A Digital Curiosity Cabinet

Archive for November, 2014

Statue from Easter Island, British Museum

Moai Figure, ©  British Museum, London

Moai Figure, © British Museum, London

The people of Easter Island, Polynesia built many giant statues called moai. This one is called Hoa Hakanai’a, which means ‘hidden friend’. It would have originally been painted red and white. The moai ranged in height from four to 33 feet, and in weight up to 80 tons. The statues were first discovered by Captain Cook when he visited Easter Island in 1774. The statue was built around 1000AD by the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island.  The Rapa Nui people believe that the Moai statues represent the deifed spirits of their ancestors. They made these colossal statues in a quarry with stone tools and transported them up to 11 miles across rough terrain without the use of wheels, cranes or large animals. How did they do it? If you ask the Rapa Nui Islanders, they will tell you that the statues walked by themselves. According to Suri Tuki, a local islander, ‘The experts can say what they want, but we know the truth. The statues walked.’

In 1987, Charles Love lead a team of US archaeologists, who built a wooden sledge to move a 13 foot moai on wooden rollers. They managed to move a nine ton model of a moai 148 feet on the sledge in two minutes. However, recent research by the National Geographic society shows that it was indeed possible to make the statues walk, with a little help from some rope and some strong men. The fat bellies of the statues cause them to tilt forward, and the D shaped base allowed the handlers to rock the moai from side to side and gently edge them forward. A team of 18 people managed to move a 10 foot, 5 ton Moai replica a few hundred yards using strong rope. So it seems like the people of Rapa Nui may have been right, all along!

Merman, British Museum

Merman, © British Museum, London

Merman, © British Museum, London

Many museums across the UK have mysterious creatures, called mermen in their collections. This merman was thought to have been ‘caught’ in Japan in the 18th century. The Japanese word for merman is ‘ningyo’, which literally means, ‘man fish’. Mermen have long held an important place in Japanese culture. One Shinto temple in Fujinomiya, Japan has a mermaid mummy that is thought to be 1,400 years old. According to one ancient Japanese legend, a fisherman caught a merman in his fishing net. The merman with its dying breath predicted a time of great prosperity, and a fatal epidemic. The fatal epidemic could only be prevented by owning a merman.

Another tale is of a young girl called Yao Bikuni. She eats the flesh of a merman and becomes immortal. She outlives several husbands, and then decides to become a travelling nun. After many centuries have passed, she becomes so miserable that she chooses to take her own life. After hearing these stories, suddenly everyone wanted a merman of their own! They were bought to display as curiosities in the 18th and 19th century. Ofcourse, these mermen were all fakes. Most of them are made of part monkey, and part fish moulded together.

This merman is made of the dried up parts of a monkey, with a fish tail. It is probably mounted together on a wooden support. It was donated to the British Museum by Prince Arthur of Connaught in the early 20th century.