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Archaeological ‘dig’ in Pacific Ethnology collection reveals new connections

Archaeological ‘dig’ in Pacific Ethnology collection reveals new connections

by James Flexner - Friday, 14 March 2014

Australian postdoctoral fellow James L. Flexner is on a global quest to tell the story of life in the colonial New Hebrides, and recently spent time examining the Museum’s ethnographic collections.

James Flexner at work with the Auckland Museum Pacific Ethnology collection

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.
The archaeologist is working on an archaeological survey of Presbyterian mission sites and the surrounding landscapes in the islands of Erromango and Tanna, Vanuatu. A collaborative project, James works closely with the local people on Tanna and Erromango under the auspices of the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (VKS, Vanuatu Cultural Centre).

By examining the interactions between Melanesian people and various outsiders, James says the project will shed light on “the connections between global and local networks of people, places, and things”.

During his time at Auckland Museum, James made yet another connection, and will now take this knowledge back to the Vanuatu people for their interpretation.

“I initially became interested in Auckland Museum because of their collections from the Anglican Melanesian Mission, which was active throughout Melanesia beginning in the mid-1800s.

“I had heard that this collection included objects from the New Hebrides, which is what the islands we now call Vanuatu were named by Captain Cook in 1774. The name stuck until Vanuatu became an independent nation in 1980.

“My goal in researching this and other museum collections throughout the world (elsewhere in New Zealand but also in Australia, Canada, Scotland, and Austria) is to try to find objects that might be connected to the places where I’m doing archaeological fieldwork, but that we are unlikely to come across during our survey and excavations.

An example of the motif which features on many of the collection items.

Smallwood, Tessa. 2014.© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.
“Many kinds of objects made out of organic materials, such as basketry or wooden tools, simply do not preserve for long in the humid tropics. However, during the 1800s and early 1900s, people collected thousands of objects from all over the New Hebrides and elsewhere in the Pacific, which have been carefully preserved in museum collections. While my archaeological excavations in Vanuatu tend to recover a lot of the glass, ceramics, and metal objects imported by Europeans, museum research helps to add more indigenous material to the overall “assemblage” of artefacts from Tanna and Erromango.

“While in the Auckland Museum, I worked with Fuli Pereira, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai, and Tessa Smallwood, who were extremely helpful and knowledgeable. We started off with the Melanesian Mission materials, but quickly expanded our search to include the broader Pacific Ethnography collection to make sure we found the objects that were most relevant to my research.

“In the end, there were dozens of objects from Tanna and Erromango that help to tell the story of life in the colonial New Hebrides. They span a range of materials, including stone adze blades, bows and arrows, wooden clubs, baskets, grass skirts, and tapa (bark cloth). There are also relatively rare and unusual items, such as “stone money,” an exchange valuable from Erromango made of calcite or giant clam (Tridacna sp.) shells, called navela (sometimes also spelled navila or navilah).

A ring of white quartz used as currency on Erromango Island, Vanuatu.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Ethnology 14930.
“One of the interesting things I’ve noticed in objects at Auckland Museum and elsewhere is a recurring pattern of pointed leaf shapes, usually arranged in interlocking cruciform patterns. This motif occurs on barkcloth, club pommels, and armbands made of wood and coconut shells from Erromango and Tanna.

“What is unclear is what meaning, if any, might be behind this recurring symbol. Having found this pattern, I can now bring the information back to living people on Tanna and Erromango who have a deep knowledge of kastom (which can be translated loosely as “traditional culture”) to get their take on the meaning of objects about which they might have social memories (in addition to looking for hints in various documentary sources).

“This kind of back and forth both enhances the kinds of interpretations that museums can make about objects in their collections, and helps to reconnect objects with their source communities.

“In this way, it’s important to remember that museum collections are not simply dusty shelves of old stuff, but in many ways living assemblages of objects, all of which have stories to tell, and which can be important memory devices for living people around the world.

“My research in this vein is ongoing, but hopefully will add a significant part to the story of local people’s participation in and engagement with different aspects of globalization in Vanuatu, which is likewise ongoing”.

Read more about James’s research interests

James L. Flexner is an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University. This project is supported by the Australian Research Council (DECRA Award No. DE130101703).

  • Post by: James Flexner

    James undertakes archaeological fieldwork, records oral histories, and spends time in museums and archives to explore the roots of modern globalization from unusual, and innovative perspectives.

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