Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Tattooing on Tahiti

Cook encountered tattoing on Tahiti in 1769, and wrote about it in the official account of the voyage;

'Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible. Some have ill-design'd figures of men, birds, or dogs; the women generally have this figure Z simply on every joint of their fingers and Toes; the men have it likewise, and both have other differant figures, such as Circles, Crescents, etc., which they have on their Arms and Legs; in short, they are so various in the application of these figures that both the quantity and Situation of them seem to depend intirely upon the humour of each individual, yet all agree in having their buttocks covered with a Deep black. Over this Most have Arches drawn one over another as high as their short ribs, which are near a Quarter of an inch broad. These Arches seem to be their great pride, as both men and Women show them with great pleasure.

Their method of Tattowing I shall now describe. The colour they use is lamp black, prepar'd from the Smoak of a Kind of Oily nut, used by them instead of Candles. The instrument for pricking it under the Skin is made of very thin flatt pieces of bone or Shell, from a quarter of an inch to an inch and a half broad, according to the purpose it is to be used for, and about an inch and a half long. One end is cut into sharp teeth, and the other fastened to a handle. The teeth are dipped into black Liquor, and then drove, by quick, sharp blows struck upon the handle with a Stick for that purpose, into the skin so deep that every stroke is followed with a small quantity of Blood. The part so marked remains sore for some days before it heals. As this is a painful operation, especially the Tattowing their Buttocks, it is perform'd but once in their Life times; it is never done until they are 12 or 14 years of Age.'

In Tahiti, the arms and legs were decorated, while elsewhere in Polynesia the torso and face were also tattooed.  The Tahitian te tatau means 'to knock lightly', and the rhythmic beating of the mallet onto the needle comb pushed pigment deep into the skin.  The work was carried out by a priest, and the markings venerated the god Ta'aroa, symbolising also rank and social status.  

Many Polynesian tattoo designs were similar to those found on barkcloth, and there is the suggestion that tattoos were used to 'wrap the body' in the same way, conferring mana and status on the owner.

1886.1.1547 and .1548 Tattoing comb and mallet

Detail of tattooing comb 1886.1.1547 showing bone teeth

These tattooing instruments were collected by the Forsters on the second voyage, and are described in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities' as 'No.37. Tattowing or puncturing instruments.' They are made from wood, but the head of the comb is made from bird bone, carved at the end to form sharp teeth.

Sydney Parkinson, the artist on the first voyage, who himself received a tattoo during his three month stay in Tahiti, shows in this sketch the position of a tattoo on the buttock, illustrating the important Polynesian crescent motif. 

Friday, 19 October 2012

Investigating Plant Fibres

A part of this project to conserve and investigate the Cook-voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum is to attempt to identify the materials from which the objects are made.  Knowing what artefacts are made from can help us find out where they were collected.  Although the Catalogue of Curiosities gives us fairly good information about this, sometimes there is still confusion, as in entry No. 98. 'Nine different kinds of necklaces; together with three mother of pearl shells which hang on the breast.'  Although this entry appears in the section entitled 'The Friendly Isles' (Tonga) not all of the necklaces come from there - some, in fact, were thought to be from New Zealand. 

Information about materials comes from various sources - the Forsters sometimes mention what the objects they collected were made from.  Curators and researchers have added information over the years - but sometimes materials are very similar and only close observation under the microscope can distinguish them.  Plant fibres come into this category, which brings me back to the nine necklaces which are part of Forster No. 98.  

Nine necklaces, part of Forster No. 98

The necklaces are all made from beads of various kinds, threaded on cords made from vegetable fibre.  If the necklace is from New Zealand, the fibre will probably be from New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax - harakeke).  This plant did not grow on Tonga in the Eighteenth century - the Tongans used a plant in the nettle family, Pipturus argenteus (olonga) to make a fine cord, also used in the manufacture of fish hooks and nets.   

Samples consisting of a single fragment of fibre were taken from the cords of all of the necklaces.  The samples were dehydrated in ethanol, and then washed in toluene before being mounted on slides in Numount, a synthetic mounting medium intended as a replacement for Canada Balsam.   The samples need to be washed in toluene, which is the solvent for Numount, because ethanol would make the Numount go cloudy.  
Samples of loose fibres were taken from several Maori objects in the Cook-voyage collections, as examples of aged New Zealand flax fibres, and also from Tongan fishing hooks and a fishing net - likely to be samples of olonga.  

New Zealand flax fibres, x100

New Zealand flax fibres, x400

Comparison of the 'known' samples under the microscope, using crossed polars showed the the two fibres are quite distinct - the olonga fibre in particular has characteristic diagonal lines on the surface which may be a result of varying thicknesses within the cell wall. 

Olonga fibres, x100
Olonga fibres, x400

The samples taken from the necklaces could then be compared with the 'known' fibres.  The cords of those considered stylistically to come from Tonga were all made from olonga fibre, and those thought to come from New Zealand were made from harakeke.  One necklace was the subject of debate, but the fibre proved to be olonga, suggesting that it came from Tonga.

Fibres from necklace 1886.1.1575, x100

Fibres from 1886.1.1575, x400

Thursday, 11 October 2012

'Beautiful and noble in its kind.'

Forster 134 Mus. No. 1886.1.1340 Headdress, Marquesas

This is Forster No. 134. 'A headdress of mother of pearl & tortoise shell, with cock's feathers.'  Collected on the Marquesas in April 1774, Forster described these headdresses in 'A Voyage Round the World' - 'On their heads many of them wore a kind of diadem; this consisted of a flat bandage wrought of coco-nut core, on the outside of which several round pieces of mother of pearl, some of them five inches in diameter, were fixed, covered in the middle with a plate of tortoise-shell, perforated like fret-work. Several tufts of long, black and glossy cock's feathers formed the plumes to this head-dress, which was really beautiful and noble in its kind.' 

Image from the David Rumsey Map Collection

William Hodges, the official artist on the second voyage (1772-1775) drew a chief, Honu, from Tahuata, possibly from life on the 9th April 1774.  Forster describes the meeting - 'We went on shore after breakfast, and found our friendly natives assembled on the beach.  Among them was a chief, who was dressed in a cloak manufactured of the paper-mulberry bark, like the Tahetian cloth, and who wore the diadem, the gorget, the ear pendant, and bunches of hair. We learnt that this man was king of the whole island…'  

The diadem is known as a uhikana, the one collected by Forster being a rare double uhikana, here illustrated in the official account of the second voyage (Cook 1777, pl. XVII, fig. 4.)  

The motifs carved into the tortoiseshell overlay are seen on uhikana dating from the early contact period.  The ipu or 'container' motif is thought to represent a protective shell, such as of a turtle or crab, and to have a similar protective function for the wearer.