News of the World

Behold the humble Fijian dish bearing tidings from Polynesia, an explorer’s ship, a ‘Disneyland’ museum circa mid-1700s and a Wake Forest bet on the future.

In the mid-1700s, an artist on an unknown island in Fiji intricately carves a piece of wood into a shallow dish, the shape inspired by a tropical leba fruit, or perhaps a bird. The bete, or priests, of Fiji have commissioned the bowl for mixing coconut oil, fruit and pigments into their favored body oils, colorful and perfumed.

At 13 inches long, it is one of many wooden containers serving the powerful priests in the South Pacific archipelago. Using their larger, deeper wooden bowls, the bete concoct an earthy liquid of water and grated pepper plant roots. They drink this potion in sacred rituals to induce a trance state, inviting ancestral spirits to enter their bodies and channel visions and wisdom for the chiefs and their tribes.

What if the bete could have envisioned the destiny of their humble shallow dish? They would see it cross seas in the hands of a legendary explorer and centuries in collections of curiosities and art, eventually to rest under glass in the Timothy S. Y. Lam Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest. The dish would acquire title as the oldest known historical wooden object in existence from Fiji, with a history that includes obsessed collectors and a connection to a kidnapping.

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