Australian bark shield

Contributed by British Museum

Click on the image to zoom in. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

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This bark shield was carried by one of two Indigenous Australian men who faced Captain Cook and his crew members when they first landed at Botany Bay, near Sydney on the 29 April 1770. After attempts to communicate with the men failed, Cook's crew fired warning shots. This shield was dropped when the Indigenous Australians fed. The hole in the centre of the shield was probably made by a wooden spear and there are also traces of white clay decoration on the surface.

What was the significance of Cook's landing at Botany Bay?

Cook was not the first European to visit Australia or meet Indigenous Australians. Cook's encounter is seen by many as the beginning of European Australia. Cook went on to claim Australia for the British Empire in August 1770. The first European settlers, prison convicts, arrived at Botany Bay in 1788. This began the European colonisation of Australia, which led to an estimated 90 per cent reduction in the Indigenous Australian population.

Humans first arrived in Australia about 50,000 years ago, when you could walk from Australia to New Guinea and Tasmania

How did the hole get there?

The wood of this shield has been identified as spotted mangrove, sometimes called red mangrove. It is a straight-growing and strong wood, very resistant to insect attack and rot, even when covered by seawater.

The choice of mangrove wood for making shields is a very sensible one as this wood has the properties of either absorbing the impact of a spear, a musket ball or deflecting a club or other weapon. So, the hole in the shield has stimulated much interest and discussion.

Various suggestions have been put forward including whether it was caused by a musket ball, or accidental damage at some point in the shield’s history, or where a knot in the wood fell out, or perhaps the handiwork of a giant woodworm!

In the British Museum’s scientific laboratory we examined the hole very closely under the optical microscope and by radiography. One possible line of investigation was to establish whether it might be the result of an attempt to make a hole for the grip on the rear which failed or was misaligned. The present grip was made from a separate piece of flexible, fresh mangrove branch which had been bent and inserted very tightly into two holes bored in the shield's mid-section. When the wood dried the embedded grip was very firmly attached.

Examination by microscopy and radiography confirmed that the hole is very ragged, unlike a deliberately-bored or intentional, tool-made perforation. If the hole had been intentionally created, it would most likely be hourglass-shaped (if bored from both front and back to meet in the middle) or straight- and smooth-sided (if bored directly through from front or back). So it seems as though intentional perforation can be ruled out.

It is possible that it represents an area where a knot fell out. Knots in wood represent branches or branchlets emerging at right angles or obliquely and even though they can fall out, the holes they leave are most likely to be oval or circular with regular, smooth sides.

This hole appears very irregular and ragged, matching more closely with comparative examples of impact or damage points, with some parts of the hole appearing to have more recent fractures or detachments than others.

Without further experimentation or replication one cannot state conclusively whether this particular hole was caused by a spear or a musket ball (or later accidental damage) but it is possible.

Finally – it is important to consider molluscs! There are certain gastropods and bivalves that have been recorded as boring into the wood of various mangrove species, particularly the bivalve Teredo sp. (the so-called ‘mangrove worm’). This worm is known to dig holes in mangrove wood. But wood that has been attacked by such wood-borers rarely results in just one hole.

So, the answer is… we can’t be sure!

Caroline Cartwright and Janet Ambers, scientists, British Museum

Mapping for trade, commerce and empire

Cook began his career as an ordinary seaman in the navy, but gained great renown as a surveyor in Canadian waters in the war of 1758-63.

When the Royal Society lobbied the King for support for a mission to the Pacific to observe the transit of Venus Cook was a natural choice. He’d demonstrated his abilities as a surveyor during the Canadian war of 1758-63 and he was clearly a remarkably skilled navigator and map maker. When he went to the pacific the ostensible object was the observation of the transit of Venus, but the real question, the real question that had preoccupied the minds of geographers, traders, many in Europe for centuries, was whether a Great Southern Land existed.

So, during the first voyage he charted the East Australian coast, circumnavigated the islands of New Zealand, and demonstrated an extraordinary ability as a cartographer.

On his return to England in 1771 he laid out a plan that would establish once and for all whether a Southern Continent existed. That plan involved criss-crossing the Antarctic waters in increasingly remote southern latitudes. It would test the question of whether a great land, that might be significant for European trade, commerce and colonisation, actually existed or not.

The voyage was undertaken in an extraordinarily methodical way. There was no Southern Land but what he did find was an extraordinary range of islands and populations in the Pacific that surprised Europeans in all sorts of ways.

Cook was brilliant in a technical sense as a surveyor, a navigator, a cartographer. And that form of knowledge – those new knowledges – were enormously significant ion the late eighteenth century in a climate where all sorts of new technical knowledges, new forms of research were being refined and extended. But of course those forms of knowledge were sought because of their huge potential significance: trade, commerce, and empire.

Professor Nicholas Thomas, fellow, Trinity College, University of Cambridge

Comments are closed for this object


  • 1. At 10:05 on 7 October 2010, Bill S wrote:

    I notice that there appears to be a second, maybe smaller, hole in the shield right at the very top. Is this linked to the first or does it have another purpose?

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  • 2. At 13:23 on 12 October 2010, bombaymicks wrote:

    Not sure why this object appears AFTER the Hawaiian helmet on this list. Captain Cook died at the end of the episode 2 days ago, now here he is in Australia. I thought these objects were basically in date of creation or date collected order?

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  • 3. At 19:19 on 28 October 2010, Natasha McKinney wrote:

    Hi there - this is a good question - the second hole does not appear in the Miller sketch, but may have gone unnoticed. There is a possibility that it was used as an 'eye hole' - you can see two such holes in the oval shield featured in Parkinson's sketch 'Two men of Australia'. In Parkinson's account of the Botany Bay encounter, he mentions an oval shield 'with two holes in it to see through'. By holding this shield level to the eyes, the whole body would have been protected - in ritual combat, a defendant could maintain this position while spears were lobbed from a distance. It is certainly an interesting question that remains for us to ponder! Natasha McKinney, Curator Oceania.

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  • 4. At 11:31 on 3 February 2011, Richard Green wrote:

    I only recently discovered that this shield existed at all. Considering this initial violent encounter with indigenous Australians lead to the the attempted genocide of the whole population I would have exected this shield to have more national significance in Australia and therefore ideally should be housed in Australia, ideally in an indigenous Museum.

    Richard Green Sydney Australia

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