Sunday, 3 April 2016

Five Paraguayan Birds Dolls from the UCL Ethnography Collections

Figure 1. M.0105 five wool and Rhea bone dolls, with three disarticulated bones
M.0105 is a collection of five dolls constructed of wool wrapped around the phalanges of a Rhea bird. Three disarticulated bones are also associated with this collection. Unfortunately there is very little information available on the biography of the five woolen dolls and three disarticulated bones within the collection, outside of what was written on their tag. 

The discovery of two contemporary collections of dolls belonging to the National Museum of the American Indian, as well as the British Museum assisted in the identification of materials, dating, and possible country of origin for the five intact dolls belonging to University College London’s Ethnographic collection. The NMAI’s collection, purchased in 1926 by George Heye from an unknown source in London, consist of six intact dolls created in 1890 - 1920 and are attributed with the Lengua (sometimes referred to as Enxet) tribe of the Chiquitos Indians from the Chaco region of Eastern Bolivia and Paraguay. These dolls are of similar construction and material as UCL’s. Similarities were also found in the three wool wrapped dolls belonging to the British Museum, purchased by S. H. C. Hawtrey in 1901. Given this information it is likely that the dolls were created in the late 1800s to early 1900s by the Lengua tribe, before being exported to London and purchased by UCL for it’s Ethnographic collection. Along with a change in location and ownership this exportation represents, there is also a shifting in values for the birds. When they were purchased for UCL’s collection, they were no longer simply toys to be played with, but instead represented the Chaco regions’ culture as a whole.

The birds are in a fairly stable condition at present and do not seem to be actively deteriorating. They are, however, very delicate and susceptible to mechanical damage due to improper handling or packaging. This may become problematic in the future given the nature of the collection the dolls are associated with. The bird that seems to be the most vulnerable to improper handling is the dark brown wool and Rhea bird bone doll. This doll is particularly delicate, because the outer wool wrapping is no longer fastened in anyway and is only loosely wrapped around the inner structure of the doll. The fabric of this doll is also damaged and has several small holes perforating the material. The fabrics of the other dolls appear to be much more stable, although there is some fading and discoloration on a couple of the birds, near the areas of exposed bone. All of the fabrics use in the construction of the birds are fraying, some of the looser weaves seem to be more susceptible to fraying than the tighter weaves. Several of the birds and one of the disarticulated bones has a small amount of pitch/gum material attached to their outer surface. This material is friable and remnants of flacking were found within the original packaging material.  In order to prevent future deterioration a mount was constructed that would enable students to view the objects without handling them.
Figure 2. Dolls in their old storage container
Figure 3. Dolls in their new storage container
All images by author. Please do not use without authorization. 

The British Museum, 2016. Collection Online. [ONLINE] Available at:  searchText=lengua+doll [Accessed 21 January 16].

Childs, A. A., 2011. Small Spirits: Gorgeously crafted dolls are on view at New York City’s Heye Center. [ONLINE] Available at: center-6863765/ [Accessed 15 January 16]

De La Torre, M. (ed.), 2002. Assessing the Values of Cultural Heritage. Research Report, Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute.

Hawtrey, S. H. C., 1901. The Lengua Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 32. London: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 280 - 299.

Lenz, M. J., 2004. Small Spirits: Native American Dolls from the Museum of the American Indian.Seattle: University of Washington Press, 78. 

National Museum of the American Indian, 2016. Collection Search. [ONLINE] Available at: objmatbroad=Bone%3A+Bird&objmatspec=Rhea+toe+bone [Accessed 15 January 16].

UCL Museums and Collections. Five dolls made of bone from the Rhea bird, covered in cloth. UCL Ethnographic Collections’ Catalogue. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 15 January 16].

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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