Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Niah Ceramics To Shed Light On Borneo's History

Niah Ceramics To Shed Light On Borneo's History

By Caroline Ann Jackson

KUCHING, June 12 (Bernama) -- A team of world-renowned scientists led by British-based archaeologist Dr Patrick Daly is working to determine the nature of human activity in Southeast Asia as far back as 40,000 years ago.

Daly, of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research of the University of Cambridge, and his team expect to have the answers documented and published in a book comprising two monographs in 18 months under the Niah Caves Project of the Sarawak Museum.

But first the scientists have to put together and study 60,000 pieces of ceramics unearthed from the Niah Caves' West Mouth Cemetery, a task they expect to complete by November.

"A lot of it is in broken parts. We try to put them together and try to compare them with other types of material found around the region," said Daly, who has worked at archaeological sites in the Middle East, including Jordan and Palestine. The excavated pieces show evidence of pottery having been used as funerary gifts and burial jars.

The main goal of the proposed research is to analyse the ceramic material from the Neolithic cemetery in the Niah Caves, located 120 km south of Miri, and situate it within the broader context of Southeast Asian archaeology.

The research will shed light on the relationship between the islands and mainland of Southeast Asia, and determine whether developments in the islands were the result of migration and diffusion from the mainland, or were part of a trajectory of growth independent of the mainland.

"What is most important is how the Niah Caves and the area around it fit in with the broader region," said Daly.

"Hopefully the findings will be able to show the relationship between the islands of Southeast Asia and the mainland, in terms of trade exchange and movement of population, essentially over the past 5,000 to 6,000 years," he explained.

He said the field phase of the project was completed last year and the current work entailed scientists in their specific fields looking at the archives.

Daly said the earliest evidence of human settlement in Niah, dating back to around 40,000 years ago from the initial excavation by the late Tom Harrisson, Curator of the Sarawak Museum between 1947 and 1967, had made it a significant site.

However, he said, it was unfortunate that Harrisson had never published comprehensive reports during the almost 20 years of excavation despite numerous articles and media appearances.

The museum still maintains the large collection of materials, including bones, ceramics, shells, stones and tools, at its archives, which was fully utilised to clarify the nature of the archaeology.

"The big mistake that Harrisson made was that he never actually published anything, which was a very big shame because he did a lot of good work. We are very adamant not to make that mistake .... so everyone's very dedicated to make a very good publication and make it available to people around the region and the world," he said.

The book comprising the two monographs will be published by the University of Cambridge in collaboration with the Sarawak Museum.

Next month, Daly and his team will meet at the University of Cambridge with Harrisson's widow, Barbara, who now resides in Holland, to discuss the main volume of the book.

Daly said much credit should go to Barbara, who was behind the unearthing of the Niah Skull in a deep trench, dubbed "Hell Trench" by Harrisson's excavators because of the heat and humidity in that particular part of the cave's entrance.

Using the radiocarbon dating method, Harrisson had determined the skull to be about 40,000 years old, to a time when stone tools had been found previously together with charcoal -- the earliest evidence of human settlement in Borneo.

Barbara was largely responsible for excavation after 1958 even though she did not receive any formal training, he said.

Daly, who has served brief stints with the Sarawak Museum since 2000, said: "The Sarawak Museum is very supportive as it can see the value of our work internationally. So, I think a lot of people are attracted to the region and the project has fundamentally changed the way people view this part of the world (in archaeology)," he said.

The Niah Caves, gazetted as one of Sarawak's historic sites, is part of the Niah National Park and can be reached from Miri or Bintulu via a two-hour drive on the Pan Borneo Highway.

Paul Kekai Manansala