The first Archaeologist in the Lion City.


By Chua Wei Qian

2,000 artifacts excavated in 10 days.

Thursday, 11 May 2018, Lianhe Wanbao

He has been referred to as Singapore’s Indiana Jones, and ever since 34 years ago when 2,000 artifacts were excavated within the short span of 10 days while conducting archaeological excavation at Fort Canning, he had become the first archaeologist to have conducted archaeological work in Singapore and thus marked the beginning of archaeology in the island nation.

71 years old this year, John N. Miksic comes from the USA and as Singapore in the 1980s did not have any local archaeologists, he was the first expert to be invited to carry out archaeological research here.

Miksic led the 1984 National Museum first archaeological excavation at Fort Canning, He later came to settle and work in Singapore in 1987 and has been teaching in NUS for many years and is now currently a professor in NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Southeast Asian Studies Department.

Even though it has been 34 years, the excavation context then still remains clear in his view.

Miksic reminisces that when he knew that he became the first scholar to do Singapore archaeology, he felt deeply honoured, but he was not confident that he would be able to find much within the short period of 10 days.

During that year, his archaeological team included soldiers who were being punished for going AWOL.

“They did not have any archaeology background, but by the time the archaeological work was completed, they all said that archaeology presents a window into knowing the world, which made me feel contented…”

They as a team divided Fort Canning into five excavation areas. In 4 days, they have completed excavating the first four areas, but they did not recover anything, and everyone was disappointed.

“We did consider giving up excavating the fifth area, and finishing archaeological work early, but later decided to try our luck.”

Miksic says that [they] did not expect that while excavating that last area, they would have first discover colour changes in the soil, and as they dug deeper, they found glass beads, coins, and Chinese Yuan dynasty porcelain sherds such as blue and white, green porcelain.

He says that many of the excavated artifacts are 14th-century objects and within the span of 10 days, they excavated more than 2,000 items, which made everyone excited.

Originally wanting to do research in the extreme cold climate, [he] unwittingly came to the lion city.

[He] originally wanted to go to the northern region of Canada to study the lifestyle of the Eskimos, but unwittingly came to do archaeology in Singapore where it is summer all four seasons.

Miksic has been deeply interested in archaeology since he was young so he studied archaeology in university. When he was in university, he joined an archaeological team expedition which went deep into the arctic region of northern Canada to examine the Eskimos’ lifestyle. From that experience, he decided that he would continue to conduct research on how the Eskimos could survive in extreme cold without vegetation and food.

“The climate of northern Canada is extremely cold, when we looked around there were just us few archaeologists. That was a rare experience, which led me to think that I would continue to study the Eskimos when I graduate.”

After Miksic graduated from university, he wanted to join the American President Kennedy’s established “Peace Corps”. He had hoped that by joining the Peace Corps, he would have been sent to Siberia when he could continue to study people leaving in the cold region. He did not expect that he would be sent to Malaysia in 1968 where he was to aid the local farmers and do research on agricultural cooperatives.

16 years later, Miksic was invited by the National Museum to conduct archaeological research in Singapore, and has since been involved in archaeology for 34 years in summer all four seasons Singapore.

Winner of “Singapore History Prize”

Prof Miksic has a book on Singapore archaeology, which led him win the “Singapore History Prize”.

His prize-winning book is entitled: “Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300-1800”, which integrates 25 years of archaeological evidence, and details the 700 years history of Singapore, and demonstrates that Singapore was a booming port in the 14th century.

The whole book richly illustrated with images and text presents Singapore’s role in the face of the maritime commercial network of Asia between 1300 and 1800.

On 11 January this year, this work stands out from among 29 entries and won the Singapore History Prize offered by NUS and won Miksic the prize money of SGD 50,000.

He expresses that he will use a portion of the prize money to restore a number of previously excavated historical artifacts and another portion would be dedicated to creating curriculum for training young archaeologists.

Translation to English credits to Assoc Prof Goh Geok Yian.