Forensic Fashion
(c) 2006-present R. Macaraeg


>Costume Studies
>>1927 Trobriand kumatola
Subjectkumatola warrior chief
Culture: Trobriand Islander / Massim
Setting: Trobriand Islands late 19th - mid 20th c

Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)



* Greub 1988 p166
"These clubs, known as pulata, were peculiar to the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea. Originally, the finely carved clubs were made on Kitava Island, and they subsequently became one of the principal items exported by the natives of Kiriwina Island. Strictly speaking, these heavy wooden clubs were ceremonial weapons. Used in village brawls, arguments over gardens, women, sorcery, and breaches of etiquette, they were sometimes carried in mortuary ceremonies and annual feasts, but they were never used in regular warfare.
    "Like so much of the Massim cultural inventory, these weapons illustrate the Trobriand Islanders' passion for display. The decorative effect of these artifacts far outweighs their efficacy as weapons. Incised, lime-filled curvilinear designs fill the upper part of the blade, and many clubs are decorated with the 'hanging-snake' motif. The ends of the clubs are often perforated with a series of holes through which are tied pandanus-leaf strips for purely decorative purposes. Most clubs are made of the hard and heavy ebony wood ... or a mahogany-type wood. Clubs made of palm wood are also known.
    "These truncated-tipped clubs look similar to cricket bats. The blade itself, which is ovoid in cross section, tapers toward the hilt to form a sword guard. The hilt ends in a large pommel. The pommels on pulata are symmetrical in shape, an uncharacteristic feature. Asymmetrical finials and handles are typical of lime spatulas, cooking spoons, and steering rudders but not of the clubs. They range in size from approximately 110 centimeters (43 inches) to about 50 centimeters (20 inches), averaging about 75 centimeters (30 inches) in length."

* Pitt-Rivers Museum online > Spatulate club (1900.55.400)
​"According to Malinowski, such sword-clubs were widespread, although men carried them as an everyday item and never used them in pitched battles or out-and-out warfare, which was conducted in a very formal and organised way with spears and shields. Instead, clubs like this were the weapons of everyday skirmish and brawl. In a short article published in 1920 in 'Man', the journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Malinowski remarks that the principal provocations for disagreements between Trobriands men of the period were: arguments over garden boundaries, the ownership and wanderings of pigs, conflicts over the attentions and fidelity of women, breaches of formal etiquette, and the attacker's suspicion that the defender was a sorcerer - a common cause of conflict in many parts of the world [Malinowski, B. (1920) 'War & Weapons Among the Natives of the Trobriand Islands', Man, 20: 10-12]."


* Malinowski 1922 p42
​"A few more words must be said here about sorcery, as this is a matter of great importance in all inter-tribal relations.  The dread of sorcery is enormous, and when the natives visit distant parts, this dread is enhanced by the additional awe of the unknown and foreign.  Besides the flying witches, there are, in Dobu, men and women who, by their knowledge of magical spells and rites, can inflict disease and cause death.  The methods of these sorcerers, and all the beliefs clustering round this subject are very much the same as those in the Trobriands which we shall meet later on.  These methods are characterised by being very rational and direct, and implying hardly any supernatural element.  The sorcerer has to utter a spell over some substance, and this must be administered by mouth, or else burnt over the fire in the victim's hut.  The pointing stick is also used by the sorcerers in certain rites."


* Malinowski 1932 p256
"Their dress is of the slightest, especially for men, who wear only a pubic leaf.  This is a narrow band which covers the pubic regions, the lower part of the abdomen, and the back up to the first lumbar vertebræ.  The band is attached, front and back, to a belt.  Usually above this support the man wears another ornamental belt, made sometimes of valuable material.  The pubic leaf is very carefully adjusted, so that the limited area which modesty demands should be hidden remains always precisely and carefully covered."


* Malinowski 1922 p52
"They wear the same classes of ornaments as the other Massim, consisting mainly of of fibre armlets and belts, earrings of turtle shell and spondylus discs, and they are very fond of using, for personal decoration, flowers and aromatic herbs."

​* Malinowski 1932 p257
"The natives adorn themselves with wreaths of aromatic blossom; put flowers, especially the red hibiscus, in their hair, and aromatic herbs or long leaves and streamers into their armlets.  Necklaces of shell and wild banana seed are worn, and armlets on the upper arm.  All men and women wear ear-rings and belts.
    "The body, as distinguished from the face, is very seldom painted, and no tattoo markings are ever visible."


* Geary ed. 2006 p96 (William E Teel w/ Christraud M. Geary and Stéphanie Xatart, "Catalogue" p36-151)
​Among the most valued objects of the Massim region are war shields from the Trobriand Islands, which Westerners collected as early as the 1890s. The foreigners were particularly entranced by the delicate, carefully organized designs painted on their flat surfaces. ... Scholars have proposed multiple interpretations of the intricate designs. Recent research suggests that many of the complex motifs represent insects, fish, or serpent shapes, which symbolically allude to prowess in war."

​* Benitez/Barbier 2000 p204
"The Trobrianders['] ...  more commonly used shields, called kuilumuju, were painted either plain black or plain white.  The types studied most closely were the so-called vai ova, elaborately painted shields caried from vayoula, an acacia wood.  Bronislaw Malinowski, who conducted three expeditions to the islands, maintained that Trobriand decorated war shields were rare and only the bravest warriors carried them into battle.  Modakewau clarified this when he noted that outstanding warriors (kumatola) who carried small decorated war shields were called kaisikuakua, a term also referring to these shields."  [references omitted]

​* Museum of Fine Arts > Arts of Oceania
"[...] The art of the Trobriand Islands is mostly two-dimensional, with painted or carved designs often covering an object's entire surface. The patterns on all Trobriand shields are similar and have specific meanings." ...

​* Meyer 1995 vII p148 f144
"Few ... painted shields are known.  They were obviously reserved for the use of powerful high-ranking warriors.  The decor has been analysed at great length but with little success.  There is reason to believe that the relatively stereotyped motifs are magical images intended to strengthen the owner and frighten the enemy."

* Pitt Rivers Museum online > War shield (1893.68.1)
"Warfare in the Trobriand Islands was pursued with long thrown spears (four metres or more in length), wooden clubs, and shields such as these. Before Trobriands men went to war, the village magician would cast a spell over each shield by resting it on his knees, and whispering his spell into the decorated surface from a few centimetres away, empowering it with his breath. As a result, the shield became impervious to spears. Therefore, the painted designs were conceived to have magical powers that could be invoked to help ensure survival and success in combat.
    "There has been a great amount of debate over the meaning of the decoration on Trobriand Islands shields. Some scholars have seen the design as representing a flying witch called a mulukuausi, the most fearful thing in Trobriands mythology, which would terrify the enemy. Others have interpreted the shields as showing a husband and wife having sexual intercourse, which is considered an obscene visual insult. It is possible that a number of culturally important animals such as hornbills and snakes are shown. Still other experts think the shield designs represent a single human figure, much like the shell-inlaid human figures on high-status shields from the nearby Solomon Islands. In this interpretation, the three major 'zones' of the shield represent the figure's head, throat and abdomen. The Trobriand Islanders traditionally understood magical power to reside in the belly, and it has been suggested that the design represents the path by which a magician sends his power out into the world from inside his body."