Unknown ARTIST

Murray River people


Shield [Shield with repeated incised serpentine motifs and two holes at centre in white] 19th Century Place made: Murray River region, Victoria/New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, woodwork, natural earth pigments on wood

Dimensions: 84.0 h x 19.0 w x 4.6 d cm
Acknowledgement: Max Ernst Collection, purchased 1985
Accession No: NGA 85.1861
  • In the early days of colonisation, the Murray River was a rich and abundant environment capable of supporting large populations. Archaeological evidence shows continuous human occupation for over 20  000 years. To the dozens of Aboriginal groups that occupy the river and its tributaries, from Mount Kosciuszko in New South Wales, through Victoria and into South Australia, the Murray River is known as ‘Millewa’ or ‘Tongala’, although ‘officially’ in 1830 explorer Charles Sturt named it after Sir George Murray, then Secretary of State for the Colonies in the British government.

    This distinct elongated, bow-shaped shield is common to many Aboriginal groups in the south-east of Australia. Deep-red ochres, rubbed over the shield, highlight the broad bands delineating the segmented areas. The inlaid white ochre accentuates the loose, herringbone design that may have been a map of country or an identifier of the owner or of his clan. Such designs are likely to have enhanced the strength of the shield, particularly in battle. Typically carved from a single piece of wood, the shield was used for hand-to-hand combat to deflect clubs or boomerangs. The handle, made from a single piece of bent wood, would have been set into the central holes when the wood was green.

    Although objects such as this shield were often salvaged as a means of documenting a perceived ‘dying race’, they are evidence of the sophistication and creative skill of their makers.

    Tina Baum

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010