British Museum collections, £12.99
Height: 163.000 cm
Width: 56.000 cm
AOA Ethno 1990.Oc9.19
Africa, Oceania, Americas
Painted wooden shield
Wahgi people, 1980s AD
From Western Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea
In recent years the Wahgi people have recommenced the making of battle shields for use in inter-group warfare, which resumed in the 1980s. Shields may be made from wood as they were in earlier times, or from recycled metal (from car bodies or 44-gallon drums) which is better able to protect the shield bearer from gunfire.
This shield is painted with gloss paint. The design consists of a skull with a Raggiana bird of paradise on either side. Birds of paradise (of which there are several species) are indigenous to this area, and their plumes are much valued for use in ceremonial adornments.
Michael O'Hanlon, who collected this shield, points out that the bitterest form of conflict is referred to as 'Raggiana bird of paradise war'. The depiction of a pair of birds, rather than a single one, is significant as local groups who fight this type of war are normally listed in pairs.
The wording 'Six 2 Six', is a phrase painted onto most of the shields used by the Gilgalkup sub-group of the Senglap people. It normally refers to an all night party - that is, six p.m to six a.m - but in this case refers to their claim to be able to fight all day - six a.m to six p.m.
M. O'Hanlon, 'Modernity and the 'graphicalization' of meaning: New Guinea shield design in historical perspective', Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1: 3 (September 1995), pp. 469–93
M. O'Hanlon, Paradise: portraying the New Guinea Highlands (London, The British Museum Press, 1993)
M. O'Hanlon, Reading the skin: adornment, display, and society among the Wahgi (London, The British Museum Press, 1989)