British Museum collections, £12.99
War shield from the Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea
Trobriand Islands, Milne Bay Province, Papua
AD late 1800s
A shield designed to challenge the enemy
This shield, from the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea, is made from acacia wood and decorated with motifs.
Shields would be decorated with the motifs of particular fish, birds, snakes and ants, whose speed or ferocity might be passed on to the holder.
The motifs on this shield have recently been identified by Paramount Chief Pulayasi, Chief of Omarakana Village, in the Trobriand Islands. They include the red snake, who brought war magic to Kiriwina Island – the largest of the four Trobriand Islands, and a red feather, the symbol of an outstanding warrior.
Insects such as the cricket and a boi, a particular black insect, also decorate this shield. These creatures are admired by warriors because of their agility and the speed with which they move.
Only skilled and honoured warriors would have carried these shields. Possessing such a shield attracted attention to a warrior, issuing a challenge of invincibility. Lesser fighters, even chiefs, carried plain black or white shields, so as not to attract attention.
Shields such as these were last used in battle in 1899. After this date, similar shields were probably made for sale to traders, explorers and administrators.