Thursday, 28 June 2012

Tongan Panpipes

1886.1.1560 Panpipes

Several sets of panpipes (mimiha) from Tonga were brought back by the Forsters from the second voyage.  This set, and one now thought to be from Vanuatu were listed in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities' as 'No. 84 and 85 Two of Pan's pipes or syringae'

There are ten bamboo pipes in the set, bound together with plant fibre.  The bottom of each pipe is closed by a natural node in the bamboo, and the top edge has been bevelled to make it easier to blow into.

Detail to show bevelled top edges of pipes

It has been suggested that panpipes in Tonga were used by the lower classes as a substitute for the noseflute, which was a chiefly instrument.  The panpipes could suggest the sound of two noseflutes playing together, and the number of pipes and their tuning could have been suggested by the tuning of the noseflute.  Unlike the modern South American panpipe, the tune was almost 'built in' to the design of the Tongan pipes, and the player just had to move the instrument across his lips.

The plant fibre binding on the pipes has broken in several places, and is very brittle.  In a previous conservation treatment, possibly in 1970 before conservation records at the Pitt Rivers began, very fine nylon fishing line has been used just above each line of plant fibre to tie the pipes together and stabilise them.  The fishing line is virtually invisible and is not damaging the pipes, and so it will not be removed.

See Adrienne Kaeppler, 'A study of Tongan Panpipes' Ethnos 39 (1-4) 1974 pp102-128

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Barkcloth from the Pacific

The Cook collections at the Pitt Rivers were originally at the Ashmolean Museum, which was founded in 1683.  The majority of the ethnographic collections were transferred to the newly-opened Pitt Rivers Museum in 1886.  Because the Catalogue of Curiosities was still lost at this time, there was a possibility that some Cook-voyage objects had not been identified as such.  Yesterday, we went to look at some of the stored barkcloth that originally came from the Ashmolean, some of which came with no provenance.  Although we don't think we found any 'lost' Cook pieces, we did see some interesting barkcloth.

This is a barkcloth poncho, possibly from Tahiti.  It has been decorated with what are believed to be strips of the epidermis of banana leaves, and flowers made from plant material.

1984.3.1 Detail of decoration

Detail of banana leaf epidermis

The poncho is incredibly fragile and will require many hours of conservation work before it is stable enough to go on display.

This barkcloth stained with turmeric and with a feather fringe is from Tongoa, part of the Shepherd Islands, Vanuatu.  It was donated to the museum by Lieut. Boyle T. Somerville, who served on HMS Dart, which carried out a survey of Vanuatu in 1890 and 1891.

Detail of feather fringe - 1893.27.4

The next piece has some characteristics of barkcloth from Niue, which lies in an expanse of sea between the Samoan Islands to the North, the Cook Islands to the East, and the Tonga Group to the west.  Called hiapo on Niue, this barkcloth has notched edges, and an openwork pattern highlighted with orange pigment.

1887.1.564 Detail of openwork design

Also with striking surface decoration is 1895.22.121, a barkcloth from New Georgia in the Solomon Islands.  The decoration is of a deep blue colour, and analysis shows it is a type of indigo, but it is not certain how this dye was obtained (See 'Not Quite Extinct - Melanesian Barkcloth ('tapa') from Western Solomon Islands', Rhys Richards and Kenneth Roga, Wellington, 2005)

1895.22.121 Detail

This large yellow barkcloth is decorated with motifs made by dipping fern leaves in dye and pressing them onto the surface.  Decoration of this type is characteristic of Tahiti.  These striking barkcloths are not described in any of the Cook-voyage journals, but it is thought that this style of decoration came into use soon after that period.

1886.1.1237 Detail of fern print

Friday, 15 June 2012

Two Incising Tools

The first of two incising tools collected in Tonga is listed in the Appendix of the 'Catalogue of Curiosities' as No.174 'Shark's tooth set in wood, from the Friendly Isles.'


The tooth is tightly bound to the wooden handle with plaited coconut fibre, and used to carve fine designs into clubs, such as those mentioned in an earlier post, and other wooden objects.

1886.1.1321 Detail showing shark tooth

The second tool is interesting because it has an iron nail as the point, which must have had a European source.  It is listed in the 'Catalogue' as No.101a 'An old nail brought to the Friendly Isles by Tasman in 1642 and preserved by the natives, & used as a Googe or borer.'


Cook was so interested in this nail that he wrote in his Journal in the entry for Thursday 7 October 1773 'the only piece of Iron we saw among them was a small tool like a bradawl and which had been made of a small nail.'

1886.1.1320 - The iron nail used as a point can be clearly seen

It was generally thought that the nail did indeed come from Tasman, who was one of the first westerners to visit Tonga.  However, on the third voyage, when again in Tonga in July 1777 Cook asked the T'ui Tonga Fatafehi Paulaho about the nail: 'he told me it came from Onnuahtabutabu (Niuatoputapu), and on asking him how the people of that island came by it, he said that one of them sold a Club for five Nails to a Ship which came to the island, and that these five nails after wards came to Tongatapu and were the first they had seen, so that the Iron they got from Captain Tasman must have been worn out and forgot long ago.'

Whatever the origin of the nail, with its bone handle the tool was a high-status object, to be used by someone of high rank.  It has been suggested that the holes in the handle of the other tool, 1886.1.1321, were made with the iron nail - it fits the holes perfectly.

Holes bored in the handle of 1886.1.1321

See: Kaeppler, A.L. 'Eighteenth Century Tonga: New Interpretations of Tongan Society and Material Culture at the Time of Captain Cook' Man, New Series, Vol. 6, No.2 (Jun 1971), pp 204-220

Coote, J. Entry nos 347 and 348 in the catalogue 'James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific', Thames and Hudson 2009.

Friday, 8 June 2012

'A Shield made of Bone'

1886.1.1146 Whalebone breastplate

This whalebone breastplate is No.62 in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities', where it is described as 'A Shield made of Bone, probably of a cetaceous animal.'

In 'A Voyage Round the World' George Forster describes acquiring this object on Tongatapu in October 1773; '…we returned to the sea shore, where a brisk trade for vegetables, fowls and hogs was carried on.  Here we bought a large flat shield or breastplate, of roundish bone, white and polished like ivory, about eighteen inches in diameter, which appeared to have belonged to an animal of the cetaceous tribe'

The breastplate is probably made from the jawbone of a sperm whale.  The Tongans relied on stranded whales, so that whalebone and teeth were very rare and valuable commodities, only the chiefs being allowed to possess them.  These breastplates were probably not made often, although there is another second voyage example in the Forster collection of the Georg-August-Universitat, Gottingen, and a larger, thinner specimen in the British Museum, said to be from Fiji.

As Forster recorded, the breastplate is about 46cm or 18 inches in diameter, and about 8mm thick.  One side has been highly polished, possibly to resemble  pearlshell, which was also used for breast ornaments to indicate chiefly status.  The top has been drilled in three places for a cord, now lost.

The surface of the polished whalebone, x12

The breastplate was dirty on the rougher side - the side not usually displayed, but the surface deposits were easily removed by gentle cleaning using cotton wool swabs barely dampened with distilled water.