Thursday, August 05, 2010

Lapita, Taotie and other Face/Head Motifs (Part 2)

If the "simplified" Lapita face motifs can be traced back to similar designs in red-slipped and other early wares from Southeast Asia, then the simple design probably predated the realistic version.  However, since the face motif appears to be derived from a mask, in which the mouth area is often left open for vocal reasons, then there may have been a realistic earlier mask version that did not survive.  Since masks tend to be made of perishable materials, they would not endure in tropical environments like clay pottery.

 "Simplified" face motifs suggested by Chiu, and the tumpal motif design in the bottom right corner that was discussed in the last post.

Red-slipped and Neolithic pottery fragments with designs similar to the "simplified" Lapita motifs. From top to bottom, left to right, Gua Sirih, Sarawak; the next two from Saipan, Marianas; the next two from Kamassi, Sulawesi, Indonesia; Minanga Sipakko, Sulawesi; Batungan, Masbate, Philippines; next two from Saipan. 

According to Madeleine Colani, a design consisting of a hachured triangle with a small circle on top found in jewelry of Laos and Vietnam was said by locals to represent the Sun. As mentioned before, the tumpal or triangle design in Insular Southeast Asia is often said to represent hills or mountains. The idea of the circle, double circle, or circle dot motif as a symbol of the Sun is found widely in many cultures including some in the Austronesian region. For example, Florentin-√Čtienne Jaussen, mentions that the circle dot symbol in Easter Island, or at least parts of that island, represented the Sun.

Earlier in this blog, I suggested that the triangle with a circle at its apex was a symbol for an erupting volcano, and specifically the sacred volcanoes on Luzon that erupted in the Neolithic period.

When we look at the Lapita face motif consisting of two of these triangle-circle combinations linked together,  the circles would represent both the Sun and also the eyes of the face motif.  The space between the two triangles, or mountains, would form the nose, beak, snout, tongue, or combination of these features on the face motif.

The connection between eye and Sun is supported by the widespread use of related words or phrases found in the Austronesian region.  For example, the word for Sun in Malay is mata hari or mata wari meaning literally "eye of the day."   In the Pacific, some examples include mata ni siga of Fiji and San Cristoval meaning "shining eye,"  and Western Eromangan nipmi-nen "eye of the day."

Use of mountains and Sun to create a face design may relate again to pantheistic beliefs discussed earlier -- the idea that the universe exists in the form of a universal deity's "body." That this deity is sometimes represented in human form and sometimes in animal or composite form, often in the same culture, could also suggest that the people believed that these forms were interchangeable, i.e., part of the same being.

Face motifs before the appearance of the Kirtimukha image

After the period of Lapita and Taotie face motifs, the most important evidence for a continuation of this tradition in the realistic versions comes from the Pejeng and moko type bronze drums, and the Roti axes,  found in Indonesia and Malaysia.  Face motifs, which stylistic similarities, also appear on megaliths and certain other artifacts that are mostly related to megalithic sites in the same region.

The famed "Moon of Pejeng" or "Moon of Bali" drum is the most noteworthy of these artifacts.  However, the face motif here is similar to the full Lapita face designs rather than those that lacked a lower jaw.

Face motif from the Moon of Pejeng bronze drum in Bali. The mask-like motif has double circle eyes, and the whole jaw is represented. (Source: Wikipedia)

While difficult to date, the Moon of Pejeng and the other early bronze drums in Insular Southeast Asia are thought to be at least 2000 years old.  Some of the Roti axes, which have a similar face motif, may be older than the bronze drums.

One interesting thing about the moko drums found in Alor and similar drums found elsewhere in the region is the form of a triangle used in the area where the mouth should be located, or else the whole head has a triangular or heart-like shape.  As noted in the Lapita designs, the "nose" is often triangular, and is sometimes formed by two linked triangles.  In other examples, the whole head is triangular in shape.

In describing early mokos found at various museums around the world, August Johann Berne Kempers states:  "There is also the indication of a mouth, triangular or oval — or rather something in-between suggestive of a nose and a mouth simultaneously."  Kempers also notes that on one of the mokos the mouth has been "swallowed up by the lines and triangles (tumpal),"  while another face lacks a mouth entirely.

 A triangular form placed in the lower part of the face together with the absence of a mouth are certainly suggestive of a relationship with both the more realistic and "simplified" Lapita forms.  We find a similar type of design in the mask-like tattoos of Borneo's Dayaks.

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Dayak tattoo pattern with inverted double spiral forming eyes, and triangular lower face. (Source:

The often obscure triangular shape found on moko drums and Dayak tattoos may have been related to an image that developed into the lotus bud that drops from the mouth of many Kirtimukha motifs in India.  Mercia MacDermott, in her book Explore Green Men, suggests that the fir cones, leaves, and grape bunches dropping straight down from face images in Romanesque Europe are derived directly from the lotus bud of the Kirtimukha.

A 12th century carving at Abbey of St George, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville showing a pine cone hanging from the upper jaw of a human-like face. MacDermott suggests that this was derived from the lotus bud that hangs from the mouth of Kirtimukha images. (Source:

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Paul Kekai Manansala


Kempers, A. J. Bernet. The Kettledrums of Southeast Asia: A Bronze Age World and Its Aftermath, Rotterdam and Brookfield: A.A. Balkema, 1988, 371-3.

Macdermott, Mercia. Explore Green Men. Loughborough: Heart of Albion Press, 2003.

Miksic, John N. Earthenware in Southeast Asia: Proceedings of the Singapore Symposium on Premodern Southeast Asian Earthenwares. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003.

Solheim, Wilhelm G., David Bulbeck, and Ambika Flavel. Archaeology and Culture in Southeast Asia: Unraveling the Nusantao. Diliman, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2006, 112.

Wolff, Werner. Island of Death: A New Key to Easter Island's Culture Through an Ethno-Psychological Study. New York: J.J. Augustin, 1948, 65.

Zahorka, Herwig. "The mystery of the twin masks on megaliths at Long Pulung in East Kalimantan: prehistoric wax modeling molds for casting bronze moko drums? An interpretative attempt" The Free Library 01 January 2004. 06 August 2010 < mystery of the twin masks on megaliths at Long Pulung in East...-a0134382058>.