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.

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