In Focus

Necklace with anthropomorphic pendants

Until recently, those who traveled through Maluku Tenggara and were fortunate enough to witness the opening of a so-called pusaka basket (a basket filled with family heirlooms) would have been astounded. Besides antique textiles, a profusion of gold jewelry would usually appear: several types of earrings, bracelets, sirih boxes, dishes, disks, rings, and chest and neck pendants—an astonishing array of riches that belied the local standard of living.

In 1922, the German research physician Ernst Rodenwaldt had a similar experience on the island of Kisar, when the raja of the island showed him the ancient family treasures. Rodenwaldt immediately realized that he was witnessing something unique and photographed a number of objects. Several of his images show a necklace that could be regarded as a variation of this work. Although the exact significance of the Dallas object remains uncertain, we can infer the social context in which the jewelry would have functioned. However, the similarities between Rodenwoldt's necklace—which we can safely assume represented a headhunting trophy—and the Dallas object lead us to the same conclusion: this necklace also very likely functioned in such a way.

Most intriguing is the identity of the goldsmiths of Kisar. This group belonged to the so-called Mestizos, descendants of a detachment of servants working for the Dutch East India Company, who had lived on the island for centuries separated from the local inhabitants. Up until the end of such trade in gold objects, around 1900, the exclusive art of working gold was handed down from father to son within three Mestizo families.

There is much to suggest that a symbolic dimension existed with regard to the status of these goldsmiths. Because of their place outside the local community, they represented a fictive outside world, from which, as in a real raid or battle, status symbols could be obtained. Information on the other goldsmiths of Maluku Tenggara shows that this was no mere coincidence; a similar "extraordinary" situation existed everywhere to some extent.

In the Babar archipelago, the smiths were either itinerant or had their separate, screened-off workshops outside the village, Some of these workshops even had a special workbench that came from beyond the borders of the islands. On Tanimbar, so-called kukuwe, ancestor statues that provided the goldsmith with the power to melt the gold, were associated with the outside world. On the Kai islands, the goldsmiths lived in the village of Banda Elat, which was founded by refugees from Banda. Farther north, in the Ambon region, the goldsmiths—who specialized in manufacturing gold snakes—apparently acquired their professional knowledge from Indian immigrants.

Their "outside" status was reinforced by the way the goldsmiths did their work. In their screened-off workshops, they created an ornament, be it with or without the aid of ancestral powers, as if it were the loot from a raid orbattle. And just as in a real headhunt, the ornament, was brought into the community as a "hot," killed object. All information places the necklace in a similar perspective: the ornament represented a headhunting trophy, which increased the status of its owner.

Regarding the beads that were used in this kind of jewelry, it is well known that the Mestizos of Kisar maintained close trade relations with the inhabitants of East Timor. The Mestizos traded ikat fabrics for coinage, which was made into jewelry. Undoubtedly the beads found in the Dallas necklace originated in East Timor. Beads were traditionally an important part of Timorese material culture.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Necklace with anthropomorphic pendants," 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), 296-297.