Fossil hunters have a well-deserved reputation for finding rare things in difficult places. However, there are times when fossils are ‘hidden’ in plain sight as material for the decorative arts. While not as informative as specimens found in situ and undisturbed, nevertheless, they still have palaeontological interest and may yet be of genuine scientific value.
This short discussion will take that optimistic approach with a fossil Stegodon molar attached to a Malay sword in my collection. The Stegodon genus, widely acknowledged as closely ancestral to modern elephants, lived in habitats across southern Asia into the Pleistocene, so humans may have developed an awareness and liking for Stegodon remains during their co-existence (Rich, Rich, Fenton & Fenton 1989). Anyway, by early modern times, Stegodon molars (‘garham gaja’ in Malay) were a recognised luxury commodity, whose biological origins were understood and to which totemic significance was attached.
Form and context
My sword belongs to a class of bladed weapons falling under the general rubric of ‘kris’. Krisses are documented from southern India through mainland Southeast Asia and eastward to the Philippines, but are concentrated in Malaysia and Indonesia (especially the Malaya peninsular, Sumatra, Java and Bali). While there is an unmistakable relationship in these weapons’ blade shapes (particularly the asymmetrical shoulders to their blades), they vary greatly in their proportions and decoration, and even more so in the cultural practices surrounding them. Nevertheless, the cultures that used them, traditionally placed a high premium on their use as fashion accessories, and krisses became increasingly formulaic in their design. As a result, you can quickly learn where they come from by using the form of their component parts as a guide, most notably the hilts (Jessup 1990; Frey 2003).
The fossil material on my kris is attached as a pommel to a wooden grip, bound with metal wire. The pommel is carved as a stylised cockatoo head – this motif is identical to that seen on sword pommels from the Malay-Muslim cultures of Mindanao and Sulu, now collectively known as ‘Moro’. While the literature on Southeast Asian weaponry typically presumes a flow of information from west –to east, the evidence regarding the cockatoo pommel suggests that the Malays of northern Borneo and peninsular Malaya adopted this feature from the Moros culture, no earlier than the nineteenth century. The Moros believed that the cockatoo transmitted its earthly observations to Heaven though its loud calls (Knappert 1995). Placement of the cockatoo form on the hilt of a personal weapon, itself the object of spiritual attention, reinforced the symbolic associations between the bearer of the sword, his audience’s understanding of cultural symbols and his relative social position.
I believe that the decoration of such weaponry was historically employed as a means for socially mobile individuals to contest their relative status when direct violence was not a culturally acceptable option. Conspicuous consumption of rare and precious materials indicated access to wealth and power, and fossils certainly fell into this category. Because this type of sword was worn thrust through a waist sash, the large pommel would have been a highly visible fashion statement.
As pure type specimen, an example such as this or any similar object, is likely to be of greater interest to cultural historians or archaeologists than palaeontologists. As a result of being altered when they are turned into objects of art, vital information on size, appearance and texture is lost. Even when these modifications serve to emphasise certain natural aesthetics (for instance, the laminate colour striations revealed through the polishing of my example), they often come at the expense of destroying other natural features.
Perhaps more beneficial is the recognition of a sustained market in fossil material through the ages. Consumers of this material understood its rarity and beauty, and demand for the product was an incentive for suppliers to locate fossil sites and develop techniques for the identification, recovery and preservation of specimens. Such proto-scientific local knowledge would, no doubt, still be useful to modern palaeontologists seeking new excavation sites.
In her books, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times and Fossil Legends of the First Americans, Adrienne Mayor encourages yet another avenue of research – the analysis of the collective bodies of knowledge assembled by proto-scientific cultures about the palaeontological evidence they encountered. Mayor’s work on classical and native American sources shows that these cultures reasoned in systematic ways, using induction, comparison to living analogues and narrative to reconstruct the physical remains they encountered. On occasion, these inferences closely anticipated scientific conclusions made by modern palaeontologists. Therefore, attention to the historical and artistic circumstances producing fossil ornaments may give modern palaeontologists added perspective on the objects of their study. However, whether for scientific or artistic reasons, the use of fossils as prominent decorative objects is testimony to their enduring and multifaceted appeal in all times and places.
I would like to thank Adni Aljunied of the Malay Art Gallery, Singapore, and to Dave Henkel, a specialist in Malay-Indonesian weaponry at the Asia Museum, Singapore, who both kindly helped with the accuracy for this article.
Frey, Edward 2003. The Kris: Mystic Weapon of the Malay World. ISBN 9789835600692
Jessup, Helen Ibbitson 1990. Court Arts of Indonesia. ISBN 0878480722
Knappert, Jan 1995. Pacific Mythology. ISBN 1855381338.
Rich, Patricia Vickers; Rich, Thomas Hewitt; Fenton, Mildred Adams; & Carroll Lane Fenton 1989. The Fossil Book: A Record of Prehistoric Life. ISBN 0486293718