Solomon Island Shields: Detailed Analysis of Form

Forms and contexts

Island contexts

Wicker shields without shell inlay

Wicker shields with shell inlay

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Extract from Waite's Shell-inlaid Shields from the Solomon Islands

... Shields constructed of wicker (i.e. cane or rattan) and bark have long been used in battle on several islands in the Solomons group. Literature compiled by explorers, missionaries, and other European visitors to the Solomons from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1920s includes numerous references to fighting shields. Large numbers of the shields now in museum collections were obtained by Europeans from New Georgia, Santa Isabel, Guadalcanal, and the Florida Islands. Information recorded by the collectors in their publications and on labels attached to the shields are, for the most part, fairly brief, consisting in some instances only of the name of the island from which the shield was procured. Shell-inlaid shields were never mentioned as having been seen in use in the Solomons after c 1860. ...

It should be emphasized that the majority of shields produced in the Solomons were not inlaid with shell. Wicker shields might be adorned with a few black painted designs and a few were decorated with strings of attached shells. Shields were made from wicker (cane or rattan), bark and occasionally wood. Wooden shields appear to have been few in number in comparison with wicker shields during the period when most recorded literature dealing with shields from the Solomons appears (i.e. mid-nineteenth-century through the 1920s). As early as 1897, it was suggested that wooden shields were made for sale to Europeans not for battle (Somerville, 1897: 401).

Two shapes predominate among shields from the Solomon Islands: elliptical and rectangular. ... Attributed island provenances [cited in her paper] are just that, i.e. they constitute the names of islands recorded by the collectors as being the islands from which they obtained the shields. As such they do not necessarily represent accurate information regarding the place of manufacture for the shields, a subject upon which most writers and collectors are somewhat diffuse. In several cases, e.g. ... wicker shields, the collector recorded specifically that the shields were obtained on Florida Island but were not made on that island ... Occasionally, photographs taken in the field ... helped to place the location of certain shield types and, together with the fragmentary literary evidence, suggest that certain sub-categories of shield may have been both produced and used on one island ... However there is not a large enough quantity either of field photographs or detailed documentation to guarantee this possibility.

In general, shields viewed on different islands appeared to exhibit regional variations in material, shape, and decoration; moreover, shields made on one island could be sold to people living on neighboring islands. H.B. Guppy, who travelled in the Solomons in 1882 with the British surveying ship H.M.S. Lark, noted in 1887 that wicker shields on Florida and Guadalcanal were 'worked over with fine wickerwork and ornamented with beads in the case of a chief.' On Santa Isabel and Choiseul, they were 'more often rudely constructed and [had] no wickerwork ...' and were 'rectangular in form'. On Florida and Guadalcanal they were 'more oval and slightly contracted in the middle' (Guppy, 1887: 75).

R.M. Codrington, in the Solomons from 1867 to 1886 as a member of the Melanesian Mission, wrote that shields used in the Florida Islands (or 'on Florida') were not made on that island (Codrington, 1891: 305). This statement is amplified by James Edge-Partington in an article published in the journal Man (1906), where he quoted Codrington and then added that the shields were manufactured by people living on the interior of Guadalcanal island (Edge-Partington, 1906: 129)... Edge-Partington does not, however, provide a source for this information.

C.M. Woodford, the first District Commissioner of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, appears to concur with Edge-Partington with regard to the place of manufacture for wicker shields. In speaking of a highly unusual 'bi-lobed' wicker shield sighted by Surville at Port Praselin, Santa Isabel Island ... Woodford wrote:

These wicker shields, I am informed, are made in the bush on Guadalcanal and also in the interior of the large island of New Georgia, but there seems to be some mystery amongst the natives of the islands where they are in use. (Woodford, 1926: 485)

Allowing for a bit of interpolation, it is possible that Woodford may have been referring, not to the exceptional bi-lobed shield recorded only once (by Surville), but to the more common elliptical wicker shields which he had described in the immediately preceding paragraph of his 1926 article.

The best known type of shield, used by the natives of Florida, Guadalcanal, Ysabel (Santa Isabel), and the islands of what I term the New Georgia Group, including Simbo, Ganongo, Vella La Vella, as well as the large island of New Georgia, is made of wicker-work and is of an irregular elongated elliptical shape (Woodford, 1926: ibid.).

... the shields are constructed on concentric lengths of cane bent into a U-shape and bound with horizontal strips of rattan or vine. Ordinary fighting shields of this type are decorated with linear designs painted in black at the top and bottom of each shield. ...

Ordinary fighting shields of bark and wicker were thus transformed with paint and shell inlay into richly decorative objects. ...

In a table of wicker shields (inlaid and plain) Waite divides them into types; here are the relevant descriptions for plain wicker shields in the PRM collections:

Type/ Description
Attributed Island Provenance
Museum examples



1. Elliptical shape. Made of coiled piece of cane bound with horizontal fiber lashings. Loop handle attached to reverse side
1a. Rounded contours top and bottom. Straight sides. Marked increase in width from top to bottom  Santa Isabel



 PR Coll. 79. A.F.L. [sic] 1874**








1b. Rounded contours top and bottom. Minimal or no increase in width from top to bottom.  Guadalcanal*



Pitt Rivers PR Coll 79 A.F.L. [sic] 74 [sic] Ex-Lane Fox coll.


* Note that there is nothing in the documentation at the Pitt Rivers Museum to date to suggest that shield 79 is from Guadalcanal; the 1874 catalogue specifically states the shield is from Santa Isabel.
** This is a mistranscription by Waite; the A.F.L. is Augustus Lane Fox, 1874 or 74 as it is transcribed in the second example refers to the 1874 catalogue.


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