Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Spear Foreshaft

late 19th–early 20th century
Vanuatu, Malakula
Big Nambas people
Wood, bamboo, fiber
W. 4 5/16 x D. 19 1/8 in. (11 x 48.6 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 354
Chiefs of the Big Nambas people of northwest Malakula Island formerly possessed a specialized category of spears that served as fearsome vehicles of retribution. Roughly ten feet (3 m) long, they consisted of a long bamboo shaft surmounted by a carved wood foreshaft such as that seen here, adorned with stylized faces representing powerful ancestors. The conical projection at the top once held a spear point of human bone, a supernaturally powerful material that increased the weapon's efficacy. A small portion of the original bamboo shaft appears at the base.
Owned and controlled by chiefs, these spears were used primarily by maho, a class of professional assassins dispatched by the chiefs to kill enemies in retaliation for
insults, infractions of customary law, or deaths caused by warfare or malevolent magic. The stylized facial features of the heads on the foreshafts are similar to those of the Big Nambas gable ornaments (p´naret).
[Matthias Komor, New York, until 1955]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1955, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1956–1978

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, no. 42.

Kjellgren, Eric. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007, 110, 186-7.

Kjellgren, Eric. How to Read Oceanic Art. How to Read 3. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014, p. 90.

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