Traditional Sumba tortoiseshell hair comb worn in ritual dance
CONDITION: a missing tine at one end otherwise vintage condition with expected wear
SIZE: 6 ins h x 7½ ins around the curve (15 x 18 cm) decorative border 2 ins (5 cm)
APPROXIMATE DATE: late 19th century
Here is a handsome example of one of the spectacular high combs worn by young girls, brides and adolescent girls in East Sumba, Indonesia. Such ornaments form an integral feature of their ritual costume in showing that a girl is ready for marriage.
The comb is carved out of a thick plate of natural mottled tortoiseshell and is deeply curved to fit the back of the head. On the bottom are numerous small teeth for gripping the hair. has ritual carvings of horses and chickens. There is a plain central area separated by engraved borders, which are in filled with light pigment to emphasize the design. The topmost part of the comb is carved in openwork with a border of figures which have a recognizable symbolic meaning within the culture of the island. In this example I see chickens, horses, stylized human figures and a lobster.
Placed upstanding at the back of the head like a crown like they are held in place by ribbons or a band, as shown in the collage picture.
The Sumbanese have a vibrant culture marked by ancestor worship, music, dance and story-telling. Showing honour to ones ancestors is still an important part of their lifestyle and culture. Previously part of this rich tradition of festival and ceremony, the custom of wearing such combs has passed down the generations. They are treasured objects, belonging to the island’s aristocratic families. Young women who wear these combs are announcing they have entered puberty, which is a very important stage in the life of a Sumba woman.
The combs are known as “har karra jagga” and are carved from mottled tortoiseshell in both thick and thin plates. There are a few instances of their having been found in buffalo horn or thin metal but tortoiseshell is the usual material. Combs belonging to especially rich families may have applied gold decoration. Once carved and polished they are deeply curved on the lower plane almost to a semicircle. There is no curvature on the vertical plane. The finishing of the edges is of a fairly crude standard in most cases.
The combs all follow a basic format or an upper pierced heading separated from the teeth by a band of solid tortoiseshell displaying engraved linear geometric decoration. The carved decorative headings, which vary from comb to comb, are designed symmetrically on either side of the central motif, each with various images in silhouette. These depict stylized animals, birds, fish, trees and sometimes the human figure.
The Sumbanese believe a person is able to acquire the special powers and qualities of certain creatures when textiles and decorative objects displaying such motifs are worn. Thus the carvings have a recognizable symbolic meaning within the culture of the island. For example the horse represents loyalty. Chickens signify new life in many parts of the Indonesian archipelago, as the crowing of a rooster in the morning announces the arrival of a new day. Shrimps and lobsters are frequently found motifs and symbolize rebirth. Shrimps because they shed and replace their shells and lobsters because they can regenerate their limbs in a process of renewal which is symbolic of a ruler's powers. Other creatures found on such combs include deer, fish, snakes and occasionally, lions
Another motif frequently found in the centre of these combs is an "Andung" or skull tree motif. Sumba is home to a people who formerly followed the way of head-hunters and until recently adhered closely to the ritual religion of their forefathers. The skull trees (landung trees) were once used to display the captured heads from inter village warfare. They symbolized the prestige of the tribe and the power of its warriors.
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East Sumba (Indonesia) tortoiseshell hair comb with carved figures (AAF)
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