An Erromangan Enigma

James Flexner gives an account of his visit to the University of Aberdeen Museums Collections and highlights some of the intriguing objects he uncovered…

Over the last two years, I have been doing a survey of museum collections with objects from the islands of southern Vanuatu, which are Erromango, Tanna, Aneityum, Futuna, and Aniwa. This research is part of an Australian Research Council-funded project** on the archaeology of early Presbyterian missions in southern Vanuatu. Fieldwork has focused primarily on Tanna and Erromango mission houses and the surrounding Melanesian landscapes.

A major theme of the project is the role of objects as a medium for interaction in these early colonial encounters. At the mission sites I’ve been documenting and excavating along with local Vanuatu Cultural Centre colleagues and student volunteers, we get a sense of the western objects and ideas (as expressed through architecture and other materials) that were brought to these remote islands. To document the other side of the exchanges that took place, I turn to museum collections holding Melanesian objects, focusing on Presbyterian missionary collections from the 1800s and early 1900s. Presbyterian missionaries often collected indigenous objects to send back to museums in their home countries, which included Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Scotland. I approach these museum collections as archaeological “assemblages”, groups of objects whose context is ultimately the museum collections they are a part of, but which provide important information about trade and exchange in the past.

Erromangan spindle-headed clubs from the University of Aberdeen Museum

Erromangan spindle-headed clubs from the University of Aberdeen Museum

One such assemblage is held by the University of Aberdeen Museums, currently at Marischal College in the Human Culture collections. The primary missionary collectors for the museum’s New Hebrides collections were Rev. Frederick G. Bowie, a University of Aberdeen graduate who was based on Espiritu Santo Island beginning in 1896, donating objects to the museum throughout his career, and Rev. William Ross, an Australian-based missionary who bequeathed a large collection including a number of New Hebrides objects to the museum in 1900.

The New Hebrides collections in Aberdeen relate largely to Espiritu Santo and more northern islands, not surprising given Rev. Bowie’s career path and the geographic focus of the New Hebrides missions around the turn of the century. However, there are a number of objects from the southern islands, including coconut shell armbands, wooden clubs, and pearl shell pendants. These are fairly common, but still valuable objects for understanding the indigenous material culture of southern Vanuatu, especially as it relates to what people in the islands were trading with missionaries as part of early colonial material exchanges.


“Erromango” Shark’s Tooth Dagger

The catalogue entry for ABDUA:39214 drew my attention immediately. The listing described a “shark’s tooth dagger” attributed to the island of Erromango in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu*). These kinds of daggers are not known to have been produced on Erromango, or indeed in the New Hebrides generally. Whatever was happening here, this object had a story to tell, and I would have to see it in person to find out more.

The object did not disappoint, though as often happens, it raised more questions than it answered. The object is a little over 40cm long, and consists of a piece of carved wood fashioned into a handle at one and, tapering along the other end, which forms the “blade.” Four rows of perforated shark’s teeth are lashed to the blade, two long rows alternated with two shorter ones. Where the blade meets the handle, whoever made this dagger lashed a dried leaf of some kind, possibly from a Pandanus plant. The style of this dagger would be pretty typical for Kiribati (pronounced Keer-uh-bahs), a group of islands in Micronesia spread across 3.5 million sq km of the Pacific Ocean, located over 2000km northeast from Erromango.

Detail of the handle and shark’s tooth “blade” of ABDUA:39214

Detail of the handle and shark’s tooth “blade” of ABDUA:39214

Old labels from ABDUA:39214

Old labels from ABDUA:39214

There are two old labels associated with this object. The most relevant reads, “Shark’s Tooth Kn[ife] from South Sea Islan[ds]. (?Erromanga) Presented Mrs Lawrence.”

As I said, this object has raised more questions than it has answered, but that is part of the intrigue of old collections. The object provides us with a classic example of what archaeologists, among other scholars, call “equifinality”, that is a situation in which multiple hypotheses could all provide equally viable explanations for a given phenomenon.

In this case, it is possible that we are looking at a simple error as the object was mislabelled either by the collector or as it entered and moved around museum stores over the years. Given the specificity of the attribution, though, there may be more to this (there are plenty of objects generically labelled “South Seas”, “Polynesia”, “New Hebrides”, or similar, but most objects attributed to a particular island are given that attribution for a reason). That said, even the old label indicates ambiguity about the origin of this object, so perhaps it was a case of overenthusiastic (and incorrect) attribution by a collector or museum employee.

There are several alternative possibilities that relate to the increasing mobility of Pacific Islanders over the course of the 1800s and early 1900s. During this time, people from throughout Oceania worked on ships’ crews, and they moved around between different islands as labourers, often going to Fiji, Queensland (Australia), or New Caledonia to work on sugar plantations as part of the notorious “Blackbirding” labour trade. Both Kiribati and Erromango were part of these networks linking islands throughout the region in new ways during the colonial era.

With this in mind, perhaps this dagger was given to an Erromangan labourer who had worked with an I-Kiribati on a plantation, brought it back to the island, and later traded it to “Mrs. Lawrence” herself, or someone who gave it to her. Alternatively, the object was produced by an Erromangan person in Kiribati style. Or perhaps, an I-Kiribati happened to be on Erromango at the time this object was exchanged with a European, and left its Oceanic context to become part of the global trade in “curiosities.”

For now, we can’t answer the question with any certainty. However, a bit of ambiguity is part of the nature of archaeological research. We might learn more about this object through documentary evidence, for example a better understanding of who Mrs. Lawrence was, and how she got her collection before donating it to the University of Aberdeen. The museum’s archival collections do include a list of objects presented by Mrs. Lawrence in 1920 and perhaps this list holds a vital clue for the life history of ABDUA:39214.

Or perhaps we can find other examples of “out of place” objects like this, things that stylistically belong to one place and have been attributed to another. While there are certainly many cases where such mixed attributions are simply a case of errors made by people unfamiliar with Pacific material culture, I think the phenomenon is too common, and the history of Pacific mobility too significant to always interpret this tendency as a result of such mistakes. Rather, these assemblages contain objects that are a reflection of the fact that Pacific Islanders never simply stayed home, and in the colonial era, they moved around more than ever before as participants in an environment of new opportunities and new labour regimes, sometimes positive and sometimes tragic.

Ultimately, it is the untold stories of such objects that draws us to museum collections, and an important reminder of their ongoing significance in the 21st century, as new generations of scholars and cultural practitioners engage with material culture, its movements and meanings.

Author bio: Dr. James L. Flexner is an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University. His research deals broadly with colonial archaeology and landscape archaeology in Oceania, currently focusing on the archaeology of early mission sites in southern Vanuatu.

*To maintain a sense of historical continuity, I’ll use “New Hebrides” to refer to historical objects and places, and “Vanuatu” to refer to the present islands of the independent nation, which has existed since 1980.

**ARC DECRA DE130101703: “Mission archaeology and colonial encounters in Southern Vanuatu”


About uoamuseums

The University of Aberdeen's Museums include King’s Museum and the University's Zoology Museum. The museums can claim to be Scotland's oldest, with records of museums and collections as far back as the late 17th century. Thanks to their status as a Recognised Collection of national significance, the Zoology Museum’s displays are currently being improved, while King's Museum hosts changing exhibitions drawn from across the collections, particularly those formerly in Marischal Museum. Visitors are warmly welcomed to the museums, and there are no charges for admission. Marischal College now houses the Museums Collections Centre, caring for and conserving many of the collections.
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