moesgaard museum, de etnografiske samlinger, ethnography, collections, museum, aarhus, denmark, tuxen, shoes, papua new guinea, sepik

Ancestor Skull – Papua New Guinea

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Quite frankly, we were a little spooked by this item! Even more so when we discovered that beneath the layers of clay and paint, is the real human skull of a specifically important ancestor of the Sepik province in Papua New Guinea.

According to Jens Bjerre, who collected the skull in 1961, the practice of digging up the heads of ancestors was prominent up until the beginning of the 20th century, when Christian missionaries put a stop to the tradition.


Often placed in ceremonial houses, haus tambaran, the decorated skulls were said to inhabit spiritual powers, best maintained by frequent communication with village men. The combination of the skull and clay was said to be a representation of the contradictions that make up life – the hard and the soft, the masculine and the feminine.

We guess the Christians managed to apply yet another layer to the skull – that of a sense of vulgarity, which is probably what affects our reaction to the item now?

// Ciara Coogan


Photo: © 2014 Jacob Due, Photo/Media Department of Moesgaard Museum.

Byline portrait: © 2015 Line Beck,

One thought on “Ancestor Skull – Papua New Guinea”

  1. Pingback: Money with soul: The kissi penny | ethnographica

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