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Beads from Borneo:

The Southwell Collection of Kayan Beads

Tom Harrisson, Director of the Sarawak Museum in Kuching, Sarawak (East Malaysia) in the 1960s, was very interested in beads. He asked Hudson Southwell to collect some from the Kayan people in 1964/5. I am grateful to Heidi Munan, Curator of Beads and Lucas Chin, then Director, for this information and the pictures. Prices (per bead) were determined by Kayak elders and are in U.S. dollars as of 1988. Scales are tenths of an inch (2.5 mm).

The Lukut Sekala, the most prized bead - $4,000, if you can find anyone to sell you one. Its price rose 10,000% in the quarter century since Southwell bought it.

Its origin is unknown, but perhaps early Islamic or Viking. I have not seen a parallel in such collections, but the technology fits.

Furness (1902) reported that Chinese merchants sent a Lukuk Sekala to Europe to be imitated. The Kayans weren't fooled.

This is the imitation, the Lukut Bela Daha. $40.

The next two most valuable beads are the Lukut Kong Ba (left) $2,000 and the Lukut Sak Badak $3,200. Both Early Islamic or Viking.

The Pelang Alan Ba'un Lan ($4.00) is a wound imitation of a 7-layer chevron. Chinese, found in early 16th century contexts in Asia.

The Kayan live along the rivers flowing from the interior of Borneo. They are the bead traders of the forest. A young Kayan man goes to the coast and works a few years for an oil rig or lumber company. He saves his money and when he returns never has to work again, as the money is only used to pay taxes. Obviously he buys beads on the coast and this pattern has apparently been going on for centuries. Their collections are quite eclectic.

A genuine drawn chevron from Venice, unusually twisted. The Bua Wang Bela Pa'un Lan, $40+.

Three other Venetian (lamp-wound) beads. Right: Kaja Ubing $20. Below Kaja Ubing $12. Below right Bua Wang Batang Uma $8.

This Venetian bead (right) is not in the Southwell collection, but was selling for about $12 in Kuching in 1988. It is similar to the Lukut Sekala and was possibly an imitation. It is found in Africa only rarely.

The origins of these wound and striped beads are not known. Left Teklen (Teklan), stripes fallen out, $16 to $20. Below left Lulut Kemata $20. Below Kelem Bela Pa'un Lan $4.

At first I thought this might be Venetian until Gai Leise of the Bead Museum dropped one in my hand. The lead content points to China. Kelem Ati $20.

An unusual clear bead with interior structures, likely Japanese. Bua Wang Nelen $12 to $16.

Origin?? Could be Venetian, but then... Bua Wang Mata Tinggang Pa'un Lan $20+.

Very crude glass bead. Heidi Munan thinks it might have been locally made. Who knows? Bua Wang Lutong $40.


Heirlooms of the Hills by Pete Francis

Notes on Sundry Asiatic Beads by Horace C. Beck in Man, 1930, October:166-82 + 2 plates (source of the Lukut Kong Ba picture).

The Southwell Collection of Kayan Beads in the Sarawak Museum: An Annotated Checklist by Heidi Munan-Oettli in Sarawak Museum Journal, 1988, 39(60):105-9 + plate.


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