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Highlands Shields, Papua New Guinea

[Red and white Highlands shield: 7k]

Papua New Guinea Highlands shields are still being made and used in tribal warfare. The PNG government routinely declares areas to be "Fight Zones" and withdraws all services until things settle down again.

Figure 1: Highlands shield with broken arrow tips embedded in the wood.

These are long running disputes, with each side trying to even up the score over many years and generations. Outsiders are usually not involved and, until guns became common, the danger of being killed was not too high. This has changed. The introduction of firearms has meant that shields aren't as useful as they once were. The open field fighting that was common in the PNG Highlands is giving way to more emphasis on ambush and roadblock style attacks. However, many battles are still fought with bows and arrows, axes, spears and shields on traditional fight grounds that lie on disputed borders between groups.

George Leahy remembers going with his father, Danny Leahy, into Mt. Hagen on the weekend and stopping along the crest of the road to watch the skirmishes going on at a fight ground in a lower field. Roads, and sometimes airstrips, are also considered good, broad areas to fight on, with the warriors parting to let the occasional truck pass and to tally up the score.

[Two Highlands shields from Waghi Valley and Mt. Hagen vicinity, one with store paint: 19k]

Figure 2: Two highlands shields from the Waghi Valley and Mt.Hagen area. The lefthand one is painted with store-bought enamel paint and repaired with a wire splice on the lower left. The righthand one is colored with traditional clay ochres and has a narrow woven vine strip at the top to hold cassowary plumes.

Highland men make their own shields from large planks of wood from the tapi tree. We've also seen sheets of corrugated roofing iron used to provide some protection from bullets, and for purely ceremonial or show occasions, temporary shields made from cardboard.

Colored clays are used for the bold, triangle-based designs. Store enamel and acrylic house paint can add more color to the traditional designs or be used to create new ones. Some men who are sign painters by trade also do shields and a few are beginning to sign their names on some of them, sort of as an advertisement for more work. Ideas are borrowed from commercial products like beer, sports teams that are winners, and anything else that has powerful designs and strong color including slogans, names and dates, and numbers identifying combatants.


[John with two Highlands shields from the Mt. Hagen area: 22k]

Figure 3: John with two shields he has bought to sell to Ron in Mt. Hagen, 1997. The left shield is painted with commercial paint. The right shield is painted with clays and has decorative feather canes stuck in the woven band at the top.

Previous | Next: Upper Sepik River Shields


See also: Good photos of contemporary Highlands shields, including acculturated ones with commercial motifs, in Michael O'Hanlon's Paradise, Portraying the New Guinea Highlands, pages 64-68.

Paradise, Portraying the New Guinea Highlands
by Michael O'Hanlon,
Published by The Trustees of the British Museum, 1993, ISBN 1-86333-078-X,
Crawford House Publishing Pty Ltd, 9 George St, PO Box 181, Hindmarsh SA 5007, Australia, Tel: +61 8 8340 1411, Fax: +61 8 8340 1811, Mobile: 0402 055 960.
Thoughtful commentary on change and continuity among the Waghi people of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Comments on collecting and exhibiting in the context of the exhibition at Museum of Mankind. Excellent contemporary photos and plates.


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Artifacts on this site are collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. More background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. Carolyn Leigh, P.O. Box 85284, Tucson, AZ 85754-5284 USA, Art-Pacific at http://www.art-pacific.com/