Form, Function and Design of Shields (1)

Form, function and design (2)

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Extract from Feest's The Art of War
p85 - 86

The most widespread protective device employed by the tribal world was the shield. In its most elementary form it was a stick to ward off the opponent's blows: some Australian tribes used a broad spearthrower. True shields, however, always featured at least a rudimentary guard for protecting the hand and enabling it to grip firmly [by which definition several of the shields on Screen 2 at Bethnal Green would not be defined as such].

Types of shield developed along different lines modified by the particular mode of fighting and the degrees of protection and mobility required. Light hand-held shields were better suited for man-to-man combat with hand weapons, and for mounted warriors, whereas tall shields set on the ground offered more effective defence in pitched battles. Special devices were required for archers, who needed both hands to discharge their arrows. Depending on the technological skills and raw materials available, shields could be made of wood, bark, basketry, leather or metal.

The surface of a shield is an obvious area for embellishment, and because the shield protects its bearer, many of the decorative designs also have protective properties. Consequently the shield is often regarded, as among the Jivaro, 'not only as a weapon of defence, but also as a religious instrument ... it is full of magic power, and when it is beaten with the lance in a particular way, this is in fact a sort of religious or magical ceremony which is believed to invoke the spirits - first of all the spirit of the slain enemy - with fear' [no source of quote given]. The Dakota Indians of North America believed that the supernatural powers called up by the painting on their shields exerted an influence on the enemy, causing him to shoot at the shield rather than at the exposed parts of the body. This reasoning certainly has a sound basis in that the conspicuous design would naturally attract the opponent's eye.

For this very reason only the most courageous of the Trobriand Islanders would paint their shields as an open challenge to the enemy. To split such a shield and kill its bearer was considered especially honourable. The introduction of firearms obviously relegated the shield to insignificance, partly because - as the Dakota noticed - it continued to attract the bullets like a target without actually holding them up.

In Melanesia, many of the elongated shields were decorated with more or less stylized human faces or bodies: in some cases even the outlines were clearly derived from the human figure. Indeed, such shields were frequently identified with ancient spirits, given the names of deceased relatives, and used in raids to avenge the death of the ancestor whose name they carried.

Among some tribes, on Kalimantan and New Britain, for example, shields were decorated on the inside and outside, which indicates that these designs were addressed not only to the enemy but to the bearer as well. Other designs of a more abstract character identified the bearer as the member of a certain social or military unit or indicated the status he had achieved by his acts of bravery. In some regions such as East Africa definite heraldic systems were developed. Long before they fell into disuse as a means of defence, light dance shields and elaborately decorated ceremonial shields played a large part in tribal life. After the introduction of firearms, all that remained of the shield's functions were these heraldic and social aspects.

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Form, function and design of shields (2)