This project is probably less of a work of scholarship and academic advancement than it is documentation of a personal journey and search for understanding a part of who I am. Please understand that these are only the first steps on a journey that may take the rest of my life. At the time of writing this I have little in the way of definitive answers or conclusions, but I will share some of what I have learned thus far and my process for creating a piece of functional art that I feel has drawn me into a deeper understanding of my heritage.
I am a Filipino-American, born to a Filipino mother and an American father. I was born in the Philippines but I have lived most of my life in the United States, in particular Oregon and Hawaii. While there are definitely parts of my upbringing that reflects my mom’s Filipino culture, primarily the food we ate and some Tagalog or Bisaya words we used within our family, I actually know relatively little about my Filipino heritage and culture. It would be fair to say I have more of just an “American” culture than a Filipino-American culture, I think changing that for myself is also a significant driver for this project.
Who Am I in the SCA?
In the SCA I am Sir Ruland von Bern, Knight of An Tir and the Society, Baron of the Court of An Tir. Sir Ruland has had several incarnations; he has been a German landsknecht, a 14th century German knight, during much of the Covid-19 pandemic he was well on his way to becoming a Viking.
When I first joined the SCA in 2001 my registered name was Roland le Brun. I understood the SCA to be a pre-17th century European focused medieval society. So, I created a generic Norman persona, Roland le Brun or Roland the “Brown” was how I chose to explain my persona, how I chose to explain why this brown guy was pretending to be a medieval European noble. I also have to say no one made me feel this way, no one said anything to me to make me think this was necessary. Fast forward to 2020, significant changes have occurred within the SCA and there are more and more people exploring personas that are from cultures outside of Europe and what I had understood to be within the scope of the SCA.
An Internet Picture and a Pivotal Moment…
So, what does this all have to do with a pre-colonial Filipino war shield? During the pandemic, I decided to start getting my armor ready for when things opened back up and we could have events again. With all the time I decided to create a Viking persona. One day, I was looking at the internet for information on Viking shields and Pinterest had a picture of a statue in the Philippines of a guy with a sword and shield. I thought, “Interesting… a Filipino with a sword and shield. I wonder if I could use that in SCA combat.” Then I saw the guy was wearing next to no armor and that idea quickly left my head because of the prospect of the severe bruising that would occur.
Over the next few weeks I could not get the image out of my head, and so I started searching to see if Filipinos ever wore armor. In particular, armor that would be suitable for SCA combat. I knew it had to be a long shot… my mental image of what the pre-colonial Filipinos were really were images of the primitive cultures I had seen in National Geographic growing up. I came across some images of Filipino armor that looked like it was very Muslim or Middle Eastern influenced, as well as armor that looked similar to images I had seen of art from India. Much of that armor also had elements that were very Spanish influenced, but all of those images were of armor from the 18th and 19th century. I nearly gave up when I saw a note on a photo on a Quora post about a water buffalo hide suit of armor that was from before the arrival of the Spanish in 1521CE. That was when I decided I was going to create an SCA heavy combat kit based on precolonial Filipino armor and weapons. I decided to start with the shield.
The Filipino Shield “Kalasag“
Saying “the” kalasag is like saying “the” shield. Kalasag is the Tagalog word for shield.1 There are many different styles and shapes of kalasag. Some are strapped, some are center grip, some are flat, some are curved. Some are round other tall and thin, others are made of hardwood, and other rattan or bamboo. The differences appear to be largely regional or tribal.
Concessions Made for Compliance With SCA Combat Rules.
I selected the particular shape due to the similarity in size and function to shields I have used in the past for SCA heavy combat. I also considered that particular shapes might be more problematic for SCA combat rules, and other shapes may be more disadvantageous, both in construction and in use. I picked this Moro shield from Mindinao (the southern islands) because it was also used in the central islands, called the Visayas, because that is where my mom is from. It is also where the statue of Lapu-Lapu is located that was the inspiration for this project.
While I think it would have been great to build a Kalasag using period methods and materials, I also knew I would have to approach this project with the knowledge that I would need to make some concessions for available materials, durability, and safety.
First, I chose a type of engineered wood called RevolutionPly® plywood which is made from 100% plantation and sustainable wood sources and contains absolutely no tropical species. The grain looked like a tropical wood and not like domestic fir tree wood. I have used this for shields before and it has worked fairly well in the past.
Secondly, I knew I would make it a center grip shield because of my fighting style. To do so I would need a shield boss, but not a domed one because it would not fit with the aesthetic. The actual shield is carved from a single piece of wood and the boss is carved out of the same piece of wood as the rest of the shield.
Finally, I used a rawhide shield edging to comply with SCA armor standards.
Challenges Faced In Researching This Project
The first challenge faced was the current Covid-19 pandemic and the inability to access source material. Public and university libraries have been largely closed, which has left the internet as my primary method of obtaining information.
The second major challenge has been the general lack of information regarding the cultures of the pre-colonial Philippines. It appears that due to the wide range of influences throughout the history of the Philippines, including colonization by the Spanish in the 16th century, colonization by the United States of America in at the end of the Spanish American war, and the Japanese occupation during WWII, there is very little recorded by the Filipino people regarding their ancient history or culture. However, there appears to be much more interest in understanding that history and national identity in recent years. Unfortunately at the time of this project, I do not have access to those materials.
“The Philippine islands consist of approximately 7,640 islands2. There are three main geographical divisions from north to south: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.3 There are currently two official languages English and Tagalog4. There are 19 recognized regional languages5 and many of those have local dialects. The Philippines are inhabited by more than 175 ethnolinguistic nations.6” I mention this to demonstrate the amount of internal diversity within the Philippine islands. While there is some degree of nationalism across the modern nation of the Republic of the Philippines, it does not appear that there is a singular national identity that is uniform across all parts of the country, and that much of the local and indigenous cultures have adapted to and adopted some of the influences of the other countries that have historically and presently continue to interact with the Philippines. It is no wonder that there are such variety of Kalasag across the country.
I first drew out the basic outline of the design for the shape of the shield and some of the carving on to the plywood. In this image you can see the wood grain. Kalasag vary in size, but often were 1.5 meters (4.9 ft) tall and .5 meters wide (1.6 ft.) The one I constructed is 3ft 4in by 1 ft 5in. It has a similar surface area to a 30 inch round shield.
I then began hand carving the design and the details. Initially, I had intended to use a Dremel to do the carving, but I felt that hand carving the design with a knife would result in a more accurate look. Many of the carved details are copied from some of the images I used as inspiration for my shield. Other carved details and designs are copied from my tattoos. Some of these designs are not specifically Filipino. Some of these are more modern Polynesian elements, however there has been several works that have theorized that the Austronesian peoples that eventually populated the island of Taiwan eventually migrated to the Philippine archipelago and are the ancestors of the people that migrated and settle in the islands of Polynesia. It stands to reason that many of the symbols would look very similar.
After I had completed all of the carved elements, I wood stained the shield in an effort to make the wood appear similar to a Filipino Mahogany which has a red color.
My next step was to use black paint to block out areas for contrast. The inspiration pieces were very different and several had what appeared to have black paint on them, however, I have no documentation as to what type of paint was actually used. The inspiration pieces were various museum pieces that only date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, however I believe that these kinds of shields were used in the 16th century. I used exterior latex paint.
Once the black paint had dried, I added white and yellow accent colors.
Next I attached 1/2″ aluminum channel and 3/8″ sisal rope with 1 1/2″ roofing nails to the shield edge to help strengthen the edge.
Many of the Kalasag that I used as inspiration pieces had attached cross members of oak, bamboo, or rattan. It is unclear what the purpose for this was, however some have speculated that since these shields were constructed of a single plank of wood it was to give them additional strength. These cross members were often sewn on or wired on with copper wire. I elected to do both, for both aesthetic reasons and for durability.
The next step was to cut the hole for the shield boss. The shield boss on the Kalasag is actually wood and carved out of the face of the shield. Due to the need for safety in SCA combat I chose to use a metal boss that had a similar look, but is actually of European design. I painted the boss and attached it with bolts for safety.
I then had to attach rawhide edging. This presented a particular challenge because of the interior curves on the sides of the shield. As the rawhide dried it tended to pull away from the shield. I utilized rope and painter’s tape to wrap the shield and keep the rawhide snug against the shield edge as it dried. I also pre-punched holes in the rawhide and ran bamboo stick through the holes to ensure they remained when the rawhided dried. The intent for these holes was to have attachment points for the horse hair tufts along the edge of the shield. The actual shields included hair along the edges and on the face of the shields. This hair was human hair from enemies defeated in battle.3 Pre-colonial Philippines had a substantial number of headhunting tribes. I chose to use hair from a horsetail to create the appearance of human hair on the shield. I ultimately sewed on the rawhide with artificial sinew after it had mostly dried just to ensure it would stay affixed to the shield.
Finally, I attached the horse hair and wrapped the attachment with copper wire.
I also attached a handle but had to make some adjustments to compensate for my gauntlet. The actual handles were much closer to the shield and were designed to be held by only a few fingers.
The shield I have created is only the very beginning of my research and exploration into my Filipino heritage and Pre-17th century Filipino culture. I have already begun my next project, which is armor to accompany my shield. I am also learning Tagalog so I can read source material in the native language, and I am utilizing my personal resources and asking family for information they may have to help advance my exploration of Pre-17th century Filipino culture.
- “Kalasag,” Wikipedia, revision date 15 April 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalasag
2. “Philippines,” Wikipedia, revision date 24 May 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippines
6. “Ethnic groups in the Philippines,” Wikipedia, revision date 7 May 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_groups_in_the_Philippines
7. 23prootie,”Traditional homelands of the indigenous peoples of the Philippines” Wikipedia, creation date 9 February 2009, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_groups_in_the_Philippines#/media/File:TribalPhilippinesTraditionalRange.png
8. Tia Ghose, “The First People to Settle Polynesia Came from Asia,” Livesience.com, accessed May 29, 2021, https://www.livescience.com/56382-original-polynesians-hailed-from-taiwan.html
9. “Wooden Shield (“Kalasag” Bagobo Shield),” Mapping Philippine Material Culture, accessed May 29, 2021, https://philippinestudies.uk/mapping/items/show/2538
11. “Shield,”metmuseum.org, The MET, accessed May 29, 2021. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/31797
12. Christies. “A Philippines Islands Shield[Pinterest post]. Pinterest, Retrieved May 19, 2021, From https://www.pinterest.com/pin/550283648189998836/
13. Gregorio Cardenas,[Pinterest post]. Pinterest, Retrieved May 28, 2021, From https://www.pinterest.com/pin/805511083325313198/