Steel-Rimmed Viking Shield
Some Monks in England were walking around on their Island at Lindisfarne more than 1,000 years ago, doing monk-type things (chanting and slamming books into their foreheads, I believe) when some strange ships were spotted in the distance.
The monks and many of the island residents wandered to the shore to greet the strangers. I can only imagine that they were smiling and waving to their new, heavily armored friends. Their new friends smiled back. And they waved, although it was battle axes and swords, not hands.
This was the first recorded encounter between the English and the Vikings, and it didn't involve trading beads and planting corn, mind you. Most of the residents of the Holy Island were slaughtered and everything of value was looted. The Vikings made it very clear from the start that they weren't interested in a happy, warm-and-fuzzy, symbiotic, "let's grow together" type of relationship.
Things didn't get easier for the English after that. Or for the rest of the world for that matter. The Vikings went on a three hundred year shopping spree in the home towns of their enemies, burning, looting and raping (in the early years, the Vikings did it in that order, which proved a little rough for them. The chronology was reversed after a few bad outings, though).
What made the Vikings so formidable? Well, their lightning fast ships were one. Their superior fighting skills and masterfully crafted weapons and armor were another. But it was the shields of the Vikings that truly symbolized their people. Whether the shields were hung on the rails of their longships or thrust forward in battle, they were always present and arguably the most important part of a Viking's war gear.
Viking Shields were made of the stoutest wood that could be found (although usually this was spruce, firs or other conifers). It is rumored that they used laminated wood to give the shields strength and often used leather on the rims to provide additional strength. Particularly well made shields featured iron or steel rims.
Viking shields were often painted with topically important symbols or designs, and though this looked quite cool, aesthetics wasn't the primary purpose of the designs. You see, wood, as any beaver knows, has grain. And if you've ever split wood, you know that it's a heck of a lot easier to split with the grain. Well, it seems the enemies of the Vikings' had done a fair amount of wood splitting. They would strike the shield with the grain, making it much easier to turn said shield into firewood. Although the Vikings appreciated firewood more than most, they prefered to take it from the homes of their enemies, not from the tattered remains of their shields. So, they painted the shields to disguise this grain.
Early Viking shields were designed with large steel bosses on the front (bosses as in the round steel cap type, not the guy who fires you type). These bosses protected the hand when your shield was turned into firewood (See above paragraph).
See Strongblade's Steel-Rimmed Viking Shield