Evidence #191 | May 3, 2021


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Shields are discussed in several accounts of warfare in the Book of Mormon. Historical accounts, and evidence from pre-Columbian art show that a variety of shields were also known and used in ancient Mesoamerica.

Shields in the Book of Mormon

Shields are mentioned during some of the accounts of warfare in the Book of Mormon (Alma 43:21; 44:9; 49:6, 24; Ether 15:15, 24). In fact, the text indicates that, at least at certain times, there were a variety of shields used to provide different kinds of protection. Moroni himself is said to have had more than one shield, which were presumably different from one another in type (Alma 46:13). Under his leadership the Nephites made use of “arm shields” in addition to “shields to defend their heads” (Alma 43:19).1 The dissenter Coriantumr equipped his Lamanite army with “all manner of shields of every kind” (Helaman 1:14). Before their decisive conflict with the armies of the Gadianton robbers, Gidgiddoni ensured that the Nephite forces were strongly protected “with shields and with bucklers” as well as other weapons (3 Nephi 3:26).

All Manner of Shields

Evidence for the use of shields doesn’t show up in every era or region during pre-Columbian times. For example, the earliest archaeological and pictographic evidence for actual shields in the North American Southwest dates only to the Pueblo III period (AD 1100–1300).2 However, abundant evidence from historical sources, archaeology, and art show that shields of various forms had a long history in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica from an early period.

The Aztecs, the people for whom we have the most detailed historical descriptions, had many kinds of shields. These included “round shields, although square, rectangular examples are found throughout the classic and early postclassic in the Maya area, Gulf coast, and at Cacaxtlan (present day Cacaxtlam Tlaxcala).”3 According to Thelma Sullivan, “round or oval shields, chimalli, were made of sturdy bamboo overlaid with leather, tortoise shell, copper, gold, and adorned with precious stones in designs that accorded with the rank of the owner.”4

This pre-hispanic chimalli, made with ocelot skin, feathers and gold, is preserved in the National Museum of History. Image via reconociendomexico.com.

Shield design involved a trade-off between strength and mobility. A large, heavy shield could provide greater protection but would be more difficult to carry over long distances or in forested areas. A smaller shield would be lighter but offer less protection during battle. It is clear from historical accounts that some shields could be very effective. One conquistador reported,

They carry shields of various kinds made of strong solid cane woven with heavy double cotton and decorated with feathers and round plaques of gold. The shields are so strong that only a good crossbow can shoot through them, but arrows do not damage them.5

Some shields used by the Aztecs were decorated with gold and silver, although in most cases these likely added little to nothing to the effectiveness of the shield. “The gold and silver adornments that embellished many of these objects were torn off by the Spaniards and either divided among themselves as booty or melted down into ingots and sent to Spain as part of the King’s Fifth.”6

Warrior figurine with shield. Image via clevelandart.org.

Other shields were made of flexible, woven mats that could be folded and carried over the shoulder when not being used in battle.7 One widely used form of Maya shield was made of cotton and leather. “Lacking a rigid structure, these shields were held by a strap attached to the top and were allowed to hang. This flexibility was a tradeoff between portability and protection, permitting the shields to be furled for easy carrying yet providing adequate shielding against all but major blows.”8 Bernal Diaz who fought against Aztec armies described “another sort of shield that can be rolled up when they are not fighting, so that it does not get in the way, but which can be opened when they need it in battle and covers their body from head to foot.”9 A similar shield was used by the Indians of Chamula in Chiapas.10

Large Body Shields

Shields were known from an early period in Mesoamerican history. According to Ross Hassig, an authority on Mesoamerican warfare, “shields were widely adopted in the Late Formative [ca. 300 BC–AD 100], especially large rectangular ones that protected most of the body. Their construction is uncertain, but the shields were probably made of leather, woven materials of various weights, or solid wood, as were later examples, although wood and woven reeds are particularly suited to rectangular forms.”11

Warriors with various shields depicted on a Maya vase. Photo by Justin Kerr. Image via research.mayavase.com.

Due to the perishable materials from which these shields were made, no archaeological examples have survived from this early period. They are occasionally portrayed on stone monuments. Monument C from the pre-Classic site of Tres Zapotes shows several men who carry “large rectangular shields.”12 Hassig observes,

These shields appear very sturdy and, if made of solid wood, could directly block weapon thrusts. Lighter materials, such as leather or woven reeds, could not absorb the force of a blow that might break the shieldman’s arm—the notorious parry fracture—but they could deflect them, block projectiles, and defend against the cutting effect of blades. The protection of these large shields afforded the trunk and limbs was, however, achieved at the price of mobility, suggesting a more set-piece style of combat. In fact, the heavy shield may have rested on the ground where it could still provide considerable protection from projectiles and, in conjunction with thrusting spears, would have been a formidable deterrent to an enemy charge.13

Figurines donning shields from west Mexico. Image and caption info via John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 124–125.

Arm Shields and Bucklers

The Book of Mormon refers to “arm-shields” as well as “bucklers.” A buckler is a small round shield that can be held on the arm or forearm. While it is unclear if the arm-shields and bucklers mentioned in the text refer to the same weapon, several kinds of pre-Columbian shields would fit that designation.

Cortes mentioned “small round shields” among others used by the Maya along the Gulf of Mexico.14 The Maya had “small, rigid shields … that would not snag easily on the march in dense vegetation.” Hassig refers to these small, circular shields as “bucklers.”15 They were made of various materials such as leather, wood, and in some cases even tortoise shells. “They were typically held on the left forearm by a central strap, although some shields had a second strap held in the left hand. These shields offered little defensive coverage, but because of their solid construction, they could parry blows effectively.”16

A similar shield was used during the Late Classic period in Central Mexico by the Olmeca-Xicalenca. This was a small circular variety with fringes of hanging leather.17 These appear to have had a strap on the inner side through which the soldier could put his arm. These rigid shields were made of woven reeds and were lighter than other shields made of solid wood, allowing greater mobility.18 The colorful Cacaxtla murals also portray victorious warriors holding small round shields as they stand over their bloody defeated enemies who hold shields of the rectangular variety.19

Maya murals at Chichen Itza depict detailed battle scenes in which defending warriors are portrayed with blue and white colored rectangular shields, while their attackers carry round ones of red and blue.20 Some scholars have suggested that the attackers who are shown with the smaller round shields were Toltec warriors, while the defenders with the rectangular ones were Maya.21


There is an abundance of evidence that war shields had a long history in Mesoamerica and were widely used in Book of Mormon times. In particular, the Book of Mormon’s references to “all manner of shields,” including arm-shields or bucklers, are consistent with the evidence for a variety of shields known in pre-Columbian times.

John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, UT: Research Press, 1998), 124–133.

William J. Hamblin, “Armor and the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 408–409, 414–415.

Alma 43:19Alma 43:21Alma 44:9Alma 46:13Alma 49:6Alma 49:24Helaman 1:143 Nephi 3:26Ether 15:15Ether 15:24

Alma 43:19

Alma 43:21

Alma 44:9

Alma 46:13

Alma 49:6

Alma 49:24

Helaman 1:14

3 Nephi 3:26

Ether 15:15

Ether 15:24

  • 1 “‘Shields to defend [the] head’ (Alma 43:19) may refer to head-plates or some other type of special defense, but more likely they refer to the fact that an ordinary shield can be raised over the head for protection.” William J. Hamblin, “Armor and the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 408.
  • 2 Steven A. LeBlanc, Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1999), 106–112. Previous to this time, a curved piece of wood known as a fending stick was sometimes used to deflect atlatl darts (106).
  • 3 Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 86.
  • 4 Thelma D. Sullivan, “The Arms and Insignia of the Mexica,” Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl 10 (1972): 156.
  • 5 Patricia de Fuentes, The Conquistadors: First-person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 168–169.
  • 6 Sullivan, “The Arms and Insignia of the Mexica,” 155; One native account describes shields ornamented with feathers and gold. The Spaniards in their quest for gold “cut each shield in two with their swords, put them in some blankets and made two-hundred loads with them. The Captain Oli [Olid] ordered Don Pedro to take those loads of gold and silver to the governor, the marquis del Valle [Hernan Cortes], in Mexico.” Eugene Crane and Reginald C. Reindorp, trans., The Chronicles of Michoacan (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), 79. See also pp. 14, 61, 69.
  • 7 Lynn V. Foster, Handbook to Life in the Maya World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 147.
  • 8 Ross Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), 96.
  • 9 Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. J. M. Cohen (London: Penguin Books, 1963), 228.
  • 10 Bernal Diaz, The True History of the Conquest of Mexico, trans. Maurice Keatinge (New York, NY: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1922), 408.
  • 11 Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, 31.
  • 12 Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, 31.
  • 13 Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, 31.
  • 14 Hernando Cortes: Five Letters 1519–1526, trans. J. Bayard Morris (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 10.
  • 15 Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, 95.
  • 16 Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, 95–96.
  • 17 Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, 102.
  • 18 Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, 103.
  • 19 Claudia Brittenham, The Murals of Cacaxtla: The Power of painting in Central Mexico (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2015), figures 165–169.
  • 20 William M. Ringle, “The Art of War: Imagery of the Upper Temple of the Jaguars, Chichen Itza,” Ancient Mesoamerica 20 (2009), 22, 24.
  • 21 Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, 125.
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