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.