In Focus

Hexagonal dish and Round dish (mas piring)

For centuries, forging gold dishes such as these was an important tradition on the small island of Kisar in western Maluku Tenggara. The first reference to these precious objects in Western literature dates to 1705. In that year, the German naturalist Rumphius, who was stationed in the seaport town of Ambon as an employee of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), warned Dutch merchants abut their quality: "If one deals in gold in the Southeastern Islands, one will come across large dishes and table plates, which seem to be on gold, but which are as thin as spangle gold, and a bad alloy." [1]

From a tradesman's point of view, Rumphius's critical remarks were undoubtedly correct. The majority of the dishes were made of an inferior alloy, regardless of the fact that they had earlier had high gold content. Usually the gold was mixed with a large quantity of silver during manufacture, and sometimes, when gold was in short supply, the dishes were made entirely of silver. However, Rumphius had not been aware that these objects were meant primarily for local use. Their importance in Maluku Tenggara (especially in the Luang-Leti-Kisar region) was derived from their symbolic significance, which made their gold content less relevant.

Although the gold dishes (known locally as mas piring) are often discussed together with the gold disks (mas bulan), the dishes have received the most attention. Ordinarily, the dishes are slightly larger than a mas bulan, and their decorations are usually more exuberantly refined. Two basic shapes of mas piring can be distinguished: in addition to the round model (2008.71), there is a large group of hexagonal dishes (2008.70). The diameter of a mas piring is variable, but it is usually around eight inches, occasionally measuring up to sixteen inches.

The decorative patterns embossed on the dishes are certainly intriguing. The decorations appear to be highly variable at first glance, but closer inspection reveals two main themes. An important category is made up of dishes that have a star shape in the center (2008.70). Another group has a pattern on it that is dominated by stylized animals, usually birds (2008.71). The finishing of the edges is often identical in both categories and consists mostly of spiral shapes.

The decorative patterns were probably closely tied to the role that the mas piring fulfilled in society. These dishes were important status symbols in a harsh society that revolved principally around maintaining the prestige of both family and village. That the dishes were "symbols of victory" is what the Dutch ethnologist J.P.B. de Josselin de Jong was told in the Babar archipelago in 1933. Like other golden valuables, they were associated with slain enemies. They functioned, thus, as a kind of hunting trophy that would grant the owners, usually a descent group, significant prestige. The dishes were hung from a cord and worn around the necks of female family members at celebrations. The status of the group would improve as the number of dishes that were displayed increased.

Some of the decorations on the dishes can be explained if we consider the idea of a hunting trophy. Particularly relevant is the pattern with a central star, which is probably a hunting scene. The central star-shaped design possibly represented the sun, a celestial body that, due to its scorching heat, was regionally associated with a "great warrior." This association also explains why many of the sun's rays on the dishes end in arrowheads. In some cases, the "victims" were also depicted on this type of dish in the form of small fish-shaped figurines attached to the small metal loops at the six corners of the dish. These figurines symbolized severed heads.

It is impossible to determine exactly what is symbolized by the animals portrayed on the other category of dishes. According to many of the island's current inhabitants, the bird figures represent pigeons. This decorative pattern was perhaps derived from motifs on old Chinese porcelain (the phoenix motif, among others). Unfortunately, all knowledge of a possibly more profound significance—conceivably in relation to the headhunts of old—has been lost since the art of the goldsmiths vanished from Kisar at the end of the 19th century.

[1] See Rumphius 1999:232

Excerpt from

Nico de Jonge, "Hexagonal dish (mas piring)" and "Round dish (mas piring)," 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), 292-293.