The NGV’s nineteenth-century shields from south-eastern Australia are visual puzzles whose early history and iconography are unknowable. These special art objects of power and prestige in Aboriginal society bear painted sections or markings of ochre and clay and rhythmical iterations of incised herringbone, zigzag, interlocking diamond and meander motifs that encode a maker’s identity and place. South-eastern shields were often were often in dances at ceremonies or traded as valuable cultural objects, but were primarily used to protect warriors against spears in staged battles or clubs in close fighting, in pre-contact contests for water, territory and women. At first encounter with Europeans, they became the armature of war, chronicling land as contested space and signifying Indigenous resistance to the colonising forces.
The three customary shields illustrated here differ markedly in form, shape and surface design. The shield of leaf-like shape of the type carried by the Eora people of Botany Bay, New South Wales, when confronted by the First Fleet is devoid of carved incisions, bearing one vertical and two horizontal red-ochre bands. The circular shield of the Adelaide plains is also spare of any background ornament apart from slender red-ochre vertical and horizontal bands on a surface imbued with white pipeclay.
By contrast, the entire front surface of the broad or spear shield, probably from the Goulburn or Murray Rivers of northern Victoria, is embellished with irregular herringbone incisions interspersed with rhomboid and oval sections in lower relief, and divided by a recessed longitudinal band, with handle carved from the solid wood. The shield appears to be stone and tooth cut and still retains the red ochre that was used to decorate it prior to use in ceremonies or staged battles. The tiny individual gouges that produce the exquisite rhythmical carving of south-eastern shields such as this would have been made with a leange-walert (possum-jaw engraving tool).