Tuesday, November 25, 2014


I cannot speak for everyone else, but Shield Figures have long been a favorite rock art theme of mine. The many ways they are portrayed, and visual conventions used, have fascinated me from the beginning. Additionally, they have a feeling of personal identity lacking in many other rock art symbols. Especially in instances where a shield design can be discerned the viewer has the sense that this represents a particular, identifiable individual. Thus I was particularly thrilled when I received a copy of the new book Northern Plains Shield Bearing Warriors by the dynamic duo James D. Keyser and George Poetschat, and published in 2014 by Oregon Archaeological Society Press, Portland.

SBW-WY-161, Castle Gardens, Wyoming.
Photograph James Adams.

The authors state that “the shield bearing warrior motif is the best known and most widespread in Northern Plains Ceremonial Tradition rock art. Found throughout the region from north of Calgary, Alberta to near Denver, Colorado, and from Wyoming’s Green River Basin to the Black Hills of South Dakota, the motif shows a human whose torso is almost entirely positioned behind a large circular (or in rare instances, rectangular) shield.“ (p. 7)

SBW-MT-164, Hilej Site, Montana.

“The shield bearing warrior motif shows a standing or (less frequently) horseback-riding warrior holding a shield that obscures most of his torso. Typically the warrior’s head (and sometimes also his neck) projects above the shield and his legs extend below it. However, it is not unknown for a shield bearer to lack either a head or legs  - as if the shield were actually covering more of his person. Many shield bearing warriors also have a weapon; often projecting out from behind the shield perimeter, usually between the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions. Other warriors extend their arm out beyond the shield’s margin to hold a weapon.” (p.7)

Shield figure record, site SBW-MT-122, page 189.

This remarkable 314 page compendium, with contributions by Becky Steed, Sue Ann Jansen, Susan Gray, and David Kaiser, discusses the subject of shield bearing warriors at length, explaining their history, style, and cultural affiliations, it provides an exhaustive listing of examples from the Northern Plains, including; Alberta, Colorado, Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Each listed example is provided with a black and white drawing and extremely detailed description including: media, site, and features. Appendix II lists 604 examples of shield bearing warriors from some 157 sites – how is that for exhaustive? Keyser and Poetschat have provided rock art researchers with a whole reference library of the subject in one volume. My only disappointment with the whole thing is that they did not continue their coverage on further south to include examples in Utah, New Mexico, and the rest of Colorado. This book is required reading for anyone interested in the rock art of North America, and the history and art of Native Americans in general.

Keyser, James D., and George Poetschat,
2014    Northern Plains Shield Bearing Warriors: A Five Century Rock Art Record of Indian Warfare, Oregon Archaeological Society Press Publication #22, and Indigenous Cultures Preservation Society Publication #2, Portland.

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