Sunday, 5 July 2015

Rediscovering objects: Origin, Use, Significance and Condition

When you spend a few hours with an object every week, you build a connection with it. Every conservator knows that, and there is something beautiful at almost touching the mind that created that object.

During ARCLG 142 Context ofConservation: Understanding Objects (a core course of the UCL MA Principles of Conservation), I was assigned H.0039, a gourd vessel without records of its past history or when it was acquired by UCL. The object consisted in two main parts: a main spherical body and a cylindrical stopper. With little information to begin with, I started my research about the object surrounded by countless questions: Is the object really from Africa? Where exactly in the continent? Is it a copy or an original? How old is it? Who brought it? When was it made? How was it used? What does it mean?
Fig 1: Object H.0039. Gourd vessel located in the Material Culture Room at the Department of Anthropology (UCL)

Fig 2: Object H.0039. Gourd vessel without stopper, showing geometrical designs.

Fig 3: Object H.0039. Gourd vessel stopper formed by a rolled-up leaf decorated and protected by woven grass fibre.

As a starting point, I decided to verify the information available. I picked one question and I started from there. I asked the object ‘Where are you from?’. After looking at other collections, closely studying the object, some research and emails exchanged, I found reason to believe that despite the label of the object stating that the provenance is Africa, the provenance of this object was probably Papua New Guinea. I believe it is possibly a lime pot – or a copy of one – known as yaguma in the native language of Massim culture.

Fig. 4: Scheme of the stopper manufacture process.

Fig. 5: Scheme of the geometrical designs decorating the gourd.

The object is thought to be a lime gourd, used to carry burnt shells, forming a lime powder that was used along with betel nut for betel chewing. Similar objects were often used for magic rituals, music, and as a summoning instrument.

Betel nut chewing is appreciated for its psychoactive effects and hunger-reducing properties. In the past, this old tradition was followed by lowland indigenous;  since the 1960s it has spread to the metropolitan and highlands areas of New Guinea. It is believed to be a result of the process undergone by Papua New Guinea of building their own and united ‘national culture'. It is one of the few traditions that have been left untouched by European colonialism.

The overall condition of the object is fair. However, despite its stability, the object shows signs of deterioration and is covered by a layer of dust. The deterioration of materials is essentially limited to the grass fibre in the stopper, where changes in the relative humidity might have caused the embrittlement of the organic material. The grass fibre that decorates the rolled-up leaf stopper presents an area of material loss and fibre breakage. The flattened section of the rolled-up leaf shows minor signs of chemical deterioration indicated by crackling (Figure 6).

Fig. 6: Stopper of H.0039 showing the areas of loss of the grass fibre decorating the leaf stopper and the embrittlement of the fibre.

Fig. 7: Stopper of H.0039. Embrittlement of the rolled-up leaf forming the stopper. (Image made with a DinoXcope)

My most important discovery, in my opinion, is the white residue in the bottom of the stopper, hidden when closed. This sediment could be related to the original purpose of the gourd: transporting lime. However, further technical analysis should be carried to confirm this hypothesis. If the white residue was confirmed to be lime powder, it would authenticate its provenance as well as its use, which would reinforce its value inside the collection. The inside of the gourd is completely clean. The gourd might have been cleaned or the stopper could have been used in another gourd, but this second thesis seems unlikely since the joint fits snugly.

Fig. 8:  Interior of the stopper: rolled-up leaf. Broken fibres and white residue
 (Image made with a DinoXcope)

Fig. 9:  Interior of the stopper: rolled-up leaf. White residue suspected to be lime
 (Image made with a DinoXcope)

It was essential to confirm the evidence found and reassess the values of the object due to the relevance of the provenance, since the change in provenance meant an entirely new perspective of meanings and stakeholders that will affect the significance of this object. Unfortunately, it was not possible to find the acquisition date and, therefore, it is difficult to give an estimate date of manufacture.

What is clear is that, understanding this object, its provenance, function and significance is crucial for the collection. The most significant thing is that if the object, original or not, really comes from the Massim Culture, instead of from Africa, its value for the teaching collection of the Anthropology Department radically changes. Observance and research allow recovering the significance of an object that was lost by the lack of documentation. Consequently, this case illustrates the importance of documentation.

By Alicia de la Serna (all images by the author, please do not use without permission)

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