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  • 078 SERAM
    Ute-ute (sarong). Warp ikat. 1900-1930. Tambilau, a hamlet on southern Seram.

Seram, the mysterious source of 'kain timur'

Ikat from Seram

Ikat sarong from Seram, collection Tropenmuseum, before 1940. This 'kain timur' was used in the barter trade with New Guinea, where it was collected.
Seram, formerly called Ceram, some 340 by 60 km, is the largest island of the central Moluccas, where it is considered the ancestral home of the original population, and known as Nusa Ina, 'Mother Island'. Its spine is formed by a formidable mountain range, the highest peaks reaching 3000 meters, partly covered with rain forest. The majority of the original Alfurese inhabitants, ethnologically intermediate between the Malays and Papuans, over the centuries mixed with Javanese, Balinese, Buginese, Macassarese and immigrants, and with Moluccans from Halmahera and Ternate. The diet is largely based on sago, copra and fish. Clans, soa, are predicated on the long boats that ancestors once arrived in. These venerated vessels of origin are often rebuilt in stone, provide a seat for each head of family, and serve as ritual centres. Several clans together form communities, which often build a pemali, a monolithic monument ot their cohesion. Centuries of islamisation and christianisation, have not managed to eradicate belief in demons, ghosts, and black magic. Headhunting was common well into the 20th C. Trophy heads would be displayed in the community house called Baileo, and any addition were the cause for major ceremonies.
     Ikat textiles from Seram are rare, and seldom mentioned in literature. They are found in a only a few western museum collections (Niggemeyer, see below, mentions the three ethnological museums in the Netherlands then still in existence, and the one in Frankfurt), ususually dating from the 19th and early 20th C. The existence of ikat cloth from Seram was documented already in the 17th C., in descriptions of the fairly extensive Seramese barter trade with Papuan tribes in New Guinea's Bird's Head Peninsula. Coastal tribes would raid villages in the interior to obtain slaves which might be traded for sarongs and other cloths from Seram (and occasionally from other islands such as Halmahera). Confusingly, such trade cloths were known as kain timur, perhaps because cloths used to come from Timor before.
      Not much is known about Seram ikat beyond the description of their use in the barter trade. There is some speculation about possible import of ikated skeins from other islands (Timor?), which comes to mind as no ikating was observed in later expeditions, such as the 1937/38 Frobenius, but is contradicted by the characteristic Seramese style, which, while showing influence from other islands, does have a distinct individuality. Characteristic of Seram ikat cloths are their strong morinda red bands, often a clearer red than is common in Nusa Tenggara, and bands with ikat in white on indigo. Common motifs are zigzag lines, diamond patterns, crosses, and patterns that resemble Timorese and Tanimbarese crocodile motifs. Another motif seen on several old Seram ikat textiles resembles the mata bili, representing the vulva, seen in some sarongs from the Lio district on Flores (see PC 045), though it is unclear if there is any influence from Florinese patterns. The pattern may also be inspired by the Timorese kaif motif (see PC 149), which is plausible given the islands' relative proximity, and would explain the term 'kain timur'.
     Given the little that we know with a degree of certainty, it appears most likely that ikating, while once important on Seram for local use and trade, began dying out early, perhaps by the end of the 19th C., when import of cheap textiles from other islands such as Java made textile production on the island unnecessary.



There is very little recent literature specifically dealing with ikat from Seram. A good source is a very well researched but obscure 1952 article by Niggemeyer. Please alert us if a new source appears.

Map of Seram (Ceram)

Antique map of Ceram
Map showing position of Seram (Ceram) in the Moluccas. French, probably early 1700s.

©Peter ten Hoopen, 2018. All rights reserved.