Shield, mid– to late 19th century
Northeastern Queensland, Australia
Wood, paint; H. 30 1/2 in. (77.5 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1802)
Although much of Australia is arid, the continent also has dense tropical rainforests, which originally covered much of the eastern coast of the Cape York Peninsula in northern Queensland. In contrast to the more muted palette employed by many Aboriginal groups, rainforest peoples developed an artistic tradition characterized by the use of boldly patterned polychrome designs, which were applied to the surfaces of weapons and other objects. The tradition found its foremost expression in the large, brilliantly painted shields carried by initiated men. Until the late 1890s, such shields were an indispensable component of a warrior's fighting equipment.
Conflicts among the rainforest peoples primarily took the form of ritualized combat between individuals or groups for which large numbers of people often gathered, at times in association with initiation or other activities, to settle outstanding disputes. On these occasions, a man with a grievance against another individual would challenge him to a duel, the two parties resolving the issue through single combat.
The duels were fought with a distinctive pair of weapons: a long, bladelike hardwood club resembling a sword, which was brought down on the opponent like a sledgehammer, and the painted shield, which was used to absorb the force of the blows. During the fight, combatants stood facing each other and took turns striking, each landing a single blow on his opponent and then receiving one in return. The contest ended when one man grew exhausted and conceded or his shield was destroyed by his opponent, rendering him unable to continue. In less formalized fighting, the shields were also used to parry clubs or boomerangs thrown by the enemy and absorb the impact of spears.