A Sunken Shield

The River Tyne was an important access point for Roman ships, bringing supplies and soldiers for the forts along Hadrian’s Wall. We’ve already seen some of the intriguing objects pulled from its watery depths, like the altars to Neptune and Oceanus. But what else has been discovered lurking beneath the surface? Our object today is a little different to what we’ve looked at before – it does have an inscription, but it isn’t made out of stone this time. This object definitely belonged to a Roman soldier – because it is part of a Roman shield! But how did it end up in the river?

Let’s find out more about the sunken shield!

We’re starting our story of the sunken shield not with the Romans, but the Victorians…

In the 19th century, the Tyne Improvement Commission began dredging the River Tyne to deepen the river bed. They wanted to make sure ships could sail through without getting stuck: this was important because of heavy trade demands for coal as well as the Tyne’s use for shipbuilding and repairs. Using a recent invention called steam-powered bucket dredger, mud and sand from the Tyne’s river bed were removed and then dumped out at sea. Over 70 long (and noisy!) years of dredging, the Tyne Improvement Commission had deepened the river from 1.83 metres to 9.14 metres. You can see a photo of one of these 19th century dredgers in action on the Tyne below:

Photo: Newcastle Chronicle

It was during the dredging of the river in 1867 that our intriguing discovery was made. Hiding among the mud and sand, near the mouth of the Tyne, was something that had been buried since the time of the Romans. This curved rectangular object has come from a Roman soldier’s shield. We call this type of object a shield boss. The Latin word for it is umbo. Where on the shield do you think we would find the umbo?

Roman soldiers on guard at the Great North Museum

As you might have spotted in the photo above, the umbo is attached to the middle of the shield. While the rest of the shield is made from layers of wood stuck firmly together, the umbo is made out of metal. Our Tyne umbo is made from copper alloy. Why do you think it survived in the river but the rest of the shield hasn’t?

A reconstruction of our Tyne shield

You can also see from the photo that the umbo bulges outwards from the shield. It protects the soldier’s hand as he holds the shield using a handle or grip behind it. The ancient historian Polybius tells us the umbo was also useful in battle:

The Roman shield has an iron shield boss attached to it which completely deflects the blows of stones, pikes, and forceful weapons in general.

Polybius The Histories 6.23.5

Did you know even the shape of an object can tell us something about its owner? The curved rectangular shape of our umbo suggests that it was originally attached to a rectangular shield. This means it belonged to a legionary soldier in the Roman army.

Legionary soldier and his shield

You can see that the Romans liked to decorate their shields – both the larger wooden part and the umbo. Often the patterns were symmetrical and included symbols that would bring good luck in battle. Each legion (a unit of soldiers) painted a different pattern on their shields. Some people think this helped them identify each other in the middle of a battle.

Patterns on a typical scutum

But it isn’t just the shield which is decorated – the umbo from the Tyne has a very detailed series of pictures on it, too! If you look at it closely you’ll see that the figures haven’t been coloured in – instead it is the background which has been painted so that the figures stand out. This is clever way of using the shiny metallic material of the umbo as part of the artistic design.

Let’s take a closer look at our example. The details on it are very fine: they have been drawn onto the shield using tiny punched holes as well as small incised lines. This would likely have been quite expensive. It definitely would have looked very impressive!

The pictures on the shield are an interesting mix! In the middle of the top row is Mars, the god of war – a useful guy to have on your shield! Underneath him in the very bottom row is a bull, an animal associated with Mars and a symbol of strength. In the centre is an eagle, an important symbol of courage which was closely linked with Jupiter, the ruler of the gods. On either side of the eagle are military standards – a bit like large banner or flag on a pole which was carried by soldiers. But there isn’t just military symbols! In each of the four corners is a figure representing one of the four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. The four seasons appear often in Roman art to show the cycle of the year. Some people think they represent happiness and prosperity, others think they showed the cycle of a human life.

There are also a couple more useful clues on our umbo. Can you spot them?

Punched into the metal with little holes along the left edge of the shield are the words:


What might you write on your belongings? Your name! That’s exactly what we have here – well, even better, we have two names: Julius Magnus and Junius Dubitatus. The endings and order in Latin tell us which way to read them:


These four short words have given us even more information. Now we know the name of the shield’s owner plus the century he belonged to. A century was a smaller unit within a legion that originally had 100 men (centum in Latin means 100) but by the time of this shield’s trip on the Tyne, Julius Magnus would have been in charge of 80 men.

If you look closely you’ll also spot some letters included underneath the first row of images:


We already guessed the our shield belong to a Roman legionary soldier – this little note tells us more about that. LEG is an abbreviation of the Latin word legio. This is a nice easy one to translate into English, as you just need to add an ‘n’ onto the end: legion. A legion is the largest unit within the Roman army, made up of around 5000-6000 men. Next in our inscription we have the legion’s number – VIII, the Roman numerals for 8, telling us Junius belonged to the 8th Legion. Finally, AUG is short for the Latin word Augusta, the legion’s official title which linked back to the first Roman Emperor Augustus. This detail also links with the pictures on the umbo, as the symbol of the 8th Legion Augusta was the bull. Neat!

But despite all this information, we still don’t have an answer to the most important question: how did the shield end up in the River Tyne!? Some archaeologists think there might have been a shipwreck, others think perhaps it was deliberately thrown into the river as an offering to Mars. Some cheekier explanations include that Junius was just a bit unlucky, and dropped his beautiful shield off the ship by accident. Eheu! (Alas!)

What do you think? Fill in the blank panels in the comic-strip worksheet below and solve the mystery of the sunken shield once and for all – we’d love to see your ideas!

Time to get creative!

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