Recent studies have emphasized the importance of Indigenous producers and traders in the formation of ethnographic museum collections, but have found difficulty in finding concrete evidence for their active roles. A use-wear and residue study of turtle bone cleavers from Wuvulu Island, Papua New Guinea provides the opportunity to test whether objects that comprise a significant component of early collections were made specifically for sale, as hypothesized by contemporary observers in the late 19th century. Comparative studies of used and unused turtle bone artifacts from the Caroline Islands and Papua New Guinea identified differences between wear traces resulting from manufacture and use. Analyses of the Wuvulu turtle bone cleavers showed they had been heavily used prior to sale. Rather than produce artifacts to meet the high demand from German traders, the local people sold old, worn-out objects, many of which had been repaired. The study demonstrates that archaeological approaches to ethnographic museum collections can trace Indigenous agency within cross-cultural interaction. It also showcases the potential of use-wear and residue analytical techniques for the analysis of bone tools and the utility of digital, hand-held microscopes for the analysis of large artifacts.
Keywords: Cross-cultural contact; Ethnographic museum collections; Use-wear; Residue analysis; Bone tools; Papua new Guinea; Hand-held microscope