First job of the New Year was to give one of my ‘curatorial talks’ to the Visitor Services Assistants or VSAs. This is part of a programme talks that curators give to the Front of House team with the intention of briefing them about the displays and the collections so that they can share the information with visitors and improve the service that they offer. The first topic of 2013 was warfare and I focused on the ancient Greek Corinthian helmet in the archaeology gallery of Ancient Worlds. We show a number of ancient Greek pots with paintings of soldiers wearing similar armour alongside the helmet. I explained that the soldiers were called hoplites on account of the large bronze-covered shield that they carried which was known as a hoplon.
About a metre or three feet diameter and weighing some 6kg it was quite a feat just to carry it. Imagine carrying round the equivalent of 6 bags of sugar on your left forearm all day! Fortunately there were special attachments called the porpax and antilabe on the inside of the shield. The hoplite slid his left arm through the porpax behind the centre of the shield and gripped the antilabe with his hand behind the edge of the rim. The rounded profile of the shield meant that it could be supported on the left shoulder too. Not only did it give excellent protection to the body, the shield could also be used offensively by driving it into the bodies of opponents.
Men standing side-by-side holding the shields and wearing helmets and bronze leg protectors known as greaves were well-protected but weighed down by the amount of bronze they carried. The Corinthian helmet on display weighs about 1.5 kg. Many ranks deep, such soldiers provided a solid and formidable formation known as the phalanx. Visitors can see details of the shield and its fittings on a plaster cast of a relief from the famous Nereid monument from Xanthus in Lycia in Turkey. It shows hoplites fighting and there is a view of the inside of one shield.
The method of carrying the shield had implications for how it was used in battle. As it gave most protection to the left side of the body there was a tendency for soldiers to lean to the right to shelter behind their fellow-hoplite’s shield. In battle, lines of heavily equipped soldiers drifted to the right. Perhaps this was deliberately to seek out the left flank of the enemy or maybe it was unconscious, the unintended result of the way the shield was carried. Maxine and Lill were even game enough to help with a practical demonstration. Maybe we should try it with the Young Archaeologists Club too.
Of course, effective though it was, this way of fighting came to an end with the development of the Macedonian phalanx in the late 4th century BC. This denser formation was characterised by soldiers equipped with a long spear or pike. Given the heavy weight of the pike or sarissa as it was called the pikemen needed both hands to carry it. They could not carry the heavy hoplon or shield as well as a pike and so they made use of a smaller shield – the aspis – held in position with straps. In the literature we read of formations of pikemen known as the ‘silver shields’ (the argyraspides), the ‘bronze shields’, the ‘white shields’ and even the ‘gold shields’. Thanks to the availability of miniature figurines this formation can be shown (see photo above) though this is just one quarter of what was known as a syntagma of phalanx, which was 16 men across by 16 ranks deep. Please note that it’s the first 5 ranks that should have their spears horizontal but interlocking the pikes at this scale is incredibly fiddly. I ‘m afraid my patience with a paint brush doesn’t yet extend to painting the remaining 192 model soldiers… Sigh.