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Object: ahu parau (chest apron)

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Title ahu parau (chest apron)
Production Unknown, 1700s, Society Islands
Medium summary Pearl shell, plant fibre
Materials shell, plant fibre
Classification religious objects
Dimensions Overall: 560mm (Length) x 910mm (Width)
Credit line Gift of Lord St Oswald, 1912
Registration number FE000336/1

These items are part of the costume worn by the Chief Mourner in a Society Islands ritual, which fascinated the European observers on the Pacific voyages of eighteenth-century English explorer James Cook. The costumes and the ceremony were described in a journal kept by naturalist Joseph Banks during Cook's first voyage (1768-1771), when he actually took part in the ritual. The visitors were unable to acquire any examples of the costume on the first voyage; however, parts of at least ten were taken to England on the second voyage (1772-1775). The pieces depicted here were probably collected at that time. They are thought to have been given by Joseph Banks to William Bullock, and are part of the collection purchased by Charles Winn at the sale of Bullock's Museum in 1819.

Chief Mourner
The Chief Mourner was completely concealed by his elaborate costume. His attendants (the role adopted by Banks for a day) wore only loincloths and blackened their skins with charcoal and water. The group would range through the district, making loud noises and terrorising anyone they encountered. The ritual could continue for weeks or even months after the death of a prominent person.

The costume
The costumes were extremely valuable. Each pearl shell used in the mask and apron might have to be purchased with a pig, and many hours of labour were needed to shape and stitch together the many thin rectangles that make up the apron.

Related information

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