Indonesia, western Irian Jaya/West Papua, Asmat people, ca. early 20th century CE. A human skull decorated with wood, shells, and beads. The eyes are stuffed with soil and sap, with cowrie shells pressed into each socket. The nose is similarly decorated with soil and sap with shells and bright red beads pressed into them, forming a hook through which a carved wooden ornament has been inserted. Around the top of the skull is a woven textile band decorated with rows of cowrie shells and red beads. The skull itself has gained an incredibly rich patina from age and handling. Size: 5.45" W x 6" H (13.8 cm x 15.2 cm)
The Asmat people of Papua lived a traditional lifestyle until the 1950s, although the Dutchman Jan Cartensz (1623) and the expedition of Captain Cook (1770) had very limited contact with them. Their reputation as headhunters and cannibals kept outsiders away from their land. Traditionally, the Asmat venerated their ancestors through art, including by turning their skulls into dramatically ornamented sculptures. They blocked the nasal passages and the eyes, as here, in order to prevent the invasion of evil spirits. They displayed skulls like this one in small shrines within their homes.
Provenance: private Pennsylvania, USA collection; ex-private Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA collection; ex-private Colorado, USA collection, purchased in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s to early 1980s
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Rich patina on all surfaces, especially the wood, skull, and shell. There is no lower jaw.