In 1568, Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira was the first European to visit the Archipelago now known as the Solomon Islands. At the time, Mendaña y Neira was looking for the island of Ophir on which King Solomon’s treasure was supposed to be – a story from which originates the naming of the island (Mélandri and Revolon 2014:7). Unfortunately, geological specimens they collected and thought to be gold proved to be iron pyrites. Because of its yellow colour and the story around its “discovery” by Europeans, the mineral came to be commonly known as “fool’s gold”. The use of iron pyrites is central to the purpose of an object identified as UEA 964 which is currently on display at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, UK, inventoried in the collection under the number UEA 964 and described as a “container carved with head and arms”.
Object UEA 964 is a vessel sculpted from a small coconut. It presents engraved geometrical motifs on its surface as well as some low relief detailing on the top of the coconut and a relief figure in the upper part with shell inlay to form the eyes. The incised lines on the face could be assimilated to facial scarification motifs. The lower part is cut out to create arms as well as an opening directly linked to the use of the object as a container. Above the head, a low relief motif can be interpreted as the head of two frigate birds, indigenous to the islands, with kapkap on the sides which can also be read as the birds’ eyes. UEA 964 is a very detailed and life-like representation.
UEA 964 entered the Sainsbury’s collection in December 1987 after they purchased the object from their longtime friend John K. Hewett, a renowned London art dealer. It was sold to them for the sum of £ 6,000 (according to the invoice signed by Hewett) as “a container for graphite carved from a nut with shell inlay. Solomon Islands. The only other known specimen is illustrated in Edge-Partington.” Its label also states that the object is from the island of New Georgia. However, the object having entered the Sainsburys’ collection rather late, it was never published in the general catalogue of their collection and detailed research has not been pursued.
Hewett’s mention of a similar object represented in Edge-Partington’s Album of the Weapons, tools, ornaments, articles of dress of the natives of the Pacific Islands is described as a “Carved cocoanut to contain pyrites for staining the teeth. New Georgia Island.” (1996: 208). This depiction of a similar carved coconut refers to an article by self-taught naturalist C. M. Woodford about his Exploration of the Solomon Islands (1888: 351-376) from 1884-1887. Woodford explains that iron pyrites was used by Solomon Islanders in the 19th century as a mineral to stain their teeth. For people living on the coast, this mineral was acquired by exchanging bamboo with inland people (1888: 353). It is thought that teeth-blackening was happening throughout the islands thanks to a system of exchange which ensured the spread of iron pyrites across the territories.
The first mention of teeth-blackening in the Solomon Islands and its link to coconut containers for iron pyrites dates back to 1568 with Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira’s first visit to the Islands. Mendaña y Neira gives an account of a teeth-blackening practice which “disfigure[s] … both men and women” (1967: 133-134). Woodford commented on Mendaña y Neira’s account with “their descendants carry a black mineral substance in ornamented calabashes, for the purpose of blackening the teeth. He thought that it was iron pyrites” (1967: 133-134). The custom of teeth-blackening was also mentioned by Somerville (1897: 375) and Ribbe (1903: 128; 240; 266). According to Peter Lanyon-Orgill, the “earth used to blacken the teeth” is called davala and the “carved receptacle used for davala” is called ñeiva (1969: 72; 105). The engraved coconut as a container for teeth-blackening was drawn by Ribbe and referred to as a vessel which people took great care of, “they are made of young, small coconuts, provided with the most wonderful carvings and patterns and are very valuable; as long as it contains coal, the container is taboo and not available for any price.” (Ribbe 1903: 266). Ribbe is hinting here at the importance and value of the container both as an object per se and because of its relation to iron pyrites.
UEA 964 can be considered to be a container for iron pyrites – ñeiva – which must have been used in the practice of teeth-blackening. Thomas Zumbroich has studied this practice throughout Asia and Oceania in various publications (2011 and 2015). He associates the practice of teeth-blackening with that of betel chewing which is much more documented. Indeed, the practice of teeth-blackening using iron pyrites was a way to amplify the dark colour already left on teeth by betel chewing (2015: 549). While betel chewing involves chewing leaves mixed with lime and areca nut, the mixture for teeth-blackening was made by the pounding of iron pyrites which was then mixed with leaves from the tropical almond (Terminalia catappa) to form a black paste (Zumbroich 2015: 541). While the aesthetic aspect of teeth-blackening seems to be indisputable (Mendaña y Neira 1967: 266), the custom was also a way to “preserve the teeth and strengthen the gums” (Zumbroich 2015: 540). There is evidence of the practice both in New Georgia and Malaita Islands where the mixture for teeth-blackening was called oko (Burt, Akin, Kwa’ioloa 2009: 159). As the practice of teeth-blackening was discontinued with the arrival of missionaries in the Solomon Islands (Zumbroich 2015: 550), the containers for davala are the only surviving material evidence of this practice.
Apart from UEA 964, eight other ñeiva have been traced in European collections. There are three examples in the collections of the British Museum (Oc1951,05.1; Oc1927,0310.24; Oc,+3902), one in the Pitt Rivers Museum (1895.22.103), and four in the Cambridge Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology (Z 243a-b-c-d). However, only four of these objects have human or animal features in the carving of the coconut, mostly created by cutting away the coconut and incising motifs enhanced by lime (Oc,+3902; Oc1951,05.1; Z 243b; Z 243c). Three other examples have stylized motifs enhanced by lime (Oc1927,0310.24; 1895.22.103; Z 243a). There is no photograph of the eighth example on the database so its stylistic features (Z 243d) are uncertain. All these examples were collected either in the late 19th or early 20th century.
Unfortunately, the provenance and date of collection of UEA 964 is unknown from the Sainsbury records. Its sculpture in the round is very detailed. When comparing it with other ñeiva in British collections, it can be inferred that it is very likely to be from New Georgia Island. While the custom of teeth-blackening was not specific to New Georgia Island, the carving of small coconuts as containers for iron pyrites seems to originate only from this region of the archipelago.
With UEA 964 being so distinctively carved in comparison with all the other known examples of ñeiva, it can be speculated that the object is an early or a late creation. Undoubtedly UEA[MT1] 964 was possibly carved by a very skilled carver – potentially its owner. Since the teeth-blackening custom disappeared with the arrival of missionaries in the Solomon Islands, it can be assumed that UEA 964 is an early production rather than a late one. While it was common practice in the 19th century for objects to be made for trade rather than for personal use, it would have made little sense to carve an object like ñeiva for market purposes considering that their high value was so related to their use as iron pyrites containers, as mentioned by Ribbe (1903:266).
As David Akin comments, an old provenance not only implies that the object is authentic but also that it was created in a traditional context. “If artefacts can be authenticated as having been made for the purposes of unchanging traditional societies, their scarcity, artistic importance and commercial value is ensured by the inevitable disappearance of such conditions under the corrupting influences of modernization and commercialization” (Akin 1987). Being deprived of any provenance information for UEA 964, the object sits in a complex categorization as it cannot be authenticated as the repository of a now “lost tradition” with certainty.
A key piece of information available regarding the acquisition of the object is the name of the art dealer, John K. Hewett. Hewett and the Sainsburys met in 1949 when the Sainsburys were only starting their collection. Their relationship was one of trust and the Sainsburys relied on Hewett to present them with good objects as well as acting as an intermediary for other dealers. Known as one of the most important contemporary dealers, Hewett was drawn to objects with an interesting patina, early provenance and refinements in carving (Waterfield and King 2010: 154-165). Considering his taste for objects, it is clear why UEA 964 caught Hewett’s eye and why he suggested the Sainsburys buy the object for their newly built Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Regrettably, Hewett was well known for removing the labels of the objects that he acquired (Waterfield and King 2010: 163). So, if Hewett had any information on UEA 964’s provenance, it is now lost.
At this point, it can be confirmed that UEA 964 is a carved container (ñeiva) for holding iron pyrites (davala), essential elements in the preparation of a black paste used in the custom of teeth-blackening. However, the provenance of the object and date of manufacture remain uncertain. Like many other objects collected in Oceania which are now part of private and public collections, there is scarce information on the originating context of UEA 964. However, its place as an object in the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury collection gives it a new dimension and value. In this collection, alongside the hundreds of other artefacts, UEA 964 stands as a “timeless testament” (Welsch 2002: 6) to the tradition of teeth-blackening in the Solomon Islands, prior to the arrival of missionaries in the 19th century.
Clémentine Debrosse is a Masters student in the Sainsbury Research Unit at the University of East Anglia Information conveyed by Steven Hooper during a personal conversation.
Akin, David, 1987 Codifying” Kastom” Law in East Kwaio, Malaita, Solomon Islands. Program on Conflict Resolution, University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Burt, Ben, David W. Akin, and Michael Kwa’ioloa, 2009. Body Ornaments of Malaita, Solomon Islands. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Edge-Partington, James, 1996. Ethnographical Album of the Pacific Islands. 2nd edition expanded and edited By Bruce Miller. Bangkok: SDI Publications.
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Ribbe, Carl and H. Kalbfus, 2019. Zwei Jahre unter den Kannibalen der Salomo-Inseln Reiseerlebnisse und Schilderungen von Land und Leuten; mit zahlr. Abb. im Text, 14 Taf., 10 lithogr. Beil. u. 3 Kt. Dresden-Blasewitz: H. Beyer.
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Somerville, Boyle, 1897. Ethnographical Notes in New Georgia, Solomon Islands. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 26: 357-412.
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Zumbroich, Thomas, 2011. To strengthen the teeth and harden the gums – teeth blackening as medical practice in Asia, Micronesia and Melanesia. Ethnobotany Research & Application 9: 97-113.
Zumbroich, Thomas, 2015. “We Blacken Our Teeth with Oko to Make Them Firm”: Teeth Blackening in Oceania. Anthropologica 57 (2): 539-555.