Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Tongan Fishhooks

Number 64 in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities' is 'a parcel of fishhooks of various sizes'.  Five hooks have been assigned to this group, all of them from Tonga.  They are all similar, resembling the one shown here:

Fishhook, Tonga.  1886.1.1301*

In George Forster's 'A Voyage Round the World' (Edited by Nicholas Thomas and Oliver Berghof, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2000) he writes in the entry for October 1773 'Our people purchased an incredible number of fish hooks made of mother of pearl, barbed with tortoishell...' while Reinhold Forster, in his 'Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World' describes Tongan hooks thus:
'the largest of all have a shank made of wood or bone covered with a brown mother of pearl-shell, and have a hook of tortoise-shell, which often is made of two pieces tied together.  The strings for these hooks are made of a kind of nettle (urtica argentea) (now known as Pipturus argenteus) which holds the strongest fish, (viz.) the Bonito or Peerara, the Albecore or Eahai (Scomber Thynnus) and the Dolphin or E-ooma (Coryphaena Hippurus)...'**

The shank of each hook is made from a piece of whalebone, which is faced with black pearlshell.  The bone has been carved to fit the curves of the shell.  The point is made from turtleshell, lashed to the shank with a flax-like fibre obtained from a plant in the nettle family.  This fibre has also been used to make the hackle.

These hooks are considered to be in the 'classic' Tongan style, and were used for catching bonito, a large mackerel-like fish.  These hooks are in very good condition, without any of the wear or scratches that might be expected from use, and there is a possibility that they were made as exchange valuables.

*Labels after diagram found in 'Fish Hooks of the Pacific Islands', by Daniel Blau and Klaus Maaz,  Daniel Blau Publishing, 2011.
**Forster, J.R.  'Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World.'  Eds. N. Thomas, H Guest and M. Derrelbach.  University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1996.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Eating the Exotic

As featured in a recent blog post, the Pitt Rivers recently loaned some Cook-voyage objects to the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, for their exhibition "Eating the Exotic'.  Dr Sophie Forgan, Chairman of the Trustees of the museum in Whitby, writes:

John Walker's House, Whitby, home to the Captain Cook Memorial Museum

'As a small independent volunteer-run museum, we are delighted to be able to borrow twelve important artefacts from the Pitt Rivers for our exhibition ‘Eating the Exotic’, which examines the Cook voyages through food, eating and the cultures surrounding food in Polynesia. 

We thought hard about the best way to display the objects.  The fish hooks were comparatively easy, well spaced in the case alongside contemporary illustrations of the sorts of fish that they were designed to catch.  Likewise the food preparation implements were simply placed in a case with models of fruits and tubers (breadfruit and kumara) cultivated.  The case containing the kava bowls and Tongan ‘mat’ (featured in an earlier blog), now reinterpreted as a skirt, was trickier.  We decided to leave the skirt as a ‘mat’, with a note on its recent redesignation.  We then created three perspex stands, triangular in shape, of different heights.  These hold the kava bowls and surround the ‘skirt’, displayed flat on the floor of the case.  A large piece of kava root from the Economic Botany Museum at Kew was placed within one of the perspex stands, rather appropriately under a kava bowl, allowing it to be seen, but still kept separate from the organic materials of the other exhibits.

1886.1.1177.  Skirt/mat, Tonga

One of the most interesting points raised by working on the exhibition was how the Forsters managed to get all their collections back from the Pacific. Their cabin space was very limited.  On the floor below the exhibition, the Museum shows Johann Reinhold Forster’s desk.  This is extremely compact, and could take no more than writing materials, papers and a few books.

Johann Reinhold Forster's desk

The cabins were small, and Forster complained that the scuttle leaked and he often found his bedding wet.  Apart from the occasional very small object tucked into one of the desk pockets, the cabin could only hold some materials in bags or bundles slung from the ceiling.  Otherwise, all objects would have been placed in one of the store rooms available for officers’ supplies.  Given the amount of tapa cloth the Forsters brought back, and large objects such as baskets, bowls, weapons, costumes and so on, the Forsters must have taken every inch of available space.  Perhaps more space became available as trade goods brought from Britain were used up during stops at the islands.'

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

An Octopus Lure

Octopus lure, Tonga.  1886.1.1279 .2

This object is from Tonga, and is No. 63 in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities', where it is described as 'A weight made of shells and stone, to sink their fishing lines.' The label written on this object gives a more accurate description, reading 'Cuttle-Fish lure, TONGA Ids.'
These lures, known as maka feke, are made from hard stones, shaped to form a cone.  To this are attached pieces of cowrie shell, using plaited coconut fibre tied through holes drilled in the shell.  A piece of plant stem is tied to the bottom of the lure, and it is usually said that the lure is made to resemble a rat.
There is a traditional story on Tonga, and on other Pacific islands where the octopus lure has a similar form, to explain why the lure has this appearance.  There are variations, but basically the story is that a rat was travelling between islands in a canoe, which sank.  The rat couldn't swim, and was rescued by an octopus, which are friendly creatures. After taking the rat to shore, the octopus was swimming away when he felt the top of his head, and discovered that the rat had left him a surprise…That's why octopuses have black spots on their heads, and why the sight of a rat in the water makes them angry.

You can see a video from the Australian Museum here where the story is told more fully.

The lure would have been played along near the surface of the water over a reef, and would attract the octopus, which attached itself to the lure.  The lure could then be withdrawn from the water and the octopus removed.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

A kato alu

This basket from Tonga is No. 86 in the Catalogue of Curiosities, where it is described as 'a strong wicker basket.'

Basket, Tonga - 1886.1.1328

It has been identified by Adrienne Kaeppler, currently the Curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the National Museum of Man, Smithsonian Institution, as a kato alu. These baskets were woven from the aerial roots of a type of climbing vine, the alu, Epipremnum pinnatum, which in it's yellow variegated form (Epipremnum pinnatum 'Aureum' - the golden pothos) is a fairly common houseplant here in the UK.

Alu aerial root surrounding palm leaf midribs

This type of basket is still made on Tonga, although alu is becoming scarce, and is difficult to work.  According to Hettinger and Cox, the aerial roots must be harvested between May and October. Before May, the roots are too small, and after October they have reached the ground. The roots are baked in a pit oven for several hours, until soft, and then soaked in seawater until the outer bark can easily be peeled away. The roots can either be used immediately, or dried in the sun to store them.  Before weaving, the roots are split horizontally twice, and the inner sections discarded. The material is soaked in fresh water for up to two days to make it flexible before use. 

Modern baskets are painted black using soot from burnt tuitui (candlenuts, Aleurites moluccana) mixed with the liquid obtained from the inner bark of the koka tree (Bischofia javanica). On examination of the Pitt Rivers basket, it is likely that the alu was dyed before it was woven. Black dyes in the pacific are often obtained using iron rich mud, and it was interesting that on testing the alu with the handheld XRF (X-ray fluorescence unit) it was found to be rich in iron. We thought that the alu may have been dyed in mud in a similar way. However, further research showed that when dyeing the alu, a brown clay, umea, was often added to the dye mixture. It is also used in a similar way to make black dyed barkcloth on Fiji, where the umea is said to act as a fixative, allowing the dyes to adhere to the cloth. The umea could be the source of the iron.

A damaged part of the basket, showing the core of palm leaf midrib and the decoration of plaited coconut fibre

The basket is made by encircling the alu around a coil of coconut palm leaf midribs. The decoration on the basket is made from plaited coconut fibre. Interestingly, this basket is also decorated on the base.

The base of the basket

The basket has been damaged at the sides, probably by being flattened and crushed in the past. This can be more clearly seen the the photo taken in 1970. To conserve the basket, the broken palm leaf midribs will be supported and the shape of the basket restored.

The kato alu photographed in 1970

Kato alu were used to hold personal items, such as gourds containing scented coconut oil. They were also used for the presentation of such items at funerals and weddings. 

The Making of the Kato Alu: A Traditional Tongan Basket
Amy Lafranca Hettinger and Paul Alan Cox
Economic Botany , Vol. 51, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1997), pp. 144-148
Published by: Springer on behalf of New York Botanical Garden Press
Baskets in Polynesia, Wendy Arbeit, University of Hawaii Press, 1990

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Photographing Objects

One of the main outcomes of this project to investigate the Cook-Voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers is a new website, to replace the existing Forster Collection and Pacific Pathways sites.  High quality images will be taken by the Pitt Rivers' photographer, and I will supplement these with digital microscope images of materials.  Taking photographs through the microscope is relatively simple with the right adaptors for the camera.  We're using a Canon Eos 60D, which allows us to connect it to the computer using the Canon Liveview software, and to take pictures remotely, which minimises vibration.

A microscope with camera attached

A single image of a microscope slide or a sample from an object may not capture all the detail we need - the focal depth is sometimes too great for a single image and parts of the field of view may be out of focus.

A single image of a feather from the Tahitian Mourner's costume, x40.  Parts of the image are out of focus

Using Helicon Focus software, we can take a series of images of a sample, adjusting the focus of the microscope slightly each time.  The software then merges the images together, creating a final image which is in focus through the whole depth of field, with no blurry areas.

10 images of the feather were taken as the microscope focus was slightly changed.  The images were stacked together using the software to create this final image.