Friday, February 02, 2007

News: Clay pottery tradition of Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea

Article from The National on the 2,000 year-old clay pottery tradition of Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea that survives into the present day.

Paul Kekai Manansala

Archaeology in a clay pot

On-going archaeological investigation in the northwest D'Entrecasteaux Islands, Milne Bay province, traces past human settlement on the island group and interaction between the mainland and the outer islands through clay pots. VINCENT H. KEWIBU writes.

The D'Entrecasteaux Islands is made of Goodenough, Fergusson, Normanby, Amphlett Group and small offshore islands. These islands were sighted in 1793 by a French navigator, A.R.J. de Bruny d'Entrecasteaux after which the archipelago is named. Capt. John Moresby in 1874 navigated the islands and gave their English names.
Clay pots are generally referred to as pottery by archaeologists and played an important role in the coastal and island communities within the last 2000 years.
The vessels had a multitude of functions such as cooking and storage. They were also trade and exchange items.
The presence of these vessels in some burial sites and those associated with rituals highlight the significance of the ceremonial and religious role it played. However, the introduction of aluminium pots by Europeans greatly reduced and transformed its utilitarian, economic and ceremonial values.
Despite this, some communities in the Milne Bay Province still manufacture clay pots today. These communities include Sivesive and Yauyaula on Goodenough Island, Gumawana and Nabwageta Islands in the Amphletts Group. The other two major production sites in the province are on Tubetube and Ware Islands, while others became defunct or operating in a much smaller scale over the years.
The vessels are manufactured from clay extracted from the ground in suitably identified locations.
Clay is formed by weathering of the earth's surface into microscopic particles. The mineral and chemical composition resembles the surrounding geology of the locality. Plasticity is an essential feature of clay that makes pottery production possible, where it is easily fabricated into particular shapes. The potting clays on Goodenough and Fergusson Islands are naturally ready-made and do not require the addition of temper (sand or organic materials). The Sivesive villagers quarry their clay from a locality known as Kawaweta which is situated about a kilometre northwest of the village. At Yauyaula, the Kinauleya clay source is situated in at the foothills near Kayomala River and is quarried by the people of Augana and Nimwawena hamlets. The Amphlett Islanders obtain their clay from Yayavana at Wapolu on Fergusson Island, which is a day's trip by canoe. The Ware and Tubetube Islanders obtain theirs at sources on their respective islands.
In these communities women make clay pots. After quarrying the clay and transporting it to production sites in villages or hamlets, impurities are removed from the clay before pot construction. Some water is added if the clay is too dry. Pot construction techniques used at Sivesive, Yauyaula and the Amphletts are similar but differs slightly.
At Sivesive and Yauyaula, the technique is spiral coiling while on the Amphletts slab building with squeezed rolls is applied. These communities use the paddle and anvil using the hand as anvil and a paddle to shape the vessel.
The Amphlett Islanders build their vessels upside down beginning with the rim and closing it off at the base, which is unique in Papua New Guinea.
For Ware and Tubetube Islanders, they use the spiral coiling and ring building technique. After fabricating the clay into a desired vessel form, it is decorated while still damp or partially dried. The vessel is then completely dried in open for one to three days before firing. Fuel for firing the pots includes coconut husks and fronds, and split wood. The vessels are placed upside down and the fire built around them. After firing the vessels are cooled off in the open and ready for use or distribution.
Pottery is one of the durable archaeological indicators for tracing many aspects of prehistoric societies. Archaeologists study attributes of decoration, shapes, dimensions and the fabric of these vessels to make inferences about prehistoric technology, social change and interaction (trade, exchange, migration and communication), belief systems and diet. Pottery is recovered from the surface and excavation of archaeological sites. The vessels are rarely recovered in complete forms in most archaeological contexts. They are mostly recovered in broken fragments (sherds). Basic descriptive, statistical and highly specialised scientific techniques are used in the analysis of the diagnostic attributes.
The antiquity of pottery production in Milne Bay province can be traced back to the time when Jesus Christ was born, some 2000 years ago. The earliest pottery production area, apart from the coastal mainland, lies in the northwest D'Entrecasteaux Islands around Mud Bay area of Goodenough and western part of Fergusson.
Between 1000 and 2000 years ago, evidence shows that interaction occurred, in the form of pottery exchange, between the northwest D'Entrecasteaux Islands and coastal mainland as far Collingwood Bay. This notion is based on the similarity of pottery styles recovered in 1970s in Collingwood Bay and 2004 on southeast Goodenough, the Barrier Islands and west Fergusson.
By about 1000 years ago the geographical sphere expanded to include the Amphlett and Trobriand Islands. After about 500 years ago, the sphere of interaction contracted and Collingwood Bay was cut off. This indicates that production of pottery in the Amphlett Islands began about 1000 years ago and by 500 to 600 years ago gained monopoly over the market in the area, probably, with the emergence of the Kula exchange. On Tubetube and Ware Islands pottery production took hold some 600 to 700 years ago and thereafter found their path into the exchange networks. The geographic expansion and contraction of these spheres of interaction is related to changes in social configurations particularly movement of people and probably economic decisions on the cost of long distance sea voyages.
Recent archaeological excavations in the northwest part of the D'Entrcasteaux Islands produced some pottery that is characterised by red slip and red painted decoration. These decorations are clearly associated with the initial settlement process of sea-faring Austronesian peoples whose subsistence was based on fishing, gardening and to some extent hunting. Radiocarbon dates obtained from archaeological sites on the islands are consistent with the regional pottery and cultural sequence regarding settlement and movement of people and goods in the area established by archaeologists along the south coast of Papua New Guinea.
The red slip and red painted decoration styles are also recovered from archaeological sites on Yule Island, the Port Moresby area and Mailu in the Central Province; and Collingwood Bay in the Oro Province. These vessel types are no longer produced by clay pot manufacturing communities in the region. Clay pot industry in Milne Bay province is still in trade today and occasionally sold at the Alotau town market.