Shield Making a Shield
AQ logo This project was
supported by a
grant from the
Arts Council.
George Gilbert Davis
passed away
21 September 2002

Mr George Davis is a Malanbarra Yidinyji elder and uncle to the Ngadjonji by marriage. He is an acknowledged authority on the Atherton Tablelands rainforest aboriginal tribes and one of the last of the traditional implement-makers. Malanbarra Yidinyji and Ngadjonji were neighbours and according to Uncle George they shared trade, bora grounds on boundaries, some ceremonies and sometimes intermarried. Though they were not of the same language group, over the thousands of years they may have shared boundaries they did acquire some shared vocabulary. Traditionally many members of both tribes would have been able to speak both languages.

George has worked all his life to ensure that some of the old knowledge is preserved and in this spirit he agreed to a request by the Ngadjonji elders to make a shield for the Malanda Environment Centre and another for the Eacham Historical Society using traditional shield-making techniques and Ngadjonji clan markings. Shane Barlow and some others helped the enterprise at various times, thus acquiring some of the skills required for shield-making and some knowledge of shield markings.

In the old days young boys would have grown up amongst the shield-making, helping their elders at various stages. Only initiated men who had become warriors made shields for their own use.

Figwood Trunk 
The trunk of a Figwood soars
towards the rainforest canopy
Figwood Buttresses  
Large buttresses spread out
from the base of a Figwood
Shield markings represented the portion of tribal country that the clan belonged to. Symbolically the shield is a bora ground. A groups’ camp position at warrama (intertribal corroboree) was relevant to the direction of their home country and the shield markings denoted where a person came from, like a flag.

George’s country includes some of the lowland forests of the Goldsbrough Valley and he generously donated the wood for the shields, which comes from the buttress root of Figwood ( Ficus albipila ) which grows only in the lowland forests. This wood was once a very desirable trading item.

Getting the Wood

Woodgathering Group  
L to R: Owen Ray, Mamu elder Robbie Major,
Margaret Huxley (seated), Bernie Viddler with pooch,
Duncan Ray (George's right-hand man) and George Davis.

A n assortment of wood gatherers assembled in November 1999. George said we had to cut the wood before the wet season, when the sap rises.

Led by Uncle George and Uncle Robbie we set off in two four-wheel drives for the upper reaches of the Mulgrave River. In the rainforest along the river is the fig called gunagarray in Yidiny (Figwood - Ficus albipila ). Incised in its majestic roots were the imprints of shields laboriously removed in the old days by stone axe. As soon as we arrived Owen found an axe-head at the base of the tree which had probably been used in the past for this ancient task.

Old shield scar  
George Davis with past & present
implements. An old shield scar
can be seen on the tree.
George decided he could cut the wood for four shields without mortally damaging the tree, which is a managed and treasured resource.
These blocks of wood were very heavy, no matter that Bernie made it look easy. Uncle Robbie had a very effective rolling technique which worked until we reached the upward incline where the cars were parked. The blocks were loaded onto the tray of one of the vehicles and taken back to Atherton where they were stored in an airy shed for drying out. When Uncle George started to get impatient he drove around with them in the back of his car and left them sweating in the heat of the car.
Moving the blocks  
Carrying out the wood

Shaping the Wood

With Shane Barlow helping, the timber is cut and dried for a few more days.

Once the wood is sufficiently dry it is put on a block, measured up and shaped using chainsaw and hammer and chisel.
Large adze Using a steel adze, Shane trims the wood back and thins it down. Next to him he has a shield made previously by Owen, Duncan and George. (left)

More sanding and chiselling, slowly the wood is fined down and the shield begins to emerge. (right)
Sanding 1

Front view The shield is emerging, front in good shape, side-on showing no warp. Side view

Preparing the Surface

Loose fibres and splinters are burnt off and then the shield is sanded and scraped to get back to a smooth surface.

Resin pot
Resin Pot
The resin from the sap of a grass tree ( Xanthorrhoea johnsonii - ngunuy in Ngadjon & Yidiny ) is quickly painted onto the shield and then ignited.
This acts as a wood-sealant and primer for later painting.
Applying Resin Burning the Resin

Enlarging the hand hole  
Duncan is enlarging the handle
hole by burning with red-hot coals.
Final sanding  
George and Duncan
give the shield it's final sanding.

Painting the Shield

With a photocopy of shields which embellished the old five pound note (Uncle George says the design on one of the two shields is the same as the clan markings for the Ngunyinbarra clan of the Ngadjonji) Shane works out the pattern. The pattern is then chalked onto the shield.

Aunty Emma's permission was given as the oldest clan member, for the use of this design.
Design work Chalk design on shield

Artists palette
This photograph shows the complexity of the aboriginal artists' palette. The smaller brushes are made from lawyer cane pounded at one end to make a soft brush, if a finer brush is required the lawyer cane is split. The largest brush is made from a pandanus seed, pounded at one end.

Fine ochres were a sought-after trading article amongst the rainforest Aboriginal people. The white ochre comes from the Walsh River country, the yellow is always referred to as Ngadjonji yellow and comes from the clay pebbles below the Malanda Falls. The resin is from the grass tree ( Xanthorrhoea johnsonii ). The white ochre has been scraped with a small marsupial jaw bone. The other ochres are ground with rocks.
A white sap from a secret tree is mixed with a little saliva and painted on with the ochre, this makes the ochres waterproof.

Yellow, then red are painted first, followed by the white and finally the black.
Partly painted Adding white

Shane with sword and shield Shane with the finished shield belonging to the Ngunyinbarra clan of the Ngadjonji (whose land extended from the Russell River to Lamins Hill), which he helped to make, and the traditional sword.

Eddie Mitchell's Ngadjonji clan markings, for which he kindly gave us permission, chalked in, the Ngunyinbarra Ngadjonji shield and Uncle George with an unfinished shield of Yidinyji design. (below)
George with shields

Presentation of Shield

The Shield on Display

On Tuesday 29th February 2000 a small ceremony was held at the Malanda Environment Centre where the shield was received by the Elders and mounted as part of the display of Ngadjonji History and Culture at the Centre.

Ngunyinbarra Ngadjonji Elder Emma Johnston (right) who accepted the shield on behalf of her Clan and Tribe and allowed it to be included in the Exhibit; Yidinyji Elder and Uncle to the Ngadjonji, shield-maker George Davis (left); Emma's grandson, Ngadjonji artist Warren Canendo (front) - under the shield in position in the Ngadjonji Exhibit.

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