I recently visited the newly-redisplayed Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. Unfortunately I could see only the ground-floor space because of ongoing works upstairs, but it was really impressive nonetheless with some wonderful objects and interesting ideas presented with clarity. Although the old archaeology galleries in this room showed off a great range of the museum’s collections, the exhibits had got rather tired. Now the room is full of natural light and beautifully displayed objects.
A case tucked round the corner behind the new teaching space is filled top to bottom with nineteenth-century Fijian cannibal forks. I hadn’t come across these before, and was intrigued by the smooth, dark wood, elegant prongs and decorated handles of the anthropological objects. Alongside these are displayed replicated objects, made by members of the Department during a project lead by Alana Jelinek, AHRC Creative Fellow in the Creative and Performing Arts.
The replicated cannibal forks have been carved from white woods including sycamore and ash, so they make a dramatic contrast to the dark, shiny surfaces of the Fijian originals. The case is illuminated by a video of a making event, with audio of museum staff discussing the forks. I learnt that cannibal forks are surrounded by controversy, with a rich yet dangerous mythology that has perpetuated barbarous tales of the Fijian people.
A current view is that the forks were nothing to do with cannibalism, but were made to satisfy the curiosity and predilections of collectors who brought them back to European museums.
I took the opportunity to make my cannibal fork, inspired by the beautiful workmanship of the Fijian craftspeople who had carved theirs for the Museum’s Victorian benefactors. It is made on a piece of cherry from North Farm, West Overton and carved using a hatchet, pushknife and sloyd knife. Originally I intended to carve beads around the upper handle, but decided to give the fork a face after I saw some footage of the Kingsteignton Idol. The idol is a wooden Iron Age artefact, excavated in 1867.