Adornment of the South Seas

Adorned by Nature

Amidst all the glitter of metals, glass and (semi)precious stones, it’s easy to overlook the perishable materials that have been used in adornment for millennia. Organic material rarely survives in the archaeological record, and when it does, it has lost its colour, fragrance, texture and sound. Seeing the splendour of such pieces in all their vividness is one of the many reasons I love adornment from the vast realm of Oceania, and so when I learned of the Adorned by Nature book project by Wolfgang Grulke, I was all too happy to jump aboard and pre-order a copy.

This heavy, full colour book is an excellent introduction into the material culture of the South Seas. The perspective of the book is that of collecting and collections, and the history of collecting is woven into every chapter and theme. This approach also highlights the interaction between creators and collectors, an aspect that is not often illustrated with this clarity in other books on adornment from the South Seas. Just one example is the short discussion on fossils used in adornment on Papua New Guinea, where the development of ornaments from simple containers to elaborate pieces is described as a consequence of dealership (p. 173). Throughout the book, you will find 19th century collections, notes, and photographs alongside modern pieces and photos – the history of adornment in the South Seas is ongoing and the book showcases these transitions. This is one of the aspects I liked the most about this book, its appreciation of change. Instead of presenting adornment ‘as it should be’, the author places adornment in a context of perpetual development and adaptation.

The book is divided into 4 main chapters. An introductory chapter on the South Seas presents origin stories and other myths as well as aspects of society and rituals from various cultures throughout this geographical area, as well as the history of collecting of adornment. The maps on the inside of the cover are just stunning in their 3D-rendering of the ocean floor and land mass in the curve of the globe: much more than a traditional map, this view is a great visual aid in understanding the spatial vastness of the area presented.

The next 3 chapters are constructed like an encyclopedia or a bundle of essays. Within each chapter, short illustrated texts zoom in on one particular type of material, object or tradition. A very strong point of the book is its use of images: these do not merely illustrate the text, but form an indispensable component of the narrative. The entire book is a visual delight and the illustrations further our understanding of adornment beyond the text itself. It is immensely helpful to not just read about cassowary bones and claws, but to see the creature itself, to see how a Papua spoon is carved out of a shell, to understand which plants, beetles and seeds are used and how these are grown, harvested and traded. I especially liked the part on ‘artificialia’ – non-natural elements that were incorporated in existing traditions, such as chinaware saucers used in kap-kap’s, porcelain imitations of dog teeth and Reckitt Blue facial paint. In these incorporations, we see cultural interaction and its consequences.

Trade, cultural exchange, rituals and traditions are addressed in the last two chapters of the book. Starting out from pieces of adornment again, we learn of brideprice and showing of wealth, the distribution of motifs and materials across long distances and the importance of objects as carriers of personal value. Finally, a postscript acknowledges the perspective of collecting once again, as the viewpoint from a cultural outsider. The personal approach of the author is clearly worded as well as his desire to give back to the community whose material culture he collects and presents in this not-for-profit book.

The value of this book is not so much in its theoretical underpinnings, as these are few and brief, nor in a desire to be ‘complete’. What you will absolutely love this book for is its wide and kaleidoscopic approach combined with its strong visuals. The collection of numerous short essays is an excellent starting point to explore adornment from the South Seas. The author unlocks the world of adornment in bite-sized nuggets of information that are easily digested and understood, all the while containing a plethora of details. The photographs, drawings and diagrams are fantastic and will certainly have you immersed in this vast world of water and islands for hours on end. There is just so much to see in these pages!

If you are just starting out as a collector, this book offers a delightful first introduction to the length and width of material culture of the South Seas. If you are a seasoned collector, this book will line up details at a glance and offer a starting point for more exploration. For this, you are referred to the accompanying website: the book itself has no references or bibliography. And finally, the very last line of the book entertains the thought of a second volume… I am looking forward to it already!

Adorned by Nature. Adornment, myth and exchange in the South Seas, by Wolfgang Grulke.

355 pp, full-colour, in English. Available with the publisher At One (see also many sample pages on the website!) and online.

The book was purchased during the fundraiser for publication.

On a personal note: drawing a comparison between archaeological jewellery of organic material that has not survived and current-day societies that create such adornment is by no means meant to imply these modern societies are somehow living in the past and never made it out of the Stone Age. Quite the opposite, I would say: the mastery achieved in certain jewellery pieces from the South Seas is unparalleled to begin with. The values they express, the networks they are part of and the interaction between jewellery pieces and humans is of a complexity and depth that we could learn a thing or two from when clicking ‘buy it now’ on a random Tuesday evening. It’s these concepts that I am interested in as an archaeologist: not to compare a current-day culture 1:1 with the past (oh look, they make necklaces of shells, too), but to try and get a remote beginning of an idea of how I might look at and understand the past through the lens of the present – not to see the present through the lens of the past. Adorned by Nature offers plenty of food for thought.