Putona (shell trumpet), 1800s

putona (war trumpet)  1800s
conch, shell, bone, human hair, 350 mm
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Oldman Collection. Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1992
This artwork is featured in Te Papa's Collections Online


This is a large putona, or shell trumpet, made from triton shell ('Charonia tritonis') and coconut fibres probably in the 1800s in the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia. It has been worn smooth by much handling. Skeins of between six and eight extremely finely plaited sennit (coconut fibre) cords encircle the shell to form a carrying loop and an elaborately knotted ornament at the top of the mouth of the shell. A finely carved bone toggle and long tufts of human hair are attached at the other end of the loop. The shell is 35 cm long and the hair tuft is about 20 cm long.

Educational value

  • Shell trumpets (known in the Marquesas as putona) are used throughout Polynesia and Fiji, mainly for signalling and summoning people together - triton shells are preferred for this purpose, although other shells are sometimes now used.
  • The shell was blown from the side, although these kinds of shells can also be blown from a hole at the end - to enable the shell to be blown, a hole was ground in the whorls (spirals of the shell) near the tip; a mouthpiece made of a small gourd would then be attached; when someone blew through this mouthpiece the shell would make a sound.
  • The toggle of the shell trumpet is carved in the form of a human figure known as a tiki, which is characteristic of Marquesan art.
  • The putona had an important and ceremonial role in the culture of the Marquesas Islands - it could be blown only by people of certain rank and was used in battle and on special occasions, such as religious ceremonies or to mark the birth of a chief's first son.
  • The object came to the Dominion Museum (a forerunner of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa) in 1948 when the New Zealand Government bought the Māori and Pacific collection of the London collector and dealer W O Oldman - W O Oldman acquired many pieces from Oceania, and it was one of his favourite areas, although he had never visited there; because these items had passed through various sale rooms in Great Britain they often lack detailed information on their origins or historical context.

> Back to Customary Pasifika

All artworks are reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus.