Breastplate (Tema, Tambe, or Tepatu)

Date: late 19th–early 20th century

Geography: Solomon Islands, Santa Cruz Islands, Temotu province

Culture: Santa Cruz Islands

Medium: Tridacna shell, turtle shell, trade cloth, fiber

Dimensions: Diam. 7 3/8 in. (18.7 cm)

Classification: Shell-Ornaments

Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979

Accession Number: 1979.206.1519


The artists of the Santa Cruz Islands, which lie between the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, created distinctive breastplates, known as tema, tambe, or tepatu. Consisting of disks of Tridacna shell (the giant clam and related species) with openwork turtle shell overlays, tema were integral elements of the elaborate ceremonial attire worn by men at major dance festivals.

Although highly stylized, the imagery of tema is derived from the natural world. The white shell disk represents the moon, and the overlay incorporates stylized images of frigate birds, dolphins, sharks, and other species important in Santa Cruz religion. The lower end of the overlay here depicts a frigate bird, its forked tail appearing as an inverted "V" below a larger M shape representing the wings. The bird is surmounted by three pairs of arching forms, likely portraying sharks or dolphins.