Christopher Spring, British Museum
The Somali community has grown in London in recent years and its impact can be witnessed in one of the newest acquisitions to the British Museum’s collection, a button badge with the slogan ‘I love Mo Farah’, the Somali born runner who was such an inspiration throughout the 2012 Olympic Games. But the Museum’s collection contains many fascinating objects of Somali origin, such as this Hippopotamus hide shield on display in the Sainsbury African Galleries.
Somali shields were very much smaller than those from neighbouring Ethiopia, being not much larger than a dinner plate, though their perfect circular shape was created in a similar way. The first stage was to cut out a piece of untreated hippopotamus hide, then to place it over a shaped wooden mould sunk firmly in the ground. Any hair would be scraped off at this stage, and the hide would be allowed to dry. Then several coats of oil would be applied over a period of days, causing the hide to swell, while at the same time being beaten with a mallet to achieve a tough and virtually impenetrable surface.
The shield maker would then use a number of special hammers to apply embossed markings to the supple surface before allowing the hide to dry out completely. Despite their small size, Somali shields are extremely strong – and may be looked upon almost as offensive rather than defensive weapons. They had a very large hand grip which would allow the owner to push the shield up his arm when not in combat.
Undoubtedly the significance of shields extended far beyond their purely functional capabilities. Possessing a fine, perfectly round and bleached white shield was an indication of a man’s standing in society. Some shields also have intricate designs, painted in henna, beneath the grip on the reverse side. These were known as ‘marriage shields’ and formed part of the dowry given by the bride’s father to his son-in-law. Similar shields were used in the Arabian Peninsula, and there is evidence to suggest they were made in Somalia for export, particularly to Oman.
This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 17 January 2013.