Image Aboriginal parrying shields, 1800s

TLF ID R7581

This is a group of three wooden Aboriginal shields from south-eastern Australia, collected in the 19th century. These shields are long and narrow with a wedge- or elliptical-shaped body. Each shield has been uniquely carved and painted by its maker. The shields range in size from 87.0 cm to 89.6 cm in length, 11.0 cm to 16.0 cm in width and 2.5 cm to 8.0 cm in depth.

Educational details

Educational value
  • These are 'narrow' shields. Carved out of one piece of solid wood, including handles, they were used to deflect spears, and in close combat to parry blows from wooden clubs. Broader shields with handles, either carved from the solid wood or inserted into central holes, were generally used only to ward off spears.
  • Shields such as these are evidence of the rich cultural diversity of the Aboriginal peoples of south-eastern Australia and the three shields give a good representation of the different patterning used to decorate the outer surfaces. Like other Aboriginal art forms from the region, these designs are thought to relate to the individual and group identity of the makers.
  • Shield designs 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 front of the shield on the left-hand side has three horizontal sections divided into parallel columns. The columns alternate two designs, one of solid red ochre, the other with herringbone patterns filled with white pipe clay. The piece of possum fur wrapped around the middle section of the shield is designed to protect the knuckles of the user during a fight. This shield was acquired by the National Museum of Victoria (now Museum Victoria) in 1888.
  • A column of alternating diamond and oval motifs descends down the face of the shield in the middle. The motifs are engraved and ochred, making them stand out from the white pipe clay on the rest of the face. According to Museum Victoria records, this shield was 'taken in a fight between the Native Police and the Avoca Tribe at Creswick's Waterhole' in central Victoria in July 1847. The 'Native Police Corps' was in service throughout Victoria from 1842 to 1849.
  • The side view of the third shield, on the right-hand side, shows two designs infilled with white pipe clay. About two-thirds have fine rows of a herringbone pattern, the rest larger rows of lines in waves. The other side of the shield, not visible here, is incised with diagonal lines that are infilled with white pipe clay. This side view also shows the handle of the shield.
  • Tools made of stone and animal teeth, for example the sharp teeth 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 face. Depending on the detail required, the paint was applied with sticks, with brushes made from echidna quills or hair or with the fingers.
  • The main 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

  • Content provider
  • 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
  • URL:
Access profile
  • Colour independence
  • Device independence
  • Hearing independence
Learning resource type
  • Image
  • Microsoft Internet Explorer - minimum version: 8.0 (MS-Windows) - maximum version: 9.0 (MS-Windows)
  • Firefox - minimum version: (MS-Windows)
  • Safari - minimum version: 5.1 (MacOS)
Operating systems
  • MacOS - minimum version: 10.6
  • MS-Windows - minimum version: XP - maximum version: 7
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and Museum Victoria, 2016, except where indicated under Acknowledgements