Unless you are preparing for a career in biology, “Don’t cut yourself on the shark teeth” is not something you expect to hear from your professors during class. But this is a liberal arts university, where (as you probably know by now) anything is possible. It is where shark teeth work alongside primary source documents to teach us about history; where actual shark tooth swords point us to the colonialist roots of anthropology and museum collecting; and where shark encounters can occur, even on the 3rd floor of Exley. Welcome to Shark Week!
In Exley 301 (home of the Archaeology & Anthropology Collections), there is one object that never fails to catch a student’s eye during class visits. Made from a curved piece of carved wood, its most visually striking feature is the double row of razor-sharp teeth lashed along its length. It is one of five objects in our collection that are serrated with shark teeth, and attributed to the Gilbert Islands (now recognized as the independent nation of Kiribati), an island chain located in the western Pacific Ocean.
As with many of our early museum objects, we have little information for how these objects were acquired. Three were purchased from a private collector in 1868 and the other two were donated by the Missionary Lyceum in 1870. Missionary activity in Micronesia had drastically changed the role of warfare in village life during the 19th century; our records, however, provide no insights as to whether these objects were coerced from their owners, stolen, or given willingly. Their exotic and dangerous appearance would surely have galvanized the mission to Christianize the islands, and must have seemed to corroborate the violent fantasies of Western colonial imaginations. Today, these shark-toothed swords, clubs, and daggers are found in museums across the world.
It should surprise no one that sharks would constitute an important resource to peoples living on a Pacific atoll – and most implements in the Gilbertese armory incorporated shark teeth. Shark fishing demanded incredible knowledge and skill, and required marine travel to deeper and more dangerous waters to find them. The weapons look formidable, but in the context of their intended use, their bark was usually worse than their bite.
First, warriors fought in virtually impenetrable suits of armor woven from coir (the tough outer fibers of coconut husks). Those meaning to do lethal harm to their opponents would have to strike the neck, face, or other exposed area of the body. Even then, the shark tooth swords and clubs were more likely to inflict a painful injury than a mortal wound.
Second, the weapons were fragile – the shark teeth often broke upon impact, requiring constant maintenance and repair. The ones in the Wesleyan collection include both complete and broken teeth.
This particular object (1870.376.1) is a shark tooth sword (te toanea), and would have been used for hand-to-hand combat. It is likely made of coconut wood. Holes have been drilled through each tooth, and plant fibers are used to attach the teeth to splints along the shaft. Three sections of the sword (distinct by their darker fibers) have been outfitted with auxiliary blades, set perpendicular to the body of the sword. According to the conventions of war on the Gilbert Islands during the 19th century, the first weapon of choice was a long shark tooth lance or spear, which could be up to fifteen feet long. When fighting started happening at a closer range, these spears were exchanged for the shorter swords and clubs.
When you work in collections, you come to realize that one “object” is actually a vast web of meanings, capabilities, and identities. And this complicated biography is what makes it such a provocative teaching tool. This shark tooth sword is a fascinating and conspicuous implement of war, but it is also part of a warrior’s biography. It is a cultural belonging, imbued with the power of plant and animal beings in the Gilbertese community. It is a historical document of ecological diversity. It is an object of beauty. It is a trophy of the colonial enterprise.
As you reflect on all things shark this week — no matter what your major or expertise — stay open-minded, and allow your education to be drawn from the unlikeliest of places.
-Wendi Field Murray, Collections Manager and Repatriation Coordinator
Drew J, Philipp C, Westneat MW (2013) Shark Tooth Weapons from the 19th Century Reflect Shifting Baselines in Central Pacific Predator Assemblies. PLoS ONE 8(4): e59855. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0059855
Katz, Adria Holmes (1986). Corselets of Fiber: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gilbertese Armor. Expedition 28(3):54-60.
Luomala, Katharine (1984). Sharks and Shark Fishing in the Culture of the Gilbert Islands, Micronesia. pp. 1203-1250 In: Gunda, B. (Ed.). The Fishing Culture of the World. Budapest, Akademia Kiado.
Massing, Jean Michele (2006). In Arms and Armor: Battles in the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati). Pacific Arts 1:44-53.
Murdoch, G.M (1923). Gilbert Islands Weapons and Armour. The Journal of the Polynesian Society 32(3):174-175.