Wooden helmet with relief carving of octopus, painted in black, blue, red and white. [CAK 11/03/2010]
Place details: N AMERICA. Canada / British Columbia ?Vancouver Island ?Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) NW Coast. Cultural Group: NW Coast Haida Local Name: naaw; nuu Materials: Wood Plant / Pigment / Iron Metal / ?. Processes: Carved / Painted / Nailed / ?. Dimensions: H = 180 mm Diam = 280 mm Maker: Unknown Field Collector: Unknown When Collected: ?Prior to 1878 Other Owners: Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. This object was delivered to Bethnal Green Museum in September 1878. It was probably displayed at Bethnal Green and/ or South Kensington Museum between 1880 - 1884. PRM Source: Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers founding collection Acquired: Donated 1884 PR No.: 11/ 8373 ?11/ 8393 8/ 8373
KEYWORD: Helmet / Animal Figure / Dance Accessory / CLASS: Figure / Clothing Headgear / Ceremonial / ?.
Object description: Wooden helmet with relief carving of octopus, painted in red, black, blue, and white. The helmet is carved from a single piece of wood, likely alder or maple. It has a dome-shape and is painted red. The head of the octopus is carved on the top of the helmet. The face has mammalian features including a mouth with two rows of teeth, including sharp canines, and ears. The teeth had been painted in white, though little pigment remains on them. The mouth is outlined in red as are two round nostrils. There is a black stripe the runs from the eyebrows down the centre of the face and into the mouth. The face is painted blue, with triangular unpainted segments on each cheek. The eyes are painted white with large black irises. There are thick, angled eyebrows painted black. The top of the head is unpainted, but there are thin black lines outlining certain features. There is a red stripe that goes across the top of the head. Two thin black ears(?) are carved behind the red stripe. On the back of the head is a design featuring two black ovoids surrounded by blue and set within a red form that may be a face or a fin. There are six tentacles that extend from the head down the sides of the helmet. The tentacles are primarily black with blue segments outlined in red at the top, followed by upside down blue faces with black eyes and red mouths, and then abstract accents of blue and red. The ends of the tentacles curl and a human face is carved at the centre of each. The faces are outlined with red paint. [CAK 11/03/2010]
Publications history, trails & websites: Reproduced in colour on page 253 of the exhibition catalogue 'From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia' edited by Sarah Milroy and Ian Dejardin, published 2014 by Art Gallery Ontario and Dulwich Picture Gallery. With the caption 'Helmet with Octopus/Bear, Northwest Coast, 19th century. Wood and paint'. [FB 29/10/2014]
Illustrated in colour on page 33 of The Pitt Rivers Museum: A World Within, by Michael O’Hanlon (London: Scala, 2014). Caption (same page) reads: ‘21 Wooden helmet with relief carving of octopus. Haida people, British Columbia, Canada Probably exhibited at Bethnal Green Diameter 280 mm Donated by General Pitt-Rivers 1884.68.51’ [MJD (Verve) 18/2/2016]
Illustrated in colour on page 25 of ‘Gina Suuda Tl’l Xasii Came to tell something Art & Artist in Haida Society’ by Nika Collison (Haida Gwaii. Haida Gwaii Museum Press 2014). Caption: "Wooden helmet Haida, C. 1880s Octopus with six legs Wood, paint, 18 x 28 Photo: Malcolm Osman, courtesy of Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 1884.68.51 This helmet's original function is unknown today, but would have served as a clan hat, or more likely, a war helmet." [SM (Verve) 1/12/2016]
Research notes: The following information comes from Haida delegates who worked with the museum’s collection in September 2009 as part of the project “Haida Material Culture in British Museums: Generating New Forms of Knowledge”:
The helmet was viewed alongside other articles of clothing and adornment on Friday Sept 11, 2009. This helmet generated a lot of discussion amongst delegates and almost all of them tried it on and had their photographs taken with it. Gaahlaay (Lonnie Young) said that these objects are called war helmets, but that it wasn't necessarily worn in a war. Lucille Bell noted that war helmets were also worn by men for war dances. Christian White thought if it had been worn in a battle it would have had a vizor to protect the eyes. When worn in battle, Christian reported that it would be a war chief and his captains wearing such helmets and that they were used to stop arrows and club blows. Like Lucille, Christian noted that war helmets evolved into crest hats worn in dances but that the crest hats were usually made of a lighter wood. Everyone agreed it was very heavy piece to wear on the head. Christian White thought it was made from alder or maple. Kwiaawah Jones and Gaahlaay (Lonnie Young) similarly thought it could be carved from alder. A similar helmet with a raven design exists in Skidegate.
In terms of the design, Haidas identified the arms as the tentacles of an octopus ('naaw' in Skidegate; 'nuu' in Massett). Christian White told us that the octopus is a familiar of shamans and a crest of the Yahgulaanaas clan (Middle Town People). Christian thought it was unusual for there to be a bear-like head and wondered if it was a land otter ('sluuguu' in Haida). The fact that there are only six legs lead Ruth Gladstone-Davies to question if it was a starfish rather than an octopus. Lucille Bell thought the six legs could represent an aesthetic decision. Kwiaawah Jones and Gaahlaay (Lonnie Young) discussed how there were no suckers on the tentacles, but Kwiaawah thought that the design should perhaps not be taken so literally. Ruth Gladstone-Davies identified fin and backbones elements in the design, but thought the rest was unclear. A reference to mushrooms was given by one delegate. Kwiaawah wondered if there was supposed to be something attached to the top such as potlatch rings (skil). It was noted that teeth and ears on an octopus were unfamiliar: these features were new to the group. They wondered if the figure was mid-transformation. The animal-like face was proposed to be a dog by one delegate. It was reported that painted and carved teeth are features on older objects. Christian White suggested comparing this helmet with rattles to find other pieces done in a similar style.
Delegates supported Mungo Martin's attribution of this helmet to a Haida carver.
Discussion of this helmet can be viewed on Tape 6, time 7:43 and 24:50, which can be found in the Haida Project Related Documents File. [CAK 11/03/2010]
According to Dr Laura Peers of PRM this object is definitely a hat, used for ritual purposes. Often described as helmets but not used for warfare. [MdeA 01/11/2006]
This object was viewed and confirmed as Haida by tribal members Vincent Collison, Lucille Bell, and Kwiiawah Jones on 7 September 2007 in preparation for a planned Haida community visit to PRM in 2009 [L Peers, 24/01/2008]
Described by the Lower Gallery label as a hat but unfortunately there is no documentation of this changed function. However a Haida delegation who visited the Museum on 2 July 1998 [see basement records for more detail] suggested that the object might be a hat. Until this issue is firmly resolved by a clear cut identification either way it is suggested that the object remains labelled as it was in July 1998 as ?Hat. Note that there are similar objects in 'The Spirit Within' Seattle Art Museum 1995 described as 'wooden helmets'. The matching of this object to the green book entry suggests that the fraction number is 8373. In addition the green book entry match means that the delivery catalogue entry given above is to be matched to this object even though the fraction numbers are different as there is no other object on that page of the green book [all 8373 numbers] that could match [AP Leverhulme project on founding collection 1995-1998]
Please note the wood has many old woodworm holes. [MJD 17/08/2009]
Gwaai Edenshaw and Jaalen Edenshaw, Carvers from Haida Gwaii, studied this hat on 22 September 2014. Jaalen noted the depiction of the wolf/mammal head on the octopus is unusual. Modern octopus' have a different depiction, they usually include a beak. [MJD 22/09/2014]