Monday, 4 April 2016

A mysterious Coconut Head from the UCL Ethnografic Collection

The object is a head-shaped figure carved from a coconut drupe. The head was carved using the coconut upside down. The eyes and mouth are represented in a simplified manner, through carved lines, and there is also one eyebrow carved on top of each eye. The mouth is just a simple straight carved line, which is thicker and deeper than the eyes. There is no clearly carved nose, but an indent between the eyes that serves that purpose. A deeply carved line goes around the top of the head to represent a hairline, including the sideburns on both side of the head, and this same line represents the top of the ears. A second shallower and less visible line goes parallel but only around the front side and the sideburns. Both ears are carved including details and a deeper carved hole for the ear canal.

There is no documentation or confirmed provenance. Presumably, it was created in Nicobar islands or the Andaman Islands but no date or information of acquisition in attached to the object. The object is now part of the UCL ethnographic collection, which is part of UCL Museum & Collections. One of the main goals supports the learning and research through the use and access of their objects (UCL Museum & Collections 2016). This human head carved coconut has great research and scientific significance, being part of a university teaching collection on UCL means that not only research on ethnography or anthropology could be carried out, but also other disciplines and faculties could be interested in a conserved full coconut drupe from the beginnings of the 20th century.
If ongoing consultations confirmed the relation with a similar human head carved coconut, it could mean that this object has an important historical significance. It might, for example, be associated with the Andaman Cellular Jail, an infamous detention place for political prisoners, where many lost their lives and suffered from inhuman treatment, a place of great historical significance for the struggles of independence of many of the Indian British colonies.

Although structurally sound the surface is much more unstable and fragile. The object presents cracks on the surface. There is the constant loss of fibers and particulate matter when handled. Some of the features and details of the carved work in some areas of the object have disappeared or are starting to disappear, for example, the right ear clearly has less volume and details when compared to the left one.  Also, there is a dark stain area near the right cheek of the object.

All images courtesy of the author. Please do not use without authorization.


UCL Public and Cultural Engagement. 2016. PACE at: (Accessed: 21 March 2016)

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2015-16), one of the core courses of the UCL MA  Principles of Conservation. As part of their assessed work for this course, students were asked to investigate objects from the UCL Ethnography Collections at the UCL Department of Anthropology. Here they present a summary of their main conclusions. We hope you enjoy our work! Comments are most welcome.

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