IN 1966, Rodger Heglar and Sheilagh T Brooks received a United States National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant for a cooperative research project with the Sarawak Museum at the Great Cave of Niah.
The Sarawak Museum provided transportation and some funding within the State, and the project was implemented through the assistance of museum personnel, especially Tom Harrisson, then Director of the Museum, Barbara Harrisson, and Lucas Chin.
The intent of the project was to combine an archaeological and physical anthropological in situ analysis and recovery of specific burials.
Data for the palaeoserology and radiocarbon dating analyses of selected burials from the series were obtained in the field for completion later in the laboratory.
The group spent two months at the Great Cave of Niah in the summer of 1966, analysing, recording, and excavating selected skeletons from the Niah Cave burial series.
A year before, 71 burials had already been removed by the Harrissons and sent to Richard and Sheilagh Brooks in the United States for preliminary laboratory analysis.
In total, over 200 skeletons were excavated from the West Mouth, Niah Cave between 1957 and 1967.
A total of 122 of them were shipped in 1965 and 1966 to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to be studied by Richard and Sheilagh Brooks. You can find a report here.
In October 2010, Chief Minister Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud pointed out that as the Brooks were elderly and no longer able to conduct research on the burials, he proposed that the burials, or some of them, be brought back to Sarawak.
This is because the burials are the heritage of Sarawak and Malaysia. The Chief Minister said then that they should be brought home and thus be easily accessible to researchers for further study and analysis.
Recently, Sarawak Museum Department Director Ipoi Datan said the process of acquiring all 122 skeletons taken from Niah Cave in Miri, which is being done with cooperation from the National Heritage Department, could take up to three years.
Pehin Sri Taib had stressed in 2010, that before the Niah burials could be brought back, the Sarawak Museum must build a special room with specially designed curation boxes to meet appropriate standards of storage and preservation.
He had proposed then that the place for this should be the left wing of the Petroleum Museum in Miri, which could be designed and prepared with assistance of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) staff.
The estimated cost for the whole project then was around RM1.5 million.
While this may sound costly, it is hoped that various sectors including the corporate world would chip in to ensure that Sarawak’s heritage is preserved.
In the long term, this investment would be worthwhile because visitors would have more to see of Niah Caves, which should really be declared a World Heritage site.
With the return of the artefacts, the case to turn Niah into a UNESCO World Heritage Site, just like Mulu, would be so much stronger.
Let’s hope the Museum Department and National Heritage Department are working in concert and that the University of Nevada will do its best to return to Sarawak what is rightfully ours.
The report from The Borneo Post:
Niah Cave artifacts on way home?
KUCHING: It would take two to three years for artifacts taken from Niah Cave in the 1950s by archaeologists from Nevada University, USA to be returned to the state.
According to Sarawak Museum Department director Ipoi Datan, the process of acquiring all 122 skeletons taken from Niah Cave in Miri was done with cooperation from the National Heritage Department.
“There are several procedures that we need to follow and it will take another two to three years before we will reach something,” Ipoi said when met by reporters after the launching of a photography exhibition at the Sarawak Art Museum yesterday.
It was Chief Minister Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud who brought up the subject when he officiated at the opening of an international seminar on Borneon Archaeology back in 2010. He said the artifacts were an important part of the state’s heritage.
The archaeologists who had taken the artifacts had made some initial reports on their study but none were ever published.
On another matter, Ipoi said the Sarawak Museum Department would come up with an exciting programme this year starting with a burial exhibition of various ethnic groups at Dewan Tun Abdul Razak and the Sarawak Beads Exhibition to be held in Banjarmasin in Kalimantan.
“We will also hold for the second time the Dino Trek exhibition in collaboration with Petroscience at Petroleum Museum in Miri.”
The Museum Department, he added, was assisting in the conservation work of a few traditional longhouses in the state.