Solving the Mystery of the Pottery Cones
by Alvin Chua Sern Hao
Kodiang is a small town situated in the Kubang Pasu district of Kedah, in the northwestern part of Peninsular Malaysia. A nearby limestone outcrop known as Bukit Kaplu has a large rock shelter called Gua Berhala (Peacock, 1959, p. 137) on its north face. The site was visited in 1929 by Ivor H. N. Evans, who found several sherds of cord-marked pottery and a few pieces of antler, including one that had been worked (Peacock, 1959, p. 137).
It was, however, only in 1951 that the conical ceramic objects that Kodiang is best known for were discovered. These were found by Peter D. R. Williams-Hunt during his visit to the site (Peacock, 1959, p. 137). Williams-Hunt published his findings the following year, describing the unusual conical artefacts as follows:
Fragments of about thirty cone-shaped objects of well fired clay each about fourteen inches in height, decorated with fine cord markings and pierced by two or three holes. At least one shows signs of having had a square foot; others are more roughly finished. The exact function of these objects, remains speculative. They are not kiln rests and it can only be suggested that they have some ritual significance possibly in association with Buddhism.(Williams-Hunt, 1952, p. 182)
Subsequently, these pottery cones were studied by Gale de G. Sieveking and a more thorough assessment of the artefacts was made. Sieveking (1955, pp. 189, 192) elaborated on the technical aspects of the cones’ manufacture, noting, for instance, the way the cones were formed and decorated, as well as the firing conditions. Naturally, this was followed by speculations regarding the function of the cones.
Sieveking (1955, p. 192) entertained Willaims-Hunt’s idea that the cones may have had a ritual function, perhaps for the burning of incense, on the basis of local enquiry. Two counter arguments were then presented – the crude manufacture of the cones, and the absence of traces of burnt incense on the artefacts (Sieveking, 1955, pp. 192-193). It was then suggested that the cones might have been part of a potter’s toolkit. The pointed end could be stuck into the ground, whilst a newly formed vessel could be placed on its ‘rim’, to allow it to dry, or to be decorated (Sieveking, 1955, p. 193). It was further argued that the holes in the cones may have been “slots for the insertion of pieces of wood, which could be used to rotate the cone” (Sieveking, 1955, p. 193).
Williams-Hunt and Sieveking’s speculations hardly impressed B. A. V. Peacock, who considered the former a lame suggestion that was made “perhaps in despair”, and the latter “hardly more credible than the one he intended to supplant” (Peacock, 1959, p. 138). Peacock (1959, p. 139) made the significant observation that the “ends are always broken and without a trace of a finished trace”, thus associating these artefacts with the other sherds from the site. He had the fortune of finding at Gua Berhala “a fragment combining part of the base of a cone, including the upper half of one of the holes, with the carinated shoulder of a bowl”. Therefore, Peacock (1959, p. 140) was confident enough to propose that the cones belonged to a type of tripod vessel. Thus the ‘mystery’ of the Kodiang pottery cones was solved.
As a final note, whilst the discovery of the pottery cones at Kodiang was unique at the time, tripod vessels were subsequently discovered in other parts of Southeast Asia. These vessels were found, for instance, in 11 of the 44 Neolithic burials excavated at the Thai site of Ban Kao during the 1960s (Sorensen & Hatting, 1967, cited in Leong, 2003, p. 173); during the 1977 and 1979 excavations at Jenderam Hilir, Selangor (Leong, 2003, p. 178); and as an “isolated free find” in Satun, southern Thailand (Chaiwat, 2007, cited in Ahmad Hakimi, 2008, p. 15).
Ahmad Hakimi, K., 2008. Tembikar Tanah Berkaki Tiga (Tripod Pottery) – Satu Catatan Ringkas Penemuan di Selatan Thailand. Jurnal Arkeologi Malaysia, Volume 21, pp. 14-20. [Online] http://spaj.ukm.my/jurnalarkeologi/index.php/jurnalarkeologi/article/view/103/58 [Accessed: 9 June 2021]
Leong, S. H., 2003. Tripod Pottery in Mainland Southeast Asia. In: J. N. Miksic, ed. Earthenware in Southeast Asia: Proceedings of the Singapore Symposium on Premodern Southeast Asian Earthenwares. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. 173-186.
Peacock, B. A. V., 1959. A Short Description of Malayan Prehistoric Pottery. Asian Perspectives, Sa-huỳnh Pottery Relationships in Southeast Asia, 3(2), pp. 121-156. [Online] https://www.jstor.org/stable/42928913 [Accessed: 9 June 2021]
Sieveking, G. d. G., 1956. Pottery Cones from Kodiang (Kedah). Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 29(1), pp. 189-194. [Online] https://www.jstor.org/stable/41503209 [Accessed: 9 June 2021]
Williams-Hunt, P. D. R., 1952. Recent Archaeological Discoveries in Malaya, (1951). Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 25(1), pp. 181-190. [Online] https://www.jstor.org/stable/41502945 [Accessed: 12 May 2021]
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