Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Researching Melanesian Kapkaps

Kapkap display awaiting new labels
My volunteer work at the Museum currently involves working on new labels to appear in a series of displays featuring Melanesian body ornaments. When I look at the objects in the display cases, what stand out - with their striking contrast of dark and white in mysterious geometric patterns - are the 'kapkaps'. The name sounds rather cute, doesn't it?

A traditionally made kapkap, which is worn around the neck or on the forehead, is a circular white clamshell disc overlaid with carved dark-brown turtle-shell fretwork. I was attracted and intrigued by these beautiful objects.

Finding out how they were produced was exciting and enjoyable. I found an informative article entitled "Of Skin, blood, and bone: The kapkap of New Ireland" by Graeme Were in 'Melanesia: Art and encounter' (British Museum, 2013).

The kapkaps on display in the Museum are from Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. I learnt from this article that the significance of kapkaps, and the process of making them, varies - not only over time - but within the different areas of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Were analyses in detail the production and use of kapkaps by the Nalik speaking people in northern New Ireland, Papua New Guinea.

Two of the kapkaps on display from New Ireland, Papua New Guinea
From left to right: PRM 1938.36.1702 and PRM 1938.36.1703 © Pitt Rivers Museum

I describe some of this process below, which is specific to this particular area.

Giant clam shells on display in the Lower Gallery of the
Museum © Pitt Rivers Museum
Making a kapkap is a long and complicated process.

First, the clamshell plate, which has been heated, dried and cooled down to be hardened, is ground down. This is done in a secluded place by a group of men, who take this in turn, using a stone tool. Apparently just this process may take several weeks.

After the cooperative effort of the initial stage, the second stage - carving the turtle-shell - is a solitary business. A chosen local craftsman goes on a fast, and collects certain leaves from the forest, bundles them, and buries them in the sand on the beach as an offering. Then, in his dream, he receives an image of the kapkap to be created. In a special shelter - in a secluded location - the craftsman works along carving the turtle-shell, which is traditionally done with a shark's tooth.

The final stage is to put the smoothed clamshell disc and the turtle-shell fretwork together. A hole is drilled in the centre of each of them, through which a string is threaded and knotted to secure the two plates on top of each other.

It is said that the kapkap has a magical power to create or to ward off sorcery. For this reason, apart from at mortuary feasts, it is rarely seen publicly and is mostly hidden in some dark corner of the clan chief's house. The more power he gets in the community, the more complicated becomes the pattern of his kapkap. When he dies, his kapkap also dies. The clamshell disc and the turtle-shell fretwork are separated and are either burned, or buried, with him. Sometimes the clamshell disc is kept for recycling.

You can see these fascinating objects for yourself on the Lower Gallery on the first floor of the Museum. If you are not able to visit in person, you can look at some of the kapkaps in the Museum collection using the online object catalogue. Simply enter 'Melanesia' under continent, select 'ornament' under classification, then enter 'shell' and 'turtle' for materials. Finally perform your search.

In this podcast recorded in the Museum's galleries, listen to Graeme Were in conversation with Ben Burt (British Museum), talking about these fascinating shell ornaments:

Fusa McLynn
Collections Volunteer

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