Wednesday, 24 May 2017

OBJECT ASSESSMENT OF CARVED BARK BELT FROM PAPUA NEW GUINEA, Ethnographic Collections, Department of Anthropology UCL

The Carved Body Belt, called a Kava, is dated circa 1900 and is from the Gulf of Papua New Guinea, between Kerema and the Fly River, the region of the Elema People (Lewis 1931 31-32). It is used in male initiation ceremonies and consists of a coiled piece of bark with carved human face motif on the outside with added pigment and a twine fasting attached at the outer end of the belt. The bark is from the Sago Palm and the pigments are made from charcoal, a white lime based pigment made from oyster shell and a red pigment from burnt clay (Barton and Giblin 1910, 160). The main bark body appears structurally sound however a lack of binder has contributed to the loss of a great amount of white pigment.

Fig:1, Image of Bark Belt, J.0044 showing side of the overlap, twine loop and the carved face design.

Fig: 2,  Image of J.0044 demonstrates the significant loss of pigment and the prominent four star pattern that features three times. 

Fig: 3, Image shows the coiled structure and how it overlaps, inside end of the belt is also visible.

Fig: 4, Image of Bark Belt from above, showing the tight  wound coil structure.

This Kava belt was a significant part of Elema male society, reflecting hierarchical status and rite of passage. The belts were part of a coming of age ceremony known as ‘Hevehe and Kovave’ (Eoe 1984, 13) and represented the initiation into a man cult. When boys were of puberty age, they went into seclusion away from their family and stayed in the back part of the Eravo (man’s house) for around three years. There they were taught how to become warriors and complete a number of unpleasant trials. Once the confinement ended the boys went through their initiations ceremony where they now become semese warriors signified by the Kava belt, made during their confinement (Barton and Giblin 1910, 259-261). The ceremony signified physical strength, bravery and solidarity between men when going into battle (Keesing 1998, 8-10). The width of the belt signified status and stylistic designs represented affiliations to tribes.  The carved face embodied the ‘ancestral spirits’ (Lewis, 1931, 1)  which possess deep spiritual significance (fig.3). It is likely that renewing pigment gave significant spiritual value as this was a belief for the retouching of shields, give  renewed  ‘spiritual strength during battle’ (Head and Willet 2014, 150) (fig.7).

Fig: 5, Shows a detailed image demonstrating the carving of the design and the rough areas of the carved surface. oyster shell may have been used for the fine decretive carving of the belt, although knifes began to surpass shell as the preferred carving tool.

Fig: 6, Shows a photograph from the 1930s of a man from Orokolo (village near Kerema, along the Papuan Coast) Credit: Lewis  1931 26. Men of the Elema people wore the belts drawn tightly around their waist, however there are regional differences on how the belt was worn.

Fig: 7, The white pigment could have been  re-applied for ceremonies. Microscopic analysis with the Dino-lite/AM7000 (approx. 30X-magnification) revealed different layers of varying white pigment indicating different stages of renewal.

During the 1880-1930 there was great surge in the collecting of Papuan art like this belt, valued as curiosities.  Colonial pacification saw a reduction in warfare between tribes, which in turn saw a reduction and rarity in the type of associated objects (Boylan et al. 2002, 30).  The object is now valued as part of the Ethnographic teaching collection and has been displayed in the UCL Anthology Galleries in The Bodily and Material Culture of Religious Subjectivation conference, exploring ‘the transformation of the body to express spiritual connections’ (Mercier 2014). 


Eoe S. M. 1984. The Elema People of Papua New Guinea. Bathhurst: Robert Brown & Associates (Aust) Pty. Ltd. 

Barton F. R. and Giblin, E. I., 1910. The Melanesians of British New Guiana.  Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press

Boylan. C, Moriarty, S. and Wilson, N., 2000. The Moriarty legacy, collecting New Guinea highlands art. A conversation between Chris Boylan, Simon Moriarty and Natalie Wilson.  In: Wilson. N (ed) Plumes and Pearlshells, Art of the New Guinea Highlands.  Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 27-32

Haddon A. C 1920. Migrations of Cultures in British New Guinea. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 50, 237-280.

Head K, and L.Willet, 2014. Approaches to the conservation of art from the New Guinea Highlands, in Wilson. N (ed),2014. Plumes and Pearlshells, Art of the New Guinea Highlands.  Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 149-151

Lewis. B. L., 1931. Carved Painting Designs from New Guinea. Anthropology Design Series No.5,  Field Museum of Natural History Chicago.

Keesing. R. M., 1998, Introduction In: Gilbert, H. H (ed). Rites of Manhood, Male Initiation in Papua New Guinea. California: University of California Press, 1-43 

Mercier. D., 2014. The Bodily and Material Culture of Religious Subjectivation conference. Ethnography Collections, Just another blog. Accessed 7th of April 2017 from the  World Wide Web:

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2016-17), 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.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Assessment of K.0020 Five bells, UCL Ethnography Collections

Figure 1 Each bell has former accession numbers from the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) painted on the surface. From the left: 60424; 60428; 60425; 60426; 60427.

Figure 2 The detatched cane that was originally part 60428.


Accession No. K.0020 consists of five bells (fig.1, fig.5) and a detached cane (fig.2). Each bell consists of a hollowed oblong Borassus seed shell (fig.3) tied with strings that have one or two clappers fastened inside. The natural shape of the seeds have been used as a basis to create idiophones with clappers to strike against the hard shell to produce sound. The strings are made of twisted plant fibres while all the clappers are carved wood, apart from the forged iron clapper in 60424.  
Figure 3 Anatomy of the Borassus flabellifera fruit.


Figure 4 BaAka (also known as Congo Pygmies)
in hunting gear and a Basenji dog
with a dibu around
its neck.
Madibu for dogs were usually simple, though
they could be decorated to express an
owner's love (Thompson 1989,42).

Figure 5 An Azande 'witchdoctor' with madibu
fastened to his 
belt. The sounds produced during
dances were associated 
with hunting and chasing away
evil spirits, bad luck and illnesses 
(Evans-Pritchard 1976, 73;
Thompson 1989, 42; MacGaffey 2002, 15).
Original accession records from the Wellcome Collection (Wellcome Library Accessions register: WA/HMM/CM/Acc/20, Vol 20: 60000-60514. Oct 1932 - May 1933. Box No 251) documents at least two, if not three different provenances within former Belgian Congo (present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, DNR) and possibly in what was the French colony of Ubangi-Shari (Miers and Roberts 1988, xx), where they may have been produced with locally available materials The bells appear characteristic for madibu[1], which were used as dog bells during hunts (fig.4) and as ritual accessories (fig.5) by ethnic groups habiting these areas, namely the BaAka, Azande and Bakongo, at least by 1875 (Evans-Pritchard 1960, 319; MacGaffey 2002, 12, 16). Wellcome was interested in collecting objects associated with medicine in the broadest sense, considering activities such as the provision of food and protection from the elements as relevant for his collection (Lawrence 2003, 63). In this context, ethnographic materials of colonised African peoples represented ‘primitive’ stages in a cultural evolution of health-preservation (Lawrence 2003, 51-52).

Condition Assessment

The bells and clappers are structurally sound, apart from the loose clapper of 60427. The insides of the bells have layers of surface dirt, while dirt on the resin and strings looks partially ingrained. The iron clapper is rusted, but the corrosion has not interacted with the surrounding material and looks stable. The cane, wood, resin and string elements show evidence of hygroscopic damage from gaining and loosing moisture too rapidly in the form of splitting, embrittlement, cracking and warping (Carter and Walker 1999, 77-78).

Damage mapping

Statement of Significance

It is difficult to assess the original function of the bells due to lack of documentation. They have historic significance as examples of African crafts and traditions, and illustrate human ingenuity in exploiting plant materials for creating musical instruments. They also signify Western Darwinist ideas of colonised peoples, cultural development, social organisation and hierarchies of race (Keim 1998, 111).
Figure 5 Frontal view of the bells.

Carter, D. and Walker, A. K., 1999. 
Vascular plants, Collection environment. In: D. Carter and A. K. Walker (eds) Care & Conservation of Natural History Collections. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 61–80, 139–151.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E., 1960. A contribution to the study of Zande culture, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 30/4, 309–324.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E., 1976. Witch-doctors. In: E. Gillies (ed.) Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. Abridged ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 65–89
Keim, C. A., 1998. Artes Africanae: The western discovery of “art” in Northeastern Congo. In;  E. Schildkrout and C. A. Keim (eds) The Scramble for Art in Central Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 109–132.
Lawrence, G., 2003. Wellcome’s museum for the science of history. In: K. Arnold and D, Olsen (eds) Medicine Man. London: The British Museum Press, 51–71
MacGaffey, W., 2002. Ethnographic notes on Kongo musical instruments, African Arts, 35/2, 12–19.
Mason, R., 2002 Assessing values in conservation planning: methodological issues and choices. In: M. de la Torre (ed.) Assessing the Values of Cultural Heritage. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 5–30.
Miers, S. and Roberts, R. L., 1988. Note on Orthography. In: S. Miers and R. L. Roberts (eds) The End of Slavery in Africa. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, xix–xx. 
Thompson, R. F., 1989. Body and voice: Kongo figurative musical instruments. In: M. T. Brincard (ed.) Sounding Forms. African Musical Instruments. New York: The American Federation of Arts, pp. 39–45.

Figure 3 is reproduced from Griffiths, D. A., 1991. Useful palms of the Borassoideae family: Borassus and Hyphaene. In: Palms of Economic Value [online]. Available at: (Accessed: 17 April 2017).

Figure 4 is reproduced from Tudor-Williams, V., 1976. Basenjis: The Barkless Dogs of Central Africa. Vermont: David and Charles Inc.

Figure 5 is reproduced from the Wellcome Library, London, V0015964.

[1] Proto-Western Bantu word for bell, madibu in plural (MacGaffey 2002, 12). They were carved either from borassus pods or from the mumpala madibu tree (ibid.).

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2016-17), 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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