Motu culture, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Late 19th century. Clay, metal, glass. Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, ST/1050, ST/1051, ST/1052.

From the Exhibition:

Frontier Shores: Collection, Entanglement, and the Manufacture of Identity in Oceania

Of the thousands of ethnographic specimens collected by Otto Finsch and later acquired by the American Museum of Natural History, a significant number are raw materials used by native peoples in various craft industries. Ethnographers of the time regarded raw materials as a convenient substitute for the more specialized artifacts that incorporated them, objects that were either outside the European and native exchange economy or too ubiquitous to collect systematically. Using small glass jars and a repurposed food tin, Finsch gathered samples of the three chief varieties of clay used by the Motu in their pottery manufacture: rario (light-colored), raro duba (dark-colored), and raro kaka (brick-red).1

Pottery is made exclusively by Motu women, who dig the clay from pits beside the beaches and carry it back to their villages in string bags.2 The coarse clay is separated into small clumps and laid out to dry, allowing the shell, stone, and other mineral deposits to be easily removed and discarded. The potter then works the dried clumps into a mixture, using salt water to moisten the clay and some sand as a tempering agent to improve its consistency. Women then knead the clay into a spherical pug before flattening it and pressing a cavity into its upper surface. By applying rotary pressure to the cavity, the potter transforms the clay into a cylindrical vessel, which is then joined to the circular base of a broken pot to be further built up through hand molding. To give the pot its characteristic spherical shape, the potter places a beveled stone anvil against the inner wall of the vessel and taps the adjacent outer surface with a wooden paddle, turning the anvil as she beats. Once the potter is satisfied with its overall shape, a finer paddle is used to eliminate its dimpled surface and give the pot a smooth appearance.3

The Motu people, who occupy the region in and around Port Moresby, historically controlled the pottery industry along the southern coast of mainland Papua, with exports reaching as far as the villages in the Papuan Gulf to the west and their immediate hinterland. The predominance of Motu pottery was a result of the relative shortage of food harvested on the coastline, a scarcity that increased during the six-month dry season. To procure adequate sustenance, Motu men embarked on annual trading voyages called hiri, carrying thousands of pots on lakatoi (sailing canoes) to villages in the Papua Gulf in exchange for sago, yams, and other comestibles.4 Their pottery was also exchanged for heavy dugouts that the Motu would later fabricate into lakatoi that transported the reserves of sago and other goods on the return leg.5 Outside the custom of hiri, Motu also regularly traded with their immediate neighbors—the Gabalidi, Doura, Koita, and Koiari—for more perishable items, such as bananas and fish.

Although the arrival of Europeans and their constant presence as an imposed governing force disrupted many local traditions, varying the ways they were carried out or the materials and objects that were produced, exchanged, and consumed, some of these traditions, such as the hiri trade, endure today despite the adverse effects of colonial entanglements.

1.“Dr. O. Finsch (Bremen) spricht über Töpferei in Neu-Guinea,” in Verhanglungen der Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte, ed. Rudolf Virchow (Berlin: Paul Parey, 1882): 547.

2.These string bags are identical in form and function to bilumand are called kiapa in the Motu language. Since the mid-twentieth century, Tok Pisin has systematically replaced Hiri Motu as the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea, which explains why the string bags are referred to by the Tok Pisin designation, bilum.

3.Patricia May and Margaret Tuckson, “Motu,” in The Traditional Pottery of Papua New Guinea (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2000), 61; Murray Groves, “Motu Pottery,”Journal of the Polynesian Society 69, no. 1 (1960),12.

4.May and Tuckson, “Motu,” 54; Groves, “Motu Pottery,” 7.

5.Bronislaw Malinowski, “The Subject, Method, and Scope of This Inquiry,” in Readings for History and Anthropological Theory, 4th ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 183.