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Papua New Guinea – Body ornaments and clothing

In the tropical climate of Papua New Guinea, people decorated their bodies lavishly with ornaments rather than clothes. Body ornaments in the Plymouth collection include combs, ear and nose ornaments, neck and chest ornaments, armlets and bracelets, belts and waist ornaments, and leg ornaments.

Both men and women wore a lot of ornaments. Dauncey referred to the young men as ‘dandies’, lamenting the amount of time that they took over their appearance when preparing for a dance. Some ornaments were worn every day and more were reserved for special occasions such as dances, or ceremonies such as initiations or funerals. Some ornaments were made for trade, and some were kept for sentimental reasons. Some were made specifically for European collectors.

Black and white photo of a man wearing a large headdress

[1] Courtesy and copyright, Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI 33405)

The photograph on the left [1] taken by Dauncey, shows a young man wearing his full ceremonial finery – an elaborate feather headdress, and nose, neck and arm ornaments made from shell.

You can click on the links below to see all of the body adornments and items of clothing from PNG in Plymouth’s collections.

Many of our catalogue records were created in the past and have yet to be updated. Some of the historic wording may now appear outdated and even offensive. Please be aware that the database may include records for objects that are considered secret or sacred by some communities. If you see anything that concerns you, please get in touch with us.

Papua New Guinea headgear

Headgear (PLYMG 1934.25.478)

Headgear

There are eight PNG headdresses in the collection at Plymouth, at least seven of which came from Dauncey. These vary greatly in shape and they are made from a great variety of materials, including tortoiseshell, feathers and a toucan’s beak. A piece of folded, decorated bark-cloth is described by its collector, Gertrude Benham, as a ‘hat’. It may have been used like a cloak or a hood.

View the records for headgear


carved wooden comb

Comb (PLYMG AR.1983.1213)

Comb

This carved wooden comb would have been worn as an ornament in the hair.

View the record for the comb


Papua New Guinea ear ornament

Earring (PLYMG 1923.44.1.2x)

Ear ornaments

Ear ornaments form one of the largest groups of objects in Dauncey’s collection. There are earrings made from tortoise-shell, Conus shell and wood. Some of the smaller ones are decorated with coral or glass beads – in red, white, blue and sometimes yellow – attached with fine, plant-fibre string. Some of the larger, wooden ear ornaments have a piece of red, European trade cloth wound round the centre. The glass beads were traded from Europe. One pair of earrings is made from seeds.

View records for the ear ornaments

Black and white photo of a woman wearing ear ornaments

[2] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute

Often several similar earrings were worn in each ear. The tortoise-shell ear ornaments worn by the woman in photograph [2] are similar to those in the Plymouth collection.


nose ornament from Papua New Guinea

Nose ornament (PLYMG 1909.290.3x)

Nose ornaments

Nose ornaments were worn through the septum – the membrane in the centre of the nose. Most of the nose ornaments at Plymouth were collected by Dauncey, but there is one collected by Gertrude Benham. The nose ornaments from Dauncey’s collection were made from shell and fossilised shell at a place called Pari, and traded with people living on other parts of the island. Different districts had different fashions in nose ornaments, so different styles were made for trade.

View nose ornaments in the collection

Black and white photo of a man wearing a nose ornament

[3] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute

The man in this portrait [3] is wearing a nose stick made of shell, similar to those in the Plymouth collection.


chest ornament from Papua New Guinea

Necklace (PLYMG 1909.286x)

Neck and chest ornaments

The neck ornaments in the Museum’s collection vary from simple necklaces to elaborate ornaments worn on the chest. The necklaces are made from shells and seeds, threaded on fine plant-fibre string. There are chest ornaments made from boars’ tusks, dogs’ teeth, coral and glass beads, seeds, feathers and shells, pieces of wood, bark-cloth and possibly possum-skin, and red woollen trade-cloth from Europe, all knotted and bound together with plant-fibre thread. One ornament is made of a bright, white shell disc with a finely carved circle of dark turtle-shell on top of it – ornaments like these could also be worn on the forehead or on the back. Another striking chest ornament is made of a crescent of pearl-shell.

View neck and chest ornaments in Plymouth’s collection.


Arm ornament from Papua New Guinea

Armlet (PLYMG 1909.282x)

Arm and wrist ornaments

There are several sorts of arm and wrist ornaments in the Museum’s collections, some made of woven plant fibres and one made of shell plates and sticks, to be bound round the wrist. There are several simple bracelets with shell and glass beads, from collectors other than Dauncey.

An interesting group of objects from Dauncey illustrates the process by which a Conus shell is made into a bracelet. The series includes a whole Conus shell, rings of Conus shell at various stages of preparation, and completed bracelets made from Conus shell, some decorated with seed, shell and coral beads and with leaves.

View arm and wrist ornaments in the collection


Belt from Papua New Guinea

Waist ornament (PLYMG 1909.336x)

Belts

The Museum’s collection contains a narrow barkcloth belt and two impressive bark belts, which were only worn by men initiated into adulthood. The broader the belt, the more senior the man. The bark belts are stiff and were worn laced very tightly, emphasising the waist. The patterns represent ancestral spirits. The carved areas are filled with white and red pigments so that the dark areas stand out.

View bark belts in the collection


Skirt from Papua New Guinea

Skirt (PLYMG AR.1981.124)

Skirts

The Museum’s collection contains two ‘skirts’ or plant-fibre waist ornaments, neither of which was collected by Dauncey. Skirts are made from shredded plant-fibre, sewn into bundles. The bundles are pushed into a vine-cord belt, worn by women around the waist. Up to twenty bundles can be worn together to form a skirt, layered more thickly at the back to form a soft cushion to sit on. The Plymouth examples are dyed in black and red. Scented or decorative leaves may also be worn tucked into the belt.

View skirts in the collection

Black and white photo of two women inside a traditional house

[4] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute

This photograph [4] shows a woman adjusting another’s skirt. A second skirt is hanging, stretched out, from the house platform to the left.


Leg ornaments from Papua New Guinea

Garter (PLYMG 1909.297x)

Leg ornaments

There are three leg ornaments in the Plymouth collection. These are ligatures, woven from fine plant-fibre string and laced very tightly around the leg, so that the muscles stand out around them.

View ligatures in the collection