Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Loan to the exhibition ‘Making Monuments on Rapa Nui’ at Manchester Museum

PRM objects being unpacked for condition reporting  © Pitt Rivers Museum. 

On 26th March I travelled to Manchester to meet a small case of stone tools from the PRM collections, which had travelled by truck for installation in the temporary exhibition ‘Making Monuments on Rapa Nui’. The exhibition, curated by Professor Colin Richards, an archaeologist at Manchester Museum who has completed extensive fieldwork on Rapa Nui (more commonly known as Easter Island), takes a fresh look at the iconic statues, or moai, the island is most famous for.

PRM objects after having been condition reported and PRM stone tools (1916.36.167,
1916.36.175, 1916.36.191 and 1916.36.249) arranged for display  © Pitt Rivers Museum.

carved stone head 1916.36.319
 © Pitt Rivers Museum
The objects loaned from the PRM include a number of stone tools, a number of mata'a flakes and hammer stones, from a mata'a factory. Mata'a are stone tools, often tanged spearheads, made from obsidian, a natural glass quarried on the island. Rapa Nui, being a volcanic island has an interesting geological make up, rich in volcanic lava stone from which the monumental heads were made and obsidian. Mata'a appear much more frequently and in larger numbers in later archaeological contexts on Rapa Nui. This has been interpreted as evidence that the islanders' traditional way of life descended into civil strife and open warfare. However, warfare was a part of life on many Polynesian islands, including the Marquesas and it is quite likely to have occurred on Rapa Nui from when the island was first settled. The stone tools were donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1916 by William Scoresby Routledge and his wife Katherine Routledge, both British born and Oxford educated archaeologists, anthropologist and adventurers, who collected the specimens during the voyage of their schooner yacht “Mana” to Rapa Nui and Pitcairn Island between 1913 and 1915. Amongst the stone tools loaned to the exhibition are displayed stone tools belonging to Manchester Museum, the British Museum and World Museum Liverpool. The Routledge’s assembled important collections from Rapa Nui. The PRM has 270 objects from their time spent excavating the island including the more ubiquitous carved stone heads such as this one (1916.36.319, above) which did not go on loan.

PRM stone tools (1916.36.118 - .135) on display  © Pitt Rivers Museum.

Carved lava head, 1970.40.3  © Pitt Rivers Museum
As well as stone tools Manchester also borrowed a small carved human head. Carved of light porous volcanic stone the head has a heavy brow beneath five parallel lines across the forehead. Round protruding eyes, prominent nose, wide mouth and very thin lips. Six parallel vertical lines from the lower lip to the chin indicate a beard. The head was purchased from Staff Sgt. Joseph N. Pansing in 1970 and was obtained by him during his time spent on the island between August 1966 and March 1967. The slightly comical features of the head and in particular the detail of the beard led Museum colleagues at Manchester Museum to speculate as to whether the head is a ‘fake’ and was made to sale to tourists. Researchers during the 19th century saw small stone figures outside the entrances to Rapanui houses.

The exhibition includes some excellent images of Rapa Nui, two large polystyrene reproductions of moai (statues) and a reconstructed quarry as well as current research and thinking from ongoing research by Professor Colin Richards, The University of Manchester’s Professor of World Prehistory and Archaeology, who is currently investigating monumentality, as part of the AHRC-funded Rapa Nui: Landscapes of Construction project involving UCL, Bournemouth University and University of Highlands andIslands. The exhibition is runs until the 6th September, I recommend a visit to Manchester to see it and the newly refurbished Whitworth Art Gallery which I was able to fit a visit to whilst I was in Manchester.

Replica moai in the exhibition at Manchester.

Faye Belsey 
Assistant Curator  

Reading List:

Obsidian Procurement and Consumption on EasterIslandChristopher M. Stevenson, Leslie C. Shaw and Claudio Cristino Archaeology in Oceania Vol. 19, No. 3 (Oct., 1984), pp. 120-124.

Routledge, Mrs. [Katherine] Scoresby Routledge (1919) TheMystery of Easter Island: The Story of an Expedition. London: Sifton, Praed & Co. Ltd.

Katherine Routledge (Pease): van Tilburg, Jo Anne (2003) Among Stone Giants: The Life of Katherine Routledge and herRemarkable Expedition to Easter Island. London: Scribner.

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