In Focus

Disk, 2008.69

During his travels collecting artifacts for the Berlin Museum für Volkerkunde in 1888, expedition leader J.A. Jacobsen was pleasantly surprised when he came across shiny "medallions" on Kisar. He described them as round plaques of precious metal, thin as paper, which were used as chest pendants. These ornaments, known as mas bulan or "golden moon," are seldom seen in the region nowadays. They are venerated as sacred family heirlooms (pusaka), which are displayed only on special occasions.

Because of its typical diameter and flat design, this example would most likely be classified as a mas bulan by contemporary residents of Maluku Tenggara. Considering the surface decorations, however, it is more accurately understood as a hybrid piece. The typical mas bulan was more sparsely decorated, and the embossed patterns were much simpler: several eyelike motifs were applied on most, either with or without some basic geometric patterns and animal figures (often birds and marine animals). In fact, this object is in the shape of a mas bulan, but decorated as a mas piring, a golden dish (see 2008.70 and 2008.71).

Regardless of its uncharacteristic and striking decoration, this is not a unique piece, since several practically identical ornaments were documented at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Examples include a 19th-century golden disk from Leti in the Museum Nasional Indonesia in Jakarta, and a specimen from Luang that was photographed there by the German ethnologist Wilhelm Müller-Wismar in 1913. The recurring theme is a series of horns hooked together to form a rosette. Possibly there was a goldsmith in that region who specialized in such hybrid pieces.

Directly after he mentions the encounter with the mas bulan in his travel log, Jacobsen discusses the importance of the jewelry. Based on observations by the English naturalist Henry Forbes, who spent some time on nearby East Timor in 1883, Jacobsen suggests a connection with the headhunting tradition. The disks possibly represented hunting trophies: warriors on Timor would, at least according to Forbes, receive such medallions for each severed head.

Jacobsen was probably not that far off. Despite the lack of definitive proof, many clues support the hunting trophy hypothesis. For one thing, the gold dishes (mas piring), which were often mentioned in connection with the mas bulan, represented symbols of victory. Likewise, the goldsmithing traditions of Kisar, along with some of the decorations, such as horns, that were soldered onto mas bulan, suggest similar symbolism (see 2008.72 and 2008.68). This would explain why these valuables (rather than just plain gold) served as status symbols in Maluku Tenggara. Finally, the moon reference is also significant. On many islands, the full moon (as well as the sun) was associated with a great warrior, and by wearing a mas bulan, one could promote oneself as such a warrior.

The intrinsic value of the objects probably also played a part in the traditional use of the "golden moon" in society. On several islands, for example, the mas bulan, together with other gold ornaments, was an important part of the bride price. By offering a hunting trophy at the marriage ceremony, the man's social role was emphasized. Conversely, the reciprocal gifts, which symbolized fertility and were presented by the family of the bride, emphasized the woman's role.

The mas bulan also figured in payment for adat violations. In the Luang-Kisar-Leti region, murder, arson, marriage outside of one's caste, and adultery received the largest fines. In order for the violator to reestablish his status, the injured party had to be compensated. The donation of (often dozens of) mas bulan and mas piring was the only means by which such reputation damage could be rectified.

Until recently, these ornaments also functioned as a kind of currency. Specific goods and services could be acquired only through payment of gold jewelry, including mas bulan, in which relatively constant exchange values applied. With the rise of cash markets in the area, both the economic and ritual uses of these valuables have substantially declined.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Disk," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 294-295.