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Traffic: Glimpsing Oceania in Barkcloth, Lapita Pottery and Pictorial Encyclopedia


Max Quanchi, Hilary Howes, Chloe Colchester

Session presentation

It has been argued that European and indigenous ways of perceiving and imagining Oceania amounted to such different ways of seeing that they often proceeded in tandem—not only surviving the initial phases of colonial encounter but remaining persistently distinct over the longer term. Yet, since the 1970s, nationalist and localist evocations of tradition have been countered by attempts to re-engage with the deep past of Oceania. These three papers present different ways of glimpsing Oceania, while discussing the use of the region’s deep and more recent past. The first discusses the discreet reworking of abstract bark-cloth imagery to convey an ideal exemplar - the mind of an ancestral navigator – during the period when colonial spatial controls meant that Fijians were ceasing to be a maritime people (Chloe Colchester); the second traces the scattered archive of pottery sherds collected from the Bismarck archipelago by a Catholic missionary - which prompted the rediscovery of the Lapita peoples (Hilary Howes); and the third discusses the use of photography in early 20thcentury pictorial encyclopaedia to convey the view of Oceania as a de-politicised geographic region during the colonial period (Max Quanchi).

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Across the visual archive; photographing Oceania in the 1920-30s

Max Quanchi (University of Queensland/Deakin University)

In the 1920s and 1930s a huge quantity of photography was published in serial encyclopaedia, allowing Europeans to know the islands in heavily illustrated, monthly instalments. This visual archive of published photography is in the public domain (in libraries) but scattered, fragmented and only pillaged for supporting evidence for print based research. This paper argues that published photography in the 1920s was the dominant mode for the European knowing/studying of Oceania, and was detailed and expansive, although mostly promoting a region and a place rather than specific peoples and sites. A comparative study includes People of all Nations, Women of the World, Countries of the World, Lands and Peoples and The New World of Today suggests that current research needs to draw creatively on this visual archive for new insights on cross-cultural experiences and the colonial and imperial legacies using methodologies from history, geography, anthropology and literature.

Local knowledge or distant origins? Questioning Father Meyer’s potsherds

Hilary Howes (The Australian National University)

In 1909, Father Otto Meyer MSC, a German Catholic missionary stationed on Watom Island in the Bismarck Archipelago, published a brief description of ‘prehistoric pottery’ found by chance near his mission station. Almost a century later, his publication is recognised as the earliest description of what is now known as Lapita-style decorated pottery, the most recognisable material remnant of the first humans to settle in island Melanesia and western Polynesia. At least five major museums, four European and one Australian, hold substantial collections of potsherds from Meyer’s initial chance find and subsequent excavations. However, documentation of these collections’ histories is fragmented and much is held in repositories other than museums. I draw on archival research in Australian and European institutions to illuminate the local context and meaning of these potsherds, the networks of missionary contact and scientific exchange along which they travelled, and their continuing significance for Pacific archaeology today. Throughout, I highlight the alternative perspectives opened up by an interdisciplinary and multilingual approach to archival sources.