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Hoplologia

La Arqueología Experimental y las Artes Militares y Domésticas
de la antigüedad desde el 500 a.C. hasta 1815

Building an Aspis

The aspis (pl. aspides) is the Greek round shield most frequently carried by hoplites as part of the panoply.

Hoplologia started studying the construction of the aspis in July 2008. As soon as research was started it became obvious that neither the academic world nor the reenactment world actually knew, for certain, how to construct an aspis, although many secondary sources exist with pictures that infer or suggest how an aspis might be built.

It is worth noting at the outset that, to the best of our knowledge, two original aspides exist in collections, as well as more than forty fragments. The two we know of are in the Vatican Museum (the best known, and well-documented) and in Switzerland, at Basel (as of this writing, we don’t have access to this shield but the issue is being worked.) In addition, thanks to the richness of archaic and classical art, we have hundreds–actually, thousands–of images of both the front and back of the aspis.

A quick digression: It is easy, even for a veteran historian, to assume that elements of the past are continuous and thus linked and thus–by a leap of faith–the same. Reenactors call this “back in the day” disease, which is a funny way of revealing a sad truth—most people view all of recorded history, from the first settlement at Jericho to Vietnam, as “back in the day,” a single “time” in the past. This disease affected the aspis project, as the longer we did research, the less sense it all made until we compared notes and decided that there were multiple forms of aspis and that the shield style underwent change and development between its inception around 750 BC and the end of its service life in about 300 BC. Worth saying here—in 450 years, a great deal changes. That was just as true at Marathon as it is today.

So—armed with a new approach to the data (that there were different types and styles of aspis) we put our fingers on one that we thought was “doable” (one that we thought we could construct) and correct for the period we were going to recreate (Marathon, 490 BC). We chose a deeply dished profile because that’s what we saw in the art, and we chose to make the base or body of the shield from solid wood because 1) we had a craftsman who could work it, and 2) we didn’t (at the time) have a craftsman who could dish a 38 inch shield bowl in bronze.

First, a brief homage—when first getting engaged by this period, we got excellent support from a number of people, both academics (like Mac Wallace at the University of Toronto) and reenactors. Matt Amt’s hoplite page was both inspirational and full of useful information. For example, he had already drawn out a turning profile for an aspis bowl.

Once we had a bowl, we decided to cover it in linen. Experience in other periods had taught us that to use gesso (which is glue and marble dust) as a shield coating required two layers of linen for stability under pressure, and as we intended to do both drill and mock combat with these, the combat surfaces needed to be stable and durable. Two layers of hide glue and linen, followed by ten layers of gesso, and then paint. That was our plan. At the time, we had no idea how complicated the interior of the shield would be, although we’d seen hundreds of illustrations…

Dan Copeland and his dad undertook to produce the first wooden blanks. They worked from white pine (not willow or linden, but not so different) boards, cut to measure, laid up with glue, and then turned to final shape and sanded flush. This is roughly one of the possible construction methods. We unashamedly use power tools, and we look forward to building a willow-strip model with hand tools to “check” our recreations, but that’s still in the future.

The wooden blanks looked like this when complete:

Aspis blank

At this point, we realized that we were, indeed, going to build these things. After two months of talk and research, morale soared.

We decided early on to line the bowl in leather, so we purchased dyed skins locally. Worth noting that chemically dyed leather isn’t very much like the leather available in Athens or Boeotia in the early 5th C., and that will, eventually, have to be rectified.

Now that we actually had bowls (Dan and his dad made six in the first batch, as recreating 490 BC Boeotians caught on like wildfire) we had to think, almost immediately, about the inside. The most prominent artifact on the inside of an aspis is the porpax, the band that holds the shield to the forearm and allows the hoplite to carry it easily (vice a central hand grip on other shield forms). The porpax was itself an area for research and development. After looking at hundreds of Attic Red Figure and Attic Black Figure vases and their illustrations of shield interiors, Aurora Simmons built our first porpax.

Palmette porpax

Once we had a porpax and a shield blank lined in leather:

Lined aspis interior

we had to attach the porpax. That required even more research. For the first aspis, we determined to use a heavy bronze washer on clenched copper bolts so that the porpax wouldn’t move under heavy loads.

These are the washers to hold the copper spikes:

Aspis washers

This is the face of the aspis with the copper spikes for the porpax driven through the face and bent for clenching:

Aspis with bent spikes

On the back, those spikes go through the washer and through the porpax before penetrating the shield, and look like this:

Mounted porpax

Note that Aurora has also installed a leather liner to the porpax with silver rivets. Clearly the aspis of a wealthy man.

This is the face of the shield with the copper spikes pounded in but not yet clenched flat against an anvil horn. Note 1) that we’ve made an error and had to pull a set of spikes, and 2) that if we’d aligned our spikes with the grain, they’d sink into the wood and vanish. Hmm.

Aspis with clenched spikes

Clenched and finished, ready for linen.

Aspis prepped for linen

And now the first layer of linen:

First linen layer

Notice how we’ve torsioned it with rope for a smooth finish. Trial and error got us there.

Second layer:

Second linen layer

Now we trim all the excess and paint gesso on. Ten layers later we had this:

Aspis with gesso

And now it was time for another craftsman, Dima Bondarenko of Toronto, a graphic artist. He spent his research time looking at emblems and shield devices. In fact, although he was studying material culture in the form of vases, his interest was in understanding intellectual culture sufficiently to create shield images that would have seemed correct and normal to an early 5th C. Boeotian.

The first shield had the simplest design—the raven of Apollo, a popular device in Boeotia, in the midst of four flames, a traditional Plataian device that may have proclaimed their devotion to the Daedela, a local festival.

Completed aspis front

And now that the front of the shield was complete, we worked to make the back look like the thousands of images we’d seen on the Beazely Archive. We added an antelabe, cut small metal supports for the many retaining staples that decorate the liner of an aspis (there are many surviving examples of these plates and staples) and painted the interior. Here’s the final result, less the internal ropes on the staples.

Completed aspis back

That aspis took roughly twenty research hours and forty construction hours to build.

The second one took half the time, and the porpax, again made by Aurora, is far more typical of the common porpax forms seen on the vases. It is essential in recreation to approach the average and not the remarkable. Occasional items from outside the norm can help explain the range of craftsmanship, but in general, we strive to “represent the ordinary.”

That said, here’s the second aspis:

Second aspis front

and her internals:

Second aspis back

A close examination will reveal that we executed better on the second one. In fact, our level of craftsmanship goes up and up. We’re just completing our sixth aspis now.

The bad news is that the process of research never stops, so after the second aspis we stopped using “washers” to retain the copper spikes—no washers visible in the vast majority of aspides. We changed from the fancy palmette design to the simpler design above with heavy triangles because it is commoner by a ratio of 20:1. We added a leather liner that was broader than the porpax (which is one way of interpreting the construction!) because it was more comfortable that way—and that is experimental archaeology, when the use of an artifact starts to inform the construction of that artifact.

Finally, we’d predict that in ten years, these aspides will be viewed as utterly incorrect. In ten years, our craft skills will have matured, and so will our research. In ten years, we may have access to objects–original objects–that are currently in the ground or in a private collection and lost to academia. In ten years, we may discover sources of materials (like willow wood) that we lack and which impede our re-creations.

And we’ll make more, and do better, and report on it. That’s what we do.


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