Map of Eastern Solomon Islands
The sculptures featured in the Davenport Collection were acquired in the Eastern Solomon Islands by Dr. William H. Davenport. Davenport started his fieldwork in 1958 in what was then known as the British Solomon Islands. The collection consists of artifacts obtained by Davenport over the course of his visits to the Santa Ana, Santa Catalina, and San Cristobal Islands.
About half of the collection was created by local carvers, who were commissioned by Davenport to make traditional objects. The other half consists of objects that were once in use by the Solomon islanders but were later cast aside when the community became Christian, which was a part of a larger cultural shift in the Eastern Solomon Islands. Nevertheless, these stories were still widely circulated despite the burgeoning of Christianity the area. In the ethnography written after his fieldwork, Davenport states that, “the myths are still told and retold (in the late 90s), because they were regarded as an important part of the indigenous culture” (1).
In 1966, Davenport commissioned local carver, Nimanima of Gupuna Village, Santa Ana Island to create wooden sculptures of Caskets, Offering Posts, and House Posts. The carvings Nimanima chose to create depict two popular Eastern Solomon myths, these myths were often retold in spoken rituals. According to Davenport, these rituals are now less popular among the Solomon islanders and Nimanima has since quit carving (1).
Traditional sculpture in the eastern Solomon Islands draws heavily upon mythology for its imagery. Religious icons are highlighted on wooden painted casket canoes and ritual posts which were used to worship important deities. The Temple Anthropology Museum collection consists of offering and house posts featuring humanoid figures. Objects are made of wood, usually stained black, and often enhanced with inlays of mother-of-pearl or etched details through the dark surface which reveal the light shade of the underlying wood. Small details are often carved in low relief to enrich the surfaces.
One house post included in this collection shows two porpoises under each arm of a human figure with white and red earth painted details. This sculpture depicts Mara Kirio “porpoise transformation”, a deity from the Arosi section of the Eastern Solomon Islands. Other compositions are of naturalistic birds or fish, carved as the ends or supports of casket canoes. One carved canoe casket features a mythical species of shark, called an Iri, holding a human figure in its jaws. This canoe casket depicts the myth of Waum̄aum̄a, which tells the story of a man who lied and was eaten by a shark deity for it.
In his ethnography, Davenport recounts the story told to him about a man named Waum̄aum̄a and his uncle Waita, who lived in the Eastern Solomon Islands 1. One day, Waum̄aum̄a went to his uncle's betel pepper garden and picked peppers in a way that destroyed the rest of the garden. Waita soon discovered what had been done to his garden and asked everyone in the community if they knew who ruined the betel pepper garden. When Waum̄aum̄a was asked, he denied any responsibility. Enraged that someone had destroyed his garden and lied about it, Waita called upon his tutelary deity (a shark spirit) by burning leaves at his household alter. Waita asked the deity to exact revenge upon the person who ruined his garden. That night, while kite fishing in his canoe, Waum̄aum̄a was attacked by Waita’s shark deity, killing him. Waum̄aum̄a’s story is carved onto the sides of canoes to ensure a safe voyage for travelers. Davenport recalls that this story was told to him by a devoted patron of this deity and “a ritual leader of the last cult group on the island to yield to Christianity” (1).
Davenport originally curated his collection of artifacts for the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) Anthropology Museum's Oceania exhibit, which was opened in 1968. Temple University's collection is a selection from this larger collection. The Davenport collection highlights visual representations that establish a relevant mythological context for the art created by the indigenous traditions and other sacred activities on the Eastern Solomon Islands (1).
(1) Davenport, William H. 1968. “Sculpture of the Eastern Solomons.” Expedition 10 (2): 4-25