Lembah Kinabatangan, located in Sabahs central region, is not only renowned for its vast oil palm plantations. The valley is also the resting place of priceless treasures in the form of timber coffins.
It is believed that about 2,000 timber coffins, some as old as 1,000 years, dot the Kinabatangan Valley, making the area one of the nations important archaeological sites.
Many of the coffins, made of hard wood like belian and merbau, are found in several caves in the valley.
Among the caves is Agop Batu Tulug in Kampung Batu Putih, Kinabatangan, declared an archaeological site by the Sabah Museum Department on July 6, 1995.
The Sabah Museum authorities, with collaboration from the National Museum and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), are now carrying out restoration works in efforts to conserve the timber coffins found in the valley.
Statistics show that there are 125 timber coffins in Agop Batu Tulug, which date back to some 700-900 years.
The other coffins are in the caves of Batu Supu (68), Serupi (40), Tapadong (20), Miasias and Sipit (10) as well as in Kuala Sungai Kalisun (eight), Danum Valley Research Centre and Segarong (five), Gumantong, Madai, Baturong and Bodgaya (two each), Kuala Danum and Melanta Tutup (one each).
The timber coffin zone considered still active is in Ulu Segama, Lahad Datu.
According to Sabah Museum Department director Datuk Joseph P. Guntavid, more timber coffins can be found in Tawau.
To date, only the Agop Batu Tulug in Batu Putih, Kinabatangan, has been made a tourist destination and gazetted as a heritage museum.
We believe there are more timber coffins in Kinabatangan Valley and the search goes on for the relics to ensure these priceless treasures do not go missing in time, he said.
Conservation efforts are crucial to ensure these timber coffins become the heritage for future generations and as priceless treasures of the state, Joseph said during a recent visit by Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim to the Agop Batu Tulug archaeological site.
When discovered, the coffins were haphazardly placed. There are those in still relatively good condition while others have deteriorated. Some of the coffin lids were found separated from the main structures.
Sabah Museum Department has sent samples of wooden material used to make the coffins to USM for analysis.
Joseph said each of the coffins was heavy as the structures were made of stone-hard materials like kayu belian, also known as Borneo ironwood.
Each of the coffins is long in measurement and one that measures close to 7m is the longest discovered in Batu Supu, Kinabatangan Valley, so far.
The tongue is located at the far end of the coffin. If the tongue is shaped like an animal, then the coffin houses the body of a man. If the protuberance bears no particular shape, the coffin houses the body of a woman.
Joseph said the coffins were adorned with various carvings like the head of a buffalo or tempadau, crocodile, lizard, snake and bird.
He said the culture of using such coffins was believed to be linked to the discovery of similar coffins in China and Vietnam.
Chinese merchants who migrated to Sabah could have brought along this culture, he said.
Dr Rais, after his visit to the Agop Batu Tulug archaeological site, said a report on the coffins would be tabled before the Cabinet for assistance to conserve this priceless heritage. Bernama