THE ANCIENT GREEK HOPLITE

SHIELD                       7/19/14

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Shield--Aspis/Hoplon Armor Weapons
Bibliography The BRONZE AGE


       The shield is what made a Greek warrior a hoplite, because he could not stand in the phalanx without it.  Oddly enough, the shield we commonly refer to as the hoplon was called aspis by the Greeks.  (We may use the incorrect word on this site through force of bad habit--just be aware of the truth and please take no offense at our error!)  It was a deeply dished wooden shield with a flat or angled rim, a band for the arm (porpax) at center, and a handgrip (antilabe) near the edge.  Earlier ones seem to have been covered with leather, with a thin bronze covering on the rim, but by the late Archaic period it was common to cover the entire front with a thin facing of bronze.

       ALERT:  Okay, there was some confusion for a few years about the wood pieces of the Vatican shield, the only surviving Greek-style aspis with substantial organic remains.  To give credit where it's due, Peter Connolly's cross-section turns out to be about right.  There is still some ambiguity and debate due to questionable or vague measurements, but the best summary of the evidence is here: http://www.romanarmytalk.com/19-greek-military-history-a-archaeology/264320-vatican-shield-photos.html   The bowl was about 10-11mm thick at the center, thinning slightly to about 7-9mm where the face "turns" downward, and thickening to 14-18mm (or more?) at the angle of the rim.  Obviously this is only one example, and rivets or nails from other shield fittings may indicate thicker wood.  What is clear is that the aspis was NOT as horribly heavy and cumbersome as often described.  A total weight of 12 to 15 pounds seems likely.

       Lightweight woods like poplar and willow are recommended, and can be documented.  Plywood is commonly used and is acceptable, but again, birch or other lightweight plywood is preferable.  Obviously any modern plywood or ring construction MUST be completely covered by leather or fabric.  Oak makes for great strength but is terribly heavy!  Modern materials such as plastic, fiberglass, and aluminum are of course forbidden.  Skip the saucer sleds!


       The distinctive interior of the aspis, showing the central armband or porpax, the handgrip or antilabe near the rim, and the carrying cord.  The shield at left is lined with deerskin, that at right with wool felt.

       In the newer Osprey Warrior Series volume #27, Greek Hoplite 480-323 BC, Nick Sekunda shows the wood core being composed of several wide slabs laid edge to edge and then hollowed and shaped by turning on a lathe, like a large bowl.  Peter Raftos of The Phalanx explains that the Greek word for "shield maker", torneutoluraspidopÍgos, roughly translates as "one who puts together lyres and shields by turning".  Thin laths are then laid cross-grain around the rim.  The back is covered by leather, fittings attached, then the bronze facing is stuck to the front with pitch and the edge neatly worked around the rim so that there are no pleats or puckers.  Luckily, they "cheated" on this last part at least some of the time: on a shield facing in Piraeus the edge has been clipped into "tabs" about 2" wide, as I did on mine, so that they fold around the back much more easily.  Then a flat ring of bronze was laid over the back of the rim to hide the tabs.

       A word of caution: John Warry's Warfare in the Classical World shows a drawing of the inside of a aspis on page 35.  At its left edge is a strange detail which I believe is an attempt to show the layers of leather peeled back to reveal the wood underneath.  It's not some sort of fixture!


       Various sources indicate that the diameter of the shield ranged from 32" to c. 40", with a maximum depth of c. 5".  Some vase paintings show the rim as very thin and flat, with various depths and curvatures for the body.  The Chigi Vase shows the backs of several shields, seemingly divided into rectangular and wedge-shaped segments, each of which is cross-hatched in a different direction.  This may be showing layers of wood strips, similar to Roman scutum construction.

Hoplologia: Building an Aspis--http://www.hoplologia.org/aspis.html  Everything Aurora Simmons does will make you weep with envy.

Aspis construction and notes--http://www.4hoplites.com/Aspis.htm 

      There are several excellent discussions on the Roman Army Talk board.  Do a search on RAT or browse back through old threads in the Greek sections to find more.

Making an Aspis--Ring Method
http://www.romanarmytalk.com/19-greek-military-history-a-archaeology/201342 

 

Vatican Shield Photos!  (W/ details on wood thickness, etc.)
http://www.romanarmytalk.com/19-greek-military-history-a-archaeology/264320
  

Hoplite shield construction

http://www.romanarmytalk.com/19-greek-military-history-a-archaeology/291608

 

Constructing and Mounting a Porpax
http://www.romanarmytalk.com/19-greek-military-history-a-archaeology/218158

Hoplite Shield Composition
http://www.romanarmytalk.com/19-greek-military-history-a-archaeology/291608
 

       Front and back views of Jon Martin's aspis.  He dished the facing from a single sheet of copper (being unable to get bronze) and pieced the rim.  The Greek letter lambda on the face was used by Spartans (Lakedaimonians) during the Peloponnesian War era, but not as early as the Persian Wars.


       This is one of George Marcinek's shields, by Manning Imperial.  The face is simply painted wood, without a leather or metal facing, but what a lovely paint job!


The only commercially made aspis known to be reasonably accurate (though too heavy) is made by Daniyal Steelcrafts in India.  It is available through Kult of Athena and other vendors, either unpainted or with a variety of painted emblems.

A much nicer one is from Manning Imperial in Australia.  He offers wooden cores correctly turned on a lathe from parallel slabs glued side-by-side, with your choice of fittings and coverings, including complete brass facings!  I don't know about thicknesses or weights.  Not cheap, and remember the shipping...

There are two sources that I heard about some years ago, and I don't know if they are still in business:  Michael Broyles, mjbroyles AT yahoo DOT com, wooden blank c. $450 plus shipping.  Any covering or fittings would be extra.   Also Wulf in the UK, wulf.lighting AT virgin DOT net, or sabre.wulf AT virgin DOT net, though I don't know what sort of finishing he does nor what the cost might be.  He made most of the shields shown on the Hoplite Association site. 

The old Deepeeka #AH3721 "Greek shield" is utter garbage, too small with ugly bolts around the rim, crappy fittings, and a great big Viking boss in the middle!   Their newer #6116 Athenian Shield may be usable, but might not even be available because no one has been able to get a look at it.

Hoplite Home Page
Clothing Helmets Photos Other Greeks, and Others
Shield--Aspis/Hoplon Armor Weapons
Bibliography The BRONZE AGE



BUILDING A GREEK HOPLITE SHIELD

       The construction method described here uses rings or donuts of wood stacked and glued together, and was told to me by Toe Johnson in Australia.  Plywood is often used, but for my second shield I used poplar 1x8 plank (3/4" thick).  This is NOT a historical method, but is a *little* easier to accomplish in the average modern basement.  You will need four hand-held electric power tools:  jigsaw, planer, belt sander, and angle grinder (with flap sander).  Oh, and a drill.  Yes, this can be done without power tools, but don't say I didn't warn you...

       Since my first shield was too thick at the edge of the bowl, made from miscellaneous plywood and oak, and covered with 5-ounce leather, it weighed 18 pounds.  An attempt to reduce the weight resulted in a lot of mess, a worse appearance on the back, and the loss of only one pound overall.  So for my second shield, my main goal was lightness!  I suspect that poplar or birch plank would weigh less than even pine plywood, but in any case do NOT use oak or other dense woods. 

    Start by drawing a full-size, half-width cross-section of the aspis.  Remember that with your arm through the central arm band, the edge of the body should curve neatly over your shoulder.   Draw it as if it is lying flat, face up.   Draw a series of parallel horizontal lines through it, the intervals between them corresponding to the thickness of your wood.  For any particular layer, the point where the upper line crosses the inside of the cross-section determines the inner radius of that ring, and the point where the lower line touches the outside of the cross-section gives you the outer radius.  Now you know exactly how big to make each layer!


       I used the template from my first shield to trace the outline of my second, but made the cross-section thinner, the bowl a little shallower on the inside, and went with a flat rim instead of sloped.  This worked out to six layers, each 3/4" thick, plus a 1/4"-thick rim.   The table at right lists the approximate inner and outer radii of each layer.

       NOTE: This cross-section does NOT match the wooden remains of the Vatican shield, which was thickest at the very edge.  I'll have to draw a new cross-section and write up the radii for that.  This chart WILL give you a nice light shield, though!

LAYER
INNER RADIUS
OUTER RADIUS
1
solid
8-1/8"
2
5-3/8"
11-13/16"
3
10-1/2"
13-5/8"
4
13-1/16"
14-3/8"
5
14"
14-5/8"
6
14-3/8"
14-3/4"
RIM
14-3/8"
17-1/4"


Next, I traced out each layer on brown paper and cut them out. Layer 3 was so squirrely to work with that I decided not to cut out the insides of the remaining layers. Easier to trace the outer line with a full sheet, then just use a compass to draw the inner line (set the compass to the width of the layer, and follow the outer line with the point while drawing with the pencil).

The wood is 1x8 poplar planks, so 3/4" thick.  I bought 2 eight-foot planks, and 2 pieces 3 or 4 feet long.  It turned out that a foot or two less would have been enough, not a big deal.  I traced each pattern onto the wood in several segments, with each one marking the pattern where it left the wood in order to know where to start the next segment.  Many segments can be nested inside others.  Each segment, and its corresponding pattern section, are marked with the number of the layer and the number of the segment, e.g. 2-3, 5-2.

All the wood for the bowl cut out, using a hand-held electric jigsaw.  Made a lot of dust!  The total weight of the wood at this stage was 15 pounds.

Gluing starts with layer 6.  I laid the segments out on the paper pattern (with a layer of plastic to avoid gluing paper to wood!), to be sure they were in a circle.  You can see that I have drawn the circumference of layer 2 on layer 3, to make certain it is properly centered.  Shims or props are needed inside to support parts of the ring.  Dry-fit all the parts first, and then use plenty of glue to avoid any gaps.  I used regular Elmer's wood glue.

Layer 2 glued in place, with weights (plastic bags with lead printer's type, very handy!).  I allowed a good half hour for the glue to set in each layer before starting the next, and let the whole thing dry overnight before even attempting to move it.

Outside of the bowl so far.  I forced glue into as many cracks and gaps as I could.

Inside of the bowl.

Thirty minutes with the electric hand-held planer, and most of the wood removal is done on the outside of the bowl.  This took literally weeks with a rasp, on my first shield!  You can see the kind of mess this makes, hence a big tarp spread out on the deck.  Be a little careful, since the planer will gouge too deep if given a chance.  But this is THE essential tool to have before even considering a project like this, trust me!
The goal is to eliminate the little steps between layers, to make the entire surface smooth and unbroken.  So the planer is followed by the belt sander with a couple of fresh coarse belts (80 or 60 grit).  The first step proved a bit tenacious to eliminate, since that entails removing wood over the widest area.  Closer to the rim, things went much more quickly.  Try to avoid going *too* deep--those steps are your depth markers, as it were, so just barely smooth them away.

For the inside, I tried the planer but could only reach a little of the innermost step, as I suspected. It just doesn't fit inside curves like that. So I spent a half-hour or so with hammer and chisel, quickly and roughly chopping out whatever wood could be removed easily, mostly from the second step.  Then another 30 or 40 minutes with the angle grinder, and the inside is nearly done!  Makes incredible dust.  I had to go over it with the belt sander, because the angle grinder doesn't make an even surface.  This is the time to fit the rim to the bowl, though I did not attach it yet.  Make some pencil marks so that you can get it lined up when the time comes.  The finished weight for the wooden bowl was 6-1/4 pounds, and one pound for the rim.

The fittings are based on those shown in vase paintings.  The porpax and antilabe loops are 18 gauge bronze, while the porpax extensions and discs for the carry-rope rings are 24-ga.  The rings are cut from heavy copper pipe.  Some porpax extensions are plain strips, but many are decorated--I decided that the individual fronds of an acanthus leaf motif were a bit beyond my skills and patience, and went with a simpler sort of leafy look.

My lovely wife donated some old red wool felt for the inside lining.  I glued it in from the center outwards, and it is stretchy enough that I had no puckers.  The excess felt is for covering the back of the rim.  Then I nailed the fittings in place, pre-drilling all the holes.  On the outside, I cut grooves in the wood to clench the nails and "cotter pins" (for the rings) into, so that nothing would stick up above the surface.  The tips of the nails and pins are bent 90 degrees before clenching, so that they stick back down into the wood.  Measure and mark carefully to get everything in place and straight!

After clenching all the nails and pins, I covered everything generously with Plastic Wood, also filling in any likely gaps, steps, or other irregularities.  After allowing that to dry thoroughly (outside, phew!), I sanded again with the belt sander. 

The front I covered with red denim (*before* attaching the rim!).  Thin leather is preferable, but beyond my budget for this project, unfortunately.  You'd need a c. 36" diameter circle of c. 2-ounce leather, not an easy thing to find.  In any case, the denim went on better than I expected, just stretchy enough to be free of major puckers.  After the glue dried I trimmed off the excess fabric and glued the rim in place, reinforcing it with small nails every few inches.  Be careful not to get glue all over the lining, or to let nails poke out through the surface of the bowl!

Then I glued the felt lining down over the back of the rim, and was again able to do it without puckers.  Yea!  The color isn't actually quite as garish as it looks in these photos, but there is some mottling due to old water damage.

Having cleverly remembered to trace the rim out on heavy cardboard before attaching it to the bowl, I then had a pattern for cutting thin leather to cover the front of it.  I left a little extra width so that it could be folded around the edge and glued down at the back. 

One of the pieces of leather was soft enough to simply glue in place, with a couple clamps.  For the rest, I wet the edge using a syringe, folded it around the edge of the wood, and clamped it in place using wood and cardboard shims to prevent any clamp marks in the leather.  After letting it dry overnight, I glued the leather into place.  The antilabe is 3 leather thongs, doubled through the upper loop, braided together, and tied off below the lower loop.  The carrying cord is jute or hemp. 

The leather rim is painted with casein/milk paint.  I decided not to paint the bowl, which in retrospect was a bad idea.  If it were painted, any mistakes in painting on the emblem could be painted over--as I found out the hard way.  Plus, shields were most likely painted in ancient times!  Go with what they did, eh?

Yea, it's a shield!  The bird is taken from a couple vase paintings.  While working through several iterations on paper, I was trying to make it more realistically crow-like, then realized how far I was straying from the evidence and went back to the vase painting!  This is also casein paint, so I will let it cure for a few weeks before giving the entire surface a coat of wax.  The final weight is 9-1/2 pounds.

http://ancientreenacting.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=impressions&action=display&thread=290 

------------------------
       FURTHER CONSTRUCTION NOTES, based on the construction of my first shield.

       I used a variety of plywood scraps, all different in thickness, and had to match each piece to where it would fit in the cross-section.  Obviously planning is simpler if all your wood is the same thickness!  This diagram is for half-inch plywood.  The wood should actually be thickest (c. 1/2" to 3/4") at the edge of the bowl.  So I will redraw this cross-section when I get a chance. (Actually it looks like I drew the center a little thin, but that will save a little weight!)  The total size of this shield is 34" in diameter and 5" in depth.



        Layer 1 is a solid circle with a 7-1/8" radius.  The rest of the approximate dimensions are here:

LAYER #
INNER RADIUS
OUTER RADIUS
1
solid
7-1/8"
2
4-3/8"
10-3/8"
3
8-5/8"
12-1/4"
4
11-1/4"
13-3/8"
5
12-3/4"
14"
6
13-1/2"
14-3/8"
7
14"
14-5/8"
8
14-1/8"
14-3/4"
9
14-1/4"
16-1/2"
10
15"
17"

       You may need thicker wood for layer #1.

       In this example, it should be possible to cut these all from a single sheet of plywood, with some rings "nested" together.  For instance, layer 1 can go inside 3 which can go inside 5, and 2 inside 4 inside 7, etc.  One or two layers might have to be cut in sections, but that will not matter after assembly.

       For 3/8" plywood, draw the lines 3/8" apart, and so on.  I actually cut the two layers corresponding to 7 and 8 as a single layer of 1"-thick oak.  DON'T use oak!!  It's too heavy.  Stick with poplar or other light woods.

       For tracing the rings on the wood, make a "bar compass" by taping a nail to the end of a ruler (18" or longer) or similar flat piece of wood, etc., and clamping a pencil to the bar where needed.  Mark the radius on the wood and adjust the compass to match.   On each layer, it is a good idea to mark the outer radius of the next layer up (with a dashed line for clarity), so that the layers can be centered on each other properly.

       Cut the rings out with a hand-held jigsaw or sabersaw.  Obviously you'll have to drill starter holes to do the inside cuts, but keep them small and don't take "bites" out of your rings if possible.

       Glue the rings together, being sure they are centered.  You can add pegs for more strength.  For ease of smoothing, don't glue the body to the rim yet.

       SMOOTHING--Once the glue is dry, the fun begins:  making the whole thing smooth, inside and out.  For the outside, I used a drawknife near the edge, and a chisel closer to the middle, to remove as much obviously extraneous wood as possible.  Be careful about the grain of the wood--hitting it at the wrong angle can rip up more than you want to remove.  But I found that otherwise there was not much problem with big holes needing puttying.  Most of the rest I did with a rasp, which was hot and strenuous but faster than I had expected.  Use a nice big rasp and don't be timid with it.  PLEASE GET POWER TOOLS!!  Planer, angle grinder, belt sander.  (I was only able to borrow a belt sander when I was mostly done.) It can be helpful to smooth out a strip c. 2" wide from edge to center as a guide and test area.  The idea is to eliminate any trace of the steps, but not to go any deeper.  Do a lot of eyeballing and run your hand CAREFULLY over the surface to find high spots.

       That's Jon Martin's aspis in progress at right, looking much like mine did at that point.


       Since the drawknife and rasp don't reach the inside, I used the chisel and my drill with a rotary rasp (little spiked ball).  The rotary rasp is a little less practical closer to the middle where the slope is very shallow, and it tends to skip over harder parts of the wood and chew into the softer bits.  A 6" surform was some help near the middle, but not great.  The belt sander was much better, and near the edge I used a very coarse sanding disc on my drill--both produced amazing amounts of dust.  An angle grinder is THE tool for this part of the job.

       Most of this smoothing took about 2 weeks.  It was a heck of a lot of work, and faster than sitting around not doing it at all, but I am SO glad I have better tools now!

       COVERING--Certainly a complete bronze facing is both the most desirable and the least obtainable.  It should be quite thin, probably 22 or 24 gauge, definitely not thicker than 20-ga.  The best bet may be to send the finished wooden core--with internal fittings in place--to an armorer of proven ability, so he can fit the facing directly to it.

       Fortunately, not every aspis had a bronze facing.  At least some were covered in leather and only had a bronze rim.  Some reenactors simply give the wood core several coats of paint to hide the wood seams.  My aspis is covered in 4-5 ounce leather--too thick!  Use nothing heavier than 2-ounce leather.  I just used the rim to trace the circle I would need because it's a little bigger than the distance over the curve of the body.  Wet the leather completely, stretch it over the body, and staple it in place.  (Put the staples on the edge of the body that will be glued to the rim!)  When the leather is COMPLETELY DRY, pull out the staples and trim the excess leather.

        Before gluing the leather to the face, almost everything else has to be done!  First, glue and peg or nail the rim to the body.  Then line the inside of the body with leather--deerhide works well.  Glue the middle first, then work around section by section, gluing and using a sandbag for weight, to keep the leather smooth.  Then cover the back of the rim with leather, too, with several pieces if necessary.  Where the rim and body lining meet at the inside angle of the rim, the Vatican shield shows a line of running stitches, to keep the leather from peeling up.  The lining can be painted or dyed--I painted the rim lining dark blue but left the body lining its natural golden color.

       FITTNGS--The porpax (armband) and loops for the grip (antilabe) are cut from 18 gauge bronze, and are secured with bronze nails bent over on the outside of the wood.  I used bronze washers for the rings for the carrying cord, and secured them with split pins made from strips of 18-ga bronze, which pass through copper florets--the same as the brass ones I make for Roman armor.  I cut little grooves in the front of the wood for the clenched nails and split pins to lie in, which helped a lot.  Also, bend the tip of each nail over before bending it down flat, which sends the tip into the wood.  Hold a sledgehammer behind the wood to absorb the impact of hammering. The rings for the carrying cord should be mounted so that the cord passes straight through them without having to make any sharp angles.  The grip is made of twisted or braided leather thong.  At this point you can actually pick up the hoplon  and see how it fits over the shoulder.  Neat, eh?


       Close-up shots of the porpax and antilabe.  I decided to keep the porpax very plain, but the edges are flanged outwards for comfort.  With a little better planning, the tassle on the antilabe would have been at the *bottom*, not the top...

Right: one of the ring fittings through which the carrying cord runs, shown about full size.

       I used 3 strands of heavy linen cord twisted together for the carrying cord.  A little experimenting resulted in the right length for slinging the shield on my back with the cord going horizontally across my shoulders and chest.  The shoulder still nests inside the rim to help support the weight.  I had thought that the porpax would dig into my back, but it rests quite comfortably in the small of my back, and apparently even keeps the lower rim from bumping my legs.

       Put Plastic Wood around the nails and split pins, just so that nothing sticks up too sharply from the face, and sand it smooth when dry.

       NOW glue the facing on, similarly to the inside lining, starting at the center and then doing the outer section all at once, using a rope tied around where body meets rim to keep it tight until dry.  If you want a leather rim, put that on, too.  (Actually, since you'll want to stretch the leather over the edge, you may want to put it on before you put the leather on the back of the rim.  My rim is brass, so I can't really help you!)  Paint the front with an emblem or color scheme from a vase painting, etc.  (I used the eye motif on a light blue background.)  

       RIM--For a bronze/brass rim, you need to calculate the proper radius very carefully, remembering that since the rim is sloped you will essentially be making a slice of a very shallow cone.  I tried to cut my rim from just 2 pieces, but made it an inch too large, so I had to cut it into pieces and trim the inner edges to fit.  My finished rim is 5 pieces, overlapped and nailed. Moral:  MEASURE, MEASURE, MEASURE!!  And then MAKE PATTERNS!!  Don't be afraid to spend several evenings just sitting a staring at pictures, parts, patterns, and measurements, it will save you much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  I used .020" brass, which worked quite well.  Anneal the part that will be folded over the edge, and add any etched or embossed decoration that you want (I went with etched triangles, effective and as complicated as I wanted to get.)  Knowing that I would not be able to avoid puckers in the brass at the back, I preferred to cut slits about an inch and a quarter apart to create overlapping tabs.  This is actually how at least one surviving original was done, with a flat ring of bronze added to cover the tabs.  I added a strip of deerhide to cover my tabs when I found that they constantly snagged on everything!


       Front and back of the rim of my shield.  Each seam on the front is secured by 2 small brass nails, and you can also see the (rather faint) zigzag line that I scribed into the brass.  On the back, you can see the overlapping tabs, a seam in the leather backing, and the stitching that secures the blue rim backing to the gold deerhide inside the bowl.

        The finished weight of my aspis is about 18 pounds, similar to Connolly's reconstruction.  That's too much!  If you make the edge a lot thinner than mine, you'll be able to cut several pounds from that weight.  I have coated the brass rim with neatsfoot oil in an attempt to keep it from tarnishing, because it will be VERY difficult to polish!


       A more accurate alternative to the plywood donut method would be to glue poplar or birch 4x4s and 4x6s together face-to-face  to make a bloody great slab of wood, and work it into shape.  With clever planning the pieces could be cut to rough shape beforehand, similarly to the donut method.  If you happen to have access to (or can build) a wood lathe that will take a piece 3 feet in diameter, use it to turn the turn the wood like a big shallow bowl.  This is apparently how the ancients did it!  (You could just do the dome that way, then add the rim.)  It's possible the lathe was more like a potter's wheel, with the shield blank lying flat, which would be much easier to build.  If you do the outside first, you might be able to shape your bronze facing over it, even spinning or lathing it to shape using the wood blank as the form.  Then hollow out the inside. 

Hoplite Home Page
Clothing Helmets Photos Other Greeks, and Others
Shield--Aspis/Hoplon Armor Weapons
Bibliography The BRONZE AGE