Just a 10-minute drive from Ipoh, Perak, an ancient diary endures alongside the sights and sounds of the state’s capital. Older than living memory, the Gua Tambun (Tambun cave) rock art’s existence and importance among those who live nearby is as obscure as its origins. The paintings along the walls of this rock shelter make up the oldest surviving red painting (haematite) rock art site in Peninsular Malaysia. It’s estimated to date back 2,500 and 4,000 years; some even believe it has been around since the late Holocene period (12,000 years ago).
While neighbouring towns and cities rapidly developed over the decades, archaeologists have been attempting to turn back the clock on the site of the rock art—a ledge located 50m above the current ground level.
More than 600 rock art images can be found with various animal, human, geometric and abstract motifs covering the cliff face. They are situated approximately 6m above the floor, with the highest at 25m. It was gazetted by the Ipoh City Council in 1986, declared a National Heritage site in 2010, and reopened in September 2018 after a temporary closure to clean up the paths to the site. But the prehistoric rock art is weathered, vandalised and fading.
Investigations that have been carried out since the 1950s are directed at gaining an understanding of the cultural information in these red-hued paintings, and assigning social and contemporary values for their preservation and heritage conservation. Rock art research has only had a renaissance in the region in the last decade or so, and although inferences from archaeological data can help explain the past, interpreting and analysing rock paintings is loaded with complexities and challenges. Scientists are only just beginning to discern the stories the rock art at Gua Tambun conveys.
“The trope of an archaeologist looking for a lost civilisation doesn’t really exist here—local archaeologists are really trying to make sense of the past and their cultural patrimony”
“The trope of an archaeologist looking for a lost civilisation doesn’t really exist here—local archaeologists are really trying to make sense of the past and their cultural patrimony,” remarks Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan, a senior specialist in archaeology with the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts and managing editor for the organisation’s open access SPAFA journal. Tan studied Gua Tambun from 2008-2010 as a MA student in archaeology at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).
Tambun’s rock paintings were first reported in 1959 by John M. Matthews (then-curator of the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur), following an investigation that same year by a team from the museum. A second expedition was undertaken in 1984 by another team from the National Museum. Subsequently, Tan’s fieldwork in 2009 mapped out 640 forms of rock art and contains the most comprehensive and detailed record ever produced. It also provides a baseline archive of the site, as information and understanding on them have been scarce and were mainly based on Matthews’ assumptions made 60 years ago.
Tan’s work involves cataloguing and recording the paintings through digital photography, and carrying out compositional analysis to study samples of pigment and comparisons of Gua Tambun with other rock art in Southeast Asia (particularly in Southern Thailand). Interpretive questions—which allow for more than one possible answer based on available information—were used to determine the date, technology and authorship of the rock art. The creation of the paintings (in purple, red and orange colours) indicate a complex process on a logistical level; the artists would have had to climb up the cliff face to paint, and some sections of the art were fairly large in scale. Interestingly, the largest paintings were made first on the highest parts of the cliff, with the smaller ones occurring closer to the current floor.
These two images are a pair; they are the pictures of the highest paintings, the ones that look like a “horned goat” but actually is a “pig surrounded by people”. The image is enhanced by DStretch — an imaging tool used in rock art to bring out faded colours.
Moreover, Tan’s research found that there are at least seven distinct cultural phases on the main panel of rock art, which suggests that the artists could have been from multiple culturally-distinct and transitory groups.
“Most likely, the paintings were made from people who lived in Ipoh a long time ago,” he tells New Naratif. “Which populations lived here the longest? Most likely the indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia, from which the most likely candidates are the Senoi (Semai, Temiar) or the Negritos (Semang). It’s difficult to infer further than that without any new information.”
Both land, amphibian and aquatic creatures, such as “boar”, “deer”, “turtles” and various fish, are depicted on the panels. Tan revised the initial animal interpretations—still uncritically accepted by many—offered by Matthews, cautioning against its speculative nature. For instance, Matthews interpreted the animal forms as “dugong”, “tiger” and “tapir”—instead, Tan tried to identify the animals based on their illustrated attributes. “Body shape, horns, tail features tell us that pig, deer, fish and lizards were depicted although it’s too difficult to identify specific species in most cases. Four-legged creatures can be quite generic: “dog” vs “tiger” and it’s also hard to distinguish an ape or monkey from a badly-drawn human.”
There is, however, one exception to this general inability to be more specific: based on the specific combination of attributes depicted, Tan posits that the “deer” depicted in the rock art are not actually deer, but mountain goats instead.
Tan adds that current identification of rock art is in the eye of the beholder, as much a projection of narratives one might have in mind as it is a science based on research. Ascribing meaning to what is considered a living tradition would require a more self-reflexive and nuanced approach to properly classify them into significant terms. “In a region where archaeology is still largely the domain of government, in a top-down, tourist-friendly, nationalist-leaning way, it is important then to make archaeology more inclusive and participatory.”
Social perspective and participation
This view is shared by Dr Goh Hsiao Mei from the Centre for Global Archaeological Research (CGAR) at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), who advocates for the democratisation of archaeological narratives. Her research focuses on analysing what the Tambun Rock Art site means to visitors and the local population, as opposed to the perceptions of archaeologists who study it. This also means involving and consulting local communities who are the “traditional owners” of the heritage site—the Orang Asli living in the area.
Goh also initiated and headed a public archaeology outreach effort called the Gua Tambun Heritage Awareness Project from 2015–2017. It was the first community heritage engagement project in Peninsula Malaysia, driven by researchers and students from CGAR in partnership with the local community and NGOs in Perak. The project was entirely crowdfunded; in its two years, some 3,000 people participated in guided tours to the Gua Tambun rock art site, workshops, public talks and exhibitions.
Goh explains that Tambun Rock Art should be considered a piece of collective heritage for Malaysia and a cornerstone for the citizens’ national identity. “Archaeology in Malaysia still lacks the social awareness, appreciation and ownership. Therefore, it is important to campaign for Tambun Rock Art’s preservation and conservation from the grassroots level,” she argues. “Without meaningful attachment and interaction with the paintings, we would not be able to see the continuity of cultural expressions that we have in our society and how this has evolved.”
Her ethnographic work with researchers from USM is investigating the potential ancestral link between the Orang Asli and Tambun Rock Art. Goh’s recent paper together with two other researchers from CGAR called “A Preliminary Study into the Ancestral Link of Orang Asli in Perak to Tambun Rock Art, Perak, Malaysia” found that the rock art motifs show significant similarities with the clothing, personal ornaments, and hairdressing of the Senoi group. Through interviews with the members of the Temiar community living near Gua Tambun, the study provided insight into how they interpreted the rock art—interpretations which are currently lacking in contemporary analyses of the site.
The study also suggests that the symbolism of the rock painting has been inherited in other forms such as handicrafts, as the Temiars do not have a tradition of drawing and painting. The researchers hope that they can carry out a similar survey among the Semang community to broaden what they currently know about the traditional ownership of the Tambun Rock Art.
Rethinking and reclaiming narratives
This ownership is a powerful link for the Orang Asli communities—especially for Shahar “Shaq” Koyok, a contemporary artist from the Temuan tribe of Selangor. He’s the first Orang Asli person to win the Merdeka Award in 2016 for his work to raise the profile of indigenous culture in the country through art and education.
Koyok had not heard of Tambun Rock Art prior to his interview for this story. Upon seeing images of the paintings, he was taken aback. The images remind him of the aboriginal rock art in Australia, sites that he was familiar from his time in the country while studying for a diploma.
“A lot of people underestimate the visual language of indigenous people around the world,” he says. “The Gua Tambun paintings are proof that indigenous art in Malaysia is more than just carvings, weavings and sculptures.”
The 34 year-old artist, whose work has been exhibited internationally, sees the Tambun Rock Art as further validation of his creative and historical DNA.
“It’s mind-blowing to realise how skilful the artists (of Gua Tambun) were to create paintings that depict daily, hunting and spiritual scenes. I know now that the talent I have (as a painter) runs in my blood,” he says.
“The younger Orang Asli generation should know the importance of self-expression through art and [be] empowered through visual language that celebrates intimate knowledge of their land as well as their roots and identity.” He opines that the research on Tambun Rock Art should also include artists and galleries to bring in more perspectives and appreciation of the paintings.
“The Gua Tambun paintings are proof that indigenous art in Malaysia is more than just carvings, weavings and sculptures”
Closing this interpretation gap is an ongoing challenge for researchers, together with other technical and external factors which affect their overall research. Goh contends that while the scientific capacity is currently present, work at Gua Tambun has been halted due to unsafe conditions to collect samples, extensive damage on the panels and the need for a big budget to sustain the research. “USM is the only institution in the country studying Tambun Rock Art at the moment. We have done a 3D modelling of the cave in case it collapses and have conducted uranium-series dating in 2018 to determine the age of the rock art in which the results are pending.”
She also expresses a desire for better collaboration between authorities and scientists, and long-term partnerships with heritage professionals, local government, NGOs and the public. “Scientists are usually left in the dark about how the local council manages Gua Tambun. We hope that we can be consulted more with regard to the conservation and future plans for the site.”
Tan states that two factors obscure our knowledge about rock art in Southeast Asia. The first is related to the academic landscape of the post-colonial present, in which many archaeological reports written in the region today are not published in widely distributed English-language journals. Current archaeological thinking through these publications are limited in circulation. “Most cutting-edge research is locked behind paywalls, and most archaeologists are monolingual. In a region where English is not the first language, this is a problem.”
The second factor is that, as many countries in the region are still developing, archaeology is rarely at the top of any national agenda. At present, Indonesia is the only Southeast Asian country represented in the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations.
Tan emphasises that archaeological heritage, much like any cultural heritage, should be seen as a public good. “We’re still some ways from there. But there are good signs. Currently there are plans to drill for oil at Si Thep in Petchabun province in Thailand, just outside the largest ancient temple ruins. There has been a massive outcry, from both government and the public. I hope the oil company reconsiders its plans, but there is already very vocal local opposition to it.”
Tan is also seeing more intra-regional collaborations, another positive sign that the state of archaeology in the region is increasingly vibrant and exciting. With over a thousand known rock art sites—in the form of rock paintings, petroglyphs and megaliths—in Southeast Asia, the region’s collective memories would require collective effort and commitment to put them on the map.
Nadiah Rosli is a freelance journalist and conservation communicator based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She believes that an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge is a pretty fantastic thing, and focuses on the intersection of science with nature, culture and heritage. Her work has been featured in VICE (Motherboard), Scidev.net, The New Straits Times, The Borneo Post, and others.