In September, 2019, ensconced in a comfortable hotel room in Cairns after an exotic Thai meal and a hot shower, with a suitcase full of wood carvings, dirty washing and a fine big earthenware cooking pot, Brunyfire’s PNG sojourn with Mr TN (aka Aaron Smith, editor of Torres News) already seems far away. Another month has gone by, but it only seems like a heartbeat ago that the Intrepid pair had set off – he from TI (Thursday Island) and Brunyfire from Tassie (Tasmania) to meet up for a jaunt in the jungle.
Organised through PNG Frontier Adventures, a trip up PNG’s Sepik River has been a Brunyfire bucket list item for a long time, primarily to call in at the pottery making village of Aibom on the Chambri Lakes.
This latest research trip is driven by Brunyfire’s passion for collecting traditional clay cooking pots of the world whilst they are still being made and before the traditions of their production and use dies out. PNG is a nation in transition from its isolation in the 19th century, through colonialism, to it’s independence in 1975, and this is reflected in its cooking vessels. For example, in some of the remote villages along the Sepik that we visited, traditionmal clay cooking pots are still in use, whereas in towns and the nearby villages they are being displaced by more convenient aluminium vessels. Those clay cooking pots that are still being made however, still abide by the age old techniques of production as we were to discover in the village of Aibom.
The research for this trip was informed by Margaret Tuckson and Patricia May’s definitive work, comprehensively presented in their book………….and whilst there was no way that Brunyfire could ever attempt to collect the pots outlined in this book, she did, nevertheless manage to visit the renowned pottery village of Aibom in the Chambri Lakes. Firstly though, and with a very tight schedule, the Intrepid Pair managed to dash into the National Museum and Art Gallery in Port Moresby……..…….to check some of the ceramics in the collection. The PNG National Museum and Art Gallery (NMAG) was built in 1975 and opened to the public in 1977. It houses artefacts from 19 provinces of the country that range from a full size canoe, traditional woven fish baskets, carving, headdresses and of course, pottery.
According to Tuckson and May, archaeological evidence has established the existence of pottery industries earlier than those existing at the time of contact. ‘Time of contact’ refers to the interaction the indigenous population of PNG had with other communities and at the time of European contact (circa the final years of the 19th century) the traditional cultures of Papua New Guinea were, and to a large degree, still are Stone Age – metal was an unknown material prior to European arrival.Pots like the above were produced some 2200 or so years ago and would have been found along the south coast of Central Province.
So the practice of pottery making and trading with pots, was already well established at the time of colonisation, the techniques of which was and remains, relatively simple. Basically, two methods are employed – coiling and paddle and anvil. A lovely example of the paddle and anvil* technique was this double spouted water pot…….………from Lahapau Village in Manus Province and identical to one featured in Tuckson and May’s book of a piece collected from the Admiralty Islands, also in Manus Province, in 1887 by a Captain Farrel.
The thin walled finesse of this pot is in marked contrast to the thick, coil built sago storage jars by the women potters of Aibom, in the Sepik River region. Pieces like the above are still being produced today as Brunyfire was to discover in the flesh!
*A method of smoothing and finishing the walls of hand‐made pottery vessels where a small stone or wooden ‘anvil’ is held against the inner wall of the vessel while a flat or curved wooden ‘paddle’ is used to beat the outer surface into shape.