Monday, 17 December 2012

Plant Identification, and a 'fine and beautiful braid of human hair'

Last week, Caroline Cartwright from the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum came to visit us at the Pitt Rivers.  Caroline is an expert in the identification of plant fibres, and she will be carrying out some ID work for the Conserving 'Curiosities' project.  

In a previous blog post I mentioned that the investigation of the materials from which objects are made can give us information about where they come from - even though the Forster collection in particular is relatively well documented, there is still confusion about this.  Even when we know for sure where an object comes from, like this unique barkcloth from Easter Island (Rapa Nui), some of the materials still remain unidentified.  

1886.1.1250 Barkcloth, Easter Island

The barkcloth has decorative bands of plant material sewn across each end - said to be a rush that grows in the bottom of the extinct volcano (Rano Kau) on Easter Island.  A cord made from plant fibre was used to sew the layers of barkcloth together at intervals - almost like quilting.  

1886.1.1250 Detail of stitching and fibre
Other material that Caroline will look at includes plant fragments found in this headdress.  

1886.1.1685 Tamau Headdress, Tahiti

This is Forster No. 40, 'The Tamow, or headdress of plaited hair.'  Considered to be a 'lost' Forster object, it was found under the bindings of the Tahitian Mourner's costume.  

The tamau as found on the headdress of the Mourner's costume

The tamau was made of many metres of plaited human hair, made to form a continuous length.  It was worn by women as they danced, and the centre was filled with flowers.  

A young woman of Otaheite Dancing, after John Webber

George Forster, in 'A Voyage Round the World', saw a dance performance in the Society Islands in September 1773. He talks about the dress of the dancers, which included 'Poyadua (Poedua), the fair daughter of the chief Orea'…

'The neck, shoulders and arms were left uncovered, but the head was ornamented with a kind of turban, about eight inches high, made of several skains of plaited human hair, which they call tamow.  These being laid above each other in circles, which enlarged towards the top, there was a deep hollow left in the middle, which they had filled up with a great quantity of the sweet-scented flowers of the (gardenia) cape jasmine.  But all the front of the turban was ornamented with three or four rows of a small white flower, which formed little stars, and had as elegant an effect on the jetty black hair as if it had been set with pearls.'

William Ellis also described a group of dancers on Tahiti in 'Polynesian Researches', published in 1831.

'The daughters of the chiefs, who were the dancers on these occasions, at times amounted to five or six, though occasionally only one exhibited her symmetry of figure, and gracefulness of action.  Their dress was singular, but elegant.  The head was ornamented with tamau, a fine and beautiful braid of human hair, wound around the head in the form of a turban. *  A triple wreath of scarlet, white and yellow flowers, composed of the aute, the fragrant gardenia, or Cape jessamine, and the baslaria laurifolia, tastefully interwoven, adorned the curious head-dress.

* Mr Barff, to whom I am indebted for the principal part of this account, procured a head-dress of this kind, containing one hundred fathoms of the finest braided human hair.'  

One hundred fathoms is about 180m.  It is likely that the tamau in the Pitt Rivers collection contains closer to 1000m of hair.  

Fragments of plant material were taken from this and several other objects, and we hope that with Caroline's help some of the questions that people have been asking about the Cook-voyage collections for several hundred years might finally be answered. 

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Pesticides on Museum Objects

Part of the Cook-Voyage project at the Pitt Rivers is to look at the question of pesticide residues on objects from the collections.  Chemicals have always been applied to objects in museum collections to protect them from pests, mainly insects, which can cause a lot of damage. 

As the Forster Collection has been in Oxford since 1776, and the Banks collection was at Christchurch even before that, the Cook-voyage collections potentially span virtually the whole history of pesticide use in museums.  Even though we know that chemicals such as arsenic, mercury and DDT, were routinely applied to museum collections, finding evidence of what was actually done is difficult.  

Label from a poncho from the Tahitian Mourner's costume, giving information on the condition of the feather cape.

A label on the Tahitian Mourner's costume, written just before the Ashmolean's ethnographic holdings were transferred to the Pitt Rivers in 1886, records that the cloak was 'now in a very bad condition' and an entry in the Accession Registers goes on to say that this was 'through the moth, and (it) has been removed to the Museum in the Parks (Oxford University Natural History Museum) and placed under the charge of Professor Moseley to be fumigated.'  We don't know, however, what fumigation involved. 

Sometimes, the Pitt Rivers annual reports give us more of a clue.  In 1946-47, the Curator, T.K. Penniman, wrote that 'we have tried the Clymax spray on all of our material, and have found it thoroughly effective in destroying every sort of pest that attacks every sort of material that human beings use.'  Powerful stuff indeed!  There is also a mention of a fumigation chamber being built so that methyl bromide gas could be used to kill pest infestations on museum objects, but it is not clear whether this was ever actually used.  

Jeremy Uden and Kloe Rumsey, conservation intern, taking samples of surface deposits from a Tongan mat.
The analysis of pesticide residues is being done for us by Andrew Charlton, an analytical chemist at the Wildlife Incident Unit, part of the Food and Environment Research Agency.  He usually works on investigating pesticide uptake by wildlife, especially honey bees.  The samples he works on are usually destroyed during the analysis - not something that is practical for museum objects.  We are using cotton wool swabs dampened with distilled water to take samples of the surface dirt and residues from objects - we know that the object is not damaged in the process, which is of paramount importance, but we have to accept that we may not be able to get large amounts of any residues remaining on the surface onto the swabs. 

Once Andrew receives the swabs, any residues on them are extracted with an organic solvent for analysis using gas chromatography - mass spectrometry (GC-MS), a highly sensitive technique which can detect parts per billion (ppb) levels of target pesticides.  Each target pesticide is detected in the mass spectrometer by the presence of characteristic molecular fragments providing a unique ‘fingerprint’.  To detect the presence of arsenic or mercury compounds, swabs are extracted with dilute acid for elemental analysis by inductively coupled plasma - mass spectrometry (ICP-MS).  Argon plasma at a very high temperature (approximately 6000 to 10000°C) is used to turn the sample solution into ionised atoms (ions). Each element produces ions with a characteristic mass and charge, which are detected by the mass spectrometer. ICP-MS can detect residues of arsenic or mercury pesticides in the swabs at ppb levels.

Cotton wool swabs used to remove surface deposits from a fragment of feather from the Tahitian Mourner's costume cloak.

The results of the analysis will help us to understand how pesticides were used in the museum, and may help answer questions we are starting to ask about whether the pesticides have contributed to damage, such as staining and deterioration in certain areas of some of the objects.  The results will also help us to make sure that the precautions we routinely take when we handle objects, such as wearing gloves and lab coats, are effective.

Monday, 26 November 2012

A Wooden Dish

Forster No. 65 is described in the Catalogue of Curiosities as 'A wooden dish or platter from which they eat'.  It was collected on Tonga by the Forsters either in October 1773, or in June 1774, during the two visits to the islands made by the Resolution and Adventure.  

1886.1.1553 Kava Bowl, Tonga
The bowl is shallow enough to have been a food bowl, but it was more likely to have held kava.  Kava was a drink made from the root of the kava plant, Piper methysticum.  It was prepared and consumed in various ways throughout the Pacific.  The root had to be broken down, either by chewing it, or by grating it on coral, and then it was mixed with water and strained.  Kava is an intoxicating, non-alcoholic drink, which causes relaxation and later sleepiness.  It is believed to help break down social barriers, settle interpersonal conflicts, and enhance social ties, and was an important part of Tongan social life at the time of Cook's visits.  Kava was associated with rank, title and power on Tonga, and the communal and ceremonial enjoyment of kava was very significant.  

Kava Drinkers of the Friendly Isles, John Webber
This sketch by John Webber, 'Kava Drinkers of the Friendly Isles', as explained by Adrienne Keppler in 'James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific' (Thames and Hudson, 2009) shows 'the interior of a large Tongan house with details of the bound rafter patterns, the kava mixer mixer seated across from Paulaho (the highest chief, or T'ui Tonga) with a large kava mixing bowl…and the men seated in a circle of a ritual kava ceremony.  During Cook's time the (kava) root was chewed (by young people with good teeth) and placed into the bowl before it was mixed with water and drunk by the assembled group during state rituals or by chiefs at various times of the day.  The deities gave kava to to people and it was appropriate for people to offer it to the deities and their chiefly descendants.'

George Forster wrote of a kava ceremony on Tonga in October 1773 in 'A Voyage Round the World':

Forster had already noted that they had found a chief, 'a middle-aged man, sitting on the ground at the trading place, and all the croud forming a circle about him...The priest, who led our captains to the places of worship, on the first day after our arrival, was seated in the same circle,and drank vast quantities of the intoxicating pepper-water, which was served in little square cups made of banana leaves curiously folded.  At his desire, we were politely presented with this dainty beverage, and in pure civility tasted of it.  It had a nauseous insipid taste, which was afterwards followed by a strong pungency, and its colour was somewhat milky.'

Monday, 19 November 2012

A Large Clothbeater

1886.1.1550 Barkcloth Beater

Forster 24 is 'A large clothbeater' from Tahiti.  Barkcloth beaters from Tahiti were usually made from ironwood or toa (Casuarina equisetifolia).  Kooijman reports in 'Tapa in Polynesia' (Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 234, Hawaii 1972) that in addition to the general Polynesian term ie for beaters, the word toa was also used.

In general, beaters were square in section, with the corners rounded off to form the shaft.  Each side of the beater was grooved, with the grooves increasing in fineness.  The beater was used to beat out the inner bark of whichever tree was being used to make the barkcloth - usually the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) but the breadfruit (Artocarpus sp.) and types of fig tree were also used.

'Native implements, Otaheite'from Hawkesworth, 1773, showing a barkcloth beater.

Barkcloth beating took place in a special shed, and each family had such a shed.  The strips of prepared inner bark, two or three layers thick and damp, having been soaked in water overnight, were laid on a wooden anvil (tutu or tutua).  The anvil could be up to 9 meters long, with a width of up to 25cm.  Beating started with the coarsest side of the beater.  As the bark became thinner and started to spread out, it was necessary to move progressively to the finer-grooved sides, ending with the finest.

Bark fibres caught in the finest side of the barkcloth beater (x10)

The best kind of barkcloth on Tahiti was called hobu, and was made by folding a piece of paper mulberry bark several times while beating.  It was kept wet by sprinkling it with water, and was a thinner and softer cloth than ordinary tapa.  Joseph Banks described the manufacture of this type of tapa, and said that the very finest kind was made by wearing the hobu until it became even more supple, then washing it and beating it again with the very finest beaters.  The tapa was also bleached in the sun, to give it a fine white colour. 

Barkcloth manufacture on Tahiti disappeared soon after Western contact, to be replaced with woven cloth.  Herman Melville wrote in 1847 that 'the echoes of the cloth-mallet have long since died away in the listless valleys of Tahiti.' (Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas Being a Sequel to the "Residence in the Marquesas Islands").

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Paste-Beater of Lava

1886.1.1164 Breadfruit pounder

This is Forster 28, 1886.1.1164, described in the Catalogue of Curiosities as 'the paste-beater of lava'.  Made of basalt, this heavy pounder, or penu, was used to grind cooked breadfruit into a paste.   Breadfruit is the large starchy fruit from a type of mulberry tree.  The starchy fruit, when baked, is said to taste like fresh bread or potato.

Breadfruit, attributed to Sydney Parkinson, from the National Library of Australia

Forster writes that 'we found the Tahitian method of dressing breadfruit and other victuals, with heated stones under ground, infinitely superior to our usual way of boiling them; in the former all the juices remained, and were concentrated by the heat; but in the latter, the fruit imbibed many watery particles, and lost a great deal of its fine flavour and mealiness.'

Cooked breadfruit could be ground to a paste with the penu, in a large wooden trough.  This produced popoi, a sweetish paste.  Sometimes other fruit, such as coconut, was added, to make poe, a 'custard'.

Because breadfruits ripened only at certain times of the year, a method was developed to store the fruit.  Joseph Banks described the process of making fermented breadfruit paste, mahi, in 'The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771'

'As I have mentioned sour paste, I will proceed to describe what it is.  Bread-fruit, by what I can find, remains in season during only nine or ten of their thirteen months, so that a reserve of food must be made…the fruit is gathered when just upon the pint of ripening, and laid in heaps, where it undergoes a fermentation, and becomes disagreeably sweet.  The core is then taken out, which is easily done…and the rest of the fruit thrown into a hole dug for the purpose, generally in their houses.  The sides and bottom of this hole are neatly lined with grass, the whole is covered with leaves, and heavy stones laid upon them.  Here it undergoes a second fermentation and becomes sourish, in which condition it will keep, as they tell me, many months.  Custom has, I suppose, made this agreeable to their palates, though we disliked it extremely; we seldom saw them make a meal without some of it in some shape or form.'

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Tattooing on Tahiti

Cook encountered tattoing on Tahiti in 1769, and wrote about it in the official account of the voyage;

'Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible. Some have ill-design'd figures of men, birds, or dogs; the women generally have this figure Z simply on every joint of their fingers and Toes; the men have it likewise, and both have other differant figures, such as Circles, Crescents, etc., which they have on their Arms and Legs; in short, they are so various in the application of these figures that both the quantity and Situation of them seem to depend intirely upon the humour of each individual, yet all agree in having their buttocks covered with a Deep black. Over this Most have Arches drawn one over another as high as their short ribs, which are near a Quarter of an inch broad. These Arches seem to be their great pride, as both men and Women show them with great pleasure.

Their method of Tattowing I shall now describe. The colour they use is lamp black, prepar'd from the Smoak of a Kind of Oily nut, used by them instead of Candles. The instrument for pricking it under the Skin is made of very thin flatt pieces of bone or Shell, from a quarter of an inch to an inch and a half broad, according to the purpose it is to be used for, and about an inch and a half long. One end is cut into sharp teeth, and the other fastened to a handle. The teeth are dipped into black Liquor, and then drove, by quick, sharp blows struck upon the handle with a Stick for that purpose, into the skin so deep that every stroke is followed with a small quantity of Blood. The part so marked remains sore for some days before it heals. As this is a painful operation, especially the Tattowing their Buttocks, it is perform'd but once in their Life times; it is never done until they are 12 or 14 years of Age.'

In Tahiti, the arms and legs were decorated, while elsewhere in Polynesia the torso and face were also tattooed.  The Tahitian te tatau means 'to knock lightly', and the rhythmic beating of the mallet onto the needle comb pushed pigment deep into the skin.  The work was carried out by a priest, and the markings venerated the god Ta'aroa, symbolising also rank and social status.  

Many Polynesian tattoo designs were similar to those found on barkcloth, and there is the suggestion that tattoos were used to 'wrap the body' in the same way, conferring mana and status on the owner.

1886.1.1547 and .1548 Tattoing comb and mallet

Detail of tattooing comb 1886.1.1547 showing bone teeth

These tattooing instruments were collected by the Forsters on the second voyage, and are described in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities' as 'No.37. Tattowing or puncturing instruments.' They are made from wood, but the head of the comb is made from bird bone, carved at the end to form sharp teeth.

Sydney Parkinson, the artist on the first voyage, who himself received a tattoo during his three month stay in Tahiti, shows in this sketch the position of a tattoo on the buttock, illustrating the important Polynesian crescent motif. 

Friday, 19 October 2012

Investigating Plant Fibres

A part of this project to conserve and investigate the Cook-voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum is to attempt to identify the materials from which the objects are made.  Knowing what artefacts are made from can help us find out where they were collected.  Although the Catalogue of Curiosities gives us fairly good information about this, sometimes there is still confusion, as in entry No. 98. 'Nine different kinds of necklaces; together with three mother of pearl shells which hang on the breast.'  Although this entry appears in the section entitled 'The Friendly Isles' (Tonga) not all of the necklaces come from there - some, in fact, were thought to be from New Zealand. 

Information about materials comes from various sources - the Forsters sometimes mention what the objects they collected were made from.  Curators and researchers have added information over the years - but sometimes materials are very similar and only close observation under the microscope can distinguish them.  Plant fibres come into this category, which brings me back to the nine necklaces which are part of Forster No. 98.  

Nine necklaces, part of Forster No. 98

The necklaces are all made from beads of various kinds, threaded on cords made from vegetable fibre.  If the necklace is from New Zealand, the fibre will probably be from New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax - harakeke).  This plant did not grow on Tonga in the Eighteenth century - the Tongans used a plant in the nettle family, Pipturus argenteus (olonga) to make a fine cord, also used in the manufacture of fish hooks and nets.   

Samples consisting of a single fragment of fibre were taken from the cords of all of the necklaces.  The samples were dehydrated in ethanol, and then washed in toluene before being mounted on slides in Numount, a synthetic mounting medium intended as a replacement for Canada Balsam.   The samples need to be washed in toluene, which is the solvent for Numount, because ethanol would make the Numount go cloudy.  
Samples of loose fibres were taken from several Maori objects in the Cook-voyage collections, as examples of aged New Zealand flax fibres, and also from Tongan fishing hooks and a fishing net - likely to be samples of olonga.  

New Zealand flax fibres, x100

New Zealand flax fibres, x400

Comparison of the 'known' samples under the microscope, using crossed polars showed the the two fibres are quite distinct - the olonga fibre in particular has characteristic diagonal lines on the surface which may be a result of varying thicknesses within the cell wall. 

Olonga fibres, x100
Olonga fibres, x400

The samples taken from the necklaces could then be compared with the 'known' fibres.  The cords of those considered stylistically to come from Tonga were all made from olonga fibre, and those thought to come from New Zealand were made from harakeke.  One necklace was the subject of debate, but the fibre proved to be olonga, suggesting that it came from Tonga.

Fibres from necklace 1886.1.1575, x100

Fibres from 1886.1.1575, x400

Thursday, 11 October 2012

'Beautiful and noble in its kind.'

Forster 134 Mus. No. 1886.1.1340 Headdress, Marquesas

This is Forster No. 134. 'A headdress of mother of pearl & tortoise shell, with cock's feathers.'  Collected on the Marquesas in April 1774, Forster described these headdresses in 'A Voyage Round the World' - 'On their heads many of them wore a kind of diadem; this consisted of a flat bandage wrought of coco-nut core, on the outside of which several round pieces of mother of pearl, some of them five inches in diameter, were fixed, covered in the middle with a plate of tortoise-shell, perforated like fret-work. Several tufts of long, black and glossy cock's feathers formed the plumes to this head-dress, which was really beautiful and noble in its kind.' 

Image from the David Rumsey Map Collection

William Hodges, the official artist on the second voyage (1772-1775) drew a chief, Honu, from Tahuata, possibly from life on the 9th April 1774.  Forster describes the meeting - 'We went on shore after breakfast, and found our friendly natives assembled on the beach.  Among them was a chief, who was dressed in a cloak manufactured of the paper-mulberry bark, like the Tahetian cloth, and who wore the diadem, the gorget, the ear pendant, and bunches of hair. We learnt that this man was king of the whole island…'  

The diadem is known as a uhikana, the one collected by Forster being a rare double uhikana, here illustrated in the official account of the second voyage (Cook 1777, pl. XVII, fig. 4.)  

The motifs carved into the tortoiseshell overlay are seen on uhikana dating from the early contact period.  The ipu or 'container' motif is thought to represent a protective shell, such as of a turtle or crab, and to have a similar protective function for the wearer.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

'A glaring ornament'

Forster No.133 Mus. No. 1886.1.1269

This breast ornament was collected on Tahuata in the Marquesas in April 1774.  Forster, in 'A Voyage Round the World' describes this 'glaring ornament', saying that 'their leaders wore a kind of gorget around the neck, or rather on the breast; it consisted of small portions of a light wood, like cork, glued together with gum, in a semicircular form; a quantity of scarlet beans (abrus precatorius, LInn.) are glued all round it with the same gum, forming a great number of rows, of the length of two or three inches.'

The gorget, known as a tahi poniu, is made up of seventeen sections of wood.  The red and black abrus seeds have been set in a thick layer of brittle brown resin, said to be gum from the breadfruit tree.

Microscope image of gum

As part of this project, samples of the gum were taken and will be analysed by scientists at the University of Bristol.

Sampling from 1886.1.1269

The gorget is missing quite a few seeds - even in 1884 when the collection was transferred from the Ashmolean Museum it was noted that 'many of the berries have come off this ornament and have been stuck from time to time with glue and many are wanting,particularly from the back edge.'  The back of the gorget has been extensively repaired, with new sections of plywood added to replace missing or damaged areas.  This was done before conservation records were kept.

The back of the gorget.  Replacement plywood rays can be seen near the top of the image.

Friday, 21 September 2012

'A bunch of hair'

George Forster, in 'A Voyage Round the World' wrote at length on the 'ornaments' worn by the Marquesans.  He notes that 'they were also fond of having bunches of human hair tied on a string round their waist, arms, knees and ancles (sic).  All these ornaments they freely parted with for a trifling consideration, except the last, which they valued very highly, though they were the usual residence of many vermin.  It is probably that these bunches of hair were worn in remembrance of their dead relations and therefore looked upon with some veneration; or else they may be  the spoils of their enemies, worn as the honourable testimonies of victory.  However a large nail or something which struck their eyes, commonly got the better of their scruples.'

1886.1.1267 Hair ornament, Marquesas

This is number 137 in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities' - 'A bunch of hair, tied on the arms, knees or ancles'.  It was collected at Vaitahu, on the island of Tahuata, as were all the Marquesan objects in the Forster collection.  

Hardy, in 'The Native Culture in the Marquesas' (Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin No. 9, 1923) identifies these hair ornaments as ouoho (literally head-hair).  They were worn by males and females, and the hair was usually that of relatives, although the hair of enemies was sometimes used. The hair was taken to a tuhuna hana titi ouoho (specialist) who wrapped it on small sticks, bound the rolls with leaves and baked them in an oven of heated stones.  The hair was then bound into bundles and attached to a braided coconut fibre cord.  

Shiny consolidant is visible at the base of the hair bundles

The hair ornament in the Pitt Rivers collection has been treated in the past to consolidate the brittle hair.  We have no records of the treatment, which was probably carried out before 1970, when the conservation department was started.  The consolidant is now brittle and shiny, and cannot be removed without damaging the hair further.

Friday, 14 September 2012

'In the shape of a large tooth'

Europeans first encountered the Marquesas in 1595, when the Spanish Explorer Alvaro de Mendana de Neira named them Las Islas de Marquesa de Mendoza and claimed them for Spain.  The next European visitor was Cook, who arrived at the beginning of April 1774.  Cook anchored for several days at Vaitahu, on Tahuata, in the same harbour used by Mendana.

George Forster, in 'A Voyage Round the World' notes that the inhabitants 'looked almost black, being punctured (tattooed) over the whole body.'  Some of them, once they had sold their fruit and vegetables to the sailors on board the Resolution, 'came on board to be gazed at, and to gaze.' Forster also described the many ornaments worn by the Marquesans, observing that 'the number of ornaments, in some measure, might be said to supply the want of clothing.' He went on to say that some 'wore a string around the neck, and fastened to it a piece of shell, which was cut and polished in the shape of a large tooth.' (See George Forster, 'A Voyage Round the World', N.Thomas and O. Berghof (Eds) Vol.1. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2000).

There are two of these shell ornaments in the Cook-voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers, collected by the Forsters.  In the 'Catalogue of Curiosities' they are numbers 139 and 140, 'Two bones (or teeth of porpoises?) hung before the neck.'

1886.1.1540 (left) and 1886.1.1541 (right)

The pendants are made from shell, probably from the mouth of a helmet shell (Cassidae sp.) They are carved to resemble whales teeth, which were a valuable commodity on the Marquesas, and reserved only for those of high status.  The Marquesas had few fringing reefs, and few sperm whales were stranded there, as occurred elsewhere in Polynesia.  The fact that shell was carved to resemble whale teeth (skeuomorphs - objects made from one material in the form of another) shows how important whale ivory was to the Marquesans.  The cord is made from strands of barkcloth, which have been twisted together.

See also Steven Hooper, 'Pacific Encounters, Art and Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860' British Museum Press, 2006, and Eric Kjellgren with Carol S. Ivory, 'Adorning the World - Art of the Marquesas Islands', Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

'Green Nephritick Stone'

1886.1.1150 Mere pounamu

This Maori cleaver is thought to be Forster No. 115, 'A ditto (pattou-pattou) of green nephritick stone.'

1886.1.1150 showing modified blade edge

The cleaver is interesting because it appears to have been modified to form an adze blade.  Possibly this was because of the flaw in the stone which has affected the shape of the handle - this part would be hidden by the bindings holding an adze blade onto its wooden handle. Some grooves are present in the stone - these could be more evidence of re-shaping. Jade (greenstone, pounamu) could be sawn, using sandstone to rub the surface, with a little water as a lubricant.  Once the groove was deep enough, quartz sand was introduced which would speed up the sawing process.

1886.1.1150 Surface of greenstone

There are three main sources of jade in New Zealand, all of them on the South Island, which became known by the Maori as Te Wai Pounamu, the water of jade. Jade was traded over the whole of New Zealand, and as Roger Neich writes in 'Pounamu: Maori Jade of New Zealand' (Auckland Museum, 1997), 'Famous jade artefacts provided links between ancestors and their present descendants, confirming rank and tribal status…jade carried connotations of the mythological homeland of Hawaiki, the source of life, knowledge and mana. It provided a direct tangible contact with the ancestors.  By handling and wearing jade treasures once owned by illustrious ancestors, living Maori people are able to share in the strength and power of their ancestors.'

Several types of jade were described.  Inanga pounamu was the colour of the native New Zealand minnow, being pearly-white or light green.  The most common variety was called kawakawa, because it was the colour of the young leaves of the kawakawa bush (Macropiper excelsum).  The third main variety was called kahurangi, 'the robe of the sky', because it was highly transparent and of a vivid colour.  There were other varieties, such as pipiwharauroa (breast of the shining cuckoo) and totoweka (blood of the weka bird) but there is some overlap in using these names.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

A Maori Putorino - an Art Treasure


This is Forster No. 116, 'A flute', from New Zealand. 

The putorino is only found in New Zealand, and is esteemed by the Maori.  Sometimes the instrument is called a bugle flute, because it has two complementary voices, male and female.  The male voice with it's kokiri (negotiating skill) sounds when the instrument is played as a trumpet, using the large hole at proximal end. The sound is used to summon, or to make people aware of something about to happen, and each named call has a meaning.

The female voice sounds when the instrument is played like a flute, using the opening half way down the instrument.  This voice is sometimes a crying sound, and is used on appropriate occasions.

The sounds made "can stir a wide range of emotions, from the ghostly chill of an icy wind to the heart-warming resonance of a peace-giving hue puruhau" (resonating gourd instrument). (Brian Flintoff, Taonga Puoro - Singing Treasures, The Musical Instruments of the Maori, Nelson, New Zealand, 2004).

1886.1.1153 Detail of carving

The shape of the instrument is derived from the shape of the casemoth coccoon that houses Raukatauri, Goddess of Flute Music.

Bugle flutes were made in two halves, using a dense wood like matai (Prumnopitys taxifolia).  Once the inside was shaped, the two halves were bound together with the split aerial root of the kiekie vine (Freycinetia banksii).

1886.1.1153 Detail of kiekie binding, with applied plant resin

This was applied when wet, and shrank on drying to hold the pieces tightly.  Before binding, a sealant such as the sap of the tarata (Lemonwood tree, Pittosporum eugenioides) was applied to the edges of the two halves.

The museum labels on this putorino were removed for the 1970 Pitt Rivers exhibition 'From the Islands of the South Seas', and were retained in the museum archives.  One of the labels was especially interesting, as it meant that the flute was sent by the Ashmolean to the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857.

This exhibition ran from the 5th May to the 17th October, and still remains the largest art exhibition ever held in the UK.  There were more than 16000 works on display, and 1.3 million people visited.

The Exhibition Hall

The venue was a specially constructed hall, similar to the Crystal Palace in London.  The hall was divided into separate galleries, including Pictures by Ancient Masters, Pictures by Modern Masters, Engravings, Works of Oriental Art, and Sculpture.  Works were borrowed from over 700 collections, most of them private.  One of the nobility, when approached to lend to the exhibition, is said to have replied 'What in the world do you want with Art in Manchester? Why can't you stick to your cotton-spinning?'

Nine objects currently in the Pitt Rivers Collection were sent to Manchester, seven of them from Polynesia.  They were presumably exhibited either in the Museum of Ornamental Art or in the Oriental Court.  Although an editorial in the Manchester Guardian on the 20 July 1857 was of the opinion that 'we are inclined to regard the museum of ornamental art as that portion of the present Manchester exhibition which is calculated to produce the most practically useful result, and to be of the highest importance to the community' the contents of that gallery are not listed in the exhibition catalogue.

See Jeremy Coote, 'A review of The Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857.  Entrepreneurs, Connoisseurs and the Public' in 'Journal of the History of Collections' Vol 24, Issue 1, 2011.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

'A Yellow Piece with Red Spots'

This post has been written by Kloe Rumsey, a conservation intern from the Conservation Practice MSc course at Cardiff University.

This large barkcloth, 1886.1.1236 is one of about twenty three pieces in the Pitt Rivers Cook-Voyage collections and is one of three with similar surface designs.

1886.1.1236 Detail

As suggested on the Ashmolean label applied by Assistant Curator Edward Evans in 1886, just before transfer to the newly-opened Pitt Rivers Museum, it is now known to originate from Tahiti and collected on Cook's second voyage in 1773-4. Also bought back to England from this voyage was O'Mai, a man from Raiatea, who, during his 2 year visit to Europe, became famous in high society as the 'noble savage'. 

In this illustration of O'Mai by Nathaniel Dance his barkcloth clothing is of the type worn by those of high rank and it can be seen to include a patterned piece of the same distinctive circular design. The similarities between the garments in this drawing, and objects held in the Forster collections of the Pitt Rivers are striking, and has been noted by then curator Peter Gathercole in the short catalogue to the 1970 Pitt Rivers' exhibition 'From the Islands of the South Seas 1773-4'

The design of this cloth (described in the Catalogue of Curiosities as 'No.15 a yellow piece with red spots') was created by dipping the cut end of bamboo into the dye and applying it to the cloth. Though simple, there is great variation in the patterns and characters created and it is thought that this was the primary method for printed decoration of barkcloths in Tahiti at the time of Cooks' visit.

There seems to have been a dramatic change in the decorative style of barkcloth in Tahiti following European contact.  This cloth a particularly noteworthy example of a very early style, soon replaced by fern printed patterns and other shapes created by the application of painted leaves onto barkcloth.  

Other illustrations of Tahitian barkcloth as garments, as well as the specific description of 'yellow' in the catalogue of curiosities suggests that this, now cream coloured piece has faded from a brighter yellow colour.

Despite the very 'bloody' appearance of this red dye there is no reference to blood being used as a printing medium and it is likely that it is one of the many colours derived from fruits, leaves and bark.

As it can be seen in images from earlier posts these cloths have been stored folded, and, as part of the conservation treatment of this piece it has been surface-cleaned with a conservation-grade soft sponge and humidified to remove damaging creases.  

Creases being flattened with the aid of an ultrasonic humidifier

The barkcloth was torn in a few areas, and the tears were repaired with Japanese tissue and arrowroot starch paste.

Using Japanese tissue and starch paste to repair a tear

This treatment means this cloth can now be more easily rolled around a support and stored safely. 

Barcloth being rolled around a calico covered support

Thursday, 16 August 2012

A Brass Patu

1932.86.1 front  

1932.86.1 back

Joseph Banks, the naturalist on Cook's first voyage, had forty brass replicas of Maori patu onewa made to take with him on the second voyage.  They were made in 1772 in Eleanor Gyles's brass foundry at No.9, Shoe Lane, Fleet Street, at a cost of nine shillings and sixpence each, and engraved with Bank's coat of arms by Thomas Orpin, at his shop opposite Northumberland Court, in the Strand, London, at a cost of one shilling each. 

At least two of the patu onewa collected by Banks on the first voyage were used as patterns for the brass replicas, being used to make a two part mould from sand and clay, which would have been destroyed in the casting process.  The marks in the surface of the stone cleaver can be seen replicated in the surface of one of the brass versions in the Pitt Rivers collection.

Banks withdrew from the second voyage after disagreements with the Admiralty over additional cabin accommodation on the Resolution - his place as naturalist on the voyage was taken by the Forsters.  Some or all of the brass patus were later given to Charles Clerke to take on the third voyage in the Discovery.  It has been suggested that the patus were meant to serve as a form of permanent visiting card, recording for posterity Bank's activities and connections.

The brass patus were sighted in various places in the next few years - in 1787, on the Northwest Coast of America in Hecate Straits, in 1788 Nootka sound, and in 1801 and 1816 in New Zealand.  Today the whereabouts of six are known - two in the Pitt Rivers, one in the British Museum, one in the Museum of London, one in the Tamatslikt Cultural Institute of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (which was said to have been excavated from a grave on the shore of the Columbia River in Oregon, and 'repatriated' to the Umatilla Nation in 2005) and one in a private collection.

One of the Pitt Rivers brass patus can be seen in the temporary exhibition 'Made for Trade' until the 27th January 2013.

See Coote, Jeremy, 2008: Joseph Banks’s Forty Brass Patus in the Journal of Museum Ethnography No 20 (March) pp 49-68.