The rock art of Gua Tambun

While I’m nost supposed to blog about about my ongoing research, I suppose a brief overview wouldn’t hurt. Here’s what I’ll be researching for the next couple of years – the rock art site of Gua Tambun in Perak. Earlier this week, I visited the site with my supervisor and some colleagues at the centre to reconnoitre the site and plan the logistics for fieldwork later this year. It was a chance to get some updated photos of the site and the paintings.

Gunong Panjang, Ipoh, Perak


Gua Tambun (Tambun Cave) is located just outside of Ipoh, about three hours from Penang. The cave is situated on Gunong Panjang (the Long Mountain), a large limestone formation. Getting there was not particularly difficult, although it involved cutting through the local turf club and up a flight of cement stairs that was built around the 70s when the site was gazetted as a place of historical interest by the Department of Museums and Antiquity.

Gua Tambuin steps

Gua Tambun sign

My research objectives will be to map the site and take detailed recordings of each image, and also to conduct physical and chemical analyses on the paints. The images themselves are quite spectacular, and manifest themselves in a number of distinct styles and colours. The most common images associated with Gua Tambun are the ‘x-ray’ style images of deer, and the silhouette style images of what is presumed to be a dugong.

Gua Tambun x-ray art

Gua Tambun silhouette art

Of course, these image meanings have never been verified, so any attempt to interpret them are largely guesswork – which is why I’m focusing on the paint analysis and technological production.

The paintings are situated quite high up on the cliff face – at least five metres. This is due to the action of Chinese settlers, who reportedly dynamited to floor of the cave to harvest guano sometime in the last 200 years. This action has serendipitously prevented any disturbance by human hands, but also has created a very uneven floor to work with. Getting up close to the paintings is going to be very challenging, indeed!

Gua Tambun rock art

Gua Tambun floor surface

You can see here how the cave looks like today; the white section being the cliff wall on which the paintings were drawn, and the orange part the destroyed cave floor. Further south (the right side of the picture) of the cave, you can get an idea of what the cave might have looked like if it wasn’t blasted.

As a rock art site, Gua Tambun is pretty unique – it’s the only known example of red-coloured rock art in peninsular Malaysia. Rock art in this part of the world hasn’t been researched much – there are plenty of questions waiting to be answered!

Related Books:
Early History (The Encyclopedia of Malaysia) by Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman (Ed)
The Archaeology of Rock-Art (New Directions in Archaeology)
Handbook of Rock Art Research
Introduction to Rock Art Research

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

5 thoughts on “The rock art of Gua Tambun”

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve been to this site a few times over the years, now the access is quite easy compared to a few years ago! Were the horses stabled in the cave at the bottom of the hill?

  2. Yes, the horses were still stabled at the bottom of the hill. This time round there were less horses though – I remember when I was there two years ago there were horses all the way to the stairs. This time round there were only at the stables.

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