Monday, 30 April 2012

Maori taonga

This blog post is written by Tracey Wedge, one of the conservators here at the Pitt Rivers.  Originally from New Zealand, Tracey trained as a textile conservator, and has recently carried out a re-storage project of the Maori cloak collection held by the museum.

'Last week we had a visiting researcher examine a number of Māori textile taonga, or treasures, in the Cook-voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum.  Formerly based in the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, Dr Patricia Te Arapo Wallace is a Teaching Research Fellow at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, a Research Associate of Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand, as well as being an Affiliated Researcher of the Artefacts of Encounter project. She was accompanied by Alice Christophe who is undertaking a two-month intern placement at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, as part of the project.

Dr Wallace is particularly interested in Māori dress.  She was examining objects in our collection with reference to drawings made of Māori during the Cook voyages and an earlier Abel Tasman voyage.

Examining tatua 1886.21.2

The visit began with an examination of a number of our tatua or belts.  These belts were part of the collection of Joseph Banks who was the naturalist on Captain Cook’s Endeavour voyage of 1768 to 1771.  The tatua 1886.21.2 has an extremely finely woven central panel that would have wrapped around the waist and would be fastened using the elaborately plaited cords at either end. Dr Wallace pointed out a detail from an image in Abel Tasman's 1642 Journal in which similar belts were depicted by Tasman's artist Isaac Gilsemans in the 17th  century; they can also be seen in Sydney Parkinson's 18th century drawing of warriors aboard a waka (canoe).

Detail of a 1642 drawing from Tasman's journal showing warriors wearing belts or tatua

Dr Wallace is also interested in early examples of Māori sewing.  The tatua 1886.21.2 has been stitched using strips of hide while the kahu waero, or dog hair tassel cloak, 1886.21.19 that she has previously examined, has decorative elements stitched to the surface with thread extracted from harakeke (Phormium tenax - New Zealand flax).  The kahu waero is also from the Joseph Banks’ collection.  It has a finely woven kaupapa, or body of the cloak, that was once covered with clusters of awe, which are tassels made from the tail hair of prized white kurī, the Polynesian dog brought to New Zealand by Maori.  Dr Wallace was keen to explore how these clusters were attached to the garment.  The examination was enhanced with the use of a DinoLite™ a USB microscope from our conservation lab.  This enables close examination of areas of particular interest, which can be digitally photographed.

Examination of the kurī hair tassels attached to 1886.21.19

The DinoLite™ showed clearly the varied techniques used to bind the kurī hair into tassels, an interesting observation which suggests that the clusters of awe were probably made by more than one person.

Detail of 1886.21.19 showing twisting and binding of kurī hair

Detail of 1886.21.19 showing the stitching thread securing the tassels on the front surface piercing the kaupapa of the kahu waero on the inside of the garment.

On this occasion Dr Wallace could only spend one day looking at these pieces - not long enough - but we hope she will be back soon.

Each researcher that examines these taonga brings their personal perspective and knowledge, which adds to the understanding of the object.  In Dr Wallace’s case she is exploring the wearing and technology of these early textiles.  Her research feeds into, and is supported by, the Māori weaving community as the technology itself is a taonga and these early artefacts show techniques not practiced by modern day weavers.

These objects have yet to be examined by Jeremy as part of his investigations into the Cook-Voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers.  I am looking forward to what findings he will add, enriching further these precious taonga that can speak to us though their materials.'

Friday, 20 April 2012

Object Labels

Many of the objects in the Cook-voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers have several labels on them.  Some are large, and visually intrusive, but they contain important information about the objects and their histories since they were collected.  The image below is of the labels which have been applied to one of the barkcloth 'ponchos' belonging to the Tahitian Mourner's costume.

Forster Number - No 9.  Written in the same hand as the 'Catalogue of Curiosities', almost certain to be that of George Forster, these numbers allow us to match objects to the entries in the catalogue.  The entry for the three ponchos reads;

9.Brown        Belonging to the Mourning dress, and put on one over the other, beginning
                     with the white, the red next and the brown overall.
10. Red

The large handwritten label was attached when the collection was still at the Ashmolean Museum, before the ethnographic collections were transferred to the newly-opened Pitt Rivers Museum in 1886. The information on it was complied by Philip Bury Duncan, Keeper of the Ashmolean, Edward Evans, Assistant Keeper, and Museum Assistant George Augustus Rowell.  The Catalogue was lost at this point, not to be 'rediscovered' until 1969, so the information about the costume must have come from other sources, although clearly the correlation between the handwritten number labels and Cook's collection had been made.   Interesting from the conservation point of view is the fact that 'the costume was undressed at the Ashmolean by Dr. Tylor, and Professor Mosely' in 1883 'for the purposes of drying the cloth and attending to the feather cloak, the latter being in very poor condition.'

Labels can tell us more than the written information they contain.  The handwriting, the types of paper they are written on and even where on an object they are applied can tell us more about the biography of an object.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Hawaiian Barkcloth

The Alexander Shaw Barkcloth book in the Pitt Rivers collection contains fifty-six samples.  Although each copy of the book is different, ours is very similar to the copy in the State Library of New South Wales, which has been digitised here.  The samples are clearly from the same original pieces of barkcloth, even the seventeen additions in the back of the book, although the State Library copy has additional samples.  There are also identical pieces of Hawaiian barkcloth in the copy of the volume held in Auckland Museum, photographed in 'Traditional Tapa Textiles of the Pacific' by Neich and Pendergrast, p93.

Many of the pieces of tapa in Shaw's book are from Hawaii.  Because of the early date of publication, these samples were almost certainly brought back from Cook's third voyage.

Hawaiian barkcloth reached a high level of sophistication, due in part to the climate of the islands, which was very suitable for the growth of the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) and the breadfruit (Artocarpus incisa), which were the sources of the bark. 

Barkcloth was given texture with patterned barkcloth beaters, or by using grooved boards to give a ridged texture.  These tapa were called kua'ula, and, unusually, were made by men.  The demand for it was great, and there was considerable production of this kind of barkcloth.

Sample 17 - ridged barkcloth, Hawaii

The fabric produced was often thick and cardboard-like, and had to be sewn together when making skirts or loincloths.  Bone or wooden needles were used, and the thread was made from bark fibre.

Sample 4 - sewn barkcloth, Hawaii

Dyes and pigments were obtained from a wide range of sources, mainly from plants but minerals such as red and yellow ochre were also used.  Tapa was often scented, with plants such as a fragrant fern (Polypodium phymatodes), sandalwood (Santalum spp.) and ginger.

Once dyed, decoration was applied to the surface of the tapa in many ways.  Many of the Shaw barkcloth samples are decorated with bold geometric designs, which were common in eighteenth century Hawaiian tapa.

Sample 2.  Freehand geometric decoration.  Hawaii

Some designs were applied freehand, but other samples are decorated with fine straight lines which were applied with a bamboo or wooden  'liner', shaped rather like a fork with several prongs, which was dipped in dye and drawn across the surface of the cloth, using a bamboo ruler to guide it.  These finer ruled designs became more popular in the nineteenth century.

Samples 23 and 24.  Hawaii.  Sample 24 is decorated with fine lines.
Sample 24 - detail of the surface.

The samples in the barkcloth book are in very good condition, and little conservation work is required.  Each page of the book will be photographed, and the digitised version made available on the new Pitt Rivers Cook-voyage collection website, which is one of the outcomes of this project.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

A Catalogue of the Different Specimens of Cloth Collected in the Three Voyages of Captain Cook...

Alexander Shaw, an army agent in London, saw a way of profiting from the interest aroused by Cook's voyages of discovery, and from the 'Artificial Curiosities' brought back to England by the participants.  He obtained pieces of barkcloth brought back from the Pacific, and cut samples from them which he bound into books. These were produced in 1787.

1908.28.1 Alexander Shaw Barkcloth Catalogue

An introduction was complied, partly from Reinhold Forster's 'Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World', in which the manufacture of bark cloth was described.  Each sample is listed, together with a description of how it was used.  These descriptions are not necessarily accurate.

Sample no. 2 'From Otaheite.  This is used to spread below the chiefs while at dinner'

Sample no. 6 'From Otaheite, used for bedding'

Some of the samples were thought to have been obtained from the sale of the Duchess of Portland's Museum, which took place in 1786.  The Duchess had a huge and diverse collection of objects, the largest in England, housed at Bulstrode Hall in Buckinghamshire, and after her death it was parcelled into over 4000 lots and sold at auction.  The sale began on Monday the 24th April, and lasted for the following thirty seven days (excepting Sundays, and the 5th of June, the King's birthday). The sale of the 'Artificial Curiosities from America, China and the newly-discovered Islands in the South-Seas' took place on the 13th day of the sale, and amongst the lots possibly purchased by Alexander Shaw were those listed in the catalogue as:

Lot 1376  Three large and two small specimens of cloth, made from the bark of the cloth tree, some of them curiously stained in a variety of figures, from Otaheite, O-why-hee! and other South Sea Islands

Lot 1377  Two large pieces of fine bark cloth, from the Society Isles

Lot 1378  Various specimens of the inner bark of the Lagetto tree (similar to the bark of the cloth tree of the South Sea Islands)…'

Sample no. 39 in many of the books is of Jamaican lacebark (Lagetta lagetto) and the description of lot 1378 explains why this material was added to the volume.

Sample no.39  'A fine specimen of the lace-bark, from Jamaica, bought at the Duchess of Portland's sale'

There are thought to be around 40 copies of this book in existence today.  Although the text in each is similar, the samples in each are different.  The Pitt Rivers volume, in addition to the 39 listed samples, has an extra seventeen pieces of barkcloth bound into the back.  A large number of the bark cloth pieces included are from Hawaii, and because of the date, it is very likely that these are from Cook's third voyage (1776-1779).
(See Kaeppler, A.L. '"Artificial Curiosities" An Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook, R.N.' Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication 65, Bishop Museum Press, 1978)

Monday, 2 April 2012

'A rasp made of a ray's skin'

No.96 in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities' is described as 'A rasp made of a ray's skin.'  It is in the section of objects from the Friendly Isles (Tonga) but files made from shark or ray skin were commonly used throughout the Pacific for smoothing wood, or for grating sandalwood to perfume coconut oil.


In use, the piece of skin was usually attached to a piece of wood using coconut fibre cord, although Charles Hedley, a naturalist who visited the Ellice Islands in 1896, suggests that 'an unmounted fragment, such as a piece of the tail (of a ray) sometimes served.' *

The skin of sharks and rays is covered in placoid scales, or dermal denticles.  These are very similar to mammalian teeth, the outer layer being covered with a hard enamel-like substance. These scales give shark skin its hard rough texture, ideal for smoothing wood.

The skin surface (x6) showing the dermal denticles

According to Reinhold Forster in 'Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World',when considering the inhabitants of Tahiti, 'If we consider that a stone adze, a chissel of the same materials, or of bone, and a piece of rough coral rock, together with a saw made from part of a sting-ray’s skin fastened round a piece of wood, are all the instruments to assist them in the structure of their houses and boats, we must certainly give ample testimony to their ingenuity.’**

** See previous post for reference