Melanesian Tattooing

Canoe-prow figure, New Georgia, Solomon Islands

Frigate bird kapkap, Santa Cruz, Solomon Islands

[b]Top:[/b] Collected by Alan Herbert Coltart and donated by Mrs A. H. Coltart in 1939; 1939.12.49[br][b]Bottom:[/b] Collected by and purchased from F. H. Drew of the Melanesian Mission by 1911; 1911.54.29Top: Collected by Alan Herbert Coltart and donated by Mrs A. H. Coltart in 1939; 1939.12.49
Bottom: Collected by and purchased from F. H. Drew of the Melanesian Mission by 1911; 1911.54.29
This wooden head would have been placed on the prow of a war canoe. Sometimes known as musumusu, these anthropomorphic heads kept away the winds and water fiends that might threaten to upset the boat. Like many musumusu it holds a smaller head in its hands and would have had nautilus shell eyes (now lost). The incised pattern of geometric shapes and lines is said to echo the traditional facial tattoos worn in New Georgia, the largest island of the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. Tattoos in Oceania tend to be monochrome, black on skin, and here that is reversed in the way white lime picks out the lines carved in to the black wood.

In many parts of Melanesia women tattoo other women and this type of tattoo would have been the work of a female expert. Further west in Tanga in New Ireland, women tattooists used ash to outline the design on the face then cut the design, starting from the forehead and working down, with a simple tool of sharpened obsidian or bamboo. With a leaf applicator they then applied the dye to the wound. The whole design could take anything from two to twelve months to complete so what appeared to be unbroken lines from a distance were usually individual dashes separated by a tiny gap, applied in this way over time so as not to aggravate the scars from previous sittings. Whilst a lack of a facial tattoo did not necessarily disadvantage someone in Solomons society, the possession of one was deemed to enhance attractiveness.

In other parts of the Solomon Islands, such as Owaraha (formerly Santa Ana) it was customary for a woman to be tattooed on the upper body, including her breasts, after marriage. This practice was stopped in the 1970s on the grounds of cruelty and incompatibility with Christianity. The female tattoo artist was paid for her services with food or shell money but in the island nation of Vanuatu (New Hebrides) to the southeast, a man paid his male tattooist with wild boar.

The square, chevron, and circular patterns on this canoe prow are typical of the geometric shapes in traditional Melanesian tattoos. These are typically stylised representations of everyday objects or animals, such as millipedes, fish or birds. Most common were totemic birds like the hornbill and the frigate bird, which were tattooed in large form on a man's chest. Such images were also carved or painted on other items including canoes, house posts, bowls or coffins. Here the frigate bird is represented flying over a shoal of bonito fish, the motif cut from turtleshell and overlaid on a prestigious shell-disc 'kapkap' chest or head ornament. The frigate bird was an important creature to the islanders because it helped guide and assist in fishing by identifying the location of the fish.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England