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Treasures of the World's Cultures: The British Museum after 250 Years
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Pearls of the Pacific: the Island Cultures of Oceania

The numerous islands scattered across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean show an amazing diversity of societies and a great variety of cultural invention. The majority of the people of the area grow crops, although fishing is an important activity around most small islands and on the coasts of the larger landmasses. Pacific peoples had no metals before the coming of Europeans, and so they developed a remarkable range of manufacturing techniques using tools of stone, bone, and shell as well as a variety of organic materials, such as wood and coral. While sculpture was an important form across the Pacific, as typified by the monumental stone figures of Easter Island, islands or districts had very localized styles of manufacture and art. In some areas, woodcarving was highly developed, in others shell-working, modelling in clay and vegetable pastes, or making textiles. One of the best known of these regional styles is found in the sophisticated art of the Maori, with its emphasis on intricate woodcarving and jade work.

Nephrite Hand club

Maori. Bay of Islands, North Island, New Zealand.
Nephrite
L43.0 cm
Christy Collection: gift of Sir C.H. Read
Oc1896,-.929
Enlargement
Nephrite Hand club

This hand club was one of four objects given by Titore, a Maori chief of the Ngapuhi tribe, to F.W. Sadler, of the HMS Buffalo. The Buffalo sailed regularly between Sydney and the Bay of Islands, North Island of New Zealand in the 1830s. The club was later sold by Sadler's grand-daughter to C.H. Read.

Maori weapons, and short clubs (mere) in particular, were made in several forms ideal for close range fighting. They were made of stone, wood or whalebone: those made of nephrite were the most prestigious. Maori value nephrite for its strength and its ability to keep a sharp cutting edge, as well as for its beauty. Such clubs were often given personal names, and were regarded as heirlooms.

A warrior would use the club in either hand, wielding it like a cleaver with a slicing motion to strike at an adversary's head or neck. When not in use, the mere was carried tucked into the folds of the man's belt, safe yet always at hand. The perforation at the butt end would be for a wrist strap, often a plaited flax fibre cord or a thong.

Flute

New Zealand, Pacific Ocean
Wood
L8.0, D3.0 cm
Donated by William Bragge 1869
Ethno Oc.5369
Enlargement
Flute

A drawing by an artist on Captain James Cook's first Pacific voyage indicates that this Maori flute was collected during the 1769-1770 exploration of New Zealand by HMS Endeavour. It has four playing holes and a small loop for a suspension cord. This type of flute is played by blowing either through the mouth or through the nose at the curved end: playing by the mouth produces a resonant sound, while playing by the nose gives a softer, sobbing effect. Historically, flute music and chanted poems helped to soothe the pain of tattooing. Musical instruments were seen to control and celebrate the air or breath (te ha) which, in the ancient Maori world, was considered to be the essence of life.

Male figure

Rotorua area, New Zealand, Pacific Ocean, 1994
Wood
H56 cm
Collected by Dorota Czarkowska Starzecka for the British Museum
AOA Oc1994,04.88
Enlargement
Male figure

Maori art continues to florish today. The internationally famous sculptor and carver Lyonel Grant (born in 1957) is affiliated to the Ngāti Pikiao tribe (Te Arawa group) of the Rotorua area of north New Zealand and is one of the most successful living Maori artists. He works in a variety of media – wood, stone, bronze, glass and resin. This figure is carved from a solid piece of tōtara (Podocarpus totara) a wood native to New Zealand. It is a modern version of a traditional form, the tekoteko, the figure positioned at the front apex of a house. Grant respects the skill of the carvers of previous generations and derives some of his inspiration from their art, giving it a modern interpretation. The figure features the carved lines of tattooing as seen over the face and thighs of an important male. Tattooing is one of the Maori arts currently enjoying a renaissance. The hands of the figure are shown characteristically with threelong, sinuous fingers, resting on the protruding belly.

D C Starzecka (ed), Maori: Art and Culture, (London, British Museum Press, 1996).