Thursday, 1 August 2013

A Chance Discovery

The Pitt Rivers Museum was founded in 1884 when General Pitt Rivers, an influential figure in the development of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology, gave his collection to the University.  The ethnographic holdings of the Ashmolean were transferred to the Pitt Rivers in 1886, including the Forster collection.

Sometimes, objects, or fragments of objects, were transferred and the provenance was unknown.  Research into these is ongoing, and that's why I happened to notice a strip of barkcloth, waiting to be investigated, in one of our store rooms.  It carries the blue label which indicates that it came from the Ashmolean, and a note with it said that it has no provenance or number.

Barkcloth strip with blue Ashmolean label

On examining the strip of black-dyed, brittle barkcloth, two things struck me - that it was very similar in appearance to a strip of black barkcloth on the cape of the Tahitian Mourner's costume, largely missing, and that the remains of paste or gum along one long edge of the strip indicate that it was originally pasted onto something else, similar to the way that the differently coloured barkcloth strips are pasted onto the cape.

Remains of paste along the top edge of the strip

Closer investigation of the cape was difficult, as the Mourner's costume is currently on display in 'exploded' form.  However, we managed to take the hat and cape out of the case and examine the damaged black barkcloth stripe - there was no doubt that it was identical to the piece I had found.  Slightly puzzling was the fact that the loose strip was about 10cm too long to have been the missing part of this black stripe.

Expected position of barkcloth strip on Mourner's Costume cape

Looking at the cape, it appears that there is an entire stripe of barkcloth missing, as the pattern of stripes is broken near the top.  Lifting the remaining barkcloth strips, it's possible to see the underlying piece of barkcloth to which they are all pasted.  There, just where I had expected, were residues of a line of paste, with fibres of black barkcloth embedded in them. The length of the missing stripe corresponded  to the length of the barkcloth strip that I'd found in the store.  There is no doubt that the missing strip of barkcloth was the piece I had found, which must have been separated from the costume for over 120 years.

Actual position of barkcloth strip on cape

When the Mourner's costume is taken off of display in preparation for remounting as part of a new Cook-voyage display after the end of this project, I will reattach the strip of black barkcloth and reunite the pieces of the cape.