Tom Harrisson on the discovery of “Ships of the dead” at Niah Cave

Major Tom Harrisson was many things. He was an explorer, soldier, ethnologist, guerrilla, museum curator, writer and archaeologist.

One of his biggest contributions to Sarawak was the archaeological exploration at Niah National Park in Miri.

In October 1954, Harrisson with his two friends, Michael Tweedie and Hugh Gibb spent two weeks examining that site. After they found evidence of human occupation, they decided to come back again. This time in 1957, the Sarawak Museum organised a larger expedition with the help of transport and equipment from Brunei Shell Petroleum and Sarawak Oilfields Ltd (Shell).

Together with his wife Barbara, the expedition team discovered Deep Skull. Estimated to be 37,000 years old, Deep Skull is the oldest known modern human skeleton. Iron-age rock paintings were also found at the Painted Cave in 1958.

The rock arts were believed to be similar to those of the living culture of the Ngadju in southeast Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.

Here Harrisson in his own words, vividly described the discovery of what mostly now known as “Ships of the dead” and ancient wooden coffins.
Tom Harrisson. Credits: BBC.

“My wife was the first person to enter this part of the labyrinth. She was so moved that she came back to the camp and burst into tears. Here, is one of the strangest, loveliest and quietest death scenes an archaeologist can wish to see. High above the valley floor, in a cave mouth beautifully coloured with green, purple, orange lichens and mosses, there is a perfectly dry, dusty floor. Upon this floor there was, until we came, no trace or sign of man’s footsteps. The cave is not, indeed, of interest to the local people. For it is one of many where there are no edible birds’ nests to attract the nest collectors; and no bats to attract the guano collectors. Only the footprints of a family of Leopard Cats patterned the floor in many directions.

In a scattered line along this floor lay a number of what at first glance appeared to be ordinary river boats. They lay ‘beached’ pointing inwards, on the dry dust. Coming closer, one saw at once that they were shallower and shorter than boats and were really coffins, each made in two parts, both boatshaped, but slotted to fit together. With each, the lower “boat” had a queer bowsprit, carved in the face of sabre-toothed dragon or tooth-bared crocodile. These boats had originally been placed on posts, one at each end. But over the centuries, all except one had fallen over. Littered on the ground around where human bones of all sorts, and a conspicuous number of shells, mostly sea-shells bored with holes. All over the ground lay pieces of earthenware and stoneware pottery.

About 15m beyond the strange, cool, incaverned beach of boats, the ceiling of the cave arches deeply down to meet the floor. Between 5 to 9m along the wall runs a sloping, and in one place a flat, ledge for about 46m. Where the ceiling runs up again above this shelf or ledge, there suddenly became apparent lines and groups of patterns, in red. It took a little while for the eye to assimilate these, to adjust to the peculiar lighting conditions. It was then easy to realise that at long last we had found actual cave drawings in Borneo. None had previously been known; and very few indeed from anywhere in this part of the world. These drawings (of which we have so far identified rather more than a hundred) range in size from a few centimetres to 120cm. All are executed in what is almost certainly red haematite, perhaps applied with frayed bamboo or with reeds tied together, is the work of people all in the same mood, and of the same culture. They have painted crouched or squatting along the shelf or under the ceiling, quite uncomfortably. The reasons for choosing this particular place are (apart from the presence of the boat-beach immediately below?) that here the cave-ceiling is unusually clean, white, free of animal or plant materials; and that though difficult it is for once practicable to work on the ceiling from below.”

The Ships of the dead now

The boat-coffins have since been transferred to the Sarawak Museum, but the paintings of these ‘Ships of the dead’ can still be viewed on the wall behind the fence at the national park.

Just like Harrisson stated, these ‘Ships of the dead’ can be difficult to see unless you allow your eyes to become accustomed to the light.

They portray ‘dancing’ human figures, often on top of the boats with arms outspread. It is believed these ‘Ships of the Dead’ are longboats carrying the souls of the deceased on the dangerous journey to the land of the dead.

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 is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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