Antonio Guerreiro, member of the MAFBO project, is organizing a panel entitled “Unveilling Head Taking and Decorated Trophy Skulls (with a Special Focus on Borneo)” at the next conference, which will be held in Vienna, 11-14th August 2015 (www.univie.ac.at/euroseas2015/).
In looking at ‘headhunting’ or ’head taking’ practices and ideas found in the continental and insular areas of Southeast Asia, – and especially in the great island of Borneo at the center of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago -, one is struck by the persistance of this multi-layered complex. It can be remarked that it links the social, religious and esthetic dimensions among the peoples following this custom until colonial times. Conversely, the approach advocated here stresses that it should be studied as a ‘total social phenomenon’. Then, head taking can be best approached from several points of view. In order to define the practice of head taking more clearly, we suggest that it can be considered as part of a ritual complex in which the killed individual’s head (or one of its parts, e.g. skull, jaw, hair, skin, tooth) was conserved as a ‘trophy’ or a ‘relic’ and used in various ways by the community (Coiffier & Guerreiro 1999 ; Hoskins 1996 ; Schefold 2007). During the 19th century, in the Western part of the archipelago, the rich forms of ornamentation of skulls in Western Borneo (Sarawak and the neighbouring Province of West Kalimantan) should be noted. They include engraving and the application of metal sheets to the crania, besides the insertion of wooden pieces in the cavities of the nose and cowries or nassa shells in the eyes sockets. In short, the objectivated human trophy becomes thus a ‘spirit’, either a servant or a protector, belonging to the longhouse or village of his murderers. As a pusaka, an inherited prestige good, the skull housing the spirit was also supposed to be a source of luck and fertility for the whole community, and not only for the head takers themselves. It is noticeable that some groups, e.g. the Kayan, disposed of old skulls as they lost their positive features and became malevolant (Hose and Mac Dougall, 1912 ; Mac Kinley 1976 ; Guerreiro 2012). From another angle, the panel will look at the questions relating to the display of such objects as human and animal trophy skulls deposited in Western Museums. The distinction of human trophy skulls and ancestor skulls is also relevant in the museographical context. What are the criteria used in the displays according to the type of Museum concerned (Natural History, Art, Anthropology, Culture…) ?