Wooden shield from Cape York, c1893
This is a wooden shield made by the Kuku Yalanji people of the Daintree Rainforest on Cape York in north-eastern Queensland. The kidney-shaped 'rainforest shield' is painted with a red, orange, white and black design using natural pigments and has a carved knob in the centre. A handle has been carved on the underside of the shield. The shield is made of softwood from a fig tree known as 'magurra' or 'milbir' in the local language. Collected in 1893, it measures 84 cm in length and 27 cm in width.
Shields such as this one with its distinctive shape and bold design are the largest shields made by any Indigenous people in Australia and were used as defensive devices against missiles and clubs. The shields are made in the rainforests of north-eastern Qld, in areas where the large 'sword club', with a blade 1 m long, was used in conflict. The Kuku Yalanji people call the shields 'balan bigin' and still make them today.
Young men learn to use these large shields and sword clubs as part of their initiation into manhood. The shields are painted to the young man's own design using symbols that often relate to his personal totem. Totems are plants and animals that have a relationship with a person or group of people and provide a direct link with Dreaming beings.
The shield is cut from the buttress roots of a fig tree, its kidney shape resulting from the curve of the roots. Two curved cuts are made the length of the shield and the wood is chipped away leaving a raised boss in the centre. At the back, a hand grip is made by chipping and burning a cavity with cinders. The shield is then soaked in water, hung from a tree to dry to make it lighter and rubbed down with a coarse stone to give it a smooth surface.
The design on the shield is painted with natural pigments using brushes made from sticks, bark and human hair. The outline is painted in black made from the sap of a rainforest vine. The infill colours are natural ochres; yellow and white occur in the local area and the red and orange are made by gently heating the yellow ochre until it changes colour. The ochres are ground to a powder and mixed with a binding fluid such as honey, egg yolks or orchid juice.
This shield, collected in 1893 by Archibald Meston and W Miller near the Daintree River, would have been in use by the local people who have lived in the Daintree Rainforest for at least 9,000 years. Meston studied the customs and languages of the people he came into contact with on his journeys of investigation and exploration, and collected many anthropological objects.