Tracing Borneo beads to their greater Southeast Asian origins

By Patricia Hului
@pattbpseeds

Beads that have been traded in Borneo.

Beads that have been traded in Borneo.

Strong and solid archaeological proof has led us to believe foreign traders began making way to our coastal areas as early as 11th century.

Beeswax, birds’ nests, hornbill ivory and other exotic products were traded for textiles, ceramic, brassware and of course beads.

But who traded beads with us first?

Heidi Munan

Heidi Munan

On Aug 24, Heidi Munan, the Honorary Curator of Beads at the Sarawak Museum gave a talk called ‘Bead Trade in the Southeast Asian Region’ at Telang Usan Hotel.

Munan, who is also the author of a staple in the Sarawakiana section of any local bookstore ‘Beads of Borneo’, first explained that people had not traded exclusively in beads.

“If you talk about the silk trade, I suppose there were some traders who only traded silks. But there was never anyone who only traded beads,” she said.

The first foreign beads that came to our shores were actually from India, specifically from what is dubbed the most important bead center of the world – Cambay.

Munan said she had never visited the city herself but would love to do so one day.

It was believed that Cambay had been making beads out of carnelian, onyx and agate more than 5000 years ago.

“As far as I know they still make it in Cambay with almost the same primitive technology,” she said, adding that the earliest stone beads that were brought here were carnelian stone beads.

Besides stone beads, Indian traders also brought glass beads.

Other foreign traders who made business with local people were from China, who also brought their their own glass beads.

“That goes with our ceramics; we got from both sides,” Munan said.

But it appears that India and China came up with their glass bead-making techniques independently of each other.

“Working with melted sugar is very similar to working with glass,” Munan began to explain, “In India, they melt a lump of glass maybe as a big as a pumpkin. They stuff it onto an iron rod, hold it in the fire and until its surface is just getting soft, they mend it with an iron hook of some sort and pull it off till they get a tube of glass.”

These glass tubes are later cut into short segments and turned into glass beads.

Chinese glass beads, meanwhile, are twirled like spaghetti around a stick or a chopstick and then pressed into shape over a fire.

Thanks to these different techniques, people can differentiate where these beads come from under a good magnifying glass.

“If you can see it is coiled like a snail probably it come from China but if it was pulled and sometimes you see a long little bubble of air inside the bead, it presumably came from India.”

Over time, beads from India and China have been excavated from Santubong archaeological sites.

“Santubong must have been quite a place back then,” she said, “We can’t really prove it but we have some circumstantial evidence at Santubong where someone was making beads at one stage.”

Spoiled, half-finished, and finished beads, bits and pieces of glass at Santubong archaeological sites have given strong indications that it was a site of bead-making, although not a big one.

On how they had arrived at Santubong, she cited one theory where traders had probably been seeking shelter from the monsoon rain when they landed here centuries ago, bringing along their tools to make beads while killing time waiting for the next tide.

Despite strong evidence to suggest the beads’ origins, gauging their age could be tricky.

“It is extremely hard to know if you see a bead in an Orang Ulu longhouse, how long the beads have been there and how it got there,” she said, explaining that some beads were exchanged from one person to another and so on.

Besides the continuous exchanging of hands, another factor that made it difficult to know how old these beads were was grave robbing.

Local funeral traditions which see the deceased being buried with their treasures have long been a target of unscrupulous thieving.

The treasures obtained from the grave such as weapons, jewellery, beads are then kept or sold off.

“These incidents make it very hard to say how old this bead is,” she said.

The talk was organised by Friends of Sarawak Museum as a lead-up to the 4th Borneo International Conference to be held this October in Kuching.

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