Yamdena Island, Tanimbar Islands
south Moluccas, Indonesia
19th century or earlier
112.0 (h) x 171.0 (w) x 7.0 (d) cm
National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden
Noble families of Tanimbar create large ornate altars [tavu] to worship their deified ancestors, the legendary founders of the village. The altars support the central roof beams of the great houses and are positioned close to where unmarried daughters sleep. Valuables and ancestral remains—skulls, bones and wooden effigies—are stored around the ornate sculptures which serve a protective function and preserve communal fertility.
The altars depict ancestors in greatly stylised form, with outstretched arms transformed into decorative curving branches, hourglass shapes echoing the human torso, and square or triangular faces without features. Proclaiming the wealth and status of the noble family, altars are emblazoned with images of the finest and most distinctive gold jewellery [masa], ancestral heirlooms of the great house.