25 March 2015

Identifications for the Kent and Sussex Uniques project

Australian headdress 1997.5 Bexhill, BEXHM : 1997.5

This is described as a ‘Headdress with parrot feathers’, and was donated by a Miss C P Wills. I think these are emu feathers because of the similarity of the feathers to a Leeds example, LEEDM.F.1970.0010:

The Leeds example has an old label: "Head ornament of emu feathers worn by aboriginal men at some of their dances. N.Queensland”. Unfortunately the source details are lost, and now recorded as Unknown. The date is estimated at 1890-1920.

As laid out in the photo the Leeds headdress looks more like a waist ornament (?). The Bexhill example seems to have a much thicker group of cord ties at the sides, and the feather strands seem very untidy. As Len Pole comments, It is 'impossible to see what this might look like without putting it on a head-shaped mount; it could be imposing’. Do the cords separate out to form a semi-regular fringe? Or when worn would the fringe be spiralled round to make a chunky cluster or plume? The most frequent good photos online of Queensland emu feather headdresses are of a Mornington Island type headdress, from the Gulf of Carpentaria, north Queensland. For example, see the discussion thread 'Australian Aboriginal artifacts 8 – Mornington Island ceremonial headdress’ 

This took me to a photo of a similar headdress at the National Museum of Australia which has lots of contextual historical detail.

Gambling tokens, Sudan? Bexhill Museum BEXHM : 2004.5.23

This group of engraved brown nut shells are presumed to be gambling tokens, one is said to be carved with a sexual symbol.. they are used in a gambling game banned for its destructive influence. Sudan. Len Pole says see similar examples at Powell-Cotton museum.

I had not come across anything like these before, but some of the designs look similar to modern gourd carvings from West Africa, particularly one piece from Ghana, which is possibly Asante.

Carved gourd ornament, Ghana, 1960-1980. Leeds LEEDM.F.2009.5.30. Transferred from Hampshire County Museum and Archive Service.

I checked out Brazil seed carvings on this website but nothing similar there.

There is a huge range of game counters illustrated on these pages at Etsy, but again no direct similarities, and nothing either here which has a good list with short descriptions and illustrations of the different board games in Africa.

Large rooster puppet with pendant dangles, Bexhill Museum BEXHM : 1999.35

This is described as “Santali instrument an aboriginal tribe of N. Bengal, wood with bird ornament on top and hanging wooden blocks below”. Wikipedia now has a detailed well-referenced entry on the Santhal or Santal people of India, and they were one of the peoples whose art featured in the Quay Branly exhibition ‘AutreMaitres de L’Inde’ (Other Masters of India) in 2010. However, I found this website difficult to read, and it seems to link closely to another exhibition in Germany on Santal musical instruments. There was nothing here on Santal rooster bird puppets or bird scarers, and similarly there is nothing in another website I was hoping would be useful here.

MEG and Bexhill would love to hear from anyone who has seen similar items to these, or has them in their museum collections. The contact at Bexhill Museum is Julian Porter.

Antonia Lovelace
MEG Chair and Curator of World Cultures, Leeds Museum