Australian Shields (4)

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

Descriptions of some of the Australian shields displayed in the Boucliers/Shields exhibition arranged by the Musée Barbier-Mueller in Geneva

Central Australia

South Australia

Western Australia (1)

Western Australia (2)

[These descriptions do not necessarily match objects similar to those exhibited on Screen 2 at Bethnal Green museum but they do show how one museum presents information about shields to the public in the 1990s. They are as a useful comparison to the labels prepared by Pitt Rivers for Screen 2].

Central Australia. Broad wooden shield engraved with fluted lines and painted with totemic patterns. BMG 6000-11 H: 72.5 cm W = 23.5 cm

Central Australian groups, including the Arrernte (also known as the Arunta), Luritja (Luritcha), Wakaya (Waagai), Warlpiri (Ilpirra or Warlbiri), Walmajarri and Warumungu (Warramunga), employed elongated oval-shaped convex shields made from a light soft wood called Sturt's bean tree (Erythrina vespertilio). Today these shields are found in most Western Australian desert communities as a result of exchange systems involving engraved pearl shell ornaments and the introduction of metal tools, a fact which allowed other Western Australian Aboriginal groups to manufacture shields for themselves. Gifted with considerable manipulative skills, traditional Central Australian shield makers used the flint of spear-throwers (instruments which allowed spears to be thrown with more force and accuracy), to furrow the long parallel grooves which characteristically ran with almost faultless evenness across the shield's surface. If a shield cracked or needed mending, the shield maker bored holes through the broken parts and tied them together with wet fiber so that they lashed on more tightly upon drying.

Central Australian shields primarily served as defensive weapons against spears and boomerangs, however the Arrernte, Warlpiri and Luritja specially valued them as their principal means for obtaining fire. Placing the shield face down and holding it steady with their feet, two squatting men would rub the shield in a rapid sawing movement using the bladed edge of a spear-thrower. After the charred surface begins to glow, the men would blow or fan it into a flame. Often utilized to restart other fires, the multiple grooves on the reverse side of the shield on the right shows signs of use in this manner. The Arrernte also believed that shields carried powers of divination and by ringing hollow, forewarned the bearers that death was close at hand. An undated photograph published by Walter Hutchinson in his Customs of the World book series shows Arrernte women striking the shields of men who had just taken part at an avenging party.

Kim Akerman at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, notes that the carved-out handles of central Australian shields were also used as vessels for certain rites involving blood-letting. Particularly important was the kutitji (shield) ritual, a type of circumcision ceremony conducted in a camp before a preselect group just before boys were taken away for circumcision. Originating from the Warlpiri people in the western desert region of Central Australia or possibly further east among the Kaytetye (or Kaytitj) near Tennant Creek, the observance of this ceremony has since spread into Western Australia, La Grange and the Eighty Mile Beach regions.

Although Central Australian groups did not specifically identify utilitarian objects with their owners, they painted shield surfaces with totemic-bearing symbols. Nancy Munn has written extensively about Central Australian Warlpiri iconography, basing her findings on interviews with local informants: concentric circles painted on objects such as shields and tywerrenge (or churinga, a term applying to something sacred or secret) relate to camps (water holes), meandering lines to snakes (lightning and smoke), and multiple dots around concentric circles to eggs (rain and clouds). Moreover, Munn points out that multiple elements like clusters of dots or circles suggest fecundity and reproduction. In the case of the shield on the right, the alternative symbolic equivalence of the circle (meandering) line is female-male and the cluster of dots as progeny or children eloquently combine ideas of procreation and transgenerational continuity, notions pre-eminent in male cults.

South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria. Incised wooden shield in the shape of a canoe hull. Commonly called gee-am, geeam, giam, kereem also karagarm on the Lower Murray River and bamarook near Lake Tyers. Formerly Josef Mueller collection acquired before 1942. BMG 6000-9 H: 68 cm W: 24.5 cm.

The example on the right is typical of shield forms found in south-eastern Australia, although these are also found today in southern and northern parts of western Australia. Shields of this type from New South Wales and Victoria frequently carried a series of parallel undulating lines, diamond or herringbone patterns rubbed with white clay to enhance the designs. Black notes that shield-makers from Victoria traditionally incised the face of their shields using possum-tooth engraving tools. Commonly called gee-am (geeam, giam) or kereem in south-eastern Australia, and bamarook near Lake Tyers, references cite them as actually manufactured along the Murray River drainage basin where they are called karagarm.

Carved from the inner bark of the Manna Gum tree (Eucalyptus viminalis) and warped by heat to curve in either direction, these shields measure from up to 100 centimeters long and about 25 centimeters wide in the middle, tapering in a curve to points on either ends. Their grips differ in two ways. Either they are cut directly from the solid piece of wood, or they are made from a separate piece of fresh green branch forced into holes bored on the top and bottom of the shield's vertical mid-section. The imbedded grip, once dried, is so firmly attached that it is virtually impossible to remove. These shields were utilized in group skirmishes rather than in strict single combat or duels and, because of their parrying-like points on both ends, may have functioned both for protection and offense.

Western Australia. Eighty-Mile Beach area, Karrajarri (Karadjarri, Karadjeri) people. Front engraving possibly from area between Broome and Fitzroy River, North and East of Karajarri country. Narrow wooden shield incised with interlocking key patterns. BMG 6000-10 H: 68 cm W: 10 cm (reverse side).

The Karajarri, who occupy the area along the Eighty-Mile Beach between the De Grey River and Broome call these shields karrbinna and carved them out of a type of eucalyptus. D. S. Davidson, then Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, noted in 1949 that the Karajarri were responsible for most, if not all, examples of traditional shields incised with well-proportioned interlocking key patterns. They also used this and variations of the design on their pearl shell ornaments and tywerrenge (or churingas - sacred objects or amulets), although numerous other Aboriginal groups applied the design to their tywerrenge as well. These shields functioned as defensive arms to intercept boomerangs and to parry blows from clubs during close combat. The Karajarri later valued them as trade items which they exchanged with other peoples throughout the coastal areas from La Grange northward to Dampierland and King Sound.

The Karajarri engraved the back of their shields with precise patterns. Not having a larger design in mind, they treated the space as important in itself and often incised surfaces not covered by the interlocking pattern using alternate series of diagonal hatchings ... They carved the face of their shields with fine grooves but also, in more recent examples, simply adzed them to a smooth finish. The front of the shield on the right carries ten sections of etched meandering lines, patterns similar to those found on softwood objects from the region between the Fitzroy River and Broome. Kim Akerman, curator at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, notes that the front of this shield was probably incised after the shield had been traded out of Karajarri hands.

Western Australia. Area between the Gascoyne and Murchison Rivers. Broad wooden shield carved and painted with horizontal and oblique grooved lines (wunda). Formerly Rene Rassmussen collection, Paris. BMG 6000-6. H: 78 cm W: 20 cm.

The wunda was the most widely distributed Aboriginal shield in Australia. Made out of a medium density wood (usually Hakea ioria or Brachychiton gregorii), the name originated from wurnda in the Paljgu language and referred to a type of wood out of which this shield was also made. Manufactured between the Gascoyne and Murchison rivers in Western Australia, Akerman notes that the shield's subsequent dispersion through Western, North and South Australia shows its eminence as a trade item rather than as evidence of a product made by numerous Aboriginal communities of divergent cultural affinities.

The shield on the right falls under the first of two Western Australian shield categories which Brandestein classifies on the basis of design and language. Both shield types contain three sections of parallel grooves painted with white clay and red ochre. The design called pandal carries grooved vertical lines on the top and bottom sections and horizontal or oblique lines on the middle section ... The second design, called pangkurda, has an oblique orientation on the top and bottom sections and a horizontal orientation on the mid-section. A red ochre wash covers the reverse side of the Barbier-Mueller shield, although plainly adzed or haphazardly incised examples are just as likely to occur.

As defensive weapons, the wunda warded off spears and boomerangs. As economic units, groups traded for them as far east as Ooldea in South Australia and as far north as the Kimberly southern and eastern districts. Manufactured as ritual accoutrements for one-time use, wunda shields have been transformed in more recent times to simple wooden boards painted with horizontal lines in the front, and nailed with grips of leather, rope or fabric at the back. The wunda's extensive dissemination parallels the paths taken by some religious cults and ceremonies adopted by geographically distant Aboriginal communities. This form of dispersion mirrors the distribution of totemic-bearing fluted beanwood shields of Central Australia which have come to be widely used this century by numerous groups throughout Western Australia.

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