The wargaming community is full of myths that seem to perpetuate through the generations. Previously I poked at the the unconvincing myth about Visigothic Gardingi being unarmoured skirmishing cavalry, today I look at the ‘coffin’ shaped shield of the Goths. Early Gothic, specifically Visigothic, warriors are believed by some to have carried an odd ‘coffin’ shaped shield. It isn’t true. Germanic warriors only carried round, oval and hexagonal shields. Shapes that were used from the 1st century through the Fall of Rome. Round and oval shields continued in use into the dark ages.
Gothic wargaming figures with ‘coffin’ shields
Figure 111 in Phil Barker’s (1981) book The Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome 150 BC to 600 AD [4th Ed.] is a Visigoth with a coffin shield. Barker says, “the peculiar coffin shaped shield was traditional, but most likely outnumbered by round or oval types like those of 109 and 110 [who are Saxons]” (Barker, p. 128).
Various wargaming manufacturers have latched onto the “traditional” part of that and ignored the “outnumbered”. For example I have quite a few 15mm Essex Miniatures AA2 Visigoth: Infantry with spear & [‘coffin’] shield. But there are others: Alternative Armies G1 Goth with Coffin Shield; Chariot Miniatures / Magister Militum DARK6 Goth or Visigoth Warband Foot Warriors [with ‘coffin’ shield]; Forged in Battle WE-GG02 Visigoth/Vandal Foot [with ‘coffin’ shield]. And this is just the 15mm ones.
But is there any evidence for ‘coffin’ shields?
Evidence for Gothic ‘Coffin’ shields
Ian Hughes (2010, p. 72) says “no”, there is no evidence for the Gothic ‘coffin’ shield:
In the mid-to-late twentieth century and earlier there was a form of shield known as the ‘coffin’ shield that was traditionally assigned to the Goths. Although this is now firmly fixed, it has proved impossible to find any examples in either the sculptural or archaeological record. It is possible that some of the monumental evidence was interpreted as proof of the existence of these shields but that these examples have since been re-interpreted as stylistic conventions caused by the problem of perspective. As a result, although it has proved impossible to determine whether these forms actually existed, the likelihood is that they did not.
In a online discussion on the ‘coffin’ shield (TMP: Visigoth ‘coffin’ shields. A dead issue?), Simon MacDowall (smacdowall), who I consider the main modern authority on the Goths and Vandals, says “I have searched and the only reference I have ever found is in Phil Barker’s Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome. In typical fashion he does not reveal his sources.” That is probably why MacDowall does even mention the ‘coffin’ shield in his three books on Goths (MacDowall, 1990, 1996, 2017).
In the same on-line discussion Roy Boss (Lewisgunner), another authority on the barbarian migration period, sheds some light:
Its based on an illustration in the Funcken book on Ancient warriors. Back in the sixties I wrote to the Funckens and asked their source. I got a reply that it was based on archaeological evidence, but nothing more specific. The likelihood is that it is a reconstruction of a shield from the Crimea, that is a hexagonal shield and that it was originally reconstructed wrongly into the coffin shield that has become associated with the Visigoths.
The reconstruction error would be because only the metalwork of the boss and the rim reinforcement survived and the rim was damaged.
So the ‘coffin’ shield did not exist. Any evidence is a misinterpretation of a hexagonal shield.
Gothic shields were mainly round or oval
MacDowall’s three books (MacDowall, 1990, 1996, 2017) on the Goths only show round shields. Boss (1993) also only shows round shields for the Goths.
Phil Barker said “round or oval types” were the majority (Barker, 1981, p. 128).
In his books on Stilcho and Aetius (Hughes, 2010, 2012), Ian Hughes specifies round shields but also mentions oval shields and says the older style hexagonal shields were still in use:
The shields used by the German tribes appear to have been mainly round or oval in shape and could be anywhere from around sixty centimetres to one metre in height (two to three feet), probably based on personal preference. The traditional hexagonal shape associated with the German cavalry employed with the Empire during the first centuries BC and AD was still in use, but this was to a lesser degree than the other styles. Although other styles of shield are depicted on monuments, in general they appear to be variants of the oval or octagonal styles and may have been relatively uncommon. (Hughes, 2010, p. 72)
Good enough for me. I think the summary is: mostly round, some oval while fighting the Romans, and hexagonal hanging on but increasingly rare.
Barker, P. (1981). The Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome 150 BC to 600 AD [4th Ed.]. Wargames Research Group.
Boss, R. (1993). Justinian’s Wars: Belisarius, Narses and the Reconquest of the West. Montvert Publications.
Hughes, I. (2010). Stilicho: The Vandal who saved Rome. Pen & Sword Military.
Hughes, I. (2012). Aetius: Attilia’s Nemesis. Pen & Sword Military.
MacDowall, S. (1990). Wargaming in History: Goths, Huns and Romans. Argus Books.
MacDowall, S. (1996). Germanic Warrior AD 236-568 [Warrior 17]. Osprey.
MacDowall, S. (2017). The Goths: Conquerors of the Roman Empire. Pen & Sword Military.