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.