Thursday, 20 August 2015

Caring for the Collections: Good Gourd!

The information found either written on an object or on a label attached
to the object allows us to track the object down on the database, assign it the
correct accession number,catalogue it and record its location making the object
more accessible for staff and researchers. © Pitt Rivers Museum

The wooden drawer units  © Pitt Rivers Museum
Box storage  © Pitt Rivers Museum

After having embarked and completed the rather large and daunting project of cataloguing and improving the storage of plant fibre clothing in the collections at our store we turned our attention to a more manageable project to see us through the summer. The Museum has a large collection of gourds kept in a less than useful wooden drawer system at the store. Gourds are particularly vulnerable to getting broken or damaged due to their delicate composition, odd shapes and sizes and varying thickness/thinness. And so, to this end, for the well being of the gourds the wooden drawer system is being replaced with conservation grade boxes and packaging.

The collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum and indeed ethnographic collections all over the world demonstrate imaginative use of the gourd. Gourds of all shapes and sizes are a natural resource across the globe and in societies today gourds are still being used as bowls, vessels, hats, musical instruments and for many other utilitarian purposes. Conservator Jeremy Uden and myself have been surprised by the variety of shapes, sizes and uses of the gourd and the varying thicknesses from eggshell thin to an inch or more thick. We are half way through the cataloguing and re-storage project and are getting an eye for identifying preferred decorative techniques from country to country. As well as gourds we are also working through vessels made from seed and nut including coconut vessels mostly from Oceania. Coconuts are readily available to Pacific Islanders and prove useful repositories for carrying and storing water and drinking water and kava from.

Above: gourds and coconut vessels in the process of being
catalogued and packed  © Pitt Rivers Museum

Gourd of the Lengua Indians; 1903.19.3  © Pitt Rivers Museum
Decorative techniques also vary greatly, with surfaces being incised with linear, figurative and geometric designs and decorated with burnt patterns known as pyro engraving. Coconut shells are inlaid with pearl shell and shell beads for aesthetic effects and white lime rubbed into incised designs to highlight the pattern. A particularly ingenious method of carving the lid so that it fits perfectly onto the gourd vessels is that of the Lengua Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco, South America. One end of the gourd is cut from the other with a zigzag line. Some of the coconuts and gourds have been decorated with perfect circular patterns created with a compass. We have more than one example of a coco de mer, or double coconut having been refashioned into a Hindu Sadhu's begging bowl with metal chain suspension for wearing around the neck. The value of the gourd as a utilitarian object is also emphasised by the local repairs found on some of them. Rather than make a new one, someone has taken the time to repair a damaged gourd already fashioned as a vessel. Later in the year the Museum will have a temporary display curated by our conservation department focusing on objects with local repairs 'Preserving What is Valued' including gourds. Some of these techniques and methods of using and decorating gourds can been seen on display in the Museum Court in the Geometric Form in Art case C.145.A and also in musical instruments particularly stringed lutes and zithers where the gourd forms the resonator part of the instrument.

Hindu Sadhu's begging bowl made from a double coconut;
1933.51.65   © Pitt Rivers Museum

Above, two gourd vessels which have local repairs where the
gourd has split and broken  © Pitt Rivers Museum

Above are coconut shells fashioned into water carrying vessels.
The top photograph shows how a plant fibre basketry frame has been
made to cradle the two coconuts and the one below has simply
been decorated with pearl shell; 1887.1.578 & 1933.38.27  © Pitt Rivers Museum

Above; gourds decorated with pyro-engraving technique, where burn marks
applied often with a poker have been used to make patterns and
decoration on the gourd; 1900.55.431 & 1934.8.102  © Pitt Rivers Museum

The two gourds above have been decorated with incised designs and
patterns and then rubbed with lime which is white and
acts highlight the design; 1935.56.15 & 1946.6.63 .2  © Pitt Rivers Museum

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator

Monday, 3 August 2015

Signing off the Spencer Papers

Spencer at the time he was studying at Oxford.
Pitt Rivers Museum 1998.267.89
There is one person who has been the thread that has linked most of my career at the Pitt Rivers Museum to date, and who will always interest me. That is Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929).
In the past I have
  • completed a two year project to transcribe and annotate the 194 letters he sent to his anthropological partner Francis James Gillen in the early 1990s, a project which culminated in an academic bestseller, My Dear Spencer
  • placed objects he had collected in displays in the Upper Gallery around the same time. 
  • found out about Spencer’s involvement in the transfer of the founding collection during the two research projects I have been involved with about Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers in the late 1990s and from 2009-2012. 
  • More recently I have examined his youthful correspondence with Howard Goulty to find out more about an Oxford education in the 1880s and how early anthropology developed at Oxford during the Invention of Museum Anthropology research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
  • I have also transcribed his correspondence with two other eminent Australian anthropologists, Lorimer Fison (Parts onetwo and three) and Alfred William Howitt.
So who was the person who has interested me for so many years?

Walter Baldwin Spencer was born in 1860 in Stretford in the north-west of England. He was the second son of a cotton manufacturer and grew up in a prosperous family. He was educated at Old Trafford School and later at the Manchester of Art. It was whilst learning to sketch from anatomical and botany specimens that he was drawn to a more scientific future. He studied first at Owens College which was later to become the University of Manchester where he intended to study medicine, but he was soon fascinated by evolutionary biology. This was one of the key areas of scientific endeavour in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1881 he moved to the University of Oxford to study the natural sciences under  Henry Nottidge Moseley. As his correspondence with his Manchester friend, Howard Goulty, shows Spencer took full advantage of his Oxford education reading widely, rowing and playing tennis and enjoying the companionship of men from many different backgrounds. He attended Edward Burnett Tylor's anthropological lectures and Ruskin's famous lectures on art as well as listening to sermons from famous preachers. Between June and July 1885 he helped to move the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum from London to Oxford, supervised by Moseley and by Tylor. You can find out more about his connections to Oxford and the Pitt Rivers Museum here. However, Oxford was not the last encounter he had with anthropology.

A photograph taken of one of their informants,
an Arrernte elder living in Alice Springs.
Photograph taken by Spencer or Gillen in 1896.
PRM 1998.249.21.1
The period of his life which most fascinates me is what happened next. Spencer left Oxford in 1887when he was appointed the first Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne, Australia. After serving as biologist with the Horn Scientific Expedition to central Australia in 1894 he met Francis James Gillen. They carried out two of the longest stretches of field-work carried out in Australia to that date in 1896 and 1901-2. They wrote two seminal books about their findings--The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899) and The Northern Tribes of Central Australia (1904). Their anthropological partnership transformed the anthropology of Australia (and the rest of the world) in the early twentieth-century. After Gillen's death in 1912 Spencer continued to carry out short periods of fieldwork in northern Australia in Darwin, Tiwi Islands and environs.

Although Spencer spent his whole career being paid to teach biological sciences it is as an early anthropologist that he has achieved fame and it is with his down-to-earth partner Gillen that he figured out methodologies, carried out fieldwork and wrote publications which made the discipline of anthropology what it is today. He died in 1929 on his last fieldwork expedition to Tierra del Fuego (a new geographical departure).

The many facets of Spencer's work and life are amply illustrated in the voluminous correspondence he held with many people across the world. After his death his two daughters decided to split his manuscripts across the world, most are now in Oxford or in Australia. I have been lucky enough to transcribe and research the letters between Spencer and Gillen, Mounted Constable Cowle and Pado Byrne (the latter two published in From the Frontier), and the correspondence between Spencer and Goulty, Fison and Howitt in the last ten years. Over the last year I have been able to work on the remaining Spencer correspondence giving the public access not only to the digital scans of the original letters but also my transcriptions. These include letters with

Henry Balfour (1863-1939)
Gilbert Charles Bourne (1861-1933)
Patrick Michael (Pado) Byrne (1856-1932)
Patrick (Paddy) Cahill (1863-1923)
R.J. Cooper (dates unknown)
Charles Ernest Cowle (1863-1922)
James Field (dates unknown)
Lorimer Fison (1832-1907)
James George Frazer (1854-1941)
Francis James Gillen (1855-1912)
Howard Goulty (unknown dates)
Alfred Cort Haddon (1855-1940)
Sydney John Hickson (1859-1940)
William Austin Horn (1841-1929)
Thomas George Bond Howes (1853-1905)
Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908)
Andrew Lang (1844-1912)
Edwin Ray Lankester (1847-1929)
James Edge-Partington (1854-1930)
Walter Edmund Roth (1861-1933)
Edward Charles Stirling (1848-1919)
Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917)
Miscellaneous people Part one (including Charles Winnecke, John Lubbock, Arthur Thomson, Edward Sidney Hartland etc), Part two (Moseley, Mrs Kell, W.H.R. Rivers etc.

Now all of the Pitt Rivers Museum's Spencer papers are available online both in the form of scans of the originals but also full transcriptions. I hope that these will prove to be an excellent resource both for interested members of the public and, more particularly to members of the communities with which Spencer and Gillen worked and any scholars working on them. Access to all these resources is available here.

Waramungu axe from the Tennant Creek, Northern Territory collected in 1901-2. 1903.39.53
During fieldwork Spencer (and Gillen) purchased many artefacts from their informants which are now in public collections all over the world. The Pitt Rivers Museum is lucky enough to have 186 objects from Spencer, 113 from central Australia. They include fire-sticks, stone and glass tools, knives, ornaments, and tywerrenge (sacred objects). The photograph shown here is of a stone headed axe, from the Waramungu people living near Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. As Gillen explained in the time (in his field notebook intended for his family to read),
'August 3rd Camp No 39. [Tennants Creek]. ... It is not at all an easy matter to get hold of stone implements even here and in a few years stone tomahawks especially will be very valuable. Old knife blades, pieces of scrap iron, shear blades and even telegraph line wire are being used instead of stone by the natives who also make use of glass bottles for manufacturing spear heads, they chip the glass beautifully but it is too brittle to be of much service. Spear heads of opaline quartz are here and there met with but they are obtained by exchange with some of the Northern tribes and are only used in very serious quarrels when it is intended to fatally injure. These implements are supposed to be endowed with evil magic and the slightest superficial scratch from one is said to be fatal ...' [extract from Camp Jottings *]
In the book they published about the 1901-2 expedition's fieldwork they wrote:
'At the present day ground axes are much less common than flaked implements, which is to be associated with the fact that the material suitable for making them is only found in relatively few spots in the central area of the continent. ... Amongst northern tribes they are still made, but it will not be many years before they entirely disappear. We witnessed the complete operation on several occasions, as carried out by a member of the Warramunga tribe, who was supposed to be especially skilful in the art. In each case a large rounded diorite pebble was taken. By means of a small lump of hard quartzite the stone is first of all very roughly chipped down to approximately the required size and shape ... This process only occupies a comparatively short time, but during its performance the operator has to be very careful not to spoil the stone. A mistake in the cutting off of a flake might remove a part of the surface which is to form the edge and so render it useless or too hard a hit might result in breaking the stone in two. When the preliminary flaking which determines the shape of the axe is over, there follows the tedious operation of levelling the surface. For this purpose the operator takes a small rounded pebble of quartzite, and hour after hour, for a day or two in succession he will patiently hammer away or rather tap at the rough surface, each stroke removing a fragment of stone, until the whole surface is covered over with minute dents and all the irregularities are smoothed down. In a well-made axe this operation is performed so thoroughly that all traces of the first made, rough flaking are removed. ... When the hammering operation is completed to the satisfaction of the maker there follows the grinding-down process. For this purpose one of the ordinary flat blocks of sandstone used for grinding ochre or grass seeds is used. Sitting down on the ground with the stone between his knees, the operator takes a little fine sand, strews this over its surface and then sprinkling water over, rubs the axe-head backwards and forwards. Every now and then he scatters a little more sand over the ston, holding the axe-head carefully as he grinds so as to produce the two smooth surfaces which unite at the curved cutting edge, the exact shape of which has been previously determined by the preliminary flaking and chipping. When the stone has been thus prepared, there comes the hafting. For this purpose a withy is made, ... it is bent round the blunt end of the stone, so that usually a small portion of the latter projects beyond the level of the wood. The two halves of the withy are bound together with one or two bands of string. A lump of porcupine grass resin is softened by heat and pressed in between the withy and the stone, usually completely enclosing the head of the latter, and sometimes, but not often, enclosing also the part of the former which bends round the stone. The resin is finally smoothed down ... by means of a smouldering fire-stick which is passed backwards and forwards over it. The next and final operation merely consists in grinding down some red ochre and smearing this all over the handle, a pattern drawn in red, white and yellow being sometimes added to the stone by way of ornamentation. Ground axes of this kind are principally used for such purposes as cutting blocks of wood out of trees, chips out of the trunk of trees in aid of climbing, or for cutting branches open in search of animals or eggs or 'sugar-bag' [honey].'
A recent Australian-funded project has drawn together all the manuscript and artefactual collections together in one place: Spencer and Gillen: A journey through Aboriginal Australia.

Alison Petch, August 2015.

Bibliography of papers and books written or co-authored by Petch relating to Spencer and Gillen:
1996. 'Anthropological Partners: Selected letters from F.J. Gillen to W. Baldwin Spencer' Journal of Museum Ethnography 5: pp. 65 84. [co-author with H. Morphy and D.J. Mulvaney]
1997. My Dear Spencer. Melbourne: Hyland House Publishing, Melbourne, Australia.[co-editor with H. Morphy and D.J. Mulvaney]
1997. 'Gillen's Scientific Correspondence: Selected letters from F.J. Gillen to W. Baldwin Spencer' Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford XXVI no. 2 1995 pp. 163 – 196 [co-author with H. Morphy and D.J. Mulvaney]
2000. From the Frontier: Outback letters to Baldwin Spencer. Allen and Unwin, NSW [co-editor with D.J. Mulvaney and H. Morphy]
2000. 'Spencer and Gillen's collaborative fieldwork in Central Australia and its legacy' Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 31/3 (2000) pp. 309-328 [finally published in 2005]
2001. My Dear Spencer [paperback edition] Hyland House, Melbourne, Australia [joint editor with D.J. Mulvaney and H. Morphy]
2003. 'Spencer and Gillen's work in Australia - The interpretation of power and collecting in the past' Journal of Museum Ethnography, No. 15 pp. 82-93
2004. John Mulvaney.  Paddy Cahill of Oenpelli. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra. [transcription of letter for]
2006. 'Life in the Outback - Gillen's groundbreaking anthropology in Alice Springs' PRM Friends Newsletter Issue 55 March 2006
2006. 'Walter Baldwin Spencer's life as an anthropologist' PRM Friends Newsletter Issue 56 June 2006
2006. 'Paddy Cahill of Oenpelli', Friends of the PRM, Oxford Newsletter Issue 57 November 2006
2007. 'Upholding the law - Central Australian Style', Friends of the PRM, Oxford Newsletter Issue 59 July 2007
2009. 'Walter Baldwin Spencer and the Pitt Rivers Museum' Journal of Museum Ethnography 21 pp. 254-265
2013. ''The Ablest Australian Anthropologists': two early Australian anthropologists and Oxford' JASO Online 5/1 (2013) pp. 60-85.[About Fison and Howitt]
Gillen's Diary: The Camp Jottings of F. J. Gillen on the Spencer and Gillen Expedition Across Australia, 1901-1902 Libraries Board of South Australia, 1968. Note that a new edition of Camp Jottings is due to be published in South Australia in the near future (Philip Jones will be the editor).