Britain’s fabulous totem poles

What connects Berkhamsted, Salford and Edinburgh with remote forests on the Pacific coast? Sixteen totem poles, traditionally carved in cedar.

They are informed by beliefs, values and artistic conventions that evolved on the north-west coast of Canada and America and reach back into the 19th century and earlier. Like all traditional poles, they have nothing to do with totems (an European misnomer), but use a mix of crests and mythical beasts and people, inviting us to consider important issues of culture change and continuity, the history and future of First Nations in north America, and our own ancient past in Britain.

I have written about these great works of narrative art in the new British Archaeology. The six older examples, including two in the British Museum’s Great Court, were probably made between the 1850s and 1870s. They were taken by collectors and dealers from abandoned villages or disintegrating communities in the earlier years of European settlement. The other ten were carved in the second half of the last century: the first was a gift from Canada to the Queen in 1958, and stands in Windsor Great Park.

I went to see one in Hertfordshire when I was writing the feature. It has a wonderful story, which you can read about in the magazine. The pole stands – truly – with its back to a canal in the grounds of a private housing estate in Berkhamsted. I was fortunate to be invited in by a friendly resident, so I was able to take some detailed photos. Here are a few.


figures poles.jpg

The figures on the pole (above, from the top and left to right), are Raven, bringer of first light and people; the sun (or a man wearing a sun mask), who grasps a copper over his front, a shield-like symbol of wealth (he originally had three rays attached to each side of his face, you can just make out the slots on the right); Dzunuk’wa, whose pursed red lips identify her as the woman who leaves the forests to eat children; and Sisiutl, a human-faced serpent whose two additional reptilian heads with extended tongues rise up either side around Dzunuk’wa.

I’ve pasted together a few photos to show the whole of Sisiutl, unwrapped:

Berkhamsted Sisiutl copy.jpg

• “Where the Thunderbird Lives: cultural resilience on the Northwest Coast of North America” is at the British Museum until August 27. This is, astonishingly – given the strength of its collections, and the extraordinary stories the region has to tell – the museum’s first exhibition on the topic. Many pieces are said to be displayed for the first time in the Museum’s history, and it’s well worth a visit. The display is disappointing, however. It lacks ambition, and it really could do with more information about the objects and the people who made them. For the technicalities of some of the art, if you want to know more, Bill Holm’s classic text has been re-issued and can be found in the museum shop (below left).

9780295994277.jpgThe Berkhamsted pole was carved by Henry Hunt: I wrote a short blog a few years ago about a card by him I picked up in an antique market (above right).

Left Royal Collection Trust, right British Museum

The Queen’s great pole, carved by Mungo Martin, is still in Windsor Park. But she is showing a collection of smaller gifts in Buckingham Palace during this year’s summer opening. This carving (left, 78cm high) is among the exhibits. A gift from the city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island in 1971, it features the thunderbird of the British Museum show’s title.


The house model with a pole out front (right) can be seen at the BM. This model, made by John Gwaytihl in the 1890s, is based on a real house, Bear House of Kayang on Haida Gwaii. The pole (85cm high) is remarkably similar to the bigger real one in the Great Court. You can see this below, on the right standing in Masset on Graham Island, Haida Gwaii, and on the left as drawn by TA Joyce and interpreted as telling a story of a lazy son-in-law. The pole (12m high) was made around 1850, and acquired by the BM in 1903.

BM big pole.jpg
Drawing adapted after TA Joyce (1903), photo Charles Frederick Newcombe 1897, British Museum

Bm 2017 poles.jpg

2 thoughts on “Britain’s fabulous totem poles

  1. Hi Mike – an interesting & enjoyable piece. Regarding the exhibition at the BM, I helped at a Gallery Talk given by Jago Cooper in the gallery, and it was fascinating and really helped me understand much more – this really is an area I’m not familiar with. He talked about Resilience Theory, and about the extraordinary richness of the environment, which allied to the cultural practices of the inhabitants, gave them their resilience.He explained how the artifacts in the side display cases, which are geographically ordered, relate directly to/with the artifacts placed opposite them.
    There’s another talk, on the curating & planning of the exhibition, being given by Amber Lincoln on Wednesday 25th May at 13:15, which I’m sure will be worth attending.

  2. Thanks Jim. I was hoping to go to Amber’s talk – which sounds well worth the trip – until i realised it’s the day before the next British Archaeology goes to press. But who knows, I may just see you there! Some time ago I spent several months over a few years on Vancouver Island and further north up the mainland, it’s a wonderful area. But I never fulfilled my childhood ambition to get out to Haida Gwaii (yet).

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