Art Focus: A Diadem and a Comb

It is always exhilarating to discover seemingly unrelated artefacts that on closer scrutiny, reveals common roots in human history and thoughts. In this post, I shall highlight two such objects as a case study.

Gold diadem from a burial mound in Ukraine, circa 2nd to 3rd century BCE. From Anatoly I. Martynov, The Ancient Art of Northern Asia, pp. 275
A woman’s tortoise shell from east Sumba, Indonesia, circa 19th- early 20th century. This object is from my tribal art collection.

The first object is a gold diadem from Ukraine, discovered in a burial mound and dates to between the second and third century BCE. It is believed to have belonged to a noted Sarmatian woman, perhaps a local queen or priestess. In its execution, it exudes opulence and is exquisite in individual details.

The second object is a tortoise shell comb worn by young unmarried women in the Indonesian island of Sumba. It dates to the 19th century or early 20th century. Executed in open-work, the comb, like the diadem, is highly symbolic in its attention to details. Like many other “Lesser Sundar Islands” of Indonesia, Sumba is distinguished by a “primitive” culture revolving around animism and ancestor worship. Some aspects of these traditions still exist today.

These two objects are separated by a time span of more than 2,000 years. Geographically, Ukraine and Sumba are thousands of kilometres apart, and culturally, the history and beliefs of the two cultures could not be more different. Yet, the diadem and the comb remind us that the history and culture of mankind, in spite of all their diversity, are fundamentally unified.

What I see here are remarkable similarities in motifs and symbolism. In the centre of the upper parts of both objects stand a tree, flanked by a deer on each side (there is also a ram on the edge of the diadem). In the diadem, the tree is free-standing, while in the comb, it is in the guise of a towering headdress worn by a woman who is depicted with raised arms. In both objects, the depicted tree is no ordinary tree; it is the fabled ‘Tree of Life’ that appears in diverse cultures throughout history where it generally represents life-enhancing themes like fertility, rebirth or regeneration.

A Sumba woman wearing a tortoise shell comb

Another prominent in both objects is the deer. The antlered deer motif on the diadem is likely a symbol of royalty since it is possibly a reference to the hunting parties of the nobility class and the diadem is evidently a property of a person of that class. The same meaning can be ascribed to the deer motif on the Sumba comb. Collaborative evidence comes from the red-dyed Hinggis (mantle) for which Sumba is famous. In these majestic cloths, the deer is commonly paired with another high-status animal, the horse and other highly symbolic animals. Like the tortoise shell comb, such cloths were the prerogative of the upper class.

In short, we have two objects separated in time and space, but united by the universal human quest for power and prosperity.


For more information on the deer motif in Sumba combs and textiles, search for the key words in (the website of the Asian Civilization Museum, Singapore)

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