What Does Historically Accurate Viking Shield Look Like?

Historically Accurate Viking Shield

In exploring the rich and intriguing world of Viking history, the Viking shield is one of the most iconic and recognizable symbols. The Viking shield was a critical component of their warfare and culture, serving as both a defensive tool and a canvas for symbolic expression. This comprehensive analysis delves into the historical accuracy of Viking shields, addressing their design, patterns, colour significance, and size.

What Kind of Shields Did the Vikings Use?

The Vikings were known for their mastery in warfare, and central to their defense were their distinctive shields. Historically, the Vikings utilized round shields, a design for practicality and versatility in combat situations. These shields were typically made from lightweight yet durable materials, predominantly wooden pine, fir, or linden planks.

The construction of these shields involved butting these planks together to form a circular shape. This resulted in a strong, sturdy shield that was simultaneously easy to maneuver, making it an ideal companion on the battlefield and during sea voyages.

At the center of the Viking shield was an iron boss, a protruding metal piece serving as a protective cover for the warrior’s hand. This boss was not just a defensive measure—it could also be used offensively to strike opponents. Behind the boss was a wooden handle attached for the warrior to firmly grip the shield.

For additional reinforcement, some shields were edged with rawhide or leather. This provided extra resilience, preventing the wooden shield from splintering or cracking under the impact of blows from enemy weapons.

The surface of these shields was often painted and embellished with various designs and symbols, reflecting the identity and beliefs of the individual Viking warrior. Colours and patterns held deep symbolic meanings and could indicate the warrior’s allegiance to specific gods, their status, or their aspirations.

In terms of size, Viking shields were generally 80 to 90 cm in diameter. This size allowed sufficient protection for the Viking warrior while not impeding their movement during the heat of battle.

Overall, the type of shields used by the Vikings were not merely defensive tools; they were meticulously crafted pieces of art that spoke volumes about the individuals wielding them and the vibrant culture they came from.

What Were Viking Shields Used for? 

The Viking shields were multifaceted tools with a wide range of practical and symbolic uses. At the most basic level, Viking shields were used for personal defense during battles. Their round shape and size, usually measuring 80 to 90 cm in diameter, provided comprehensive protection against a range of offensive weapons, such as swords, axes, and arrows.

But the shields weren’t just passive defensive tools but also used offensively. The central boss, a metallic dome affixed to the shield’s middle, could be used to push opponents off balance, create space, or even deal direct blows.

Beyond the battlefield, Viking shields played an essential role during sea voyages, a common Viking activity given their renowned naval prowess. Shields were typically hung over the ship’s side, serving as a form of additional defense and a display of intimidation toward potential enemies.

Yet, the usage of Viking shields extended beyond practical warfare and seafaring needs. In Viking society, shields also served as a powerful medium of personal expression and cultural identity. They were often adorned with paint and intricate designs reflecting a warrior’s lineage, allegiances, accomplishments, or religious beliefs. As such, they became a mobile canvas depicting stories and symbolism.

On a broader societal level, shields had ceremonial roles, used in rites of passage, funerals, and other significant events. For instance, during a chieftain’s funeral, his shield could be placed on his pyre or ship as part of his journey to the afterlife.

In essence, the Viking shields were more than a piece of military equipment. They were intricately woven into the fabric of Viking life, serving multiple roles: protective gear, offensive weapon, naval defense, personal canvas, and ceremonial object. The multifaceted usage of these shields is a testament to their centrality in Viking culture and lifestyle.

Has a Viking Shield Ever Been Found?

Yes, archaeological evidence of Viking shields has been found, although their survival rate is relatively low due to the predominantly organic materials used in their construction. The wet, harsh conditions of the Norse lands and the passage of time have not been kind to such relics. However, several noteworthy discoveries have provided valuable insights into Viking shield design and construction.

One such discovery was made in the Gokstad ship burial mound in Norway, dating back to the 9th century. This excavation discovered remnants of approximately 30 round shields, providing important information about their design, materials, and size. The shields from the Gokstad ship were about 94 cm in diameter and were made of pine planks. They had a central iron boss and leather edging for reinforcement.

Another notable find was the Trelleborg shield, discovered in a Viking fort in Denmark. This shield, while fragmented, offered a unique look at the complex construction methods used in Viking shield-making.

Moreover, archaeological finds from graves and burial sites across Scandinavia have unearthed numerous shield bosses—the central metallic dome—affirming the presence of shields in Viking funerary rites.

While complete and well-preserved Viking shields are a rarity, the remnants discovered over the years have provided invaluable insights into their construction, use, and symbolic significance in Viking society. Each discovery adds a piece to the intriguing puzzle of Viking history and culture.

Viking Shield Designs: Function and Aesthetic

The overall design of a Viking shield was specifically tailored for combat. A typical Viking shield was round, generally constructed from wood—usually pine, fir, or linden—and consisted of planks butted together to form a circular shape. This construction methodology facilitated a lighter yet robust shield, allowing the Viking warriors to maintain their agility in battle.

At the shield’s center was a metallic boss, which served a dual purpose: it offered protection for the hand and presented an offensive function, as it could be used to strike opponents. Attached to the boss was a wooden handle, allowing for a firm and comfortable grip.

Some shields also featured a rawhide edging for additional reinforcement. The leather provided extra strength and prevented the wooden planks from splitting during combat. For a historical representation, think of a sturdy yet lightweight piece of circular equipment capable of both defending and attacking.

The Language of Colour: Deciphering Viking Shield Designs Colours Meanings

Colour played an essential role in the design of Viking shields. Shields were painted not just for aesthetic appeal but also to convey deeper symbolism and meanings. The choice of colours, however, was not random. Each hue had a unique significance, often linked to the beliefs and myths of Norse culture.

Red was the most common colour found on Viking shields. It symbolized power, war, and bloodshed—a fitting choice for a war shield. Black was used to signify death or loss, often used by warriors who sought revenge. White often represented purity and innocence.

The use of blue and yellow was also prevalent in Viking shields. Those who revered the sea gods often used blue, which was associated with the sea. Yellow, representing gold, was usually chosen by warriors who sought wealth and prosperity.

But it’s important to note that while we can assign general meanings to these colours, individual interpretations might have varied among the Vikings themselves.

How Did Vikings Color Their Shields? 

Vikings coloured their shields by applying pigments obtained from various natural sources, mixed with binders like oil or egg to form a paint-like substance.

The pigments were derived from a range of materials, such as minerals, plants, and even certain insects. For instance, red could be achieved using iron oxides (rust), yellow from ochre, blue from the mineral azurite, or white from lead or chalk.

Once the pigments were obtained, they were mixed with binders to help the colour adhere to the wooden surface of the shield. Common binders included oils, such as linseed or walnut oil, and animal products, like egg yolk.

After the paint was prepared, it was applied to the shield using brushes. The Vikings would paint the shields in solid colours and sometimes decorate them with intricate designs or patterns. These designs were likely sketched beforehand and then filled in with different colours.

Through their choice of colours and designs, Viking warriors could express personal beliefs, allegiances, and identities, making each shield a unique piece of art. It’s also important to note that the colours on a Viking shield had specific symbolic meanings in Norse culture, further adding to their significance.

Viking Shield Patterns: A Display of Identity and Beliefs

Beyond the colours, the patterns and designs on the Viking shields were equally telling. There were no standard patterns, as shields were often personalized, reflecting the individual warrior’s identity, beliefs, and ambitions.

Commonly, Viking shield patterns included intertwined knots and loops, geometric patterns, animal shapes, and occasionally even mythological scenes. These designs, influenced by the Norse artistic styles like the Borre, Jelling, Mammen, Ringerike, and Urnes, reflected the era they were crafted in.

A popular motif was the Valknut, a symbol consisting of three interlocked triangles, often associated with the god Odin. Shields bearing the Valknut might have belonged to warriors who were followers of Odin and aspired to reach Valhalla, the hall of the slain in the afterlife.

The Yggdrasil, or the Tree of Life, was another recurring symbol in Viking shields, representing the cosmos’ interconnected nature in Norse mythology.

How Big Were Viking Shields? Dimensions and Specifications

In terms of size, Viking shields varied quite significantly. Generally, they ranged in diameter from 80 to 90 centimeters (about 31.5 to 35.4 inches), offering enough protection while not hindering movement. The thickness of these shields was typically about 7-10 millimeters at the center, tapering towards the edges.

It’s important to remember that each shield’s size and weight were often tailored to its owner’s stature and strength. Thus, the dimensions of Viking shields were far from standardized, differing substantially between individuals and clans.

How to Make a Viking Shield with Planks? 

Creating a historically accurate Viking shield involves several steps, requiring both craftsmanship and a careful understanding of Viking history. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to create your own Viking shield using planks:

  1. Materials: Gather the necessary materials, including wooden planks (preferably pine, fir, or linden), an iron or steel dome for the boss, rawhide or leather strips for edging, wooden glue, nails, and paints for decoration.
  2. Construction: Start by cutting the wooden planks to the desired length. The average diameter of a Viking shield was 80 to 90 cm, so plan accordingly. The planks should be roughly 7-10 mm thick at the center and taper towards the edges.
  3. Shaping the Shield: Arrange the cut planks edge to edge to form a circular shield. Secure them together using wood glue. Allow the glue to dry, and reinforce the structure by nailing the planks together from the back.
  4. Adding the Boss: Once the shield’s body is stable, fix the iron or steel boss at the center. The boss serves to protect the hand and can also be used for offensive maneuvers. The boss can be affixed using nails driven from the back of the shield.
  5. Handle: Attach a wooden handle behind the boss. Ensure the handle is firmly secured, as it will be bearing the shield’s weight.
  6. Edging: To reinforce the shield and prevent it from splitting, apply a rawhide or leather strip around its edge. You can attach this using glue or nails.
  7. Painting and Decoration: Finally, paint your shield in the colours of your choice. Remember, Viking shields often featured symbolic colours and designs. You could research and choose designs that resonate with you or create your own.

Remember to take proper safety precautions while working with tools. This process involves craftsmanship and time, but the result—a handmade Viking shield—will certainly be a rewarding and educational experience.

Conclusion: Bringing the Viking Shield to Life

Understanding the historically accurate Viking shield requires a deep dive into the intricacies of Viking culture and warfare. With their thoughtfully selected colours and meticulously crafted patterns, Viking shields were much more than mere protective equipment—they were a canvas that revealed the individual warrior’s identity and aspirations.

From the red and black symbols of power and death to the iconic Valknut and Yggdrasil designs, each shield was as unique as the warrior it protected. Still, irrespective of the colours, symbols, and size, the sheer craftsmanship and tactical thought underlying these shields are a testament to the Vikings’ sophisticated understanding of combat and symbolism.

We appreciate their craftsmanship and gain insight into the people who held them by carefully exploring the design, colours, patterns, and sizes of Viking shields. In this society, the warriors wore their identities and aspirations on their shields, quite literally.