Collection Blog

Bowers Blog Logo V3

Shields of Mendi Valley

Shields (Wörrumbi), 20th Century
Mendi culture; Southern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia
Wood, pigments and fiber; Various Dimensions
2017.10.163, 2003.43.3, 2017.10.143
Anonymous Gift
On the Mendi
In an early 20th Century effort to pacify Papua New Guinea, Australian colonial administrators began a campaign of suppressing tribal warfare. The shields which had once served as effective bulwarks against arrows and spears did little against gunfire, so rather than face a massacre the groups of the New Guinea’s Highlands allowed their shields and spears to be collected and burned. Few shields survived this devastation, but the production of new shields never fully ceased. This post examines three shields—two newly acquired by the Bowers Museum and one previously accessioned—likely made in the Mendi Valley in Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands in the years after warfare was outlawed.
Sling it Over Your Shoulder like a Highland Solider
Shield (Elyáborr), 20th Century
Mendi culture; Southern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia
Wood, pigments and fiber; 31 1/2 x 16 1/4 x 1 1/2 in.
L.2009.5.39
Anonymous Lender
Historically the wars waged in the Highlands of New Guinea ranged from mock battles between neighboring groups to bitter feuds constantly at risk of erupting into bloodshed. The relative intensity of each of these conflicts necessitated varying types of weaponry, and so even within the narrow confines of New Guinea’s Mendi Valley three different shields were used. The first of these was the shomo, an immensely large shield made of palm bark woven to a wooden board. Its unwieldy shape made it awkward to use in the heat of combat and as such it was already being phased out by the time explorers first made contact. The two which were still in use up until Australian pacification were the elyáborrand the wörrumbi. The U-shaped divot at the top of the much smaller elyáborrallowed a warrior to sling it underarm to protect their torso and little else, meaning that it was commonly used in skirmishes. The wörrumbi—featured in this post—was used for open combat, and its shape, size, and use have made it the most popular regional design, even following the outlawing of battle. It is a medium-sized, elongated ovoid shield slung from the shoulder with a fiber cord. Worn in this way either a bow or a spear could still be used. The type of wood used, worr or fel, determined the weight of the shield and whether the bone- or palm-tipped arrows used in the highlands would become embedded on hitting the shield or shatter on impact.
Another Highland group shows how shoulder-slung shields are used for a mock combat.
Wave of Color
Throughout the greater region, these shields were understood much in the same way that masks are as projections of the self. During feasts men are brilliantly adorned in colorful pigments and ornaments, but these same men used soot to camouflage themselves in combat. It is shields that channel the power of one’s ancestors to give them strength and protect them in combat through their bright pigmentation and often the presence of abstracted anthropomorphic designs. Furthermore, the pigmentation was as much a component of psychological war as anything else. In full scale battles, it was not men so much as a solid wall of white and red pigment promising to crash upon its foes like a wave. Red pigment, seen on the tallest of the three Mendi shields, was particularly damning. A central figure painted in that color indicated that the shield bearer was seeking vengeance for a member of their clan. A lack of pigment, such as that seen in the smallest wörrumbi, could mean that this shield originally came from the nearby Nembi Plateau which is also known for the incised designs seen on the two newly acquired shields.
Shape of a Man
Designs for shields tended to be composed of abstracted geometric designs. Quite a bit of scholarship has gone into the interpretation of these forms, and interviews with Highland Papuans seems to confirm that many of these are in fact anthropomorphic. The central red ‘X’ of the largest Mendi shield may have been one such abstracted form. The same design seen on elyáborr shields show that the bearer will achieve victory in battle. We also commonly see a pronounced central spine in Mendi shields called a mesha. This may travel the length of the shield or cover a certain section of it and integrate into the design as seen in the shield decorated with two orange triangles. In all cases Mendi shields are symmetrical with only slight variations such as the inversion of white and black pigments seen on the largest of the shields.
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
Kava Drink: Fijian Yaqona Bowls and Dishes
Dusk | Dawn

Related Posts

 

Comments

No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Guest
Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Captcha Image