The prehistoric artist who created this mortar has wrought an organic and undulating form reminiscent of an opening flower by hammering and pecking at the hard stone surface. The hammer dressing and surface pounding would have taken weeks or months of concerted effort. The artist’s vision is all the more impressive when considering his toolkit probably consisted simply of other stones held in the hand. The production of such a sculpture would have been bone-jarringly exhaustive as the surface was worked into shape by pulverising it with successive heavy blows.
According to the Chimbu (Simbu) people who sold this mortar to an Australian patrol officer at the Gumine patrol post in 1959, it was discovered in the bank of a stream many years, or perhaps generations, earlier. The patrol officer, Ian Burnet, gave the work to his father Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Nobel Prize recipient in the field of medicine in 1960, who worked in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea (1949–75) and appreciated the arts of New Guinea.
This curious and inexplicable find was incorporated into the ritual life of the Chimbu and used for an aggressive purpose: as a supernatural aid in warfare. When preparing for war, Chimbu fight leaders would commune with the mortar after activating its magical power by spitting upon it. The stone mortar was kept in a small hut hidden in the bush and was given the name Bugla ma’a’agll (pronounced bula-ma-a-al) which may further indicate another facet of the mortar’s use by the Chimbu people. The first part of the mortar’s name, ‘bugla’ refers to pigs and is a prefix used when describing cult items associated with staged pig feasts (bugla ingu).
In the collection of the Museum of World Cultures, Frankfurt, are the only other known three mortars in this style—and only one of which remains as sculpturally intact as the National Gallery of Australia’s recent acquisition. These other mortars, also collected in the Simbu province, are recorded as being a form of watchman for the men’s meeting house; the mortars were a dwelling place for the soul of the ancestors whose power protected the men’s house. During times of trouble, this power could be transferred to men of the community by placing an offering of pig’s liver into the mortar before eating it.
With no oral or written history of stone mortars, pestles and sculptures, such as the Gallery’s well-known Ambum stone, these objects of Papua New Guinea’s prehistoric past have long remained mysteries. This situation has changed. Advances in archaeological techniques and equipment have enabled archaeologists across Papua New Guinea, and elsewhere in the Pacific, to piece together a better picture of the past. We now know more about the distribution and the type of landscape in which these objects are found, when they were made and used and their stylistic variation.
These stone mortars mainly come from eastern New Guinea, New Britain and New Ireland. In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, archaeologists have excavated mortars in sites that date between 3000 and 8000 years ago. Why they ceased to be used about 3000 years ago is not yet understood.
This was a dynamic time in the prehistory of Papua New Guinea. Not only had contact between the north coast and the highlands become difficult with the infilling of the Sepik-Ramu inland sea, but social networks on the north coast may also have changed as people moved into the Bismarck Archipelago from eastern Indonesia. These same changes may be why the Ambum stone from Enga in the highlands was left buried 3500 years ago.
In the highlands, lowlands, coastal New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago, mortars and pestles occur in agricultural landscapes suitable for growing taro. They do not occur in areas where yams or bananas are the staple crop and they are generally absent from forest country. It is likely that mortars and pestles were used to process taro and nuts into a paste-like pudding on ceremonial occasions.
Considering the stone mortar Bugla ma’a’agll’s original use by a prehistoric society, followed by an unknown aeon resting beneath the earth until its discovery by the Chimbu people and appropriation into their ritual life, it is remarkable that this mortar has remained so beautifully intact.
The Pacific Arts collection holds a small number of important Papua New Guinean prehistoric stone works including finely designed pestles from New Britain, another rare mortar from the Sepik River region and, of course, the Ambum stone.
in artonview, issue 59, spring 2009