Cowhide shield, Zulu, Southern Africa. The color of the braid was selected to stand out against the hide background, thereby making the Zulu shield, or Ishilunga, instantly recognizable. PM 29-41-50/B4468
Shield, probably of buffalo hide, New Mexico, before 1915. The shield displays a bold eye-catching design, and also includes the image of a feathered or horned serpent, often seen in southwestern art. PM 16-24-10/86828.1
Shield, Maasai, Kenya. The design of this shield is divided vertically into two equal parts. One half designates the tribal subgroup; the other half is decorated to commemorate the battle successes of the individual warrior. PM 16-22-50/B982
Wooden war shield, Papua New Guinea. The coastal peoples of Papua New Guinea probably had the greatest variety in shield designs and shapes of any similar sized area in the world. PM 91-6-70/50509
Painted wooden shield with cane binding, Papua New Guinea. Shields from this region were used for both warfare and for ceremonial purposes. PM 33-32-70/130
Tuareg shield, Algeria. PM 975-32-50/11886

Throughout most of human history, the most widely used defensive weapon has been the shield. Until the adoption of firearms, cultures around the world used shields fashioned from wood, fiber, metal and hides. A shield’s size depends on the types of weapons it is designed to defend against, whether it is to be used on horseback or foot, and how often and how far it must be carried.

Large and relatively flat, shields offer ideal surfaces for artistic expression and most are decorated. Round, oval, rectangular, or scalloped in shape, shields are often embellished with paint and sometimes hair or other materials. Shield designs might identify the bearer’s social or military group, display family connections, or signify rank. In some cases, a shield advertises one’s success as a warrior or invokes magical power.

Sixteen shields on display