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Dark age shield patterns
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DARK AGE SHIELD PATTERNS
If you are painting lots of figures, you may want to go to town with the shields. In the dark age period, armies were fairly irregular, which means that you may want to depict loads of different patterns, rather than just a few uniform ones. This means that your imagination may soon become exhausted. I don't pretend that my shields are the most magnificently painted, but nonetheless I imagine that this page may be of use for someone searching for some inspiration.
We know that people painted patterns on their shields, but most of these patterns have been lost in the mists of time. We also have reason to believe that lots of shields were quite plain. Some archaeological finds are of shields painted a single plain colour, while other shields are a riot of decoration. I have come across references to plain black and plain yellow shields, as found for example on the Gokstad ship in Norway. Red was popular, according to some sources, but be aware that references to words like "red" can be misleading, because we today tend to think of red as a pure red, whereas people in the past called orange "red", and all sort of reddish browns and purples too. Shields were often covered with leather or cloth. Strength was one reason, hiding the grain of the wood may have been another, and another was decoration.
Note that metal edging to shields was very rare. Most shield edging would have been a material like rawhide. Rawhide is a sort of greyish yellowy brown. Today many people encounter it in the form of dog-chews. It may often have been painted, of course, and so could be any colour.
The good news is that you can paint dark age shields very simply, and claim to be authentic. Here are some very simple shield patterns that were quite common. Some are a plain colour, others halved or quartered. Sometimes the quartering was done with curving lines, as on the figure second from the left. Sometimes, small dots or circles were added, as shown on the figure second from the right. Stripes were also popular, and these could be parallel, as on the central figure, or radial, as on the figure on the right. Figures by Irregular Miniatures, Wargames Foundry, and Prince August.
These patterns are a bit more ambitious. The two on the right are adapted from patterns found on the net after doing a lengthy Google search for "Viking shield patterns". The other two are made up, but use patterns that were around at the time. The intricate pattern on the far left was painted in white on the background colour, and then retouched with that background colour, first to cover over some slips, and then to add in the lines that give the illusion of the weave - the under and over of the lines. The white lines were first painted all crossing each other, and then with the dark red background colour, thin lines were painted over the white. The way to construct these knotwork patterns (not unique to the Celts) is best described in the seminal work Celtic Art - the Methods of Construction by George Bain (published by Constable, London).
Some more shield patterns. The first three are based on patterns found in the book Decorative Patterns of the Ancient World by Flinders Petrie, published by Bracken Books of London. The one second from the left went wrong. The big green swirly lines were supposed to be equally spaced, but I didn't paint accurately enough. So, I made the top pink dot into a big circle and dot, in order to balance the pattern up, and make the mistake look deliberate. All I have to do now is keep quiet about it, and no one need ever know.
Yet more patterns. On the far left you see runes in a circle on a shield, which is authentic. The second from the right is pink and curvy and might look a little feminine to modern eyes, but many old designs were like this. Pink was not considered especially feminine until very recently. Indeed, baby boys were dressed in pink, and girls in blue until shortly before the First World War, when the colours swapped over. On the far right, you see that the radial lines in between the colours have been painted to represent metal bands on the shield. Some dark age shields were reinforced this way.
Four more. The one second from the right, with the sky blue background, is a "key" pattern constructed using the methods in the George Bain book. The one on the far right is completely made up, based on nothing, but I like it.
Viking shield patterns. The one on the far right was found on the internet. The other three are genuine Viking patterns from the period, but whether any was ever used on a shield, I cannot confirm, but no one can prove that they were not. The middle two are variations on the same pattern.
The first force of dark age figures I painted up were these Romano British. The pattern is a genuine one from the period, but the colour scheme is mine. One unit has white shields with green dragons, one has green shields with white dragons, and the overall commander of the infantry is shown here in the middle, having a split shield with half of each version on it. The cavalry shields are done the same way, with red and white, and the banner for the whole army has one half with a green and white dragon pattern, and the other half with a red and white dragon.
These simple knotwork patterns were outlined with a fine black pen.
An animal decoration, as existed on many shields, painted in the naïve style of the day.
A very simple key pattern. I didn't matt varnish over the gloss varnish on this shield, because I decided that I liked it slightly glossy.
A nice pattern, straight out of the Flinders Petrie book.
Another key pattern, using the George Bain method. Not too complicated even at this scale.
Another animal pattern. Many patterns were like this, in that they had repeated animal icons making a symmetrical design. The exact details of this design are just made up, and you see them here at considerably greater than life size. Note that the dark green background colour has been used to paint detail into the patches of pale paint. Although the detail wouldn't impress an avid fan of intricate period designs, at this scale this is enough to look very nice on the wargames table.
According to Flinders Petrie, this design comes from Hämeenmaa, Finland.
This sort of design is very strong and simple, and creates a nice 3D effect. Shield bosses are depicted in some contemporary sources as coloured and part of the overall design, so perhaps the metal was painted or covered with coloured cloth.
I hope that this page has been of use to someone. If it has, perhaps that person will e-mail me to say so. It is always encouraging to get such e-mails from strangers. The Flinders Petrie book was more useful for coming up with shield patterns for my Trojan War figures, and perhaps one day I'll get round to doing a page on those patterns.