Object of the Week: A Polynesian fertility sculpture designed to carry a human skull and bones

By Culture24 Reporter Published: 06 April 2016

This recast of A’a, at the British Museum, comes from a skull-carrying sculpture which has been shown across the world and was admired by Henry Moore

A photo of a British Museum wooden figure of a deity known as A’a from the Polynesian island of Rurutu
© British Museum
In 1821, islanders on the Polynesian island of Rurutu gave a group of British evangelical missionaries a figure of a deity known as A’a. Thirty unique small figures were springing from its body, representing fertility and the god’s ability to create life. A symbol of its previous owners’ conversion to Christianity, the missionaries took it back to London and offered it to the British Museum.

Last November, researchers realised that A’a is made of sandalwood. Wood samples showed it was made much earlier than previously thought – possibly as early as 1505. Its cavity is designed for a human skull and long bones to fit perfectly within, wrapped in sacred materials such as the barkcloth, feathers and human hair which were also discovered inside. One tiny red feather, lodged on a splinter, had gone unnoticed for 200 years.

The first replica cast of the figure was made after curators created a mould of it in 1908. Institutions in the US, Hawaii and New Zealand bought casts, Picasso ordered one for his studio in Cannes, and Henry Moore bought one for his house, later commissioning a bronze version. Moore called A’a “a remarkable technical achievement”, possessing a “sense of life-force”.

  • Containing the Divine: a Sculpture of the Pacific God A’a is at the British Museum until May 30 2016.

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A photo of a British Museum wooden figure of a deity known as A’a from the Polynesian island of Rurutu
© British Museum
A photo of a British Museum wooden figure of a deity known as A’a from the Polynesian island of Rurutu
© British Museum
A photo of a British Museum wooden figure of a deity known as A’a from the Polynesian island of Rurutu
© British Museum
A photo of a British Museum wooden figure of a deity known as A’a from the Polynesian island of Rurutu
This feather was found in a splinter of the wood under scanning by an electron microscope© British Museum
A photo of a British Museum wooden figure of a deity known as A’a from the Polynesian island of Rurutu
Rurutu is in French Polynesia© British Museum
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