Clarification on the Star's Gua Tambun article

And so the last story featured for this year is… me. A couple of weeks ago I was invited by the Perak Heritage Society to a visit to some prehistoric cave sites in Perak, to raise awareness for some of the spectacular sites that are present in the state, and also to highlight the need for conservation for these sites. Among those present in the tour was a reporter from the Star, one of the largest local English dailies in Malaysia, who produced this story focusing on me and my research, despite my request NOT to be prominently featured. More distressingly, there were a number of errors, factual and inferred, attributed to me that I feel I should address here.

Art of our ancestors
The Star, 29 December 2008

The article quoted me saying quite a number of things that were inaccurate, or should have been accompanied with the appropriate caveats.

Archaeology student Noel Hidalgo Tan believes the rock paintings are clues to show that there are other similar paintings yet to be discovered.

This, he said, was because prehistoric paintings were always found in clusters.

This sentence makes it seem that by studying the rock paintings enough, I might be able to ascertain the location of other rock painting sites in the area. Which is not the case – I was making the point that rock art typically exists in clusters, and that there may be more sites in the area that have yet to be found.

“I believe these are the only prehistoric iron oxide paintings in Malaysia,” Tan said of the paintings located several meters high on limestone walls.

The paintings are believed to be of haematite, which is an iron oxide, something that I am not entirely convinced about in the first place since nobody has actually gone up to analyse the pigments. These are NOT the only red-coloured paintings in Malaysia, as they can also be found in East Malaysia and another site in Kedah.

Tan said he believed the prehistoric people used scaffolding to paint a dugong, a catfish, a turtle, a flying fox, a tapir and a herd of deer on the limestone walls.

I made it very clear that any identifications of the animals depicted on the walls were not to be taken as accurate or set in stone, because of the lack of any informed source of knowledge. The ‘tapir’ seems to have six legs, while the ‘catfish’ and ‘dugong’ both refer to the same painting, as does the ‘turtle’ and ‘flying fox’. These names are assigned because that is what they might look like to a modern viewer today, but it in no way means that this was what was intended to be drawn. The ‘scaffolding’ is also misleading – what I did say was that the Australian Aboigines were known to have erected scaffolding in order to paint their rock art, and it might have been possibly the case here.

The most glaring error was this one:

The site of the prehistoric paintings was once under the sea, judging from the presence of seashells found scattered on the limestone hill which is at least 30m high.

There were two separate contexts here that were confused and melded into one convoluted sentence. Liz Price was explaining to the tour how limestone karsts were formed through the deposition of shell remains up upon each other when the sea level was many times much higher than present, over a time scale of millions of years. The presence of seashells found and photographed at the cave were likely the food remains of the prehistoric inhabitants, who most likely subsisted on riverine shellfish as a source of protein. The age of the paintings and the age of the limestone cliffs are millions of years apart – one would think that if the paintings were submerged underwater, they would be washed off by now!

So, this story was terribly disappointing – on the first level, the reporter did not respect my request for obscurity, and then on top of that the information published was grossly inaccurate! Any archaeologists out there with a similar experience? How did you deal with a situation like this?

This will be my last post for the year – SEAArch will be taking a break because I’ll be away for fieldwork, and I’ll be back posting archaeology news of Southeast Asia from late-January, if all goes well. Happy New Year to all!

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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.

3 thoughts on “Clarification on the Star's Gua Tambun article”

  1. Yes the whole article was a disaster. Totally uninformative, and the little info that was there was mostly wrong. I’m glad you’ve posted the comments. It’s a typical case of “a little knowledge being a dangerous thing”. The reporter gained a bit of knowledge on the day but got it mostly wrong when he wrote the article. I think one reason was it was a totally alien subject to him, plus the fact his English is not too good despite him writing for an English daily. When he phoned me to ask for comments I could tell his English was poor.
    I could only laugh at his comments on the seashells. And even the English in the caption was wrong. Maybe the reporter thinks the rock artists painted underwater!!!!!!!

    I’m discussing with Hong whether its worth trying to write something else for the Star, although it might just be best to forget it as readers have very short memories and have probably already forgotten the article, especially as no mention was made of the importance of protecting the sites – which was the whole purpose of the visit!

    In summary- NEVER BELIEVE WHAT YOU READ IN NEWSPAPERS!

  2. A very good article on how you can be misrepresented by the media. And what’s even worse is when they intentionally ask you to distort the process to make “better TV”.

    I was once working in Germany on Celtic site, and a film crew was filming the excavation. They were angry that a) we didn’t find anything “exciting” and b) we weren’t co-operating, but what can you do when you have a burial and they ask you “Can you poke your trowel in there?” or collapsing a trench wall while trying to get a “shot”…..

    I don’t know what the editorial process in Malaysia is, but it’s very important to maintain a constant dialogue and demand access to the article while it’s being written. It sounds like your only recourse is to a) send a letter into the paper, or b) contact the reporter and state your case. Papers have well established procedures for printing corrections and it’s worth a shot.

  3. CamArchGrad Says
    >Papers have well established procedures for printing corrections and it’s worth a shot.

    Sadly Malaysian papers don’t follow procedures. I do freelance writing for the papers and sometimes it is more headache than it is worth. They rarely print corrections, probably cos people have very short memories here! Also the article was published in the section of the paper that is more community based. Msian papers are very strictly censored as well.

    But another issue from this article is that the same paper used one of the photos taken on the caving trip and used it to advertise a trekking outing in Penang!!

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