Materials Used in Making Shields

Extract from Plaschke and Zirngibl, African Shields

(p11 and on; all references are cited in full in the bibliography)

Hide and leather shields

Since earliest times the hides of wild and domesticated animals have been part of the important treasure trove of materials. Above all, leather is one of the oldest materials used in the making of clothing and utensils by nomadic, hunting and pastoral tribes. The number of different kinds of wild animals whose hides had been used in the making of shields is so great that it appears impossible to list them all. Naturally, hides with the largest possible size, stiffness and thickness (buffalo, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, elephant, giraffe etc) were particularly preferred. The hides of zebra, gnu and the back of various kinds of antelope, however, found use as basic materials for the production of shields. By contrast the cuirass of a crocodile or the hide of its soft underbelly were only sporadically employed.

Although Schebesta-Höltker clearly distinguished between hide and leather shields, this division has been avoided in the present book, We are of the opinion that a strict division is not so simple.

Shields made from the skin of animals have been manufactured through innumerable processes, from the partial or no dehairing of hides to hardened hides or to leather like or aged materials respectively. The skin and tegmen [an inner lining] of individual animals also had to be prepared and treated in the most different ways. The skin of higher animals is divided into an outer layer (epidermis), middle layer (dermis, corium) and bottom layer (subcutis).

Only the isolated corium was, however, used. Since a fresh hide consists mainly of protein and, to a large degree, of water, the goal of tanning is to turn bundles of fiber into a material able to maintain its elasticity. They were necessarily treated in three stages: cleaning, tanning and currying. Directly after skinning, the remains of fat and muscle were cleaned from the outer and bottom layers. This was usually done with a sharp-edged scraper. Keeping them in a hole dug in the earth (technical expression: sweating hides) was supposed to accelerate in the most simple manner the rotting away of the fat layer. Scraping and dehairing could immediately follow, one after the other. Interesting in this connection is the account of H Ellert about the Ndebele, since many other ethnic groups in South Africa employ similar methods. Reporting about the manufacturing of the ishilangu and ihawu, as these shields are called, he writes, 'A selected hide was submerged in a river and left overnight to become saturated, until it was taken out the next morning to be washed and cleaned. Afterwards it was buried in a cattle kraal where it was supposed to be softened by a combination of urin [sic - urine] and filth'.

It is also known that the Masai placed their cowhides with the hairy side down in a shallow pit and covered them with sand for four or five days (lit: D Read, Barfuss in der Serengeti, Abenteuer im Land der Maasai Rottach-Egern 1988). Depending on which tanning agent is used, the distinction is made between 'fat tanning' and 'vegetable tanning'. In 'fat tanning' (oil tanning) most black Africans rubbed butter or palm oil into the hide. This was regarded as the simplest process. Following fat tanning, combination tanning methods were also employed. Smoking, for example, is mentioned as one way to make the material firmer and more resistant. Juices from barks and plants were used in 'vegetable tanning' (bark tanning) in all of North Africa. Currying (technical term for making a hide pliable) encompasses, on the other hand, various operations such as repeatedly rubbing in fat, intermediate drying and further skilled processes. Among the 'Swazi' in South Africa the semifinished material is beaten on rocks; the 'Ndebele', however, use wooden hammers to make it pliable. One of the further processes employed by the 'Masai' was the stretching of hides on a wooden rack, where it remained until dried and stone hard. At the beginning of this stage, wood handles and rim hoops were also attached.

One widespread method in Africa was pegging hides to the ground. Stones and pegs were arranged on the ground underneath the still-wet hides to form handle hollows or burls and bulges. The last stage consisted of cutting them into each tribe's usual form, tapping rim bulges into shape and fastening the handle or handle poles. ...

[More on Nguni shields]

Wood shields ...

The wood shields of Africa confront us with an ancient defensive weapon. Natural and cultural realities essentially influenced their design. [Examples like the Dinka shield from Screen 2 , 1884.30.21] which show pole and parrying shields can be viewed as primitive models or archetypes par excellence.

There are in many regions of tropical Africa many kinds of usable wood in great abundance. For wood shields manageableness was a decisive factor; thus they could not exceed a certain size or thickness. People, often working with adzes, consequently used relatively light kinds of wood. From the many kinds of wood used, we would like to mention, for example, the genus 'uncaria' a huge jungle tree belonging to the family Rubiaceae, which is one of the most species-rich plant families on earth. Nor may the spongy, light, but nevertheless resistant wood of the ambatch (genus: Aeschynomene) be forgotten, which in the Nile region is a typical plant of the family Leguminosae. The termite-resistant hardwood of the 'kapok' tree (genus: Ceiba), one of the many species of the Bombacaceae shrub and tree family in tropical Africa, should also be noted.

Wood shields can be found in different areas all across Africa. Their main dispersion area is considered to be the Zaire basin, with the eastern regions such as the homelands of the Eso being of particular importance...

[More on Dinka shields]

Wicker shields

Although the task of finding a suitable way of ascribing wicker shields to distinct regions appears difficult, we regard them mainly as coming from the tropical rain forest, its bordering areas and the wet steppes. It should be mentioned that a multitude of plants found use as raw materials in the making of the shields. The large plant family Palmae was one of the most often used. Two of its most well-known species whose fibers served as wicker were the 'Rattan' (genus: Calamus), also known as cane or rattan palm, and the Raffia (toddy palm, genus: Raphia), whose leaf ribs and stems were used. Rattan was prized for its strength and elasticity; Raphia for its brown, shiny surface.

It must also be mentioned that the most diverse kinds of grass, liana vines, cane, reeds and rods, both stripped and split, also found use.

The making of wicker objects has been described by Elsy Leuzinger as an African man's leisure activity. Teeth and toes, as well as knives and combs, were his tools. Although it is a fact that women wove shields, too, it was basically the men who were observed much more often. Discussing extensively the extreme variety of weaving techniques within the framework of this book strikes us as being nearly impossible...

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