Sunday, 25 May 2008

Beyond Persia

THE pearl is far from unique to European culture. India has long been an important trader and has its own resource and funded commerce with east Africa. Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was, gave its name to the pearl as much as it did to tea. Early photographs show maharajahs resplendently bedecked in huge necklaces of pearls. And round the globe, there are fragments of evidence as to the importance of oysters and pearls in the south pacific too, where the black pearl is still found today but was also a pivotal part of the islands mythology.

In Polynesian lore, the iridescence of mother-of-pearl is said to be the reflection of the sky and inspired god to create the stars. He gave pearls to light up the sea. And the god of war left the pearls in the lagoon as a thank you to the beautiful princess of Bora Bora who bore his child. The first two pearls are commemorated as Poe Rava, the Remarkable, and Poe Konini, the Peacock.

Millenia later, in the 1920s the explorers Sperry and Evans discovered one of the last of the remotest islands of New Hebredes, in Papua New Guinea. They were met by an unexpectedly macabre gathering.

“In the opposite corner of the central hut a line of mummies were placed like a barricade…bushy mops of hair still clung to the heads, and their faces wore masks of clay, with huge eyes of mother-of-pearl that shone through the gloom staring at us with an uncanny effect.”

These were not ancestral family mummies, but the decorated cadavers of their slain cannibalistic neighbours.

The Austronesians, the Neolithic people from South-East Asia, who appear to have sailed from modern day Taiwan round as far as the Solomon Islands, leave archaeological evidence of their involvement with oysters with mother-of-pearl inlays in tribal shields and statues of gods. The Solomon Islands were christened by the Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana in1568 because he saw so many pearls he thought he had found the source of King Solomon’s mines.

In Meso America, probably around the 8th century, the Toltecs, ancestors to the Aztecs, were feared and revered for their military prowess and artistic culture. Among the treasures they left behind were ornamental jewellery and sculptures inlaid with mother-of-pearl which has been traced back as far away as the Pacific Rim. There are mentions too of Mayan and Aztecs using pearls in different manners, which given the abundance that the Spanish would find later around Panama is logical. The beautiful thorny oysters – spondylus, although technically now classified as part of the scallop family - is found off Ecuador and seems to have been a part of trade inland with Peru perhaps as early as 2500BC. When Caral city in Peru was excavated the tombs were found to contain fragments of jewellery using both mother of pearl and fashioned from the spondylus shell. It was dated 2527 BC. As archaeology creeps ever further back into time, the oyster and the pearl seem to go with it.