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A Superb Old New Guinea Betel Nut Mortar Coastal Sepik River Area East Sepik Province Papua New Guinea 19th C


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A Superb Old New Guinea Betel Nut Mortar Coastal Sepik River Area East Sepik Province Papua New Guinea. Dating from the 19th Century 

This very beautiful old Betel Nut Mortar is finely carved in the form of two Birdman Ancestor Spirit Figures Heads back-to-back, there are also deep incised clan designs and a dark encrusted patina from long use & handling.

Some betel nut mortars, carried by male elders, served as marks of secular and religious authority, they are often adorned with images of spirits, ancestors, or other supernatural beings, and some also had magical properties.

Betel Mortars were used by old men & women whose teeth were no longer strong enough to chew the betel nuts so they were cut up & put in this type of mortar and crushed into a paste so it’s easy to ingest when you don’t have teeth. When chewing, the individual periodically places the nut and a small quantity of lime in the mortar and crushes it with a pestle to release the active ingredients before placing it back in the mouth.

Betel Nut is the fruit of the areca palm (Areca catechu), which grows in much of the tropical Pacific (Melanesia and Micronesia), South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Chewing Betel nut is a mild stimulant such as coffee & people use it throughout their lifetime.

People in the Sepik River & much of New Guinea chew betel daily. Betel is chewed with lime made from burnt and crushed seashells and mustard leaves (Piper sp) they are mixed together in the mortar and then into the mouth and that produces a mild stimulant.

The utensils made for chewing betel nut are some of the most beautiful smaller-scale sculptures made in New Guinea. Like this old example, they were often owned and used by elderly people who still enjoy the Betel Nut but no longer have teeth to chew it.  They can be family heirlooms passed down generations.

Chewing betel is a special occasion ritual that occurs at weddings, funerals, births, and settlements of disputes; it is present in less formal situations such as a welcoming offer to guests; and on a daily basis as it is habit forming. Beautifully decorated mortars used to crush the nut are found throughout New Guinea. Some are traded widely and some are presented as bride price.

Provenance: The John Friede Collection Rye New York  and The Todd Barlin Collection of New Guinea Oceanic Art

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