printing block


The group of tattooing instruments that the Horniman acquired from Mr Ling Roth (1855-1925) help us to understand how printing blocks, like this one bearing the motif of a dog's head, and tattooing instruments with an attached needle attached were used. Although the style and form appeared to vary according to different regions and customs, to begin with, the design was carved onto the surface of a wooden block, which was smeared with soot and applied to the skin surface. The next step was to pierce the skin around the contours of the design using tattoo instruments, such as this one. The tattoo instrument has a long wooden ‘arm’ and can have a set of needles inserted at the top end that were dipped in ink--although this instrument has only one needle. On some occasions, thread would have been wrapped around the needles to prevent the tip of the needle from penetrating too far through the skin's surface. More ink might have been poured onto the surface to penetrate the punctured skin, and wet rice could be applied to keep the surface cool. Reports vary but women tended to be tattooed more than the men, usually from their elbows to the tips of their fingers as well as from the hip to just above the knee. From afar, the heavily detailed tattoos could appear to be solid, but according to several accounts, upon closer inspection, the patterns were quite elaborate and intricate. Men’s motifs included designs, such as stars, circles, lines, images of fish, birds or other wildlife, and for both men and women, the colour turned a blue-ish tint. It appears to be a relatively wide custom for men to have their fingers tattooed if they were present when another man was killed in battle and to have their entire hand tattooed if they had killed an enemy themselves and taken his head. This custom did not apply to chiefs who sometimes had their whole hand tattooed.

At the end of the 19th century, the anthropologist and part-time curator, Mr H Ling Roth published a detailed two-volume account of the people of Sarawak and British North Borneo. The Horniman Museum acquired a vast number of objects from Roth’s own collection that included implements that used for tattooing the body. He described similar items in a chapter of his book, ‘Painting and Tattuing’. The son of a London doctor, Roth was educated at the University College School, London, and then studied natural science and philosophy in Germany. In 1875, he visited British Guiana and Russia the next year. He immigrated to Australia where he stayed until 1884 and was commissioned to investigate the Queensland sugar industry in 1878. After leaving Australia in 1884, he settled in 1888 'in business' at Halifax, Yorkshire, England at the age of thirty-four, and he was, by then, a much-travelled man. Many European countries, the Middle East, Russia, Australasia, the West and East Indies and other far-away settings had created, for him, an absorbing interest in their customs and their native industries as they were nearly a century ago. Ethnology and anthropology were his ‘hobbies’, and already in 1882, he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute. He was appointed honorary curator of the Bankfield Museum in Halifax in 1900 and also published a number of books on local history, Australia and other countries he had visited, such as his two-volume account ‘The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo’. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in 1900, Ling Roth voluntarily undertook the work of superintending the museum at Bankfield and did so for twelve years--some of them as part-time ‘keeper’. The innovations and improvements he devised, however, eventually demanded his whole time, and it was as Curator at Bankfield Museum that Mr. Roth found his real forte in Halifax. For almost a quarter of a century, until the year before his death in 1925 in his seventy-first year, he was its organising force.

Collection Information

These objects are only a part of our collections, of which there are more than 350,000 objects. This information comes from our collections database. Some of this is incomplete and there may be errors. This part of the website is also still under construction, so there may be some fields repeated or incorrectly formatted information.

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