by Barry Craig
My first experience of New Guinea was at Telefomin 1962-1965. I had graduated with a degree in Social Anthropology at University of Sydney 1960, gained a Diploma of Education 1961 and signed up as an Education Officer with the Department of Territories administration in Papua New Guinea.
While at Telefomin, I hosted Bryan Cranstone of the British Museum who did several months fieldwork among the Tifalmin, two days walk west of Telefomin. That was my introduction to museum ethnography and Bryan became my mentor. In time, he was appointed Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.
While at Telefomin, I collected 320 items of material culture for the Australian Museum, supported with photographs, and began a survey of all house boards and shields in the wider region, extended in 1967 when I crossed the Hindenburg Range to visit the FAIWOL-speaking peoples. This resulted in a MA Thesis in 1969 and a booklet (Art and Decoration of Central New Guinea) in 1988. An interesting result of that survey was the discovery that designs on house boards were subject to the cycle of fashion. I believe there was a wide repertoire of designs, probably conserved as designs on war shields, from which a design is selected for a house board, then becomes popular in a village, then spreads to neighbouring settlements; when the boards require replacement, another design becomes popular.
I was also a member of the 3-months Australian Star Mountains Expedition in 1965, recording anthropological and linguistic data, and collecting herpetological and botanical specimens. We were the first to climb the 4000 metre peaks, Sirius and Capella; the Dutch had climbed the Star Mountains on their side of the border in 1959.
I was fortunate to witness the last male initiation ceremonies in the Telefomin area in the mid-1960s.
Soon after, a Christian Revivalist movement swept through the Mountain Ok area and people discarded ancestral relics; the male initiation ceremonies ceased and the traditional means of controlling the behaviour of youths collapsed. Reinforced by the impact of the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine, anti- social behaviour flourished in the 1990s; witchcraft allegations led to assaults and killings, even within village communities.
During 1968, I led a 7-week survey and collecting expedition to the upper Sepik region with George Morren & David Balmer. We acquired 790 objects for museums in Berlin, Leiden, Sydney and Port Moresby. We travelled by motor canoe and on foot in ABAU territory and walked through ANGGOR and YURI territory in the southern Border Mountains. I discovered that between 1914 and the 1960s, everyday ABAU phallocrypts changed from the undecorated straight or curly gourds, to the pyro-engraved egg-shaped gourds, a Border Mountains fashion. A long undecorated gourd phallocrypt was worn for special healing ceremonies with a seed and bone belt against which the gourd was made to swing up with a ‘clack’. I found that this kind of belt was worn by phallocrypt-wearing men from the north coast southwards across the Bewani Mountains to the upper Sepik River. I filmed ABAU men on the upper August River who could still make stone axe-adze blades from river pebbles.
In 1969 I carried out an 11-week survey and collecting expedition to the upper Sepik region ̶ Border Mountains, Yellow and May rivers, and downstream to Ambunti; in all, some 1,970 items were collected and documented, and distributed to the museums in Berlin, Leiden, Sydney and Port Moresby.
During 2004-2010, these and other collections made by anthropologists in the central New Guinea and upper Sepik regions became the dataset of 10,000 objects for a PhD thesis by Andrew Fyfe, submitted to the University of Adelaide, funded by two ARC-Linkage grants, Ok Tedi Mining and the South Australian Museum. Several papers also were published and a website created by myself and my (then teen-age) son Sai Perchard ( www.uscngp.com or Google ‘Upper Sepik-Central New Guinea Project’). Many research papers have been uploaded to the website as well as a unique way of finding images and basic documentation of some 2480 of the objects recorded during the project (see ‘Dataset’). My intention was that this could be a model for the presentation of museum collections on-line.
The continuum of woven rattan cuirasses (body armour) from the North Coast southwards across the Bewani and Border mountains, through central New Guinea to the Fly River is interrupted by the Sepik River ABAU, who use wood shields, not cuirasses, for protection. Some scholars have suggested that New Guinea north coast rattan cuirasses were copied from 16th century cuirasses worn by Spanish marines. The ABAU claim that they moved westwards up the Sepik River from around the May River area; it seems, therefore that their migration occurred after the southern distribution of the rattan cuirass and therefore some time after the 16th century. But the change of ABAU phallocrypt style from the undecorated straight or curly gourd to the pyro-engraved egg-shaped gourd, over the short period of 50 years, suggests that the adoption of rattan cuirasses southwards across much of the north-south breadth of New Guinea also may have happened quite quickly.
In 1972-73, I spent six weeks in the Telefomin area, including a second crossing of the Hindenburg Range, and 10 months based at the ABAU village of Bamblediam, in the Idam Valley south of Green River, collecting for the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board. Research extended to the AMTO of Simaiya Valley in the West Range east of the Idam Valley and down the Sepik to Ambunti, including the May and April Rivers. 650 objects were collected for the Board but all were transferred to the PNG National Museum. Several of the things collected during that fieldwork were later incorporated into the PNG National Museum’s ‘Masterpieces Exhibition’ (see Living Spirits with Fixed Abodes).
My first proper job as a museum curator was at the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery at Waigani, 1980-83. During that time, I spent a quarter of my time in the field. Two surveys of cultural property in the central New Guinea area, crossing the Hindenburg Range two more times; three cultural property surveys on the Sepik River between Ambunti and the Murik and Watam Lakes, including the Sawos to the north and Chambri Lake, the Karawari, Yuat and Keram rivers to the south; a few weeks in New Ireland and Tabar Islands, and a couple of weeks among the Sulka of East New Britain. I relinquished my role as curator and handed over to Soroi Eoe, who later became Director of the PNG National Museum.
The Sepik trips provided the images and data for a survey of slit gongs (see ‘Papers’ on the USCNGP website), added valuable old objects to the PNG museum’s collections, and enabled the recording of several significant stories demonstrating how individual creativity drives variation in narratives and their associated objects. New Guinea societies are not static or as conservative as some observers have assumed. Although the design of objects and the repertoire of masked performances are often copyright, they are also bought and sold. Objects also were taken as loot in raids on enemy settlements or retrieved from the flooding Sepik River. Recording where an object was seen or obtained from does not necessarily establish where it was made.
My survey method of course did not gather information that could be considered entirely reliable; that requires long-term in situ fieldwork. For the middle and lower Sepik, the Basel team of researchers and other anthropologists have carried out that kind of research. However, the wide- ranging survey approach provides the opportunity to see the ‘big-picture’ that can be modified and validated by the long-term fieldwork method.
My visits to New Ireland and East New Britain during my time at the PNG National Museum provided the experience for later visits in 1992-93 and 2002 when I was at the South Australian Museum. In 1982, I witnessed a tatanua dance on New Ireland and a hemlaut mask performance by the Sulka of East New Britain. Traditional forms of these cultures were still thriving in the 1980s and again in the 1990s.
An account of my experiences after joining the South Australian Museum will have to await another day.
I am conscious of the fact that all my fieldwork experience has been in the former Territory of New Guinea and I have not visited the peoples of the former Territory of Papua, except for the Ok Tedi area in the extreme north-west of Western Province. As the Roman writer Horace said (Odes, I, 4), ‘The brief arc of our days prevents us from launching prolonged hopes’.