Arthur Palmer - Aboriginal, Oceanic & Tribal Art

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Arthur Beau Palmer Collection, Queensland
Ex Collection Lord Alistair McAlpine of West Green – Sword Cat No. 103, Shield Cat No. 48

Large 1860 NQ Aboriginal Rainforest Shield and Sword Club Pair

Rainforest Shield
111cm x 34xm (44 inches x 13.5inches)
Native Fig buttress root wood (ficus albipila) painted with earth ochres & charcoal. C1880s

Sword Club 152cm x 15cm (60 inches x 6 inches) Rainforest hard wood Red Penda (or Qld Maple). Traditionally always left unpainted Patina C1880s.

These two superb, large important examples once provided the centre piece of Lord McAlpine’s London House display of some 350 19th Century Aboriginal fine artefacts (see photo)

Lord McAlpine of West Green London House Collection of Australian Aboriginal Artifacts Display.

(Large Shield lower centre arrowed. Sword 7 in from left. Wall display C 1990).

As a matched pair this presents an extremely rare opportunity to acquire in one lot, both outstanding examples. (Arthur Palmer spent several years sourcing both items from their respective distant owners and inducing them to part with each piece by negotiating swaps from his own vast Australian & Pacific collection). Both the shield at 111cm and the sword at 152cm represent some of the very largest and most beautiful examples of type ever offered. Traditionally, Shields were always associated in ritual battle with the heavy fighting sword.

Ex Collection Lord Alistair McAlpine of West Green – Sword Catalogue No. 103, Shield Cat No. 48.
Rainforest designs present a wistful, ethereal and subtle patternation of colour which makes them unique amongst Aboriginal art. The haunting beauty and the sheer scale of this particular shield evokes a power which belies the shy lives lead by its creators, the Negritoid (Small People) Kung’ga: ndyi and Yidindyi language groups of the North Queensland Rainforest around Cardwell Coast and the Atherton Table Land.
Ian Fairweather, the Queensland painter who lived & worked on Bribie Island, once in 1971 remarked to Palmer as a young Art student ethnographer that he considered them to be the most sublime & sophisticated of all abstracts (personal communication).

Based on McConnel and his own field work, Palmer interprets the design depicted on this shield as a Tomahawk motif (hafted ground edge stone axe.) Ursula McConnel, in her 1934 ground breaking article “Inspiration & Design in Aboriginal Art” states that the Culture Hero BULERU is ritually associated with all Totemic Clan motifs on Rainforest shields & therefore the power of the BULERU dwells in the design: ”Thus it seems likely that the inspiration for the Artists’ choice of designs on the shields… was originally drawn not merely from an intimacy with the common objects of every-day life but from a belief in the BULERU who were responsible for the creation of these objects in the beginning and who impregnated them with their spirit, thus making them amenable to human needs”.

The pigments were applied to the shield using Lawyer-Cane with chewed bristle brush ends. Traditionally the method for painting Rainforest shields was for two men to work together painting from opposite ends of the shield.

Two initiated men would decorate the shield, painting from opposite ends. They painted the designs of the individual warrior, the owner’s kinship group or the clan using natural earth pigments, particularly red-brown, black and white. A shield maker added his blood to the pigment to impart his spirit and give the shield more power to protect the owner. The shield was then presented to a young man at his initiation ceremony. The four colours used to create the designs on the Balan bigin include white and yellow, which comes from a type of clay, found in the area. The third colour red is created after heating the yellow clay. The fourth colour is black, and this comes from the blood of animals or the sap from a particular vine. These different colours are also used to decorate baskets, boomerangs and other objects from this area.

Lumholtz in 1889 recorded, during his North Queensland field work amongst the Rainforest people, that shields of this type were used to deflect large one handed sword clubs, boomerangs and spears( this shield displays several spear penetrations & other battle scars) during clan gatherings of Rainforest Aboriginal people where disputes between individuals & groups were settled. Often shields & swords were used in conjunction. He also noted that the designs applied to the face of these Rainforest shields were all different, suggesting that this constituted an individual’s “Coat of Arms”.

Carol Cooper in Aboriginal Australia states ”Shields played an important part in the initiation of young men as each was given a bare shield to paint after having received his final ”marks” ( cicatrices – ceremonial scarification). The designs on the shields were considered to possess protective qualities. Rainforest shields were always associated in battles with the heavy hard wood unpainted fighting swords.
Lumholtz describes in his field observations & depicts in his illustrations the swords being wielded one handed above the head & brought down on the opponents shield in the manner of a blacksmiths hammer. He reports that sometimes the blow was sufficient to cleave a shield, in which case the battle ceased.(see illustration).This sword displays a deep rich dark age patina. Such swords and shields were used mostly for the somewhat ritualised combat at intertribal corroborees (warrima). Shields were made from the relatively light and soft wood from the flange buttresses of fig trees such as magurra, shown in the photo on the right. gabi and other figs were also used for shields. Swords were made of much harder wood from trees such as jidu and junjum.

The Uni of Sydney Macleay Museum catalogue “Collected” observes that these Rainforest shields were traded with other Aboriginal groups and by the late 1880s were very rarely made or used.

"Anthropological studies show that the 12 rainforest tribes of the area differed
physically and economically from their neighbours in semi-arid habitats. A
number of items stand out among the many artefacts, the long, one-handed
hardwood swords made from Red Penda, large painted wooden shields made
from the buttress roots of fig trees, beaten bark blankets, bark cloth and lawyer
cane baskets. The baskets were used by women to leach toxins from various
food stuffs," Dr Cosgrove explained

Men and boys with ceremonial body paint, prepared for a coroboree. The man at far left wears a headband with shell pendant over his forehead, nose bone, a large pearlshell pendant from his neck, and a European brass buckle belt. Other men wear nose bones and hold shields, spears, long sword-clubs and a boomerang

Men and boys from Russell River, northern Queensland, decorated with vertical lines of parrot feather down. The younger boys have more extensive feather decoration on their upper bodies and heads. Two women kneel, undecorated, at the front of the group. Various designs are painted on the large rainforest shields. The large sword-clubs are used in ritualised fighting and ceremonies.

Group of northern men and women with painted rainforest shields, long spears, boomerangs and large battle sword-clubs. The men have multiple horizontal cicatrices (scars) over their chests and abdomens. Some women wear necklaces. European clothing has been introduced. Approx 1910. Northern Queensland.

Two men with their weapons, a large battle sword, two painted shields, and a boomerang. They wear painted body decoration, necklaces, and waist bands. The man on the right wears a European leather belt (replacing the traditional waist band) and pubic decoration. Cardwell, north Queensland. C1900.

Palmer Rainforest Shield Boss.

Palmer Rainforest Shield Back & Handle.

Ye-i-nie, King of CairnsPhoto: A Atkinson 1905South Australian Museum Tindale Collection.

Ngadjonji Glossary

ngunuy (Xanthorrhoea johnsonii - Grass Tree) A word shared by Yidiny and Ngadjon. The resinous sap is used as a lacquer in shield making.
junjum (Xanthostemon chrysanthus - Golden Penda) used for swords.
magurra (Ficus variegata - Variegated Fig) Used sometimes for making shields.
yapulam (Calamus australis) Lawyer cane used for handles of baskets
barrga (Calamus caryotoides), the lawyer cane used most for making baskets.
gabi (Ficus pleurocarpa - Banana Fig) The inner bark was used to make blankets as well as containers for carrying water and honey. The wood from the flange buttresses was used to make shields.
janjuu lawyer cane basket

photo Tony Irvine 1984 Magurra Variegated Fig Ficus variegate Photo: Abernethey

Michael Anning Contemporary rainforest Shields FNQ. C 2004.

Queensland Museum Shield Display 1976 Photo:

Queensland Museum Shield Storage 1976 Photo:

Queensland Museum Shield Storage 1976 Photo:

Queensland Museum Shield Storage 1976 Photo:

Cooktown Community Museum 2008. Photo:

Cooktown Community Museum 2008. Photo:

Cooktown Community Museum 2008. Photo:

Source : from Arthur Palmer’s collection &field notes 1974- 77.

Aboriginal Tools of the Rainforest, co-written by the Aboriginal people of Jumbun and Helen Pedley.

Aboriginal Tools of the Rainforest - The Aboriginal people of Jumbun and Helen Pedleyby Jumbun Ltd and H. Pedley, 1993Companion to Aboriginal Life in the Rainforest; this book looks at the material culture of the Jirrabul and Girramay people

Cooper, Carol 1981 Aboriginal Australia. National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Australian Museum, Queensland Art Gallery, 1981-1982 / made possible by a generous grant from the American Express Foundation ; [presented by the Australian Gallery Directors Council in association with the National Gallery of Victoria]

Cosgrove, R., J. Field and Å. Ferrier 2007 The archaeology of the Australia’s tropical rainforest. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 251 (1): 150-173.

Lumholtz, C Among Cannibals: an Account of Four Years' Travels in Australia, and of Camp Life with the Aborigines of Queensland, John Murray, London, 1889, pp 362-63.


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