Professor John Miksic wins the inaugural Singapore history prize

Archaeologist wins inaugural Singapore history prize

Thursday, 11 January 2018, The Straits Times

SINGAPORE – An archaeologist whose work refutes the common misperception that Singapore’s history started with the landing of Sir Stamford Raffles has been awarded the inaugural Singapore History Prize.

Professor John N. Miksic of the National University of Singapore (NUS), was awarded for his book, Singapore And The Silk Road Of the Sea, 1300-1800, which uses archaeological evidence to examine Singapore’s pre-colonial history in the larger Asian context.

On Thursday (Jan 11), the 71-year-old American, who is the first person to conduct an archaeological dig here in 1984, was unveiled as the winner of the prize at a press conference at NUS.

Created by NUS in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence, the Singapore History Prize is given to a publication with a lasting impact on the understanding of Singapore’s history.

It will be given out triennially, with the next award to be given out in 2020 or 2021.

Historian Wang Gungwu, who heads a four-man panel to choose the winner, said Prof Miksic’s book “has laid the foundations for a fundamental reinterpretation of the history of Singapore and its place in the larger Asian context”.

He said the book has confirmed, through concrete archaeological evidence, that Singapore’s history dates back more than 700 years.

“We now know more about Singapore in the 14th Century than any other city in the region in the same period,” added Professor Wang, chairman of NUS’ East Asian Institute.

A citation on the book noted: “We realise that Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Naypyitaw, Phom Penh and Manila were all founded more recently than Singapore.”

The book was one of 29 submissions received by the department of history.  The four-man panel that reviewed the five shortlisted submissions was made up of Prof Wang, academic Kishore Mahbubani, entrepreneur Claire Chiang and Professor Peter A. Coclanis of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Four other books made the final shortlist – works about the history of the sarong kebaya, the Singapore Botanic Gardens, the Bukit Ho Swee fire as well as Singapore history from 1965 to 2015.

Prof Miksic, from the department of South-east Asian studies at NUS, will receive $50,000 in cash. He said he may use the money for future excavations and training exercises, as well as to restore the artefacts he has in his archaeology laboratory.

“It really gives the field of archaeology a certain credibility it didn’t have before,” he said.

He also noted that more than a thousand Singaporean volunteers helped with many of excavations referred to in the book. “I felt like I owed a debt to them, to write this book and show the important work they’ve done,” he added.

Prof Miksic is now working with NUS Press to build an online database to classify and identify Singaporean artefacts earlier uncovered, to help fellow archaeologists.

The project’s first phase, to be ready by the end of next month, classifies more than 4,000 artefacts from a 2003 excavation at Singapore Cricket Club.

The book, which is into its third edition, can be bought through the NUS Press website as well as book store Kinokuniya for $58, without GST. It will be translated into Chinese by 2019.

By Rafaella Nathan Charles for The Straits Timesrnathan@sph.com.sg 

Archaeologists in need of funds and resources

Monday 27 July 2015, The Straits Times.

Singapore’s two archaeologists, dogged for years by lack of interest in the field and scant resources, are hoping the Government will pump “several million dollars” into the discipline, to pay for more staff and activities over the next 50 years.

Mr Lim Chen Sian, who led a recent Empress Place dig which yielded artefacts such as centuries-old Chinese imperial grade ceramics, is also creating a registry of archaeological sites so people can be alerted to their historical value before the wrecking balls descend.

The authorities are also keen for archaeology to play a bigger role in piecing together Singapore’s past.

Mr Alvin Tan, assistant chief executive of policy and development at the National Heritage Board (NHB), said talks about potential archaeological sites are under way.

“Archaeology matters because it offers insights into our past, allows us to better understand our history and how far we’ve progressed as a people and a nation,” he said.

Mr Lim works for the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas).

The other archaeologist here is veteran John Miksic of the National University of Singapore.

Mr Lim’s work is supported by research officers Aaron Kao and Michael Ng while Dr Miksic, 69, has the assistance of Dr Geok Yian Goh, an assistant history professor at Nanyang Technological University.

Mr Ng said archaeology is “neglected”, adding: “There’s a lot of heritage material under us to plug gaps in existing historical sources but we’re constantly battling with time ro clear backlogs of previous digs. We need more resources.”

As well as digs and research work, government investment could fund at least five archaeologists and four part-time research assistants, according to 45-year-old Mr Lim.

There is no publicly available data on how much Singapore spends on archaeology but an excavation like the recent 10-week-long dig at Empress Place was budgeted at
$70,000 by the NHB.

Last year, Hong Kong, which has about six full-time archaeologists, spent $153,500 on excavations and $26,000 on its Archaeological Society. Malaysia’s Centre for Global Archaeological Research got about $3.6 million in government funding in 2009. Even Brunei, a country with a population of 400,000, has four dedicated archaeologists.

Mr Lim hopes future teams here will have experts in areas such as underwater archaeology, anthropology, and geo-archaeology. “There’s a big hurry to build up a strong Singaporean team,” he said.

Heritage experts believe the field should come under a government department, which can develop the existing infrastructure, come up with guidelines and police the field.

The authorities have supported archaeological research here since the first dig in 1984 at Fort Canning.

Recent examples supported by the NHB include excavations at Adam Park from 2010 to 2013 and the Victoria Concert Hall in 2011.

Mr Lim said the NHB has been doing more for the scene over the years, such as by setting up an impact assessment and mitigation division in 2013, which works with archaeologists at sites of interest before they are developed.

”We’ve been running on passion and ideology but we need to elevate the level of professionalism. We can’t always be digging into our own savings, working 12-hour days and relying on volunteers,” he said.

Dr Miksic wants Singapore to be a regional hub for the field.

”We have developed a system of analysis over 30 years. We can work together to build a picture of South-east Asia,” he said.

 


Many areas with archaeological significance

Areas such as Raffles’ Landing Site, Kampong Glam, Pulau Ubin, Pulau Tekong, Sembawang, Bedok and East Coast have been deemed significant by archaeologists.

Portuguese maps show that East Coast, for instance, was an area filled with settlements- such as a village at Sungei Bedok – in the 1600s. So far, excavations in Singapore have recovered artefacts from the Temasek Age, of which almost no written records exist, and have proven that the settlement’s history dates as far back as the 14th century.

However, the majority of digs here have been for rescue purposes, with archaeologists scrambling to organise excavations upon hearing of new construction projects.

In the case of Empress Place, for instance, archaeologists rushed to salvage three tonnes of 700-year-old artefacts as the deadline to develop the area into an integrated arts, culture and lifestyle precinct loomed.

The archaeologists discovered that Temasek could have had an established government with a ruler as early as the late 14th century, through the discovery of imperial-grade ceramics bestowed by the Ming Dynasty emperor Hongwu on overseas leaders.

These recovered Empress Place artefacts are in the process of being catalogued.

It will take another three years to analyse them.

By Melody Zaccheus for The Straits Timesmelodyz@sph.com.sg 

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‘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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