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Grand Admiralty Island Feast Bowl

Feast Bowl, late 19th Century
Matankol culture; Lou Island, Admiralty Islands, Manus Province, Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia
Wood and parinarium nut paste; 24 ½ x 54 ½ x 41 in.
Bowers Museum Purchase
Homes on the neighboring M'Buke Island.
Photograph by Peter Keller, 2006.
King of Bowls
Of the many types of wooden bowl from the Admiralty Islands, no single design is better recognized or more appropriately revered than that of the large feast bowl with decorative spiral handles. Photographs can only hint at the scale of these bowls, which measure up to 56 ½ inches from handle to handle. This February the Bowers Museum joins the ranks of Oceanic Collections to have such monumental feast bowls in their stewardship.
Lou Knew
In the 19th Century when most of these bowls were made, the small island of Lou just southeast of the Admiralty chain’s largest island of Manus was the only producer of bowls of such size and quality. Indigenous calophyllum trees growing up to 90 feet tall could be felled, and sections cut from their broad spans to create these massive bowls out of single pieces of wood. The sections would be hollowed by lighting a low-heat fire in the center and having it burn out a perfectly spherical bowl. The intricate designs decorating these bowls may have been carved with the shell knives used throughout the Admiralties; however, considering the prevalence of obsidian on Lou it is more likely that the bowl was carved with an obsidian blade. Finishing and smoothening the bowls would have been done with sharkskin or pumice. The bowl’s dark, rich patina arose from several circumstances, including blackening from the hollowing process, exposure to smoke and coconut oil.
Knife, 20th Century
Admiralty Islands, Manus Province, Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia
Obsidian and pith; 2 1/4 × 9 1/2 × 1 7/8 in.
Anonymous Gift
Cus Cus Coil
Apart from its sheer size the craftsmanship of the bowl’s handles is among its most interesting aspects. They are the only part of the bowl not carved from the same piece of wood as the body proper, and are attached with a paste made from crushed parinarium nuts. The handles’ distinctive spiraling shape is probably the clan totem of the Matankol people of Lou Island, but the source of inspiration has been the subject of some debate amongst ethnographers. The most cited antecedents are animal forms such as the tail of the cuscus, tusks of the pig, or shell of the sea snail. Other Admiralty Islanders have described these bowl handles with the same word used for the decorated ends of dance beams used at festivals or the prows of canoes. Canoes feature heavily in the mythology of the Admiralty Islands as vessels for carrying the deceased to the afterlife, making the implications of this connection fascinating. Though carvings can cover the body of Admiralty bowls, particularly the lips, they most heavily decorate the bowls’ handles. Here we see openwork geometric shapes lining the outermost loop of the spiral. Some variation of this design is seen in almost all Admiralty Island bowls.
Admiralty Islanders returning from a Lorengau market with their bowls.
Photograph by Peter Keller, 2006.
Fit for a Feast
Small wooden Bowls were used throughout the Admiralty Islands to hold a variety of foodstuffs including taro, sago, sweet potatoes and more. As an alternative to their basketry counterparts sealed with parinarium nut they were more valuable—most houses had at least a few. Once they have been scaled up to the point that it takes two people to carry them—as with our 54 ½ inch wide bowl—their functionality changes from daily use to communal feasting. The incredible volume of food they could contain made them inefficient for any fewer than a village to share from. Anthropological accounts of the Lou Islands confirm this. The bowls usually began their lives as bride price and would be brought out for feasts, festivals, initiation ceremonies, funerals and more.
The newly acquired 2018.1.1 standing beside a more contemporary
Admiralty Island bowl already in our collections (2011.11.10).
Thiel Wheel Deal
Sometime in the 1890s the German-born Maximillian Thiel became the head of his uncles’ New Guinea-based trading company, Hernsheim & Co. Though they originally specialized in trading copra, Max Thiel realized that there was a movement by museum curators in Germany to acquire ethnographic objects from throughout German New Guinea. He quickly ordered that his ship captains began collecting anything they could trade for. Unsurprisingly, these men had little to no ethnographic expertise and the objects tended to have little information attached to them other than where they were collected. This was met unhappily by the German museums he was selling to. Running the risk of wasting the money he had invested in these objects, he hired professionals like Franz Hellwig to collect with an emphasis on quality and attention to documentation. This feast bowl was collected between 1907 and 1910 and certainly reflects this latter period of collection. It was sold to Karl von Linden who was collecting works for his then-new Linden Museum in Stuttgart.
Inscription on 2018.1.1 confirming the
Thiel and Linden Museum provenance.
A Second Fire Hollowing
The object was treasured by the Linden Museum until the second World War when the building was requisitioned as a warehouse for confiscated Jewish furniture. In 1944 the museum was bombed. Packed to the ceiling with wooden furnishings, it burnt like a matchbox. None of the objects left at the museum survived. Fortunately, in 1942 the museum’s important objects had been evacuated to the Kochendorf salt mine and Schaubeck Castle in Kleinbottwar to protect them. Even though the bowl had survived, the Linden Museum’s history between the end of the war and the 1970s was one of rebuilding and staying afloat. Many of their important ethnographic objects were sold to private collectors to pay for repairs, this bowl among them. The bowl was probably purchased by Max and Berthe Kofler-Erni, collectors living in Riehen, Switzerland who began acquiring tribal works in the 1950s. It was held privately until last year when it was sold, professionally conserved to fix damage to the handles, and resold at San Francisco Tribal and Textile Artshow to the Bowers Museum.
A scatter of wooden Admiralty Island bowls taken from Gladys Reichard's Melanesian Design.
Note that this chart uses diameter and height of the bowl without the handles. The orange dot is 2018.1.1.
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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