War club

Possibly from the Prairies, North America
Before AD 1820

This is a war club, also known as a gunstock club because it looks similar to a gun without the metal barrel and firing mechanism. It is made of hard wood with heavy red ochre pigment, and is decorated with incisions. Some of these show the artist himself wielding a similar club alongside a row of headless individuals, presumably his victims. This kind of decoration was common throughout the Eastern Woodlands, Prairies and Great Lakes. The decorative compass has four corners, referring to the four cardinal directions, favoured geographical and astronomical symbols before European contact. Other incisions are abstract, with lines of opposing tooth triangles which cannot really be assigned any meaning. The iron blade is triangular in form and seems to have been made of wrought iron in a blacksmith's shop. It is pierced with a heart, a symbol much appreciated by Native Americans. The symbolic meaning that they gave it is unknown, but surprisingly they seem not to have associated it with removing the hearts of their enemies.

The club was presented to Stonyhurst College by Revd Richard Baxter, S.J., in 1820. Its small size and extensive tarnishing suggest that it was already fairly old by this time. Being small would have made it easier to use when on horseback or when travelling by foot. Later nineteenth-century gunstock clubs are often larger, and may have been used mainly for performances rather than at war.

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More information


J.C.H. King, First peoples, first contacts: (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)


Museum number

AOA Ethno 2003.Am.19,2


Purchased through the Heritage Lottery Fund, with contributions from JPMorgan Chase, the National Art Collections Fund, the British Museum Friends and The L.J. Skaggs and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation.


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