Polynesian objects from early European exploration, £19.99
Height: 58.500 cm
Collected by Lieut. Sampson Jervois, HMS Dauntless
From the Society Islands, French
Possibly 18th or early 19th century AD
The first European visitor to the Society Islands (commonly known as Tahiti, the name of one of the islands of the group) was Captain Samuel Wallis in HMS Dolphin in 1767. Missionaries from the London Missionary Society arrived in 1797 and the people were converted to Christianity by 1820.
Previously Society Islanders represented their gods in two main forms. The most important gods (notably Oro, a god of war) were represented by roughly cylindrical images, known as to'o. These consisted of a wooden core wrapped with long cords of plaited coconut fibre and decorated with tassels of red feathers. Some of them were given human features formed from coconut fibre. Though most were destroyed, the London Missionary Society preserved a number of to'o.
Human figures in stone or wood, known as ti'i, represented the lesser gods. The figure carving is often plain in appearance and appears unfinished; this was not considered to be important for the figures to fulfil their sacred function. The figures are often short and stocky, with square shoulders and a protruding belly.
Wooden figures ceased to be used as images of gods, possibly around the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, due to the increasing importance attached to the cult of Oro. Thereafter they became available to sorcerers, as mediums to invoke spirits to harm an enemy. It is thought that this example may have had this function.
This figure is considered unique in having two heads facing in the same direction, though the significance of this is uncertain. It was collected by Lieutenant Sampson Jervois of HMS Dauntless, a ship that visited Matavai Bay, Tahiti in 1822. It remained in private ownership until it was purchased by the British Museum in 1955.
D.L. Oliver, Ancient Tahitian society: vol (Honolulu, The University Press of Hawaii, 1974)
T. Barrow, The art of Tahiti and the neig (London, Thames and Hudson, 1979)
B.A. L. Cranstone, 'A unique Tahitian figure', The British Museum Quarterly-6, 27:1-2 (1963)