The Secrets of the Witham Shield

Julia Farley

In the early 19th century, a striking Celtic treasure was dredged-up from a river in Lincolnshire: The Witham Shield.

British Museum curator Julia Farley talks about one of her favourite objects in the museum’s collection — a highly decorative shield named after the river in which it was found. At over 2,000 years old, the shield was a remarkable find, but Farley posits that it was also exceptional in its time.
She encourages us to take a closer look at the shield to see some of its surreptitious and beastly little secrets. Through teaching our eyes to see the subtly encoded messages in such objects one gains insight into Britain’s Celtic past, and how this visual language persists through the ages. Farley shows us how this is not just a decorative art, but a powerful art.

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The Witham Shield is one of the most beautiful pieces that we have preserved to us today of what we call Celtic Art. We think that this object was probably produced over 2000 years ago, and that’s based on the style of the designs and the way that the shield’s made. Quite often when we hear Celtic Art we think of interlace designs, and things like the Lindisfarne Gospels and even Anglo-Saxon art. I’m not talking about those kinds of designs. I am talking about much, much earlier art. When we first get to the word ‘Celtoi’ or ‘Celt’ appearing in the classical texts.

 

It’s called The Witham Shield, and it has that name because it was actually dredged up from the River Witham, in Lincolnshire, and it was probably found in around 1826 or 1827. This isn’t just a decorative art – this is a powerful art. This is an art that’s maybe connected to religious beliefs, this is an art that does something.

 

The Witham Shield is one of my favourite objects in the collection which I look after, and I remember seeing it for the first time: when you first see it, it’s not as dazzling as other objects like the Battersea Shield, which have these really incredible, in your face, all-over designs. But what I love about it is that it takes a bit of time to appreciate, so when you come up close to it, being able to see the incredibly careful execution of all of these designs, which really jump out at you as being faces and creatures, you start to realise that they have these little secrets that you can gradually get them to give up, just by sitting with them, looking at them, being able to draw out those details.

 

There are particular bits on the Witham Shield that clearly depict animals, and particularly those little bulls which are at the top and bottom. But if you look at the Battersea Shield, it looks much more abstract. Look at the bottom of the central boss on the Battersea Shield, underneath you see a very, very simple little design, which in fact, is almost identical in its outline to the cows heads on the Witham Shield. So, we’re seeing just the suggestion of this little kind of bovine face, with his little horns or ears, and we only really can see that, and really know and understand that, and that it really does depict a cow or a bull, because we see those designs on Witham. So, it’s not about there being one story which you know or which you don’t, it’s about teaching your eye to see these shapes, and see these creatures, and realising that there’s a hidden depth to this art.

 

Look closely about half way up, you’ll see a couple of little holes, which you think could just be maybe damage. But if you start to follow that up with your eye, you’ll see a couple more,
and a couple more, and then you might start to realise that the colour of the metal around those holes is slightly different. And what you’re seeing is two long, straight lines that come up to one side of that central boss, and then arch over, and then come down again on the other side. And what these are is the outline of this kind of long-legged, and very graceful, boar.

 

Today the boar is very hard to see, but originally it would have been riveted on to that wooden facing, in, perhaps a different kind of metal, perhaps something organic, like leather. You can see even his little tusks and his little face if you look at the right angle, it’s very stylised. These could be sort of totem animals, or symbolic animals that relate to that person, their family, their tribe, it’s a rare and unusual object. If you saw that on the battlefield you would have known who was carrying that. The boar itself might have had some kind of association with battle; boars are tremendously ferocious animals, one of the most dangerous animals that would have been out in the woods of Iron Age Britain.

 

We do often see the boar on defensive objects, sometimes we have helmets with a little boar on the crest. We also have boars on the heads of these tremendous kind of war trumpets called ‘Carnyx’, that would have been two metres tall above people who were marching in to war, and when played would have made this incredible, loud, trumpeting sound, and those tend to have boar faces on them, so maybe the boar symbolises something special.

 

I think that the decoration was really inherent to these objects, really essential part of what they are and what they did, and quite often we’ll find bits of shields or scabbards are decorated that would never have actually really been seen except by the owner of that object. So, the handle, for example, of the Battersea Shield has this lovely design to it but it would only have been seen by the person holding it, or the people, you know, responsible for cleaning and caring for that object. Even if you hang it up on the wall, you don’t see that part. So, maybe the fact that there are these designs you have to be inducted into, that hint at things without ever really quite saying them, and which are so small and subtle that you really have to be invited up close and personal to interact with them. Maybe that tells us that there’s a little bit of magic here that’s not just about flamboyant display. It’s also about those objects, having powers and properties which are known to their owners, and perhaps known to people who tell stories about these objects, but they have secrets.

 

That might tell us something about this society, about how they want to represent themselves, and what is, and is not, acceptable in art. Sometimes suggestions of faces appear, but it’s possible there was some kind of a taboo, even, against depicting the human form. Animals and sort of plant like design seem to have been chosen more commonly, particularly in Britain.

 

I think there’s an idea that this kind of early Celtic Art, you know, flourishes before the Romans, and then the Romans come along and ruin everything, and everyone who makes this kind of beautiful, incredible art is sort of hiding off in the mountains, and when the Romans leave they can come back out again, and that’s where we get this big flourishing of early Medieval Celtic Art, and these fabulous interlace designs. For me, that’s not quite what happened, and one of the places where we really see Celtic Art actually taking off, and transformations and new interpretations of these designs is on Roman objects. This kind of design became really important in Roman Britain, actually.

 

Early Iron Age art is very three dimensional, these objects are sort of like coming out at you and made in repoussé, and that gets transformed into something much more two-dimensional and flat. We’re looking at almost the compression of these complex three-dimensional shapes down into two dimensions; interlocking shapes that are kind of contrasted in shade and light, and enamel and flat metal surfaces. We see that on things like dragonesque broaches, these curious little s-shaped beasts, and this becomes a distinctively Romano-British object. But a lot of these earlier designs, which used to be widespread across Europe, feed into then, that early Medieval art, so there is a chain through which we can kind of trace that artistic lineage, I think, coming through from these early Iron Age styles, through the Roman World – and actually in some ways being promoted by the Roman World – and then continuing to flourish after the fall of the Roman Empire as well.

 

It’s not just about the history of art, and about decoration, and about design. For me, what matters is what this can tell us about the people who made these objects. And for a lot of the time in the past, there was no such thing as art, in the sense that it’s something that rich people hang on their wall, and the rest of us don’t understand. Looking at these incredible, powerful, decorated objects from the past can give us a sense of what people’s lives were like, but also, what messages they wanted to encode into their objects, what they thought were the most important things about their society, and what really mattered to them.

With thanks to…

 

British Museum

 

Archive

 

Alamy Stock Photo
Durham Country Council
Getty Images
Metropolitan Museum
Pond5
Shutterstock

 

Music

 

Original Composition

 

Full list of artworks/images shown:

 

The Witham Shield, c.300-200 BC
British Museum
Museum no. 1872,1213.1
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Lindisfarne Gospels, 8th Century AD
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
The British Library

 

The Book of Kells, 8th Century AD
Prisma/UIG/Getty Images
Dublin, Trinity College Library

 

Great Gold Buckle
Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, Early 7th Century AD
British Museum
Museum no. 1939,1010.1
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

The Battersea Shield, c.350-50 BC
British Museum
Museum no. 1857,0715.1
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Hunting boar during the Bronze Age. Date: circa 1000 BC
Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

 

 

Panel of the Gundestrup cauldron, c.100 BC-1 AD
Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
National Museum of Denmark

 

The Wandsworth Shield, c.350-150 BC
British Museum
Museum no. 1858,1116.2
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

The Kirkburn Sword, c.300-200 BC
British Museum
Museum no. 1987,0404.2
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Chased bronze fitting representing a horse’s head, 1st Century AD
Found at Stanwick, Yorkshire
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

 

Ring, 4th–5th Century BC
Accession no. 2009.532.3
Metropolitan Museum
CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)
Public Domain Dedication

 

Figure (Head of Claudius), 1st Century AD
British Museum
Museum no. 1965,1201.1
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Two fragments of an incomplete dragonesque brooch, 2nd Century AD
Durham Country Council
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Pair of dragonesque brooches, 1st-2nd Century AD
British Museum
Museum no. 1088.70a
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Roissy Dragon Dome, 2nd century BC
Photo: BastienM
Musée d’Archeologie Nationale
(CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

 

Dragonesque brooch, 1st-2nd Century AD
British Museum
Museum no. POA.201
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Chariot fittings, 1st Century AD
British Museum
Museum no. 1889,0706.78
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Mount, c.50-150 AD
British Museum
Museum no. 1889,0706.78
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Dragonesque brooch, 1st-2nd Century AD
British Museum
Museum no.1088.70b
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

The Desborough Mirror, c.50 BC–50 AD
British Museum
Museum no. 1924,0109.1
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

The Bank of England Mosaic, 3rd Century AD
British Museum
Museum no. 1806,1115.1
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Creative Commons Lisence information:

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

(CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)
https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/

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