What did a Roman shield consist of? The largest part was obviously its board that was made of wood. But the board itself would be too fragile, so it was often reinforced, either with wooden stringers or even metal bars. Also the edges of the shield were strengthened with metal parts or rawhide. The hand grip, in the middle of a shield, was usually placed horizontally, but it had to be protected – and that was the role of an umbo, that in some publications is also called a boss. As its construction was even sturdier than the shield itself it also served another role: to maintain the integrity of a shield for as long as it is possible. Medieval shields, planks etc.
Let’s now examine the umbo itself. All its elements were made of iron. Its most important part was a cone or a dome – this is the one located in front of the handgrip. It does not necessarily refer to Roman shields, but the cone/dome could be also spiked. The flange of an umbo, sometimes reinforced with flange binding was attached to the board of the shield with metal rivets. While both board could – and in most cases was – decorated in different ways, umbo was rather free of such non-practical elements.
Unclear origins of shields with umbones
Why such shields even became so popular in Europe? Where should we look for its origins? Well, answering those questions is not that easy since lots of the evidence simply lie buried on the ancient battlefields across our continent. Although lots of excavations have already been done, so our knowledge level in this matter isn’t that poor. So, what do we actually know so far? Let’s have a look.
Shields with circular umbones have been in use of military personnel in Europe for much longer than we could expect. We know that they were already used during the so-called Hallstatt period. Wait, what? And when the hell was that? Ok, let’s explain the name first. It comes from the name of the site located in Upper Austria. There is even a town named Hallstatt in that country. And about the site: archaeologists found a quite impressive cemetery there, retrieving lots of bones and artifacts. Ok, so when was it? The Hallstatt period is the time of the early Iron Age and even partially the late Bronze Age. To determine which part of the Iron Age a certain Hallstatt period is referring to a set of letters is being used, from A to D. We could say that the Hallstatt A period is dated from about the year 1200 BC while the latest “stages” of Hallstatt = year 450-400 BC.
The shields with umbones have been also in use during the La Tène period, which came after Hallstatt. And we’ve got evidence for that: the archaeological findings collected on British Isles on one hand and the Iberian and Apeninne Peninsulas on another. The shields that have been discovered came in quite different shapes: round, oval (some of them even are called in a quite… culinary way: poached egg shields), etc. Same discoveries were also made in Poland. Such shields were even “portrayed” on ceramic dishes. Evidence of the usage of such shields were related to Lusitian culture (site in Sobiejuchy) and are dated between the end of Hallstatt C and Hallstatt D periods. What’s more, similar drawings, paintings were also found on urns that were left by the Pomeranian culture (Strzelno site for example).
One thing is interesting about their development. Like Tomasz Bochniak wrote, “It is necessary to underscore the fact that distribution of shields with circular umbones in the Hallstatt period was probably not a result of inter-cultural contacts, but constituted a typical example of the concurrent development of the form”. We know that these shields became popular in the age of Celtic expansion. But why did the Celts develop them in the first place? What inspired them to do so? Opinions vary in this matter. According to some scientists it was an effect of adoption of the equipment found in the so-called Barbaricum in Central Europe. There are also other theories, but this case remains unsolved so far. We still lack the decisive evidence to ultimately say that one of them is true. It is also noticeable that the umbo part of the shields evolved through time and differed between countries. Umbones in shields found in France and Switzerland were more oval-shaped while the ones found in Italy or Yugoslavia were rather round.
Interesting archaeological umbo shield discoveries across Europe
As it was mentioned before, shields with umbones have been found in lots of places across the Europe, simply all over the place! A big chunk of this massive collection were even the spiked umbo shields that come even from the pre-Roman times. They have been found in countries like Sweden (the Gotland island for example), Denmark, France, Getmany and Poland. Generally in some locations even wooden umbones have been discovered. As for our country: several of normal shields of this type were found in graves. For example a sword and an umbo shield (alongside a full skeleton) have been found in a grave near Trześnia in tarnobrzeski county, podkarpackie voivodeship.
It is important to write few words about the umbo shields used by the Vikings. They were among the people that were also crafting wooden umbones. Obviously their shields were also used during burial ceremonies, but they also served as an additional protection for their ships. In one of the sources it is even mentioned that 64 of them were placed on two sides of a ship that has been built around 905. Such shields, this time with iron umbones, were discovered near Gokstad in Vestfold og Telemark region in Norway.
Surprisingly a good place to look for Roman shields is the current United Kingdom. They are not difficult to find near the Hadrian’s Wall, but not only there. Such discoveries have been even mentioned in the archaeological publications from the 19th century! For example in 1792 an umbo of a Roman shield made of brass have been found in the brook east of Kirkham. This one even had lots of decorations: an altar with flames, a man with a spear, a running man, a group of spears and shields, two eagles, two globes and a… goose? After examinations done by Hunter, PhD, at York it became the property of sir William Hamilton.
How disappointed had to be the workers that noticed something interesting in the ground in the middle of the 19th century near Matfen In Northumberland, north of the Hadrian’s Wall. At first they probably hoped that they encountered a pot, full of treasure of some kind maybe, but not in this case. It turned out to be “just” another umbo shield. This one even had an inscription on it, that was a bit difficult to decipher since not all the letters were clearly visible, but according to one of the opinions the engraving could mean: “the centuria of Ruspius Quintus” or “of the centurion Ruspius Quintus”. So at least we know what army the soldier that wielded that shield belonged to. A similar umbo to the one from Matfen has also been found at Garstang in Lancashire. This was decorated with a figure of a man with a helmet on his head sitting on (probably) a throne. He is also holding a lance of some sort in his hand in one hand and a globe with a bird that could be a goose or a swan in another. Seems like birds were a popular decorative motive for Roman shields!
Attack is the best defense. But if you forfeit your defenses completely you may pay the price for it. The highest price. So if you really need to enter a battle in an ancient or medieval style be sure to not to bring in a sword that will cut your enemies in half with ease, but also a prime quality shield. Oh, but obviously don’t forget to not to bring a knife to a gunfight!
E. Baines, History of the County Palatine and Duchy of Lancaster, vol. IV, Fisher, Son & Co., London 1836.
M. C. Bishop, Roman Shields, Bloomsbury Publishing, London 2020.
T. Bochniak, Early Circular Umbones of the Przeworsk Culture. The Role of Local Tradition and Celtic Influences on the Diversity of Metal Parts of Shields at the Beginning of the Late Pre-Roman Period, “Analecta Archaeologica Ressovienisa”, vol. 1/2006.
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