Notes from the Archaeology & Anthropology Collection

Notes from the Archaeology & Anthropology Collection

Oftentimes in collections work, we come across items that surprise us… a long-lost catalog record, a document that answers a burning question, a work of art we did not know we had, … a poisoned arrow? Three poisoned arrows, to be precise. I was going through the old Wesleyan Museum records (shout-out to Special Collections & Archives!) during my first couple of weeks here, and came across an old inventory from the 1950s that said “barbed poison arrows.” I asked around, but no one on campus seemed to have heard of them, so I assumed they had been lost or destroyed while the collections were in storage. My question eventually made its way to someone who used to work with the collections several years ago, and she remembered placing poisoned arrows in a drawer when she was here. I checked the inventory, and learned that at some point they had been moved to an open shelf, and do not look very distinct from the arrows stored around them. This was the day I got to send the University Librarian an email alarmingly titled, “Poisoned Arrows,” and started a conversation with Bill Nelligan of Physical Plant that sounded something like, “Hi, I’m the new collections manager. Nice to meet you. Are you the appropriate contact for reporting poisoned arrows?”

 

The two barbed arrows in the center, (1972.51.1-.2) as well as the dark wood-tipped arrow to the right (1898.1260.1) are all labeled “poisoned” in an inventory from 1957.


The
 use of poisoned arrows has been documented in many parts of the world, including Africa, South America, and the South Pacific. And Wesleyan is not alone — other museums have documented poisoned arrows in their own collections. The toxins applied to the arrows vary depending on their place of origin and the cultural practices of the societies that use them. Some are treated with the alkaloids or saps of poisonous plants[1], while others are treated with the venom found in insects, snakes, or dart frogs. The toxins are often lethal, and depending on their viscosity, the toxins can remain potent for more than 1,000 years [2]. Still others were treated with magic or ceremony in ways that made them “poisonous” to their creators, but do not actually contain any scientifically identifiable compounds that could be detected in a lab [3] (illustrating a fascinating disconnect between the worldviews of the arrows’ creators and the Europeans and/or Euroamericans who collected them).

Our records indicate that these poisoned arrows are from the Solomon Islands, but do not provide any information on what toxins may have been applied to them. I am still researching this, and am working on a storage solution that will minimize the risks to anyone handling them. I will also be adding more prominent signage, and exploring ways we can safely investigate the nature of the toxins.

 

Needless to say, collections work is as exciting here at Wesleyan as I had hoped! Had I not come across that old inventory, I would never have thought to look into this. As if we needed another reason to love our archives, now you know that using them may literally save your life.

 

The two barbed arrows and the wood-tipped arrow to their right will be moved to a custom-built box later this winter.
 

References:

[1] Cheney, Ralph H. (1926) The Ancient and Modern Use of Plant Arrow Poisons. The Scientific Monthly 23(6): 552-555.

[2] Poisoned Arrows from Assam and Burma (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/p/poisoned-arrows/

[3] Samson, Jane (2018) Poisoned Arrows and Poisoned Ethnographies from Victorian Melanesia. In South Seas Encounters: Nineteenth-Century Oceania, Britain, and America. Edited by Richard Fulton, Stephen Hancock, Peter Hoffenberg, and Allison Paynter, pp.37-60. Routledge, New York.