Pacific Reef Artifacts

The Oklahoma Aquarium partners with the Museum Science and Management and Anthropology departments of the University of Tulsa to provide funding for marine biology education. Each year, the aquarium hosts a TU student to produce grant applications for different educational projects. The grants received through this partnership funded the complete remodel of the aquarium’s education center, as well as transportation equipment for 300-pound loggerhead sea turtles. Staff from the aquarium and TU worked together on the graphics content displayed in the Polynesian Reef, and, most recently, acquired artifacts from the Pacific Reef region for the aquarium’s newest exhibit.  

“The Oklahoma Aquarium and the University of Tulsa have a wonderful community partnership which includes grant writing, internships, and shared knowledge,” says Ann Money, Director of Education and Research at the Oklahoma Aquarium. “The anthropology staff and graduate students of TU have provided insightful and culturally relevant information for the 1,000 Polynesian islands which the aquarium has incorporated into the interpretive graphics of the new Polynesian Reef exhibit.”

HISTORY OF THE PACIFIC REEF ARTIFACTS

People in the Pacific Reef region, including the people of Polynesia, commonly used items from the ocean in their everyday lives. 

On exhibit, you can see three examples of shell necklaces. These necklaces are from New Guinea, an island west of Polynesia. Each necklace displays the use of shell as decoration, all differing in size. The shells have holes drilled in them and are strung together using various kinds of string or twine. Some necklaces were simple, while others were more elaborate and had special meaning, being used for ceremonial purposes or as status symbols. 

While ocean imagery was very important to the people of Polynesia, they also depended on sea life for survival. Shark tooth weapons were an ingenious use of one of the few naturally hard and sharp objects from their environment. Men from the Gilbert Islands, an island chain west of Hawaii, used these weapons in warfare, ritual, and real combat. 

While the dates for these particular weapons are unknown, many are more than 100 years old and demonstrate different forms and functions. These items were cut from local coconut trees and the twine is made from tree fiber. Sometimes, actual human hair was used. The teeth have holes drilled into them and are placed along the edges of the coconut wood. They are then held in place with the twine. 

The weapons were just one part of the ceremonial suit, worn with a helmet and a complete set of armor. These were made using material from sea creatures such as puffer fish, sharks, and stingrays. 

The people of the Pacific reef also incorporated ocean elements into their rituals and ceremonies, particularly with symbolic imagery on religious pieces. These items combined ocean symbols and human imagery to show the relationship the people have with the ocean, and to acknowledge their dependency on what it provides. 

Each of these items is made of wood and mother of pearl, a type of shell. While they are all replicas, there were created by traditional carvers based on items from museum collections.

Loans courtesy of the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art, the Lois Stein collection, and Dr. Bill Pickering

Items on Exhibit: 

Shark Tooth Weapon

Coconut wood and fiber, shark teeth

Likely from the Gilbert Islands 

Date unknown

Shark Tooth Weapon 

Coconut wood and fiber, shark teeth

Likely from the Gilbert Islands 

Date unknown

Shell and Seed Necklace 

West Highlands, New Guinea

Kidjip Village

1960s-1970s

Shell Necklace 

West Highlands, New Guinea 

Kidjip Village

1960s-1970s

Shell Crescent Necklace 

West Highlands, New Guinea 

Kidjip Village

1960s-1970s

Ritual Bowl (miniature)

Solomon Islands

1976

Boy’s Dance Wand (formed like a war club)

Solomon Islands 

1976

Boy’s Dance Shield (pair with dance wand)

Solomon Islands 

1976

Thank you to Emily Casselman, University of Tulsa, for assistance in graphics contents for our Polynesian Reef exhibit.