Uncovering Pacific Pasts: Histories of archaeology in Oceania

As part of the Collective Biography of Archaeology in the Pacific (CBAP) Project (led by the Australian National University in Canberra), the Museum of Tropical Queensland is currently participating in the worldwide exhibition, Uncovering Pacific Pasts: Histories of archaeology in Oceania. The collaborative display is featured in over 30 collecting institutions around the world, and explores the ideas, people and networks that were pivotal in the development of archaeology. The displays show how social interactions continue to affect the ways in which we interpret and engage with the history of the Pacific.

The Museum of Tropical Queensland chose to feature a range of stone adzes from HMS Pandora and investigate what the objects themselves can tell us about who made, used and traded them.

Polynesian stone tools excavated from HMS Pandora (1791)

Twenty five basalt adze blades and five basalt pounders were excavated from HMS Pandora, from the area thought to be the officer’s storeroom. These Polynesian tools give insight into the movement of objects in the 18th century.

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Stone adzes excavated from HMS Pandora

The late 18th century was a time of burgeoning exploration, colonisation and settlement by Europeans throughout Oceania. Driven by the high demand for ‘artificial curiosities’ in Europe, sailors on the early voyages made a habit of collecting souvenirs or ‘curios’ from islands in the Pacific. Museums and private collectors sought out these prized objects, with many items forming the basis of early European museum collections.

Objects often become disconnected from information about where or how they were collected, and the people who originally owned and used them. The Pandora collection, however, is different. Documentary evidence – the captain’s log – links the stone tools to specific regions in the Pacific islands where Pandora stopped to search for the HMAV Bounty mutineers.

While the captain’s logbook does not specifically mention the crew actively collecting the ‘curiosities’ during the voyage, the excavated assemblage is evidence that trade and exchange occurred between the crew and the local peoples.

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Made from volcanic rock, the adze blades were usually attached or hafted to a wooden handle with plaited coconut fibre

Mid-20th century archaeological investigation placed emphasis on the shape and form of adzes, suggesting that certain types of adze originated from different island groups across Oceania. These studies also suggest that the location of where the artefact was found is also where the stone was sourced and the tool manufactured. This method of investigation is known as typological analysis, and it identifies the majority of adzes from Pandora as coming from the Society Islands where the crew spent many weeks during the voyage. The remaining adzes are thought to have originated from the Southern Cook Islands, where Pandora visited Aitutaki and Palmerston Island. Interestingly, typological analysis of one style of adze identifies it as originating from Tubuai, an island visited by Bounty but not Pandora.

More recently, researchers used a non-destructive geo-chemical technique called portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF) to determine the composition of the stone tools and identify quarry sources. These results open up more interesting questions. Did each island group have their own quarry where they dug out the stone for their tools or was the unshaped rock moved between the different island groups? If this occurred, what can we learn about Polynesian voyaging, social networks and exchange throughout the Pacific?

Soon, we will be able to better understand how these objects moved throughout Oceania, prior to their journey on Pandora. The results of these studies are forthcoming.

Alison Mann, Assistant Collection Manager, Museum of Tropical Queensland

This display is now on at Museum of Tropical Queensland from 1 March 2020.

To see what other objects are on display around the world and the links between them please visit uncoveringpacificpasts.org

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