Reconstruction of Geometric Period Full-Body Dipylon Shield
Nikolaos Kleisiaris (Nikanor), Engineer
Given its objective of covering the entire historical period of the Minoan-Mycenaean to late Hellenistic era, the Association of Historical Studies KORYVANTES focuses on the transitional period 1100-700BC (known as Geometric era) in the present study and reconstruction of its most characteristic contemporary weapon, the full-body Dipylon shield.
The Dipylon shield is a massive elliptical full-body shield with two characteristic side openings, often referred to as the intermediate stage between the mycenaean Figure-of-eight and archaic Boeotian shields. This type, however, was already known since the mid-Mycenaean era as illustrated by the explicit depictions of it in jewellery dating back to the 16th century BC. Therefore, the Dipylon shield had been already in use in parallel with other full-body shields of the Mycenaean era such as the Figure-of-eight and Sakkos shields. For reasons not yet known to us it was the only full-body shield that survived in the 1st millennium BC until the end of the 8th century when it was finally abandoned for the benefit of the smaller Boeotian, a shield that has a shape betraying its evolution from the Dipylon one but also a size implying different usage.
Like other aspects of the culture of the Geometric period, the Dipylon shield remains a mystery. On the one hand, there has been no archaeological finding of it. On the other hand, the relative pottery depictions are obtained mainly from the Geometric period during which art is distinguished for shape exaggeration and lack of representational detail. Even the most famous vessels, the craters of the Dipylon that named the shield, provide fewer details than previous depictions of Figure-of-eight and Sakkos.
Of particular importance is the fact that this type of shield was used for at least 800 years which renders certain the existence of variations in size, materials and construction. The Dipylon shield is outlined through the illustrations and out of comparative analysis with Figure-of-eight as one full-body shield made from layers of hides attached to a wooden lattice that has a curvature and which varies in length from 1.10m up to 1.50m and in width from 0.80m to 1.00m depending on the dimensions of the user and on his preferences.
The present Dipylon shield reconstruction is the product of research and construction of researcher Dimitrios Katsikis for the account of the writer of this presentation – to our knowledge, this is the first systematic attempt of its kind worldwide. The shield was aimed to be of full-body type thus it measures 1.25m high, 0.90m wide and has a 0.10m radius of curvature having proportions that cover the whole body of the user including the waist in spite of the side openings, leaving only the head and lower leg exposed. The construction was based on a frame of a wooden lattice covered with leather which made exclusive use of natural materials. The periphery and structural axes were constructed by bundles of wicker while the intermediate grid was made of single mulberry branches, laid and tied with leather straps and wood glue. The selected leather was 2 layers of cow hide of 3mm each, providing thus a minimum thickness of protection of 6mm. The layers of hide were tied with leather straps at 80 points around the periphery of the shield. Particular emphasis was given to the strength of the shield, especially in the periphery, where already enhanced wicker bundles were used, upon which additional layers of skin were added for even greater resistance to cutting hits.
The face of the shield was decorated with hand-hammered copper pads of 1.2mm mean thickness, which no matter if ornamental reinforce locally the shield. The interior of the shield was covered in natural thick linen and on the upper edges of the side openings there was placed a leather baldric for carrying the shield on the shoulder. The baldric was reinforced with layers of leather on the hanging point to provide comfort during use. One of the big questions that rose was the grip placement on which there is no evidence in the ancient representations. The single grip seemed more difficult to handle because of weight and in particular of the width and related torque in contrast to the case of Figure-of-eight shield where the smaller width seems to facilitate it as in the case of later rectangular Roman shields. Adding an Argive-type double grip, which is a debatable choice, was found to be more comfortable in handling and quite flexible since the user can remove his arm from the grips at will while the shield hangs from the shoulder or simply he may shift slightly and stabilize the shield using only the hand grip.
The final result is an impressive full-body shield weighting 11 kg that provides high levels of protection from missiles, and cutting/thrusting close-combat weapons. Evidently it is reasonable to question whether it would be convenient to use such a massive shield on the battlefield where the soldier would be forced to carry it for long periods. The opportunity of testing the shield appeared during the event for the 2500 years since the Battle of Marathon, where the author had a first contact with the shield and carried it during the 3-hours event enjoying only a few breaks for the deposition of the shield on the ground. This first test showed that the shield is carried relatively easily for a long time thanks to the combination of Argive-grip and baldric. It is noteworthy that the author and tester, who arrived on place after a long trip with merely 3 hours of sleep, not only is not an athlete but he had not even any opportunity of training with the weapons. Based on this first experience we may safely conclude that a warrior of the Geometric period, who had received special training in weapons and who had a hardened everyday lifestyle, would find comfortable the shoulder-carrying of this shield, even in combination with light armour, for at least 4hrs with minimal breaks for deposition, much longer than what most battles of that era would require.
Besides shoulder-carrying, walking also proved easy when the shield is held sideways. In combat conditions, however, the frontal position impedes the fast gait since the legs hit on the lower periphery. This is not painful but it certainly does not allow fast movements. An interesting way to move faster is to maintain the left leg attached to the lower periphery and the left hand in the Argive grip for stability and ‘gallop’ similarly to a spearman who shoots his spear. This move – very easy with the Argive grip – would be difficult with a single grip due to instability and could perhaps be realised only after a significant downward shift of centre of mass as in the design of Figure-of-eight shields.
This first test was done during an event so no full trials of combat tactics were carried out – this is one area for which, we hope, further testing of the shield will enlighten us. One of the simple moves that were tested was to hold the spear through the right side opening – that is a most widespread explanation for the existence of openings – a move that appeared to restrict somehow manoeuvres. Instead, the openings seemed to facilitate fast thrusting counter-attacks with a sword on opponents attacking by pushing (or pulling) the shield as it hangs on the shoulder. It should be noted however that the restricted experience of the user and author of this article in these weapons does not permit the derivation of safe conclusions. Another interesting observation concerns the positioning of the sword. The huge brass Aor sword was handed in a scabbard of typical vertical positioning to the left, which however was proven uncomfortable because of the shield, thus the deliberately inappropriate but more convenient placement on the right. In fact, the most convenient position that was tested was the left-side horizontal position that allows the easiest drawing, a position consistent with one Geometric era representation, thus recommended for future trials.
Questions remain numerous referring to usage in battle tactics and formations using spear, pike and sword, and to how active or passive could the use of the shield be when hanging it on shoulder. Further questions of sociological nature also arise from the fact that the shield appears to have been a statutory object as illustrated by its presence in expensive jewellery. In order to draw more definite conclusions on the overall positioning of the Dipylon shield in the Mycenaean and Geometric battlefields a series of trials in real battle conditions have to take place – this particularly highlights the value of experimental archaeology which the Association KORYVANTES serves.
Among the depicted equipment, the study and construction of the Dipylon shield is the work of Mr. Dimitrios Katsikis (http://hellenicarmors.gr), researcher specializing in the full reconstruction of ancient Greek and Greco-Roman armors and weaponry. The leather belt decorated with copper pads is also made by Mr. D. Katsikis, while the brass Aor sword with its leather scabbard is the construction of Mr. Demetrios Tertsis who specializes in the manufacturing of ancient Greek weapons. The reconstructions were made for the account of N. Kleisiaris, “hoplite Nikanor”, editor of this presentation, member of the KORYVANTES Association of Historical Studies.Nikolaos Kleisiaris, BEng, MSc, (Hoplite Nikanor)
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