Shields in the Barbier-Mueller Museum (3)


Foreword to catalogue

Review of form, function and contextualisation of shields

Shield labels

Form, Function and Contextual Framework: Shields in the Collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum

Shields were the most extensively utilized form of defensive weapons in the world. Principally used as bodily protection against missiles and as weapons with which to actively parry blows, bearers wielded shields just as effectively to launch offensive attacks, carry magico-religious protective medicines, and create visual noise to confuse or frighten the enemies. The Kalinga of Northern Philippines, for example, used multipronged shields to ambush their victims and pin them to the ground between the prongs in preparation for beheading. To aid with the owner's defense and offense, the Kenyah-Kayan of Borneo painted their shields on the obverse and reverse sides with elaborate double images of the aso-dragon, part of a complex series of soul-protecting measures that extended to traditional patterns on woven cloth, warriors' metal ornaments, and healers' charms.

Although a long piece of sturdy wood used to ward off blows might at times be considered a shield, a 'true' shield as defined by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, always offered the bearer some form of grip or handle. The simple Dinka club shield, for example, falls under this category of shields with the widest part of the club providing a carved-out grip. For the most part, shields included in this collection are either held at arm's length with a single handle or close to the chest by means of two loops, one through which the arm passes and the other for the hand to grip. Many, like the U-shaped shields used by the Elema of the Papuan Gulf ... possess shoulder loops that allowed the bearer freer arm movements. The Kominimung of Papua New Guinea attached braided plant fiber to cradle the bottom of their heavy wooden shields and catch arrows. However, the authors have included three objects which do not carry a true grip, but, at one time or another, have been classified as shields. The Solomon Island dance club called roromaraugi ... , for example, originally functioned as a parrying shield and was held along the pole shaft. The Trobriand kaidebu from the Massim region of Papua New Guinea ..., sometimes called a shield, is technically a dance paddle deriving its origins from the prow and stern (tabuyo) boards of masawa canoes. The yamate 'shield' ... is another example, functioning primarily as a ceremonial board among the Mimika of Irian Jaya.

Shields vary in size and shape, from the very thin Western Australian karrabinna parrying shields to the large bell-shaped leather types used by the Wàndala of Cameroon. But what initially seems as a bewildering array of shield forms becomes comprehensible when viewed, in part, as tangible solutions to divergent functional needs. Thus, light, round hand-gripped shields were better suited to close combat fighting, long sturdy shields better adapted to parrying or deflecting blows, and wide, heavy shields more securely stood on the ground for pitched battle. The earliest recorded shield types from traditional peoples was one with an elliptical form and a central boss or umbo, easy to transport, and still in use today by the Pygmoid Twa of Central and Eastern Africa. Round leather shields more commonly found today in eastern Africa as well as round wooden types used in many parts of the Philippines and Indonesia are forms not indigenous to these regions but derive their origins from the Arabs.

A variety of sturdy materials were utilized, singly or in combination, for the manufacture of shields: rawhide, leather, softwood, medium density wood, hardwood, cloth and plain or embossed metal and plant fiber. Moreover, most shields were made to very high standards with view toward durability and long-term use, major reasons numerous examples survive today. In the past five years, there has been a surge of interest in the study and re-evaluation of arms in public and private collections. Although few studies have investigated closely into their specific sign values, shields have received their due attention as impressive examples of a culture's artistry and ingenuity. This catalogue shall attempt to offer specific information on shields which shall encourage viewers to see them in connection with their function and role in these evolving cultures.

Shields when regarded within a variety of situational frameworks, present viewers with a range of iconic meanings and become, through their transformed use, visual carriers of information. Within the modern museum setting, for example, such objects are presented as art largely for the aesthetic pleasure of visitors or to challenge some others more accustomed to viewing arms in different - archaeological, anthropological or ethnographic - environments. This exhibition will, no doubt, be categorized as an art display. However the accompanying written materials shall make accessible the possibility of considering these objects in many situational frameworks. Traditional peoples themselves viewed their shields in a variety of ways outside the context of warfare: as heirloom pieces passed on by the Manza and Kikuyu to younger male family members, or as carriers of symbols identifying a Maasai owner's personal attributes, to cite a few examples. Moreover, others, like the Central and Western Australian Aborigines, utilized the same shield for different purposes (ie. as a tool for fire-making and as a vessel to contain blood during circumcision). Revealing what these contexts are will, hopefully, open the viewer to a more nuanced understanding of what the shield may have meant to their cultures.

In his 1939 study of the Andaman islanders, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown first proposed to social anthropologists his famous semantic analysis, a methodology he himself never consistently practised. He was concerned with the establishment of a common strand of meaning for iconic symbols (acts, words or things) used in different contextual frameworks. He traced the symbols of ritual through various contexts of use, proposing that "when, in a single society, the same symbol is used in different contexts or on different kinds of occasions there is some common element of meaning, and ... by comparing together the various uses we may be able to discover what the common element is."

Radcliffe-Brown has since then been challenged by others, including Victor Turner, who advocated the understanding of culture through its ritual objects and symbols using the approach of "multi-vocality ... (or) their capacity to resonate among many meanings at once like a chord in music" (1974). Turner describes how a liminal monster's combination of familiar and unfamiliar traits or its unfamiliar combination of familiar traits spurs one into creative thought and provokes one to view old subjects in new ways. The traditional use of shields in times of conflict should not allow us to forget that these objects were equally important in situations of co-operation, and the information gathered in this publication has only cursorily scratched the surface of these contextual frameworks. Transcending their functional use in battle, for example, other people regarded the surface decoration of shields as reinforcement and reiteration of who they are and with whom they politically aligned themselves. They equated the symbols on shields, as did European knights of the Middle Ages, as tangible signs of personal bravery, staunch opposition to the enemy, and fierce loyalty to their home factions. Moreover, certain designated shields in societies like the Bamum represented a common goal or good and were considered as state symbols whose recovery in battle was tantamount to saving a fallen flag.

Shields were also vehicles which identified bonds of social relationships. The Mambila and Wuli of Cameroon, for example, used the surface patterns and general forms of woven shields as a way of differentiating friends from foe when approaching other warriors, while the Zulu assiduously assigned (mostly) white, black or brown cowhide shields to distinguish among themselves the proven, married, and young warriors. Among the Kikuyu, junior warriors proudly wore new shields on their upper arms like badges, identifying their particular age group and local origin. The Ngombe and Ngandu displayed their shields and danced at funerals to eulogize an elder's bravery for battles fought during his lifetime, but in more current times would honor him instead for his leadership at communal hunts, observing the tradition, if not the practice, of warfare.

Shields were likewise regarded as economic or political commodities or units exchanged during transactions between 'donors' and 'receivers'. During regular market gatherings, the Topoke traded shields with other groups from long distances, much as the Ometo leather tanners of Lake Abaya bartered shields in exchange for food. Partitioning the spoils of war, Zande princes personally distributed captured shields not only to reward outstanding warriors but to reassure themselves of their troops' continued loyalty. The Bagobo and Sukuma displayed shields that they offered to their deities on their shrines which they offered in exchange for protection and well-being. The Amharan court customarily presented shields embellished with gold, silver or bronze to governors and other officials to cement political alliances, as did the Songye with opposition leaders of formerly warring factions. Dunja Hersak points out that, in fact, specially rare Songye/ Luba shields carved with kifwebe-type masks could have come into Belgian public collections as symbols of appeasement or as gift-exchange items presented by local leaders to gain political ground with their Western colonial rulers.

Edward Evans-Pritchard in 1940 wrote on ritual symbolism in connection with Nuer spears and pointed out that these utilitarian objects "are chains along which social relationships run, and the more simple is the material culture, the more numerous are the relationships expressed through it". Truly, far and beyond serving as simple arms for attack and protection, shields may be just as usefully regarded as external templates of a society that hint at a broader range of meanings. These utilitarian objects are steeped in a wealth of signs divergent in as many ways as they have been re-employed: shields as symbols of alliance, influence, power, pleasure and reflections of the self and the community in light of often unrecorded pasts.

P. Benitez Johannot

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