Whalebone Armour Fit for a Chief

Tuesday 07 August 2018

Civa vonovono E150.1012 (Oldman Collection)

Around 100 of these Fijian whale ivory breastplates are in museums around the world. Oldman Collection, Canterbury Museum E150.1012

A civa vonovono (breastplate) was the exclusive property of a male Fijian chief. Composed of highly polished sperm whale ivory and mother of pearl shell, the ornament was an emblem of high status worn during times of both ceremony and battle.

Large quantities of ivory became increasingly available throughout the Pacific region during the nineteenth century as interactions with American and European traders increased. Prior to this, Islanders had not hunted whales but instead extracted teeth from beached marine mammals.

Evidence suggests that this breastplate was manufactured by a Tongan or Samoan craftsman. The technique used to bind the four outer ivory sections to each other and the central shell plate with plaited fibre cords is reminiscent of canoe building methods prevalent in both countries.

It is estimated that approximately one hundred civa vonovono survive in museum collections around the world today. The visual parallels between particular breastplates indicate the hand of a specific maker and his workshop. The style of this breastplate is similar to that of one held at the Fiji Museum and another at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

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