General Descriptions of (Central) Australian shields

Australian shields on display in the Upper Gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

General descriptions of Australian shields


'The Moon' (a story)

Some Australian shields at the Musée Barbier-Mueller

First of a series of some of the Australian shields in the Pitt Rivers collection

Use of shields in fire-making

Proportions of shields

Manufacture and trade of shields

Form of shields

This text does not specifically relate to any of the Screen 2 shields, but is given as a general idea of descriptions of Australian shields written some 35 years after Pitt Rivers wrote his.

Extract from Spencer and Gillen's Native Tribes of Central Australia p584 and on

N.B. the words in bold, in square parentheses, are the most recent form of group names.

A very important use, lastly of the spear-thrower is that of fire making. When this is in process a shield made of soft wood is placed on the ground and then two men, one squatting on either side, take hold of the spear-thrower, and rapidly rub one of the edges of the blades backwards and forwards upon the shield; in a short time the light wood is charred, then it glows, and with judicious blowing the glow is fanned into a flame. Many shields such as one of those figured show rows of these charred grooves, for this is the principal method of obtaining fire among the Arunta [Arrernte], Ilpirra [Warlpiri] and Luritcha [Luritja] tribes.

All the shields used by the Arunta, Ilpirra, Luritcha, Warramunga [Warumungu], Waagai [Wakaya], and indeed all the Central tribes, are made of the light soft wood of Sturt's bean tree (Erythrina vespertilio). They vary much in size, the smallest one in our possession measuring 62 cm in length and the longest 85.5 cm. They are all of an elongated oval shape with the outer surface convex and the inner concave, the concavity varying much in different shields. The greatest width of the smaller of the two mentioned is 16 cm, and the hole hollowed out for the hand is 9 cm in length and 10 cm in width; the depth of the concavity, that is to the under surface of the longitudinal bar, which is left running across the hole is only 1.8 cm. The greatest width of the large one is 30.5 cm; the hole for the hand is 11 cm in length and 10.5 cm in width, and the depth of the same is 2 cm.

Together with the pitchis [vessels] made out of the same wood, the shields afford evidence of very considerable manipulative skill, and no small appreciation of beauty of form and symmetry of line on the part of their makers. It may be mentioned here that these shields, or rather the best ones, are the work of men of the Warramunga tribe which inhabits the district in the neighbourhood of Tennant Creek. They are also made by the northern Arunta, the Ilpirra and Kaitish [Kaytetye] people. In regard to these Central natives it is a striking feature that men who live in particular districts are famous for making particular forms of implements and weapons, and that this is by no means wholly dependent upon the fact that suitable material for their construction is only to be found in the districts occupied by them. ... the best shields, as we have just said, are those made away to the north .... The western men, for example, though they have the bean tree and make pitchis out of it, get their shields by exchange from the north ... The tradition may at any rate be regarded as indicative that this distribution of work is of very old standing. It seems, generally speaking, to be independent of the existence in any particular locality of the material necessary for the manufacture of any particular article. It also shows that great care must be taken in dealing with the various implements which are commonly found amongst any particular tribe. Every Arunta man is sure to have one of these shields, and yet the majority of them have not been made in the tribe, nor indeed, within a hundred miles of the district occupied by it, but by a tribe speaking a quite different language. Why certain things, such as shields and boomerangs, should be traded over wide areas and be common to a number of tribes, and why certain other things, such as the spear-throwers, for example, should be local in distribution, it is difficult to understand.

To return however to the form of the shields. The figures drawn will afford some idea of their nature; but in all of them, especially in the case of the larger ones, the symmetry is perfect, and with only a flint as a cutting agent, the workmanship is astonishing. In the largest one figured the edges on either side curve over in the middle of the length, and then fall way towards either end, so that, at the latter, the inner surface of the shield in transverse section is slightly but distinctly convex. The surface on both sides is furrowed by shallow grooves, forty eight on the outer and thirty five on the inner, which run with perfect regularity from end to end. They are always present on these shields, and indicate the curved cutting edge of the flint with which they are made. As a general rule the shields are covered with a thick coating of red ochre, though this may occasionally be absent. Sometimes, and especially when used during performances, they may be decorated on the outer side. [2 examples are shown in an illustration [Fig 115 and 116] and then described] In the larger one there is a broad sinuous band of charcoal with three double black lines running across the breadth of the shield, while a very large number of white spots are painted along the course of all the grooves. In the smaller one, the sinuous band and the little median one have simply been indicated by an additional coating of red ochre, and they are made to stand out by the painting of white spots all over the surface, except along their course, which is thus outlined by the spots. If, as often happens, the shield gets broken, then it is carefully mended by boring holes and through these lashing the broken parts together with tendon which is first of all damped so that it can be drawn tight. In some cases, apparently for no purpose unless it be with the idea of ornamentation, star-shaped, or sometimes irregular-shaped patches of resin are let into the wood. There is never, either on shield or any implement with which we are acquainted, any mark, the object of which is to indicate the owner, though of course there are marks, such as particular cracks or damaged parts, by which, if necessary, a man can recognise his own property.

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