Volume 109 2000 > Volume 109, No. 1 > An artefact/image text of head-hunting motifs, by Deborah Waite, p 115-144
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Art associated with war (head-hunting) in the Western Solomon Islands of the latter 19th century is a complex topic demanding, first and foremost, some sort of definition. At the time of execution, war canoes, shields, weapons and associated carvings were not considered art, although they have long been regarded as such by a multitude of viewers. If we employ the term art to “refer to an object whose form is elaborated (in its etymological sense of ‘worked’) to provide visual and tactile pleasure and to enhance its rhetorical power as a visual representation” (Berlo and Phillips 1998:7), all of these objects do indeed merit attention from this perspective if properly contextualised. My particular aim is to demonstrate the manner in which artefacts and their images reiterate and concretise certain essential cultural values.

An arbitrarily-determined time framework for this discussion extends from approximately 1870 to 1908. This was a time of active warfare, European contact and change—a period documented by the very missionaries and political officials who were instrumental in modifying (and, in the case of head-hunting, eradicating) what once were traditional customs. McKinnon has stated, “In the 1880s the power of big men like Gorai of the Shortlands… Ingava of Roviana… Maghratulo of Mbilua, and Muke of Simbo… had reached its zenith…. By 1908, the power of big men had almost collapsed. All those named above were dead” (McKinnon 1975:303-4, but see Bennett 1987:88-93).

A signal event in the changing contexts of Roviana was the death of the prominent Roviana leader Hingova [Ingova] in 1906. One final raid from Roviana to Chosieul took place in or shortly after 1902, the year when the Australian Methodist Mission began their work at Roviana (Carter 1981:9, Brown 1908:523).

Within the contextual framework of this time and place, constant interaction among artefacts and images (and the people who produced them) characterised art associated with head-hunting. Artefacts of central importance within the context of war were reproduced as images on other artefacts within that same context. The image of a war canoe containing a standing or seated warriors could, for example, embellish the facade of a mortuary hut containing skulls obtained in a raid together with the skull of their acquirer (e.g., Figs 2-4). Heads were reproduced as signifiers of head-hunting in a variety of ways, e.g., as canoe prow figureheads (Fig. 8).

Separate (but contextually-allied) artefactual systems privileged the same image, seemingly as visual confirmation of their affiliation. A standing anthropomorph represented frontally with laterally-upraised arms was featured on canoe ornaments and decorated shields from different islands in the Western Solomons (see Waite 1983a, 1985). Images of crocodiles, as will be demonstrated subsequently, occurred on eating troughs (Fig. 10), canoe prows and clubs.

Repeated use of materials and techniques also reinforced associated artefacts and iconic systems. Giant clam shell (Tridacna gigas) from which were fashioned ring-shaped breast pendants and other rings that served as a form of currency was - 116 also used for openwork barava plaques which re-presented (i.e., presented again) images of that very currency in association with images of faces (heads), warriors, and an occasional canoe (cf. Waite 1983b). Nautilus shell cut into small pieces was inlaid along the sides of war canoes, on the faces of canoe prow figureheads and other wooden images, as well as the surfaces of certain shields. When used on the faces of images, the shell inlay reproduced white facial paint. On shields, it is likely that evocation of canoe prows was intended and, by extension, alluded to the power of the shield bearer and canoe occupier/owner (Waite n.d.).

Fundamental problems arise in considering the above-mentioned links between objects and images. Accurate island provenances are by no means always available for the objects in question. When a provenance is provided in museum documentation, it is often not clear whether the provenance refers to the place of collection, observation or production. Often the author of the provenance is unclear. The nature of collecting often results in an unbalanced collection; thus, certain islands are represented with frequency while others go unrecorded and unmentioned. Consequently, this article will contain inevitable gaps.

It should always be remembered that the context of war was a context of movement. For instance, warriors from the Roviana Lagoon, New Georgia Island raided settlements on Choiseul, Santa Isabel, and other islands. Accordingly, a canoe from New Georgia might remain on Santa Isabel. One example was featured in an article by C.M. Woodford where it was labelled “Headhunting Canoe from Ysabel” [Santa Isabel] (Woodford 1909 Plates XLI-XLIV). Slaves captured from Santa Isabel and brought to New Georgia were employed there by their captors for the manufacture of canoes and other artefacts (cf. Tippett 1967:148-50). Awareness of situations like this casts a strong shadow of ambiguity over many documented provenances. With these caveats in mind, we will proceed to deal with some of the artefacts once produced within the context of war/head-hunting.


The long plank-built canoes (tomoko, Roviana; magoru, Marovo, New Georgia Island) that once plied the waters of the Western Solomon Islands have long been noted by islanders and non-islanders alike for their size, swiftness and beauty (Fig. 5). (They are still being constructed especially for ritual contexts such as the 1998 Melanesian Festival of Arts, when three canoes from Roviana and one from Marovo were brought down to the festival at Honiara.) Notable features of the canoes are the raised prow and stern, and the intricate decoration. Prows of canoes from Santa Isabel differed in having less emphasis on height but were no less ornamented. Both sides of the giant war canes were stained black and inlaid with numerous pieces of white shell. Small triangular-shaped reproductions of tridacna-shell charms (barava) line the inner rim of the prow and, sometimes, stern. A row of cowrie shells attached along the outer length of the upraised prow almost concealed the carved wooden image fastened immediately below it on the canoe bow; other anthropomorphic carvings were attached to the prow and/or stern peaks or set in the canoe. The construction process and installation of every artefact always was and still is accompanied by the appropriate rituals. 1

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As the principal vehicles for obtaining ritually desirable heads, head-hunting/ war canoes were not only prepared with appropriate ritual before the onset of an expedition, but bore imagery that metaphorically signified power, aggression and protection. Attached anthropomorphic images allegedly embodied or represented spirits from the sea that would protect the canoe and its occupants.

The image of a crocodile head could be painted or inlaid on the sides of certain canoe prows from Roviana (e.g., Ulster Museum, Botanic Gardens, Belfast, 963). The German naturalist Carl Ribbe recorded having seen five canoes on Santa Isabel ornamented with crocodile head prow imagery in 1895. Ribbe's illustration of a canoe prow observed at Wulegar village, Santa Isabel (1903:314) shows a crocodile devouring a human victim, a theme repeated on other artefacts associated with head-hunting and associated leadership prestige (Ribbe 1903:314, Fig. 82).

The obvious importance of shells in the form of inlay and shells attached to the front of the upraised canoe prow probably had a multi-referential capacity. Thomas (1995:94) makes a relevant conjecture about the appropriateness of shell inlay for Solomons art, including the canoes:

…the powerful contrast between brilliant inlay and wooden background which is always painted black exemplifies a kind of contrast intrinsic to the perception of social activities such as feasting and head-hunting. These practices can be seen as expressions of brilliance in themselves, requiring a variety of extraordinary preparations and categorical distinctions from ordinary activities that provide the “ground” against which predatory accomplishments dazzle. Ritual and ceremonial occasions must always be marked off from conventional routines in a variety of ways; this is a logic of differentiation that appears to be present in the utensils themselves.

The shells may also have alluded to the wealth of the canoe owner and the exchange transactions in/for which he and social allies had either obtained or produced the shell ornaments. The black/white contrast achieved through the inlaying and attaching of white shells to black-painted canoes may well have replicated the appearance of the canoe occupants (especially their leader) whose white ritual face and body paint stood out against dark skin (in death as in life, see modelled skull, Fig. 11). Every canoe was, in a sense, a projection of the body social of its owner and associated (often related) men in an expedition. Reiteration of body decoration would only reinforce that projection.

Canoe Carvings

Wooden carvings made for attachment to canoes privileged anthropomorphic imagery. Crocodiles are rarely depicted on these portable carvings, as the canoe bow was a more common position for the crocodile image where it metaphorically appeared to express the aggressiveness of the conquering canoe and its leader. There were exceptions. At least four portable canoe carvings, two (one from Marovo, the other allegedly from Simbo—although stylistically similar [cf. Kaeppler, Newton, Gathercole 1979:231, Fig. 15.12]) display a crocodile image carved in relief (Pitt - 118 Rivers Museum, Somerville Collection); two represent a synthesis of crocodile jaw with anthropomorphic head or image.

Two carvings rendered in a manner in keeping with carvings from Roviana convey (ambiguously in one instance and more directly in the other) the theme of the human head/body in the jaws of the crocodile. The ambiguous one (Fig. 6) is a small flat carving that appears at first glance to represent a female displayed figure (Royal Scottish Museums 1924-448). Upon closer examination, it is decipherable as a two-dimensionally-coded representation of a figure being devoured by a crocodile whose flattened jaws merge with the outspread legs to create a torso. (The same treatment characterises a decorated club in the Otago Museum, Dunedin, D.45.174.) The cleft between the buttocks is located where the female genitalia should be. It is tempting to speculate upon possible intentional sexual ambiguity here; women and children as well as men were head-hunting victims, so there is no reason why they should not be commemorated as victims. The small head of the figure, separated from the legs by the crocodile jaws, is barely visible between two diverging frigate bird heads. Representations of triangular-shaped barava (the shell ornaments depicted/ inserted along the inner prow of a war canoe) function visually as crocodile teeth. The other carving of similar size comprises a more immediately recognisable human head with shell-inlaid eyes in the jaws of a crocodile (British Museum 1944 Oc2 17891).

Five variants of the anthropomorphic image occur on canoe carvings. Three are frontally-depicted: a standing figure with laterally-extended arms, a seated displayed figure, and a figure with flexed knees. Profile figures always assume a seated position. Single and paired anthropomorphic heads are represented in two and three dimensions.

One category of canoe ornament presents an enframed single standing anthropomorphic figure (Fig. 7). Available documentation conveys inadequate information about the exact positioning within the canoe for the carvings as well as their island provenances. When documented, they appear to have been acquired from more than one island group in the Western Solomons. One said to have come from Santa Isabel, for example (Auckland Institute and Museum 15048), stylistically resembles images said to be from Roviana (e.g., British Museum 1661,1661a and BAL c.90 obtained by C.M. Woodford in Roviana). This is precisely the sort of data that should be viewed with awareness of the capturing of canoes from Roviana on Santa Isabel and the employment of slaves from Santa Isabel for the manufacture of artefacts on Roviana (Tippett 1967:148-50).

These canoe carvings are thematically united. Each figure stands within a rectangular frame decorated with carved reproductions of the roughly triangular-shaped tridacna-shell barava once worn as a powerful charm, fastened to serenbule and represented along the inner rim of war canoe prows. The barava images are reduced to minute connected triangles on some examples. The figure always grasps the frame and/or holds small human heads, an obvious sign that he is a head-hunter (Waite 1985:47-60).

Two canoe carvings feature a standing image rendered two-dimensionally in a manner distinctly different from the above group (British Museum 1959.Oc 6, 23 - 119 and Pitt Rivers Museum 1895.22.205). The example in the Pitt Rivers Museum from the Marovo Lagoon closely resembles another canoe carving in the Pitt Rivers showing a seated displayed figure similarly rendered in flat, two-dimensional fashion (Pitt Rivers Museum 1895.22.204). Their average heights are c.47-50 cm. Both carvings were collected in 1893-95 by Lt B.H.T. Somerville, who referred to the carvings as representations of hope ta ponda ‘spirit figures’ (Waite 1990:54 and 66, n.10).

Three-dimensional versions of the seated profile image occasionally served as canoe prow figureheads although far less frequently than images of the detached head (e.g., Field Museum of Natural History, Fuller Collection 276855 depicted in Waite 1990:51, Fig. 5.14, H. 55.3 cm). Like the figureheads, the complete figures apparently referenced a protective spirit of the sea. According to Beti (1977:40-46), this was the spirit Kesoko. Two-dimensional canoe ornaments from the Marovo Lagoon featured Kesoko rendered as part-anthropomorph part-frigate bird. He was associated with a variety of birds in myth, but the consistent visual depiction of Kesoko as partially a predatory frigate bird metaphorically conveyed him as the quintessential head-hunter. 2

Heads, single and paired, constituted prominent canoe ornaments. The canoe prow figureheads lashed just above the water line, called toto isu in Roviana, nguzunguzu in Marovo (Fig. 8), appear to have been the standard carving present on every war canoe (cf. Waite 1999:82-97, size range c. 11-39 cm). They supposedly represented sea spirits who would protect the occupants of a canoe while at sea, especially during storms. The fact that they comprised severed heads, or heads and arms, and at times even carried miniature heads in their hands emphasised their role as symbols of head-hunting.

The same can be said of the paired heads termed mbeku ‘spirit’ (H. c.9-10 cm) that once occupied a position directly above the figureheads on the tips of prows and apparently also sterns. Positioned back-to-back and thus capable of surveying opposite directions, they, too, apparently protected or served as symbols of the invulnerability of the head-hunters (Woodford 1909:512, Thomas 1995:92).

Canoe Houses

Photographs and one painting (Fig. 9) display a particular façade type which characterised canoe houses in Roviana at and before the turn of the century. Unlike the open canoe houses in the southeastern Solomon Islands, those from Roviana had closed, thatched facades with openings for two canoes. Each opening had a narrow vertical extension which permitted the entrance and exit of the large canoes with tall prows and sterns. In contrast to canoe houses in the southeastern Solomons, interiors were all but devoid of architectural decoration save for an occasional single carved supporting post near the entrance.

Eating Troughs in Canoe Houses

Large wooden troughs from which men ate at war-related festivals were kept in Roviana canoe houses through the turn of the century. Frank Burnett, a traveller in the region, stated that in every village he visited he saw

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…usually in the large canoe house, a huge trough, between thirty and forty feet long, carved out of a solid log, and fashioned to represent either a shark or a crocodile. These are used as receptacles for food, and in them are mashed, the immense quantity of food, consisting of sweet potatoes, rice, and taro, that is required when one village is entertaining another to a feast… (Burnett 1911:93-94).

(Burnett's description of the eating troughs does not reflect the negatively-prejudiced colonial attitudes which colour most of his descriptions of artefacts.)

The crocodile motif apparently figured prominently on eating troughs. Unfortunately, visual and textual evidence is limited to two troughs: one surviving in actuality and the other through recorded text alone. The actual trough, now in the British Museum (Fig. 10), was taken from Kalikongu [Koli kongo] District, Roviana Lagoon in 1891 by the British Royal Navy ship H.M.S. Royalist under the command of Admiral E.H.M. Davis. 3

The Royalist carried out a British government-sponsored punitive “mission” by raiding and burning villages in the area as a measure (not entirely successful) for ending head-hunting raids (cf. Bennett 1987:90-91). During the process, Davis acquired a large number of artefacts from New Georgia (in particular, Roviana), other Solomon Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific where the ship pursued a similar goal. In addition to the complete trough in the British Museum, Davis obtained what was probably the crocodile carved at one end of another trough, listed in the catalogue of the Royalist expedition as no. 47, “Carved crocodile's head—man's head in jaws”. The carving now belongs to the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Köln (11004); the museum acquired the piece in 1904 (pers. comm., Dr. Burkhard Fenner, Oceanic Department, Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, 1 October 1996).

The British Museum trough (Fig. 10) was listed as item no. 325 in the catalogue of 699 items obtained by Davis and the Royalist, which describes it as “a carved food bowl, used at cannibal feasts, Rubiana Lagoon Solomon Islands”. 4 It is a hollowed log approximately 25.5 feet long terminating in the carved head of a crocodile with human head in jaws at one end and a full-length anthropomorphic figure standing in the jaws of a shark at the other. Anthropomorphic arms are carved just behind the crocodile head. Arms and the upper surface of the crocodile jaw are ornamented with circular motifs; extensions connect sequential circular motifs along the jaw, whereas on the arm a single motif with pointed enclosures serves as a joint mark. (The same design motif appears within bands on the fronts of skull houses and on canoe ornaments.) Along each side of the vessel portion are five relief-carved images of frontal male figures, depicted from the waist-up only, adorned with circular earrings and the ornamented tridacna-shell eringe breastplate worn by prominent men of Roviana. The figures extend both arms laterally, holding (one in each hand) a long-handled axe and a ring, probably a bakeha, one of the principal clam-shell rings used as currency (cf. Edge-Partington 1903:161-62). Virtually the same image, differing only in hand-held attributes and full-length presentation, is rendered singly on the fronts of skull houses (cf. Figures 2-4, 12). The warrior images, like the crocodile, in all likelihood were reiterated on culturally-associated artefacts in order to concretise further the associations among them.

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The second trough, apparently existent only textually, belonged to the prominent Roviana leader Hingova and stood in his canoe house at Sisieta village, his headquarters until old age forced retirement to an island some miles distant (Brown 1908:517). The trough escaped the “burnings” of the Royalist and, according to Edge-Partington, was still in Hingova's canoe house in 1906. C.M. Woodford visited Sisieta in March 1887 where he saw “Wange and Ingova [Hingova]… engaged in carving a large trough for pounding food. The trough is about thirty feet long, and the ends are carved to represent crocodiles' heads while it is also ornamented with carvings of turtles and frigate birds”. 5

This initial description indicates that the trough at Sisieta resembled the one from Kalikongu in featuring crocodile heads (but at both ends, not just one) while other features differed. Edge Partington, however, persisted in thinking that the two might be one and used Woodford's description of the activity surrounding the Sisieta trough to explain the use of the Kalikongu trough (cf. Edge-Partington 1903, 1906).

Five days after his first sight of the trough on 5 March, Woodford returned to Sisieta Village to see the trough being used for the first time.

When I arrived, I found that they had moved it from where they had been at work at it and had taken it into the large canoe house and were at the moment of my arrival preparing to use it for the first time… I had told Ingova and Wange that I was coming so my visit was not unexpected. I found them seated in the canoe house with all the rest of the old and young men of the town. The big trough was in the center of the house with the end representing the crocodile head with a carved human head in the jaw facing toward the seaward entrance. On either side of the trough were seated men with pounding sticks, twenty-two on each side and a man at either end. All there were dressed up with all their ornaments and had their shields, spears, and tomahawks with them. Above were the grinning heads on the rafters, eight of them, besides turtles' heads and the heads of frigate birds. When everything appeared to be ready, an old man in full war rig with spear and shield was seen advancing towards the house followed by some others. He walked up to the entrance and then suddenly started back as if in fear and exclaiming in a loud voice, “Al Basioto” (a crocodile), poised his spear and stood on the defensive. Ingova then advanced from the interior of the house and placing one hand on the crocodile's head, began a speech which lasted about ten minutes. Suddenly, at a given signal, the men at the trough began to pound the food, all of them keeping time and striking sometimes loud and sometimes low at intervals…. the food to be pounded was the nuts that grow so plentifully at Ala and other places in the group and are known by the name of Borubero.

The pounding went on for over half an hour or so, the men relieving each other at intervals, as they got tired. When the nuts were sufficiently pounded, the men at the trough left the house and went to another part of the town where, I was told, the taro was being cooked. Ingova sent for some smoked bonito which he offered me. I ate one and drank a greenish coconut… after - 122 a little time Ingova asked me if I would go….What was to happen next I did not know, probably a sacrifice (Woodford Diaries, January-5 June 1887).

Woodford's account vividly conveys a war modality communicated through the actions and dress of the participants whose presence at the feast was, in effect, made permanent through the carved images of warriors represented along the sides of the vessel. The prominent role of the crocodile as a symbol of aggression and consumption is obvious. Just as it functions metaphorically when depicted along the prow of a war canoe, so it serves on an eating trough which was the focus of war and prestige-related feasts.

Edge-Partington subsequently discovered that the feast witnessed by Woodford celebrated Hingova's prowess as a warrior, particularly on a recent raid to Choiseul Island, and was not a sacrificial feast (Edge-Partington 1906:121). He had previously (1903:161) quoted a note from Admiral Davis which stated very specifically that it had been used as a cannibal dish—a judgment that accurately reflected the perspective of Admiral Davis.

Association of eating trough with head-hunting expeditions and especially with the war canoe, all manifestations/extensions of the power of great leaders (such as Hingova), clarifies an otherwise somewhat puzzling iconic feature of the eating trough, namely the anthropomorphic arm carved directly behind the head of the crocodile. Viewed contextually, the arm image on the trough could conceivably be interpreted as the arm of the leader placed in close juxtaposition to the head of the crocodile (metaphor for aggressive leader as consumer/conqueror). A warrior's arm(s) and hand(s) wielded both shield and long-handled axe, instruments of attack and defense.

Possibly owing to a significance of this nature, an arm was once represented on the side of a Roviana head-hunting canoe, according to C.M. Woodford. In listing the structural and decorative elements of a head-hunting canoe from Roviana, Woodford described the Limambovo as a “white painted arm with extended fingers on the [sides] of [a] canoe indicating that heads have been taken. If forward it indicates male heads and if aft it indicates female heads”. He further states: “The white arms on each side of the canoe, indicating that heads have been taken, are, it is believed, not permanent, but are marked with coral lime after a successful raid…” (Woodford 1909:513). It would not be too great a stretch of the imagination to see eating trough and head-hunting canoe as, metaphorically, one and the same.


In the 1840s, long-handled axes were a principal weapon and symbol of aggression in the Western Solomons. The advent of the European rifle only interrupted their practical effective function, not their symbolic role. Dark-stained shell-inlaid handles of numerous prestigious axes, most of which probably date to the latter years of the 19th century, replicated decorative techniques and imagery used for war canoes. The crocodile devouring a human victim (Barbier Mueller Museum 4505G) and frigate bird heads depicted immediately above the imported European iron blade (e.g., Australian Museum E31440) effectively connoted visual - 123 embodiments of power; the juxtaposition of European axe blade with frigate bird image fused indigenous with imported manifestations of power.

Wooden staffs attributed to the Roviana Lagoon are ornamented in a manner comparable to long-handled axes. So similar are they in treatment of form, image and shell inlay that they can serve (visually) to anchor the ornamented long-handled axes to the Roviana Lagoon. Each staff terminates in the image of a crocodile devouring a human head or figure, or animal. The diversity of victims perhaps indicates their individuated role on staffs that were created as presentation gifts or objects of sale to outsiders; within the nexus of war-related artefacts, the crocodile's victim was always human (Waite 1983c: 122-23, cf. Damm 1941:29-34).


Warriors and warrior images, especially those associated with skull houses, always bore shields, reflecting the reality of 19th century Western Solomon Islands where only the efforts of missionaries were ultimately (but not always) able to part a man from his shield and long-handled axe. Shields were objects of defence until rendered useless by imported rifles. Canoes filled with warriors were, simultaneously, filled with shields and, of course, axes. Summary or extensive shield ornamentation communicated the rank, position and, in effect, body social of the owner (Waite n.d.).

Shields, initially and principally, served as defensive implements in war and anticipation of war as well as in war-related rituals in New Georgia, Choiseul, Santa Isabel, Nggela and Guadalcanal. They were also commodities within exchange networks that involved islanders throughout the Western Solomons. People living in regions where ready supplies of the cane and fibres required for shield production were available made and sold shields to other people in exchange for commodities which they, in turn, needed and were unable to produce. People from the Roviana Lagoon traditionally purchased cane and fibre shields from Kusaghe tribesmen in northern New Georgia in exchange for shell rings produced in Roviana as well as other commodities. Shields used on Nggela were produced in certain villages in the interior of Guadalcanal. People living in Roviana sold shields to people living on Vella LaVella (see Schneider 1996:79-81). On Vella LaVella in 1901, A.B. Lewis, in the Solomons on a collecting expedition for the Field Museum (Chicago), photographed (and collected) a shield from Roviana at Mundi-Mundi village. The shield was wrapped in leaf for trading in exchange for packages of mashed taro and noni nuts (see Welsch 1998:358-60, Field Museum shield no.135826).

Shields were used for land purchase in Marovo (Hviding, pers. comm. 27 May 1996) and, allegedly, in some parts of the Western Solomons, as bride-price (Somerville 1897:406). In short, they were a commodity with purchasing power (Waite n.d.).

One group of cane shields of a type attributed primarily to Santa Isabel, but also to Guadalcanal, bears shell-inlaid ornamentation depicting the standing warrior with upraised arms seen also on the rectangular framed figures on canoe carvings (see above); small heads are not grasped by the figures but flank them or appear beneath their feet. Curved bark shields from Santa Isabel also bear the same theme (Waite 1983a: 114-36). The cane shields were very likely produced in the interior of - 124 Guadalcanal or, possibly, on Santa Isabel, but the makers of the shields were, in all probability, not the artisans who created the inlaid designs. Their provenance is still in doubt. Were the people inlaying the shields working on Santa Isabel; if so, in what district? Or were they slaves from Isabel working in Roviana? (see above).

Heads: Their Display and Ornamentation

Within the context of head-hunting, leaders gained prestige and power through organising and participating in successful head-hunting raids. Heads obtained on raids attested to the power of leaders, most particularly, their effective leadership ability facilitated, in part, by success in communicating with spirits that made power operative. Thus, heads were displayed: many bearing the axe marks of battle, others distinguished through ornamentation.

The trader Andrew Cheyne wrote the following in February 1844 from Simbo Island.

Visited the Head-chief's village this afternoon on the low island, and on landing the first thing that met my view, was the wall plates of a large canoe house strung with human heads, of both sexes, and apparently of all ages. Many of them appeared to have been recently killed, and the marks of the tomahawk were seen in all… (Shineberg 1971:303-4).

By the 1880s, “heads appear to have been part of the indigenous economy. They were a luxury article with which to enhance social standing”. Heads were regarded throughout the Western Solomons as embodying the life force of an individual, and it was for this reason that they had become such a valuable commodity (McKinnon 1975:304, 301 respectively, cf. Schneider 1996:84).

Given their social significance, it is not surprising that their display became prominent in New Georgia, particularly at Roviana from which point some of the largest raids were conducted. There is at least one account of an orchestrated display of heads on the canoe which brought them back from a raid. Lt Boyle Somerville reported in 1893 that, “On the return of the victors, I was also informed (by a trader, Mr Kelly), the heads were all decorated and placed in a prominent position round the leading canoe; and to the sound of conch-shell braying the boats proceeded up the lagoon, the rowers indulging in ‘fancy paddling’ as they passed the various villages” (Somerville 1897:399).

Somerville does not state what he means by “decorated”, but skull decoration took two forms. Shell rings could be bound to the skull or it could be dried, modelled with Parinarium nut paste, painted black and inlaid with shell, with a resultant appearance that parallelled other artefacts associated with head-hunting including the canoe itself (Fig. 11) (cf. Waite 1983c: 117-18).

Skull Shrines

Shrines were erected for permanent display of skulls, though they could also be kept in caves. According to Schneider, in Roviana skull shrines were “maintained by every political unit and their respective chiefs…. Chiefs supplicated the tamasa - 125 [great spirit] at a skull shrine to ensure the physical well-being of his community in terms of protection from enemy groups… and diseases” (Schneider 1996:84). Shrines usually contained small huts in which skulls were placed (more often than not heaped) and frequently a carved wooden figure called (at Roviana) tigono or beku that “served as a communication medium linking the tomate/ ancestors to tamasa in rituals of ensuring the group's viability executed by the chief” (Schneider 1996).

Visitors came upon or were led to certain of these small structures surrounded by impressive displays of trophy skulls. The experience of George Brown, General Secretary of the Australian Methodist Mission, who had come to the Solomons to establish a mission base on Roviana, is only one example:

We reached Simbo, or Eddystone Island, as it is called, about 3:30 p.m…. Soon after landing I went to visit the sacred place where the skulls of deceased relatives and friends are deposited. There was a large number of small houses erected, some of which had 20 or 30 skulls in them. One of them had only two which were evidently those of some superior persons, as the skulls were highly ornamented with rings and other valuable shell property. Many ornaments and shell money were hung outside the small houses….The people made no objection whatever to our going to the place, nor did they object to my taking photographs of it… (Brown 1901:1).

Anthropologist A.M. Hocart is responsible for the only early study of skull houses, drawing upon information obtained on Simbo and Roviana in 1908. He cited four basic types of skull houses.

  • (i)From Simbo he reported a thatched house, tambuna pina, named after the “ivory nut with which they are thatched”. Thatch was already being replaced by corrugated iron in 1908. He described the narrow vertically-oriented house as “looking like a half-house”.
  • (ii)A wooden skull house (leva), of which he saw only two examples on Simbo, is described as being made according to a Vella LaVella island plan, “a long box, like a coffin, higher in front than behind, resting on a perpendicular plank and with the front open”.
  • (iii)An example of a wooden skull house, drawn for Hocart by Kundakolo, represented “a complete house with the gable end as the front, a type common in Roviana”.
  • (iv)A stone skull house “suggestive of diminutive dolmens” was comprised of stone slabs for walls and roof. Hocart did not provide an island provenance but said that this type was rare and also small, holding only three or four skulls.

Hocart also noted a few features common (from his perspective) to skull houses at his period of documentation (1908). “The space all round the skull-houses is forbidden to all but the mortuary priest” (compare George Brown's experience). A fire (iku paparagu lit. ‘the roasting fire’) was located a few steps from a group of houses. This was the place where food was cooked for “people who attend the sacrifices”. Leaves used to wrap puddings were usually hung on a nearby tree. - 126 Houses could be oriented towards any point of the compass and were usually in the bush; only a few were close to dwellings and none were actually in hamlets due, allegedly, to the “recent moving of the people from the bush to the shore”.

Mortuary priests (iama) presided over and cared for skull houses. “It is they who build new skull-houses when the old are decayed, but the words used in consecrating seem to connect them specially with the skull-houses of chiefs.” The priests were often slaves captured from another island as children and ordained by the descendants of their captors. “The reason why natives do not officiate is that ‘s'pose he make him, I think he die; I think by and by devil he cross, he die’”, so Hocart was told (Hocart 1922:103-5, Pls. VII and VIII.).

Imagery does not appear on the skull houses illustrated by Hocart; other photographs of skull houses reveals that the majority did not possess carved and painted imagery. It might be assumed that those which did belonged either to a special calibre of leader and/or reflected the practice of a particular region. Roviana would seem to be such a place.

When imagery is present, one cluster of design motifs prevails. It remains clearly visible on the skull house at “Skull Island” located off the tip of Vonavona Island in the Vonavona Lagoon (Figs 1-4). Allegedly, one skull at the front on the upper tier of skulls inside the house is supposed to be that of Higova, major leader in the Roviana Lagoon who died in 1906. 6

The slab that once covered the entrance was intricately decorated with carved imagery. Uppermost is a large anthropomorphic figure standing in a canoe “propelled” by two small seated paddlers. The figure holds a shield and long-handled axe in outstretched hands and displays on his chest the ornamented tridacna clam-shell ring termed eringe, signalling the status of this individual as a prominent warrior.

Beneath this man in canoe is a second large design area occupied by two curving shapes flanking a narrow vertical opening. I would suggest that this design on the front of skull houses is a two-dimensionally-coded representation of two canoe prows flanking the entrance of a canoe house. A reproduction of canoe house with canoes along with an image of the warrior standing in his canoe would have been a fitting set of design motifs for the front of skull houses belonging to prominent paramount chiefs. The entire facade is ringed with a row of barava representations, the triangular clam-shell carvings associated with canoes and skull huts.

At least five additional skull houses and one monument surrounded by skulls display this set of design motifs (with variations). Two have a specific village provenance. Mbili, a south Marovo village, was the locus of a skull house recorded verbally and sketched by Lt Boyle Somerville in 1893. The facade of the little wooden house was triangular and was ringed with barava designs. The whole of the facade was filled with four superimposed pairs of diverging curved shapes corresponding to the canoe prow shapes present on each of these houses. On this house the canoe prow shapes did not flank an upright vertical opening; rather, the lower-most curves constituted the bottom edge of the house, approaching each other to create a trapezoidal opening. Somerville's sketch does not indicate the presence of an anthropomorphic figure at the top. Rather, another curved design appears in - 127 that position, one which he has labelled “Bimboho + rainbow”. A pair of crocodiles is represented in the two lower-most diverging sides of the facade. Somerville described the structure as a “small tambu house” located just outside the former house of Ngetu (Getu). Getu had died and the village was deserted when Somerville and his colleagues visited it. The house had contained Getu's skull, which had since been removed and taken to an adjacent island, Totelau, “for safekeeping”. 7

Another skull house was photographed by Williamson on 1 May 1910 at Sychele village, Roviana Lagoon (Royal Anthropological Institute, London, Negative No. 11397). The house has a triangular front, sloping thatched roof and was mounted on a short post. The roof overhang makes it impossible to view the uppermost part of the gable; whether it contains a standing anthropomorphic figure is not certain. Another house displaying the themes on its triangular front was photographed by George Brown (date not given) (Royal Geographical Society, London PR 056649).

One of a group of five skull houses in an unidentified Bishop Museum photograph (Neg. No. CP115.329) shows the same theme, but the figure is rendered quite differently with a pointed head and holding nothing in his hands. The motif of canoes flanking vertical canoe house entrance is duplicated on this structure, one above the other.

A triangular wooden gable front now in the Rautenstrauch Joest Museum, Köln (11128; cf. Stöhr 1971/72:180, Fig. 427) is decorated with the anthropomorphic figure in canoe (but without canoe paddlers or objects in hand). Each of these examples differs in small details but bears the same basic motifs.

A monument to Hingova of Roviana (apparently no longer in existence) bearing the same set of design motifs was photographed and described by the Hungarian Count Rudolphe Festetics De Tolna in 1895 (Fig. 12). The monument takes a curious form; a vertical orientation with two horizontal cross bars, one just beneath the figure in canoe (and containing the crocodiles), the other forming the base of the monument. Outer edges of the lower half of the monument curve in a manner that repeats the curve of the canoe prows.

On this monument, as on the skull house in the Bishop Museum photograph, there are two superimposed registers of the canoe prows flanking the canoe house entrance. Immediately above them and beneath the figure standing in canoe are two diverging crocodiles, one with a human figure in its jaws. De Tolna described it as follows (translated):

In the bush at “Rubiana” a monument was erected to the glory of King Ingova to commemorate the hunt that he conducted. It is a sort of cross in stone and widens at the base [and] is placed on a mound of coral rocks. Out of a mosaic of shells and mother-of-pearl on the head of the cross is represented a person standing in a canoe between two much smaller paddlers. Two crocodiles opposed tail to tail, and the mouth open, occupy the crossbar. The lower section, cut by a thin split opening in its length, is ornamented with sections in thin sheets of yatagan, surrounded by rays from the center and in the middle of which are concentric circles of different colors.

The monument is sheltered by a tent whose cloth rests on posts with which - 128 it is fastened by chains. The natives go piously to take their offerings to the monument. They consist generally of human heads that are flung into the coral at the foot of the cross and where they are shattered. Those who are not able to procure real heads make do with imitations made from coconuts in which they cut eyes, nose, and mouth. I had the imprudence to pick up one of these heads for my collection, but the natives who saw me became so furious that I quickly had to put it back… (Festetics De Tolna 1903:328-32).

The repetition of image clusters quite likely indicated an association of some sort between genealogically and/or politically linked peoples.

Shell Rings, Charms and Plaques

Shell valuables are mentioned briefly in this concluding section because it was their existence that facilitated so many of the exchanges that involved previously discussed objects. They were of paramount importance in exchange networks of all sorts in the New Georgia Group. Production of Tridacna gigas clam-shell ornaments, in particular, was centred in Roviana but also occurred in Marovo. Somerville recorded the process in some detail at Mbili [Bili] village, south Marovo (Somerville MS., Hviding 1996:394 n. 18; for references to Roviana see Brown 1899:3, Bennett 1987:84, Schneider 1996:93-97).

Exchanges of shields, food, barkcloth as well as the assistance of spirits in undertakings essential to the welfare of a community (e.g., head-hunting) and individuals within it were facilitated and articulated by means of shell rings, the poata, bakeha, hokata (arm rings). Thus, shell rings were fastened to skull houses and to the skulls of important individuals. Almost as ubiquitous were the triangular barava charms and their reproductions on war canoes, canoe ornaments and skull huts.

Rings and barava were tied to sticks called serubule at Roviana and vovoso on Simbo. They were taken out in head-hunting canoes and, after a raid, placed in skull huts. Before a raid, they were the focus of rituals and offerings similar to those performed for the canoe itself. On Simbo, the vovoso seemed to have served as a vehicle through which spirits of departed chiefs were addressed in order to achieve success. According to Hocart, who obtained his data from Simbo in 1908, the vovoso from Simbo was “tambu belong kill him man”. One from Karivara District was reputedly named “Crocodile” and belonged to a canoe of the same name. “It used to be kept in the skull house at Vepa. When fighting was stopped, the mortuary priest broke it and hung the fragments on the rafters of the skull house. The canoe was allowed to rot.”

Hocart's records indicate an apparent metaphoric identification of the vovoso with the crocodile, canoe and spirits of departed chiefs who were invoked at a ritual offering of food made to the vovoso before it was put in a war canoe (Hocart 1931:51, 310; cf. Waite 1990:57-58).

Hingova told Woodford that at Roviana, “Serembule when not in use are stuck in the ground within the funerary house where the skulls are kept. One of them is placed in the bow of the head-hunting canoe when on a head-hunting expedition” (Woodford Diaries, 24 January-5 June 1887).

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Superimposed rows of rings, linked anthropomorphic figures (warriors with knees bent in ritual movement?) and heads reproduced as stylised faces together with the occasional frigate bird and canoe were reproduced on tridacna clam-shell plaques termed mbarava [barava]. They were produced, allegedly, on Choiseul but were found in the New Georgia islands as well as Santa Isabel. The plaques were placed in skull houses, burial caves and private houses (Waite 1983b:55-74). The consistent use of tridacna shell for the plaques, combined with the particular aggregate of motifs which they articulate, illustrates once again the metaphoric reiteration of motifs and, in the case of the plaques, materials, probably for the purpose of demonstrating the power and presence of prominent leaders.

This essay has dealt with the artefactual text of war/head-hunting as it existed during the last decades of the 19th century into the 20th. What could be described as a sort of cross-referencing system of images and artefacts within which happen re-presentation of artefact as image reiterated/confirmed the interrelated signification of artefactual and human participants within the matrix of head-hunting. It was just one of many exchange networks that bound together the peoples of the Western Solomon Islands.

It is crucial to emphasise the depth and complexity of social/historical contextualisation. The distribution of motifs, variations in and rights to their use were undoubtedly associated directly with specific clans of people from certain island districts—the instigators or recipients in different instances of war.

Lastly, I should reiterate a suggestion made with reference to canoe decoration, namely, that all artefacts within the system reflect the human body and actions taken upon it, in particular, dismembering (e.g., canoe ornaments comprising heads and heads with upper torsos, the arm depicted on canoe and eating trough) as well as ornamentation (e.g., black and white colour scheme reflecting white body paint against dark skin, shell rings and other shell ornaments that were also worn as body ornaments). The ultimate link among all artefacts and their images was, in short, the power of the body social/politic.

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Figure 1: Skull Island, Vonavona Lagoon between Vonavona and New Georgia islands (Waite photograph).
Figures 2: Skull house on Skull Island, Vonavona Lagoon (Waite photograph).
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Figure 3: Detail of Fig. 2.
Figure 4: Detail of Fig. 3.
Figure 5: Canoe and canoe house, Vella LaVella (London, British Museum, Photograph LXXII).
Figure 6: Canoe carving (Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Museums, 1924-448. H. 30.5 cm.).
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Figure 7: Canoe carving (London, British Museum 1944.Oc2, 1702. ex-Beasley Collection 4308. H. 66 cm. Waite photograph).
Figure 8: Nguzunguzu canoe prow figurehead, Marovo Lagoon, New Georgia (Basel Museum für Völkerkunde Vb7720, Coll. E. Paravicini, 1929. H. 16cm. Photograph courtesy of the Museum für Völkerkunde, Basel).
Figure 9: Canoe house: “Old Ingova's” (Hingova) Canoe house, Rubiana (Roviana), New Georgia (painting by Norman H. Hardy, Elkington 1907: Plate opposite p. 90).
Figure 10: Eating trough, Kalikongo Village, New Georgia (British Museum 1903, 5-7, 1: Illustration from Edge-Partington 1903, Pl.L opposite p. 161).
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Figure 11: Modelled skull, Ranongga Island (British Museum 1902,5- 31,1. H. 17.5 cm. Given by Frank Wickham, Waite photograph).
Figure 12: Monument to Hingova, Roviana, 1895 (Festeiics De Tolna 1903:331).
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1   For details of canoe construction, inlay and attached ornaments, see Waite 1990:44-66. In this article, I relied heavily upon material obtained in 1908 by A.M. Hocart, especially for information regarding rituals (Hocart 1935:97-111, as well as Hocart n.d.). Edvard Hviding provides a comprehensive account of canoes in the Marovo Lagoon (1996:174-185).
2   For example, Pitt Rivers 1895.22.162, 1926.23.55, illustrated in Waite 1990:52, Figs 5.15 and 5.16; also see pp.51-54 regarding Kesoko. For an explication of the relevant predatory nature of the frigate bird, see N. Thomas 1995:91.
3   Kalikongu is termed a village by T.W. Edge Partington (1906:121); Hocart, however, refers to it as a district: “the authority of the chief is confined to his own district, e.g., Kvuragau, Kalikongu, etc.” (Hocart n.d.:37.8).
4   See List of Ethnographical Objects… n.d.
5   Woodford Diaries, 24 January-5 June 1887.
6   A recent account states that 20 or 30 skulls “decorate” the stone platform (Magazine of Solomon Airlines, 1993:1). According to Luxton (1955:41), Higova's [Ingova] head “was placed in its last resting place in a decorated shelter on an island in the lagoon”. Luxton, a Methodist missionary, did not identify the island, possibly because he was not made aware of it.
7   The description is in Somerville MS 1893-95; the sketch is in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (Miscellaneous MS. No. 17, 1893-94, f-9).