A Ceremonial Paddle Club

At an auction near Providence, RI (USA)  I  recently won an item that was described in the auction listing as:  "A Tribal Chief's Paddle from the Western Pacific", which was sold next to a more certifiable Pacific paddle.  My dim mind registered this as a club of some kind, not a paddle.  It was carved from a very dense and heavy reddish "tropical hardwood" that could have been from the western Pacific (or Africa).  And I bought it.
The club (that's what I'm calling it) is a short one -- 30" long, with a blade that is 6 1/2" wide.  The blade is a maximal 3/4" thick with relatively sharp edges, and has a transverse carved rim or molding around its flattened end, and has a midrib on both sides of the blade.  The entire piece is carved from a single piece of wood.  The handle end, above a "hilt," is hexagonal in cross section, and bears some old (crude) saw marks.

  The most interesting feature (to my admittedly biological mind) is that the end of the handle is fashioned into an obvious serpent head, with a slightly opened mouth, and extended carved grooves to simulate a quite large mouth when fully opened.  This is the only overtly carved decorative detail on the piece (except for the carved molding at the other end of the club).  The mouth is partially packed with a caked and dry, very fine silt, that makes me think it had an encounter with some mud in the distant past.


 I am an aficionado of hand tools, and am familiar with examining tool marks on scrimshaw items (I volunteer as a tool specialist at the New Bedford [Massachusetts] Whaling Museum) and suspect that the tool marks (fairly crude saw and chisel marks) were certainly made by steel tools, but are similar to those that I see on late 19th century scrimshaw.
The reptilian head, combined with the broad flattened blade of the club, strikes me as turtle-like--although the head is much more snake-like.  The shortness of the club, plus its snake or turtle symbolism makes me think it to have been a ceremonial or "dance" club or paddle--but from where and of what age I had no idea.    So, after surfing the net for a few hours, examining all sorts of Polynesian "clubs" and "paddles", wrote to Richard Aldrich who has a great web site, New Guinea Tribal Art.   Not just selling site, Richard has a lot of instructive information about ethnographic material from the entire Pacific region--not just New Guinea.  In short order he responded to my email, letting me know that my item was a paddle club with origins in the general Amazon region of South America, and he enclosed a figure, showing a very similar club as pictured in the British Museum's Handbook for Ethnographical Collections.  Here it is--the club in the middle.  Richard further noted that mine was missing some of the woven and attached adornments on the handle, but that it surely dated from the late 19th century, and was not a recently made tourist item.

With this impetus I was able to find a dissertation from the University of Nebraska that had further figures of this style of paddle club, and assigned it to the region of the Guyana's (the old Guineas) of South America, noting that it was typical of the paddle clubs found from Cayenne (the capital of French Guinea), north and west through Surinam, and Guyana to the Orinoco River of Venezuela.

This club has a more snake head-like handle end than to the simpler triangular ends of the handles depicted in the handle in the above publications, and so was more likely to have a ceremonial as well as a martial function.  Examples of tribes using these clubs for ceremony as well as weapons include the Makusi, Oyana, and Wapishana.

There is more work to be done, but I certainly got my money's worth from this auction!


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