moesgaard museum, de etnografiske samlinger, ethnography, collections, museum, aarhus, denmark, bisj pole, asmat

Bisj Poles – Papua New Guinea

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You might be familiar with the colourful totem poles of Native Americans, with carved out masks and animals – but have you ever seen a Papua New Guinean bisj pole like the ones here?

Collected by Aksel Bojsen-Møller in 1955, these poles tell the story of an old tradition that used to surround burial rituals prior to the Papua New Guineans’ introduction to Christianity in the 20th century.

In Bojsen-Møller’s notes we find the following description:


As all deaths – except those of children and the elderly – were considered the result of others’ bad intentions, Bisj poles were raised to mark the avenge of the deceased. Several metres tall, the huge monuments were to house the spirits of the deceased during the transition from the physical world to that of the ancestors.

Ophavsret beskyttet billede, Jacob Due, Foto/medie afdelingen Moesgaard.

The Asmat people in the South-western part of Papua New Guinea are rather famous for their carving skills in producing Bisj poles, mostly kept in simple colours and portraying people rather than animals.

And the poles are still made today, but the surrounding traditions and beliefs have mostly vanished. With this, they are an interesting example of a tradition’s perseverance through social and ideological reformations – and, perhaps, an example of material culture exceeding that of the cosmological?


// Ciara Coogan


Photo: © 2014 Jacob Due, Photo/Media Department of Moesgaard Museum.

Byline portrait: © 2015 Line Beck,




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