Trobriand Islands
late 19th century

Object Place: Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea


83.82 cm (33 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Wood and pigment

On View

Arts of Asia, Oceania, and Africa Gallery (Gallery 177)


Africa and Oceania


Arms and armor

The art of the Trobriand Islands is mostly two-dimensional, with painted or carved designs often covering an object’s entire surface. The patterns on all Trobriand shields are similar and have specific meanings. Here, the small pronged forms are stars, the heads on the sides at top are fish, and the scrollwork motifs at bottom center represent the heads and beaks of frigate birds. Curving bands beside the birds symbolize rainbows. The large, T-shaped design in the top center represents a turtle-shell spatula that was an important trade item. Together, these symbols are believed to ward off evil, reinforcing the protective function of the shield.


May 8 and 27, 1895, one of four shields sold by Fenton and Sons (dealers), London, for £5.15 to Lt.-General Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers (b. 1827 - d. 1900), Farnham, England; transferred to the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham (Room 7, case 60) [see note]. November 15-16, 1985, anonymous ("property of various owners") sale, Sotheby’s, New York, lot 32, to William and Bertha Teel, Marblehead, MA; 1992, partial gift of William and Bertha Teel to the MFA; 2014, acquired fully with the bequest of William Teel to the MFA. (Accession Dates: June 30, 1992 and February 26, 2014)

The collection of the privately-owned Pitt-Rivers museum passed by descent through Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers’s son Alexander Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers to his grandson, Captain George Pitt-Rivers (1890-1966) and his common law wife, Stella Howson-Clive (Pitt-Rivers). The museum closed in the 1960s and the collection was sold.

Credit Line

Gift of William E. and Bertha L. Teel