Tattooing in Hawaii

Two tattooing comb blanks and three bird bone pick combs from Nu'alolo kai. The last pick is still blackened at the tip with pigment.

Aloha! Greetings from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii! I am the Archaeology Collections Manager at the museum, which means that I get to take care of artifacts that museum archaeologists have excavated over the years as well as all the photographs and manuscripts that are associated with them.

Today I spent much of the day writing about bird bone picks in the museum’s collection, specifically those from the Nu’alolo kai site on Kauai. The European Association of Archaeologists is meeting in Olso, Norway this September and I am giving a paper about these picks as part of a session on Tattooing in Antiquity. A lot more is known about prehistoric tattooing practices in the Pacific Islands than many other places. We have shell and bone tattooing combs that have been excavated from a number of places. Tattooing is still a very active part of the cultural heritage of Pacific Islanders, with elaborate designs still being tapped into the skin with traditional methods in a number of places, such as Samoa.

The Hawaiian comb and brace system. These were excavated from the Big Island of Hawaii.

But there are many parts of the tattooing toolkit that are still unknown, and quite a variety of needles and raw materials are known to exist. Hawaii has a unique comb and brace system, where multiple combs are attached together with a brace, and then this multi-comb is attached to a handle. Some excavations have also identified simpler combs, sometimes fashioned from a bird bone pick and sometimes being from a single piece of thinned mammal bone.

Investigating these picks and tattooing implements is fascinating. While excavations can turn up new objects to analyze, the museum is also a great place to do research with existing collections!