Papua New Guinea – Music, magic and religion

Music, dance and feasting were key elements of religious ceremonies in traditional New Guinea.

Objects in Plymouth’s collection relating to music, magic and religion in Papua New Guinea (PNG) include headdresses, a dance staff, drums and a mouth bow, bullroarers, charms, figures, masks, and items associated with headhunting.

Black and white photo of a group of PNG men ready to dance

[1] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI 34394)

The scene in this photograph [1] shows a group of men ready to dance. Several of them are holding drums. The men’s communal ceremonial house is visible in the background.

Traditional religion in New Guinea venerated ancestors. The men’s house in each village was understood to have been established by a founding ancestor. Spiritual care was given to ancestors in return for their assistance in daily life, such as ensuring success in warfare, hunting, pig husbandry and gardening taro, the staple crop. Boys and men were initiated into secret aspects of myth, religion and the ancestor cult at different stages of their lives. These initiations took place through a series of ceremonies which began in childhood and continued until each man’s late twenties. For ritual specialists, this accumulation of sacred knowledge continued throughout their adult lives.

Use the links to see all of the different types of objects associated with music, magic and religion.

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 Some of the historic wording may now appear outdated and even offensive.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.

head of a dance staff from PNG

Dance stick (PLYMG 1909.423x)

Dance staff

There is one dance staff in the Plymouth collection. This flat wooden staff would have been held during dances. A bird is carved at each end.

View the record for the dance staff

drum from PNG

Drum (PLYMG 1909.387x)

Musical instruments

Traditionally, there were just two types of musical instrument in what is now PNG – drums and mouth bows (also known as Jews’ harps). Only men were allowed to make and use these, and only after they had reached a certain level of initiation.

Hourglass-shaped drums, held around the ‘waist’ in the middle, are characteristic of PNG. There are two types – one sort has a tympanum (drum-skin) at each end, the other has a mouth-shaped end. There are examples of both sorts in Plymouth.

View the musical instruments in the collections

Black and white photo of a boy from PNG holding a traditional drum

[2] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI 33497)

Different sorts of drums were traded between different groups of people – the mouth-shaped ones were made in the lowlands. The boy in the photograph [2] is holding a drum with a mouth-shaped end, which is very similar to one of the drums at Plymouth.

Making a drum is a ritual act, during which ritual words are spoken at the point of carving when the ‘waist’ breaks through, like the opening of a throat, enabling the drum to cry like a bird. The tympanum is made from a lizard skin, stretched over the end of the drum and glued in place with tree resin. Small lumps of beeswax can be pressed into the skin to improve its tone. The carved and painted patterns are similar to those found on charms, and on men’s bark belts. Drums are used in ceremonies to ensure the fertility of taro.

Black and white photo of two men from PNG dressed for a ceremonial dance

[3] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI 34418)

The two men in the photograph [3] are dressed for a ceremonial dance. Each holds a hand-drum with a tympanum at each end.

There is also one mouth bow in the Plymouth collection. It is made from a slice of bamboo, with a zig-zag pattern scratched around the edge, and a plaited string.

bullroarer from PNG

Charm, probably a bullroarer (PLYMG 1909.367x)


When a bullroarer is whirled around the head on a string, it makes a strange roaring sound. This was understood to be the voice of ancestral spirits. There are five bullroarers in the Plymouth collection. Each bullroarer in Plymouth’s collection is a long oval shape made of wood, and four have a plant-fibre string attached through a hole. Four of them are carved – one with figures representing spirits – and coloured white and red. One has two ‘clappers’, one has a netted enclosure at one end, and one has three nutshells attached to make a rattling sound.

View bullroarers in the collection

ceremonial mask from the Torres Straight

Ceremonial mask (PLYMG 1909.386x)


Masks in PNG can take three forms, each understood to be the face of an ancestral spirit. One sort is made of palm-fibre and is worn pulled over the head. Another sort is cone-shaped and painted with a face, while a third – more unusual – sort is carved from wood. Masks were worn only by senior men, as part of significant ceremonies, and they were stored in men’s houses. When Christian missionaries arrived in PNG, they encouraged the islanders to give up their masks as a sign of conversion – but cultural practices have adapted and survived, and today each group in PNG has its own set of masks, made from modern materials.

Plymouth does have one mask from Dauncey, but it is not from PNG – it is from the Torres Strait, a group of islands between PNG and Australia. This mask is painted black, white and red and has holes round its chin and ears where decoration, perhaps fibre or feathers, would have been attached.

View the Torres Strait ceremonial mask

Black and white photo of three men from PNG wearing ceremonial masks

[4] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI 34248)

The three men in the photograph [4] are wearing masks and holding ceremonial staffs. Dauncey collected similar masks, but these are not at Plymouth – they in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge and the National Museum of Denmark (NMD) in Copenhagen.

masks on display

[5] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Intitute (RAI 34422)

Dauncey took the photograph [5] below of some of the masks in his collection – they are similar to the examples at the MAA and NMD, but not the same ones.

spirit board from PNG

Ceremonial board (PLYMG NNE 144)

Spirit boards

There is one spirit board in the Dauncey collection at Plymouth, and several more collected by Dauncey at the MAA in Cambridge. Spirit boards are ceremonial objects associated with men in the Gulf region of PNG. Ancestors or other spirits flow into these boards, giving them power. When not in use, spirit boards are kept out of sight in the men’s house. Boards are carefully repaired, if damaged, and passed down from father to son.

View the memorial board in the collection

carved figure from PNG

Figure (PLYMG 1909.376x)


There are two carved human figures in the Dauncey collection at Plymouth. The elaborate figure sitting on a stool looks similar to those seen on lime-spatulas, but it may be from the Trobriand Islands rather than PNG. The other figure is more roughly carved, appears to be female, and may have spiritual significance.

View the carved figures in the collection

ceremonial artefact from PNG

Ceremonial artefact (PLYMG AR.1983.1220.14.10)


There are two types of magical charms in the Dauncey collection at Plymouth. One type is a series of hunting charms made from small coconut shells. They have carved, open-mouthed faces representing spirits, similar to those seen on drums and men’s bark belts. Dauncey collected several of these, to illustrate the process of making a charm, from raw coconut shell to finished product. They are coloured black and white, and some have strings attached for suspension.

The Plymouth collection also includes a net bag that belonged to a sorcerer, which was filled with tiny objects used as charms – pebbles, pieces of coral, animal bones, bits of stick, resin and red cotton cloth, and a crystal wrapped finely with plant fibre. Dauncey’s collection at the MAA in Cambridge contains a whole ‘sorcerer’s kit’ in a basket.

View the charms in the collection

Image of Miria the sorceror with notes by Dauncey

[6] Council for World Mission/SOAS Library (CMW/LMS/Papua New Guinea/Photographs – Box 6 File 8/102)

The album page [6] is annotated in Dauncey’s own handwriting. It is a portrait of Miria, the sorcerer who Dauncey talks about in his book, Papuan Pictures. The image is marked up for publication in a missionary magazine that strongly opposed sorcery.

head carrier from PNG

Head carrier (PLYMG 1909.397ax)


Dauncey’s collection at Plymouth contains a head carrier formed from loop of cane, attached to a carved wooden handle with plaited plant fibre. This would have been used to carry a human head, by tying the jaw onto the cane. Headhunting was a significant element of PNG culture and something to which missionaries like Dauncey were particularly opposed. There is one human skull in the collection. Human remains at the Museum are kept separately, in a special place.

View the head carrier in the collection

photograph album showing manners and shrines

[7] Council for World Mission/SOAS Library (CMW/LMS/Papua New Guinea/Photographs/Box 10, Box 10 – File 30)

The page [7] from one of Dauncey’s photograph albums, is annotated in his own handwriting. It shows Papuan ‘manners and customs’ – including shrines, masks and ancestor figures – from a missionary’s point of view.