Ornament in the Dress of Melanesians

A great part of the wealth of these races consists of ornaments, and since these find extensive employment as a medium of exchange, trade tends to increase the production of them. The greatest amount of ornament falls to the share of the men; the younger women wear little, the elder go almost unadorned. For instance, the eye teeth of the dog are held in special esteem among the Melanesians; but, while the man covers his entire breastplate with them, the wife wears at most one or two in her ear. Ears, nose, and lips are bored to receive ornaments.

The Papuas of Hood Bay wear a band of pearls at either end of a thread which is passed round the head. In Makira, Rietmann saw a young flying-fox used as a lady’s ear-ornament, with one foot attached to the lobe of the ear. Among the Tugeri, pigs’ bones some 8 inches long are worn in the nose. Polynesian influence is probably to be seen in Sikayana, if, as alleged, nose and ear ornaments are not in use there. In general, the employment of shells in ornament diminishes as we proceed eastward. In Fiji, as to some extent even in New Britain, whales’ or cachalots’ teeth turn up as the article of ornament or value that is most in demand. They occur often in entire necklaces. Corresponding to these is the employment in New Britain and elsewhere of shell-money in the form of gigantic ear-pendants.

Nose-ornament, breastplate, and arm-ring of boar’s tusks, from New Guinea
Arm ring approx 260mm dia – rest to same scale.
(Christy Collection.)

Breast ornament: Humboldt Bay

Melanesians wear white arm-rings, some 4 inches thick, of Trochus shell; in New Guinea these serve the further purpose of receptacles for the cassowary-bone daggers. They are laboriously ground out on sharp splinters of coral-rock. The Solomon Islanders wear spiral bands of a liana which comes from Buka, on the left arm, as a protection against the recoil of the bowstring, and also as insignia of a chief; they wear, too, combs made of the stiff reddish-brown stalks of a grass, woven together with fibre in elegant patterns.

Dagger of cassowary bone, from North-west New Guinea- approx.335mm length. (Christy Collection).

Feather-ornament displays great luxuriance in New Hanover, and much taste is shown in the combination of forms and colours with vegetable fibres and beads on sticks. For example, a delicately-formed face in feather-mosaic will be seen forming the head of a hairpin. In New Guinea the work is on a larger scale, and loses in elegance, even when it consists of an entire bird of paradise on a stick, as is found at Astrolabe Bay. In Tagai, pouches of varnished palm-leaf are made to preserve these costly adornments. Favourite gauds in Simbo, Ulakua, Choiseul, and Guadalcanal are plaited frontlets with large white shells, or chains similarly worn of porpoise’s or dog’s teeth. A rosette of yellow and red cockatoo or parrot feathers, frequently smartened with shells, is bound on the forehead, and serves at once for ornament and for defence; it often consists of a thin polished piece of Tridacna gigas, on which is laid a piece of open work in tortoise-shell.

Among the Admiralty Islanders disks of shell appear in great numbers as breastplates, hung from the neck. Both in form and material these ornaments testify to great assiduity, to which the high esteem in which they are held corresponds. They extend from Madagascar to Hawaii, and have found their way into the heart of Africa. From them taste evolves every sort of combination. Simple necklaces, plaited from variegated straw or bast-fibres, or made from teeth, even human teeth, berries, fruits, and so forth, are found, as well as more costly kinds. Among New Guinea ornaments boar’s teeth play the most prominent part; in the northern parts of the island the naturally-curved tusks being the decorative objects most in demand. Compared with these the neck-threads of plaited grass, even with small shells or seeds strung on them, are inconspicuous; but the chains of human teeth, dogs’ incisors, or cut shells often produce quite an elegant effect.

Shell plaques for adorning the breast and forehead: From the Solomon Islands
Approx. 170mm dia. (Christy Collection.)

In the Solomons, chains consisting of twenty to twenty-five pieces of various coloured shells, mingled with human teeth, or of little shells strung at regular distances on coco-nut fibre, are highly esteemed. In these instances the transition from ornament to currency is not remote. On Florida, in the Solomons, a string of red, white, and black shells seven yards long or so is the price of a wife. At Finsch Harbour beads of small polished snail-shells are worn round the neck, in New Britain round the hips, in the Admiralty Islands as aprons. Finger-rings of silver, pinchbeck, or gilt brass have been introduced by traders. The Solomon Islanders carry tobacco and other small articles in their plaited arm-bands; while in Nissan the people invariably carry their betel-lime in a small coco-nut or gourd fastened by a short string to the left little finger.