New Acquisitions

Langat Ancestor skull

Mandak, New Ireland

Skull, wax, pigments, shell
19th century
Height: 8 ½ in. (22 cm)

Ex collection Mathias Komor, New York
Ex Sotheby’s New York, 29 Nov. 1984 lot 71
Ex collection Antonio Casanovas, Arte y Ritual, Madrid
Ex private collection, Brussels
Ex collection Adrian Schlag, Brussels

Published in: Golgotha, Martin Doustar, 2014

Published in: Ferocious Poetry, Ancient Arts of New Ireland, 2019

Price: on request

Melanesia – Eastern Papua New Guinea
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There was a strong demand from German museums for ethnographical objects, and skulls in particular. Indeed, the collection and systematic study of skulls in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was an important enterprise for anthropologists. It provided a base for systematic craniometry, in the end attempting by the rational approach of scientific measurement to establish the basis for justifying segregation in society based on race. The collection of skulls from people native to the South Seas thus furnished precious data to the anthropologists of the period. In consequence, there was a very strong demand for skulls from colonial administrators and residents who sent the curiosities to Germany.
The practice of skull overmodelling within Malagan ceremonies was limited to Mandak, in the Tabar Islands and south of Fissoa. Our skull is probably an overmodelled skull of the Langat type, from Mandak territory, and would have been displayed in Malagan funeral rites in the region stretching from Fissoa to Lemeris.
A few moons after inhumation, the skulls of the deceased were recuperated then kept for many month, or even years, hanging from the beams in the Men’s House. Just before the last stages of the Malagan ceremony for the deceased, ritual experts retrieved one of the skulls in the Men’s House—that of the deceased or another—symbolizing the dead person. The lower jaw was disjointed and repositioned, so as to elongate the chin. In some cases, a pig jaw was used to replace it. The bones were then covered with beeswax and nut paste from the Parinarium laurinum. A thick coat of chalk mixed with the juice of the breadfruit tree was then applied. The ritual expert inserts into the eye sockets an iris made from white Cowry shell, Cypraea tigris. He then adds pupils, the opercules of the sea snail Turbo Petholatus. Hair and beard are represented by woven braids, or numerous minuscule cones in shell, Truncatella guerinni. Finally the face can be painted with yellow pigments (coming from a decoction of a swamp plant) red ochre and carbon black. These encrusted skulls were called Malagan Matampiriwit. Other encrusted overmodelled skulls have one very black side, covered only with beeswax and nut paste from the Parinarium laurinum. Skulls of this type are called Langats.
From a Mandak point of view, the word Matampiriwit embodies the concept of fear, while also referring to a bird’s nest. The feeling of fear is also widespread among Uli ancestral figures. Ulis and overmodelled skulls are Malagan objects, which must be activated for rituals calling for spells and sacrifices. They link the people to the principle of the vital force of the clan and to its tutelary spirits. This is not a portrait of the deceased and any skull available can be used. Pendant la ceremony, they become Malagan objects which incarnate the clan’s vital force. During the last stage of the ceremony, the overmodelled skulls Malagan Matampiriwit are finally displayed at the feet of the Uli, on a ritual bench (see Fig. 1). According to primary sources, they are often destroyed after the ceremonies. overmodelled skulls called Langat arre not destroyed, they are given into the care of young boys who are expected to take care of them. They remain constantly within the sacred boundaries.
On 15 October 1910, Colonial Administrator Wilhem Wostrack, at his post in Namatanai, wrote to the Linden-Museum of Stuttgart: “ A grand funeral ceremony was organized in honor of the famous chief Takau who died a year ago. During the ceremony, the skull was displayed in the usual manner. Moreover, the deceased was represented by a figure in carved wood, allowing him to participate in the ceremony. The skull was covered in black beeswax, and thus was very realistic. Perhaps in order to render the face more similar to that of the dead man, the face was also painted in lime. From the head hung long strings of shell money, which at present is what the natives use for money…I did not succeed in obtaining the skull, the skull was immerged in the sea.”