The Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning in Art & History

Aboriginal Shields

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These Australian Aboriginal shields date from the 19th and early 20th centuries and are made from wood, cane, feathers and earth pigments. Most of these shields come from south-eastern Australia and for Aboriginal society are special objects of power and prestige.  Unfortunately, much of their ownership, history and iconography has been lost.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people existed in Australia and surrounding islands prior to European colonisation going back to a time dated between 61,000 and 125,000 years ago. The trauma of loss that followed the establishment of a British colony in Australia had an enormously negative effect on the indigenous Aboriginal People. The widespread loss of language, culture and tradition changed aboriginal life and their art culture.

Some of these shields would have been used during the conflict. They would have been used to protect warriors against spears in staged battles or clubs in close fighting, in contests for water, territory and women. During the first encounter with Europeans, they would have been used as their armour of battle. The shield of leaf-like shape would have been used by the Eora people of Botany Bay, New South Wales, which was the first Aboriginal nation to encounter Captain James Cook on his voyage of British discovery to Australia in 1770.

Bark shield 2008 british museum

First Aboriginal artefact captured by Captain Cook’s landing party in 1770 representing the potentially first point of violent contact. Now at the British Museum

Above is an Australian bark shield from Botany Bay, New South Wales, Australia. This bark shield has been identified as having been collected in 1770 on Captain Cook’s First Voyage in HMS Endeavour (1768-71). This shield is at the British Museum. The hole in the centre may have come from a musket bullet, fired by the British sailors against the aborigines, who then dropped this shield.

Artwork depicting the first contact that was made with the Aboriginal people and Captain James Cook and his crew 

Some of these shields would have been used during a culturally significant occasion such as in corroborees, an Australian Aboriginal dance ceremony which may take the form of a sacred ritual or an informal gathering. These shields were often used in dances at ceremonies or traded as valuable cultural objects.

Showing method of attack with boomerang - NMA-15147

Below is a welcoming dance, “Entrance of the Strangers”, Alice Springs, Central Australia, 9 May 1901.

Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis J Gillen - Arrernte welcoming dance, entrance of the strangers, Alice Springs, Central Australia, 9 May 1901 - Google Art Project

The shield collection also includes the narrow, wedge or elliptical shields (pictured on the left below) used to ward off a weapon or attack with a countermove. The designs on the shields are all different and no two are similar.

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These shields were viewed as having innate power and a shield that had “won many fights” was prized as an object of trade or honour.

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“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.” – Australian Aboriginal saying

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Photo Credit:By GordonMakryllos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 2) By geni (Photo by user:geni) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 3) Public Domain, Link 4) By Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis J Gillen – Photographers Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons