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Tattooing comb

Tattooing comb

Place: Tahiti & Society Islands
Category: Tools

wood, bone, plant fibre, Tahiti and the Society Islands, l. 15.5 cm (handle), 3.3 cm (blade), Inv. Oz 436

Humphrey No. 176 to 178: ‘Three instruments of different sizes, each composed of a small handle of wood to which is strongly fastened one or two pieces of bone, made very thin, and having the extreme edge finely toothed like a Comb, except that the teeth are not so long, and are made very sharp. With these the Natives of Otaheite and of the Society Isles indent or mark their bodies in a variety of curious figures in dotted lines, by striking the teeth of them through the Skin; using a larger or smaller instrument according to the figure intended, which is done in the following manner: The performer taking one of the instruments above described between the thumb and the fore-finger of the left hand (laying the finger in the grove that is purposely cut in the handle in order to its being held the steadier) dip the teeth of it into black dye, and fixes them on the part intended to be marked; this done the operator gives the instrument a smart stroke or two on that part of the handle nearest the toothed part, with...’ [‘a kind of battledore...’ cf. below, Humphrey No. 179 = Oz 440].

The tattooing comb consists of a wooden handle with a comb-like blade made from bone at right angles to it, rather like an adze. (cf. Oz 437-439).

The handle, made of dark brown wood, is almost triangular in cross-section and widens towards the grip end. Here, it has an indentation about 2 cm long. The blade, composed of two flat, almost symmetrical fragments of bone, probably had about thirty teeth; however most of these are broken off. Both halves of the blade are tightly fastened to one another with strings made of plant fibres threaded through two perforations situated each at the same height. The lashing joining the shaft to the blade is made of the same brownish fibres. The blade and parts of the lashing, as well as the handle where it meets the blade, are all dyed black. Specimen Oz 436 is the largest of the four tattooing combs (Oz 436-439) from the Humphrey catalogue and the Forster legacy. In contrast to these however, it corresponds more to a fifth specimen (Oz 435) from the Alte Sammlung (Old Collection) of the Akademisches Museum which, however, cannot be traced back to Cook’s voyages. This tattooing comb Oz 435 came to Göttingen from the Hamburg Museum Boltenianum in 1819.

The tattooing specialist tahu’a tatau, pressed the tattooing comb into the skin with the help of a spoon- or spade-shaped tattooing mallet made of wood. The blue-black dye used was obtained from the soot of the nut, tiairi, of the candlenut tree (Aleurites triloba), mixed with water and/or coconut oil.

A very early illustration showing tattooing combs corresponding to the Göttingen specimens may be found in Parkinson (1773:75, 5, PI. 13, Nos. 3 and 4). The participants of all three Cook voyages noticed ‘marks of tattou’ (Beaglehole 1955, l: 112) on the inhabitants of the Society Islands. A detailed description of the tattoo patterns exists from as early as Cook’s first voyage: ‘Some have ill-designed figures of men, birds or dogs; but they more generally have a Z either plain - as is generally the case with the women on every joint of their fingers and toes and often round the outside of their feet - or in different figures such as squares, circles, crescent, etc., which both sexes have on their arms and legs; in short, they have an infinite diversity of figure in which they place this mark ... all the islanders I have seen (except those of Oheteroa) agree in having the buttocks covered with a deep black. Over this most have arches, which are often as high as their short ribs, and neatly worked on their edges with indentations, etc.’ (Banks 1896: 129).

The blackening of the buttocks, toumarro, has been particularly emphasised in illustrations and texts in the literature sources (cf. Agthe 1969: 68, Joppien/Smith 1985, l: 149 and Forster in: Hoare 1982, II: 357). The overall black pattern for tattooing the buttocks was also closely linked to the designs on early barkcloth from Tahiti (D’Alleva 1995: 33). Moreover, stylised representations of animals and the human figures as mentioned by Banks (1896: 129) also appeared. According to Gell (1993: 143), these were evidently related to the concept of incest and to those fairly numerous images appearing in the iconography of the Tahitians in the form of ‘Siamese twins’. Such representations of figures (ti’i potua ra’au: ‘back-to-back wooden images’) could have been evidence of the closest form of endogamy occasionally practised in the ruling houses in order to preserve the dynasties: the marriage of siblings related by blood. They probably symbolised divine power, omnipotence, and invulnerability (cf. Thomas 1995: 108).

Tattooing is described for Polynesia in summary form in Gell (1993) and, especially for the Society Islands, in Roth (1905). Comparable objects are to be found in the collections in Vienna, Stockholm, Dublin, Cambridge, Oxford, London, Berne and Wellington, New Zealand (cf. Urban 1965: 70; Kaeppler 1978a: 134). Gundolf Krüger


Agthe, Johanna, Die Abbildungen in Reiseberichten aus Ozeanien als Ouellen für die Völkerkunde (16-18 Jahrhundert), 2 vols, Arbeiten aus dem Institut für Völkerkunde der Universität Göttingen, Göttingen, 1969.

Banks, Joseph, Journal of the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Banks During Captain Cook’s First Voyage in H.M.S. Endeavour in 1768-71 to Terra del Fuego. Otahite, New Zealand, Australia, the Dutch East Indies etc., by Sir Joseph D Hooker, London, 1896.

Beaglehole, John Cawte, The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery. The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771, Hakluyt Society, Extra Series, 34, vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1955-1968 I.

D’Alleva, Anne, ‘Change and continuity in decorated Tahitian barkcloth from Bligh‘s second breadfruit voyage, 1791-1793’, Journal of the Pacific Arts, 1995, nos 11-12, pp. 29-42.

Gell, Alfred, Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia. Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oxford, 1993.

Hoare, Michael E, The Resolution Journal of Johann Reinhold Forster 1772-1775, 4 vols, The Hakluyt Society, London, 1982.

Joppien, Rudiger and Smith, Bernard, The Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages, 3 vols in 4 parts, New Haven and London, 1985-1988.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L, ‘Artificial Curiosities’ Being An Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook RN [Exhibition catalogue], Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1978a.

Parkinson, Sydney, A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas in his Majesty’s Ship, the Endeavour, London, 1773.

Roth, H Ling, ‘Tatu in the Society Islands’, The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, London, 1905, vol. 35, pp. 283-294.

Thomas, Nicholas, Oceanic Art, Singapore, 1995.

Urban, Manfred, ‘Tahitische Tatauiergeräte. Belegstücke aus der Göttinger Cook-Sammlung’, Baessler-Archiv, Neue Folge, 1965, vol. 13, pp. 59-72.

Related artefacts

Tattooing comb, Inv. Oz 437
Tattooing comb, Inv. Oz 438
Tattooing comb, Inv. Oz 439