NMU logoObject of the Month


Object of Month

Carrying basket, Nagaland, India

March 2014

This type of carrying basket was a status symbol, used by a Konyak Naga man who had taken a head. Tied to it are four wooden heads – decorated with tattoo designs representing North and South groups – and several leaf-strip and hair tassels. Obscured by white, black and red dyed goats hair at the front is a mithun (bovine) horn. The horn is used to hold panji sticks (sharpened bamboo splints, often coated with poison, stuck in the ground to impale enemies). The carrying strap has bright geometric patterns in wool.

The basket was collected by James Phillip Mills (1890-1960), an anthropologist and civil servant in Assam, and donated to the Museum in 1934. The Mills collection, combined with that of his associate J. H. Hutton, make the Pitt Rivers Museum home to one of the widest and deepest collections of Naga material in any European museum. PRM: 1934.82.9

One of 20+ Naga baskets redisplayed as part of the VERVE: Need / Make / Use project.

Object of the Month

February 2014

Disease demon mask, Sri Lanka

This mask is one of many used in Sanni yakuma, a traditional Sinhalese exorcism ritual. The ritual consists of 18 masks and 18 dances, each representing a particular illness or ailment. The face depicts a demon, which has the power both to inflict and cure sickness. This is Kora Sanniya, a demon responsible for paralysis of the face – hence the distorted nose and mouth. This mask is one of a set collected in the late 19th century by an interpreter called Frederick de Silva. However, demon masks are still used in some parts of Sri Lanka today, where exorcists may be consulted alongside Ayurvedic doctors or practitioners of Western medicine. PRM 1895.36.12

One of several Asian masks retrieved from storage and displayed as part of the VERVE: Need / Make / Use project.

Object of the Month

January 2014

'Deadly sin' mask, Mexico

The state of Guerrero has the most prolific masked festival traditions in Mexico. This colourful wooden mask was used in the Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins (Siete Pecados), one of several dances that grew out of morality plays introduced by Spanish missionaries. The masks were previously known by the names of the sins they represented but are now more generally referred to as ‘Devil masks’. Three snakes twined around this mask combine both Christian and pre-Hispanic ideas. In Christianity the serpent symbolizes evil but it also features in ancient Mexican culture and mythology: Quetzacoatl for example was the plumed serpent god of art, fertility and agriculture.

This mask was collected by Anthony Shelton in Quechaltenango in 1985 (the only place in Guerrero where this type of mask is found) and purchased for the Museum in 1987. PRM 1987.16.12.

One of several Central American masks retrieved from storage and displayed as part of the VERVE: Need / Make / Use project.

Object of the Month

December 2013

Henta board, Nicobar Islands (India)

This carved and painted wooden board representing the moon was hung in a house to appease spirits and bring good health. Nearly 60cm in diameter, it depicts Deuse, the Creator, holding a wine glass and surrounded by both indigenous and imported objects: to the left are a watch, boatswain’s whistle, telescope, spears, spathe mat table and decanters. On the right, coconut shells, a lantern, Pandanus-paste board, a basket, an Areca spathe mat and pillow, plus weapons, spoons, furniture and vessels. The unusual style in which Deuse is depicted probably reflects the impact of missionaries in the area.

This object was collected by Edward Horace Man, who worked for the Colonial Service in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from 1869. He donated this object to the Museum in 1887.
PRM 1887.11.82

Object of the Month - November 13

November 2013

Sowei mask, Sierra Leone

This carved wooden mask (sowei) is designed to be worn over the head and danced whilst wearing a raffia costume. It is associated with the Sande (Mende) or Bondo/Bundu (Tenme) societies of West Africa, women’s societies involved in preparing and educating girls into womanhood. It is worn by a high-ranking member of the society referred to as ‘ndoli jowei’ by the Mende people or ‘a-Nowo’ by the Temne people.

Typical are the polished black finish, rings around the neck, elaborate hairstyle and dignified facial expression - all considered to represent a woman at her most beautiful. It is part of a small collection donated by Arsene Henon, collected by his parents when they were colonial officials in Sierra Leone before 1967. PRM 1997.33.1

One of a number of African masks retrieved from storage and displayed as part of the VERVE project.


Object of Month

October 2013

Mask, Cameroon

This carved wooden mask is typical of the Bamenda-Tikar people of the central Cameroon grasslands. It was probably used in performances at mortuary ceremonies and other ritual occasions. It is worn on top of the head together with a disguise over the wearer’s face and body. The openwork headdress features an abstracted spider motif; in this region the earth spider, which lives underground, is traditionally considered to be a mediator between the human and spirit worlds.

The mask was collected by M. D. W. Jeffreys and presented to the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, from whom it was acquired by the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1942. PRM 1942.13.417

One of several African masks retrieved from storage and displayed as part of the VERVE: Need / Make / Use project.

Object of the Month - Sept.13


September 2013

Cobra mask, Sri Lanka

This carved and painted mask is a folk mask used in “demon dances” and comprises a female face surmounted with a cobra. It represents the snake maiden, probably Naga Kanya. The eyeholes for the wearer are subtly carved below the painted eyes. It is one of two masks collected by donated by Sir Stephen Montagu Burrows (1856–1935), an archaeologist and member of the Ceylon Civil Service, and donated by his widow Lady Isabella Cristina Burrows in the year of his death. PRM 1935.36.1

One of a number of masks retrieved from storage and displayed as part of the VERVE project.

Object of the Month

August 2013

Model coracle, India

James Hornell (1865–1949) was an English zoologist and seafaring ethnographer, organising the Madras fisheries when he donated this object in 1923. Measuring 40 cm in diameter, it is an exact model of the one-man coracles made of cane and hide that he saw on the Kaveri River (a full-size version is displayed alongside this one). Hornell went on to travel much of Asia and Polynesia, and in the 1930s became the principal authority on small, indigenous watercraft including logboats, skin boats, canoes, kayaks, jar floats and even small ships. PRM 1923.56.9

One of several craft cleaned, treated and redisplayed as part of the VERVE project.

Object of the Month

July 2013

Spinning wheel, England

This spinning wheel dates to c.1800 and is only 85 cm high. It was made by Jameson, a known Yorkshire manufacturer, and it is operated by means of a foot treadle attached to a drive wheel with a wooden connecting rod (footman). Such a small wheel would not generate much momentum, and the hooks on the flyer are close together, so it would only be capable of spinning small amounts of fine thread such as silk or flax. Such light use points to it being a ‘boudoir wheel’, kept by an upper class woman in her bedroom to pass the time and as an object of fine craftsmanship.
PRM: 1940.9.18

Part of a collection of spinning wheels redisplayed as part of the VERVE: Need / Make / Use project.

Object of the Month - April 2013

June 2013

Caricature mask, Mexico

This carved dance mask of is a particular type in which foreigners are represented as caricatures in secular dance performances. This character epitomizes a class of itinerant traders from the Mediterranean, known locally as 'Arabe', and would have been recognizable to local people.  PRM: 1951.11.12 

Part of a collection of Central American masks to be displayed for the first time as part of the VERVE project.

Object of the Month

May 2013

Malangan, Papua New Guinea

Carved and painted wooden ornament with a central face and matching fish designs at the ends with green operculum shell eyes. Such objects are called malangan, a group of ritual objects particular to the New Ireland province of Papua New Guinea and used in complex mortuary rites and initiation ceremonies. The knowledge of how to make malangan carvings and the associated rituals is passed down within families.
PRM: 1899.62.401 .1

Part of a collection of malangan material to be redisplayed as part of the VERVE (Need Make Use) project.

Visit the Need, Make, Use blog NMU logo