University of Leicester
2016nyiribphd.pdf (8.95 MB)

Chasing Dragons through Time and Space: Martabani dragon jars in the Kelabit highlands, Sarawak, East Malaysia

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posted on 2017-01-17, 11:55 authored by Borbala Nyiri
This thesis explores how a special group of objects, referred to as dragon jars in Southeast Asia, cross cultural and geographical boundaries and acquire new meanings within different social and temporal settings. The object biographical approach serves as the main theoretical framework for the dragon jar enquiry within which the complex histories of jars are revealed and a closer study of object-agency takes place. The mosaic of jar biographies is investigated through the dual methodologies of anthropology and archaeology recovering information which may otherwise have remained difficult to interpret from a singular disciplinary perspective. Dragon jars ‒ or Martabans or Martavans as they are referred to in specialist literature ‒ are large stoneware vessels, decorated with a pair of eponymous dragons. The manufacture of these objects can be traced back to the workshops of southern China, where jars were first produced to service the burgeoning early global maritime trade. Their primary function was to contain fresh water and consumables on long sea-journeys and to serve as non-permeable packaging materials for commodities. However, as soon as dragon jars reached Southeast Asian shores, not only their contents but the jars themselves became sought-after items by indigenous communities. Here, dragon jars were transformed into local symbols of status and ritual paraphernalia while acquiring new meanings, taking on magical, even human-like properties. The case study area is located in the remote Kelabit highlands of Borneo (East Malaysia), where 230 jars dating from the 17th to 20th centuries were recorded in mortuary contexts and domestic settings. The thesis investigates how jars were incorporated into indigenous funerary practices and commensal feasting events, and explores the spiritual roles of dragon jars. A large influx of jars in the late 19th and early 20th century documented in the archaeological assemblage was interpreted with regard to the wider political, economic, and religious changes that took place during the transition from pre-colonial, to colonial, and then post-colonial periods. Dragon jars further serve as the means for an object-focused enquiry to unravel the complex relationship between jars and their Kelabit counterparts, and contribute to broader theoretical debates on material culture in shifting spatio-temporal and religious contexts.



Barton, Huw; Dudley, Sandra

Date of award


Author affiliation

School of Archaeology and Ancient History

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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