Thursday, December 6, 2007


Recipe for ancient Chamorro adze replica

1 Tridacna adze head
1 L-shaped wooden handle
A few yards of Coconut fiber cord

Uh....What instructions? Don't you just put all three together and then "Bam!" you got yourself an adze?

Well, I wish it is that easy. In embarking in this creative journey, I often am reminded that putting together the ingredients or parts that you need for a project is sometimes one of the hard parts. Instructions and guidance is another quite illusive integer in the equation. This post is about a project that is still very much unfinished at this point because it is taking me a while to figure out the recipe. But join me, and we'll "talk stories" about this and about that!

I wanted to make my own replica of the ancient Chamorro adze. Gachai is the Chamorro word for adze according to the Chamorro-English Dictionary (Topping, Ogo, & Dungca) but I am not sure if it means the whole instrument or just the adze head. The gachai was the tool that the ancient people of the Marianas (in fact in Micronesian islands) to cut, chop and carve wood. Although it is easy to imagine it as an axe as I described it, think of it more being shaped like a hoe, with the cutting shaft or adze head almost perpendicular to the wooden handle. There is an abundant amount of Tridacna adze head artifacts left behind giving us a hint of how important this tool was for constructing houses, implements, and canoes. The gachai is composed of an adze head that served as the blade, a wooden handle, and to bind the two, some cordage most commonly made of coconut fiber, or gunot. So it was these three ingredients that I needed, and in the begining it seemed like such an easy undertaking.

The adze head
The ancient Chamorros utilized mainly the shell of mollusks for their adze head. The cutting shaft needed to be able to keep a sharp cutting edge and be hard enough to withstand a lot of hammering pressure. Shells of the spider conch or do’gas (Lambis sp.), large cone shells (Conus sp.) and the giant clam or hima (Tridacna sp.) were used for this purpose. I have seen pictures of haggan (sea turtle) bone used in other locales as well, but the hima was the most utilized in Micronesia.

There are a few species of hima in the waters of the Marianas, but the most abundant is Tridacna maxima (Röding, 1798), the elongate or maximum giant clam. It is not the largest of the giant clam family growing to only about 35 cm. in length. The bivalve shell is heavy, with pronounced radiating ribs that form concentric scales, and the edges are interlocking and scalloped. The shell exterior is off white or cream colored, sometimes tinged with yellow or orange, and the interior is white. The hima is a shallow reef dweller which makes it prone to it being overfished in many areas for food. Luckily for me, fragments of hima washes up readily on Saipan’s beaches, although finding a fragment big and solid enough is a challenge. (Please take note that it is illegal to take any live marine invertebrate on Saipan. Any harvest of hima must be done with a permit from the Division of Fish & Wildlife, Puerto Rico).

Here is a picture of a complete hima shell that I found in Obyan Beach, Saipan. It looks like it had been dead in the water for some time due to the encrustation inside and outside of the clam. It is a small specimen of 13 cm length and probably not thick or solid enough for an adze head.

I consulted The Catalogue of Prehistoric Micronesian Artifacts Housed in Japan (Intoh, May 1998) for some drawing examples of ancient adze heads. They had numerous illustrated examples from Saipan, Tinian and Rota, as well as Palau, Pohnpei, Kosrae, and the Marshall Islands. The illustrations showed me that the hima was cut with a cone shaped end and a flat end that was sharpened in to the cutting edge.

This is the hima fragment that I found at Wing Beach, Saipan and it is a 15 cm long fragment that I decided to use for my gachai. It is not much longer than first clam shown above but this one was more solid at about 1 cm thickness. As you can see, I’ve already cut it to a typical adze shape. It is still unfinished since I have not yet grounded and sharpened the cutting edge and the other end that lies on the handle shaft will need some shaping done to it so that it sits well. I feel that it is a good start though.

The handle
The handle for a gachai needs to be hard and be able to take some pounding. The ancients could have used a number of indigenous hardwoods that could be found in forest and coastlines. I happened upon a niyoron (Cordia subcordata) that was butchered near San Jose Mart and that’s how I got this handle. It’s such a shame that property owners don’t know the value of trees though. Niyoron is not a very dense wood, but I chose to use it for my gachai to teach people of its importance. The Hawaiians esteemed this wood above all especially in the making of wooden bowls or calabashes. They called it kou and venerated it more than the now popular koa (Acacia koa) at one time before it became a rare tree due to an insect infestation from the States that was accidentally introduced to the islands. Check out Jack Ewing’s website on woodturning in Hawaii and their native trees like the kou here (I am a big fan): I wish our own islanders were more educated and appreciative of the native trees here. Check out the new Marianas Pride (MP) magazine's November-December 2007 issue for more information in an article on native trees and their importance.

Here’s a picture of the beautiful orange flowers of the niyoron. Some people believe that orange was a venerated color to the ancient Chamorros because of the Spondylus salape’ beads that they adorned themselves with. I really want to start a petition to change the CNMI’s State Tree and/or State Flower into indigenous/native ones. Why not place the same importance or esteem to the niyoron? We need to start appreciating our local trees more and educate ourselves on their importance.

Here is the beginning of my gachai handle. It will need to be carved to accommodate the hima adze head, get sanded, sealed, and maybe stained. I may also put some Spondylus inlays and carve some ancient Chamorro symbols on the handle as well.
The coconut fiber cord
Now this part of the ingredients is hard to come by on Saipan. I don’t think anyone here makes gunot or coconut fiber cord anymore unless it is a very special occasion (for the construction of a traditional canoe or a canoe house for example). I have seen some for sale during cultural festivals from Yap, but a bundle costs about $80 to $100. Knowing what making this cord entails, I would have paid that much to get some to finish my project plus some others that I have rolling in my mind.
To make cord out of gunot, mature punot or coconut husks are buried under wet sand for several weeks so that the “flesh” rots away from the gunot (I think someone told me once that the rotten flesh of the punot was malodorous but I will have to verify. Can you imagine though?). The flesh is then pounded out to reveal the golden brown fibers that are then dried and made ready to be rolled into cordage. A good friend, Jean Paul C. who has spent many years in Pohnpei has witnessed this traditional work. He said that people sit around “talking stories” and they roll the gunot on their thighs with their palms. Now that’s a lot of work! If you’ve touched coconut fiber, it’s not like cotton at all. It is rough and itchy! But a good tightly rolled and twisted cord is what I need to complete the ingredients for my traditional hima adze replica. Luckily, JP (as we call him) took a trip recently to Chuuk, and was able to find a man who was willing to part with a few yards gratis! The man had it twisted on a small stick and I am so thankful for his generosity. That’s the island way!

So, every time JP leaves Saipan for one of the Micronesian islands, I always ask him to keep an eye out for cordage. Thanks, JP! One day, I will experiment to make my own, or hopefully, I will get invited to a rare cord making session. But please, anyone else knows how to get some, please let me know.
Now, I got the ingredients: 1 Tridacna adze head (needs reshaping and sharpening), 1 wooden handle (needs carving, sanding, sealing, and maybe staining, inlaying and decorating), and a few yards of coconut fiber cord (to bind everything together. I even cut a cone shell adze head for a second one:

I’ll post up a follow up on this a bit later. I am already experimenting with some traditional and ornamental binding techniques. After looking for coconut fiber cordage, I say that this is the hardest part of the recipe because there really are no instructions or someone who can teach me how to do this. But once bound, my ancient Chamorro adze replica will be done! So keep it tuned and we’ll “talk stories” some more.

Thank you for letting me share.
The Beachcomber

UPDATE: Check out the finished adze and another one I made after.


James said...

You could also use dried strips from the tangantangan tree. (I think I spelled that wrong). I have used it in the tieing of traditional uts (huts). The strips are as long at the tree that you cut is. Strip from a green tree though. The older trees have already developed a harder skin closer to bark and not so easy to strip, dry and coil.

Lewie Tenorio said...

Looking good so far. Hurry with the follow up. I have a shell just like the one in the picture, got the time to help me piece on together? We could use authentic Ace cordage.

The Beachcomber said...

James: Tangantangan (Leucaena sp.)bark can be used for cordage yes, but i think that it'll be too thick for this project. The coconut senit will be stronger and finer too since it is a woven/twisted cord.

Lewie: You'r so funny, man! I will keep you posted on this one. If I am satisfied with the binding, then a second one ought to be a little easier and be of better quality due to the practice. I would be glad to help you, but let's keep the ingredients authentic. Authentic Ace cordage...Hahahaha!

Anonymous said...

Cool adze! I have been looking for The Catalogue of Prehistoric Micronesian Artifacts Housed in Japan (Intoh, May 1998). Do you have any ideas on where I could get a copy?


bung falig said...

Have you heared of a tree/shrub called the "Aga Telang"? I have heared many stories by my elders, of it being used for tools, spears, and others, because of the hardness and fiberous structure of the wood. Can't find an english name of the tree though. Do you know?

The Beachcomber said...

Joe, from time to time Bestseller has a copy or two of the catalog and I am sure you can order one from them. I'd also try to possibly get one for free from The CNMI Historic Preservation Office (HPO) Telephone no. 670-664-2120.

Bung, I do not know what that plant is but I will ask around. Mind sharing anymore stories about them?

The Beachcomber said...

Bung, I finally got a follow up for your question. Agate'lang is Eugenia palumbis according to the Chamorro-English Dictionary (Topping, Ogo & Dungca). I will try to find some here on Saipan and maybe post on it, but check out this information from the Guam Forestry division: