The British Museum's collections, £16.99
Diameter: 15.500 cm
Africa, Oceania, Americas
Inlaid wooden container
From Belau, Micronesia, probably 18th century AD
In the Republic of Belau (formerly the Palau or Pelew Islands) people make wooden artefacts inlaid with white shell. On this example the wood has been stained with red ochre. The lid of the bowl is decorated with geometrical patterns, while the bowl itself has a repeating design of a warrior holding a club or a staff in his right hand, and what appears be a human head in his left hand. A similar early example in the Château-Musée of Boulogne-sur-Mer is inlaid with depictions of European figures.
The bowl has a plaited fibre cord (now partly missing) which would have been used to suspend it as a decoration inside a home. Prestigious bowls of this type were used for ceremonial exchange of food by persons of rank, and as containers for a sweet drink. Foods used in the exchanges included oranges and coconut sweetmeats. The food itself was unimportant, and it was the gesture of exchange and the fineness of the vessels used that were significant.
In 1783 Captain Henry Wilson collected a similar small, lidded container with shell inlay in geometric designs, and a large bird-shaped bowl from Belau. The British Museum collection also has a large wooden food bench inlaid with shell and an oval wooden tray with figural supports also with shell inlay. These were acquired at a later date.
The Belauans continue to make wooden artefacts, mostly inlaid with pearl-shell, partly for sale to tourists.
A. D'Alleva, Art of the Pacific (London, George Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd., 1998)
A. Krämer, 'Palau' in Ergebnisse der Südsee-Expediti (Hamburg, L. Friedrischen, 1926)