Ceremonial Objectl in the Shape of an Ax

Period: Bronze and Iron Age

Date: ca. 100 B.C.–A.D. 300

Culture: Indonesia (Sulawesi)

Medium: Bronze

Dimensions: H. 41 3/8 in. (105.1 cm); W. 26 1/2 in. (67.3 cm)

Classification: Metalwork

Credit Line: Purchase, George McFadden Gift and Edith Perry Chapman Fund, 1993

Accession Number: 1993.525


This monumental ceremonial object is in the shape of an ax head standing on its blade. Where it was made and how it was used are unknown; only one similar example has been found, in Makassar in southwest Sulawesi. A remnant of a tang at the base was probably used to stabilize the vessel, and two struts inside the mouth make it likely that the ax head was held upright by means of ropes. Several related bronze basket-shaped objects supplied with tangs and suspension rings are Vietnamese; one has been found in Indonesia (Asserjaran, Madura Island). Aside from the great bronze drums, these mysterious objects of both types are the largest and most complex castings from the metal ages known in Southeast Asia. They, like the drums, must have been ceremonial objects imbued with great prestige and perhaps spiritual power. It is possible that they were also struck to produce a sound, although the fragile state of our example does not permit this hypothesis to be tested.

Extraordinary skill and technological prowess were required to create these bronzes, and it is unlikely that such resources were widely available. Since the decoration of the two ax-shaped objects is closer to designs found in island Southeast Asia than to those in Vietnam, it is likely that they were cast at some Indonesian center, but probably not on Sulawesi, where comparably few large-scale bronzes have been discovered. It is possible that they were made for trade to tribal chiefs on the island. The low-relief motif of a quatrefoil harks back to designs seen in the ancient Lapita culture of Melanesia and Polynesia (1500–500 B.C.). The rows of elongated teardrop-shaped bosses on the side may allude to the horns of water buffalo, animals that still play an important symbolic and economic role among the tribes of Indonesia.