In Focus

Memorial stone or grave marker (penji reti), 2004.57

The term megalith, from the Greek words for "large" and "stone," refers to rock-cut tombs, stones seats, terraces, cairns, stone-built platforms, crudely shaped statues of men and animals, cylinders, stone urns, rectangular sarcophagi, and stone slabs with cup holes. Megaliths are found in many parts of the world, date to many different time periods, and generally can be described as massive funerary monuments and gathering places. Megaliths, dolmens, and menhirs are found in locations throughout the islands of Indonesia. There is insufficient evidence to determine the exact age of these imposing stone monuments, but some could date to as early as 1000 BCE, while others, like this penji, are far more recent in date.

Among the Batak of North Sumatra and the Sa'dan Toraja of South Sulawesi, and on the islands of Nias and Sumba, stone monuments and sculpture continued to be produced well into the Dutch colonial period. On Sumba, the practice exists to this day, although the erection of stone tombs is slowly being replaced by the construction of cement structures. According to Janet Hoskins, records regarding burial practices on Sumba do not exist before the last quarter of the 19th century. It is therefore impossible to determine what occurred before that time. The only archaeological discoveries on Sumba to date are unearthed urn burials dating to c. 500 BCE. However, today's inhabitants state that their ancestors were buried in stone tombs. [1]

On both East and West Sumba, monumental stone tombs are placed at the ceremonial center of traditional villages. These impressive tombs are the final resting place of noblemen who commanded extraordinary reverence and respect both in life and in death. In the west, these tombs were commissioned by the owner during his lifetime, but in East Sumba, this responsibility fell to the son after his father's death, including the shouldering of the considerable expense.

The construction of these tombs involved the marshaling of considerable resources. First the stone had to be acquired from the owners of quarries along the coast. The stone, weighing from ten to thirty tons, then had to be transported, a task that sometimes involved movement over both water and land. This task necessitated the labor of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. Following the arrival of the stone at the entrance of the ceremonial village, prescribed rituals were conducted, followed by feasting. Afterward, the stone was carved with finishing motifs and designs appropriate to its geographic location and as dictated by the family.

In West Sumba, four-sided tomb chambers are topped by a massive "male stone" (Kamone), and decorative carving features buffalo heads and horns, sometimes capped by human figures. Buffalo are symbols of wealth and status and are valued sacrificial animals used in wet rice cultivation. Vertical upright slabs resembling the branches of a tree sometimes stand alongside.

In East Sumba (penji are also found in West Sumba, but are more common in the east), the tomb (reti) consists of a monumental slab, sometimes resting on stone supports. Placed at one end is an upright stone called a penji (banner of the tomb), a reference to its general shape of a ship's prow board. At the other end of the tomb stands another upright stone called a kiku. Together with the penji, the tomb itself and the rudderlike kiku can be thought of as a ship that transports the deceased to the next world. Penji are decorated with three-dimensional and low-relief carvings of sea creatures (turtles and fish), ornaments, horses, standing and equestrian human figures, and geometric and botanical motifs that relate to the status and achievements of the deceased.

This exceptional and bold sculpture is one of two penji in the Dallas collection (the other is 2004.58). It is decorated with motifs that include metal gongs, a fish, a horse, a scorpion, three penji, and geometric patterns, possibly representing young growing plants. Horses and metal gongs are indicators of wealth, and the fish, a sea creature, represents wild outside spirits that can enter into partnerships and alliances with humans. They can be dangerous but can also become generous patrons and benefactors and refer to mythical sources of ancestral power.

Although some penji remain on Sumba, many have been sold and transferred to museums and collections outside the country. The technical achievement and aesthetic appeal of these exceptional sculptures are acknowledged by a global audience.

[1] Hoskins, in Barbier 1998: 174.

Adapted from

George Ellis, "Memorial stone or grave marker (penji reti)," 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), 234-235.