Around 1930, the Dutch missionary Petrus Drabbe produced a series of beautiful portraits of Tanimbarese as part of a large-scale ethnological study. The people portrayed proudly show their most valuable treasures: golden jewelry in a variety of shapes and sizes. Earrings and necklaces are among the ornaments, often in combination with large imported chest pendants, locally called mase. The gold object illustrated here is an example of such a mase.
Remarkable in these photographs is the stylistic diversity of the chest pendants. The mase appear to originate from all over the Indonesian archipelago, and some even show decorative characteristics that recall the classical Hindu-Javanese Majapahit period (c. 1300-1500). Jewelry dominated by a face or human figure was especially prized. Unfortunately, Drabbe mentions very little about the origin of such pieces. If we examine the old trade routes, however, it is possible to imagine how these objects made their way to Tanimbar.
In the historic trade circuits, Banda merchants, on the one hand, and Makassarese and Buginese, on the other, held key positions. These traders brought chest pendants from a variety of distant lands to Tanimbar, while they simultaneously had locally produced jewelry at their disposal. It appears that a share of this last category was tailored to the Tanimbarese market.
The islands of Banda were involved in an elaborate Asian trade system long before the arrival of Europeans. Javanese merchants, in particular, transported spices to the Asian mainland, and on their way back—along with various wares including textiles (the main commodity)—they accumulated gold jewelry. Local trading vessels transported a part of this jewelry, together with the valuables made on Banda, onward to Tanimbar. Incidentally, the gold was sometimes retrieved from Banda by the Tanimbarese themselves.
Makassarese and Buginese searching for reef products created another trade channel that brought significant amounts of "exotic" jewelry to Tanimbar. On their annual journey to the Southeast Moluccas and Australia, they would customarily first visit Kisar. Here, they would have goldsmiths make their coinage into locally desirable valuables, including chest pendants; the trade value of a "worked" coin could increase up to sixfold. As with the earlier trade to Banda, the Tanimbarese themselves would at times sail to Kisar (and even to Timor) to obtain valuables.
The Dallas chest pendant may very well have come to Tanimbar by way of this second trade route. The shape, embossing, and details of the decoration all suggest that the jewel was made in Maluku Tenggara and that its origin is Kisar. There, particularly in the 19th century, the model seen here was produced in large quantities, as a variation of a so-called mas bulan (see 2008.69). The variation was known locally as a mas tanduk, or "golden horns."
In his study, Drabbe elegantly reveals exactly why so many chest pendants found their way to Tanimbar. A core element in local culture was the collecting of "exotic treasure" by the men in order to gain prestige. The ultimate masculine accomplishment was severing outsiders' heads, but a great number of objects from the "outside world"—gold chest pendants in particular—were highly appreciated as substitute headhunting trophies. They were regarded as "hot," since they were associated with killing, and in that respect they played an important role in society. The often centuries-old heirlooms of the noble families illustrate this. Possession of these hot objects gave a house, that is, a descent group, added "weight."
The chest pendants of the mas tanduk in particular were well suited to Tanimbarese cultural beliefs. The horn motif was an important trophy and status symbol on the islands (as well as elsewhere in Maluku Tenggara). It could also be found mounted on family houses and even on the tavu shrine as a headdress to a faniak (or clan emblem). When a man adorned himself with the mas tanduk chest pendant, he made it clear that he was a great hunter and a distinguished person. The mase, which were dominated by human shapes and faces, very frequently had the horn pattern on them as well. These cultural associations were undoubtedly the source of the great appeal these pieces enjoyed.
The symbolic message is emphasized by the scene, portrayed in relief, on the Dallas chest pendant—two dogs flanking a successful huntsman. The man is wearing both the horn motif and ear pendants of the type made on Tanimbar, and he also has a mas tanduk on his chest. Two smaller dogs are between his legs, seemingly snapping at his genitals. The scene aptly corresponds to Tanimbarese cultural beliefs, and it leads us to suspect that the jewel was made especially for the purpose of trade in the archipelago.
Nico de Jonge, "Chest pendant," 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), 298-299.