Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Another Repatriation Case

It appears there has been another successful thwarting of human remains smuggling from Southeast Asia to the West, according to an article that has come to my attention today (courtesy of Museum Security Network). Additional coverage is here. ICE and Homeland Security authorities in New York investigated the suspicious origins of a package shipped from Bali, Indonesia (declared customs value of $5!), found to contain five carved and decorated "head-hunting" trophy skulls, believed to ethnographically originate with one of the many Dayak tribes in Borneo (Kalimantan). The skulls are believed to have been collected sometime during the 18th-19th centuries, although it is highly unlikely that any specific written records would tie these particular skulls to a specific location or time period; instead, appraisers would be required to rely on decorative motif analysis.

Because the total price exceeded $20,000 after a local appraiser "evaluated" what are acknowledged by the authorities, rightly in my opinion, to be priceless human remains, Customs could stop shipment at port in New Jersey. Amidst the usual speeches by officials of both nations, consultants etc. when repatriations are made, I find it unfortunate that these specifically Dayak ethnological artifacts (read stolen ancestral remains/heirlooms) were glossed as the "heritage of the Indonesian people" in this article. I have yet to find any information on whether or not community officials or leaders from one or more Dayak villages (i.e. longhouses) were on hand to witness the repatriation or claim the remains? I suspect not... The article merely suggests that they will be conserved in Indonesia...somewhere.

No information is given on the original shipper or intended destination, so perhaps that is still under investigation as part of prosecutory efforts. From what I can gather, this has yet to receive any independent press in Indonesia itself (the skull returned on the 16th May). Unfortunately, gallery webpages like this (the source of the photo above left) strongly suggest that a market for human remains still exists, with or without the participation of "independent," individual below-boards dealers on e-commerce sites like eBay. At least the above represents one more apprehension and, hopefully, ensures the conservation of these skulls for both future study and perhaps even eventual return to the appropriate community(s).


  1. I'm new to your blog but, I must say, I am glad I stumbled upon you!

  2. Why thank you! Here's hoping you keep following as I continue to follow the Southern Hemisphere illicit antiquities trail :) I also blog and volunteer with SAFE, so be sure to check them out!