Pierre Nachbaur

The Dayak Trophy Skull discussion, by Mark Johnson

Aboriginal peoples on Borneo Island, generically described as “Dayaks”, were habitual headhunters, taking and then preserving the skulls of their victims. It was believed the head contained a “life force” that could be harnessed for the benefit of the head-taker’s community.

Newly taken heads provided communal protection, insured bountiful harvests, and cured disease. Heads were needed to honor the funerary rites of village aristocrats and to pay blood debts. For young men, taking heads showed their prowess, bravery, and ability to provide for and protect the family, village, and tribal territory, thus increasing their status and marriage eligibility.

On Borneo Island, headhunting was all but eradicated by the early 20th century. There were some exceptions: WWII, when it was allowed to take the heads of Japanese soldiers, and during the 1950s-60s Communist insurrection, when Dayaks were employed as pro-government jungle fighters. Because of mass conversions to Christianity or Islam and for internal political cohesion, most Dayak villages no longer display or keep these trophies, which were often destroyed, buried, or sold.

As the key ritual object of headhunting cultures, trophy skulls can be an important addition to a tribal art collection. For those interested in collecting these objects the next issue is how to tell the difference from a fake and an authentic trophy skull.

This is not always easy, as many traditional trophy skulls are undecorated, so any old skull dug up out of a graveyard could be marketed as authentic and most buyers probably wouldn't know the difference. However, most skulls were displayed in large baskets or encased in thick rattan straps in the common veranda of the longhouse. Years of hanging above smoky fires, would likely add a noticeably dark, possibly crusty, patina not associated with common burial.
There is a subgroup of trophy skulls that have been carved with tribal motifs or enhanced with other materials, such as wood, metal, shells, and beads. It is easier to visually determine authenticity with carved skulls by the technique and motifs, as well as the surface patina.

In my experience, the majority of authentic carved Dayak skulls have very thin, shallow lines, with delicate designs that appear to represent botanical motifs.  It is my understanding that freshly taken skulls are softer and more pliable, thus making it easier to carve these thin, lightly etched motifs.  The color of authentic old skulls tends to range from a creamy white to an amber color to a darker brown for those examples kept in a smoky environment. With the exception of some authentic examples that appear to have a cleaned, almost bleached, white surface, normally the color on old examples is inconsistent and asymmetrical, because the natural aging process is inconsistent and asymmetrical.

What I often find on the market are plain, usually old, skulls that have been re-carved with motifs to make them more valuable and sellable. Because these examples are no longer soft and pliable the surface is harder to carve. The motifs appear to be gouged out with a larger tool, creating lines with a deeper and wider "V" shaped cut.

These carvers also tend to add figurative motifs, like dragons (Asos), human figures, etc, which are often garish and over done, with little or no finesse. I rarely see these types of figurative motifs on authentic, older skulls.
Once recarved, an older looking “patina” has to be added to hide the new cut marks. This rarely works out well, because the new surface looks artificial, too consistent, like someone covered it in shoe polish.
When I see skulls with deep, thick cut marks, big garish, over the top motifs, and an odd looking, unnatural color, it is my opinion that these examples are recarved.

Main image: Dayak Trophy Skull covered with tin foil, purchased in 1884 by the Museum Volkenkunde (Leiden, The Netherlands).

  • Ex-Musée de l'Homme (Paris), now in the collection of Musée du Quai Branly (Paris)

  • Museum Volkenkunde (Leiden, The Netherlands)

  • Covered with tin foil, purchased in 1883, ex-Kabinet van Zeldzaamheden, Museum Volkenkunde (Leiden, The Netherlands)

  • Dayak Trophy Skull's drawing in the book "The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo" by Henry Ling Roth (1896)