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Megalithic Traditions of Indonesia and East Timor

Megaliths in Sumba  | Megaliths in Nias  | Megaliths in Timor 

Figure 1:
A water buffalo fallows alongside some stone tables on a Sumba field.

Figure 2:
A horse following alongside modern stone tables on another Sumba field. Many horses are also found in Sumba and are a part of the social symbol of wealth. The modern graves next to it are common in some villages. They are devoid of the elaborately carved upright standing monuments (see later figures). Instead the decorations are seen on the front side of the tomb.

Figure 3:

A modern megalith syncretized into an altar dedicated to Christ.

Figure 4:
Megaliths stand amidst modern-day houses in Sumba.

Figure 5:

A view of water buffalo carvings on the sides of the older smaller and larger megaliths.

Figure 6:

A modern megalith syncretized into an altar dedicated to Christ

Figure 7:
Megaliths sit along a hillside leading to a Sumbanese village. Many such stone tombs abound some Sumba hills.

Figure 8:
Close up of the hillside megaliths. Most are simple undecorated dolmen structures with sarcophagus type chamber where the dead are buried.

Figure 9:

A Sumbanese church sits in the background fronted by megaliths.†

Figure 10:
(With church in background) A close up of a dolmen with a stone cist underneath used as a container for the body. The dolmen, weighing tons is supported by vertical stones functioning as its legs.

Figure 11:
Side view of a megalith with a step-stone leading to the dolmen.

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Indonesia and East Timor Megaliths

Customs or traditions that produce large stone artifacts or structures related to ceremonies or funerals are megalithic traditions. These artifacts are related to attempts by the leaders, chiefs, kings, or heads of clans to maintain their reputation and prestige. Societies that uphold megalithic traditions believe that the souls of their dead ancestors still live in the world of the spirits. They also believe that their lives are influenced by the spirits of those dead ancestors as health, safety, fertility, and prosperity of the people are decided by their attitudes towards the dead. Good treatment of their ancestral spirits therefore protects them against all and any kind of danger.
Almost all Indonesian and East Timor megaliths are used to maintain closer relationships with the spirit of dead ancestors. Marupu, or worship, of the powerful invisible forces is a prevalent element in a megalithic culture and inseparable in the daily life of many such societies [3]. Megaliths not only fulfill sacral needs but also everyday needs such as boundary markers for village lines or rice paddies, stone mortars to grind seeds, etc.
The megalithic tradition has been developing for a long time, since 6500 years ago to the present day. There are two kinds of megalithic traditions:
Older megalithic: It is typified by menhirs (standing stone), dolmen, stone terraces and flat stones. For prehistoric stones, these megaliths are no longer used. They are typically found in South Sumatera, Jogya, Surakarta and East Java.
Younger megalithic: It is typified by the arda form, sarcophagus and stone cists. For the living megalithic traditions where they continue to be used are places like Nias, Torajau, Sumba, Sabu, Flores and Timor.
Megalithic tradition artifacts have various shapes and sizes. Some are short while others are high (up to 7-8 meters or 23-26 feet). Some dolmen shape tombs are often embellished with decorative motifs showing symbolic objects of the marupu, anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and geometric designs. Designs depicting the rank of the dead are normally seen decorating the sides of horizontal stones. They are represented by horizontal bands of geometric patterns. Artifacts of the megalithic traditions and their motifs and symbolic meaning in Indonesia consists of the types in the tables 1 and 2 below [1]:

Table 1: Megalithic type and their description

Megalith artifact type Description
Areosali Terrace usually used in settling down a dispute or case or to legalizing customary law in Nias.
Bosok Set of stones usually used for ceremonies. Also found in West Timor.
Dolmen Slab of stone supported by smaller ones functioning as its legs.
Holey stone Stone slab with holes on its surface. Usually used in rituals.

Stone vat shaped like a cylinder. Usually found in Central Sulawesi.

Ksadan Rounded enclosure, bordered by a set of head, neck and body. The feet are not sculpted.
Lasara Carving of head of an imaginary animal considered as protective animal.
Megalith A large stone.
Megalithic statue Sculpture in the form of a human or animal linked to megalithic belief.
Menhir May be man-made or natural. Used for worshipping or grave marker.
Menhir statue Anthropomorphic sculpture consisting of head, neck and body. The feet are not sculpted.
Neoadulomano Small neogadi.
Neogadi Sculpture in the form of a rounded stone table usually used to dance on in ceremonies in Nias.
Pandusa Stone grave supported by other stones functioning as walls. Usually found in Bondowoso.
Sarcophagus Stone grave consisting of a container and lid which has knob on its end. Usually found in Bali.
Scratched stone Stone slab with scratch marks on its surface. Used in rituals.
Sitilubagi Ceremonial chair in the form of animal with flat-horizontal shaped which is usually used in wedding ceremonies in the Nias area.
Standing stones (see Menhir)
Stone grave Containers for remains of deceased. Often found as stone cists, dolmen, sarcophagus, kalamba, waruga and pandusa.
Stone mortar Stone slab with a hole in the center used to grind nuts, seeds or items needing grinding.
Stone table (see Dolmen)
Stone terrace Terraced set of stone blocks or river boulders. Also used for ceremonies.
Waruga  Stone grave shaped like a house, found in North Sulawesi.

Megalithic motifs Symbolic meaning
Cock Bravery, wisdom
Crocodiles Royal symbol of courage and bravery of kings
Horse Social wealth
Moon or stars Refined character of king
Turtle (male) Dignity and wisdom of king
Water buffalo Power, virility (?)

The Megalithic Tradition in Nias

The Nias megaliths are found in the hilly and coastal (or lowland areas). Nias megaliths show a mixture of old and new megaliths. Old megaliths, such as menhir, terrace, and flat stones, and new elements (which also may be classified as megaliths), such as human statues and animals, are found there. New megaliths consist of neogadi, sitilubagi, neobehe, and lawolo.
Menhirs symbolize the male while flat stones are usually female. Vertical standing stones and imposing stone statues are set up to achieve and maintain the honor, prestige and popularity of a leader. A large number of kerbau (water buffaloes) are sacrificed as hundreds of people come from other places to actively participate in the ceremony. A communal spirit of the megalithic society is not only shown in the way they build megaliths or ceremonial houses but also in their way of deciding on questions of customary law or cases. Such a place to settle and reach consensus between leaders and people are found in the areosali.

The Megalithic Tradition in Sumba

Sumba megaliths are classified in the living tradition. Almost all of the Sumba artifacts consist of dolmen type burial structures. Their forms range from the simple to the advanced. The practice of ancestral veneration is closely related to the megalithic tradition. In spite of the spread of Christianity since the late nineteenth century, the belief in the marupu is still strongly felt in the western part of the island. Erecting stone tombs accompanied by sacrifices continued to be carried out until recently. In the modern day, the Sumbanese still bury their dead in dolmen-like tombs with modern decorations and structures. Sometimes elaborate forms and styles reveal a blend of Christianity and animistic beliefs.

The largest dolmen measures 500 cm (16.5 feet) in length and 55-70 cm (21-28 in) thick. On the dolmen, a menhir called penji was set up, sculpted with various decorations. These dolmen decorative patterns show human figures, fauna, flora, man-made and natural items and geometric patterns. According to local traditional chiefs, dolmens with statues especially are considered as bodyguards of the dead personís soul or his own soul personification.
The stones used in constructing a dolmen might weigh tens of thousands of tons so that hundreds or even thousands of men were needed to move the stones from its source to the location where it was to be constructed. Great ceremonies were carried out needing a lot of money. Graves of kings from west and east Sumba are usually very large with a rich decorative pattern.