The Dayak [Iban] and Their Shields (1)

Utaps and Dayak shields in general

Descriptions written at the end of the nineteenth century

Form, function and decoration

The art of protection: Indonesian shields in context

Pitt Rivers on Indonesian shields

Two Dayak shields in the Pitt Rivers collection, 1884.30.36 and 1884.30.37

UTAP. The long form of Dyak shield as distinguished from the pricei, or round shield. (W. Ling Roth , The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo London 1896 :II 139). It is made of bark, rounded at one end and pointed at the other. It is strengthened by strips of wood down the center and at the edges.

...The outside of many Dyak shields is painted with one or more demons' heads, a design which possibly derives from Chinese dragon- or tiger- shields. Human hair surrounds the fearsome faces. The inside may be decorated with similar motifs or with a pair of smiling anthropomorphic figures. (Feest's Art of War, p86)

Extracts from Hose and McDougall's The Pagan Tribes of Borneo

The book aimed to present 'a clear picture of the pagan tribes of Borneo as they existed at the close of the nineteenth century' (Hose, 1912:v).

Chapter X [almost all of it]


The Kayans are perhaps less aggressive than any other of the interior peoples with the exception of the Punans. Nevertheless prowess in war has made them respected or feared by all the peoples; and during the last century they established themselves in the middle parts of the basins of all the great rivers, driving out many of the Klemantan communities, partly by actual warfare, partly by the equally effective method of appropriating to their own use the tracts of jungle most suitable for the cultivation of padi.

The fighting quality of the individual Kayan, the loyalty and obedience of each household to its chief, the custom of congregating several long houses to form a populous village upon some spot carefully chosen for its tactical advantages (generally a peninsula formed by a deep bend of the river), and the strong cohesion between the Kayans of different and even widely separated villages, - all these factors combine to render the Kayans comparatively secure and their villages immune from attack. But though a Kayan village is seldom attacked, and though the Kayans do not wantonly engage in bloodshed, yet they will always stoutly assert their rights, and will not allow any injury done to any member of the tribe to go unavenged. The avenging of injuries and the necessity of possessing heads for use in the funeral rites are for them the principal grounds for warfare; and these are generally combined, the avenging of injuries being generally postponed, sometimes for many years, until the need for new heads arises. Though an old dried head will serve all the purposes of the rites performed to terminate a period of mourning, yet it is felt that a fresh head (or heads) is more desirable, especially in the case of mourning for an important chief.

When an old head is used in these rites, it is customary to borrow it from another house or village, and it is brought to the house by a party of warriors in the full panoply of war, who behave both on setting out and returning as though actually on the war-path.

It may be said generally that Kayans seldom or never wage war on Kayans, and seldom attack others merely to secure heads or in sheer vain glory, as the Ibans not infrequently do. Nor do they attack others merely in order to sustain their prestige, as it sometimes done by the Kenyahs, who in this respect carry to an extreme the principle that attack is the most effective mode of defence.

War is generally undertaken by the Kayans very deliberately, after much preparation and in large well-organised parties, ranging in numbers from fifty to a thousand or more warriors, made up in many cases from several neighbouring villages, and under the supreme command of one chief of acknowledged eminence.

The weapons and war-dress are similar among all the peoples. The principal weapon is the sword known as parang ilang, or malat a heavy blade of steel mounted in a handle of horn or hardwood. The blade, about twenty-two inches in length, has the cutting edge slightly bowed and the blunt back edge slightly hollowed. The edges diverge slightly from the handle up to a point about five inches from the tip, where the blade attains its maximum width of nearly two inches. At this point the back edge bends sharply forward to meet the cutting edge at the tip. A very peculiar feature of the blade is that it is slightly hollowed on the inner surface (i.e. the thumb side or left side of the case of the parang of a right-handed man, the right side in the case of one made for a left-handed man), and is convex in transverse section to a corresponding degree on the outer surface. This peculiar shape of the blade is said to render the parang more efficient in sinking into or through either limbs or wood, and is more easily withdrawn after a successful blow. This weapon is carried in a wooden sheath suspended by a plaited waist-strap, and is the constant companion of every man; for it is used not only in warfare, but also for a variety of purposes, such as the hewing down of jungle undergrowth, cutting rattans and bamboos, the rough shaping of wooden implements.

The weapon second in importance is the spear. It consists of a flat steel blade, about one foot in length, of which the widest part (between one and two inches) is about four inches from the tip. The tip and lateral edges of the blade are sharp, and its haft is lashed with strips of rattan to the end of the wooden shaft. The extremity of the haft is bent outwards from the shaft, to prevent its being dragged off from the latter. The shaft is of tough wood and about seven feet in length; its butt end is usually shod with iron. The spear is used not only for thrusting, but also as a javelin and as a parrying stick for warding off spears hurled by the foe. [boldening not author's]. It is always carried in the boat when travelling on the river, or in the hand during expeditions in the jungle.

The blow-pipe, which projects a poisoned dart, is used by many of the Kayans in hunting, but is hardly regarded as a weapon for serious use in warfare.

Besides the principal spear, two or more short spears or javelins, sometimes merely pointed bars of hardwood, are usually carried in the left hand when an attack is being made.

Beside the sword and the spears the only weapons commonly used are heavy bars of iron-wood, sharpened at both ends and flung so as to twirl rapidly in the air. They are chiefly used in defending houses from attack, a store of them being kept in the house. For the defence of a house against an expected attack, short sharp stakes of split bamboo are thrust slantingly into the ground, so as to present the fire-hardened tip towards the feet of the oncoming foe.

The interior peoples have long possessed a certain number of European-made muskets (mostly flint-locks) and small Bruni-made brass cannon, obtained from the Malay and Chinese traders. The latter were chiefly valued for the defence of the house, but were sometimes mounted in the bows of the war-boats. The difficulty in obtaining supplies of gunpowder has always restricted greatly the use of firearms, and in recent years the European governments have strictly limited the sale of gunpowder and firearms; and even at the present day any war-party commissioned by one of the governments to execute any police measure, such as apprehending or burning the house of, people who have wantonly killed others, has to rely in the main on its native weapons.

The equipment of the fighting-man consists, in addition to his weapons, of a war-cap and war-coat and shield. The former is a round close-fitting cap woven of stout rattans split in halves longitudinally. It affords good protection to the skull against the stroke of the sword. It is adorned by two of the long black-and-white barred feathers of the hornbill's tail in the case of any man who has earned this distinction by taking part in successful expeditions.

The war-coat is made of the skin of the goat, the bear, or (in case of distinguished chiefs) of the tiger-cat. The whole of the skin in one piece is used, except that the skin of the belly and of the lower parts of the forelimbs are cut away. A hole for the warrior's head is made in the mid-dorsal line a little behind the skin of the head, which is flattened out and hangs over the chest, descending to the level of the navel; while the skin of the back, flanks and hind limbs in one larger flap, covers the back and hind parts of the warrior as far as the bend of the knees. A large pearly shell usually adorns the lower end of the anterior flap. The warrior's arms are thus left free, but unprotected. In the finest coats there is a patch of brightly coloured bead-work at the nape of the neck, and the back-flap is adorned with rows of loosely dangling hornbills' feathers; but these again are considered appropriate only to the coats of warriors of proved valour.

The Kayan shield is an oblong plate cut from a single piece of soft wood. Its ends are pointed more or less acutely; the length between the points is about four feet. The inner surface forms a flat hollow; the outer is formed by two flat surfaces meeting in a flat obtuse angle or ridge extending from point to point. The grain of the wood runs longitudinally, and a downward falling parang is liable to split the wood and become wedged fast in it. In order to prevent the shield becoming divided in this way, and to hold fast the blade of the sword, it is bound across with several stout strips of rattan which are laced closely to the wood with finer strips. The handle, carved out of the same solid block of wood as the body of the shield, is in the middle of the concave surface; it is a simple vertical bar for the grasp of the left hand. The Kayan shield is commonly stained red with iron oxide, and touched up with black pigment, but not otherwise decorated.

Wooden shields of this kind are used by almost all the tribes but some of them decorate their shield elaborately. The two surfaces of almost all Kenyah shields are covered with elaborate designs picked out in colours, chiefly red and black. The designs are sketched out on the wood with the point of a knife, and the pigment is applied with the finger and a chisel-edged stick. The principal feature of the designs on the outer surface is in all cases a large conventionalised outline of a face with large eyes, indicated by concentric circles in red and black, and a double row of teeth with two pairs of canines projecting like huge tusks. This face seems to be human, for, although in some shields there is nothing to indicate this interpretation, in others the large face surmounts the highly conventionalised outline of a diminutive human body, the limbs of which are distorted and woven into a more or less intricate design. Each extremity of the outer surface is covered by a similarly conventionalised face-pattern on a smaller scale. On the inner side each longitudinal half is covered with an elaborate scroll-pattern, generally symmetrical in the two halves; the centre of this pattern is generally a human figure more or less easily recognisable; the two halves sometimes bear male and female figures respectively.

The shields most prized by the Kenyahs are further decorated with tufts of human hair taken from the heads of slain enemies. It is put on in many rows which roughly frame the large face with locks three or four inches in length on scalp, cheeks, chin and upper lip; and the smaller faces at the ends are similarly surrounded with shorter hair. The hair is attached by forcing the ends of the tufts into narrow slits in the soft wood and securing it with fresh resin.

The Klemantan shields are, in the main, variations on the Kenyah patterns. The Murut shields closely resemble those of the Kayans, though the Dusuns, who have the domesticated buffalo, use a shield of buffalo-hide attached to the forearm by a strap - a feature unknown in all the other types, which are borne by the handle only. The Sea Dyaks nowadays make a greater variety of shields, copying those of the other tribes with variations of their own. The shield originally used by them before coming into contact with many other tribes, but now discarded, was made of strips of bamboo plaited together and stiffened with a longitudinal strip of wood. It was of two shapes, both oblong, one with rounded, the other with pointed ends.

The Land Dayaks still use a shield of tough bark, and it is not improbable that these were used by other tribes at no distant date. ...

[The chapter then goes on to describe the 'war-boats' and preparations for warfare]

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