The age of A’a
Good to see Martin Bailey write about A’a in the Art Newspaper yesterday. We reported this story in British Archaeology in June, when British Museum curator Julie Adams wrote about the new research she led into the wonderful, unsettling carving from Rurutu taken to London by British missionaries in 1821. This and Hoa Hakananai’a (delivered to London in 1869) are arguably the two most spectacular items in the British Museum’s early Pacific collections, which are stronger than the current displays reveal.
Bailey headlines the carbon dating of A’a (actually some time between AD1505–1645, rather than “around 1505”), which like a date obtained some years ago for an Easter Island wooden carving is significantly older than art historians had it. As Adams wrote:
“Even at the younger end of the range, this is still dramatically earlier than had been imagined; it is a major finding that requires a complete reevaluation of our understandings of Pacific art. It makes it clear that A’a was created using stone tools, rather than metal, and that the people who created it were extraordinarily skilled carpenters. It also challenges our perceptions about how long objects may have survived in a tropical environment. The skill and effort required to create A’a, and the extremely significant role he was designed to fulfil – to hold the bones of a deified ancestor – in conjunction with the early date indicated by radiocarbon dating, prove that the figure must have been very carefully treated and preserved.”
Other discoveries of the project include the identification of the wood as sandalwood, not the local pua as had been assumed – causing some controversy on Rurutu, as sandalwood is not native to the island.
The first find, within minutes of Adams seeing the carving in store, was a feather from a Kuhl’s lorikeet. They later found some human hair, scraps of barkcloth and two further feathers. “In Polynesia,” wrote Adams in BA, “these are all items with rich cosmological associations and imbued with the presence of the divine. Red feathers, in particular, functioned as a kind of cosmological currency with which chiefs could assert their status and legitimacy: a chief who could manipulate the appropriate networks to acquire feathers at key moments in the ritual calendar, held political sway on the island. It makes perfect sense for a red feather – a valuable currency – to be discovered within a god image such as A’a.”
Even in storage, museum collections have endless and unexpected stories to tell.
Photo at top British Museum.