Monday, 18 March 2013

Witham Shield

Does the legend of dying King Arthur’s sword being flung into a lake preserve a historical practice which would otherwise have been almost forgotten?  I am reminded of this question by the short-term loan of the Witham Shield by the British Museum to a museum in Lincoln; we went on Saturday to marvel at it.

The shield, which dates from perhaps 350 BC, was dredged up nearly two hundred years ago from the River Witham on the eastern edge of Lincoln.  Much more recently whole clusters objects have been recovered around a rediscovered timber causeway a short distance further east.

The dates of tree rings in the causeway also gives rise to speculation about whether this sort of flinging was associated with mid-winter lunar eclipses; if so, this is also something we would otherwise not have suspected.

The gap in the mount in the second photograph shows where coloured glass or some other backing would have been placed. This, the sheen of polished brass, and the use of things like coral decoration, would all have combined to create the impact of the piece.

The brass would have been on a lost wooden backing, the lip of which remains bent over on one side (third photograph) but has been lost on the other (fourth photograph, showing, therefore, how thin the brass sheet is).

The glass case meant I failed to get a full length photograph, and nothing which hints at the shape of a boar, an image which would have been laid as a further sheet on top of the brass but under the central mount.

It is clear that this was a show piece and never intended for use in battle, and ‘marvel’ is hardly the right word for a reaction to it then or today.

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