War Shield, possibly as early as ca. 1930
Wood with traces of pigment 78 in. x 18 in. x 1 in. (198.12 cm x 45.72 cm x 2.54 cm)
Crocker Art Museum, gift of Jane and John Fitz Gibbon2009.134.2
Before the mid-20th century, head hunting was a defining element of a complex belief system in the Papuan Gulf region, and skull racks were among the most sacred objects belonging to a Papuan clan. A young male clan member could be considered an adult only after he had killed and taken a head. Once cleaned, such skulls were attached to a rack with a fiber loop. Each rack represented an important founding ancestor vital to the clan's well-being and was thus maintained in a ceremonial house. When an elder renewed the rack with fresh pigment, it was believed to restore both its power and the ancestors' favor.