Lime Spatula/Currency Holder (Gabaela or 'Nga)

Massim region

Not on view

This ceremonial lime spatula or lime stick is known as wonamo jilevia – literally "tortoise-shell" – in Vanatinai, the island in the Massim region of southeast Papua New Guinea where it was most likely made. Lime spatulas are usually employed to bring lime made of burnt coral to the mouth, where it adds to a mix that also consists of betel nut (Areca catechu) and betel pepper leaves or inflorescences (Piper betle). The resulting mix is a mild stimulant consumed in many parts of southeast Asia and the western Pacific, as well as throughout the Massim region, where betel nut chewing is a common practice.

The lime spatula is made out of sea turtle shell, thinly cut and embellished with incisions. The shell is translucent and has varying shades of brown, raw sienna and yellow tan. The end that corresponds to the handle of the lime spatula is shaped as a crescent, curving down to each side of the spatula’s shaft. The shaft stems from the inner center of the crescent, tapering towards its rounded tip. The outer part of the crescent has small holes punched all along its length. Original decorations would have included small flat disks made from red Spondylus shells sewn together through the spatula’s perforations around the perimeter of the crescent-shaped handle. The inner part of the curved handle is incised with interlocking scroll patterns. Its extremities bend towards the shaft and are attached to it through two curvilinear motifs carved out of the turtle shell to each side of the shaft. Two stylized bird heads, incised with long, straight beaks facing away from each other, separate the top part of the shaft from the center of the crescent handle.

Lime spatulas such as this one are not used to chew betel nut. Instead, they are part of a set of ceremonial valuables used in a number of rituals in the southern part of the Massim region. Together with greenstone axe blades and shell valuables, ceremonial lime spatulas decorated with red shell disks are traded following the exchange networks that crisscross the Louisiade Archipelago. Inter-island expeditions are mounted every year where women and men sail in outrigger canoes in search of wonamo jilevia lime sticks and other ceremonial currency items to fulfil their mortuary or bride wealth obligations. These type of lime spatulas are considered to be a support for the presentation of the truly valuable item, the red shell disks that are strung into it, in the same way as the carved wooden handle of an axe is a support to carry and display valuable greenstone blades throughout the Massim. The more shells on the lime spatula the more valuable the object is considered, conveying the high rank of the person who gives it away on occasion of a special ritual. Ceremonial lime sticks can also be made out of carved wood in the same shape as the tortoise shell ones, in which case they are known as ghenagá in the language of Vanatinai (also known as Sudest or Tagula Island).

In some parts of the Louisiade Archipelago, these ceremonial lime spatulas are given human-like characteristics, with different sections of the spatula associated to parts of the body. When looking at the spatula with the crescent on top, the rows of shell disks sewn onto the outer edge are identified with the hair of a person. The central part of the crescent is associated to the chest, whereas the extremities to each side of the shaft are the arms. The shaft can be related to either the nose, the penis or the foot. When looking at the spatula upside down – with the crescent part at the bottom – people liken it to a dugout canoe instead. In this case, the shaft corresponds to the canoe’s mast and the crescent corresponds to the gunwales of the dugout. Viewing the lime stick as a person or as a canoe is in line with Massim ideas that attribute personhood to objects and the capacity of people to act through them. As such, ceremonial lime spatulas convey ideas of mobility, status and memory.

Sergio Jarillo de la Torre, Sylvan C. Coleman and Pam Coleman Memorial Fund Fellow, 2017

Further reading

Maria Lepowsky ‘Sudest Island and the Louisiade Archipelago in Massim Exchange’ in Jerry W. Leach and Edmund Leach (eds.), The Kula. New Perspectives on Massim Exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1983)

Deborah Battaglia ‘Projecting Personhood in Melanesia: The Dialectics of Artefact Symbolsim on Sabarl Island’ in Man, New Series 18(2): 289-304 (19

Lime Spatula/Currency Holder (Gabaela or 'Nga), Turtle shell, Massim region

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