Volume 108 1999 > Volume 108, No. 1 > Politics and poetics mirrored in indigenous stone objects from Papua New Guinea, by Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, p 69-90
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The concept of “cultural heritage” is multifariously used to alter and generate values, images, meanings and identity. This paper considers stone figures in the highland region of Papua New Guinea and their varying roles as heritage objects that are relatively rare. Where they occur, they have tended to be considered sacred and infused with power(s). Three stone figures will be discussed in terms of their “politics” and “poetics” (i.e., aesthetic value, cosmological symbolism, social and gendered meanings), and comparison will be made with stones from other areas.

One of our basic observations is that what is politics to some is poetics to others and vice versa. In the three main cases we will discuss, this proposition applies in the following way. (1) A figurine derived from the context of the Female Spirit (Amb Kor) cult in Mt Hagen of the Western Highlands Province was photographed before a cult performance, as a result of a close relationship with its owner. A computer enhanced image of the figurine shows a specific feature which has provided us with a better understanding of the “poetics” of the cult in which the stone was used. The cult itself involves a “politics” of secrecy and power between the local clan groups that competitively celebrate it over time. (2) A standing stone stela figure features as a sacred marker of land ownership to the Kawelka people of Kuk in Mt Hagen and serves as a means of validating their potentially contested land claims. This object will be discussed in terms of its “political” significance. (3) The third stone object to be discussed is a stone head of a very unusual type collected from the far western part of the Southern Highlands Province in Papua New Guinea, currently held in the National Museum in Port Moresby. In terms of “poetics” the piece has a striking angular shape, but an economic and “political” controversy emerged over it, with its ownership at an earlier stage being contested and the putative owner requesting its return to him from the Museum. The issue was later settled by a further payment to this man from the National Museum. The cultural displacement and various interpretations of these three indigenous stone objects will be discussed in the light of their negotiated and narrated histories. We will use these examples to discuss issues of power and politics - 70 surrounding material objects in the Melanesian context. One of our arguments is that these stones all represent a solidification of fluid relations of power in ritual and political contexts.

The Female Spirit Cult Stone

The Amb Kor cult stones are volcanic stones which male cult adherents collect to serve as representations of the Female Spirit during the Amb Kor ritual. The location of the appropriate stones is revealed to the men by the Female Spirit, who comes in dreams (Vicedom and Tischner 1943-48, vol. 2:435). Once the stones have been collected from river beds and elsewhere (some are prehistoric mortars), they are placed inside the cult enclosure as a repository for the powers of the Spirit. Many of these stones are round, and some are elongated. They are decorated with paint, much like the decorations that will be worn by men at the festive dancing which marks the culmination of the ritual sequence (see Figures 1 and 2). The stones are anointed with pork fat (kopong) and red ochre (symbolising blood) (Vicedom and Tischner 1943-48, vol. 2:424 ff.). These two elements, “grease” and “blood”, stand for health and fertility. The Melpa term for ‘grease’, kopong, also means ‘semen’. In the Melpa ideology of human conception, uterine blood is surrounded by semen (Strathern and Stewart 1998a).

These stones are buried in the earth at the end of the Female Spirit cult ritual (Stewart 1998; Strathern and Stewart 1997, 1998b). The cult stones possess fertility power, as eggs do. A comparison between sacred stones and eggs is in fact made in ritual contexts elsewhere in the New Guinea highlands. The Mae Enga, for example, are reported by Meggitt (1965:107) to describe certain sacred stones as “eggs of the Sun”. Some Hagen groups are held to have emerged from a mythical bird's egg, while others regard their origins as tied up with stones, again suggesting a stone-egg parallelism. The concept involved may be either male or female in reference since sacred stones may be spoken of as testicles, as in Pangia in the Southern Highlands Province, where the round volcanic stones formerly used in the cult of male ancestors were known as tapa mu, a term which translates equally as ‘eggs’ or ‘testicles’ of the tapa (male) spirits. Here, we may also adduce the fact that the cult stones in the Amb Kor are surrounded by cool ferns and anointed with red ochre (= blood) and pig-fat (grease = semen), so that the stone is presented to the earth as though enclosed in a womb with male semen and female blood wrapped round it as in the standard image of Melpa conception described above. The fertility power entrapped within the stones is thus returned to the earth in the clan area of the cult participants to effect the curing of sicknesses, enhance fertility and promote health in general.

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Figure 1: Amb Kor stones.
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The Amb Kor ritual itself is not currently performed in Hagen. Most of the community is now Christian. One female Christian informant explained that the Amb Kor was truly a power that existed and brought health and fertility, but now that the people have God they do not seek the Amb Kor any longer.

A certain amount of secrecy still surrounds these cult stones (see illustrations in Strathern and Stewart 1999a). The stones were buried in locations known only to a few adepts, and they were held to continue to produce fertility as long as they remained in place. Computer enhanced images of photographs of the cult stones have allowed us to explore the style, manufacture, material content and form of the stones. One finding revealed through examination of a photograph from the 1970s is that depicted on the stone is a disc which is placed centrally on the figure (see Figure 3). We speculatively suggest that this disc may represent the virginal status of the Female Spirit, who is described as being an unopened/incomplete woman. Yet one of the signs of the Female Spirit's presence among the male leaders whom she contacts is menstrual blood.

Figure 2: Amb Kor stones.
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Figure 3: Amb Kor stones.

The Amb Kor was the only female sky being among her family of sisters who was not tricked into cutting a vagina upon her body when a human male deceived her sisters. The disc might also represent a stylised child in the womb and thus stand for the procreative powers that the Amb Kor presents to human females. (The overall shape of this figurine resembles somewhat the rounded contours of a stone used in ancestor cults and for the Female Spirit [Enda Semangko] cult among the Kyaka Enga at the western end of the Baiyer Valley, as described by Bulmer and Bulmer 1962:194, 205-06.)

Stones are also found as ritual objects among the Duna of the Southern Highlands Province. One set of ideas concerns auwi stones, stones that “are” the petrified heart or other internal part of an ancestor that after some generations “come up” or show themselves to a descendant. Duna auwi represent in terms of “vertical descent” what the Amb Kor stones represent in terms of “horizontal alliance” between groups: the revelation of power and the way in which human beings are connected with that power. The power involved can also both inflict and heal sickness in people (Strathern and Stewart 1999b).

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We can suggest further that the association of stones with power among the Duna (and elsewhere) depends on an overall model of transformation between elements of the cosmos to the effect that the life-giving element of water may be transformed into fat or juice and this in turn into stone. Thus, in myths regarding the Female Spirit in the Duna area, the Spirit is connected with rainstorms and floods, and also with round pools through which people travel to reach the land of the dead. She also manifests herself, however, in a kind of marsupial which, if trapped, contains in its stomach special stone crystals that are used in magic to make the skin of unmarried men good, with healthy fat just below the surface. Finally, she may enter into cult stones such as prehistoric mortars, making these her “house”, so that they form a focus for her cult. Crystals of the same type were used in Hagen in the past as magic items to make pigs grow. The crystals are known to form in caves where water collects or where an underground stream finds its way. Such crystals can be seen as solidified forms of life-force akin to the fat that develops under the skin of pigs and is in turn spoken of as water by the Duna. The same magical life-force can be carried in wind and smoke. When the Duna Female Spirit shows herself to the ritual bachelor who presides over the boys' growth cult and comes to him as his “wife”, she appears with lightning, a rainstorm, and flood water, accompanied by the cries of pigs and children. She further gives power to the smoke that billows up from fires that the cult neophytes light before their emergence from their enclosure. As the smoke reaches the nostrils of marriageable girls, they are affected by it and begin to think of the youths and desire them. The spells for the boys' growth mention prominently the power of water to make them grow, contributing to their flesh and to the volume of their head hair, which the ritual expert teases out for them.

The Hagen Amb Kor similarly has a multiple set of manifestations: she too appears in lighting and rain, but also as menstrual blood, in human form as a bride, and, finally, in the shape of her cult stones that are anointed and buried in the ground. In other words, she can appear in the most fluid and volatile of ways, in the “solid” form of a person, and in the “most solid” form as a stone. These images, therefore, express a dialectic of fluidity and fixity of power, and the cult stones represent a collectivised fixity of power as a transform of individualised fluidity. This conclusion clearly holds both for the Hagen and for the Duna cases.

Cult Stones: Some Comparative Observations

The theme of stones as repositories of fertility powers is a common one in Papua New Guinea (see, e.g., the extensive literature survey by Riesenfeld 1950). Here we give a few more examples to illustrate the following points: - 75 (i) cult stones are seen as repositories, not just of power, but of powers of fertility and growth; (ii) they represent a solidification of these powers, which in other manifestations may be seen as fluid; and (iii) such stones are accordingly not seen as inert objects but as living beings. We include one case from Borneo that clearly demonstrates point (ii) above, and is therefore included although it belongs to Indonesia, not Melanesia (see also Strathern and Stewart n.d.)

Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin (1995:45-46) describes a ritual practice among Abelam males of the Middle Sepik of Papua New Guinea who “keep a few oddly shaped stones in their yam houses that are thought to promote the growth and fertility of the tubers (yams) and are sometimes buried in the yam gardens following planting”. In addition to these personally owned stones, the community retains a few stones that are kept in a special hut to which access is restricted to one or two designated men. These stones are associated with the growth of major tuber crops, and before planting time the stone(s) is/are decorated “like a long yam and like a ceremonial dancer. Growers who hope to grow outstanding long yams send shell rings to the stone” which are placed directionally so as to act “as a bridge that carries the stone's power” in the direction of the grower's garden. Hauser-Schäublin suggests that these stones which are “the symbol of men's procreative powers over vegetable life” are equated with menarcheal girls who are the symbols of women's procreative powers.

Both are secluded in special huts surrounded by gender-specific secrecy.… Both are ritually washed with the same mixture of herbs and cane juice before their ceremonial decoration.…both are kept hidden and never brought to the ceremonial grounds, but feasts to honor both are held (pp. 45-46).

The ritual painting and burial of these stones is reminiscent of how the Amb Kor stones are treated.

Another example of how stones are used as receptacles of fertility powers is the barasi dirukui ritual from Zogari Village on Manam Island, Papua New Guinea, described by Nancy Lutkehaus (1995). The barasi dirukui is an annual ceremony aiming to renew the ground's fertility and to safeguard the good health and prosperity of the villagers. “As part of the barasi celebration, boys and girls are beaten ritually, and a set of stones, known as barasi stones [stones with holes in them, representing female fertility], are ritually washed” (p. 201). These ritual activities resemble cultural themes that occur in female first menstruation rites and male initiation in the community. “The stones are first washed…then smeared with the red pigment known as taro, an act symbolically analogous to washing and painting a - 76 young girl for her imoaziri [puberty] rites and marriage” (p. 201). This treatment of the stones is similar to the preparation of the Amb Kor stones which were smeared with red ochre and pig grease (kopong) before their burial in the ground, where they were meant to enhance fertility.

Parallels and contrasts to the cultural knowledge regarding the Amb Kor stones can further be found in Jay Bernstein's study of spirit stones and shamanism among the Taman of Borneo (Bernstein 1997). Bernstein's title Spirits Captured in Stone itself captures an important element in the ethnoaesthetics of movement and power that seems fundamental to such a comparison. In the Taman case, participants in a ritual to establish a new shaman (balien) first play music to attract spirits and then capture these by tapping dishes with special leaves until stones appear in them. The stones are said to be at first appearance soft and to be hardened by the application of cooking oil, after which they become black and glossy. At the end of a long repeated process of capturing stones in this way, the shamanic adept is expected to catch his or her own stone, which will then become a repository for power. The ability to find such stones is said to come from dreams, as happens also with the Amb Kor, and the stones must be fed with rice and palm wine in order to keep them with their human possessors. 1 Here we wish to draw out the significance of “capturing in stone”. The basic trope is that of transforming fluidity into solidity, paradigmatic of the creation of identity in general. As long as a spirit is shadowy and unseen, it cannot be brought under the fixed control of an adept. Once it has become stone or entered into a stone, its transformation into a beneficial force has begun. The same sequence again shows in the Amb Kor. A potential adept or cult sponsor dreams of the Spirit in conjunction with sicknesses arising in the dreamer's group. Later the adept finds the Spirit in stone form, sets up the cult site, and the ritual effects not only a curing of sicknesses but the enhancement of fertility and health in general.

The Mararoko women of the Kewa-speaking area in the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea have similar types of healing stones called lugogo, which they use when their husbands or children fall ill. The stones are heated along with others in an earth oven in which special foods are cooked. These foods are eaten not by the sick person but by the wife/mother on behalf of her husband or children. The use of these stones in this manner is a reversal of the gendered role that the husband would have filled in the past when he would have participated in spirit cults to secure the health and fertility of his family (MacDonald 1991:140). In this process, the innate power of the stones is tapped, and there is no direct interaction with a particular spirit whose temperament must be delicately handled in order to ensure a beneficent response. This is unlike the relationship between - 77 a balien adept in Taman, where the force of the spirit must be tamed and made beneficent. This interaction in the Taman case can be seen as a sexual one, as can the relationship of the Amb Kor cult adherents with the Female Spirit, who is said to come as a bride to the man who dreams of her and finds her stone. In fact, upon finding an Amb Kor stone, a man will often say that he has found his wife. After initiation, the balien is required to pay a fine to his or her spouse, in recognition of the fact that the spirit has “violated” their marriage. Over time, the balien acquires a complete set of spirit (tamang) stones, each representing a member of the kindred, and the stones individually announce their identities to the novice balien in dreams. These ideas represent a development of notions found also in the Amb Kor context, but taken to a point of specialised appropriation by a single adept who becomes a shaman. The basic tropes of power, however, are the same in both cases. The reason why stones are “good to think with” in this context is simply that they represent a solidification of the fluidity of power. This is in accordance with the idea in highlands Papua New Guinea that the amount of spirit power a stone has is assessed in terms of the stone's weight as experienced in relation to its size. In the Taman case, spirit stones belong absolutely to an individual shaman, and they cannot be exchanged or inherited, although they can be used by another shaman. In the case of Amb Kor stones, cult performers should find their own stones, as revealed to them by the Spirit, and these stones should then be buried in the ground and also never exchanged further. Beatrice Blackwood, in her work on Buka, then a part of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea (Blackwood 1935), discusses a series of natural rocks or stones which were thought of as urar spirits. Stone and spirit were “completely identified, so that the urar is the stone”. At night it might assume human form and go fishing or dancing (p. 527). Blackwood also describes a number of upright stone pillars, some incised, credited with the ability to grow in size, to make people sick, or to resist being stolen. Such stones were spoken of as kin to their owners. They might be washed and anointed in rituals, bathed with pig's blood or painted with red ochre. In one case, boys were taken to the stone, and their skins were cicatrised before it. The stones themselves were sometimes incised with designs like those of cicatrisation, and Blackwood suggests that this was not accidental but purposive. Since cicatrisation was supposed to help children to grow, to make persons attractive to the opposite sex, and to make milk flow in young women's breasts (Blackwood 1935:538). Blackwood argues that the stones were also held to conduce to those same ends and that they “may perhaps have formed part of an elaborate fertility ritual” (p. 540). 2 That the stones were considered sentient is shown by the remarks one man made to a pillar at the place Iltopan, as he and Blackwood

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Figure 4: The Kuk origin stone.
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left it: “Master, I am coming back presently. You and I belong to the same clan” (p. 533).

Our next example fits well with the sentiments behind such a salutation.

The Kuk Origin Stone

Stone stelae have been used throughout history as commemorative signs and place markers. 3 The Kuk Origin Stela from the Western Highlands Province in Hagen serves to promote such a set of politico-economic ends (see Figure 4). Its symbolic and spiritual import within its microcosm is considerable. The solidity of the stela encompasses and fixes the fluidity of the local group that it represents, petrifying the group's identity in the landscape. 4

The standing stone stela is an uncarved limestone column (Murphy 1938) said to have been erected by Koi, an ancestral figure of the Kawelka tribe (Stewart and Strathern 1998). It is not common to find such monoliths in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, although a similar example from Tairora in the Eastern Highlands has been photographed and briefly described by James Watson (1983), and Girard (1975:80) reports a “phallic” standing stone marking the entry to an old men's house, a standing stone bird and a large monolith, all from Snake Valley, Buang, Morobe Province. Watson was told that the Tairora stone was ancestral, that it had been brought to the current village of the community when they moved there from a previous location, and that pigs would become more fertile by rubbing themselves against the stone (Watson 1983:22). Douglas Newton (1979:33) reports that undecorated monoliths with mythological, commemorative and religious significance are common in Iatmul villages in the Sepik area and are found also in the Sepik hills region. Decorated or carved monoliths are also found in the Sepik; and although the Kuk stone does not have marks on it, there is a term in the Melpa language for the idea of such markings: tipu kng oi röl, ‘a spirit depicts a division of pork’. Watson (1983) also says that people told him the Tairora stone had “writing” on it, perhaps a post-colonial image of power.

The narrative associated with the Kuk stela was in the past told as an adornment to accompany the object itself, but now with land becoming scarce for growing the valuable cash-crop, coffee, the story of the stone has altered so that it is told as a proof of land ownership (Strathern and Stewart 1998c, d). The story is as follows: an ancestral Kawelka figure named Koi found the stone while on a hunting trip. The stone's significance was revealed to him by its ability to speak and through its appearance of strength. Also, it was covered in kopong (grease), a mark of fertility and health. After making sacrifices in front of it and planting a cordyline nearby, he erected the stone - 80 as a marker within the Kawelka territory.

The planting of the cordyline near the Kuk stone is not insignificant. The cordyline represents the sacred mi or originating power of the Kawelka (Stewart and Strathern n.d.). It makes the connection of the physical and the spiritual world and is the substance on which oaths are taken. Likewise, the Wahgi people east of Hagen use the cordyline as well as stones to fix an act of betrayal for which they wish to retain a permanent record that can be used as a reference in further dealings with the group to which it relates (O'Hanlon 1989:61 and pers. comm.). The cordyline, although it is a plant material, has a similar type of permanence to that of stones—it grows vigorously, renewing itself after being burnt off. The Kuk stone was not erected as a commemorative marker to one individual or even a group of persons who had physically died, but was dedicated to the permanence of the collective identity of the Kawelka, who through bouts of fighting with other tribes and environmental challenges had experienced periods of geographical fluidity as well as fluxes of population size. 5

The Kawelka say that the Kuk stone is like their bone (ombil). The Amb Kor stones are also described as the “bones” of the Female Spirit. The Melpa speakers in general, like many highland peoples of Papua New Guinea, make a distinction between “flesh” and “bone”. Bone is what endures, is strong, and when buried stays in one place, whereas flesh is mobile and transitory. Stones make good repositories for spiritual powers because of their ability to live in the absence of a transient body.

The Kuk stone was erected at its current location before the Kawelka were driven out of the area through tribal fighting with the Mokei tribe in about 1914. The Mokei did not take over the land, and some neighbours of the Ndika tribe are said in fact to have “looked after” it on behalf of the Kawelka, ensuring that it lay empty and the Kawelka's claim to it, marked by the stone, was respected (Stewart and Strathern 1998). After colonial pacification, the Kawelka started moving back into the Kuk area, where the soil is more fertile and better for growing coffee than their mountainous area of refuge to the north. In the 1960s, a Government Agricultural Research Station was constructed in the vicinity, at which time the Kawelka were paid small sums of money for the portion alienated to the Administration, but they did not totally vacate the area. They continued to live on the periphery of the Station and in the interstices between roads that ran through the land planted by the Government and a nearby commercial tea plantation. When the Station fell into disuse in the 1990s, the Kawelka reclaimed the land, planting it with subsistence gardens and coffee trees (Strathern and Stewart 1998d).

The area around the stone is also home to a famous archaeological site, and the Papua New Guinea National Museum has expressed an interest in - 81 making this site into a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Kuk stone might become a part of such a project, but the question of how to manage its transition from an “internal” symbolic object to an “external” one, for viewing by visitors, arises here. Would this serve to fix the tribe's identity more strongly to the land, or could the stone's identity be widened to include Papua New Guinea as a cultural idiom (Strathern and Stewart 1998c)?

The Kopiago Stone: An Imagined Artefact

The relationship between stone artefacts and people's senses of identity is an intriguing one, and one that is shared between New Guinea and other places, for example Borneo, as shown by Bernstein (1997). Stones may be seen as the abode of spirits, and their heaviness taken as a sign that the spirit is in them; hence the prevalence of weighty volcanic stones as the chosen receptacles of power. The Kopiago stone, to be considered here, is a maverick case in this context. Its association with a collectivity of interest is problematic, precisely because of its apparent uniqueness in the area of its former owner among the Duna people. This uniqueness, in turn, has given it rarity value for the National Museum, especially since very few comparable examples have so far been found or documented in Papua New Guinea as a whole. Our discussion here begins with a description of the stone's “local” identity, and moves to some speculations about its potential for “national identity”. In this regard we use some ideas from Benedict Anderson (1983)—hence the caption “an imagined artefact”.

The Kopiago head is a small stone human head with sharp features, tapering to a cone at its crown and having a long neck extending from it (see Figures 5 and 6). It is not volcanic ironstone like the usually round spirit or auwi stones in the Duna area, but, rather, has been identified as basaltic or andesitic lava. A similar type of head-shaped stone comes from the Huon Peninsula of Morobe Province. It, too, has a long neck and an elongated face, although the features are much more rounded than the angular ones of the Kopiago stone (Bellwood 1978: 242). This stone from Huon is also illustrated by Newton (1979:45, 48), and described by him as a pestle with a human head from Cape Arkona, of basalt stone and 21 cm high, a little larger than the Kopiago stone. The shape of the tip of the Huon stone has been described as a kind of hair style in which the hair was plaited or gathered in such a way as to produce a cone-like appearance (Riesenfeld 1950: 353, citing Neuhauss 1911). The Hewa people north of where the Kopiago stone was found wore their hair in a manner that produced a conical shape also. But Riesenfeld points to evidence from other areas, including Jabim, that suggests that the conical shape of the Huon stone may have been the representation of a pointed hat (p. 353).

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Figures 5 and 6: The Kopiago stone.

Newton lists other objects that are classified as pestles with human heads and are from Western Highlands, Chimbu and Eastern Highlands. Some of these were made from andesitic rock like the example from Kopiago. The only one that clearly parallels the pointed chin and ears of the Kopiago stone, in addition to the Cape Arkona stone, is listed as being from Sialum, near Finschafen. The presence of a carving of this type in the far western corner of the PNG highlands at Kopiago remains, therefore, something of a mystery, and the classification of a range of these human heads as pestles is perhaps also speculative. Parallels drawn between the Cape Arkona head and conical hair arrangements along the Sepik coast fit its geographical provenance. The Kopiago stone does not clearly show this feature, although it may have been worn down by ritual use.

Sane-Noma, a Duna man, who sold the Kopiago stone to the Museum, used to keep it as a powerful object for bringing him wealth and carried it around in a pouch or netbag. In one of his descriptions he said, “at night - 83 time I saw that the stone had a light coming out of it and I thought it might be gold or copper. So I thought maybe some white man belonging to a company might wish to come and get it” (interview of 8 July 1989).

In a later interview (6 May 1991), Sane explained further that the stone was a form of Tsiri Harola, a water-spirit who belonged to the lake area at Kopiago, and Sane made a cult-house for it. The spirit then, he said, “came to me in a dream and told me that he would show me where to find gold, silver, copper and iron, and I should take pieces of these and show them to the white company men when they arrived”.

These pieces of narrative reveal clearly that the stone became a focus for Sane's desires for wealth, to be obtained through its revelation of the location of hidden mineral deposits that were being energetically prospected for by geologists in the Duna area. Pre-capitalist and capitalist ideas of wealth and magic are fused in a cargoistic form of imagery that Sane creates around his stone. His imagination is personal, commercial and linked to the global world of geologists, prospectors and mining companies. Harola occupies a position in his imaginative constructs comparable to that of the underground man in Jeffrey Clark's account of indigenous Huli mythology regarding gold at Mt Kare (Clark 1993), and more broadly comparable to a general notion that mineral wealth in the ground is linked to the substances of the human body (for this idea among the Huli people see Morgan 1997). Morgan writes (1997:78) that the magical blood of mythical women is supposed to have entered the earth through lakes and to have reformed into gold, oil and copper. In the Duna case, two female spirits, Papumi and Lupumi, are said to have gone to the site of the Ok Tedi gold mine and implicitly “produced” the gold there. We may suppose that they are thought to have done so in a manner comparable to that cited by Morgan for the Huli. Such ideas appear to draw on, and extend, a mythical tradition that the bodies of female spirits produce valuable plants and ritually powerful substances used in male cults of growth.

The Kopiago stone is thus recognisable as an object whose very obscurity lends itself to its continual re-imagining in a saturated context of ideas about old and new forms of wealth. But this imagination is tied very much to the personality and position of Sane-Noma, its former owner. Sane is himself a person of knowledge with regard to Duna ritual practices, including the former boys' growth rites known as palena (Stewart and Strathern 1999). His narrative of the stone is thus imbricated into his general ritual knowledge. Nevertheless, the narrative also shows clearly his adaptation or deflection of that knowledge in pursuit of a contemporary interest in mineral wealth.

We now shift to consider the stone in its museum context. It lies quietly in the original envelope that enclosed it when it was deposited, along with - 84 the “orthodox” (auwi) stones said by Sane to be its “wife” and “child”, in a locked storeroom of the National Museum in Port Moresby. It is kept securely in its place because of the past disputes between Sane and rival claimants about its ownership and sale to the Museum. What semiotic potentials does it have for the future? We offer one possibility. For the Museum, and for scholarship, the stone's interest resides precisely in its singularity, its near-unique quality. In another instance of a rare stone finding, from the Enga Province in the 1980s, an “anteater” figure that was unearthed beneath the surface of a ceremonial ground was subsequently displayed on a national postage stamp, becoming a kind of emblem for their Province, although in a national context (see photo in Wiessner and Tumu 1998: after p. 46). The same could be done with the Kopiago stone. Its cultural opacity combined with its physical singularity make it open for appropriation in this way. Such an appropriation would have to be seen as a national act. It would be reminiscent of the process of the creation of a “heritage” in India through archaeological survey work beginning in colonial times, as discussed by Anderson (1983:Ch. 5). Such a heritage belongs as much to the outside world of interests as to the local contexts in which it is uncovered. It is also something essentially new, the creation of a new level of semiotic interest corresponding to a level of identity. The Kopiago stone awaits such a possibility in its secluded box on a museum shelf.

Another potentiality for the stone also emerges from the comparison given above with the so-called anteater figures. 6 One such figure found in PNG in earlier years was reputedly sold for a large sum of money to a museum in Australia. Rumours of the potential value of such stones on the world market caused the prohibition in the National Cultural Property Act (1967) of their export from PNG, so as to retain them as a part of the country's own heritage. The process of marketing rare stone artefacts, however, continues (see the controversy over the pestle and the mortars placed for sale at Sotheby's in Sydney, according to the PNG National of 7 November 1997). In terms of their economic versus their religious or symbolic value, then, these stones may acquire a fluidity as opposed to a fixity. If sold abroad, they can command a high market price. At home they represent a national heritage or a local reserve of ritual power and identity. Mission-induced devaluation of sacred stones opens the way for their commercial revaluation. Interestingly here, the controversy over the stones to be auctioned at Sotheby's had to do also with the fact that, according to the National again, they were “believed to have been taken to Australia during the colonial times by an un-named missionary…without the necessary export permits required”. Professor John Waiko, a Papua New Guinean historian, who was then Vice Minister for Education, Science and Culture in the country, was quoted as commenting - 85 that all possible steps would be taken to have the objects returned and that “the missionary did not remove these objects because he believed that they were pagan but because he wanted to make money from them”. In this commentary we see that, perhaps partly because of their high monetary potential, these artefacts become icons or markers of national identity in post-colonial times, set off against the narrative of how they were acquired or used in colonial times (for a parallel see Errington and Gewertz 1995:51 ff.).


The political and poetical impact of stone objects on the imagination of individuals and collectivities is widely observed. We have discussed three examples of stone artefacts from the highlands of Papua New Guinea which have been selected by the local people as foci of social, political or ritual significance. The nature of the material, i.e., stone, imparts fixity and permanence onto fluid categories. The Amb Kor's fertility powers are entrapped within the body of her spirit stones, while at the same time she moves from one clan group to the next as a benefactress. The Duna images of their Female Spirit similarly evoke both mobility and fixity. Likewise, the Kuk Origin Stone fixes the identity of the land it stands on and adjoining it as Kawelka land, while historically the people themselves have flowed into and out of the area as pressures were imposed upon them. James Weiner describes a parallel situation among the Foi, where magical formulae are fixed into the architecture of their longhouses during construction so as to assure the perpetual flow of women and children into the community (Weiner 1991:184).

It is interesting also to see that carved sacred stones sometimes exhibit forms that appear akin to the form of a fetus, as in the “anteater” stones and ones classified as pestles in theriomorphic or human-like shape by Newton (1979:45). A fetus may be seen as incomplete, but possessing a pluripotential capacity to develop in different directions, and therefore to represent the multiplicity and creativity of the cosmos itself, within which life-force runs through the bodies and substances of plants, creatures, and humans alike, as well as in the substances of water, fire, earth and air (the last comprising also wind, smoke, cloud and smell). Pig fetuses were buried at the foot of centre posts for sacred houses in the Amb Kor ritual, and a stone in the shape of a fetus might be held to capture the potential of these fetuses in an enduring form. The similarity of pig and human fetuses at a certain stage of growth could easily be accessible to the knowledge of people and could lead to the development of a symbolic focus of this type.

The meanings ascribed to particular stone objects, therefore, provide a cognitive mechanism for capturing, structuring and fixing into a more - 86 graspable, manageable and controllable form the perpetually flowing cosmic forces which ultimately elude all human efforts to establish permanence. In addition to a heightened perception of control over natural forces through the process of implanting knowledge into stone objects, a legitimisation of political authority is projected that serves local purposes, while at the same time flowing outward. This dialectic of fluidity and fixity constitutes an elementary ritual structure that serves to position and reposition the axes of knowledge and power.

That such an analytical notion of a dialectic between fluidity and fixity is not far removed from modes of thought found in the wider region around New Guinea can be shown with reference to Joël Bonnemaison's account of the “society of stones” in his book The Tree and the Canoe (Bonnemaison 1994:130-44), on Tanna, Vanuatu. A myth from Tanna tells how a cannibal giant Semo-Semo was killed and his corpse carved up by birds, releasing all the creatures he had swallowed. Pieces of the corpse were allocated to the creatures and thrown onto a territory, thereby fixing the creatures' identification with the place. Bonnemaison continues:

Following Semo-Semo's killing, human beings emerged in their present, final form. Until then they were undifferentiated magical beings such as stones, birds, and sea residents that could transmute their appearance and move freely through space. When territories were created, all beings were in the same motion bequeathed “flesh”, a symbolic identity, and geographical roots….Identity and territory went hand in hand (p. 137).

Semo-Semo's mobile, partitioned, detotalised flesh thus formed the basis for the fixed, attached, retotalised bodies of people compounded of flesh and territory. The stone and bird beings that could change their form—for example, the Tsiri Harola (Kopiago) stone from Duna is seen as both lake water and stone—lost their fluidity also and became fixed as humans; but being flesh, they also became temporally fluid, subject to death and replacement. Their original stone forms signified synchronic fluidity but temporal fixity (i.e., immortality), while their current human forms signify synchronic fixity but temporal fluidity (i.e., mortality). The dialectic of fluidity and fixity can be seen, then, as the relationship between mortality and immortality. In another sense, both water and stone may be seen as polar examples of a single form of cosmic power that may come to be concentrated in the hands of human ritual specialists. As Bonnemaison (1994:178) puts it: “These stones, places, and springs refer to a personalized type of power, a power always embodied in one man and one lineage.”

In terms of our “politics and poetics” theme, we conclude that the - 87 “poetical”, or symbolic, anchoring of the meanings of the objects we have discussed in enduring schemata of fertility and power, linked to notions of capturing such power in the cause of local identities, lends itself to a further “political” expansion in terms of regional, oppositional or national levels of identity, expressed also in images influenced by post-colonial commodifications.


A preliminary version of this paper was presented at a session on Indigenous Objects, Postcolonial People, convened by Dr Maria Wronska-Friend at the Australian Anthropological Society Conference at Magnetic Island, Townsville, Australia, 2-4 October 1997. We thank the National Museum in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, for showing us the Kopiago stone and allowing us to photograph it, as well as providing photographs of the stone from the museum's collection for our use. Thanks for their helpful comments, hints, references and suggestions to Jonathan Friedman, Michael O'Hanlon, Matthew Spriggs and Polly Wiessner, to the anonymous reviewer for comments that helped us to improve our paper and to Professor Ann Chowning for valuable references as well as other suggestions. We remain responsible for all errors.

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1   The ritual of capture follows a diagnosis that a person has been afflicted by a spirit's desire, has been made sick, and in order to be cured needs to take control of the spirit, domesticate it and use it in the course of becoming a healer. This is a classic form of sequence, well known in Africa (e.g., Boddy 1989, Lambek 1993).
2   Blackwood also suggests that parallels to these stone pillars are to be found “in another area which, though distant, is known to have cultural affinities with Melanesia-the Naga Hills in Assam” (1935:539). She notes that the Naga pillars were probably phallic, and that from the appearance of the Buka ones “it would seem not unlikely that they may originally have been so intended” (p. 539).
3   The famous Ashoka stones from the 2nd century B.C. in India served to unite politically a war-torn country through their rendering of the newly embraced Buddhist tenets (Kulke and Rothermund 1986:64-70).
4   Inge Riebe describes a set of carved volcanic stone heads set up near Malangai Village on Unea Island on the northwest coast of New Britain that were markers of earlier territorial disputes with enemy forces in which the appearance of the stones is said to have stunned the enemy and thereby facilitated their defeat.
5   We might compare this with the megalithic stone monuments erected by the Zafimaniry in eastern Madagascar that were used to mark or inscribe a person in the land by means of the relatively permanent substance of stone (Bloch 1995:70-75). The Zafimaniry, however, view stone as “eternal but, on the other hand, it is not, nor has ever been, in any way alive” in their perception (p. 73). This cannot be said of the standing stone at Kuk or the one described above in Tairora. For example, the Kuk stone revealed itself through its ability to speak to the ancestral figure Koi, and the Tairora stone was said to have the ability to confer heightened porcine fertility. Both actions demonstrate the life-force in the stones.
6   The description of these as anteaters is presumably speculative. Newton (1979:40) refers to one in the collection of P. Goldman, saying that it has “been suggested to represent an embryonic long-beaked echidna”. It might also represent a human or humanoid embryo.