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How were jar burials carried out in Borneo?

A jar burial is where one’s remains are placed into a large earthenware jar and then placed in a grave or a tomb.

The custom of jar burials can be found all over the world including India, Taiwan, Japan, Iran, Syria, Egypt, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Clay jars on display at Sabah Museum.
Where did these jars come from?

First of all, where did all of these jars come from? In Malaysian Borneo where jars – commonly known as tajau – were widely used in the past, these jars came from China through traders and merchants.

Zhao Rukuo or Chau Ju-kua was a Song dynasty official who wrote the book titled Zhu Fan Zhi. Although he himself never travelled outside of China, the book contained information on China’s trading records with the outside world. He also wrote a list of foreign places with descriptions of each place and their local customs.

Gaining his information from foreign merchants, Zhao recorded a wide range of countries including Japan, Srivijaya, Brunei, India, Mecca, Africa, Spain and Borneo.

From Zhao’s writing we know that China was exporting pottery to Borneo at the beginning of the 13th century. But it is also possible the trade started at a much earlier date.

In Borneo, this pottery was traditionally used for many purposes; as a sign of wealth, as a currency and to bury their loved ones.

Jar burials found in Niah Caves, Sarawak

One good example of jar burials in Borneo can be found in Niah Caves, Miri. The oldest jar burials found intact in the archipelago were excavated from the Neolithic cemetery found there.

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How did the archaeologists determine that it was a Neolithic cemetery? They found three small bronze items; two from inside the jar burials. They dated all three bronzes items to a time earlier than 500 cal BC.

However, only 5-10% of the burials in Niah were placed in a jar. Some were buried in wooden coffins or bamboo caskets.

The dead who came back to life after being stuffed in a jar

Even so, British administrator and Sarawak ethnologist Charles Hose (1863-1929) explained that old jars were more valuable than the newer ones.

Additionally, not all could afford the luxury of a jar, especially a big one that could fit a dead body. Those who could not afford it had to make do with a wooden coffin.

The same thing applied in North Borneo back then. Museum curator and archaeologist Ivor Evans (I886-1957) recorded in his book Among Primitive Peoples in Borneo wrote:

“All good Dusuns wish to be buried in a jar; but a jar is expensive, and so the bodies of poor people are buried in a rough wooden coffin or wrapped up in mats. If the deceased is sufficiently well off to afford a jar, the body is slipped into it legs first and pushed, or even stamped, down till it does not protrude.”

He also recorded an interesting story of a man who came back to life after being buried in jar.

Evans had a Dusun servant named Omboi. There was a bad epidemic of smallpox in the Tuaran district which killed off many people, including Omboi’s father.

So they decided to bury him in a jar. Evans wrote, “The neck of the jar was, however, rather narrow, and when the mourners began to stamp the body home with the flat of their feet, the “corpse” got up and objected to the process in forcible language. The patient had merely been in a state of coma, and he eventually recovered.”

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How could a body fit into a jar?

So what happens if the mouth of a jar is too narrow to fit the body through? According to Evans, in Tuaran, Sabah, the vessel was cut in two horizontally at its largest circumference. Then the body packed into the lower portion and the top replaced and fastened down with some kind of resin.

But then how did they actually cut it? Is it possible to cut it into two without breaking the pottery into pieces? Hose might have had the answer.

In Pagan Tribes of Borneo, Hose explained that the jar was sunk in the water of the river until it was full of water and wholly submerged.

It was held horizontally by two men, one at either end, just beneath the surface of the water.

Then, a third man struck the widest circumference of the jar with an axe. They turned the jar over and the man struck the jar at the opposite side of the first strike.

Hose wrote, “At the second stroke the jar falls in two, sometimes as cleanly and nicely broken as though cut with a saw.”

Jars as a secondary burial

Not all jar burials in Borneo were practiced as a primary burial in which the body was placed immediately after death.

According to Hose, a jar burial was also practiced as a secondary burial. For example, the usual practice of the Kenyah group back then was to keep the coffin containing the corpse until the end of the mourning period.

“A bamboo tube carried down through the floor to the ground permits the escape of fluids resulting from decomposition. The coffin itself is sealed closely with wax, and elaborately decorated with carved and painted wood-work.”

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After several months or even years, a feast was held to open up the coffin. Then the bones were taken out, cleaned, packed into smaller coffin or large jar before carried to the cemetery.

“There it is placed either in the hollowed upper end of massive post, or into a large wooden chamber containing, or to contain, the remains of several persons, generally near relatives. These tombs are in many cases very elaborately decorated with painted woodwork,” Hose wrote.

Today, the act of putting several family members in a large tomb is still practiced by some of the Kayan and Kenyah communities in Sarawak. Except that these large wooden chambers are now made of bricks and look like small, well-decorated houses.

However, the custom of jar burial in Borneo is no longer practiced and have been replaced by the more conventional wooden casket.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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