Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Haguet: fish hook pendants

Saipan Triguy, Lewie T. asked about hooks that the ancient Chamorros used for fishing on a comment on one of my earlier posts. On this post, I'd like to share with you a bit on what I found out for myself regarding this topic as I also wanted to experiment with making fish hook pendants.

Fish hook pendants are very popular nowadays since they look quite masculine, evoking feelings of strength, skill, prosperity and a cultural connection to the vast blue sea. The most popular designs are based on functional and contemporary Polynesian designs, especially from Aotearoa (New Zealand).

The ancient Polynesians did not have metal on their islands so other materials that were hard yet be carve-able were used for their fish hooks or matau. Materials such as shell, wood, human bone, and whale bone and teeth were utilized much like in Micronesia.

Because of their popularity though, there are a lot of low-quality mass produced Polynesian-style carved hooks that you can practically find in any tourist shop or on the internet. Even admiring a decent looking matau in Waikiki’s International Market did not guarantee an “authentic” Polynesian hook as I was told, “No. This one is made in Thailand.” Here are two pictures of a bone Maori-style matau that my good friend Greg M. got while vacationing in Bali. It doesn't look too bad really, and it even has some nicely carved designs on the bottom of it.
I like the stories though that come along in obtaining a unique piece. A lot of people belive that these special pendants contain Mana or spiritual power and the essence of the maker and then the wearer. I am really a big fan of the Polynesian matau designs and will probably make some in the near future. How did the ancient Micronesians design their fish hooks? I asked this question as I explored the idea of making my first hooks based more on ancient Chamorro or Micronesian designs.

Like the Polynesians, the ancient Chamorros also used shells, wood, bone, and teeth to manufacture this very important tool that was relied on for obtaining food from the sea. The Chamorro word for hook is haguet. (Incidentally, haguet is very similar to the Tagalog word for hook, kawit or kalawit, again showing an Austronesian connection in the languages.) The most abundant fishing hook artifact that archeologist have found are made from tree oysters or tooth pearl shells from the family Isognomonidae.

Isognomons are closely related to pearl oysters (Pinctada sp.) and are bivalves that are flat compressed-shelled animals that encrust rocks and mangroves. Their interiors are pearly. Here are a couple of tree oysters that I have found on Saipan:

This is Isognomon ephippium or saddle tree oyster (Linnaeus, 1758) which I found in Luta (Rota, CNMI) in August 2005. It usually grows up to 12 cm wide but this specimen is about half of that. Its exterior is dark and black and the shell is flaky. Inside is beautifully nacreous (pearly) and tinged purple.

These are Isognomon perna (Linnaeus, 1767), also known as false pearl oyster or rayed tree oyster, that I found in Obyan Beach, Saipan. They are nacreous inside and their exteriors are an off-white color usually with broken brown radial stripes.
Here is a picture from the CNMI Museum of History and Culture, Saipan that depicts the process of making a haguet from an Isognomon shell. I really wish I had a better close up picture because you can see that the finished haguet looks very different from the actual sea shell.

The finished haguet is looks crystalline because the shell is ground down to expose the aragonite mineral of the shell. Isognomons produce a bimineralic shell composed of calcium carbonate (outer layer) and aragonite (inside later), a carbonate mineral. It is a hard substance and luminous to look at. Here’s a website with great diagrams of the shell: http://www.futura-sciences.com/fr/comprendre/dossiers/doc/t/zoologie-1/d/la-coquille-des-mollusques-memoire-de-lenvironnement_662/c3/221/p3/

Unfortunately, these shells are too difficult to fashion because of their crystaline structure which are too easy to chip and break when they get too hot from cutting or polishing. They are generally small shells as well which isn't ideal for making pendants.
Compound trolling hooks were also produced by the Micronesians. Again, I consulted The Catalogue of Prehistoric Micronesian Artifacts (Intoh) to look at some examples. The following pictures illustrate the shank part of the compound hook that is made out of the black-lipped pearl oyster, Pinctada margaritifera (Linnaeus, 1758). The shank is cut from edge of the shell and away from the hinge. These illustrations are from artifacts found in the Marshall Islands and Pohnpei.

This is a picture of a P. margaritifera valve that I found. It is bigger than the palm of my hands. It has a beautifully nacreous interior. Its natural beauty prevents me from cutting it into different pendants!

Here's an example of how a trolling lure would look complete. These lures are from Yap that can be found at http://www.pacificworlds.com/yap/sea/fishing.cfm.

The shank is supposedly shapped like a small fish and the pearl oyster is used to simulate a shiny silvery fish that bigger predatory fish would eat. The point itself could be composed of shell, haggan (sea turtle) shell, or bone.

This is my first attempt at a stylized compound trolling haguet. As you can see, it is not yet finished but I am using a piece of nigas (Pemphis acidula) found during a beachcombing expedition for the shank and a beef bone point. I inlayed a piece of rectangular Spondylus on the shank and will have to decide on how to bind all the parts together. I decided to use wood and bone because I really do not have (or have anough of) the actual materials that the islanders used according to the examples that I have seen.

This is my first completed stylized compound haguet also made of nigas (Pemphis acidula) and a beef bone point. I read later after I was done making this hook that nigas was a preferred hard wood for making compound hooks on other islands. That was pure luck! Nigas is so hard that it is called ironwood at some of those places.

Here’s a picture of nigas at Coral Ocean Point, Saipan. The common name is small-leafed mangrove, but it is not a true mangrove. Nigas is a coastal tree that you usually see living on jagged coastal rocks. I read that they can grow into medium sized trees at places, but I’ve only seen them in bush form on Saipan. I also read that they are over harvested in many areas because they make good bonsai trees. Driftwood from this tree is usually a rustic gray but when you cut, shape, sand and polish it, it comes out as a rich dark brown colored wood.

Compound hooks are hard to make, but I will spend some more time learning a better way to produce them. Bone hooks need a little more investigating since the material is not as dense and is easy to scratch. I will need to do more research on how to properly make them, and even maybe order a book about bone carving.

Spondylus was not made into hooks by the ancient Chamorros. I wanted to experiment though and see how these would look like or how they would act as I fashioned them into hook shapes. Now, I am not the first person to fashion Spondylus into hooks mind you. I don't think a lot of people attempt it though because a good piece of Spondylus is an uncommon commodity. I've seen some designs that look as if the artisan was afraid to cut it. Mindfully so I say, since I learned that the fear is well placed as I have lost a few good pieces in attempting the twists and turns of a haguet. It is not easy!

This is my first attempt on making a Spondylus hook. I made it very simple out of a very solid fragment which held a beautiful intense orange color. I paired it with a hima salape’ (giant clam money) and a Spondylus salape’ toggle. Hima is very dense and it chips and cracks when heated making it hard to cut and polish. It was my first attempt with the material and the salape’ has tiny cracks that I decided to keep anyway to remind me of the learning process that I go through in this new hobby of mine. It symbolizes struggle and the hardness and skill you gain going through trials.

Here is another design. This has a hima salape' toggle and a Spondylus salape' on the left side of the cord. It is supposed to represent your korason (heart) and your love for the island.
Lastly, this is another stylized Spondylus haguet. The piece that I cut this from didn’t look too promising when I found it, but I am glad that I took the time to grind off layers from it until I carefully got the sheen that I wanted. This is a favorite piece. I paired this haguet with a Conus miles, or soldier cone salape’ bead.

Thank you for letting me share once again.

The Beachcomber.


Lewie Tenorio said...

"Fish hook pendants are very popular nowadays since they look quite masculine, evoking feelings of strength, skill, prosperity and a cultural connection to the vast blue sea."
How about just wanting one for fishing? Just kidding. Great post.

Your post on putting together an adze replica got me looking for niyoron trees. Now I've got my sights set on finding me a nigas bush. Don't worry, I won't be doing any tree cutting, but it is good to know how these trees/bushes look and to now appreciate them for their uses. Good stuff...

Tamara said...

Great post...Ive said it before and I will say it again, your craftsmanship is awesome! Those are some beautiful pieces!!

Mark Vernaus said...

Interesting read and beautiful work!

The Beachcomber said...

Lewie: I am making some functional bone hooks too and would like to try their functionality one day. I've been talking to some people who are interested in testing out ancient fishing techniques like the use of different types of haguet, the haguet gamsom (octopus hook or lure), and the poiu (ancient chumming device). I’d like to get the right people together and maybe film the project for posterity.

I am glad that you like the information on the Commonwealth’s native trees. I will post a little later on the science of why we should plant more of the natives rather than being so “Flame tree-centric.” For more information, pick up a copy of the November-December Marianas Pride (MP) Magazine for an article on the native trees.

Tamara: Thank you!

Mark: I read that you worked in Aotearoa. Are you Māori? I am a big fan of Māori art and culture and it is a dream of mine to someday visit there. I’ve always wanted to make a Micronesian version (with locally found materials) of the Māori taiaha and mere. One day! Glad you like the post.

Jillian said...

Hi Beachcomber,

I'm currently conducting an archaeological experiment that involves the reproduction of shell fishhooks. I'm so happy I found this post--it was great fun to read! I'm having a really hard time working with pinctada margaritifera shells, and it would be great to hear about your experiences.

Drop me a line and we can chat?
(jillianswift at gmail)