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.
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 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): http://www.hawaiiwoodturning.com/. 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.
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.
UPDATE: Check out the finished adze and another one I made after.