SHIELD in Eastern Iran


SHIELD in Eastern Iran

In Lurestan, a round bronze shield was found, which has a skirting along the edge, an umbo in the center, and relief depictions of fantastic creatures. This shield, datable to the 10th century BCE, is one of the most ancient of the metal shields found in Iran (Melikian-Chirvani, pp. 6-8, fig. 2). Shield had been known to the Eastern Iranians since olden days. The term spāra-dāšta (‘the one who carries a shield’) occurs in the Avesta twice (Yt. 13.35 and Yt. 19.54; see Jackson, p. 116; cf. AirWb., col. 1618; Malandra, p. 285). Another Avestan designation of the shield is vərəδδra (AirWb., col. 1421). The Ossetic wart (according to V. I. Abaev) or ūart (according to G. Bailey) belongs to a large group of words deriving from the ancient Indo-Iranian word var (or war) which means ‘cover,’ ‘protection.’ ; From it also derive one of the Avestan terms for the designation of the shield vərəδraδra, the Ancient-Iranian *vrədra ; (‘shield’), the Armenian (borrowed from Iranian) vahan (shield), and the Pahlavi vartīk, gartīk (protective cloths). To the same family of words also belongs the Khotanese-Sakan baṭha which means ‘protective chain-mail,’ ‘coat of mail’ (Bailey, pp. 110-12; Abaev, pp. 50-51). In the Ancient-Persian, the term *taka was used to designate the shield. In the opinion of the linguists, this term can probably be etymologized with the Ancient Greek sakhos ncient-Greekσαχος ; (“shield”), the Vedic ; tvand the Vedic tvàk meaning ‘leather,’ ‘fur,’ and, apparently, ‘shield’ (see Brandenstein and Mayrhofer, p. 144). The symbolics of the shield in the Iranian world is first of all connected with the Sun and the heavens.

The authors of the Antiquity knew about the existence of several types of shields among the Central Asian peoples (for the Middle-Persian terminology see Tafazzoli, pp. 190 [magind] and 192 [spar]). Thus, Arrian designates the shield of the Sakas by the term Uerron (Υέρρον (Arrian, Anabasis 4.4.4), presuming a braid shield or a light shield tightly covered with leather. In the imagination of the Greeks, the sakhos shield was invented by the Sakas, which was probably a result of theshield” (σαχος) was invented by the Saks. Maybe, this was the result of the juxtaposing the tribal name with the designation of the shield in the Greek language. The basis for the appearing of such people’s etymology must have been the acquaintance of the Greeks with the weapons of the Sakan tribes (Litvinskiǐ and P’yankov, p. 43; Litvinskiǐ, 1972, pp. 128-29).

Real findings of the shields in Bactria, as well as in the entire Central Asia, are not numerous. In the Saka burials of the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, which were excavated in the eastern Pamirs, remains of several shields have been found. The shields were made of wood (latticed or braid of twigs), and then this frame was tightly covered with leather. Sometimes, shields were made by fixing three layers of leather onto a carcass made of twigs. Similar twig-braided shields of round, rectangular, and other shapes, tightly covered with leather or raw ox-hides, had been widely spread in ancient times. The Scythes from mountainous Altai had shields, which consisted of pieces of leather with wooden sticks of round cross-section braided into them (Litvinskiǐ, 1972, p. 128 where further bibliography is given).

Thus, for example, one of the shields of the Pamiri Sakas represented “a rectangular frame of 1.4 by 1.5 m made of billets with six cross-bars. The two middle bars were positioned close to each other for the fixation of the handle, and the remaining space was filled by braided sea-buckthorn twigs. The shield was tightly covered with leather” (Bernshtam, p. 126, fig. 6). There is a credible suggestion that this was a trophy or an imported Achaemenid shield, or a Saka imitation of the latter (Gorelik, p. 188).

Already in the Achaemenid epoch, and especially in the Hellenistic times, shields of Hellenistic origin had appeared and spread in Iran. One of such shields was found in the Temple of the Oxus. The shield was wooden with metal components. Around the edge, it was tightened by a bronze rim, and in the center it had a bronze umbo in the shape of a disk with an elevated part. The shield had a diameter of 56.5 cm.

The emblem in the shape of the three running legs has received the name triskele (Gk. triskelēs τρισκελησ, “three legs‘three legs’) in scholarship. Depictions of shields with such emblem are known for the Greek vase-painting of the period from the middle of the 6th to the beginning of the 5th centuries BCE, as well as for Athenian coins. The structure of the shield from the Temple of the Oxus is more close to the depictions of the triskele on the Athenian coins minted in the second half of the 6th century BCE (up to 510 BCE). It is possible, however, that this shield was not made in Greece, but it rather represents a local Bactrian copy of a much later time.

Besides the shields with the triskele, other types of shields were also spread in the Eastern Iran, which had come from the Mediterranean, like the shield of the tureos (Gk. dureos) tureosτυρεός) type. Remains of a shield of this type were found in the Temple of the Oxus; they include an umbo of elongated rhomboid shape with a relief rib along its long axis. In its central part, the rib has the shape of a raised relief oval with rays-arrows spreading along the long axis. The length of the umbo is 28 cm. A depiction of such shield held by an unmounted warrior is presented in the scene of the battle of Alexander with the Achaemenid troops, which is engraved on an ivory plate found in the Temple of the Oxus. Shields of this type were apparently in the Ay-Khanum (Āy Ḵānom) as well; their depiction on the terracotta from Begram is known, and a special type is depicted on the terracotta from Kampyr-tepe near Termez. This type of the shield was brought to the Mediterranean by the Galls. In the beginning of the 3rd century BCE they appeared in Greece and then, starting from the Seleucid times, in Persia (Litvinskiǐ, 2001, pp. 360-77).

This was an oval shield with an oval vertical rib at whose center they used to place a spindle-like umbo, often of elongated-rhomboid or elongated-lens shape. Judging by the depictions, the shield proper had the shape of an elongated oval with the length to width ratio equal to 2:1. Such shields were evidently provided with a wooden base covered on top by a metal plate. They were mainly used by the infantry and covered the warrior from the shoulders to the lower part of the legs.

Depictions of such shields originating from various Seleucid cities of the Near East are known. The Parthian warrior, embodied in the terracotta statuette from Nineveh, holds the shield of the tureos type by his left hand (Sekunda, tabl. 27 and 46; Eiland, p. 59, fig. 1). Therefore, shields of the tureos type were spread in the Mesopotamia and, as it becomes clear now, more to the east in Bactria as well (Litvinskiǐ, 2001, pp. 378-81; Nikonorov, 2003, pp. 109-12).

Oval shields were found during excavations at some Hellenistic sites of the Central Asia. Scarcity of data on these shields does not allow defining their typological identity with any level of accuracy. Two shields were found at the Ay-Khanum arsenal. Strictly speaking, archaeologists found some imprints of the color coating of these shields on the soil in the form of the finest color film. One of the shields was oval, with reconstructable length of 1.3 m and width of 0.64 m. Judging by the hollow in the center, the shield had an umbo, and a border of palmettes went along the edge. There are traces of a standing figure. The decoration of the shield was made by yellow, red, black, and azure colors. The second shield was round (diameter 1.15 m) and decorated by concentric circular bands of black, yellow, and red colors (Grenet, Liger, and de Valence, pp. 59-60, tabl. XXIII and XXXVIc).

Along with the types described above, other types of shields were spread in Greco-Bactria, as proved by depictions of shields on the Greco-Bactrian coins. Thus, the reverse of a series of coins of Menandr ;I Soter (r. ca. 155-130 BCE) has the depiction of Athena Alkidemos holding a shield (Mitchiner, pp. 122-25, type 214-19; Bopearachchi, tabl. 27-29, series 7-16; Bopearachchi and Aman ur Rahman, p. 116, nos. 310-19). Big-size shields were often convex, with a flat border by the edge. The convex part was sometimes covered by protruding lumps. There is a large depiction of the shield (front view) on the reverse of the coins of the series 17 (Bopearachchi). The shield is round, with a narrow border; its main part is convex. The field of the shield is decorated by the head of Gorgona (Bopearachchi, pp. 237-38, tabl. 31, ser. 17-19; Bopearachchi and Aman ur Rahman, p. 122, no. 390; see also Mitchiner, p. 137, type 246). Athena Alkimedos is shown holding the shield of this type on the coins of Straton ;I (ca. 125-110 BCE; see Bopearachchi, tabl. 35-37).

Shields with metal carcass were found at Nisa (Masson, 1955, p. 46). Of the same origin is the “ceremonial oval shield decorated in the middle by large iron straps in the shape of the trident and, along the perimeter of the circle, by two dozens of alternating peculiar palmettes and by standing eagles with slightly open wings” (Masson and Pugachenkova, p. 21). The ceremonial shield from Nisa has attracted attention of researchers, and its ornamentation has been studied in detail (Koshelenko, p. 121-22; Invernizzi, pp. 117-28, fig. 55, tabl. G/b–d). An imprint of a colored layer of an object with traces of gilding and with a ring of 11.5 cm in diameter painted by crimson paint was also fount at Nisa (Masson and Pugachenkova, p. 26). Taking into account the findings at Ay-Khanum discussed above, one can presume that the imprint at Nisa is also that of a painted shield. Depictions of shields on coins are related to time close to the discussed period. These shields are round and have a wide umbo, or sometimes they are oval and have a raised human mask at the place of the umbo (Nikonorov, 1997, II, p. 9, fig. 23/f–j).

The shape of the Kushanian shield is well visible on the depictions from burial 3 at Tillya-tepe (Sarianidi, p. 31, tabl. 72b, 81-84).

Shields of later times, the 7th to the 9th centuries, are known through their depictions in wall paintings and by a unique finding of the shield of the late 7th-early 8th century at the castle on the Mug Mountain. The middle part of a wooden shield of rounded shape was found there, with diameter of 61 cm and thickness of 1.1 cm in the center and 0.6 cm at the edges. The shield consists of planks, 6 cm wide, which were glued onto each other and additionally fixed by metal rivets. Metal binding passed by the edge of the shield, and parchment was glued onto it from both sides. A metal handle was fixed to the rear side by tacks. The front side of the shield contains a painting of an armed horse-rider. The shield apparently belonged to a warlord and was several times used in battles. It has traces of arrows, but none of the latter pierced the shield through.

Some battle scenes of the wall paintings contain depictions of shields. The latter are evidently wooden shields, tightly covered with painted leather, with iron binding by the edge. The central metal umbo and four metal badges at the edge are present. The metal parts, judging by the painting, were gilded (Raspopova, pp. 85-86).

In the Islamic times, shields were among the widespread types of weapons. In the 10th-12th centuries, shields were made of wood (tightly covered with leather) and metal (Bosworth, 1973, p. 119). Shields are frequently mentioned in written sources of the 15th-17th centuries. This concerns both metal shields and wooden shields tightly covered with leather of black or multi-color painting. The typology and chronology of these shields have not been worked out yet.


V. I. Abaev, Istoriko-ètimologicheskiǐ slovar’ osetinskogo yazyka (Historical-etymological dictionary of the Ossetic language), vol. III, Moscow, 1989.

H. W. Bailey, “Āriana. Dress and Equipment,” Orientalia Suecana 4, 1955.

O. Bopearachchi, Monnaies gréco-bactriennes et indo-grecques. Catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1991.

O. Bopearachchi and Amar ur Rahman, Pre-Kushana Coins in Pakistan, Karachi, 1997.

H. Brandenstein and M. Mayrhofer, Handbuch des Altpersischen, Wiesbaden, 1964.

M. L. Eiland, “Parthians and Romans in Nineveh,” Ancient Iran and the Mediterranean World. Proceedings of an International Conference in Honour of Professor Wolski, 1996, Krakow, 1998.

M. V. Gorelik, Oruzhie Drevnego Vostoka. IV tysyacheletie—IV vek do n. è. (Weapons of the Ancient East. 4th millennium—4th century BCE), Moscow, 1993.

F. Grenet, J.-C. Liger, and R. de ;Valence, “L’arsenal,” in “Campagne de fouille 1978 à Aï Khanoum (Afghanistan),” Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême Orient 68, 1980, pp. 51-63.

A. Invernizzi, Sculture di metallo da Nisa. Cultura greca e cultura iranica in Partia, Louvain, 1999.

A. V. W. Jackson, “Herodotus VII, 61, on the Arms of the Ancient Persians Illustrated from Iranian Sources,” Classical Studies in Honour of Henry Drisler, New York and London, 1894.

G. A. Koshelenko, Rodina parfyan (Motherland of the Parthians), Moscow, 1977.

B. A. Litvinskiǐ, Drevnie kochevniki “Kryshi Mira” (Ancient nomads of the “Roof of the World”), Moscow, 1972.

B. A. Litvinskiǐ, ; Khram Oksa v Baktrii (Yuzhnyǐ Tadzhikistan), t. 2: Baktriǐskoe vooruzhenie v grecheskom i perednevostochnom kontekste (The Temple of the Oxus (Southern Tadzhikistan), vol. 2: Bactrian weapons in the Greek and Near-Eastern context), Moscow, 2001.

B. A. Litvinskiǐ and I. V. P’yankov, “Voennoe delo u narodov Sredneǐ Azii VI-IV vv. do n. è. (Military practice of the peoples of the Central Asia in the 6th-4th century BCE), VDI, 1966, no. 3, pp. 36-52.

W. W. Malandra, “A Glossary of Terms for Weapons and Armor in Old Iranian,” Indo-Iranian Journal 15/4, 1973, pp. 264-89.

M. E. Masson and G. A. Pugachenkova, Parfyanskie ritony Nisy (Parthian rythons of Nisa), Ashkhabad, 1959.

A. S. Melikian-Chirvani, “Iranian Sun Shield,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute, N. S., 6, 1992, 1993.

M. Mitchiner, The Apogee of the Indo-Greeks and their Antecedents aria 160 to 120 B.C., London, 1975.

R. Mukminova, Ocherki po istorii remesla v Samarkande i Bukhare v XVI veke (Essays in the history of crafts in Samarqand and Bukhara in the 16th century), Tashkent, 1976.

V. P. Nikonorov, The Armies of Bactria 700 B.C., 2 vols., Stockport, 1997.

Idem, “Eshchyo raz ob izobrazhenii voina s tsitadeli Kampyrtepa” (Once again about the depiction of the warrior from the citadel of Kampyrtepa), Tsentral’naya Aziya. Istochniki, istoriya, kul’tura (Central Asia. Sources, History, Culture), Moscow, 2003.

V. I. Raspopova, Metallicheskie izdeliya rannesrednevekovogo Sogda (Metal objects of the early Medieval Sogd), Leningrad, 1980.

V. I. Sarianidi, Bactrian Gold from the Excavations of the Tillya-Tepe Necpolis in Northern Afghanistan, Leningrad, 1985.

N. Sekunda, Seleucid and Ptolemaic Reformed Armies: 168-145 B.C., 2 vols., Stockport, 1994-95.

A. Tafazzoli, “List of Terms for Weapon and Armour in Western Middle Iranian,” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 3, Kamakura, 1993-94, pp. 187-198.

(Boris A. Litvinsky)

Originally Published: January 1, 2000

Last Updated: April 15, 2010