Shield captured at the Battle of Magdala

Many Ethiopians are unaware of the extraordinary items the British took when they captured the fortress of Magdala from Emperor Tewodros II on 13 April 1868.

The British expeditionary force was sent to free the consul and other Europeans captured by the Emperor and I make no further comment the attack or the objects held in various British museums


Source: British Museum

Object TypeshieldMuseum numberAf1868,1001.1DescriptionShield made of hide, with pendant made of lion’s mane. Inner side of shield and handle covered with red saffian leather; upper side covered with blue silk velvet, rim covered with strips of blue textile, held in place by bands of silver. Upper surface decorated with tear drop shaped repoussé silver bosses, silver gilt filgree panels with silver studs, silver gilt filigree bosses some with coloured glass which are arranged alternately in a radial pattern around the edge; these are bounded by two bands of silver gilt filigree with studs and small bosses; centre covered with a circular piece of silver and a cylindrical filigree boss. At the top are two holes, through which a strip of leather has been tied. Under side of pendant is lined with silk, red with green stripes; rim covered with red and green leather stitched with white thread; at the top a think strip of red leather is attached. Upper side made of lion’s mane; upper edge decorated with a band of silver gilt filigree and two large silver gilt filigree bosses, one of which is set with a red faceted stone [?] the other with purple faceted glass. Between the bosses is a circular opening, where the pendant can be attached to the central filigree boss of the shield.View lessabout descriptionProduction date19thC(mid)Production placeMade in: Ethiopia

Africa: sub-Saharan Africa: EthiopiaFindspotFound/Acquired: Maqdala

: MaqdalaMaterialslion skinglasssilksilvergoldstone (?)skincottonTechniquesewnvelvetfiligreerepousséDimensionsHeight: Height: 105 centimetres (pendant (with hanger)) (pendant (with hanger))Height: Height: 66 centimetres (shield (with hanger)) (shield (with hanger))Width: Width: 18 centimetres (pendant) (pendant)Width: Width: 55 centimetres (shield) (shield)Depth: Depth: 10 centimetres (pendant) (pendant)Depth: Depth: 18 centimetres (shield) (shield)Curator’s commentsThe filigree work and repousse panels and bosses are decorated with crosses and cruciform motifs. They are arranged in a radial pattern which also forms a cross. The pattern of crosses and squares can be seen as having protective and amuletic properties referencing Christian faith and belief in the power of the cross to protect.It is possible this shield was made for Tewedros II himself. It was described as ‘royal’ at the point of aquisition and as ‘the most richly ornamented of the royal shieds’ in R. Holmes to J. Winter Jones 20th July 1868 (British Museum Central Archive, Original Papers Volume 94, April to July 1868, no. 7629). It is considerably more decorated than other shields looted at Maqdala (see Af1868,1001.32). It has a pendant made of lion’s mane, a material associated with royalty and high status.View lessabout curator’s commentsPart of a collection of material taken from the fortress of Emperor Tewedros II (reigned 1855-1868) at Maqdala during the Abyssinian Campaign (1867-1868). Tewodros had sought to bring the whole of Ethiopia under his control through military campaigns. During these conquests, he took books, holy relics and manuscripts from churches throughout Ethiopia, and particularly from Gondar, with the intention of establishing Maqdala as a seat of learning and research. By 1868, the treasury and church store included hundreds of manuscripts and many fine examples of liturgical objects and art including textiles, paintings, and metal work.

The British Expedition to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) 1867-1868 culminated in a military assault on Maqdala on 13 April 1868. Tewodros committed suicide, rather than be taken prisoner. Hundreds of his soldiers were killed and many thousands injured. The treasury, church and royal household were plundered by the British and Indian troops. Maqdala was destroyed by military order on 17 April 1868. Much of the plundered material was reassembled by an Army Prize Committee and sold at an auction of loot on the nearby Delanta Plain, 20 – 21 April 1868.

Richard Holmes participated in the Abyssinia Expedition as ‘archaeologist’ and official representative of the British Museum. He was one of the first people to enter Maqdala with the military force. He participated directly in the plundering. He purchased objects from soldiers and at the official sale of loot on behalf of the British Museum.View lessabout curator’s commentsSee Collection File Af1868,1001.1-32LocationNot on displayConditionGood; some loss to surface of velvet and one piece of unstable filigree on the shield; several holes in the lining of the pendant and signs of original repairs to it, some shedding of the lion’s mane.