In most cultures, trumpets signify majesty, occasion and celebration. In Western culture, trumpets are associated with pomp and royalty. In Maori culture, the putatara (trumpet) is sounded to mark special occasions such as tangi (wakes) and opening ceremonies.
In the past, the putona (shell trumpet) had a similarly 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.
This putona, part of the Oldman Collection, is made from a large triton shell. The shell itself is called ‘wahine na te mano’ (the wife of the shark) by Marquesans. The shell is surrounded by finely plaited sennit (coconut fibre) bindings that decorate the trumpet and protect the shell. The carrying loop, also made from sennit, allows the putona to be safely carried and hung up.
The binding is kept in place at the thick end of the shell by a series of complex knots and a carved bone toggle. The toggle in this case is a Marquesan tiki - these were sometimes carved from a human bone. A tassel, made of human hair, is attached to the sennit cord.
To allow the shell to be blown, a hole is ground in the whorls (spirals of the shell) near the tip. A mouthpiece made of a small gourd is attached, and you would blow through this to make a sound.
Most Marquesan shell trumpets were made of triton shell, thought to have been brought up from the deep by divers, and were highly valued. However, shell trumpets
were also made from the smaller cassis shell, which gives a clear, though not very loud, note.
The Marquesans also made wooden trumpets, some of which were carved. The wooden trumpets gave a clear and penetrating note and were blown by returning fishing parties to summon villagers to shore.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2003)