In Focus

A Paramount Chief's Emblem

In addition to a warrior's sword, shield, blow pipe or javelin, a complement of armor often included a heavy skin jacket or a thick quilted bodkin and a decorated helmet. Metal fittings were sometimes used to reinforce these war helmets.

The most prominent type of attachment was a vertical, slightly convex metal frontlet. The oldest ones were finely cast with each frontlet having its own distinctive appearance and personality. Later or contemporary examples are often clumsily cast or cut from a sheet of thin brass.

The iconography portrayed on this remarkable frontlet is unique to the genre. At its base is the heart-shaped face of a powerful and protective underworld spirit with a protruding tongue and large riveting eyes. Framing its head are four handlike appendages that are neither human hands nor animal paws. Wellem Ingan, master carver, commented that this composition represents a crossing over to the spirit world, “dua kepala, satu badan,” meaning that two heads (the universe of the warrior and that of this creature) are bridged by one body (the backbone of the beast). Each appendage is composed of humanlike fingers and a long, sharply tapered thumb. The curling protrusions emerging from both sides of the frontlet represent a spirit being's writhing limbs, with the emblem's midsection as the back of its body.

Grasping, riding, and seemingly controlling this powerful beast by its V-shaped, flukelike tail is a warrior, who most likely represents either a mythical hero or the embodiment of the wearer's own strength. The bond between this figure and the supernatural spirit is further indicated by the circular spaces created by the beast's curving outer limbs, which also appear on the right and left sides of the warrior's face and are then repeated once again on his headdress. As a design element, these curvilinear motifs not only beautify the object but also imbue it with a sense of unity, energy, and movement. As a potent symbol, this frontlet's composition projects the expropriation or merging of the beast's protective powers with a warrior's prowess.

The repeated dotted circles on the beast's limbs, tail, and torso also cleverly accentuate its ferociousness by imitating spots or scales. Whether in a ritual guise or in battle, these markings may have also served to further coordinate and identify this warrior's frontlet with his upper-body armor or ceremonial attire. To make Dayak warriors of note appear more menacing, war jackets sometimes covered with the pelts and skins of various animals that included the tortoise-shell leopard (Felis macrocelis) or the sewn scales of the scaroid fish (Pseudoscarus marine).

Given its visual qualities, theatricality, and archetypal message, this frontlet is reminiscent of the finest emblematic crests of other notable warrior societies, such as the samurai of Japan, the knights of medieval Europe, or the epic warriors memorialized by Homer in classical Greek literature. Despite their sense of cultural superiority, and the period’s endemic racism, early ethnographers generally admired the Iban and Kayan peoples. These authors knew the classics and at times employed Homeric references when referring to Dayak warriors and their attire. Coincidentally, in the Iliad, Homer not only identifies individual warriors and their deeds by their helmets but also uses helmets to show con­nections to the divine. As a literary device, a hel­met’s decoration establishes the wearer’s salient characteristics.

An emblem such as this one would have been worn only by a paramount chief—a dangerous warrior with a strong persona—who would have been the heroic leader of many men. The image of such a fearsome supernatural beast projected the wearer's ability not only to communicate with the spirit world but also to channel and make use of its protective power. Judging from its considerable wear, old breaks, and native repairs, this frontlet was once a carefully kept heirloom that was handed down from generation to generation.

Adapted from

Steven G. Alpert, "Warrior's headdress ornament: frontal figure (tap lavong kayo)," 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), 129.