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‘Aso’ Ear Ornament of Carved Hornbill Casque (Beak)
Kenyah/Kayan Dayak People, Sarawak, Borneo
early 20th century
height: 5.2cm, width: 4.2cm, thickness: 1cm, weight: 11.5g
This ear ornament is carved from a single piece of hornbill casque or beak and would have been worn in a man's extended earlobe. Often such ornaments
were worn singularly rather than in pairs, and even if two were worn, often they did not match.
It has the form of a coil and has been decorated on both sides with tendril-like aso motifs.
The aso is a mythical underworld hybrid dragon-dog female fertility figure. Richter (2000, p. 174) says that such 'curvilinear vitality' may be derived in part from
dragons or other mythical creatures portrayed in Chinese trade ceramics that were imported into Borneo in vast quantities.
The hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) is a large forest bird known for its enormous orange-red beak and casque and dark blue feathers. It was regarded with enormous
symbolic importance among the Dayak of Borneo's interior and played an important role in their creation myths. Many of Borneo's indigenous groups
traditionally viewed the hornbill as a representation of the upper-world god. The wearing of hornbill feathers and carved casques during ceremonies conveyed
the high status, power and prestige of the wearer. Certainly the wearing of ornaments fashioned from hornbill tended to be restricted to men.
The casques are made of solid kerotin and are strong but also readily carved and pierced. According to Brinkgreve & Stuart-Fox (2013, p. 232) among the
Kenyah Dayaks of the Apo Kayan region of Borneo, only successful headhunters were allowed to wear ear ornaments made from hornbill ivory.
A smaller and less complicated version is illustrated in Brinkgreve & Stuart-Fox (2013, p. 232) in which it is erroneously described as being made of brass. A
less complicated pair is illustrated in Rodgers (1995, p. 280).
The example here is in fine condition. It has a golden patina consistent with use and significant age.
Brinkgreve, F., & D.J. Stuart-Fox (eds), Living with Indonesian Art: The Frits Liefkes Collection, Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, 2013.
Richter, A., The Jewelry of Southeast Asia, Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Rodgers, S., Power and Gold: Jewelry from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, The Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva, 3rd ed. 1995.
Acquired in the UK, from the estate collection of Dr George Yuille Caldwell (1924-2016). Dr Caldwell, an English-born physician moved to Singapore in the
1950s, from where he built up a collection of mostly Borneo-related textiles and other ethnographica.
Inventory no.: 3937
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