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Image Rainforest shield, c1890s

TLF ID R6655

This is a wooden shield from the Aboriginal people of the rainforest region of north-eastern Queensland. Known as a 'rainforest shield', it is painted yellow, red, white and black using natural pigments. Collected in the 1890s, it is 96 cm long x 37 cm wide.

Educational details

Educational value
  • Distinctive kidney-shaped shields such as this one were made only in the rainforests of north-eastern Queensland. They were valuable trade objects and old shields that had been successfully used many times were particularly sought after by Europeans. For thousands of years objects and materials that were scarce or found only in a few localities were exchanged along complex Indigenous trade networks that extended across vast areas of Australia.
  • Young men had to demonstrate considerable strength and skill in wielding shields such as this one and long wooden fighting sticks (or 'swords') as part of their entry into adulthood. They were given a blank shield on which to paint totemic designs associated with marine life, animals, birds, insects, leaf patterns and astronomical observations.
  • The large shields were made from the soft wood taken from the buttress roots of native fig trees. The colours and complex abstract designs chosen have specific meanings and reflect the close association with and deep understanding of the rainforest environment in which the people lived. The totemic design on this shield is a scorpion.
  • Shields were usually painted by two men working from either end and, depending on the detail required, the paint was applied with sticks, brushes made from hair, or just fingers. To make the paint for the shield the pigments were ground into powder with a pestle-type stone and mixed with a binding fluid.
  • The main pigments used on the shields were tree sap or animal blood (black), pipe clay (white) and ochres (pale yellow to dark reddish-brown). Specific design elements were associated with each of the four language groups; for example, those groups around Tully generally used stripes, while others from the Cardwell region painted diamond patterns.
  • From the 1870s onwards the remote valleys behind Tully, Cairns and Mossman became a prime focus of mining and other ventures and soon after, botanists, ornithologists, ethnographers and photographers ventured into the region. They traded for artefacts and photographed Aboriginal people, later giving or selling many of these objects and images to museums. This particular shield was collected around the 1890s by Queensland government meteorologist Clement Wragge.
Year level

4; 5; 6; 7

Learning area
  • history
  • History/Historical knowledge and understanding
  • History/Historical knowledge and understanding

    Other details

    • Content provider
    • Copyright holder
    • Organisation: Museum of Victoria
    • Address: Carlton VIC 3053 Australia
    • Remarks: Reproduced courtesy of Museum Victoria
    • Publisher
    • Date of contribution: 05 Sep 2013
    • Organisation: Education Services Australia
    • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
    • URL:
    Access profile
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    Learning resource type
    • Image
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    • © Education Services Australia Ltd and Museum Victoria, 2016, except where indicated under Acknowledgements