The British Museum's collections, £16.99
Wooden war shield from Papua New Guinea
Urapmin people, Highlands, West Sepik
Province, Papua New Guinea
A shield with ancestral power
The design on this shield reflects important objects connected with a warrior’s ancestors. It draws upon features from the landscape, bird and animal life, and human beings. The circular shape at the centre of the shield represents a man’s belly while the zigzag lines along the edges represent a snake or its tracks.
The shield has been painted with red ochre, white made from weathered limestone and black made from soot mixed with water.
There are traditional alliances and rivalries between the tribal groups in the Highlands area of Papua New Guinea, where this shield is from. When warfare was expected, warriors repainted their shields to ensure that the colours shone brilliantly against the sun to dazzle and threaten the opposing side.
In the western Pacific, shields would be named by warriors, and possessed a life essence, or spirit, that connected them to their ancestors. When fighting was about to break out, a warrior spoke to his shield to let it know.
This shield was made by the Bufalmin people between 1939 and 1944. It was later taken by another group, the Urapmin, who then reworked the pattern to suit their own style.