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.