‘Indiana Jones who pieces together S’pore’s past’ – Interview with Assoc Prof John Miksic by The Straits Times

Indiana Jones who pieces together S’pore’s past. — Archaeologist has dug into island’s pre-colonial history for three decades, The Straits Times, Monday 11 November 2013.

TEXTBOOKS here recount the leg-end of how Singapore’s founder, Sang Nila Utama, first landed on the island in 1299 because he was attracted by sand so white that it looked like a sheet of cloth.

This pristine white sand is no romantic embellishment. It has been found some 90cm under-neath the grassy expanse of to-day’s Padang – part of what was once an ancient city’s shoreline.

The man who unearthed this discovery was born and raised on a farm in New York, grew up be-ing interested in Native Ameri-cans, then helped farmers in Ma-laysia, where he was fascinated by the temple ruins in Kedah. In the last three decades, he has been on a mission to piece together Singa-pore’s pre-colonial history.

Meet 67-year-old Assistant Professor John N. Miksic, Singa-pore’s answer to Indiana Jones. Not that his life is anything as ex-citing as that of the cinematic he-ro, said the grizzled archaeologist.

“Digging is the first step in a process of about 10 steps. Real sci-entific work is done in the laboratory, which takes up 90 per cent of an archaeologist’s time.”

Yet his work has been drumming up excitement about Singa-pore’s pre-colonial past.

Since being first invited to exca-vate Fort Canning in 1984, when Singapore lacked a local archaeolo-gist, he has led digs at 11 other sites, such as Empress Place and the Old Parliament House.

He has since amassed eight tonnes of ceramic fragments and other local artefacts, including shells and small statues. They help pain a picture of Singapore as a sizeable and prosperous Asian trading port with a population of 10,000 in the 14th century, more than 500 years before the landing of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819.

I’ve been trying to tell people that Singapore has deeper roots that go far beyond the colonial pe-riod and date back 700 years. It gives me a real feeling of happiness when people accept that there is a lot more to Singa-pore history than the textbooks used to tell us.

His latest effort is a 491-page tome titled Singapore And The Silk Road Of The Sea, 1300-1800. Launched last week, it showcases some of his findings up till 2004, including how he uncovered a lay-er of fine, unspoilt white sand at the bottom of a pit at the Singapore Cricket Club.

The book details how this layer of sand used to extend from the Singapore River to Kampong Glam. From a passing vessel, it would have looked “blindingly white in the sun in contrast to the green hills and blue water which dominated the view”.

Dr Miksic said putting the book together took 12 years. “It was im-portant for me to provide a clear narrative for both archaeologists and the general public on Singa-pore’s roots,” explained the soft-spoken man, who has been with the National University of Singapore since 1987.

Dr Miksic, who holds a Singapo-rean employment pass, is married to a Chinese Malaysian. His wife, 69, a retired teacher, stays with their 33-year-old daughter in Pittsburgh to help raise their two granddaughters. His son, 35, lives in San Diego.

Dr Miksic, who can speak Ma-lay, said he has grown attached to Singapore, which serves as a base for his work in South-east Asia as well.

“After 26 years, most of my old friends are here. It’s kind of nice to be recognised in a taxi or at a chance meeting as Singapore’s ar-chaeologist,” said the widely-pub-lished author, whose four or five public talks he gives every year helped build his local reputation.

Dr Miksic’s love for the past started when he was six. Growing up on a 150-year-old farm in west-ern New York, he spent his child-hood unearthing Native American arrowheads, then piecing together stories of how “harsh” life was be-fore, with his grandfather.

Dr Miksic, who studies archae-ology at Dartmouth College, embarked on his first research project in northern Canada in 1967. A year later, he volunteered for the Peace Corps and was sent to Malaysia, where his farm skills came in handy in setting up farm-er cooperatives. It was while in Kedah that he developed an interest in the ruins of temples and the treasure trove of ceramics there.

Since then, his focus in South-east Asia has been on early overseas Chinese settlements and the ceramic trade, which is the per-fect source material to learn about a civilisation – better even than carbon dating, he said.

Once of the most interesting pieces of ceramics he has found is a rare 14th century Chinese com-pass that he dug up at Fort Can-ning Hill.

Dr Miksic is not afraid to get his hands dirty because of the “sense of suspense” and thrill of unearthing the unexpected.

Most of Singaproe’s ancient ar-tefacts lie under high-rise build-ings and expressways today, he said, pointing to downtown Singa-pore, Pulau Ubin, Bedok and East Coast as sites of archaeologi-cal worth. East Coast, for in-stance, was an area filled with set-tlements in the 1600s, according to maps by the Portuguese.

But he is not in a hurry to start digging at all of these sites. “We go in when the site is at risk. Oth-erwise, we’re leaving them for fu-ture archaeologists with better tools and technologies, who can build upon the knowledge and leg-acy we’ve left behind.”

By Melody Zaccheus for The Straits Times, melodyz@sph.com.sg 

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