Museum of Ethnography
H-1146, Budapest, Dózsa György út 35.
Phone: +36 1 474 2100
Text: Anna Biró
Photo: Krisztina Sarnyai
In the spirit of winter carnival, this month’s featured artefact is a large wooden dish from Papua New Guinea of the type used at feasts.
The piece and others like it were acquired by the museum’s predecessor, the Ethnography Department of the Hungarian National Museum, at the end of the 1800s via the work of Lajos Bíró, who spent a total of six years in the region. The Bíró collection is of exceptional importance because it was amassed at a time when colonisation of the region—then known as German New Guinea—had been underway for just under a decade. As the process was a slow one, the collector had the opportunity of documenting traditional culture in its near-original state. Even prior to his work as a naturalist, Bíró took down detailed information on the objects he collected, differentiating between the places objects were made and used, and taking an interest in such topics as raw materials, techniques of manufacture, and the personalities of individual artisans—he even made precise inquiries as to the meanings of decorative motifs.
Wooden Dish, NM 56743, Tami Islands, Papua New Guinea, 1890s
This particular dish was a typical product of the Tami Islands, whose inhabitants were regarded as the most productive and sought-after craftspeople of north-east New Guinea until as late as the 1920s. Distinctively styled, most such objects were produced for trade, in particular with neighbouring coastal groups.
The dishes represented a great value: at weddings, they were used by grooms to pay their bride-prices; older pieces were passed down from generation to generation and were taken out only on special occasions. At feasts associated with important holidays, the dishes were used to portion out foods prepared for the entire community. Boiled taro root and meats were carefully divided amongst them, the number of people to eat from each one having been decided prior to the event.
Taro Fork, NM 67232, Huon Gulf, Papua New Guinea, 1890s
The dishes were made from hardwood, specifically that of the Ipil tree (Afzelia bijuga). Generally oval, cymbiform (boat-like), or multipartite in shape, the dishes were hollowed out using stone axes, hot coals, or (later) metal tools. Their inner and outer surfaces were then smoothed using pumice and boar’s tusk (a tool Bíró called a ‘tusk plate-scraper’).
Tusk Scraper, NM 65612, Tami Islands, Papua New Guinea, 1890s
On the carving process, Bíró wrote: ‘…the native smooths and relief-carves each piece using a hatchet with an inserted metal blade (…), if possible until the most painstaking detail has been achieved. The metal-bladed hatchet, descended from the traditional stone type, is handled with extraordinary dexterity, so as to create the finest of carvings with amazing steadfastness. When carving, they hold the knife not as we, by the handle, but grip the end of it in the folded angle of their four fingers, guiding it forward by the thumb, which would otherwise remain free. Knives are only truly tools in the hands of the Tami islander. …The difference between the Tami islander and the artisans of other regions is roughly akin to the difference a European would make between a cabinet-maker and carpenter. Most frequently, Tami manufacture is judged at first glance by the uniformly smoothed surface.’ (Bíró Lajos: Inventory Cards and Notes on Ethnological Objects. 115. NM EA 4715). Once this precision process was complete, the dishes were painted using a mixture of volcanic mud and root juices to produce a deep black colour. Finally, the inlay material was added: the dishes were covered in a limey paste which, wiped away, remained only in recesses, rendering the finer decorative elements visible.
The motifs applied to the dishes were primarily geometric or depicted stylised animals and mythical beings. The piece shown here features a ray with a bifurcated tail in the centre of each external side and stylised green lizards at each end.
Smoothing Stone, NM 64529, Tami Islands, Papua New Guinea, 1890s