U'u from the Marquesas Islands, Oceania. Part of the Pitt Rivers Museum Founding Collection. Given to the Museum in 1884.
This distinctive club, known as an U'u, is from the Marquesas Islands, a volcanic archipelago in French Polynesia. It is approximately 1.5 metres long and would have been used as a staff when not in use form combat. It is made of a dark wood that has been highly polished. The head is flattened to enable it to be carried under the arm and is carved with an abstract human face, with small human heads modelled in relief to form the eyes and nose. Traditionally, specialist carvers would have used tools made of sharks' teeth to do this. The handle is decorated with tufts of light coloured hair, probably that of a dog, bound on with sennit (plaited grass).
The U'u is the commonest type of Marquesan art object to be found in museum collections around the world. In part, this reflects the importance of the warrior in Marquesan society, as elsewhere in Polynesia. The toa (warriors) formed the third class of Marquesan society, inferior only to the chiefly elite and the priesthood. The U'u was one of several indicators of warrior status, and was carried both in daily life and in battle. Like a number of adornments, and the many evidences of woodcarving for which the Marquesan Islanders are internationally renowned, the U'u is manufactured to a schema which sits within a highly complex, elaborate and culturally defined context of personal adornment that is hardly matched anywhere in the world.
The name 'U'u' itself means 'head' and many examples feature ten or more different sets of eyes or a face, nested within the overall human-shaped structure of the club. Face-based decorative motifs have been common in different parts of Polynesia for 3000 years. However, the early-19th century U'u represents the zenith of that artistic trend's development. The famous French painter Paul Gauguin, who lived in the Marquesas Islands for a number of years, remarked: "The basis of this art is the human body or face...always the same thing and yet never the same thing". The arrangement of these facial motifs, known as tiki, has sparked much discussion by art historians. Faces have great cultural and familial significance within Marquesan society: the term 'Mata'enana' means 'face people' and refers to ancestors, while 'Matatetau' means 'to count faces', and is the term given to the act of reciting the members of your family tree. The face on the U'u club then, represents these ancestors who can ensure that things go well for the living by providing them with the necessary spiritual power and vitality, a force known as mana.
Another common carving motif, which can be seen on the neck of this U'u, is a pattern of concentric circles, called 'Ipu', meaning a container, vessel, or skull. This seems to imply a containing function for the decoration and indeed, the U'u should be regarded not only as a representation of the warrior's ancestors but also as a a container for his mana (spiritual power), which is derived from them. The U'u enables him to take his mana on to the battlefield in order to grant him success. Additionally, the warrior's appearance was designed and constructed to inspire awe and fear of his mana in the enemy. So, along with the club, he wore into battle a large elaborate headdress, carved wooden gorgets overlaid with brightly coloured seed beads and large fillets of human hair, the carved skulls of previous enemies tied at his waist, large whale ivory ear-spools, capes of printed bark-cloth, and either an entire sperm whale tooth, or a large pearl shell, tied around his neck. To complete this practice of bodily adornment, all Marquesan warriors were covered from head to foot in tattoos.