Solomon Islands Shields
Solomon Islands Shields
Lightweight yet durable, superbly crafted yet eminently practical, the shields of the Solomon Islands form a distinctive tradition within Oceanic art. Until the early decades of the 20th century, shields were widely made, used, exchanged, and distributed throughout the Western and Central Solomon Islands.1 Before the introduction of firearms in the late 1800s, they were the quintessential defensive weapons in traditional warfare, a vital element of warriors’ fighting equipment from which, according to one account, their owners were nearly inseparable.
Wicker fighting shield with a point at the upper and lower ends, Western or Central Solomon Islands, 19th century, rattan, fiber, 35 ¼” (89.3 cm) in height (New York private collection).
Discussing shields on the island of Guadalcanal, Charles Woodford, the first District Commissioner of the British Solomon Islands, noted: “Each man, no matter how short the distance he may be going, carries a shield made of wickerwork and a tomahawk [axe] with a handle about 3 feet long” in the event of an unexpected attack.1 Thus, when admiring the unique aesthetic qualities of Solomon Islands shields, it is important to remember that they were not originally intended to be static works displayed in museums and private collections. Instead, as the distinguished Solomon Islands art scholar, Deborah Waite, observes, shields were “objects of action,” functional and aesthetic weapons that, when in use, would have been in almost constant motion.3
Two warriors armed with wicker shields and axes, New Georgia, c. 1900. (Festetics de Tolna 1903: 328).
In contrast to the tall, broad wooden shields used, for example, by many New Guinea cultures, which were large enough for warriors to effectively shelter behind, nearly all Solomon Islands shields were comparatively small.4 Typically only around 25 to 30 inches (70 to 90 cm) high and 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm) wide, they afforded far less direct physical protection to a fighter’s body. Instead, their smaller size required their owners to either crouch behind them or use them as parrying shields, skillfully manipulating them to deflect or intercept incoming arrows and spears.
Studio photograph of a warrior carrying a parrying club showing the method of crouching behind a shield for protection, c. 1880s. (Wikimedia Commons)
Describing a battle he witnessed in the Nggela (also called Florida) Islands in the late 1860s or early 1870s, missionary Rev. Charles Brooke reported seeing: “a company…about one hundred strong, armed with [axes] and spears, and bearing shields. I could not compliment them on their erect military bearing, for they were all stooping so low that each man’s body was covered by his shield…the bottom of which nearly touched the ground, the warrior’s nose resting upon the top.”5
But, for the most part, as the British naval officer Boyle Somerville noted, shields were “…used more to parry a blow with than as a steady protection to the whole body, of which indeed they only actually cover a small portion.”6 The exacting skills necessary for using shields to parry or intercept projectiles and other fighting maneuvers were not devised independently by their owners. Instead, warriors reportedly apprenticed in their youth with experienced fighters, from whom they learned and practiced specific shield movements and techniques, which were used both individually and as part of coordinated fighting groups.7 Once trained, a skilled shield wielder could stop almost any approaching arrow or spear. In his account of the battle between two opposing groups in Nggela mentioned above, Brooke further noted that “…a Hongo spear caught in a Boli shield; but the shield might have been hanging on a post for any emotion discernable in its bearer.”8 Brooke also described shield bearing warriors on both sides lining up side by side to form opposing battle lines before engaging the enemy.9
Although primarily used on land, shields were also carried and employed by war parties in canoes at sea. The 18th century French explorer, Louis-Antoine comte de Bougainville, whose vessels were attacked in 1768 in Choiseul Bay off the coast of Choiseul, noted that he saw ten canoes “…appear at the entrance of the bay, having on board about one hundred and fifty men, armed with bows, lances and shields…which they look upon as a defensive weapon…Their shields are oval, and made of rushes, twisted above each other and very well connected. They must be impenetrable by arrows…”10 Describing a similar encounter in 1769 off the coast of Santa Isabel, French naval officer, Charles Claret comte de Fleurieu noted: “To defend themselves from arrows, they have shields made of split rattan […] when they are in their boats, they cover their backs or heads with them and use them as umbrellas.”11 Although almost certainly staged, a photo of a group of war canoes taken on Vella Lavella in 1922 gives a striking impression of the imposing sights encountered by these early explorers.
A group of war canoes with warriors armed with wicker shields, Vella Lavella, 1922. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)
The vast majority of surviving Solomon Islands shields are made from wicker (see below). However, based on both historical accounts and surviving examples, they were also, more rarely, made from other materials.12 Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendaña y Neira, the first European to encounter (and name) the Solomon Islands in the late 1560s, reported seeing large wooden shields at Ulawa but does not describe their form or ornamentation (if any).13 The missionary anthropologist Walter Ivens, who served in the Solomons from 1895 to 1909, also reports the use of large, undecorated rectangular wooden shields on the islands of Malaita, Sa’a and Ulawa, though no examples appear to have survived.14 In addition, a number of elliptical wooden shields whose form and ornamentation appear to be based on those of the more widespread wicker shields survive from the late nineteenth century. While their precise nature and purpose(s) remain uncertain, many are expertly carved and painted, suggesting that they were intended for indigenous use.15
Edge-Partington’s sketch showing two shell-inlaid bark shields, probably Santa Isabel Island. The originals are in the British Museum (left) and Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford (right). (Edge-Partington 1906: Plate I-J).
The rarest type of Solomon Islands shields are a small group of gracefully curving shields fashioned from tree bark, which appear to have been made only on the island of Santa Isabel.16 In constructing them, the flexible bark was reinforced on the back by an elaborate system of cross braces attached to a long curved handle.
Edge-Partington sketch of the reverse of a bark shield showing the reinforcing cross braces and cane handle, probably Santa Isabel. Artists on Santa Isabel added similar cross braces to the backs of existing wicker shields when creating shell-inlaid versions (see fig. 8). (Edge-Partington 1906: fig. 1)
Only seven such bark shields are known of which two are unadorned and five are shell-inlaid (fig. 5) using the same materials, techniques, and broad design scheme as the shell-inlaid wicker shields described below.17
A Shell-inlaid wicker shield (shield: probably New Georgia or Guadalcanal, inlay: probably Santa Isabel), early to mid 19th century, fiber, parinarium nut paste, chambered nautilus shell, pigment, h: 33 ¼ in. (84.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1978.421.730) (Wikimedia Commons).
To judge from both historical descriptions and the number of surviving examples, by far the most numerous and widespread type of Solomon Islands shields are the distinctive “wicker” fighting shields of the Western and Central region of which examples having been reported, or collected, on the islands of Choiseul, Vella Lavella, New Georgia, Santa Isabel, the Nggela (Florida) Islands, and Guadalcanal.18 Perhaps the most durable and intricately crafted of all forms of Melanesian basketry, wicker shields were constructed from one or more unsplit lengths of “lawyer cane” (Calamus sp.), sometimes also referred to as “rattan,” a stiff, vine-like type of climbing palm tree. Coiled into a tight, elliptical concentric spiral and wrapped and/or and secured in place by fiber made from asama (Lygodium trifurcatuma), a species of trailing fern, as much as 33 feet (10 meters) of cane were required to create a single shield.1919 Once completed, a handle made from a loop of cane was attached to the back along with a protective pad made from turtle shell or leaves to prevent the rough basketry surface from chafing the user’s arm or hand.20
Determining the precise origin of a specific wicker shield is generally problematic. Surviving accounts indicate that wicker shields were a highly geographically specific art form, created only by artists from certain groups working in specific islands or regions. Historic observers report that wicker shields were made by artists in the village of Pondokona in Marovo Lagoon on New Georgia and also in the interiors of New Georgia and Guadalcanal but they may also have been produced in other areas.21
Once finished, wicker shields were widely exchanged and dispersed via trade across the Western and Central Solomons Islands. As such, even where island- or group- specific collection information for an individual shield exists, the fact that it was collected at a particular place does not necessarily mean that it was made there. Indeed, the continuous circulation of shields appears to have been an important part of local and regional trade networks, in which they served, in some ways, similar to currency.22 Shields are said to have been used for purchasing land in the Marovo region of New Georgia and were reportedly often among the ceremonial valuables and commodities exchanged during marriage rites in many areas of the Western Solomons.23
Coiled wicker shields were made in three basic forms. In the first, and most abundant, type among surviving examples, the elliptical body of the shield tapers to form a sharp point at both the top and bottom (see fig. 1). In the second type, the top and bottom of the shield are both rounded.24
Wicker fighting shield with rounded upper and lower ends, Western or Central Solomon Islands, 19th century, rattan, fiber, 26 7/8” (68.2 cm) in height. A stylized image of a frigate bird appears at the bottom (UK private collection).
These shields with rounded ends are often adorned at the bottom with the stylized image of a frigate bird (Fregata sp.), a tropical seabird whose images appear widely in Solomon Islands art (see fig. 7).25 The third type of wicker shields have a pointed top and a rounded bottom. By far the rarest form, only four shields of this type are known.26
While some examples were undecorated, Solomon Islands shields were frequently adorned using a variety of materials, designs, and techniques. On wicker shields, the most common form of decoration consists of geometric designs accompanied, in some cases, by stylized frigate bird images, created during the weaving process by incorporating supplementary lengths of black colored fiber directly into the body of the shield itself (see figs. 1, 7).27 Some wicker shields were further ornamented with tufts of feathers at the top and other ephemeral materials, though these seldom survive. In rare instances, wicker shields were extensively adorned with valuable rings and small disks made from white shell, which would have given them enormous value.29 The carved and painted designs on 19th century elliptical wooden shields appear to be derived directly from the woven patterns on the far more abundant wicker shields and, in rare instances, also include carved depictions of what appear to be shell rings.30
But by far the most well known and lavishly adorned of all Solomon Islands shields are the spectacular shell-inlaid wicker (fig. 8) and bark (fig. 5) shields, whose lustrous surfaces appear have been created exclusively by specialist artists from Santa Isabel, working on their home island and also, reportedly, as war captives on New Georgia.31 Only around 25 shell-inlaid wicker shields and 5 shell-inlaid bark shields are known and the existing historical and collection information suggests that they were all created before 1850.32 No two examples are exactly identical. However, their styles, formal compositions, materials and techniques are all so similar that they strongly suggest they were made by a small number artists working in close association as part of a single artistic tradition.33 Wicker shields are not known to have been made on Santa Isabel and so it is likely that shell-inlay artists used wicker shields obtained through trade with neighboring islands while the bark shields appear to have been both made and inlaid on Santa Isabel. To create both types, artists took an ordinary wicker or bark fighting shield and covered the front surface with a layer of paste made from parinarium nuts (Parinari sp.), which hardened into a blackish resin as it dried.34 The designs were then painstakingly constructed by insetting hundreds of small pre-cut mother-of-pearl inlays made from chambered nautilus (Nautilus pompilius) shell, typically around ¼ in. (.65 cm) square, into the surface of the paste before it dried. Afterwards, the portions of the design that were not inlaid were painted either red or black using pigments made from red ochre or charcoal to create the finished shield.35 In addition, the backs of shell-inlaid wicker shields, like those of the bark shields, were reinforced by the addition of a system of cross braces, which likely served to keep the brittle resin surface on the front from cracking or flaking off through excessive flexing (see fig. 6).36
The inlaid designs on the wicker shields always consist of a central anthropomorphic figure with flexed, upraised arms and, in some cases, what appear to be stylized legs (see. fig 8). The facial features are composed of separate, specially-cut inlays depicting the eyes, nose, brow mouth and ears, which are typically shown with what appear to be ear ornaments.
Detail of the anthropomorphic figure on a shell-inlaid wicker shield showing the specially cut inlays used for the facial features and ear ornaments, early to mid-19th century. Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland. (Wikimedia Commons).
Below the figure is a broad horizontal band that often, as in fig 8, includes images smaller human heads or faces, which sometimes also appear flanking the central figure.37 The upper and lower sections of the shields are adorned with geometric designs which, in some instances, appear to follow the lines of the underlying basketry coils.38 Similar, but more highly stylized, central anthropomorphic figures also appear on the shell-inlaid bark shields, which have a recognizable human face on the upper section of the shield. In all the surviving examples, the face is shown with only a single eye, nose, mouth and ear (see fig. 5).39 This suggests that, unlike the frontal anthropomorphic images on the shell-inlaid wicker shields, those of the bark shields possibly depict the figure in profile.
There is no historic information on identity of the personage(s) or being(s) represented by the central anthropomorphic figures on either type of shell-inlaid shield. Waite suggests that the images may depict warriors or powerful ancestral chiefs.40 It is also possible the images represent supernatural beings, perhaps powerful spirits who served to protect the carrier and/or help them vanquish their enemies.41 Waite suggests that the smaller faces or heads that appear below or flanking the central figure likely symbolize captured enemy heads, perhaps those personally taken by the shield bearer or one of their ancestors.42
The fragility of the shell-inlaid shields, whose brittle surfaces would almost certainly have crumbled if used to parry or intercept an enemy projectile, strongly suggests that they were ceremonial weapons, carried as marks of social status and martial prowess by prominent chiefs or warriors.44 Solomon Islander Rev. Bill Gina stated that shell-inlaid shields were ceremonial items, carried by chiefs when “holding court” during which the chief sat with an axe in their right hand and an inlaid shield set upright at their left side.44 A number of 19th century observers, however, report seeing decorated shields carried by prominent warriors during fighting. However, their descriptions are too vague to determine whether these were shell-inlaid shields or other types.45 Hence, it is conceivable that, like the fragile, highly valued feather capes and helmets worn into battle by chiefs in Hawai’i, shell-inlaid shields in the Solomon Islands may actually have been carried during fighting by chiefs or prominent warriors.
But whatever the use(s) of the shell-inlaid examples may have been, the vast majority of Solomon Islands shields were fundamentally functional objects. Superbly designed, expertly crafted, and maneuvered to display the prowess, and protect the bodies, of their owners, they are outstanding examples of the seamless blending of form, function, and aesthetics that characterize the shields and other weapons created by artists throughout the Pacific.
Bougainville, Louis-Antoine de. 1772. A Voyage Round the World. Performed by Order of His Most Christian Majesty in the years 1766, 1767, 1768 and 1769. London: Nourse & Davies.
Brooke, Charles H. 1874. The Last Cruise of the Second “Southern Cross.” Mission Life, 5, 190-96, 256-64, 289-98.
Brown, George. 1972 (1910). Melanesians and Polynesians: Their Life-Histories Described and Compared. New York: Benjamin Blom.
Claret de Fleurieu, Charles Pierre. n.d. [1798-1800]. Voyage Autour du Monde Pendant les Années 1790, 1791, et 1792 par Étienne Marchand. Vol I. Paris: L’Imprimerie de la République.
Codrington, R. H. 1891. The Melanesians. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Edge-Partington, J. 1906. Decorated Shields from the Solomon Islands. Man, Vol. 6, no. 86: pp. 129-130.
Evans, Bill. 2005. Solomon Islands. In: Beran, Harry and Barry Craig (eds.), Shields of Melanesia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press in Association with Oceanic Art Society, Sydney. pp. 237-53.
Festetics de Tolna, R. Cte. 1903. Chez Les Cannibales. Huit Ans de Croisière dans l’Océan Pacifique à bord du Yacht “Le Tolna.” Paris: Librairie Plon.
Howarth, Crispin. 2011. The Works. In: Howarth, Crispin with Deborah Waite, Varilaku: Pacific Arts from the Solomon Islands. Exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Australia. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia. pp. 43-119.
Ivens, W.G. 1930. The Island Builders of the Pacific. London: Seeley, Service & Co.
Kjellgren, Eric. 2007. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press.
Somerville, Boyle T. 1897. Ethnological Notes in New Georgia, Solomon Islands. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 26: 357-412.
Tippett, Alan R. 1967. Solomon Islands Christianity: A Study of Growth and Obstruction. London: Lutterworth Press.
Waite, Deborah. 1983a. Shell-Inlaid Shields from the Solomon Islands. In: Mead, Sidney M. and Bernie Kernot (eds.), Art and Artists of Oceania. Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press. pp. 114-136.
Waite, Deborah. 1983b. Art of the Solomon Islands from the Collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva. Geneva: Barbier-Mueller Museum.
Waite, Deborah. 2000. An Artefact/Image Text of Head-Hunting Motifs. Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 109, no. 1 (March 2000), pp. 115-144.
Waite, Deborah. 2002. Exploring Solomon Islands Shields: Vehicles of Power in Changing Museum Contexts. In: Herle, Anita, Nick Stanley, Karen Stevenson, and Robert L. Welsch (eds.), Pacific Art: Persistence, Change, and Meaning. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. pp. 180-90.
Waite, Deborah. 2007. Western Solomon Islands Shell-Inlaid Shields. Tribal Art, No. 44 (spring 2007), pp. 132-147.
Waite, Deborah. 2008. Solomon Islands Art. In: Waite, Deborah and Kevin Conru, Solomon Islands Art: The Conru Collection. Italy: Five Continents Editions. pp. 13-194.
Waite, Deborah. 2011. Body Language as Visual Discourse Among Images from the Solomon Islands. In: Howarth, Crispin with Deborah Waite, Varilaku: Pacific Arts from the Solomon Islands. Exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Australia. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia. pp. 33-42.
Waite, Deborah. 2013: From Personal Ornaments to Canoe Carvings and Shields: Re-presentations and Translations of Personal Ornaments as Social Markers, Western and Central Provinces, Solomon Islands. Pacific Arts, n.s. Vol. 13, no. 1: 27-39.
Welsch, Robert L. 1998. An American Anthropologist in Melanesia: A. B. Lewis and the Joseph N. Field South Pacific Expedition 1909-1913. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
White, Geoffrey M. 1991. Identity Through History: Living Stories in a Solomon Islands Society. Cambridge (United Kingdom): Cambridge University Press. Woodford, Charles M. 1926. “Notes on the Solomon Islands.” Geographical Journal, LXVIII, pp. 481-87.
1 Kjellgren 2007: 168, While widespread in the Western and Central Solomons, fighting shields were not made or used by cultures in the northern Solomon Islands of Bougainville and Buka who, according to the missionary Rev. George Brown, “ridicule[d] those who use them” (Brown 1972 (1910): 161, Evans 2005: 239).
2Woodford 1926: 485.
3Waite 2008: 142.
4Waite 2008: 137.
5Brooke 1874: 196, Waite 2008: 137.
6Somerville 1897: 401.
7White 1991: 63, Waite 2008: 142, Waite 2013: 37.
8Brooke 1874: 196
9Brooke 1874: 196
10Bougainville 1772: 318-20, Evans 2005: 240.
11Claret de Fleurieu 1791: 137-8, Evans 2005: 240.
12For readers interested in exploring the materials, forms, and variants of Solomon Islands shields in greater depth than space allows for in this essay, Evans provides a comprehensive and extensively illustrated survey of the topic (see Evans 2005: 237-50).
13Evans 2005: 239.
14Ivens 1930: 184-85, see also Evans 2005: 249.
15The 19th century British naval officer Boyle Somerville was uncertain of the function(s) of these elliptical wooden shields noting: “Shields…are made not only of basketwork, but also of wood ornamented with black, red and white patterns; perhaps these are only for sale to white people or for dancing purposes.” (Somerville 1897: 401), for examples see Evans 2005: 245-47, figs. 8.28, 8.29.
16Woodford 1926: 485, Evans 2005: 249, Waite 2007: 138.
17Waite 2007: 138.
18Kjellgren 2007: 168, Bougainville 1772: 318-20, Evans 2005: 240.
19Waite 2007: 134, Waite 2008: 137, Evans 2005: 240. While the vast majority of wicker shields are coiled, in some examples were constructed from parallel lengths of straight rattan arranged side by side and bound together using a similar technique (see Waite 2007: 137, Evans 2005: 247, 249).
20Somerville 1897: 374, Evans 2005: 241. Solomon Islander scholar Lawrence Foanaota, former Director of the Solomon Islands National Museum, identified the leaves used as pandanus and noted that they served both to protect the hand and tighten the user’s grip (Evans 2005: 241).
21See: Waite 1983a: 115-16, Codrington 1891: 305, Somerville 1897: 374, Woodford 1926: 485, Edge-Partington 1906: 129
22Waite 1983a: 116-17, Codrington 1891: 305, Edge-Partington 1906: 129.
23Waite 2000: 123, Somerville 1897: 406. While collecting objects for the Field Museum in Chicago on Vella Lavella in 1901, anthropologist A.B. Lewis photographed and collected a shield from the nearby area of Roviana carefully wrapped in leaves in preparation for ceremonial exchange for which packages of pounded taro and noni nuts were to be given in return (Welsch 1998: 358-60, Waite 2000: 123, the shield is currently in the Field Museum, cat. no. 135826).
24Evans 2005: 241.
25Evans 2005: 241.
26Waite 1983a, 132, Evans 2005: 241.
27Waite 2008: 137.
28Waite 2007: 132, Brooke 1888: 93.
29See Evans 2005: 243-47.
30For discussion and examples of these wooden shields see Evans 2005: 245-47.
31Tippett 1967: 148-50, Kjellgren 2007: 168, Waite 2002: 189.
32Waite 1983a: 119, Waite 2007: 134, Evans 2005: 249.
33Kjellgren 2007: 168, Waite 2013: 36.
34Waite 1983b: 121, Kjellgren 2007: 168, Evans 2005: 242.
35Kjellgren 2007: 68, Howarth 2011: 47.
36Waite 1983a: 127.
37See Waite 1983a: 125. On one example, a small fish also appears as part of the inlaid design (Waite 1983a: 125).
38Waite 1983b: 121.
39Waite 2007: 142, Evans 2005: 249.
40See Waite 2002: 189, Waite 2011: 41.
41Kjellgren 2007: 168.
42Waite 2008: 137,
43Waite 1983b: 129, Waite 2002: 189.
44Waite 1983b: 139, no. 7, Kjellgren 2007 168.
45Waite 1983a: 117-18.