Bark shield from the Solomon Islands, Oceania. Part of the Pitt Rivers Museum Founding Collection. Given to the Museum in 1884.
This beautiful bark shield is covered with the black resin of the Parinarium nut, inlaid with a mosaic of pearl-shell and finished off with red paint. It was made on the island of Santa Isabel, part of the Solomon Islands in Melanesia, at least 150 years ago and is one of only six known examples in the world.
The Art of War
When first used, this shield did not look like it does now. It would have featured fine-line inked decoration and was carried by a cordage loop, much the same as the more common wicker shields from the area. The shell and gum pattern was added later and may, at one end, depict the angular, distorted head of a human (unlike other Solomon Island shields which tended to depict the entire figure).
It seems that the operation of inlaying caused some warping and the shield needed to be reinforced with a framework of horizontal wooden bars. Because of this, and the delicate nature of the shell inlay, it seems highly unlikely that such shields were used as practical weapons in war. Instead, they were probably the insignia of celebrated chiefs. The reduced disembodied heads may represent the skulls of enemies taken in battle since, as with many Melanesian peoples, some 19th century Solomon Islanders practised head-hunting. Men were understood to acquire mana (spiritual efficacy) by demonstrating their head-hunting skills and thereby honouring their dead ancestors.