Themes: Carving

Carving in Papua New Guinea


Most sculptural objects obtained from Papua New Guinea are made from wood, rather than from stone or metal. Papua New Guineans are famous for their knowledge and exploitation of trees, and carving traditions are highly developed across the Pacific region. The spirit of the tree that had to be cut down to make the carving will often transfer to the artwork that is produced.


In most parts of Papua New Guinea, wood carving is done by men, while women are involved in other craft activities such as weaving. Carving is a highly skilled activity, and the ability to carve the shapes and patterns required by tradition is often only possessed by elders in the clan. Younger men are skilled however in making carved objects for the tourist trade.

Carving technique

Nearly all carvers working today use modern metal tools and sanding papers.  Traditional tools, however, are still sometimes seen, and show the resourcefulness of Papua New Guineans.  In pre-contact New Guinea, when metal was not available, tools were made with available local materials, including clam shells and splinters of basalt.  Engraving was often done with animal teeth, boars tusks, or sharpened bird bones, and sanding was either done with sand or with sharkskin. Some of these methods still survive, including flint-knapping to make adzes.


Museum objects have usually dulled with age, or have been made to look ‘old’ for sale to westerners.  New Guineans, however, usually prefer a brightly coloured and shiny finish when preparing wooden objects for ceremonial use.  To achieve an appealing shine, natural oils are rubbed into the wood and the surface polished.  Colour is often added during this finishing process by rubbing in pigment. Carved wooden artefacts are also often decorated with plants or feathers, further adding to their brightness and general appeal. Important items might have shell inlay, and are often ornamented with things such as buttons, glass beads and coins.