Image Aboriginal 'broad' shields, 1800s

TLF ID R7580

This is a group of four wooden Aboriginal shields from south-eastern Australia, collected in the 19th century. This type of shield is rounded and tapers to a point at either end. Each shield is uniquely carved and painted by its maker. The shields range in size from 87.4 cm to 133.0 cm in length, 20 cm to 28.5 cm in width and 1.5 cm to 5.4 cm in depth.

Educational details

Educational value
  • The shields pictured here are 'broad' shields, generally used to deflect spears. They have handles, either carved from the solid wood or inserted into central holes. Narrower shields carved from single pieces of heavier wood were also used to deflect spears, and in closer combat to parry blows from wooden clubs.
  • Shields such as these are evidence of the rich cultural diversity of the Aboriginal peoples of south-eastern Australia. While all are roughly the same shape, these four shields give a good representation of the different designs used to decorate the outer surface. Like other Aboriginal art forms from the region, these designs are thought to relate to the individual and group identity of the makers.
  • Designs on the faces of shields were meant to be visually arresting, with dexterous warriors able to use them to create distracting optical illusions in battle. The designs were also important in identifying individuals and clans in combat. Shields were regarded as having innate power, and older shields that had been used in many successful battles were prized as objects of trade.
  • The face of the smallest shield, second in from the left, is divided in two with a vertical band down the centre and tapering points at either end. Both halves of this shield have narrow rows of regular lines incised in a diagonal pattern, then infilled with white pipe clay. This shield, called a Giam or Keerem, was acquired by the National Museum of Victoria (now Museum Victoria) in 1888.
  • The largest shield on the right-hand side is also a Giam or Keerem acquired by the Museum in 1888. This shield face is also divided in two by a vertical band, with triangular points at either end. Both halves are decorated with fine horizontal rows of herringbone pattern that are filled in with white pipe clay, highlighted with horizontal stripes of red ochre.
  • The face of the shield at bottom left is divided into eight segments, with one thin vertical band down the centre of the face and three thin horizontal bands. These sections are incised with a fine herringbone design and infilled with white pipe clay.
  • The surface of the shield in the middle is divided by seven horizontal rows of incised solid diamond motifs, highlighted with red ochre. The broad sections in between have been infilled with white pipe clay. This shield is known to have been collected by William Le Souëf, an Assistant Protector of Aborigines in the early 1840s, who was based in north-central Victoria on the Goulburn River near the present-day town of Murchison.
  • Tools made of stone and animal teeth, for example the sharp incisors of marsupials, were used to construct and engrave shields such as these. After a shield had been shaped, designs were carved and painted onto the outer surface. Depending on the detail required, the paint was applied with sticks, with brushes made from echidna quills or hair or with the fingers.
  • The natural pigments traditionally used by Aboriginal people were charcoal (black), pipe clay (white) and ochres (pale yellow to dark reddish-brown). Red ochre was especially important and traded across vast areas of Australia. To make paint, the source material was ground into powder with a pestle-type stone and mixed with a binding fluid.
  • The history of 'ownership' of such objects between leaving the possession of Aboriginal people and becoming part of Museum Victoria collections is diverse and often obscure. Early collectors acquired objects such as these because it was believed that Aboriginal people were ‘a dying race’. This belief and the growing interest in ethnography created a significant trade in Aboriginal objects from the early 19th century onwards.

Other details

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  • Copyright holder
  • Organisation: Museum of Victoria
  • Address: Carlton VIC 3053 Australia
  • Remarks: Reproduced courtesy of Museum Victoria
  • Publisher
  • Date of contribution: 05 Sep 2013
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia
  • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
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