Art
Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Masterpieces of Polynesia – U'a - Easter Island Staff Club

Polynesian Resource Center

Of the three different types of Janus headed Polynesian staff clubs; the Maori Taiaha , the Marquesan U'u and the Easter Island U'a, the Easter island version is undoubtedly the least impressive. The Marquesan U'u is a massive object but beautifully and finely carved, this contrast of size and delicacy making it particularly and uniquely attractive. While the Maori Taiaha is fine , long and thin, and elegant object with its twin carved terminal faces are successfully designed to be frightening. In handling it has more the feel of a two handed sword, designed for speed and agility. Against this the Easter Island U'a, looks odd rather than frightening and lack the look of speed or heft. However, this quality of strangeness is singular, and has much to do with the attractiveness of much Easter island carving and befits this most mysterious of islands so isolated far to the east of the rest of Polynesia.

 

 

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Like many of the carvings of Easer Island it is made from the wood of the Toromiro tree, a species of pretty flowering tree in the legume family, Fabaceae, that is endemic to Easter Island, but has many other species in the Pacific related to it, such as our Kowhai in New Zealand. Readers of my articles will no doubt know my great contempt for the Norwegian adventurer and self publicist Thor Heyerdahl, however it is nice to find some reason to be grateful for his existence, in that in 1955-56 Heyerdahl lead an archaeological expedition to Easter Island and collected seed from a single supposed surviving Toromiro in Orongo crater, the island's forests being eliminated by the first half of the 17th century. The major species was a palm the trunks of which were used as rollers to move the great Moai Statues from the islands quarries at Rano Raraku and Puna Pau to the coast. However Toromiro is being reintroduced to the island in a scientific project partly led jointly by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Gothenburg Botanical Garden. This reintroduction if Toromiro grows at a similar rate to Kowhai should be reasonably rapid, though mature trees of twenty or thirty years old would be required before the islands carvers could once again be producing moai kava kava and other objects from Toromiro

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This U'a club has a naturalistic Janus head, sculpted in the round, with eyes inlaid with bird bone and obsidian inlays. Again we are beholding to the photographer at Sotheby's for producing an image in profile, rarely seen in books on Easter Island Art that gives a compelling view of the U'a. To this image shown below I have added a profile and front image of a Maori Taiaha from Te Papa the New Zealand National Museum Collection for comparison. The bend in the U'a seems to be the common form and the reason for this is not clear, and it is hard to see any advantage could be gained from this bend in use. The Pitt Rivers Museum has an U'a collected by William and Katherine Routledge in 1914/15; Katherine Routledge is now increasingly recognized as an important pioneer in archaeological and ethnographic research on Easter Island with her main informant being Juan Tepano, an Easter Islander, and it is this connection that makes the Pitt River description of this object very interesting. Ua are said to have been symbols of chiefly rank, with wood being extremely scarce on Rapa Nui, and what did grow was generally short and scrubby, and consequently, long straight timbers such as that used to make this weapon were in very short supply and so were afforded great prestige value. These clubs were apparently kept in a bulrush sheath and carefully looked after.

The Pitt Rivers also raises an interesting point about the amount of tool-grade obsidian to be found on the island, which meant Easter Island carving tools were generally far superior to those of their Polynesian neighbours, resulting in the high quality of their carving. It is true that Easter Island or Rapanui carving is far superior compared to most of the carving of Tahiti and the Society Islands far to the North-West. However, it seems to me also true that there is a great variation in the quality of carving that was produced on the island. This particular example if viewed from the front or in profile shows an obvious asymmetric quality not seen on other examples, and in Te Papa there is an Oldman Collection example that is weakly carved yet it was still in Oldman's collection which

suggests he struggled to find a better example to replace it. This is hard to explain if these items were status objects, as almost always there is as you would expect a huge variation between an object used by commoners and that used by a chief. Easter Island moai kava kava show considerable variation in carving quality, with my guess being in that case that better quality usually meant an earlier date of manufacture.

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Easter Island even if we go back as early as Captain Cook's second voyage visit to the island in March 1774 was not well endowed by nature and it is worth reprinting Cook's comments in full; 'No Nation will ever contend for the honour of the discovery of Easter Island as there is hardly an Island in this sea which affords less refreshments, and conveniences for Shipping than it does. Nature has hardly provided it with any thing fit for man to eat or drink, and as the Natives are but few and may be supposed to plant no more than sufficient for themselves, they cannot have much to spare to new comers. The produce is Potatoes, Yams, Taro or the Edoy root, Plantains and Sugar Cane, all excellent in its kind, the Potatoes are the best of the sort I ever tasted; they have also Gourds and the same sort of Cloth Plant as at the other isles but not much, Cocks and Hens like ours which are small and but few of them and these are the only domestick Animals we saw a mong them, nor did we see any quadrupedes, but rats which I believe they eat as I saw a man with some in his hand which he seem'd unwilling to part with. Land Birds we saw hardly any and Sea Birds but a few, these were Men of War Birds, Noddies, Egg Birds, &ca. The Sea seems as barren of fish for we could not catch any altho we try'd in several places with hook and line and it was very little we saw a mong the Natives.' Cook also suggests that though the natives knew of iron they seemed to little value it.

Of course we know now that this poverty of resources was the essasabated by environmental degradation caused by over exploitation and rat infestation. How many examples of Easter Island Art we see that are items produced quickly for trade with Europeans and of dubious quality for that reason it is hard to say. Of what is in no doubt is that at their best Easter Island carvers were superbly skilled, with moai kava kava in particular being probably the finest examples of figure carving in Polynesia.

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