Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Provenance

You may recall that I posted a few weeks ago about a number of New Guinea artefacts that I acquired from a distant relative, via my parents. I'd picked out the pieces I liked from the pile, then left the remainder in their shed for them to deal with as they saw fit.


In addition to the masks, fossils and stone axes I'd already collected, my parents have recently delivered a pile of weaponry I'd picked out but been unable to fit in my car. They include flared bamboo arrows, trident fishing spears, and long stout tapered pieces of wood with knots of woven reed on the ends, which might be long bows.


But cunning devils that they are, my parents also dumped the rest of the entire collection in my living room, then buggered off to India for two months on a short-term employment contract. Either I have to haul it back to their shed, four hundred kilometres away, or I have to dispose of it all myself, one way or another.


I was slightly annoyed to have several large boxes of unprovenanced artefacts cluttering up my house, but at least it gave me a chance to go through them a little more thoroughly and work out some more of their story.


The first thing I wanted to know was if they really were as old as I'd been informed. Knowing my family, the story about these items being from a missionary's journeys in the Highlands in the 1960s and 70s could have evolved, like a Chinese Whisper, from someone's two week holiday in Port Moresby in 1992. However, there was a degree of proof. The latest dated material in the boxes was from 1989, but the bulk of it was published in celebration of independence in 1975. The oldest dated item I could find was a modest breadboard, decorated with a tiny pokerwork map of New Guinea, and dated 1966. It came from a Baptist Mission on the Baiyer River, deep in the jungles of the Western Highlands.


1966 may not seem that old, but you must remember that there were still tribes in the New Guinea Highlands that had never had contact with the outside world at that time. Indeed, I read in one of the books that New Guinea still had cargo cults well into the 1970s, if not later. If you're not familiar with cargo cults, their logic runs something like this.


1. The white man doesn't seem to do all that much physical work.

2. The white man has guns, tools, farming equipment, tinned food, radios, cameras and colour posters of Raquel Welch in a bikini.

3. To get all this cool stuff, apparently without working for it, the white man builds airstrips, radio towers and warehouses, and hey presto, ships and planes bring it all to him.

4. Ergo, if we build airstrips, radio towers and warehouses, ships and planes will bring this stuff to us too!


So members of cargo cults abandon their farms and their hunting parties, and instead build remarkable imitation airstrips, radio towers and warehouses in the middle of the jungle. Then the cult dies out when they all starve. You have to wonder at how limited their experience of westerners must have been for them not to understand how these things actually worked.


The second thing I wanted to know was how "genuine" or "authentic" these items are, and on that count, I'm no wiser than I was before. Some of the items are made from fishing line, plastic beads and other western materials. But some others are made from intricately woven reeds and plant fibres, unsawn wood and natural thorns, seeds and shells. They could have been made twenty years ago or twenty thousand years ago. Without doing enough research to make me an armchair expert on tribal handicrafts, I just can't tell.

3 Comments:

Blogger Eric said...

I'm a big fan of those kinds of cults. I propose we start our own!

We don't have any coconuts to split in two and use as headphones up here, so I'll have to improvise.

You bring the posters of Raquel.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Blandwagon said...

I'm with you, Eric. Although I think that we need to be a modern, up-to-date cargo cult and use the internet. We will insist that our followers sit at wicker computers, banging randomly at painted-on keyboards, mumbling the magic incantation "Picard is better than Kirk... Picard is better than Kirk...". Then we give them some water, in crude imitations of Mountain Dew cans, and get naked ladies to suddenly pop up in front of their screens.

Actually, this could become a little too popular...

10:10 AM  
Blogger Cookster said...

Bland - I suggest that you start your own 'museum' in the back shed. Either that, or do a bit of trade on EBay.

10:26 AM  

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