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
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
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
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
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
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!