Collections Highlight: The Oceanic Collection

The Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections (WUAAC) contain over 35,000 archaeological and ethnographic objects from around the world. This is the first installment in a series of blog posts that will highlight some of our “collections.”

The term “collection” can be defined in a variety of ways. One could consider a collection as a group of artifacts connected along some parallel including theme, region, culture, time period, and/or the identity of the collector, among others. Some of our collections were intentionally assembled, and reflect the specific motives and aesthetics of their collectors. Other collections are groups of objects with a shared place of origin or cultural affiliation, or that have similar narratives of production, use, or discovery. Neither a comprehensive list nor a representative sample, “collections” offer diverse windows into various cultures and their histories.

The Oceanic collection includes approximately fifty artifacts from cultures throughout the Pacific, such as Hawaii, the Cook Islands, the Tubuai Islands, Tonga, Fiji, and Kiribati. Much of this collection was amassed during the mid-19th century by Wesleyan’s Missionary Lyceum, which encouraged their members in the field to obtain objects for a planned museum – the irony being that, in many cases, the very objects valued as display items were tied to lifeways that American and European missionaries disrupted or actively sought to destroy. There are also objects from the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-42) obtained from the Smithsonian, and objects obtained via exchange with the Bishop Museum in Honolulu on the advice of Maori anthropologist Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter H. Buck), who examined the Oceanic collection in 1939.

Examining a handful of select objects from a collection such as the Oceanic one demonstrates how collections can provide a wide array of insight into things such as food and cultural practices and craftsmanship and technology. They can also reveal undertones in class, gender, spirituality, and even relations between people.

Hawaiian Chief Necklace

Hawaiian Chief Necklace, Object ID: ethcat #306

The Lei Niho Paloa is a necklace that originates from Hawaii. This necklace was created in the late 19th century, using single strands of braided human hair bound together into two coils with plant fiber cordage, with a hooked ivory pendant carved out of the tooth of a sperm whale. The Hawaiians believed that hair was “the most supernaturally powerful part of the body… a sacred substance whose presence enhanced the mana of the necklace and its noble wearer” [1]. Hawaiian chiefs wore these necklaces as a status marker and during battle, distinguishing those of higher status and noble birthright. Females also wore these necklaces on important occasions as a form of formal regalia. Therefore, the ivory pendant may have served a ritual purpose as a “vessel for supernatural power (mana)” [2]. Through its use of sacred materials, this necklace was a class marker for elite chiefs, warriors, and women. Also significant is the the labor that was invested into its creation. Of course, collecting and braiding 1700 feet of hair requires large amounts of time and skill, and it is important to consider the individual craftsmen who dedicated their time to create these necklaces for the elite chiefs.

Poi Pounder

Poi pounder, Object ID: 1940.2567.1

This object was used to make poi, a staple food throughout Polynesia and a common part of Hawaiian cuisine. This pounder was made of volcanic rock and stands 20 cm high. Wesleyan obtained this object in 1940 from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hi. Poi (pohaku ku’i ‘ai) is made by using a poi pounder to mash together baked taro against a wooden board and enough water to reach the desired consistency. The taro plant is culturally and spiritually significant to Hawaiians as well. Hawaiians believed that the taro plant was the elder brother to the very first Hawaiian that provided sustenance for his younger sibling. Therefore, not only does this object provide insight into cultural food practices, but also the care and respect in the process of growing, making, and eating poi symbolized proper relationships between family members, and between the people and the land. Through the performance of agriculture and the preparation of poi, Hawaiians were able to reflect their own temperament and character to the rest of their community. Read more about the cultural significance of poi to Hawaii’s indigenous peoples here.

Wooden Headrest

Wooden headrest, Object ID: 1870.334.1

This object originates from Fiji and is an object that was collected by the Missionary Lyceum and held in the Wesleyan Museum. So, we know it was created before 1870! The legs of this headrest are attached to the body via carved joints secured with plaited plant fiber lashings. They are broken off at the bottom, so it is unknown whether the piece originally sat on four feet or had a flat base. Headrests, as opposed to pillows, have been and continue to be used by many cultures around the world. They are useful in preserving elaborate wigs or hairstyles during rest. In Fiji, they were also important in preventing the head – considered the most sacred part of the body – from coming into contact with the ground. This object is significant not only because it reveals class, gender, and spiritual implications of the Fijian culture in the nineteenth century, but it also provides a social history into the daily lives of the people that used it.

Of course, there are many other objects in the Oceanic collection. Some of these include: textiles, weapons, fish hooks, and paddles (see below for more pictures). However, just the three artifacts highlighted in this post reveal how each artifact is infused with meaning. There is a story behind each object that reflects the culture from which it originates. The Oceanic collection as a whole can even tell a story when considering the identity of the collectors and how each object arrived at Wesleyan.

Ceremonial wooden paddle, Object ID: 1870.370.1; Austral Islands, circa mid-19th century


Model war canoe, Object ID: 1870.348.1; Sandwich Islands, circa mid-19th century


Pear shell fish hook and lure, Object ID: ethcat #1786; Micronesia, circa late 19th century


If you are interested in learning more about any of the objects in this collection, or if you want to work with any of the artifacts in the collections for a paper, project, or even a thesis, please visit the Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology Collections in Exley, room 301 or check out our website for more contact info!

By: Steven Chen ‘18

[1] The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Whale-tooth Necklace (Lei Niho Palaoa) (1979.206.1623). New York. Electronic document.

[2] Ibid.