Image Putona (shell trumpet), 1800s

TLF ID R6121

This is a large putona, or shell trumpet, made from triton shell ('Charonia tritonis') and coconut fibres probably in the 1800s in the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia. It has been worn smooth by much handling. Skeins of between six and eight extremely finely plaited sennit (coconut fibre) cords encircle the shell to form a carrying loop and an elaborately knotted ornament at the top of the mouth of the shell. A finely carved bone toggle and long tufts of human hair are attached at the other end of the loop. The shell is 35 cm long and the hair tuft is about 20 cm long.

Educational details

Educational value
  • Shell trumpets (known in the Marquesas as putona) are used throughout Polynesia and Fiji, mainly for signalling and summoning people together - triton shells are preferred for this purpose, although other shells are sometimes now used.
  • The shell was blown from the side, although these kinds of shells can also be blown from a hole at the end - to enable the shell to be blown, a hole was ground in the whorls (spirals of the shell) near the tip; a mouthpiece made of a small gourd would then be attached; when someone blew through this mouthpiece the shell would make a sound.
  • The toggle of the shell trumpet is carved in the form of a human figure known as a tiki, which is characteristic of Marquesan art.
  • The putona had an important and ceremonial role in the culture of the Marquesas Islands - it could be blown only by people of certain rank and was used in battle and on special occasions, such as religious ceremonies or to mark the birth of a chief's first son.
  • The object came to the Dominion Museum (a forerunner of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa) in 1948 when the New Zealand Government bought the Mäori and Pacific collection of the London collector and dealer W O Oldman - W O Oldman acquired many pieces from Oceania, and it was one of his favourite areas, although he had never visited there; because these items had passed through various sale rooms in Great Britain they often lack detailed information on their origins or historical context.

Other details

  • Copyright holder
  • Organisation: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Address: Wellington New Zealand
  • Remarks: Reproduced courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Content provider
  • Publisher
  • Date of contribution: 03 Sep 2013
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia
  • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
  • URL:
Access profile
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  • Device independence
  • Hearing independence
Learning resource type
  • Image
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  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements