Polynesian objects from early European exploration, £19.99
Height: 117.000 cm
Width: 40.000 cm
Gift of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum
Africa, Oceania, Americas
Wooden war shield
Sulka people, Possibly early 20th century
From East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea
The Sulka people of East New Britain made wooden war shields, used to parry the blows from spears. This is a typical example, with a raised central boss and overlaid crossed cane strips. The internal hand grip at the back is carved by hollowing out the central area. The cane plaiting around the edge of the shield provides strength. There is a projectile point tip, probably from a spear, embedded inside the hand grip.
The shield is decorated on both the front and back with red, black and white pigments. The design has been interpreted as a face which may represent the face of a spirit who protected the user of the shield.
The Sulka stopped making shields for use in war in the early twentieth century due to the influence of German missionaries. Today brightly painted shields decorated with feathers are made for use in dances.
P. Benitez-Johannot and J.P. Barbier, Shields: Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania – From the Collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum (Munich, London, New York, Prestel, 2000)
G.A. Corbin, 'East New Britain' in Arts of the South Seas: the collections of the Musée Barbier-Mueller (Munich, London, New York, Prestel, 1999), pp. 256–67
M. O'Hanlon, 'Medusa's art: interpreting Melanesian shields' in Protection, Power and Display: Shields of Island Southeast Asia and Melanesia (Boston College Museum of Art, 1995), pp. 74–88