Since the late 19th century, the Museum has collected a select and representative range of Pacific material culture – namely, body ornament, clubs, implements of daily use, textiles and dress – from the island regions of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. In the early days, the majority of these objects were collected via missionaries, while more recently they have been purchased at auction or generously gifted to the Museum from private collectors.
In the development of the exhibition A fine possession: jewellery and identity, I have had the privilege and pleasure to re-awaken the stories of many of the Pacific objects in our collection. In this series of posts, I wish to highlight a number of these – especially those being displayed in the exhibition – starting with one of our striking Fijian pig’s tusks.
Male pigs are highly valued in almost all Melanesian cultures, but especially northern Vanuatu where the tusks of pigs were deemed sacred and could be used as a form of currency. There, value was placed on the live pig, rather than the tusks themselves, and could be used as payment for bride price, land, property or even school fees. In Fiji, on the other hand, pig’s tusks were often worn on a short cord suspended from the neck as a marker of status and power. Unlike parts of Vanuatu, however, they did not retain any currency value.
This particular tusk is rare for its near perfect circular form and probably took around 6-7 years to grow. The growth of the tusk into a full circle caused extreme pain for the animal as other teeth needed to be extracted for it to penetrate the jaw. Due to the presence of faint incised lines at the top of this tusk, however, it is most likely that it came from the lower jaw of a pig who has not had his upper canines removed (a strong indication that the tusk is, indeed, Fijian).
In more recent years, special banks have been established in some parts of northern Vanuatu as a repository for pig’s tusks, in addition to shell and ordinary paper money. The pigs were generally raised and nurtured by a family over many years and then gifted – possibly as part of bride price (at the cost of 10 pigs per daughter) – before being sacrificed in a traditional ‘Kastom’ ceremony. You can find out more about this in the SBS Dateline documentary ‘Vanuatu’s piggy bank’, here.
This tusk will be on display in the ‘Wealth and Status’ section of A fine possession: jewellery and identity opening at the Powerhouse Museum in September 2014.
Written by Melanie Pitkin, Assistant Curator, Design and Society
* For more information on the significance of pigs and pig’s tusks in Melanesia, please see: Kirk Huffmann, “Pigs, Prestige and Copyright in the Western Pacific” in Explore: the Australian Museum Magazine, vol.29, no.6, December 2007 – February 2008, pp.22-25. I would also like to extend my thanks to Kirk for assisting in the content of this blog post.