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Art-Pacific (Carolyn Leigh - Ron Perry): Guide to Artifacts

Solomon Islands crafts

[Solomon Islands toto isu head hunting canoe prow figurehead holding bird: 16k]

Figure 1: Nguzunguzu canoe prow figurehead holding a bird. The carver included the flange to lash this prow to a war canoe, even though it was carved to sell. Nguzunguzu originated in the western Solomons, but are now a national symbol (1).

Huge headhunting war canoes from Malaita and the western Solomons were built with wood planks sewn together with creeper and caulked with putty nut. Each carried 30 or more warriors. Malaita fleets had up to 50-60 canoes.

Tall, slender prows were inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ornamented with strings of cowry shells. Nguzunguzu are small relative to these large prows. One was attached to the prow just above water line. The figureheads were stained black and inlaid with shell, matching the canoes.

Nguzunguzu war gods watched out for enemies, reefs and sand bars, calmed the seas and kept away evil water spirits. Nguzunguzu may hold heads, skulls or birds in their hands. Skulls were believed to contain the life force, so head-hunting transferred power from the victims to the warriors.

Birds may have represented navigators like the frigate bird which are used to spot bonito schools. Nguzunguzu birds are now sometimes called "birds of peace."

[Fishing hook for tuna with shell and red yarn tassel: 4k]

Figure 2: Bonito hook with pearl shell lure and carved turtle shell hook lashed on with a shell and yarn tassel. Most lures resemble fish.

War and bonito fishing canoes were docked in decorated canoe sheds which were also ceremonial houses for the men and contained ancestor relics and skulls. In Langa Langa Lagoon these custom houses watched out from the seaward side of the artificial islands, while the villages were sited on the sheltered side facing inland.

[Kustom Haus fish: 13k]

Figure 3: Fishing float (?) collected from Malaita custom house in the 1970's.

Pre-contact fishing ceremonies were very important, especially festivals for the beginning of bonito season. Dolphin hunts involved the whole community. Fish-shaped caskets were made for bones. Fishing is still the main source of protein for many people.

Kite fishing used a ball of sticky cobweb trailed from a pandanus or coconut leaf kite pulled from canoes to catch gar fish. Wood fishing floats are used in series with stone counterweights to catch flying fish. Polynesian villages had large wooden shark hooks. Metal hooks were used after contact.

[Solomon Islands food bowl inlaid with frigate bird: 8k]

Other canoes include small plank canoes for fishing, ocean going-outriggers with matting sails and deck houses and dugout canoes. There are both plain and highly decorated paddles including ceremonial paddle/clubs in museum collections. Model canoes are made for sale.

Figure 4: Ceremonial pudding bowl inlaid with frigate bird motif, photo courtesy of Taylor A. Dale - Tribal Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.

Dark wood carvings are made from ebony or a softwood like milky pine (alstonia) stained black. Light-colored carvings are from kerosine wood (corsia subsordata) which burns easily. It is similar to walnut and polishes to a high finish.

[Solomon Islands bowl in the shape of a hornbill bird: 9k]

Carvings are shaped with an adz. Detailing is done with rats' teeth, metal files, obsidian flakes, broken glass and knives, some fashioned from old WWII wrecks. Finishing is done with pumice stone, shark or ray skin or leaves used as sand paper.

Shell inlay is cut from the pearl shell chambered nautilus (nautilus pompilius) and also ends of cone shells. Glue is crushed putty nut (Parinari glaberrima) which turns dark when dry or store glue. Some figures have shell inlay designs representing tattoos.

Figure 5: Bowl in the shape of a bird, possibly a hornbill, photo courtesy of Taylor A. Dale - Tribal Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.

[money plaque of a lower circle topped with facing filigreed triangles: 10k]

Figure 6: Zaru clam shell plaque of stylized seated figures, possibly from Roviana Lagoon. A girl gave one to the father of the boy she planned to marry.

Solomons Islanders value an item as "money" if it is passed between a number of people and is recognized and accepted as having a relatively set value. Some kinds of traditional exchange include:

[wickerwork Solomon Islands shield: 11k]

Figure 7: Lave lave shield, probably from New Georgia, acquired by Taylor A. Dale - Tribal Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA from an English collection from the 1850s. Photo courtesy of a private collection.

Most shields were made of resin-covered wickerwork. They are light and strong with a looped cane handle on back. The fiber on this one was stained black before being woven, on others the color is added later. A few Solomon Island shields are inlaid with shell, but only in museum collections; possibly the shell was added later. This style of shield is represented in a petroglyph in Hoilava River area. Other weapons include bows and arrows, spears including some tipped with human bone, sling shots, many varieties of stone-headed clubs and fighting sticks.

[Solomon Islands staff head with crouching human figure and red and yellow plaited wrapping above and below the figure: 5k]

Figure 8: Head of a staff with orchid vine wickerwork, photo courtesy of Taylor A. Dale - Tribal Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.

Musical instruments include panpipes of bamboo in groups of 4,8,10, 16+. The musicians are professionals who perform in groups. Single flutes are played by individuals. Traditional instruments are wooden drums, rattles, basketwork fans beaten against the hand, whistles and rhythm sticks. Stamping tubes in sets of 10 are played with stones like a xylophone. Modern bamboo bands use rubber thongs to play sets of bamboo as big as pianos.

Dance wands, carved coconut cups and bamboo lime containers with black incised designs accented with dye from charcoal and the euphorbia tree are still made.

Plaited baskets of many types are available at the markets. Buka, Bougainville and Choiseul coiled baskets were famous for their quality.

Barkcloth (tapa) is made plain for wrappings and stoppers and also decorated with sap or soot for black and turmeric for yellow. There is a type with pale blue leaf dye designs in museum collections. Fiber (grass) skirts were often part of bride price exchanges. Santa Cruz Islanders wove laplaps of banana leaf thread on backstrap looms.

Figure 9: Map of the Solomon Islands and Bougainville

[map of the Solomon Islands including Malaita, Gudalcanal, Gizo and Bougainville, PNG: 10k]


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  • (1) Alternate spellings and terms for:
  • (2) Types of shell rings and plaques
  • (3) Santa Cruz feather money
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    Artifacts on this site were collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. Background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. by Carolyn Leigh is licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0