Water and Starlight: Finding the Zodiac Beaker

12 minute read

In the Indonesia displays in the World Anthropology gallery at MAA is a dark brass beaker embossed with figures and symbols. It has been hidden in plain sight; gone largely unnoticed by staff, volunteers, and probably most visitors for decades. Recently, however, I’ve returned to the cup and its documentation as part of a lockdown project of revising captions for the Asia exhibits, and this has revealed new connections and raised new questions. 

A dark brown brass beaker with figures embossed on it. There is a small crack on the rim, and some red paint smudged towards its base.

Figure 1. Prasen. Brass beaker embossed with signs of the Zodiac. Borobudur, Java. MAA 1884.4.

Find Spots

The cup has been on display since 1990, with the catalogue number Z 19941 and the following description: 

‘Ancient Javanese cup embossed with the signs of the zodiac. It was found in the ruins of Boro Bodo, Java.’ 

Working in a museum like MAA is to be confronted almost daily with the breadth and depth of one’s own ignorance. When I read the object’s old caption, I was suspicious. Could the figures really represent astrological signs? When I tried to look at the cup on display, a combination of the dark antique brass surface of the object, the poor light in the showcase, and the low level at which it was displayed, made it very difficult to see the details. I wasn’t disposed to trust everything that I read in a museum catalogue.  

I was more interested in where this beaker seemed to have been from, partly because that would tell us how ‘ancient’ it was, but also because of the significance of Boro-Bodo, or more accurately ‘Borobudur’. 

View of the Borobudur shrine complex, showing the central dome surrounded by numerous intricately carved perforated stone stupas. Three European visitors mill around in the lower left-hand corner of the frame.

Figure 2. Photograph of Borobudur by Diamond Jennes, May 1929. Haddon Photograph Collection. MAA P.5517.ACH1.

Candi Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple on the planet. It was built between 778 and 850 CE, during the Shailendra Dynasty. It rises in nine stacked platforms of rock, with a central dome at its peak. Climbing the monument, Buddhist pilgrims (and tourists) follow a path that circles and ascends a mountain of elaborate architecture and sculpture, through corridors lined with almost 1,500 narrative panels. It remained an important global site of Buddhist pilgrimage through the 9th and up to the 14th century, during the Majapahit era. The Majapahit (1293-1527) was a Hindu-Buddhist empire centered on the island of Java with vassal states right across what is now Indonesia, and beyond into Peninsular Malaysia and New Guinea. 

Borobudur is believed to have been written about in the Majapahit era text, the Nagarakretagama, in 1365. But it was abandoned soon after as Hindu kingdoms declined, and many Javanese people converted to Islam.  

In the revised caption that I wrote for the cup, I focused on its antiquity and connection to Borobudur. But I was still curious about its zodiac connection. So, I returned to the cup and did some investigating.  

The first step was to go through its historical documentation at MAA. I went first to the Accession Register for Z 19941. In the Museum, Z numbers like this were given in the 1970s and 1980s to objects found without a visible number. This entry had more information about the object’s provenance than is usually the case. Its entry notes that it was collected and donated by a Major-General Thomas Hardwick and found in the Ruins of Borobudur in 1827. There is no information about when Hardwick actually donated the cup, about who he was or indeed what he was doing in Java, if he was ever there at all.  

The old catalogue card for Z 11941 told the same story, as we would expect. But a second hand, writing in black ink, provided another clue ‘see 1884.4’. 

Going to the catalogue for that number, we have a different description, which does not mention the zodiac but describes a  

‘double row of figures, 13 in the upper and 12 in the lower’

It provides dimensions and reiterates that it was ‘found’ in the ruins of Borobudur.  

But it also provides more detail about its provenance, explaining that it was transferred from the Fitzwilliam Museum (in 1884), having been presented to the Fitz by Hardwick in 1827.


Thomas Hardwicke was a soldier with the British East India Company in India from 1777 to 1823, serving for most of his career with the Bengal Artillery. He was also a keen collector of zoological specimens, gathered during travels across South Asia. He retired from the Bengal Artillery in 1819 and returned to England in 1823, settling in Wisbech in Cambridgeshire. 

Painted portrait of a man wearing a black suit and a golden scarf.

Figure 3. Major General Thomas Hardwicke. Oil on Canvas. John Lucas, circa 1830. Donated to the British Museum by J.E. Gray, 1842. Source: Natural History Museum, London. 1044/05.

He corresponded with scholars and natural historians including Sir Joseph Banks, naturalist on James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific and president of the Royal Society of London from 1778 to 1820, and Sir Stamford Raffles, former Governor of Java and the Dutch East Indies. It is not clear whether Hardwicke travelled to Java himself. Perhaps the details of how the beaker was ‘found’ came from a correspondent who had given it to him. Perhaps Raffles? 

Painted portrait of a man wearing a black suit. Behind him, on the right, is a landscape painting, partly covered by a red curtain. On the left is a relief of a Buddha. In front of this relief is a table with some papers, an ink stand and a quill, and some books. The man is leaning his right arm on the table, and holding a piece of paper in his right hand.

Figure 4. Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles. Oil on canvas. George Francis Joseph, 1817. Raffles holds his recently acquired knighthood in his hand and Buddhist figures stand on the table behind him. Given by W.C. Raffles Flint, 1859. National Portrait Gallery. NPG 84.

Raffles was Governor of the Dutch East Indies from 1811 to 1816, during Britain’s brief occupation in the latter years of the Napoleonic Wars. He published The History of Java on his return to England in 1817. He had been told of a great monument, buried beneath volcanic ash and dense forest, and sent Dutch engineer Hermann C. Cornelius to clear it.  

Hardwicke wrote several letters to Raffles while in Wisbech in 1825, two years after his return to England and two years before presenting the beaker to the Fitzwilliam. It is possible that Raffles, or someone connected to him, was involved in Hardwicke receiving the beaker.  

Raffles accumulated a massive collection of Javanese antiquities, 1,500 of which ended up in the British Museum. The collection includes a number of ‘zodiac bowls’. 

Zodiac Beakers

Two dark bronze cups with engravings on all sides.

Figure 5. Zodiac bowls. Java. Collected by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. British Museum 1859,1228.138 and 1859,1228.139.

The British Museum holds seven such items, as do several museums worldwide. I learned that this kind of object is variously known as a zodiac cup, zodiac bowl, or zodiac beaker. In Dutch (the language of colonialism when Java was part of the Dutch East Indies, and therefore the language in which much scholarship on the region and its arts has been written), it is known as zodiakbeker 

Each of the beakers at the British Museum has the same design as the one at MAA. Embossed on the upper row are 12 figures, representing the Javanese months and seasons. On the bottom layer are symbols said to represent the signs of the zodiac. 

Three dark bronze cups with engravings on all sides.

Figure 6: Zodiac bowls. Java. The first (on the left) is also recorded as being from the Raffles Collection. Purchased from Boocks or Boocke & Co. 1878. British Museum 1878,0210.1, 1878,0210.2 and 1878,0210.3.

Some of these examples are dated, as are several that can be found in other museums. Many are dated in Javanese numerals to between 1329 and 1356. The beaker at MAA is undated, with the numerals replaced by a sunburst (the 13th ‘figure’ alongside the 12 standard representations of the seasons). But given the dates of the extant beakers in other museum collections, it seems that it was used at Borobudur, or left there, towards the end of the monument’s period of activity under the Hindu Majapahit dynasty. 

The zodiac familiar to devotees of horoscope sections in newspapers in magazines can, of course, be traced back to ancient Rome, with the names of signs from Aquarius to Virgo suggesting Latin origins. The Roman zodiac is believed to have come from Greece. But its origins in fact lie in Babylonian astronomy, developed in the first millennium BCE. From Babylon, it is thought, the division of the stars into 12 equal portions spread to emerging astronomers in Greece and in India.  

A bit of research told me very quickly that while the Hindu zodiac, the Nirayana, is widely used by Hindu devotees in India, it had also spread to Hindu traditions in Java and Bali. The zodiac symbols on the beaker at MAA include a girl (Kartaka in Javanese, or Cancer), a set of scales (Tula or Libra), a bull (Mesa or Taurus), a water pot (Kumba or Aquarius), a crayfish (Makara), a bow and arrow (Danu or Sagittarius), a scorpion (Wrichika or Scorpio) and what look like twins or a torana (gateway), representing Mithuna or Gemini. 

Beakers like that at MAA would have held holy water. Water is a part of Hindu worship in India and elsewhere (gangajal or water from the Ganges, for example). But it has particular significance in Javanese and Balinese Hinduism, which indeed is sometimes referred to as Agama Tirtha (Religion of the Holy Waters). In Java, where such beakers are still used by the Hindu Tenggerese people in rituals, they are called prasen. In Bali they are siwamba. Ethnographies by J.H.F. Kohlbrugge (1900), Nancy Smith-Hefner (1992) and others have touched upon the use of prasen in rituals to contain holy water.

The Missing Piece

Anyway, back to the beaker at MAA. I wanted to know more about how it had arrived at the Museum. So, my next step was to go to the Accession Register for 1884. The entry for 1884.4 is dated Tuesday 9th December 1884. It reiterates, again, the find-spot of Candi Borobudur, and a slightly fuller account of the transfer of the objects from the Fitzwilliam and its earlier presentation to that museum: 

‘Found in the ruins of the Temple of Boro-Bodo Java. Transferred from the Fitzwilliam Museum to which institution it was presented by Major-General Thomas Hardwick, 1827.’ 

The dates become clearer: we now know that the beaker was presented by Thomas Hardwicke in 1827, four years after he retired from East India Company Service and 13 years after the ‘discovery’ of Borobudur (which had been known to Javanese people, even after its abandonment, for centuries). We also know that it was entered into MAA’s Accession Register on Tuesday 9th December 1884, the first full year of the Museum’s existence, along with a large number of objects from the Fitzwilliam which were presumably also considered more appropriate in the Museum of General and Local Archaeology (as MAA was then known) than in the University’s art Museum.

As well as the beaker, the Fitzwilliam Museum transferred two staves with runic inscriptions from Sweden, a Chimu whistling pot from Peru, several Māori taonga from Aotearoa, New Zealand, an astrological compass from China, a leather flask from Switzerland, and numerous archaeological items from the Cambridge region.

The beaker was the fourth object accessioned into the collections at MAA, during the first full year of the Museum’s existence. It is also the first artefact from Asia to enter the collections.  

The description provided in the Register matches the beaker exhibited as Z 19941 in most respects. There is a surprise, however: it also refers to a ‘cover’ or lid: 

‘Thin metal tub-shaped cup, with cover. Embossed with a double row of figures: 13 in the upper and 12 in the lower. Height (with cover) 6”. Diameter of base, 3 ½”, across top 4 ½”

Most beakers that I have seen in other museum collections do not have lids. But two do. One, in the Art Gallery of South Australia, and the other in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  

A dark bronze lidded beaker with engravings on all sides.

Figure 7. Ritual beaker, with signs of the Zodiac. East Java, dated 1350. Purchased with a South Australian Government Grant, 2002. Art Gallery of South Australia. Adelaide, Australia. 20022S3(a&b).

A dark bronze, lidded beaker with engravings on all of its sides.

Figure 8. Zodiac beaker with lid. East Java. Dated 1355-56. Gift of Mr and Mrs Oorthuys-Lutjens, Baak, 1991. Rijksmuseum, Netherlands. AK-RAK-1991-16.

The beaker on display at MAA since 1990, however, is distinctly lidless, and evidently did not have one when it was given a new number in the mid 1970s.    

But since some of the other beakers did, I turned back to MAA’s catalogue and searched for a lid from Asia with a Z number. 

A dark bronze lid. A piece of paper is tied using a thread around its tip.

Figure 9. Metal lid. Found unnumbered during an inventory of Asian collections in the 1970s and given the number Z 19127.

Rather unexpectedly, I found one. It had also been found, unnumbered, sometime in the 1970s or 1980s. The database record said that it was probably from Myanmar (Burma). Its dimensions seemed like it might fit the cup, and it looked similar to the lid on the beaker in the Rijksmuseum.  

I turned to the catalogue card to check if there were any clues. We can already see that there are different bits of text, presumably added at different times by different people. 

The typed description tells us it is definitely metal, only possibly a lid. Someone has written Southeast Asia and East Asia, both with question marks, as possible places of origin. Someone else has written ‘Burma’ and ’Storage’ in brackets. This tells us that it is in a box of things from Myanmar, although may not necessarily be from there. 

Turning next to the page of the Accession Register on which this lid was recorded, we see that it is part of a list of objects, presumably those that had no numbers and were stored in the same space – perhaps the same shelf, or box, or store, where the lid was found. 

This seems to have been somewhere in the store where Southeast Asian objects were grouped together. Some have been given details: the first object on the list is definitely from Myanmar, as are others. Some are described as possibly from Myanmar or Thailand. One is attributed to the Shan people. In only two cases are the names of collectors or donors known, probably because their names were given on labels attached to the object. 

A store cupboard with shelves, each holding lots and lots of objects.

Figure 10. A store cupboard in the 1970s.

This picture shows the chaos behind lists in the Z register like we’ve just seen. Objects were given Z numbers as part of an exercise to empty cluttered store cupboards and rationalise their contents, in preparation for moving collections to new dedicated stores – 3 of these stores are on this site, and everything else was moved to an off-site store in West Cambridge. This is the same store that is currently the focus of the Stores Move project; its contents are now being properly photographed, re-documented, repacked, and moved to the new Centre for Material Culture. 

So, there was a fair bit of uncertainty around this object. But it seemed to fit all the criteria to match with the missing lid for beaker 1884.4. 

And hence, at the beginning of October, on a quiet Monday when the museum is closed to visitors, we took the beaker from its display case and offered it up to the lid. They fit, snugly, after perhaps as much as a century since they were last united, and almost 800 years since they were made.  

A collage of images showing two purple-gloved hands attaching a lid to a dark bronze beaker.

Figure 11. Mark Elliott reuniting the beaker with its missing lid, October 2023.

Purple-gloved hands holding a dark bronze, lidded cup. Some smudged red paint can be seen at the base of this cup.

Figure 12. Mark Elliott holding the completed beaker, October 2023.

This is now one of only a handful of Javanese zodiac beakers in museum collections that retains its lid. It is currently exhibited, in this more intact state, for the first time in generations.  

A dark bronze beaker with engravings on all sides and a lid.

Figure 13. Prasen. Zodiac beaker. 13th Century. Borobudur, Java, Indonesia.
Donated to the Fitzwilliam Museum by Major-General Thomas Hardwicke in 1927.
Transferred to MAA in 1884. MAA 1884.4.

The transformations experienced by objects as they journey across space and time do not end when they are accessioned into a museum collection. Objects may be reassessed, old information disregarded, or indeed disconnected from the object completely. Revision and reconnection are endless tasks which are rarely prioritised by institutions or their funders outside research projects.  

But extraordinary stories and relationships are there to be reconstructed every time we encounter an artefact or try to piece something together that has been lost. Building up even a fragmentary picture of what something is, where and who it comes from, and how it got here opens the possibility of taking these stories further. What transformations will this zodiac bowl experience in the future?  


  1. Katrina says:

    Yay for reuniting objects! And what a fascinating first object from Asia for the museum. Thanks for doing the work to uncover its history.

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