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Dayak Etched & Carved Bamboo Container

Iban (Dayak) People, Borneo, Sarawak, Malaysia
19th-early 20th century

length: 32.3cm, diameter: 4.2cm



formerly in the collection of Henry Brownrigg, author of 'Betel Cutters: from the Samuel Eilenberg Collection' (Thames & Hudson, 1992); acquired from Christie's South Kensington in 2010; in the collection of Trevor Barton prior to that.

This bamboo container is from the Iban people, a sub-group of the Dayaks of Borneo. It is superbly decorated with scrolling foliage and fern motifs.

The motifs used suggest it has come from the Skrang River area of Sarawak in the Malaysian section of Borneo (Heppell et al, 2005, p. 137).

The container comprises a tall section of hollow bamboo that has a natural closure at one end and a wooden stopper at the other. The stopper has been carved with a pleasing flower motif. It is attached to the container with native string. The stopper fits into the container well and evenly.

It is engraved all over with Malay-influenced scrollwork that has been coloured red-brown with a vegetable dye known as ‘dragon’s blood’ (known to the Iban as jerenang) derived from the sap of a type of rattan palm of the Daemonorops species.

It has been etched with panels of fern and orchid motifs with upper and lower borders of dividers of zig-zag motifs which Heppell et al (2005, p. 137) describe as seberai sungei (‘criss-crossing a stream’.)

Such a container might have served various uses including for the storage of powdered lime used in the betel quid, as a food container, and possibly as a document case.

The container has an excellent patina. It is in excellent condition, and has obvious age.

Similar examples are illustrated in Chin (1980, p. 86), Wentholt (2014, p. 114), and Heppell et al (2005, p. 137).


Chin, L., Cultural Heritage of Sarawak, Sarawak Museum, 1980.

Invernizzi Tettoni, L. & E. Ong, Living in Sarawak, Thames & Hudson, 1996.

Heppell, M., et alIban Art: Sexual Selection and Severed Heads, C. Zwartenkot/Kit Publishers, 2005.

Meulenbeld, B.C., et alBudaya Indonesia: Arts and Crafts in Indonesia, Tropenmuseum, 1988.

Wentholt, A., Nusantara: Highlights from Museum Nusantara Delft, C. Zwartenkot Art Books, 2014.

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