The ritual statues of Borneo can be more than 2000 years old. What are these essences that can resist so well the hard climate of the damp tropical forest?


Two recently published documents, “C14 dating of Dayak Art” by Thomas Murray and “Dayak from Borneo” by Bernard de Grunne, propose to lovers of tribal art a vast and exceptional panorama of more than a hundred wooden sculptures coming from Borneo together with a C14 dating. Many experts affirm that no piece of wood could resist more than several decades, far more, more than a hundred years, tropical climate’s rigors. The whole thing presented here brings an essential denial of this assertion.  Most of the crafts presented in these books are indeed several centuries old. In terms of historical references, the panel goes from Charles Martel to Napoleon Bonaparte, passing by François 1st and Louis XIV. And what strikes one’s eye, whether we are neophyte or expert, it is their excellent state of conservation. What are those tropical essences that resist so well time and in what kind of conditions of conservation?

Left. Publication of Thomas Murray, 2015. Right. Publication of Bernard De Grunne, 2015.

If a hardwood falls into the muck of a river bank and is completely covered with mud, it can survive in this anaerobic environment without deterioration for hundreds, even thousands years.

- C-14 Dating of Dayak Art. Thomas Murray. 2015 -

These two release, sadly, do not bring any indications concerning the essences used and no xylologic study is given with the C14 data. In the first one, mention is made in a few lines of the famous “iron-wood” of Borneo, Eusideroxylon Zwageri, locally called Ulin, and Belian in the international classification; the second ignores totally the subject. The Belian is a wood belonging to the Lauraceae family, very widely spread in Borneo and that has characteristics which are of being hard and having an exceptional durability. Its bulk density, for example, can go up to 1g/cm3, which renders its transport by water routes a problem because it has a tendency to sink. The tree can reach a gigantic size of more than 50m high for a diameter of more than 200cm. It blossoms mainly in tropical forests at a low altitude, generally at an altitude below 700m. It has a yellowish brown color that gets darker in the light reaching a more or less darker grey color. A certain amount of sculptures of Borneo are indeed carved in this wood, but it would be risky to generalize; on one hand because the site which is preferred by Belian is mainly situated in alluvial plains – what about the sculptures made in mountainous regions? -,on the other hand because some sculptures present a surface, a wood fiber’s structure and color very far-flung from those from the Ulin. Clearer, darker, more porous, lighter, these statues seem clearly to be carved in other essences.

If no important xylologic study other than the one of C14 dating here mentioned has been made up to this day concerning the artistic production of Borneo, some others, more sporadic, give us nonetheless interesting clues. For a xylologic analysis one needs to collect a very little sample of wood from the sculpture; a few millimeter of shavings in the three sectional views, transversal, tangential and radial are enough. Put to dry, they are shown between two lamella, examined with a microscope then compared with a sample like the one from the Laboratory of Paleobotany and Paleoecology of the University Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris VI, for example.

Head of a box of bones, hight 20cm, Bahau, Haut-Mahakam, dated C14 seventeenth century. Provenance: collection Bertrand Claude, 2008, Paris, Ana et Antonio Casanovas, Madrid, 2009, Bruce Frank, New-York, 2015. Photos courtesy of Bruce Frank Primitive Art.

A first xylologic report carried out on a figure from a sarcophagus coming from Upper Mahakam (fig. 1), a region with mountains in the center of the island, identifies the essence Elmerilla, Chempaka, Magnoliaceae.  This species grows in Indonesia and Malaysia, and more particularly in Borneo. It is a wood well known for being an aromatic repellent against termites and mushrooms.  A C14 identifies this object as being of the 17th century A.D. Stored in a funerary cave, this bones-box resisted during 400 years against attacks from its environment. A second report, done on another figure from a sarcophagus (fig. 3), which came from the same region, and most probably from the same funerary cave, identifies the same essence, Elmerilla, Chempaka, Magnoliaceae, added to a similar C14 dating, as being of the 17th century A.D. Let us point out the difference of color between the two objects, one light grey, the other one reddish although they have been carved in the same wood, are both as old and have been conserved in the same place!

cf. Elmerilla sp., Wau becch, Chempaka, Magnoliaceae. L’espèce Elmerilla tsiampaca (L.) Dandy, is deemed to provide a repellent aromatic wood for termites and fungi.

- Dr. Victoria Asensi Amorós, Archaeologist / Expert micrograph Hood, UPMC-Paris VI. -

This cross-reference means that the wood-carvers from Upper-Mahakam had a precise knowledge of their forests’ threes characteristics and the way they could use them. Let us note that, in this case, the bare eye can be of no use to determine the type of wood these objects were made in. Coming from the same place, and being of the same age, they each bare totally different colors: light grey for one, yellowish brown for the other. What could have looked like iron-wood Ulin, wasn’t! A sample for the C14 and the xylologic study was taken from the two extremities of the bones-boxes, after which they were nevertheless restored so as to reinforce the inner wood, which was submitted, all the same, to important fungal and xylophagous attacks inside the funerary cave where they had been stored.



Left. Publication Schoffel Valluet 2013. Right. Head of a box of bones, hight 30cm, Bahau, Haut-Mahakam, dated C14 seventeenth century. Provenance: collection Bertrand Claude, 2008. Photos & copyright, Bertrand Claude.

A third xylologic report appears in the book “The unveiled life of a piece of art from Borneo”, edited by the Schoffel Valluet Gallery in 2013. It identifies a big sculpture which dates from the 15th century A.D. as being Shorea, of the Balau group, of the family of Dipterocarpaceae. Its geographical area of distribution covers Southern Eastern Asia and particularly Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. The Balau group biggest attribute is no doubt  the wood’s strength. Well known for its resistance to wear and tear, it is a very hard wood which resists particularly well to decay, and against attacks coming from mushrooms and termites. Dense wood, very heavy, 0,85-0,95g/cm3, it has almost no buoyancy and this renders the forests’ extraction by watercourse very difficult. Its colors varies from yellowish brown to reddish brown and it can come up to a diameter which goes from 0,70m to 1,00m for a height of  40-60m. Its Damar resin is traditionally used for the fabrication of torches and the sealing off funerary jars - Chin, .Lucas «  Trade Objects » Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, March 1988 - . Resistant against acids and useful for preserving products, foresters advise a slow and careful drying process for this specie.  All these qualities have not escaped the local artists’ attention when they had to choose wood to realize their art piece.

Shorea species: the fifth commonest timber in the Kota Batu remains, the term "selangan batu" in Brunei covers at least eleven species of the genus Shorea. As the adjective (batu=stone) indicates, the timber is very hard, durable and «excellent for heavy construction » (Ashton: 125).

- Prehistoric Wood From Brunei, Borneo,Tom Harrisson, Brunei Museum, 1974 -

An article written by Tom Harrisson entitled “new radio-carbon 14 Dates from Brunei”, published by the magazine Borneo Research Bulletin, Vol. 3, dating from June 1971, followed by the publication “Prehistoric Wood from Brunei, Borneo” from Brunei Museum, 1974, delivers important xylologic informations coming from the archeological material collected during the different excavation campaigns in Kota Batu, on the north coast of Borneo. The author, Tom Harrisson, curator of the Sarawak Museum, describes the results of a range of carbon 14 dating and xylologic analysis done on more than 1500 wooden elements considered as having been carved or selected by men, coming from excavations done in 1952-53. It is essentially about every day wooden objects, about charcoal, about Damar resin and the left overs of fruits conserved in acid soils under a screed of water. The C14 dating shows that the excavation area was occupied from 95 B.C. to 1815 A.D., that is to say for nearly 2000 years. Although insufficient, according to the author himself, nevertheless, the results show a temporal continuity of human presence on the site contrarily to others. The xylologic analysis done on these “remains” of wood identify fourteen essences, among which four are quite different but nonetheless have similar characteristics; Instia palembanica, Eusideroxylon, Koompassia and Shorea. The Koompassia, a heavy and dense wood, 0,88g/cm3, is considered as being an essence particularly hard to work on. The Instia Palembanica, which is also heavy and dense, 0,88g/cm3, is a big tree over 50m tall, also called “iron tree”. It grows in the great forests of Dipterocarpaceae, from the family of Shorea, up to an altitude of 1000m. The two other essences identified, the Eusideroxylon and the Shorea, have, as we saw, characteristics of hardness and density which are very close to the Instia Palembanica and to the Koompassia. The dating with C14 of these archeological woods show respectively 690 A.D. and 805 A.D. for the Instia Palembanica, 940 A.D. for the Shorea, 1090 A.D. for the Eusideroxylon and 1300 A.D. for the Koompassia. Tom Harrisson observes that these archeological woods’ essences are also those which are among the most looked for by the contemporary foresters and that objects which are used for the same things are realized with different essences. Also, five “remains” of fat pillars, which “all looked alike for an ordinairy eye” (Editor’s note), were made in three different essences. In the catalog, Patong the big sculpture dei populi del Borneo, edited by Città di Lugano, Museo delle Culture, Antonio Guerreiro, in the chapter “The general classification of wood” p78, indicates that “the main essences used by the Dayak are classified hard, half hard, and soft. The first category includes the Ulin, the Menggeris, the Selangan batu and the Merang, all which are used for architecture and woodcarving”.


Fig.4:Detail of a sculpture carved in Borneo species Shorea, C14 dated fifteenth century. Photos & copyright Jean-François Chavanne.

We can deduct from these xylologic studies that the Dayak carvers knew and worked on several essences from the tropical forest. Four of them are commonly called “iron-wood”, but this qualifier could be used globaly for this whole group. The use of the Elmerilla essence for the realization of boxes intended to conserve the bones of the deceased, widens this diversity of choice. Recently, an ethno -botanic study done by village people of an Iban group, Sarawak, showed that they identified more than 650 plant species, among which more than 200 trees, and 50 of them producing wood, tree bark and other materials used for pieces of art. Like all artists, the dayak carvers probably chose their materials according to the use and purpose of their production, but also according to the availability of the essences on the production site, their repartition changing according to the altitude and the adequacy of the tree with their artistic project – size, location of the nodes, rectitude, etc. – The “Hampatong” of Borneo owe their great longevity to the strong mechanic resistance and to the extreme density of the woods in which they have been carved but also to the judicious choice of logs by the artists. To this, is added the exceptional conditions of conservation for most of the archeological pieces. The rivers’ silt or the inside of funerary caves where they rested, protected them from the light and in a stable atmosphere during centuries from torrential rain, from the burning sun of the equatorial climate and from fungal or woodborers attacks. They are still in front of us, standing, challenging time and our gaze for our utmost pleasure.

Borneo wood holds surprises and forces our humbleness.

Bertrand Claude