Suit of armour

From Kiribati, eastern Micronesia

Probably 19th century AD

Made of coconut fibre and sharks' teeth

Warfare in Kiribati, a nation comprising 33 islands, used to occur quite frequently to settle matters such as land possession or disputes over titles. Weapons, such as long spears, swords, and short daggers, often edged with sharp sharks' teeth, were used, as well as stone missiles projected by slings. Such weapons were capable of inflicting grave damage and warriors needed to wear good protection.

The several pieces of this suit were acquired separately, but have been put together here for illustrative puposes. The helmet, with ear flaps and chin strap, is made from plaited coconut fibre. Some helmets were made from fish skin. The main part of the body armour is made from thick netted coconut fibre, in two parts, covering the body and legs, and the shoulders and arms. The plaited cuirass, which further protects the chest, is made from thick coconut fibre with diamond-shaped motifs worked in black human hair. It has a high projection at the reverse to protect the back of the neck and head. The gauntlets are made from coconut fibre cord stiffened with wooden strips and edged with shark teeth. Somewhat surprisingly, old illustrations show warriors with bare feet.

Traditional ways of warfare ceased due partly to the influence of the British colonial government and of missionaries in Kiribati. The American missionary Hiram Bingham started missionary work there in 1857. Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in 1888. Kiribati became a British Protectorate in 1892 and became independent in 1979. Shark tooth weapons are still made on the islands, some with brightly dyed leaf binding, mostly for sale as souvenirs.

Find in the collection online

More information


G. Koch, translation by Guy Slatter, The material culture of Kiriba (Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 1986)

J. Feldman and D.H. Rubinstein, The art of Micronesia (Honolulu, The University of Hawaii Art Gallery, 1988)


Diameter: 26.500 cm (helmet)
Length: 132.500 cm (torso and legs)
Length: 132.500 cm (torso and legs)
Height: 85.000 cm (cuirass)
Length: 132.500 cm (torso and legs)

Museum number

AOA 1938.10-1.66;AOA Q72.Oc.100a;AOA 1973;AOA 1914. L.1.22c;AOA +5788


Helmet: Gift of Miss E K B Lister
Torso and legs: Permanent loan of Tower Armouries
Cuirass: Christy Collection (ex. Kew Botanical Gardens)


Find in the collection online

Search highlights

There are over 4,000 highlight objects to explore