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A Night in the (Mahseer) Museum - The Value of Ancient Exhibits


Detail of mahseer scale armour in Pitt Rivers Museum
Detail of mahseer scale armour in Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

Steve Lockett

 

One stroke of a honed parang would inflict a painful wound. Luckily, the river god had given its scales as protection. The village elder slipped a bronzed arm through the final hole and shuffled the cuirass straight on his shoulders.

Now he had no fear of the deadly blade; his baju emperau* would resist even the strongest strike. He was ready to battle for his village.


It was like a step back into the era of antiquarian collectors when I recently paid a visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Bryony Smerdon had arranged for me to have access to some items of clothing from Sarawak in Borneo; two pieces of body armour covered in mahseer scales. My interest in the use of mahseer scales as armour had been growing ever since I had heard from Paromita (Ray, Mahseer Trust Communications Officer) and Rakesh Patil about their visiting museums and seeing armour in Sarawak and Pune respectively.

Little did I know then about the other treasures I would find.


Steve inspects mahseer armour in the museum study rooms
Steve inspects the mahseer armour

Earlier, Phoebe Griffith had contacted me to ask if I would collate all the references I could find to mahseer as icons of, or used in local culture. This study is being run at Leibniz Institute in Berlin, with every family of freshwater megafauna subject to an in-depth collection of references to their cultural significance. The wider freshwater megafauna study can be accessed here although as of the date of publication of this article, no specifics about the project have been uploaded.

My work had uncovered not only tales about the cultural importance of mahseer but also places where mahseer-derived objects could be found. It had led me to Oxford.


The Pitt Rivers Museum has two large rooms filled with everything from dinosaur bones to historic games, but my first destination was the secure study rooms, where I met Bryony. We had a brief chat about the background to the collection and why collections such as that held at Pitt Rivers are important for study and why they are now subject to intense cultural scrutiny.

Scientific repositories are an anachronism to some, and others are disturbed by the background to such collections. The Pitt Rivers is taking measures to discuss their collection with members of the communities where many items originated. They are also leading the way with creating more inclusive and sensitive ways to display or return items, and also to consider the role of historic collection in the loss of knowledge. The Radical Hope project is the framework for this work. These are important conversations to have and are a part of the framework of updating information to both reflect past injustice and understand the importance of ethnic and/or regional knowledge.


We have seen many times in our work on mahseers that what is ‘known’ to science is a fraction of what is often known by local people, and also of the breadth of knowledge required if we are to enact conservation either at the species or critical habitat level. The authors of The nature of science: The fundamental role of natural history in ecology, evolution, conservation, and education talk about both the importance of science collections, their links to local knowledge and how important they both are for education when they say: “natural history knowledge is integral to any competitive science program through a comprehensive review of the ways in which they continue to shape modern theory and the public perception of science.“ They go on to lay out an eighteen-point rationale for how and why studies of natural history are important. Some of these points are addressed in this article.


While looking at the armour at Pitt Rivers, I was not only wondering at the skill required to make such a piece, I was also wondering about the significance of the various pieces involved in the making. The scales come from a fish usually associated with a God, so the importance of those is easy to understand. But what about the feathers used as adornment? Or the beading on the collar? Maybe the feathers - which come from an argus pheasant and have eye-like patterns, as well as others from hornbills – are part of the protection mechanism as believed by the wearer. Perhaps the beading represents a venomous Malaysian coral snake for some reason unknown to us?


Nagaland oboe with parts made from mahseer gill plates
Nagaland oboe includes mahseer gill plates. Accession number 1923.84.825. Images copyright of the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

I had arranged this visit to look at the scale armour but Bryony told me there was more. As a musician and former music teacher I was fascinated to learn about the muri. This is an oboe used by the Bodo peoples of Nagaland. Collector, John Henry Hutton had noted in 1921 that: “The mouth-rest is made from the bony gill cover of a mahseer”. It seems that some Naga people made the most of the fish parts available to them.

High up in the display cabinets of artefacts from Nagaland is a small woven cane basket. On first, distant inspection the decoration of monkey skulls stands out. Slightly more difficult to make out are the rows of teeth around the upper rim. They are the pharyngeal teeth of mahseers.

My visit to look at scale armour had evolved to include musical instruments, everyday objects and I also turned-up a reference to mahseers of Nagaland in a diary. The fish caught during a trip in the very early twentieth century had been caught on my birthday from a place where I had stood when I visited the state myself in 2015. “We went up the Doyang…I found Mills fishing; he had caught 2 Mahseer of 2 and 2 ½ lbs” from: Naga Hills 11th August – 29th November 1922. Diaries of Henry Balfour. Entry for Wednesday 22nd November.


Pharyngeal teeth decorate a basket from Nagaland
Pharyngeal teeth decorate a basket from Nagaland. Accession number 1928.69.553 Image copyright of the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

In attempting to unpick mahseer species identities, Adrian Pinder and I have studied specimens in natural history museums in London, Mysore and Kathmandu. Both together and separately we have looked at and, in many cases, carried out detailed morphological study on hundreds of dried or bottled specimens.

In some cases, collections may be the only access we have to mahseer specimens from some locations. Singapore, for instance once had mahseer swimming in its rivers but after two hundred years of development they (and much biodiversity) are no more.


Adrian looks through the preserved head of a mahseer at RMNH-Mysore

There is certainly more that we can do to make specimens and collection items available for promoting awareness through hands-on experience. When Adrian and I visited the Regional Museum of Natural History – Mysore (RMNH-Mysore), we discussed with the director how to create a display exhibition using the impressive collection of mahseer parts. It was a thrill to discover that the museum had continued with our plan and arranged with Wildlife Association of South India to stage such an event last year. Schoolchildren having the opportunity to handle museum specimens and marvel at the size of mahseer will help to create interest in both the fish and other freshwater life. Many adults will also be unaware of the size and importance of fish in their local rivers; again, easy access to quality information and a chance to get up-close can only help spread awareness.


Digitising of documents and creating digital records of items will allow researchers to access specimens remotely. Such moves have been happening and more would be welcomed. Some of the exhibits I studied at Pitt Rivers are not part of their digitised records, so I knew nothing about them until I arrived. Of course, it is still essential to have access to physical specimens. Adrian and I studying stored mahseers has played a large part in unpicking the identity of the hump-backed mahseer and will do the same for lesser-known species in future. The collections at the California Academy of Sciences and Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in Singapore, for instance hold specimens which need to be studied with fresh eyes.


Map shows the spread of Hinduism across South and Southeast Asia
Map in Ashmolean Museum shows the spread of Hinduism across South and Southeast Asia

After I had looked around Pitt Rivers, I had an hour to spare so went into the Ashmolean Museum. I soon found the section on historic finds from India and Southeast Asia.

What is immediately noticeable is how the spread of Hinduism in the pre-Islamic era neatly overlaps with the distribution of mahseers across the region.

Statue of Vishnu from Java, now in Ashmolean Musuem
Statue of Vishnu from Java, now in Ashmolean Musuem

The links between Vishnu’s avatar Matsya and reverence for mahseer as ‘god’s fish’ has been made many times; probably starting in popular culture with The Rod in India by H.S. Thomas. This kind of historic angling literature is another valuable resource and includes the diaries of Henry Balfour held at Pitt Rivers Museum. Ian Pett (Mahseer Trust treasurer) has been compiling a book about historic mahseer tales over several years, and founder member Keith Armishaw is creating a catch-record spreadsheet with information collated from the classic Indian angling books.

While the details contained are important, they often and routinely exclude voices of the local guides without whom travels to find mahseer in challenging river terrain would have been almost impossible. We have previously discussed the importance of Haludar, the Bengali youth wildlife illustrator responsible for the beautiful sketches of Hamilton’s fish of the Ganges, including Tor tor and Tor mosal. There are so many more unnoticed people across the centuries who have donated time, effort and knowledge to allow us to build upon their information.

“no one was trying to hide the truth that they were relying on Indigenous labour, knowledge and expertise, but that the colonial framing in which this activity was taking place automatically assumed that this was not important.” Excerpt from a blog entry from The Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA).

  

Many aspects of how and why indigenous peoples interact with their environment are lost in the race for development. These connections between people and rivers are representative of times when mankind lived with more respect for the integrity of natural support systems.

We can only guess at how many important or interesting artefacts are held in private collections. I feel we have barely begun to investigate the numbers of museum specimens held, let alone the multiplicity of artefacts made of mahseer parts. These relics from times before mahseers were moved across river basins hold vital clues to the natural distributions of species and their appearance (morphology).

The importance of museum collections continues to be felt. By pairing advances in DNA testing with fresh studies of morphology, new species are still being discovered even among museum specimens. New investigative techniques like ancient DNA (aDNA) - where samples can be extracted from preserved bones and scales - mean collection specimens still have stories to tell. They are a treasure trove of information rather than a clutter of dusty space-wasters.

Perhaps aDNA will be used to determine exactly from which species of mahseer the scales for the armour came. The labelling on the armour in Pitt Rivers Museum says the scales may be from a marine parrotfish. However, the local name emperau (* as used in the introduction) after which the armour is named means mahseer.

Greater knowledge about human connections with mahseers will allow us to ensure that we continue to protect how people live their lives alongside rivers.

 

Here at Mahseer Trust, we have been reviewing our policies and have now included a specific policy on access to traditional ecological knowledge and working with indigenous peoples.

  

The style of this article was partly inspired by Cat Jarman’s River Kings (a book about Vikings, not mahseer), a copy of which I picked up during my short visit to Oxford.

Pegasus Books (March 28, 2023) ISBN13: 9781639365425

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