Sunday, December 21, 2014

Niah Caves — the ideal grotto

AFTER 41 years in the teaching profession, including 16 years as a UK headmaster and another nearly three years in the same position in Kuching, I still remember my final interviews with the student editors of the respective schools magazines. “What is your ambition in your retirement?” My answer was simple: “To appear every Christmas as Santa Claus at the grotto in Harrod’s department store in London.”

“But why?” the students giggled and then listened carefully to my reply: “To see smiles on the faces of children.”

On a smaller scale, I have appeared for my grandchildren and neighbours’ guests knocking on windows and doors on Christmas Eve in the guise of Father Christmas with my padded belly and long cotton wool beard and a hearty cry of, “Ho, Ho, Ho!”, to persuade them to get into bed early so that I could deliver their presents when they were asleep! “Where are your reindeer?” the children would ask. I told them to look out of the windows on Christmas morning to see the wild red deer crossing the fields opposite my house. That said, Christmastide is about giving rather than receiving and the true meaning of Christ’s birth is often overlooked.

Unfortunately in my neck of the woods there are no true limestone caves to call my grottos. However every Christmas, as a geomorphologist, my mind immediately links to the most accessible cave system I have visited in the world — the Niah Caves, not far from Bintulu and Miri.

Much has recently been written in criticism of Tom and Barbara Harrison’s archaeological digs and discoveries at Niah between1954 and 1962, but only a few true archaeologists have recorded the lack of technological equipment they used compared with 21st century archaeologists today.

The Harrisons and their team dug with shovels and trowels. They were sponsored by Shell, for Tom was the curator of Sarawak Museum at that time. Much debate will continue to smoulder about their findings in terms of the ages of the artefacts, but we do know for sure through carbon dating that the skull of a 15- to 17-year-old youth is about 40,000 years old.

Neolithic axes, pottery and boats (wooden coffins) as well as Iron Age tools, ceramics and glass beads were discovered and it is likely that the caves were occupied by people from 40,000 BC right up to the 15th century AD. The rock paintings in the ‘Painted Cave’ are reckoned to have been created 1,200 years ago.

Of all the caves I have visited, in Carboniferous limestone in the UK, in the Mendip Hills of Somerset, in the Peak District of Derbyshire and in the Yorkshire Dales as well as caves in France, Malta and Slovenia, the Batu Caves in Selangor and the local Bau Caves, Niah Caves still top my list.

Why the Niah Caves? Unlike Santa’s grotto and the other show caves, they were not illuminated by up-lighting or spotlights in 1999. With a head torch you found your footing along the plank ways and with an upward turn of your head could see the 75m high roof.

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