A giant ceremonial food bowl which experts believe may have been used for cannibalistic purposes is going on show at the Royal Academy.
The seven metre-long, crocodile-shaped object, will go on display for the first time at a major exhibition on art from the South Pacific region, from New Guinea to Easter Island and Hawaii to New Zealand.
Made from “an entire tree”, the painted object was brought back to Britain from the Solomon Islands in the 1890s, more than 100 years after Captain Cook set sail on his first Pacific voyage on the Endeavour .
It will be among the sculptures, ritual objects and architecture, from history to the present day, on display at the Royal Academy Of Arts’ Oceania exhibition next year.
While one side of the object is carved with a man’s head, clamped between the jaws of a crocodile, the other end shows a man pulling on the tail of a crocodile while his legs are swallowed by a shark.
Dr Adrian Locke, senior curator, told the Press Association: “There is some speculation that it was used for cannibalistic purposes.
“Other people have said it may have been used for a ceremonial feast, that it is a beautiful object and it may have been used during wedding ceremonies. No-one quite knows what it was for.
“But it’s nearly seven metres long and a spectacular object.”
He added of its possible ceremonial function at weddings; “It’s enormous, so you can only imagine how many people would have feasted from it.”
The object may have been used by head hunting tribes, which carried out ritual cannibalism, and brought to Britain by the Royal Navy.
The object has been in the collection of the British Museum but curators believe that it has never been on display before.
The show will also feature contemporary work, showing culture which is “still very much active” and “not something that’s kept in aspic.”
“This is not about Captain Cook or how Europeans saw or reacted to that part of the world”, Dr Locke said.
The object weighs at least 250kg, “possibly more”, but other works on display, including a Easter Island figure, will be “larger and heavier”.
The Royal Academy also announced that artist Grayson Perry will help choose work for next year’s Summer Exhibition, celebrating its 250th anniversary in 2018.
In 2018, it will also open an exhibition on Austria’s two most famous artists, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, while it has previously announced Charles I: King And Collector, reuniting the monarch’s art collection which was dispersed across Europe following his execution.
Oceania runs from September 29, 2018, to December 10.