Visit to Asian Civilisations Museum – Part 2

Tang Shipwreck Gallery

by Saida Dasser

This Gallery, on the First Level of ACM (Asian Civilisations Museum), tells the story of trade through the Tang shipwreck. The story begins in the 9th century when it was already a part of an earlier era of globalization. So let’s learn more about this shipwreck.

The Tang Shipwreck, discovered off Belitung Island in Indonesia in 1998 has revolutionized the way we see the world in the 9th century. It provides an early evidence for the bulk trade between China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East during that period.

Trade was over land and sea, linking diverse parts of Asia. As ships could carry a much greater load than camels could, the maritime route from East Asia through Southeast Asia to South and West Asia became more important, with the Gulf serving as an important hub.

The sea trade made mass exports of heavy, fragile Chinese ceramics possible for the first time.

The ninth-century was dominated by two great powers: The Arab Abbasid (750 -1258) (covering Iran, Iraq, and surrounding regions) and the Chinese Tang (618–907) dynasties.

The ship

The ship itself was Arab by construction – an Arab dhow.  It consisted of wooden planks sewn together with rope. The construction technique indicated that the ship may have been built on the Arabian Peninsula, in a Gulf port, or perhaps on the coast of Oman, where similar vessels were still being built in the twentieth century. It had sailed all the way from the Middle East to China and was on its way home when it sank in the Java Sea.

What  was traded ?

Glass was brought from the Middle East, cotton from India, spices and wood from Southeast Asia, and ceramics and silk from China.

In the shipwreck, more than 60,000 glazed bowls, ewers, and other ceramic items were discovered – most from Changsha, as well as luxury objects made of gold and silver, bronze mirrors and ordinary objects belonging to the crew. Its contents were protected from erosion as they were packed in jars.

So let’s see some of these wares:

Green-Splashed Ware

The ewer below was made in China, probably in the Gongxian kilns, around the 830s. It is, perhaps, the grandest ceramic piece found in the Tang Shipwreck. The lozenge with flowers is a design developed in the Abbasid Empire. Chinese artists adopted the pattern, probably to export to Middle East customers. The overall form of the ewer is based on objects made in metal, as is evident from the upturned rim of the base, and the thinness of the handle.

Ewer – Stoneware, height 104 cm

Changsha Ware

The vast majority of the Tang ship’s ceramic wares came from the kilns of Changsha, in the central southern province of Hunan: 55,000 Changsha bowls and 2,500 other wares.

These wares seem to have been popular in markets overseas as well as in China itself. The motifs were painted in brown, green, using iron and copper oxide based pigments. One of the bowls had an inscription mentioning a summer’s day in 826. Drinking tea was very popular during the Tang dynasty and, instead of cups, these bowls were used to drink tea.

Changsha wares

Blue-and-White Plates

Three white dishes with a blue design were found in the shipwreck. These are among the earliest known Chinese blue-and-white ware. The cobalt used was most likely an import from Arabia-Persia and the motifs – one or two lozenges surrounded by foliage – were of Abbasid design.

left: made in China; right: made in Basra (Iraq)

Bronze Mirrors

Thirty-nine Chinese bronze mirrors, designed for trade, were found in the shipwreck. Many of them had blackened but were originally silvery. One side was polished smooth to provide a reflective surface, the other side was decorated with different motifs, such as flowers or auspicious animals.

An interesting piece among the mirrors was one that was almost a thousand years old by the time the ship sailed; it dates from the Han era (206 BCE – 220 CE). Another  antique piece dates from the Six Dynasties period (220–589 CE).

Bronze mirror

For Part 1 of the ACM visit write-up, please see ‘Worth Visiting Again and Again’ 

For Part 3, please see ‘Faith and Belief’


Visit to Asian Civilisations Museum – Part 1

Worth Visiting Again and Again

by Diana Daymond

Many of us have already visited ACM once, twice, a half dozen times. NO MATTER!!!. It’s time to head down to Singapore to enjoy the newly renovated treasure trove whose freshly curated galleries are bursting with artifacts you probably have not seen before.  Virtually all of ACM’s galleries tell stories shared by Malaysia and are sure to inspire our guiding.

This is the oldest part of Empress Place, the building housing ACM. It is its middle section, built between 1864-67. The building was constructed to house offices of the British Colonial Government and, hence, the building was simply known then as “Government Offices”.

In 2014 ACM announced an ambitious plan to build a modern new wing, develop a light filled entrance upon the Singapore River and create larger spaces where stories about artifacts and culture can flow into one another like the rivers and trade routes of South East Asia.  These large and lovely new galleries opened in 2017.

For museum docents, the curatorial ambitions of the new spaces are even more exciting.  In 2014 the initial vision was explained by Director Alan Chong:

“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to present Asian art and culture in an interesting, new way. We thought it would be more interesting to reflect Singapore’s multiculturalism by looking at how these cultures connected, not only in the great port cities of Asia, but also how they interacted and blended, and communicated with each other, engaging in a cultural dialogue over thousands of year.” 1

The latest director Kennie Ting further developed the integrated approach and explained that the Museum is sifting from an ethnographic focus to one that pays more attention to art.

“What this means is not that we forget the cultural and historical significance of each object… but in the curation of the pieces here, we are also now focusing on the aesthetics, the elements of craftsmanship, design and tradition. In presenting only masterpieces from Asia, we say that in Asia, we have a very long tradition of excellent innovation and craftsmanship. We should be extremely proud of this heritage we have, particularly here in South-east Asia.”2

ACM Volunteer, Dr. Vidya Schalk, describing an ewer found on the Belitung Shipwreck, a shipwreck discovered off the coast of Belitung island laden with Tang Dynasty ceramics.

The practical realization of these curatorial visions are immediately apparent on each floor which are filled with artifacts and stories shared with Malaysia. The ground level flows through with the history and culture of South East Asian trade. The second floor shows how systems of faith and belief spread across South East Asia, with resulting cultural and aesthetic adaptions of religious art. In 2019 the third level will open focusing on the textile traditions of South East Asia, another shared focus.  Subsequent write ups will share details of the treasures to be viewed.

Muzium Negara is filled with far more artifacts and displays than can be shared in one tour. It can be energizing to re think your route through the museum using new threads of emphasis.  A few ideas: How might you structure a tour based on the ACM focus of aesthetics?  Trade focus?  Craftsmanship? Cultural and or religious adaption? Migrations of peoples?

If you are looking for some inspiration to change your tour, every corner of The Asian Civilizations Museum should provide enlightenment. The guides who visited just last month are already out of date. Since our tour the Islamic Galleries have opened and feature a magnificent Hornbill sculpture from Sarawak that the Docents of Muzium Negara are sure to appreciate.

1 April 18, 2014:

2The Straits Times: November 27, 2018: Asian Civilisations Museum to open 3 new galleries for Christian Art, Islamic Art, and Ancestors and Rituals

At the Ancient Religions Gallery on Level 2

For Part 2, please see ‘Tang Shipwreck Gallery’

For Part 3, please see ‘Faith and Belief’

Sunken Treasure Exhibition

The ongoing exhibition ‘Sunken Treasure: The Underwater Secret’ displays artefacts from eleven shipwrecks from around the waters of Malaysia. It ends on 31 October; do drop by the exhibition at Muzium Negara.

On display are a number of blue-and-white pieces from a collection of 24,000 recovered from The Diana. This ship belonged to an agency house based in Calcutta (Kolkata) owned by John Palmer. She was licensed to the East India Company and was used to make the trade run between India and China. Having delivered cotton and opium to China, she was on the journey back laden with ceramics, silk and tea when she hit some rocks and sank off the coast of Melaka. She was found on 21 December 1993, 178 years after sinking.

Blue-and-white plate from The Diana
Ceramic trinkets recovered from The Diana

The Royal Nanhai, dating circa 1460, was discovered off the coast of Kuantan in 1995. Salvage of this 28-metre Southeast Asian vessel was completed in May 1998 yielding 21,000 pieces of ceramics. While most of the ceramics were from the Si Satchanalai kilns in Thailand, four Chinese and two Vietnamese blue-and-white pieces were found concealed below the floorboards.

An artist’s impression of the Royal Nanhai
A celadon Si Satchanalai plate from the Royal Nanhai

The Desaru was a Chinese vessel dated to 1845 that sank off the coast of Johor, near Desaru. It was a narrow ship, 30 metres in length and 7 metres wide, made of pine and cedar. Salvage recovered Chinese ceramics with a large number of blue-and-white spoons.

A brass iron from the Desaru
A brown-glazed storage jar covered in barnacles recovered from the Desaru
Kamcheng Guan from the Desaru

A visit to Hoi An Museum, Vietnam

by Karen Loh

The ancient town of Hoi An lies thirty kilometres southeast of the city of Da Nang, Vietnam, on the northern bank of the Thu Bon River in Quang Nam province. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, Hoi An was once an international port town where traders from China, Japan, Arabia, Persia and Southeast Asia came to trade during the Champa period (2nd – 15th century CE)  and later, traders from Europe during the Dai Viet period (15th – 19th century CE). Today, the town remains intact with more than 1,000 well-preserved building structures comprising architectural monuments, commercial and domestic houses, pagodas and temples. Hoi An has a total area of 60 square kilometres with a population of around 90,000 people.

Hoi An Museum

The Hoi An Museum is a building on its own with two floors of galleries housing artefacts, sketches and photographs from the pre and proto historic periods (ancient times to the 2nd century CE), the Champa period (2nd – 15th century CE), Dai Viet period (15th – 19th century CE), and the Resistance War against the Americans (1955 – 1975).

Left: one of the large burial jars in the gallery; Right: bronze bell from the Champa period

There are two galleries on the first level of the museum. One gallery displays numerous burial jars and urns in various sizes dating back 2,000 years while the other gallery has a collection of bronze bells and Vietnamese blue-and-white ceramics from the Champa period. It is believed that the Champa people founded Hoi An, which was originally called ‘Lam Ap Pho’ or Champa City. The Kingdom of Champa in Vietnam is considered the oldest in the Malay world dating to the 2nd century CE as the people practiced Malay culture and spoke Malayo-Polynesian language originally while the Cham language became the official language later. Hoi An was a very wealthy port between the 7th – 10th centuries CE, trading in spice and silk, exporting aloe and ivory.

Left: machine guns from the Resistance War; Right: a claymore mine

The gallery at the top floor exhibits artefacts from the Resistance War with the Americans. Many types of weapons and machine guns, parts of planes, bombs, clothing, torture instruments and even a trap of iron spikes can be seen here, supplemented by photos and information boards in Vietnamese.

A guided bomb
Left: iron spike trap made by the Vietnamese army. Right: pair of rubber sandals and shovel used for digging tunnels during the resistance

The topmost floor of the Hoi An museum is where visitors have the opportunity to get a bird’s-eye view of the city from above. The outdoor environment also provides a picturesque scenery for visitors should they want to snap a few pictures of the ancient town in all its charm. The visit to the museum can be completed within an hour as the museum is quite small and as written on one of their information boards; ‘only some symbolic artifacts and photographs are shown’.

Hoi An still retains its historical charm today
Photo of one of the streets in Hoi An c1950s

Petaling Street Heritage House

by Shirley Abdullah

Visit by Museum Volunteers, JMM on 19 July 2018

Our guide during the visit was the affable Chong Keat Aun who is the founder and curator of Petaling Street Heritage House. He is a writer and filmmaker and was a radio presenter for Radio Television Malaysia’s green channel, which is a Chinese language service.

Bright yellow facade of the Heritage House. Photo courtesy of Yow Wai

Chong spearheads a project that began in 2005 to conserve the history of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown quarter. The project gained momentum when Kuala Lumpur’s Mass Rapid Transit project affected the Chinatown quarter, and forced some of the residents to sell their shophouses to make way for the new MRT train station. This quarter is often referred to as Petaling Street, which is a generic reference to the popular shopping street. However, the quarter comprises several other streets such as Jalan Sultan, Leboh Pasar Besar, Jalan Yap Ah Loy and Jalan Tun HS Lee. The Petaling Street Heritage House is located at 196 Jan Tun HS Lee. Other prominent landmarks along this street include the Sri Mahamariamman Temple and the Guan Di Temple.

Restaurant at the ground floor. Photo courtesy of May

The Heritage House is in a two-storey pre-War shophouse that has been completely refurbished. At street level, it stands out with its bright yellow façade. On the ground floor is a restaurant that serves dishes from the seven Chinese dialect groups. It operates the restaurant as a means of raising funds in order to be self-sustaining as it does not receive any government support. The upper floor houses the current exhibition detailing the theatre development in Petaling Street.

Museum on the top floor. Photo courtesy of May

Chong explained that in Malaysia, there are seven dialects of the Chinese language spoken – Cantonese, Teochew, Hainanese, Foochow, Hokkien, Puxian and Hakka. However, in Petaling Street, Cantonese was the dominant lingua franca as most of the residents are descendants of migrants from Guangdong province in China. Chong derived much information from oral accounts of residents of Petaling Street, who had sold their shophouses or halted their business activities in the area when the MRT project began in 2010. Most of the artefacts on display were donated by these old folks from their personal collections. And some were even salvaged from backstreets when the residents discarded them when they moved out, oblivious to their intrinsic historical and cultural value!

Photo courtesy of Ong Li Ling
An old record of a Cantonese opera. Photo courtesy of Poh Leng


The focus of the Petaling Street Heritage House is the preservation of Chinese dialect songs and its musical heritage. A famous record store called Yan Kee was located on Petaling Street. When the owner passed away in 2010, her son donated 2000 LPs (long-playing records) circa 1950 to 1960 of Chinese opera to the Petaling Street Heritage House project. This collection is being digitalized into MP3 format and preserved. Students from New Era College are conducting research utilizing the collection and the Heritage House intends to establish an aural history archive.

Yan Kee record store plastic bag. Photo courtesy of Shirley

Yan Kee was also involved with providing radio scripts about operas to Radio Malaya and to Rediffusion, which was a subscription-based Chinese language radio service that was extremely popular in the 1960s to 1980s. The radio presenters would use the radio scripts to help listeners learn more about the characters and understand the plots of the operas.

An opera stage complete with its intricate hand-painted backdrop, a seating area and even a backstage dressing table used by the opera’s leading actress are on display, together with stage costumes and interesting stage props and even a dressing case which was used by travelling opera singers . The Cantonese opera singers of that time were mega stars and fan magazines prominently featuring them are also included in the collection.

Photo courtesy of Michelle

The booming tin-mining and rubber industries and the affluent Chinese business community fuelled the growth of Cantonese opera in Malaya. The Yan Keng Benevolent Dramatic Association was formed in 1917 and its Cantonese Opera Group arm actively promoted Cantonese opera in the country. They would bring in famous stage performers from China and Hong Kong. Teahouses such as Yen Lok and Seng Kee flourished in the early 1920s. Patrons would enjoy listening to famous Cantonese ballads while sipping their tea. During major festivals like the Mooncake festival, some of the leading opera singers would perform at these teahouses.

Dressing case. Photo courtesy of Yow Yai
Dressing case used by travelling opera singers. Photo courtesy of Josiane

Song lyric books of Cantonese opera known as Muyu Shu (which means Wooden Fish Book) are also on display. The reference to wooden fish comes from China where blind people traditionally sang these songs and used wooden blocks carved into fish shapes as percussion instruments. These books were preserved by Kai Chee Book Store in Petaling Street and were printed between 1920 and 1935. This was introduced by earlier migrants to South East Asia to express their feelings of homesickness. The lower income groups could not afford the luxury of spending time listening to music in a teahouse. To cater to the man in the street, some impoverished scholars copied and printed popular opera lyrics and songs for sale and this evolved into a variation of karaoke as a popular pastime for ordinary folks who would sing these songs themselves.

A full script with directions for lighting and props. Photo courtesy of Katherine

Opera watching and listening no longer remained the domain of the upper class following the emergence of Pu Changchun Opera Troupe and Madras Theatre at Petaling Street. The Madras Theatre was known as Chung Hwa Cinema Hall in Chinese.

Curator Chong Keat Aun with a red vinyl record. Photo courtesy of Ong Li Ling
An antique phonograph. Photo courtesy of Katherine

The unique feature of the Heritage House is its preservation of aural history. Chong played the recordings from 1946 of an opening opera piece originating from the Chin Dynasty commonly referred to as Welcoming the Generals (and officially as The Inauguration of the Six States Prime Minister!) which was always performed during the opening night of the Opera, as an auspicious gesture to bestow luck. Chong also played recordings of the narration by Dr Too Chee Cheong of his life’s recollections about his grandfather, his father and himself. Apart from being a medical doctor, Dr Too was a renowned composer and a poet, who has also translated classic Chinese poems into English. Dr Too’s grandfather, Too Nam, is well known among older Chinese in Malaysia as a follower and supporter of Dr Sun Yat Sen. Dr Too believed that his grandfather, Too Nam, who was a Chinese tutor to Dr Sun Yat Sen in Hawaii, strongly influenced the young Sun, who, later in life, became the Chinese revolutionary credited with establishing the Republic of China. Dr Too Chee Cheong passed away last year at the ripe old age of 93 years.

Props: platform shoes and an old vinyl for the Cantonese opera ‘Installation of the Prime Minister by the Six Warring States’. Photo courtesy of Katherine

At the end of the tour, we thanked Chong for his interesting tour and for his efforts in conserving the cultural history of Petaling Street.  The group also contributed financial donations on a voluntary basis, as the project needs support.

Photo courtesy of Hani

Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre

by Ong Li Ling

I tagged along with the King’s College Alumni for a weekend tour of Malacca earlier this month. The highlight of the weekend was a walking tour conducted by Professor Johannes Widodo from the NUS School of Architecture. The tour started at the Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre for Asian Architectural and Urban Heritage located at 54-56 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. A write-up on this Centre will be the first instalment of my “Professor Widodo Malacca Walking Tour” series.

Route taken during the walking tour. The Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre is marked in green.

Tun Tan Cheng Lock was a Baba Chinese. He was a leading member of the Straits Community and was the first elected president of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). He contributed significantly in the field of education, social welfare and politics. The road was named to commemorate his many contributions.

The Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre is located in a townhouse along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. It was almost demolished 10 years ago as there was a proposal to create a walkway from the Kota Laksamana parking area to Jonker Walk. The plan to demolish this building failed due to the intervention of local NGOs.

This building was used as a maternity clinic for Dr Ong Bak Hin (one of the first Malaysian doctors who graduated in England) in 1920, Yeoh Maternity home in 1955, Aik Siow Clinic in 1977 and in 1980 as a rest house and subsequently a storage warehouse for Syarikat Abdul, an antique junk dealer. The two shoplots were sold in December 1992 to Tay Kheng Soon, a Singaporean architect,  and they were finally purchased by Miss Agnes Tan and bequeathed to the School of Architecture NUS.

A 1605 Portuguese map of Malacca shows that there was a market place where this building currently sits.

In a map dating 1663,  the location of building is where the orange box is. It is close to the sea which is at the bottom of the map.

All the yellow beams in the ceiling are original, but the brown wood is a replacement because the original wood was rotten.

The wall of the building almost collapsed and had to be restored. After the plaster was scrapped off, the conservationists saw different types and sizes of bricks dating from the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Malaysian eras. The plaster was not reapplied as they want to let the wall tell the story of the building. The Breaking Line of the wall indicates the movement of this building and tells us that this building was not built at one go as there were extensions forward and backward from the core.

The Line on the brick wall shows the first facade of building when the surrounding area was still the sand and was near the sea.

The steps were built after they closed the connecting door. In the beginning the neighbouring houses were connected. The subsequent owners closed the connection and they then built the second floor.

The well was shared with the neighbours.

The hole in the wall was made when the building was used as a warehouse in the 1980s when it belonged to Syarikat Abdul.

This wall collapsed and was stitched with concrete but the concrete was not covered up so that students can learn how to stitch a falling a wall.

Conservationists experimented with various types of plaster so that they can learn which one is better for conservation.

The Pit is kept open to show that there is sand inside. This used to be a coastline. You can find seashells and corals.

A connection to the Chariot House next to the Royal Press was found.

A horse stable was found as evidenced from the horse bones buried. It is speculated that the horses were used to pull the chariots.

Roof tiles used in Malacca cannot be found in Malaysia anymore. However, similar ones can be found in Vietnam. The tiles are made by placing clay on the thighs. So the sizes are not even.

Professor Johannes Widodo and team want to turn this place into a conservation clinic to show that it is possible to do a sensitive conservation and not to turn everything into boutique hotels and cafes.

During the opening ceremony, the Malacca Governor was invited to officiate and he suggested calling this place 54-56. The contractor bought 4D and was delighted when he won the first prize!  He bought a 4-Wheel Drive with his winning money.

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.


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