Exploring Gold Funerary Masks of Ancient Java

written by Dewi Dian Reich

For the past year, we have begun to explore the art of traditional masks here in Bali. The mysterious and sacred practice of mask carving. The rituals and rites that richly adorn our culture where the ancient faces are still accompanying us today. Our chapters ‘The Living Masks of Bali’ explore this little by little.

Welcoming a New Collection at Sawidji Gallery

This journey has led us to this unexpected wonder. With the joining of the Tumbuh Widjaya Collection into our Gallery we are able to share and partake in an extraordinary experience. That is in being host to a collection of rare and valuable artefacts, that in themselves resonate with extraordinary knowledge and wonder. A vision from the past that have reached us today.

The Tumbuh Collection includes Antique ceremonial Masks, Artefacts from Pre-Majapahit Era and the three Gold Funerary Masks we are introducing today. First a little bit of history on Funerary Masks across the world.

Funerary Masks of the Ancient World

The history of funerary masks across the world is a fascinating one. Throughout our history, before there were anything to connect us across oceans and time the mask appeared in many parts of the world from our ancient civilisations to the present. Especially in cultures where the burial rites were considered important. The use of masks in ceremonies related to the dead is something that different cultures in different eras have in common.

From approximately 1900BCE- to 1st century CE, The Ancient Egyptians were known to place death masks on the deceased. The purpose of these masks were believed to help the deceased on their journey to the spirit world. Serving as protection as well.

Masks of Egypt

These Ancient Egyptian death masks were often made of cloth which was then covered with stucco or plaster and painted.However, for people of higher social statuses often gold or silver was used for their masks. One of the most well known Death Masks in history is the mask of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun created approximately 1350BCE.

In tombs of ancient Mycenae, approximately 1400BCE beaten gold death masks were found. These were discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 and are now at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. The masks were likely direct likeness of the deceased, intended to immortalise the dead. The masks were not found on all the bodies inside the grave site, indicating that those who had them were of special status.

Funerary masks like the ones found at Mycenae have not been found anywhere else in Mycenaean culture and only a few of the bodies at Grave Sites bear masks. Gold funerary masks were also discovered in the royal tombs of Cambodian Kings and in Siam (present day Thailand). The mummies of Inca royalty is another instance where ancient gold funerary masks were found.

Funerary Masks in Java

In Java, evidence of funerary masks have been discovered for many centuries, ranging from 1st Century BCE until 12th – 14th CE. One example from an earlier period is displayed The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston part of the Glassell Collection as well as at the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Another is housed in the Yale University Art Gallery, part of the inter Thompson collection which houses 200 pieces of Indonesian Gold from Pre-Islamic Indonesia. Referenced in more detail in an article in the New York Times, ‘Glitter that Epitomised an Ancient Culture

Ancient Golden Funerary Masks

Here are the three Golden Masks we have from the Tumbuh Widjaya Collection. All three from very different periods. They are each breathtaking. Looking upon the Golden Masks of our Ancient Ancestors, it is difficult to fathom the scope of time that each mask carries. Having been part of the final ritual of sacred passage a long, long time ago. Carrying so many memories that time has kept hidden but has allowed us to discover.

The first and youngest is from circa 12th Century Majapahit Era from East Java. It existed from 1293 to circa 1527 and reached its peak of glory during the era of Hayam Wuruk, whose reign from 1350 to 1389 was marked by conquests that extended throughout Southeast Asia. This period in Javanese history is well known for its incredible richness and flourishing of the arts.

In the series of images below, taken with a macro lens capturing an intimacy to its textures and colours. That in itself is something that time and earth have painted together. Like two artists in collaboration. We are simply viewers looking through a window in time, to a masterpiece.

Golden Masks of Ancient Faces

The second Golden Mask is approximately from 8th CE. The simplicity of the shape adorns the faces of the departed. The eyes, the nose and the mouth are gifted and honoured with this final adornment. This explicitly reveals something very special about the ancient rituals practiced in honor of the dead.

Golden Masks of Ancient Faces

The third of our three Gold Funerary Masks is dated approximately 1st Century CE.

When we began our journey here at Sawidji, the inspiration has been to nurture and revive our inspiration and love for our art and culture. The coming of these Golden Ancestral Masks has highlighted and brought full circle what we began. It has brought us gifts directly from our our roots, our history. It is a precious opportunity and a gift to be able to be part of something so special.

Dewi Dian Reich
Dewi Dian Reich


Founder of Sawidji Artist Collective and Gallery.
Director/Curator of Sawidji & Co

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