Artefact of the Month

Kikuyu War Shield

November, 2016


In November, the month of its birth as an institution, the Museum of Ethnography will be marking the 100th anniversary of the death of the noted Hungarian Africanist, Sámuel Teleki (1845-1916).
In 1887, Count Sámuel Teleki de Szék embarked on a two-year expedition to East Africa, which, though originally planned as a hunting trip, was expanded at the suggestion of Teleki’s friend, the Archduke Rudolph, to include objectives of interest to science and exploration.   Also at Rudolph’s suggestion, the count took as his travel companion the Austrian Admiral Ludwig von Höhnel, who analysed all scientific information and kept a journal of events and findings.  (Teleki’s own journal has never been published.)  The pair’s achievements include the discovery of two previously rumoured lakes (Lake Rudolph and Lake Stefanie, named for the heirs to the throne; now Lakes Turkana and Chew Bahir) and a volcano, which they named for Teleki himself, and the collection of 338 ethnographic artefacts.


The Museum of Ethnography’s artefact of the month for November, a Kikuyu shield, witnesses to the most difficult phase of Teleki’s expedition.  En route to Mount Kenya in autumn of 1887, the party crossed the lands of the Kikuyu, where armed attacks threatened their caravan of several hundred people.  Kept perpetually on his toes, Teleki was forced into several skirmishes.  The situation was hardly conducive to in-depth scientific study; yet the very fact of their having been the first Europeans to report on the Kikuyu marks the expedition as of profound value to the ethnographic exploration of Africa.  The count succeeded in mitigating the severity of hostilities in part through his fame as a rainmaker, a talent that served him every time the local population came to him with a request for rain.
    Published in Vienna in 1892, Höhnel’s expedition diary included engravings of the clashes, as well as of the weapons used by the Kikuyu warriors (which party members had had the opportunity of studying in action from up close) and various events occurring in Teleki’s camp.  One such print shows expedition members, clearly flushed with victory, piling up shields and other weapons in front of Teleki’s own tent.  As the Museum of Ethnography owns only three Kikuyu shields, the question arises as to the fate of the rest of these spoils of war.  The answer lies in Höhnel’s journal:  “The shields, which would have unduly enlarged our packs, we broke into pieces; the spears, swords, and other more valuable objects we had tied into bundles.”
Of the shields, the expedition chronicler offered the following description:  “...they were of two different shapes, both made of water buffalo skin decorated on the outside with black, white, and red painted emblems.  The new shields are exactly like those used by the Maasai, while the older ones are longer and narrower.” More on the Kikuyu shields can be learned from the Kenyan archaeologist, anthropologist, and naturalist Louis Leakey (1903-1977), who visited the area at about the same time.  Battle with the neighbouring Maasai, the slaying of enemies, and the stealing of animals were all actions that brought prestige among the agricultural Kikuyu, and young boys began preparing for battle with toy weapons from a very young age.

Like articles of clothing and body ornaments, Kikuyu weapons, including shields, were visual indicators of the bearer’s age:  men moved from one age group and function to another throughout their lives via rites of initiation, with young warriors becoming elder warriors, and warriors family fathers.  Young Kikuyu boys made themselves shields from pieces of bark, while adolescents used wood, wearing their shields over their left shoulders for the purposes of dance.  Young warriors received a full set of real weapons upon initiation.
War shields were made by master craftsmen from the thick hides of water buffalo or giant hogs, softened by soaking in the river.  The prepared hide was then cut to shape and placed hair side up on the hard earth to dry, where it was beaten with wooden clubs to prevent it from wrinkling.  Once shrunk to the desired size, the shield was turned over, and a thicker piece of leather – reinforcement for the wooden grips – was affixed at the centre with strips of hide.  Similar strips were used to secure a wooden frame about the perimeter of the finished piece, after which the hair was finally removed.
Young warriors were required to keep their weapons hidden from public view for a period of one year from the time they received them, gaining the right of wearing them publicly – and of making previously secret romantic aspirations known to others – only once a new group had begun initiation.  It was also at this time that they jointly selected a symmetric or asymmetric emblem of geometric shapes, executed in white, red, and black, that would stand for their age group and territory, which they painted onto their shields personally.  The decorative strip that runs the length of this particular shield resembles one frequently seen on Kikuyu gourd vessels, presumably a depiction of a string of cowry shells.  Later, the warriors would wash this emblem off their shields to be replaced by that associated with one of the nine groups of full-fledged warriors.  A warrior who gained some particular honour in battle or slew a Maasai warrior obtained the right to paint a small additional symbol on his shield.

East Africa, Kikuyu
Donation of Sámuel Teleki, 1889
Museum of Ethnography; 2973