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 April 19, 2017 at 11:32

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

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.




Created by Cordelia Donohoe Apr 10, 2017 at 4:03pm. Last updated by Cordelia Donohoe Apr 17.

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