Samuel Eilenberg Collection, Bequest of Samuel Eilenberg, 1998
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 244
The function of these amusingly anthropomorphic vessels is made clear by traces of quicklime in their interiors. Along with spoons and other paraphernalia associated with the preparation of betel (areca) nuts, containers like these were part of an extensive surface find on the beach at Lamajang in northwestern Java. Throughout South and Southeast Asia the leaves of the betel plant, a type of pepper, are wrapped around a mixture of lime and the seed kernel of the betel palm and chewed. Quicklime is a natural antacid, and the concoction provides both a stimulant and a tonic.
It is not known precisely when the practice of chewing betel began. An intriguing early reference, however, is found in the Chinese Shiji (Historical Records) written by Sima Qian during the first century B.C. Chapter 116 of this monumental work describes the appearance and activities of the non-Han people living in southwestern and southeastern China. It includes a discussion of a substance known as jujiang, thought to be betel nuts, which was transported from the southwestern province of Sichuan to the southeast. Recent reasearch in Vietnam also points to the early use of betel in mainland Southeast Asia.
This container has a cylindrical body ornamented at the foot and shoulder and a lid with a handle fashioned as a humanoid head. Suggestions of ears and hair depicted as a series of vertical lines are part of the design.