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The Reverend GH Eastman collected the helmet from the Gilbert Islands in Kiribati that is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (between Australia and Hawaii). Eastman thought that the local name for the helmet was Tauti but this may just refer to the fish. In other places the helmets are called Tebarantauti.
It was probably made in the early 1900s (making it around 100 years old) and collected by the Reverend between 1919 and 1944.
From the 17th to the 19th century war was quite common between different groups on the Gilbert Islands. The Gilbertese (the people of the Gilbert Islands) used the porcupine fish to make head dresses for warriors to wear during these times.
Gilbertese boys were raised to be warriors. From an early age they were taught how to use daggers, lances and throwing sticks. Between the ages of 20 and 25 a boy went through a series of ceremonies to become a full warrior (or roro-buraka). After this he received his first adult weapon - a coconut-wood lance with a double edge of shark's teeth. The teeth were tied into place with a kind of rope made from one strand of coconut fibre and one of the boy's hairs, taken during a hair-cutting ceremony.
The helmet and lance were part of a full suit of armour. It was mainly made from plaited coconut fibre (coir) and was made up of a short shirt, trousers and a cuirass or coat. This had a back plate that protected the head from coral rocks. These were thrown at his enemy by his female relatives who would stand behind him.
Despite not being made from metal, which wasn't available, his armour was very heavy and made movement difficult. Therefore
each warrior had an assistant who passed him his weapons.
Yes. If you look at this image carefully you can see the fish's tail. Porcupine fish are usually found near coral reefs where they feed on crustaceans and molluscs. If a larger fish tries to eat the porcupine fish it puffs itself up by swallowing water or air. This can double or triple its size in a few seconds. This causes its sharp spines to stick out, making it impossible for the attacker to swallow it. Some species of porcupine fish can grow to 90cm.
The warrior uses this 'puffing' ability to make the helmet. The fish is caught, left to inflate then buried in sand for about a week. When it is dug up the fish looks like a hard ball. Then it is cut open to make a hard, head-shaped piece that can be used as a helmet.
Yes, it is delicate and has needed conservation work by staff here at National Museums Liverpool.
First the helmet was vacuumed lightly and cleaned. Then broken pieces were reattached with a conservation adhesive (glue), and cracks and missing spines were filled with a wax mixture (see the image). Next, the skin of the fish was softened so it could be reshaped before splits were repaired. This was done by humidifying it (making it damper without wetting it). It was then held in position with special clamps while it dried and hardened again. Very thin leather was used to support the splits, and painted to match the fish skin.
Careful handling, proper support, and the right environment will reduce the risk of future damage to the helmet.
You can learn more about conservation work at National Museums Liverpool here.
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