Set in a clutter of artefacts and ornaments at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, the mask from Malakula, Vanuatu is easily missed. At first, it’s hard to know why, amid so many other treasures, you’d look twice at it at all.
Shift your gaze from the swooping tusk extending from its forehead and look down to the scrubby brown cloth beneath it. Though it may look like a piece of old felt, the clue is in the caption: “Mask of clay and fibre on a sheet of matted spider’s web.”
The tiny island of Malakula has a lot of “onlys” for a place of barely 25,000 people: the only place where, until recently, infants’ heads were bound so they grew into cone shapes. The only place where the names of its tribes, Big Nambas and Small Nambas, come from the size of their banana-leaf penis sheaths. And the only place in the world where the webs of the golden orb spider, Nephila, are traditionally felted together—into a strong, silky, waterproof cloth that lasts for decades.
The rest of this piece can be read at http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/ooi-spiderweb.