Collection online


  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Title (object)

    • A’a
  • Description

    God figure known as A’a, carved in anthropomorphic form with 30 small anthropomorphic figures over surface of the body and making up the facial features. A lidded cavity in back. Made of sandalwood.

  • Date

    • 17thC (before 1821 (see curatorial comments))
  • Production place

    • Made in: Rurutu term details
    • (Oceania,Polynesia,French Polynesia,Austral Islands,Rurutu)
  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 116.8 centimetres
    • Width: 36 centimetres
    • Circumference: 92 centimetres
    • Height: 128.5 centimetres (special box)
    • Width: 46 centimetres (special box)
    • Depth: 45 centimetres (special box)
  • Curator's comments

    Hooper 2006
    This figure has a hollowed body and head, covered at the back by a detachable carved panel. It has thirty small figures distributed over its surface forming facial and other features. Referred to by Williams (Williams, J.,1837, 'A narrative of missionary enterprises in the South Sea Islands,' London, J Snow: 43-4) as 'Aa, the national god of Rurutu', it contained at the time of presentation twenty-four 'smaller gods', now dispersed and unidentifiable. The carefully shaped excavation of the head and body indicates that it was most likely used originally as a reliquary for the skull and bones of a deified ancestor, wrapped and bound with feathered cords (Hooper, S.J.P., 2001a, 'Tribal image to divine image: reflections on Polynesian sculptures in the British Museum,' William Fagg Memorial Lecture [unpublished]).

    It became the prize trophy of the London Missionary Society, being featured on the front of 'Missionary Sketches XXIV', January 1824, and on the frontispiece of volume II of William Ellis's 'Polynesian Researches' - on both occasions with a modest waist wrap, even though it had been emasculated (see above, p.66). Ellis, (Ellis, W., 1829, 'Polynesian researches,' 2 vols, London: Dawsons of Pall Mall: II: 220) referred to it as 'Taaroa, the supreme deity of Polynesia', but on what evidence is unclear. In indigenous use it was likely to have had more substantial wrappings and bindings.Information from Pacific Art in Detail: John Williams, in his 'Missionary Enterprises' (1837) recorded that when the group from Rurutu presented the figure they identified it as A'a, which is the Rurutu creator god. When it was presented the cavity in the back of the figure was opened, revealing 24 small figures. The missionaries removed and destroyed these in 1822. The figure was sent to the London Missionary Society collection in London in 1822 and was later sold to the British Museum in 1911. (details from J. Harding, 'A Polynesian God and the Missionaries', Tribal Arts, Winter 1994, pp.27-32.)
    Eth.Doc. 812 includes a handwritten sheet of Polynesian text said to be a prayer to A'a and photocopies from Alain Babadzan, 'Naissance d'une tradition (Changement culturel et syncretisme religieux aux Iles Australes (Polynesie Francaise), pp.98-105.
    They were deposited at the Museum of Mankind by Maurice Lenoir, A Rurutan who visited to pay homage to A'a in 1989. He left the loin cloth and hat he wore to do so - registered as Oc1989,01.1-2.See also S. Hooper. Embodying Divinity: the life of A'a. Journal of the Polynesian Society Vol. 116, 2 June 2007:131-179.In November 2015, wood samples taken from inside the figure were tested by British Museum scientists and found to be Sandalwood. The wood was too deteriorated to be definitive about the species but it is likely to be Santalum insulare. This information was fed back to the island of Rurutu and the Council of Elders met to discuss it. The Elders chose not to accept the Sandalwood finding, preferring to uphold their own histories which state that A'a was carved from pua wood (Fagraea berteriana). At the same time wood samples from inside the figure's cavity were radiocarbon dated by the Socttish Universities Environmental Research Centre. The results suggest that A'a was carved at some point between 1591 and 1647.


  • Bibliography

    • Adams et al 2016 bibliographic details
    • Kaeppler et al 1997 19,20 bibliographic details
    • Thomas 1995 p. 167 bibliographic details
    • Kaeppler 2008 p. 50 bibliographic details
    • D'Alleva 1998 p. 98 bibliographic details
    • King 2000 p.13 bibliographic details
    • Newell 2011 pp. 50-51 bibliographic details
    • Hooper 2006 pp.194-195, fig.156 bibliographic details
    • Brunt et al, 2012 pp.280-281 bibliographic details
    • Gunn 2014 pp.76-77 bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display

  • Exhibition history

    1984-1985, New York, Museum of Modern Art
    1998, London, BM, 'BP Ethnography Showcase: The Return of the Museum of Mankind'
    2003, London, BM, Round Reading Room, 250th anniversary/Poems of the Underground display
    2006 21 May-13 Aug, Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Pacific Encounters
    2006-2007 28 Sept-7 Jan, London, BM, Power and Taboo
    2008 16 Jun-14 Sep, Paris, Musée du quai Branly, Pacific Encounters
    2014 23 May-3 Aug, Canberra, National Gallery of Australia, Atua: Sacred art from Polynesia
    2014-2015 12 Oct-4 Jan, St Louis Art Museum, Atua: Sacred art from Polynesia
    2016 17 Mar–30 May, London, British Museum, Containing the Divine: a sculpture of the Pacific god A'a

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Acquisition notes

    Presented by a group of people from Rurutu to representatives of the London Missionary Society stationed at Ra'iatea in August 1821. Given as a symbol of their conversion to Christianity.

  • Department

    Africa, Oceania & the Americas

  • Registration number


  • Additional IDs

    • Oc1890,Loan (originally loaned to BM in 1890 by LMS)
    • Oc1911C27.19 (old CDMS no.)
God figure known as A’a, carved in anthropomorphic form with 30 small anthropomorphic figures over surface of the body and making up the facial features. A lidded cavity in back. Made of wood, probably pua (Fragraea sp.).

God figure known as A’a, carved in anthropomorphic form with 30 small anthropomorphic figures over surface of the body and making up the facial features. A lidded cavity in back. Made of wood, probably pua (Fragraea sp.).

Image description



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