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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Hidden Gems: Gene Ang and his Hawaiian Crackers

by Karen Loh

One night in the early ‘70s. It is past midnight. The stage is set. The crowd waits in anticipation. Gene Ang and his Hawaiian Crackers are playing popular Hawaiian music of the day, performing for one night only at the Chinese New village in Taiping for the legendary striptease artiste, Rose Chan. Suddenly she appears from behind the curtains. The band works hard to keep their music in tempo to Rose’s moves as she gyrates and teases her audience. Unbeknownst to the audience, Rose is wearing three pairs of undergarments. Excitement builds as Rose takes off the first of three of her brassieres and swings it to the audience. She then takes off her second brassiere and again throws it to the crowd. And just as Rose is removing her third brassiere, Gene snaps a string of his lap steel guitar. It was all too much for him.

Gene Ang (2nd from the right) and his Hawaiian Crackers in the late ‘50s.

1958: What do a postman, surveyor, storekeeper, optical shop assistant and bank teller have in common? Nothing much, except that they all were all once members of the same band! Gene Ang and his Hawaiian Crackers was the only performing band in Taiping from the late ‘50s up to 1976. The band comprised of Gene’s neighbour, Zain, who was a postman; Poh Kee who worked in Chartered Bank (now known as Standard Chartered Bank after the 1969 merger with Standard Bank); Singgam, an Army storekeeper; ‘T.A.’ who worked in an optician’s; and Gene whose day job was with the Government Survey Department.

Hawaiian songs and the hits of Elvis Presley were very popular back then so the band concentrated on playing these songs. Most of the music was learnt by ear after listening to vinyl records. They did not have the luxury of music sheets. As the only band around, Gene Ang and his Hawaiian Crackers was in high demand performing at weddings, private evening functions and birthday parties. And during the weekends, they sometimes performed for doctors’ private functions, the police inspectors’ mess, nurses’ dances, and in private clubs. The band even played at the cinema before showings of Elvis Presley movies. One of Gene’s fondest memories is performing in the band which was chosen to play during the opening of Parliament in 1962. Gene’s instrument of choice was the lap steel guitar (a.k.a. Hawaiian guitar), but he could play almost all stringed instruments including the guitar, ukulele, double bass, mandolin, and violin, as well as the gendang (double-headed drum). How and when did Gene develop this passion for playing and performing?

Here is his story…

1929: Ang Leong Tooi was born in Ipoh to a Baba family from Medan. He would later adopt the name Gene after Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy who was popular in the 1940s. Gene’s father worked as a Chief Customs Officer while his mother tended to their six children. Even from the early age of five, Gene was drawn to music. His first instrument was the violin, which he learnt to play from a Ronggeng (Javanese dance) troupe. His family moved to Teluk Intan when he was 7 years old where he was introduced to a friend of his father who played for a Chinese Opera troupe in Taiwan. From him, Gene learned to play the big drum and also observed how to lead a band. But life took a different turn in 1942 during the Japanese Occupation when most of the schools and shops were closed, a period where Gene also stopped playing music.  In 1943, his family moved to Taiping. After the war, Gene resumed his studies at the King Edward School there (now SMK King Edward VII), starting Standard 4 at the age of 17 years old. He would later complete his education at the age of 20 years in Penang in 1949. Sadly, Gene’s father fell ill in December the same year and passed away at the beginning of 1952. With no means of supporting himself through further education, Gene joined the Government Survey Department in Taiping and worked his way up to be a land surveyor.

Photo taken at Town Hall in Taiping during a party for the Survey Sports Club. It was popular then to hire girls from Kampung Pinang as dance partners for joget and ronggeng. The dancers were paid RM15 per person and the band would get RM200. Gene is playing the lap steel guitar in this photo.

As luck would have it, soon after the war, while Gene was still at school in Taiping, he met Emile Nicholas who later became a Major (then Colonel) in the army. The duo played guitar at weekly Saturday campfires and sing-a-longs. It was also during these weekly campfires that Gene met his future wife, Judy Foo, who was only 15 years old when they met. She was his sister’s classmate. They dated for 7 years before getting married in 1954.

In the early ‘50s, Gene was invited to play for the British at the Military Club, the Australian and New Zealand clubs in Kamunting, the Customs Recreational Club, and the New Club near Lake Gardens in Taiping. When Nicholas was transferred to Ipoh, he invited Gene to play the double bass in his band at St. John’s Red Cross Hall and at joget (traditional Malay dance) dances in Perak. After his experiences in Nicholas’ band, Gene finally formed his own troupe in 1958, calling themselves The Hawaiian Crackers with Gene Ang as the band leader. The band performed together until 1976 when Gene had to move to Pahang as the land surveyor for a Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) scheme.

Photo taken in 1965 at the Town Hall in Taiping for Perak Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) with Gene (2nd from the right) playing the double bass, Sultan Idris’ brother on guitar and Nicholas playing the lap steel guitar.

Gene still remains sprightly and full of energy to this day. He does his daily exercises by walking every morning and evening. After he stopped playing music, his passion turned to cooking and baking.

Gene Ang today with the author

Hidden Gems: The Mystery of the Missing Bunga Mas

by Jean-Marie Metzger

This may sound more like a ‘Conan Doyle’ story than an article by a Museum Volunteer; so, let’s find out what’s behind this ‘Mystery of the Bunga Mas’.

Everybody will probably be familiar with the Bunga Mas, a reproduction of which is on display in Gallery C of the National Museum.  The correct name of this artefact is actually Bunga Mas dan Perak, which, rather than ‘Golden Flower’ means ‘Gold and Silver Flower’. Indeed, it is very likely that such an imposing artefact, weighing several pounds, with a height of about 1.5 m1, would be very fragile had it been made of solid gold. But as the actual name seems to indicate, it was probably made of gold-plated silver.

The gifts of the Bunga Mas were sent to the King of Siam every three years, by the Sultans of the Northern Malay States (Kedah, Terengganu, Kelantan, Patani,…) accompanied with other gifts, such as shields and spears.

Bunga Mas at Gallery C Muzium Negara. From http://www.muziumnegara.gov.my/gallery/items/Bunga_Mas_61

These gifts from the Sultans to the King, were probably laden with deep political misunderstanding: while the King of Siam would consider them as a recognition of suzerainty over the Malay Sultanates, the Sultans would simply regard them as a token of friendship. The relationship between the northern Sultanates and the Kingdom of Siam had never been an easy one, as can be seen by the various appeals for ‘protection’ to the different occupying powers, be it the Dutch or later the British. There could occasionally even be exchanges of concealed insults. According to a note found in the Cambridge University Library2 (Archives of the British Association of Malaysia and Singapore), the author mentions that he had seen a letter which was sent to the Sultan of Terengganu by the King of Siam in which the latter reversed the traditional courteous formula: ‘sending a gift from the Head of the Sultan to the feet of the King’, into the insulting reply: ‘from beneath the King’s feet to the crown of the Sultan’s head’.

The last Bunga Mas from Kedah to the King of Siam was sent in 1906. Three years later, another Bunga Mas was ready to be sent. In March 1909, however, before it could be send to Siam, Britain and Siam signed a treaty in which the sovereignty over the northern sultanates of Malaya (with the exception of Patani and Setul) was to be transferred to Britain.

According to the above-mentioned note, the Sultan of Kedah sent this Bunga Mas to King Edward VII instead. In the first report of the British advisor to Kedah, Mr. Maxwell, he noted that during the meeting of the State Council on August 23rd 1909, the question arose whether sending the Bunga Mas to Edward VII was to be regarded as ‘the last of a series relating to a remote past’. The offer was indeed accepted, and Tunku Muhammad Jiwa, who had conveyed the previous Bunga Mas to Bangkok, set off to Singapore. Two Bunga Mas, together with forty-two spears and twenty-four shields, as well as a Bunga Mas from Perlis, and ‘other offerings from Terengganu’, were sent to the Colonial Office, and were personally presented to the King by the Secretary of States to the Colonies.

This is where the mystery begins. Although the Archives of Windsor Castle mention that the gift had been received by King Edward, all of the artefacts have subsequently disappeared. There is no mention of them whatsoever in the Royal Collections. A few months ago, the curator for the Royal Gifts, when questioned by me about these artefacts, told me that they had never been heard of. They are certainly not registered in the current inventory.

Furthermore, it seems that another final gift of Bunga Mas was sent in 1911 to King George V by the Sultan of Kedah on the occasion of the King’s coronation. This too seems to have disappeared!

Now there is food for further research: Kedah Archives, Malaysian National Archives, British Colonial Office Archives…MVs! Get ready!

Notes:

1  https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2010/12/07/museum-dept-to-have-a-closer-look-at-bunga-emas-in-bangkok/

2 University of Cambridge Library – RCS/RCMS 103/2/12 ; the author is identified as Hugh Patterson Bryson, and is referenced as having written the note in 1965 see : https://janus.lib.cam.ac.uk/db/node.xsp?id=EAD%2FGBR%2F0115%2FRCMS%20103%2F2%2F12

Hidden Gems: The Magic Square Bowl

by Marianne Khor

Amidst a number of examples of the Islamic influence on metal and ceramic wares in a showcase in Gallery B, a small bowl can be found with the intriguing description ‘Magic Square Bowl’. It looks like a small Chinese rice bowl but is decorated with Islamic script. On the inside of the bowl is a square consisting of sixteen smaller squares, also containing Islamic writing. Was it used to perform magic, or was it magical in itself?

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Chinese ceramics with Islamic script were already produced in China and transported along the maritime trade routes by Arab and Persian traders. After the Tang Dynasty, ceramics with Islamic inscriptions were no longer produced. Only in the early 16th Century did they appear again. The Magic Square Bowl in Gallery B is from the 18th Century Qing Dynasty.

The Magic Square, or Buduh tradition, predates Islam. The early Magic Square is thought to be of Chinese origin and consisted of a 3×3 square with 9 smaller squares. The numbers 1-9, with the number 5 in the centre, add up to 15 in each row, column and the two diagonals. An early version of Sudoku? A Magic Square was used to find love, prevent fears, attacks and poisoning. It helped during childbirth and also in finding lost objects. In short, it could be quite helpful for many occasions. Later, there were Magic Squares of 4×4, 6×6, 7×7, and 10×10, and even 100×100 squares with an arrangement of letters and numerals.

Islamic mathematicians in the Arab world already knew about the Magic Square as early as the 7th Century. This knowledge may have come from India through the study of Indian astronomy and mathematics, or from China. The earliest Magic Squares were written in ‘abjad’ letter-numerals. The four corners of the square were marked with the letters ba’, dal, waw (or u) and ha. Therefore, this particular square was known as the ‘Buduh’ square.

The name ‘Buduh’ itself was so powerful that it was regarded as a most effective talisman, and so was the letter B with its numerical equivalents 2,4,6,8. This arrangement of letters and its corresponding numbers is believed to protect travellers, babies, postal letters and packages. Even today in some Islamic countries, one can find packages marked with the numbers 2,4,6 or 8 in the corners, or just the letter B added under the address to ensure that the items arrive safely. This might be something worth trying out!

Magic Squares were used by Muslims as religious mandalas, meditation devices, talisman, and amulets. They were drawn on a variety of objects, even on skin.

The Arabic letters and numerals in the Magic Square can also be read as one of the ninety-nine names or attributes of God. The numerical value with a certain specific meaning can be obtained by adding the corresponding letters of any of the columns of the Magic Square in a horizontal, vertical or diagonal way.

One wonders what the inscriptions in the Magic Square Bowl in Gallery B represent…

Do they have a religious meaning?

Or are they just meant to bring good luck in any situation?

Bibliography:

Invulnerability, Federation Museum Journal, Volume XVI new series 1971

Arts and Crafts Company, Global Arts and Crafts, Antiques, Design and Art, Kho- antiques ( Singapore)

Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the US National Library of Medicine, Catalogue: Astrology/Divination/Magic, Author: Emilie Savage-Smith PH.D. Senior Associate, The Oriental Institute University of Oxford

Hypernumber Buduh: hypernumber.blogspot.my

Hidden Gems: The Melaka Tree

by Anne Deguerry Viala

We are all familiar with the legend of Prince Parameswara flying from Srivijaya to Temasek and then to a place named after the tree he sat under. Much less is known about the tree itself: the Melaka tree. Phyllanthus emblica, known as the Āmalaka or Āmelaki tree in Sanskrit, is very common in India, Nepal and South-East Asia and has given its name to Melaka city and the Straits. Its common name in English is Emblic myrobalan (Myrobolan emblique in French) and it produces a fruit called the Indian or Nepalese Gooseberry. When dried, the powder is known as ‘amla’. The importance of the Melaka tree is both symbolic and economic.

Myrobalan fruit

In Buddhist statuary art and sculpture, the Medicine Buddha is depicted, delicately holding the myrobalan plant between his thumb and middle finger.  This symbolic gesture stems from the healing properties of the myrobalan. It entered the Persian pharmacopeia from early times: myrobalan is mentioned in the medical handbook of Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā) in the early 11th century. It was also used in Europe. No later than during the Middle Age, it was a valued ingredient which apothecaries prescribed almost as a universal remedy. It should be noted that, apart from its use in traditional and Ayurvedic medicine, amla has recently aroused a growing interest from modern medicine where it is use in diabetic treatments and to prevent cancer, among other properties.

Buddha holding the myrobalan plant

All parts of the Melaka tree are full of tannins[1], which make myrobalan a very useful ingredient. In the natural dyeing process, myrobalan can be used either as a mordant (a substance which helps fix the pigments into the fibres) or as a dye itself, rendering blackish colours. In addition to dyeing, myrobalan has many other applications.  It is used both for tanning leather and also in the manufacture of Damascus steel.

It is clear that Prince Parameswara was wise to choose this place and this beneficial tree, to establish his new realm!

[1] Tannins are vegetable substances of the family of polyphenols, most often water-soluble, which have the ability to precipitate proteins and other chemical substances. For trees and flowering plants, this is a chemical defence against pests. Tannins can be found in some drinks such as tea, coffee, beer and wine.

Melaka Tree

 

References:

Bonnemain Bruno. Médecine arabe : Paul Mazliak, Avicenne et Averroès. Médecine et biologie dans la civilisation de l’Islam. In: Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 92ᵉ année, n°344, 2004. pp. 650-652. www.persee.fr/doc/pharm_0035-2349_2004_num_92_344_5736_t1_0650_0000_2

Gatellier Marie. L’image du Buddha dans la statuaire birmane. In: Arts asiatiques, tome 40, 1985. pp. 32-40. www.persee.fr/doc/arasi_0004-3958_1985_num_40_1_1178

Jazi Radhi, Asli Farouk Omar. La pharmacopée d’Avicenne. In: Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 86ᵉ année, n°317, 1998. pp. 8-28. www.persee.fr/doc/pharm_0035-2349_1998_num_86_317_4582

Halleux Robert. Sur la fabrication de l’acier dans l’Antiquité et au Moyen Âge. In: Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 151ᵉ année, N. 3, 2007. pp. 1301-1319. www.persee.fr/doc/crai_0065-0536_2007_num_151_3_91356

 

Hidden Gems: The Bellarmine Jar in Gallery C

by Rose Gan

Amongst the detritus of the great explosion that destroyed the Dutch ship ‘Nassau’ at the battle of Tanjong Tuan in 1606, is one small curious flagon, usually referred to as a Bellarmine Jar, that survived the disaster almost unscathed.  These jugs are made of brown earthenware with a bulbous body tapering to a long, narrow neck decorated with the face of a rather fierce bearded man. They often also bear a coat-of-arms, as the one featured in the museum, or a floral decoration. Bellarmine Jars were traditionally produced in Germany, particularly in Frechen outside Cologne. This jar is said to date to the early years of the 17th century, although their production in Germany goes back at least to the 14th century, possibly earlier.

In Germany, these jars were first called ‘Bartmann Krug’ (Bearded Man Jugs). The face is reminiscent of the Wild Man of the Woods spirit common across Europe that originated in ancient times and was still worshipped in rural areas even in the staunchly Christian Middle Ages. In Britain, this image was known as ‘The Green Man’, still a popular name for inns and pubs. Similar faces were often carved or etched onto trees, stone structures or wooden panels as a protection against evil spirits. They can even be found adorning the borders of Christian manuscripts and tapestries.

Bellarmine Jar

But in 1606, the nickname Bellarmine was newly coined and, in fact, may not have been in general use until later in the century. St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), an influential Roman Catholic theologian and Counter-Reformation cardinal, was very unpopular in the Protestant countries, particularly Germany and Holland. It was Robert Bellarmine who was behind the original accusations against Galileo and who led the Papal attempt to declare Copernicus’s theories heretical. As you can imagine, this rigid and reactionary cardinal also held many other strict views – particularly against the consumption of alcohol. These jars seem to have been named for him in an attempt to humiliate the Cardinal by portraying him as a grotesque bearded old man who frowned on fun and enjoyment. There was also the extra insult that these small flagons would often be used to carry alcohol, something Bellarmine was particularly against. Imagine drinkers wishing each other ‘Cheers’, whilst raising the Cardinal’s face in mock tribute!

Carrying gin and brandy was not their only function. Research from the Nassau and various other shipwrecks of Dutch vessels shows that the jars were often used on long voyages to transport mercury, an important component of various medical treatments. Another more sinister use of Bellarmine jars, which must have further insulted the famous cardinal, was as Witches’ Jars used to store hair clippings, nails -or even human urine -for use in spells and charms. The jars were then buried in secret places to work their magic.

Our little jar spans a thousand years of history and tells of pagan rites, Christian conflicts, magic spells, pharmacological remedies – and an irreverent bottle of gin!