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Art-Pacific (Carolyn Leigh - Ron Perry): Guide to Artifacts

Massim: Trobriand Islands and Kula exchange, Milne Bay Province, PNG

[Trobriand shield with very fine white lime, charcoal and red ochre detailed designs: 20k]

The Massim cultural area begins with Milne Bay at the east end of New Guinea and includes the island peaks of submerged mountains and coral ringed archipelagoes beyond to the southeast and southwest for as far as 300 miles (480 km). (1)

Massim art favors decorative 2-dimensional carving covered with low relief abstract designs. The incised elements are filled with white lime to emphasis detail. A major motif is curvilinear interlocking scrolls which some researchers believe could be derived from the early Dongson metalwork of southeast Asia.

Figure 1: Trobriand shield with incised and painted designs which some researchers have interpreted as female. Malinowski reported that many shields were left undecorated as only courageous warriors painted their shields. Painted shields were seen as a challenge and attracted many more spears. Photo and information courtesy of a private collection.

Other motifs include bands of zigzags and stylized birds, fish and animals, as well as some 3-dimensional carving of human figures. Shell discs, cowries, and tassels of seeds and beads dramatize the finesse of this beautiful art. The appeal of this classic style attracted collectors from the beginning of European contact.

Massim carving includes:

Figure 2: Trobriand yam house panel detail

[Trobriand panel with red, gold and white lime detailing in the wave designs: 43k]

[Trobriand girl in multi-colored layered grass skirt holding wooden bowl of food decorated with flowers: 16k]

Figure 3: Trobriand girl wearing traditional layered skirt, Kaibola Village, Kiriwina Island. Photo copyright Robin Leahy Hogdson, 1995.

Taro is the staple food, but yams are the status crop in the Trobriands. Yams are eaten at weddings, funerals and other ritual feasts. The July-August harvest is followed by two months of feasts and competitions before work on the next planting begins.

Yams are competitively displayed around the decorated yam storage houses in the plazas. Dance competitions and Trobriand cricket matches (2) are organized by the ranked chiefs with backing from their wives' matrilineal clans.

Funeral ceremonies and feasts are important. They take place over a period of months and often honor a group of deceased relatives. Sponsorship of a Massim mortuary feast signifies the heir's ability to assume both assets and debts of the deceased. This can include exchanges with a man's Kula partners and paying off his pig debts.

[Trobriand dance paddle: 28k]

Figure 4: Trobriand dance paddle

[Massim pig: 9k]

Figure 5: Pig carved in variegated ebony from Woodlark Island, typical of pigs carved for sale. We saw a similar pig in an exhibition of Malinowski's diaries and personal collection. (3)

The Trobriand Kula ring was one of many trade cycles in the South Pacific at contact. Ocean going outrigger canoes, often with sails, plied mostly short journeys between islands and the nearby coastal villages of New Guinea. The Trobriands and adjacent islands did not produce all their needs, so trading partners and voyages developed to exchange items. Two other rings operated along southern trade routes in the Massim area. Arm-shells were traded all the way to the Motu near Port Moresby. With the impact of European trade, many of these Pacific trade relationships vanished even from memory, but the Kula has adjusted and thrived. (4)

Figure 6: Massim Area and trade routes showing the direction of kula ring cycles. Necklaces travel clockwise, arm-shells counter-clockwise.

[map of Massim area, kula ring and other trade routes: 10k]

[drawing of cut shell armband mwali and attached shells: 2k]

Figure 7: Sketch of Trobriand mwali armshell with attached egg cowry shells

Valuables exchanged in the Kula Ring:

[Amphlett Island large bowl with incised rim and attached fillets and head: 18k]

Figure 8: Amphlett Island pot (kuria) has typical thin walls and rim with incised designs, attached fillets and animal head. This very large pot still has sago encrusted inside.

Amphlett Island pottery includes very large pots which are traded for vegetables and pigs from more fertile areas. Other islands and coastal mainland villages were expert manufactures of stone axes, sea-going canoes, necklaces and arm-shells, harvested yams, sago or betel-nut, or supplied raw materials like red ochre, obsidian and parrot feathers.

[Rossel Island betel-nut basket with plaited design in grey-green and gold: 18k]

Figure 9: Rossel Island plaited basket for carrying betel nut paraphernalia. Sometimes these baskets have a false bottom and are sold as "thieves baskets".

Other Massim betel nut baskets include the Trobriand envelope-shaped basket plaited from a single coconut frond and sets of 3 nested baskets with a carry strap made of plaited pandanus and banana leaf. Nuts could be hidden in the bottom basket if a man didn't want to share them.

Figure 10: Betel nut lime spatula, blade type, decorated with cowry shell and red trade beads. More decoration, perhaps bead and seed tassels, would have hung from the other holes.

[Trobriand betel-nut lime spatula decorated with red trade beads: 9k]

Lime spatulas are usually carved from hard black wood (ebony) which gets a nice patina with use. The style may show a person's rank. For example, the clapper type is restricted to chiefs and sorcerers. Its handle is cut into two sections which create a sound when knocked on a firm surface. Some types of handles have superb figures created by master carvers. These sculptural qualities have made lime spatulas a favorite of collectors.

[Lime gourd with decorated band around middle and pig tusk stopper: 21k]

Figure 11: Trobriand gourd lime container with stopper made of rolled up leaf covered with fine basketwork. The pig tusk and the band of burnt-in designs are typical of 20th century styles. Coconuts with wooden stoppers were also used. The powdered mineral lime is chewed with betel nut. At contact, special lime pots and spatulas were made from the skulls and bones of deceased relatives. (6)

Footnotes include more information on:

  1. Massim history and culture
  2. Trobriand cricket
  3. Bronislaw Malinowski
  4. Kula exchange
  5. Bagi at Village Arts, POM
  6. Betel nut
  7. Alternate spellings and terms

[Highly patinaed Trobriand ebony betel-nut mortar with bird design and pestle with man's head: 11k]

Figure 12: Massim betel nut mortar and pestle with old patina. The pestle has a man's head carved on top. The mortar is a barrel form with a typical S-shaped bird design which may represent a frigate bird or a fish hawk. Other distinctive mortar shapes are drums and canoes.


Links in this site:

Books used to research this article.

[Trobriand ebony fish paint palette: 14k]

Figure 13: Paint palette is typical of Massim carvings in ebony.


  1. First contact was made in 1606 by the Spanish explorers, Torres and Prado. Pearl divers came from the Torres Strait in 1865. Massim is probably a corruption of Misima, one of the islands where the discovery of gold in the late 1800s brought many Europeans to the area. Missionaries arrived. Traders dealt in artifacts, which even at that early date were being produced for sale.

    The Massim speak Melanesian (Austronesian) languages except on Rossel. They are matrilineal which is unusual in New Guinea, except on Goodenough which is patrilineal. Women live in their husband's village, but are ceremonially presented with the largest share of the yam harvest from their own group's land by their brothers. Sorcery and witches, including "flying witches" (mulukwausi) were known and feared.

    Northern Massim: Trobriand Islands (Kiriwina, Tuma, Kaileuna, Kitava, Vakuta), Amphlett Islands, Marshall Bennett Islands and Woodlark Island

    Southern Massim: Milne Bay area, D'Entrecasteaux Islands (includes Goodenough, Fergusson, Normandby and Dobu) and the Louisiade Archipelago (includes Misima, Sudest, Rossel)

  2. Trobriand Cricket: An Ingenious Response to Colonialism, the 1979 award-winning film directed by Gary Kildea and Jerry Leach, documents the transformation of British cricket by the Trobriand Islanders to suit themselves.

    Methodist missionaries introduced cricket in 1903 to replace ritual warfare. Trobriand adaptations reflect their own values. For example, the home team always wins and is also responsible for hosting the feast/food exchange. Team sizes are adjusted to include as many men as possible.

    Themes from traditional Trobriand combat were integrated into the game. War paint became team colors. Entry and exit dances were based on war formations and chants. Later teams like Airplane incorporated formations modeled on airplanes taking off. Spells for spears were modified for use with cricket bats.

  3. Bronislaw Malinowski was a major figure in the development of modern anthropology. He lived with the Trobriand people for several years during WWI and used the local language in his fieldwork. His methods became the major research techniques of anthropological investigation.

    His Argonauts of the Western Pacific documented the Trobriand reciprocal trading and exchange cycles known as the Kula ring. Other long-term trading relationships existed throughout the Pacific at the time of European contact, but the Kula is the best known. Malinowski used it to document how complex social and cultural systems were linked by exchange and reciprocity.

  4. The Kula elaborated utilitarian trade partnerships to produce long term ties between partners over great expanses of time and distance. It is a competitive exchange of thousands of powerful shell valuables and other important items. Kula is conducted mostly by men, but now some women also kula. Kula participants still travel by canoe, but also by airplane or other modern transport. Michael Young reported 5 large Kula canoes tied up on a Woodlark Island beach in 1990. Villagers said 500 arm-shells had been on display. (Logging or Conservation on Woodlark (Muyuw) Island includes section on the strength of contemporary Kula in society around 1990, fieldwork by Michael Young, Australian National University).

    Kula is a closed system, but in practice valuables leak out. Kula pieces (kitomu) are either:

    Every successful man has Kula partners for life, some close by, but the most important far away. Men do not personally meet all the others in their specific cycle (keda), but they know their names and stories which are passed in the exchange of the powerful and magical valuables. It takes two to ten years for a shell to make the circuit. Older named pieces which have been around many times increase in value as they are owned by powerful men.

    Men on a Kula expedition are at physical risk from the sea and also at magical risk from witches and sorcerers. Perhaps the previous year in their village, they presented their visiting partners with necklaces. This year they fly across the waves in their own powerful Kula canoes to receive arm-shells.

    Men sailing to receive Kula valuables are seen as aggressive visitors by the men in the host village whose turn it is to give. The visitors are met with ritualized hostility that they must charm away, perhaps by giving lime spatulas and betel nuts that carry spells to induce their partners to give them good pieces. The visitors present themselves as physically beautiful which is equivalent to strength and immunity from danger.

    The hosts in this competition are seen as relatively passive and vulnerable to the strength, beauty and magical charms of the visitors. The host/victims comply because they know that the next time around it will be their turn to be the visitors/winners. Each man hopes that his own beauty and power will then compel his trading partner to give him the Kula piece he desires.

    On these annual voyages, when a man presents his partner with a valuable, it must be reciprocated with a gift of equivalent or greater value before too much time passes. Each man tries to hold on to the most valuable and greatest number of pieces for as long as possible. If a man keeps an important valuable for longer than a year or so, or takes it out of the ring, he can expect intense disapproval and perhaps sorcery. Valuables are kept in constant motion, encircling the scattered islands in rings of social and magical power.

    Young writes that Woodlark men would rather be important in Kula than in business, but that....

    Successful Kula traders and their villages typically achieve success and power in all areas. Once you have obtained a famous high-ranking shell your own name becomes known around the ring, on islands and in villages where you have never set foot, and other high-ranking shells will begin to come your way. As your own fame increases, so does the value of the shells you hold, for their unique histories of temporary ownership is remembered. In Kula, as in business, nothing succeeds like success. To be big in Kula is to be big in most other things. The fame of individual Kula traders enhances the name of their village; such a community then attracts settlers and visitors (Kula traders or otherwise), and as it becomes wealthier it grows in size and political influence.

  5. When Ron ran the government artifact shop, Village Arts, in Port Moresby in the 1970s, people would bring their bagi in to sell when they needed money for an important purchase. After the quality was determined, bagi was priced by the inch. Ron would put the necklaces in the jewelry display case. Other Trobriand people would come in to sell their artifacts, and if they had the money, they would buy the bagi for themselves.

    When he first started buying bagi, he didn't realize that some of it was made out of red plastic. The Trobriand people would go into abandoned government buildings and salvage the 220 electrical wire. They pulled the copper wire out and sliced the hard red plastic into disk beads, ready with holes for stringing into a necklace.

  6. Betel nut: the seed of the areca palm is chewed with the fruit or leaf of the betel pepper vine (Piper betle) along with burnt coral mineral lime. Alkaloids in the areca nut are released by the lime for a mild euphoria which is enhanced when chewed with the betel root, leaf or catkin fruit (all called daka in pisin). The palm seed is commonly referred to as betel nut or buai in pisin. To chew betel nut in pisin is to "kaikai buai." Betel nut sales are a major business in PNG.

    The mild stimulant produced by chewing betel nut is said to produce a feeling of well-being and good humor, decrease hunger pains and increase one's capacity for work. It may improve the breath, but it also colors teeth and saliva bright red. Some studies say it helps prevent tooth decay, but other studies show an increase in mouth cancer. A used wad of betel nut is spit out, not swallowed. For the non-user, this red spittle along left along paths and roads is the worst feature of this widespread habit.

  7. Alternate spellings and terms for:

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Melanesian art TOC | Map of art areas of Melanesia
Papua New Guinea: Highlands: body art - Bundi tapa - jewelry/dancers | Karawari and Blackwater Rivers: masks - carvings - map | Massim: artifacts- Trobriand Kula - map | Kula canoe | New Britain: Baining - Sulka - Tolai dukduk | New Ireland: Malagan | Ramu River: masks - carvings - map | Sepik River: masks - carvings - villages - map | Papuan Gulf: masks - carvings - map - Gogodala - Kukukuku
other areas: Asmat | Solomon Islands: crafts - jewelry - map
art and craft:
barkcloth (tapa) | body art | cane and fiber figures | canoes and prows | jewelry/dancers | masks - Middle Sepik | phallocrypts | pottery - Chambri | shields | story boards | suspension hooks | weapons | yam masks - fiber | yam masks - wood

Indonesian art TOC | Dyak baby carriers and masks | furniture | Java folk art | Lombok baskets | Lombok lontar boxes | masks from Bali and Java | puppets

China: Bai textiles/art TOC | baby carriers | baby hats | woodblock prints

Collecting New Guinea art in the field since 1964.

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Artifacts on this site were collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. Background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. by Carolyn Leigh is licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0