Ethnic Jewels

An appreciation of ethnic jewellery and adornment

Whalebone Comb from Tanimbar

The edges of this comb are trimmed with slivers of whalebone. The front is inlaid with a piece of carved whalebone decorated with an interlacing pattern and a face. The seller claimed it was 19th century. It would be difficult to confirm this, but the wear on it is consistent with something of that age.

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Comment by Edith D on May 2, 2017 at 13:48
I had an interesting experience at an annual craft fair over the weekend. I was offered a Tanimbar comb made of wood and whalebone similar to this one, only much larger (about 12 inches high) and more elaborate. When I examined it carefully, I could see that it had never been used, and the seller admitted that it was new. Apparently, very large super-fancy models are made for the tourist market!

I have no doubt that the one pictured above has actually been used, and has some age. It is only about 5 inches high, is heavily worn, and put together with ferrous pins. I noted that the tourist model had no wear and no signs of how the bone pieces were secured (maybe modern adhesive)? Anyway, it got me to thinking about similar examples that I have seen listed on websites of fancy art galleries in the west. Are these fancier pieces genuine cultural artifacts or something made for the tourist market? Personally, I think I prefer my little heavily worn comb.
Comment by Edith D on April 19, 2017 at 11:32

Also, if anyone has a similar object that needs to be cleaned, here is an extremely useful link:

http://canada.pch.gc.ca/eng/1439925170216

Comment by Edith D on April 19, 2017 at 11:03

Thanks Thelma:  I was very taken by the design on this piece, which seems to be very typical of the region.  I cannot tell you for certain what the design means, but I have a few ideas about it.  The face could represent an ancestor or perhaps the mythical figure called "Atuf" who splits the sun into many pieces in Tanimbar mythology.  The spirals emitting from the face also look to me a bit like an octopus, and these are traditionally seafaring peoples.  The triangle under the face could represent a mountain or a tree.  If anyone else knows something about this iconography, please let me know!

Comment by Thelma on April 19, 2017 at 10:01

This is very interesting, Edith. Do you know anything about the decoration... the head and those strange curly locks of hair? It looks as if there could be some sort of story behind it.

Comment by Edith D on April 19, 2017 at 4:56

The pins are probably ferrous.  The gap between the edge trim and the body of the comb is likely the result of a combination of shrinkage and rusting of the pins.  As metal rusts, it expands.  Combination pieces like this one are always difficult to conserve since each material responds differently to the environment, and different materials often need separate types of cleaning and stabilization treatments.

Comment by Edith D on April 19, 2017 at 4:51

After a light surface cleaning with some filtered water, one can see the rather interesting construction.  The whalebone is secured with tiny pins.

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