Hidden Gems: Prehistoric Burials

by Marie-Andree Abt

The Dong Son Burial

This burial,  dating from the  South East Asian Bronze Age (around 600 BCE to 200 CE),  was discovered in Kampung Sungai Lang in Selangor in the 1960s. It is the only one of its type in Peninsular Malaysia although others of the same kind have been found in other locations around South East Asia. The  grave was situated under a mound which had later been covered by mangrove and peat swamp. Eleven earthenware bowls lay between the drums, possibly vessels for food and water. Glass beads were scattered around one cluster of shards. No human remains were uncovered in this burial, probably due to the ravages of animals and the tropical climate.

On display at Gallery A, Muzium Negara

It is generally thought that this grave represents a boat burial because planks of wood at the site are consistent with the same species of wood usually used in boat building. Two drums lay upside down on these planks. In the museum, one has been placed the right way up to   reveal the design of geometric shapes, animals and  weapons,  drawn within concentric circles around a star or a sun motif (depending on the source). This important central design comprises a circle of triangular motifs, possibly representing bamboo shoots, worked in low relief, creating the points of a star that stand out in high relief. The drums originate from the Dong Son people of North Vietnam.

The drums were used to communicate with the spirits in religious ceremonies such as to ask for rain. They belonged to high-ranking people, whose remains were sometimes buried inside, so that they could keep their status in the afterlife. It is thought that the drums were arranged upside down either to show that they were not used as containers for food or suchlike, or maybe to protect the power of the surface (and that is the only thing which still remains intact!). The boat connection suggests that this might be the burial of the head of a riverine village.

The fact that we find these drums all over South East Asia  indicates that trade was already widespread in the region at this time. The drums were probably also used to play music for dancers. These drums were still being  made in Thailand at the beginning of the 20th century, and are still in use amongst a few tribes of North Vietnam today.

The motifs on Dong Son drums can also still be found from this time on traditional pottery, jewellery and textile designs. It seems that these motifs have retained their power into the modern age. In Indonesia, the Sultan of Yogyakarta  was traditionally the only one allowed to wear batik sarongs with large bands of motifs similar to the ones on Dong Son drums.

Slab Burials

On display at Gallery A, Muzium Negara

This kind of burial has been found along Perak coastal areas. The slabs are arranged on top of each other with the head area larger than the foot. Although no human remains  were found during excavation, the archaeologists did uncover glass beads, earthenware pottery and iron tools. This shows that these burials were used during the Iron Age from around 300CE until the end of the proto-history era, around 1400CE.

The Trunk Coffin

On display at Gallery A, Muzium Negara

Gallery A shows us that the forest played an essential place in prehistoric daily life. In the past, trees were also important. More than 1000 trunk burials  of this type have been found in  large limestone caves in Sabah. Carbon 14 dating has revealed that they are 1100 years old. Some similar burials have been found in Thailand, but they are 1000 years older.

The coffin in the museum measures about 2 meters, but coffins of this type may be up to 4 meters in length.  The trunks, made of local hardwoods such as iron wood, were  cut in half and hollowed out. The handles were simple and were used to carry the coffin into the cave. Some handles were decorated with snake, buffalo, crocodile or bird heads. The coffin was carried up to the cave by slaves who could win their freedom if they arrived safely.

This coffin was probably intended for a person of high status in the community. Weapons and food remains have been found scattered around the coffins. Some indigenous groups of Sabah still use this kind of coffin.

Jar Burials

Skeletal remains can be seen in this jar to illustrate secondary burials. On display at Gallery A, Muzium Negara.

Jar burials, the interment of secondary remains in locally-made terracotta urns, date back to the Metal Age, as can be seen from the discoveries made in the Gua Niah limestone caves in Sarawak by Tom Harrisson (former curator of the Sarawak Museum 1947-66) and his wife in the late 1950s. Other similar jars have been found in Sabah and Terengganu.  In Sabah and Sarawak secondary burials in jars with the bones of several people have been uncovered.

Until modern times in Borneo amongst indigenous animist communities, it was the custom to keep the deceased within the house (usually in the upper area) so that family members could pray and meditate around the remains for a period of time, sometimes as long as a year or more. At a later date, when the body had completely decayed, the bones were gathered and put into a jar which was taken either to a high burial platform (salong) deep in the forest or interred in the ground. In some cases the body was originally buried until the family had enough money to carry out the proper rites, when the remains were dug up and transferred to a jar for traditional interment.

Later burials made use of Chinese jars, often referred to as martabans or tajau (in the local language), which have been be found widespread throughout South East Asia, and also in Korea and Japan. Jars like those featured in Gallery A, would have originated in China or Indo-China. Some tribes from Sarawak left the jars in the forest near megaliths or encased them within klirieng totem poles. Amongst some indigenous groups of Borneo, these jars represent the maternal womb; the bones are the foetus waiting for reincarnation or rebirth.

The Kuching museum contains a fascinating example of one such jar that unusually contained an entire body originally placed in a primary burial.  It was found by Harrisson in the 1960s in the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak at a burial site known as Budak Butal,  and has been dated to the 2nd century BCE.  An entire corpse was interred in the jar, which had been carefully bisected around the middle to hold the complete body. It was then resealed probably with resin, or local rubber. After a period of time by which time the body would have decomposed completely, the jar was opened so that the ritual for secondary burial could take place. The remains were then re-interred in the burial ground, either in the same vessel, or in another intact jar or coffin. This elaborate- and expensive- practice would have been the preserve of high status members of the community. The rattan casing was added later, most likely for transportation / display purposes – or to protect the fragile vase.

Jar burials of this type do not seem to have occurred elsewhere. The tradition was probably discontinued at least by the 1940s; the Kelabit  people have now mostly embraced Christianity.

Martaban jar found by Tom Harrison at Budak Butal. On display at the Sarawak Museum.

A big thank-you to Dr. Borbala Nyiri for details on the Budak Butal burial jar.

Bibliography

A dictionary of archaeology edited by Jan Shaw& Robert Jameson.

The Oxford companion to archaeology edited by Brian M. Fagan.

The encyclopaedia of Malaysian 4: The early history

A guide of the collection national museum Singapore: Archaeology

Co Vat Phu Tho. Edition: the culture & information.

L`art de l`Asie du Sud -Est edited by Citadelles

http://www.persee.fr/doc/arasi_0004-3958_1991_num_46_1_1300

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Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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