New Guinea Overmodeled Skull Reliquary


The Iatmul people, indigenous to the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, have a rich tradition of using overmodeled skulls, which stand as a profound expression of their complex spiritual beliefs and social practices. This unique form of art involves the intricate process of decorating human skulls with clay, creating a lifelike representation of the deceased's face. The practice is deeply rooted in the Iatmul's ancestral worship and their belief in the cyclical nature of life and death, where the spirits of ancestors play a pivotal role in the daily life and well-being of the community.

The making of overmodeled skulls, a custom that has existed since the Neolithic era, is widespread in Oceania and the Near East. They were primarily used in various ceremonial contexts, serving as a tangible connection between the living and the ancestors. They were believed to house the spirit of the deceased, thus maintaining a direct link to the ancestral world. This connection was essential for securing the ancestors' blessings, guidance, and protection. The skulls were often kept in men's houses or spirit houses, which were central to community rituals and gatherings, indicating the importance of ancestors in social and spiritual life. During specific ceremonies, these skulls were displayed and venerated, sometimes accompanied by offerings, to honor the ancestors and seek their favor.

The process of creating an overmodeled skull was not only a spiritual endeavor but also an artistic one, showcasing the skill and creativity of the Iatmul people.The clay used to cover the skulls was often molded to reconstruct the facial features of the deceased, sometimes painted and adorned with shells, feathers, and other materials to enhance their appearance. This act of adornment was not merely for aesthetic purposes but was imbued with symbolic meanings, reflecting the status, achievements, and characteristics of the person being memorialized.The use of overmodeled skulls by the Iatmul highlights a profound relationship with the afterlife, encapsulating their reverence for ancestors, the importance of memory and heritage, and a deep understanding of the cycle of life and death.

This example on offer is one of the finest extant examples, crafted with great sensitivity and beauty. Depicting the face of a young man, possibly killed in battle, the work is in excellent condition and still retains the original wood and rattan armature. The armature would have originally been festooned with feathers, leaves, flowers and various ornaments.

Late 19th / early 20th century
Human skull and hair, pearl-shell, shell disk embedded in the earth mud on the side of the cheek, cane, sago palm pith, earth and pigments, wood and rattan armature.
Height: 60 in, 150 cm

Germany missionary collection

Loed Van Bussel (1935 - 2018), Amsterdam

François Coppens Collection, Brussels

Alan Steele, acquired from the above

Private collection since 2012

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