Prehistoric Stone Sculpture from New Guinea

  • Pestle Finial in the Form of a Bird
    1996.373.1
  • Bird Head
    1978.412.1504
  • Echidna Figure
    1984.123.1
  • Bird Figure
    1996.373.2

Essay

The earliest known works of Oceanic sculpture are a series of ancient stone figures unearthed in various locations on the island of New Guinea, primarily in the mountainous highlands of the interior. To date, no examples have been excavated from a secure archaeological context. Although organic material trapped within a crack in one example has recently been dated to 1500 B.C., firm dating and chronology for the figures are otherwise lacking.

The stone sculptures fall into three basic categories: mortars, pestles, and freestanding figures. The tops of many pestles are adorned with images of human heads, birds, or bird’s heads. The mortars display similar anthropomorphic and avian imagery as well as geometric motifs. Freestanding figures include depictions of humans, birds, and phalluses, as well as long-nosed animals that some scholars identify as echidnas (spiny mammals resembling hedgehogs). While the original significance and function of these stone images remain unknown, they possibly represent totemic species or ancestors and were likely used in ritual contexts. When found by contemporary New Guinea peoples, these early stone sculptures are often thought to be of supernatural origin and are reused in a variety of religious contexts, from fertility rituals to hunting magic and sorcery.

Eric Kjellgren
Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jennifer Wagelie
Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York

October 2001

Citation

Kjellgren, Eric and Jennifer Wagelie. “Prehistoric Stone Sculpture from New Guinea.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ngss/hd_ngss.htm (October 2001)

Further Reading

Newton, Douglas "Prehistoric and Recent Art Styles in Papua New Guinea." In Exploring the Visual Art of Oceania: Australia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, edited by Sidney M. Mead, pp. 32–57. Honolulu: University Press of Hawai'i, 1979.

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