In Focus

Roof-ridge panel with crouching human figures

The function of this architectural panel is not clear, but its scale and tapered shape, when compared to more modern forms, suggest that this carving is most likely the central panel from a small mausoleum or shrine house. Elaborately decorated mortuary structures glorified the ruling classes of a number of Dayak groups and, befitting their upper-world status, ensured that their bodies did not mix with either animals or the earth.

Architecturally, this finely tapered panel was ingeniously stacked like a Lego block on two other sections of a structure. Above, an additional tier was neatly fitted to the "male" flange running along the top of the panel. Below, to soundly anchor it to the main structure, there is also a "female" recess underneath this panel's base, which is not visible. Side pins indicate that there were at least two other attached elements. There is no way of knowing what these attachments once looked like. However, lateral extensions composed of mythical animals, curling arabesques, and complex tendrils are commonly seen in both early drawings and latter-day photographs of secondary burial houses.

Among some Dayak groups, the upper classes owned slaves, who were occasionally sacrificed. The repeated figures on this panel most likely refer to sacrificed slaves, or helpers of the dead. It was once common practice to take human life at the end of a funeral cycle. Important structures belonging to the ruling classes in many parts of Indonesia were sanctified by the bodies of sacrificed victims that were placed under key posts or at cardinal points. This was done to solicit the blessings of the spirit-souls of the ancestors and to properly settle or stabilize structures.

The squatting figure is an ancient motif that can be found throughout Southeast Asia. As a design element, a sequence of such figures is now rarely found in the region's carving repertoire, but it does survive in beadwork, which can be seen on compositions that were attached to baby carriers. It is most likely that this piece originates from the northern part of East Kalimantan, the Bulusu'/Tingalan region, or remote upriver areas of Central Kalimantan that border West Kalimantan.

Carved from ironwood, this panel was fashioned from one of the world's hardest woods (as the name implies). It miraculously survived by being buried in a riverbed. One side was face down in the mud where it would have been protected from exposure and the force of rushing water. The other side is more eroded as a result of being washed over by a river's current before also being buried beneath mud and other debris. This item's wear patterns and the figures' lyrical simplicity suggest that it belongs to a category of extremely rare archaic-style carving that have been found mostly along the upper reaches of the Mahakam River and its tributaries.

Excerpt from

Steven G. Alpert, "Roof-ridge panel with crouching human figures," 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), 140-141.