In Focus

Shrine object with figure atop a dwelling flanked by two mythological animals

On occasion, unusual metal objects have been found that came from the interior of Borneo. Such objects, along with the Dallas piece, are unique examples of "Dayak" metalwork. However, it remains an open question as to who actually made these objects and whether they are of native or outside manufacture.

On Borneo's north coast, Brunei has long been associated with metalwork. In 1225, a visiting Chinese official, Chou Ju Kua, noted that Bruneians wore metal armor and carried swords made of bronze when attending funerals.[1] Magellan's chronicler, Pigafetta, described the Sultan's bronze and iron cannons during his brief stay there in 1521. Bruneian trade items including elaborately decorated gongs and their suspension chains, miniature cannons, and ornamented kettles were also prized by native peoples of Sarawak. An 18th-to-19th century Brunei kettle in the Museum's collection [1994.249] is decorated with warriors, a theme that would have certainly appealed to the warlike Iban who once owned it.

According to the scholar Antonio Guerreiro, this piece most likely hails from "the now upland people of the Apad Duad range." During the 15th to 16th centuries, some of these people were living close to Brunei Bay, where they could have attained the technological knowledge necessary to make such a bronze.[2] Southward expansion of northern groups toward the upper Bahau and beyond possibly explains why this bronze was reportedly found in Indonesia's southeastern province of Kutai Kartanegara.

Many informants also insisted that this bronze was used during healing ceremonies. Describing such, Carl Lumholtz makes particular mention of a bronze Hindu deity who was long venerated by local Dayaks of the Temang district. This statuette was washed in lemon juice prior to being displayed on a brass dish containing rice. After the statuette was "fed" and rewashed, the residual water was used as an eye remedy. The well-worn and velvety smooth surface of Dallas's bronze indicates that it, too, was handled over many generations and may also have been ritually washed in a similar manner.

This item is composed of three elements. The first is a central hunkered figure that most likely represents a priest, healer, or even a fabled ancestor—an intermediary who in some capacity can straddle and navigate the worlds of men, gods, and spirits. The object between the figure's legs is either a bamboo container, a sword, or perhaps a small drum, as each of these items has associations with the spirit world. While the building's architectural style cannot, based on the available scholarship, be ascribed to any particular group, the use of winged water snakes and other mythical animals as roof finials is a common feature on traditional Dayak structures. Two rectangular side lugs on this object's base suggest that at one time it may have been the top of a container or a shrine-like object that was raised on two stiltlike struts. The origin and purpose of this venerable object, which has been transformed by time, extensive handling, and physical movement, are enigmas that remain to be solved.

[1] "The Cannons of Brunei" in The Brunei Times, July 22, 2007.

[2] Personal communication between the author and Antonio Guerreiro, 2011.

Excerpt from

Steven G. Alpert, "Shrine object with figure atop a dwelling flanked by two mythological animals," 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), 142-143.