Abstract – Dragons in Flux – A changing relationship between jars and people in Borneo

Dragons in Flux – A changing relationship between jars and people in Borneo

Borbala Nyiri


The paper focuses on a group of storage jars dating from the late Ming (17thcentury CE) to the 20thcentury in the region of central Borneo (Sarawak, East Malaysia). Large stoneware jars decorated with dragons and/or floral motifs – despite their variety and numbers – have received little scholarly attention compared to other types of Asian tradewares, and when ‘dragon jars’ do make it onto the pages of academic publications it is largely because of their indigenous utilisation across Southeast Asia. In recent decades, shipwrecks have been key in clarifying the functions and routes jars took to their destinations, but it is lesser known how jars were traded from coastal entrepôts to the inland regions. Furthermore, colonial and ethnographic accounts often refer to the ‘magical properties’ of jars, but how imported tradeware jars gained these new powers and the roles foreign vessels played in local societies still remain unclear. The paper aims to address these lesser explored aspects of dragon jars through a case study from the Kelabit highlands in Borneo. By using interdisciplinary methodologies, I shall trace the historical trajectories of jars before, during and after the Brooke colonial era, and in particular consider the impact local jar production had upon the changing relationship between jars and people in Borneo that continues to evolve this day.


I was born in Budapest, Hungary, and gained my MA degree in archaeology from the Eötvös Loránd Science University, specialising in European prehistory. In 2007, I became a member of the Cultured Rainforest Project (CRF): an interdisciplinary research programme investigating human-rainforest relationships in the Kelabit highlands, Sarawak, East Malaysia. The CRF project also laid the foundations to my own PhD thesis which I completed in 2016, at the University of Leicester. The focus of my thesis was object-biographies of the so-called Martaban/Martavaan or ‘dragon’ jars; combining the methodologies of archaeology and anthropology I traced the journeys of jars from their places of production in southern China to Borneo and the Kelabit highlands, where large stoneware vessels had been venerated as family heirlooms and utilised as burial containers for centuries. In 2017, I held a research fellowship at the Sarawak Museum, where I continued to work with the ceramic collections and investigate the more recent Sarawakian production of jars.