The Malay community is lazy? Archaeologists release their studies.

(Article is in Malay Language)

Thursday, 3 May 2018, BERITA Mediacorp

Masyarakat Melayu malas? Pakar arkeologi dedahkan kajiannya

BERITAMediacorp: Masyarakat Melayu merupakan masyarakat yang rajin dan aktif sejak 700 tahun lalu dengan tanggungjawab dan peranan yang berbeza – dari bidang pertukangan, hingga ke perdagangan dan ilmu perakaunan.

Itulah antara hasil kajian Profesor John N. Miksic dari Universiti Nasional Singapura (NUS) yang menemui 300,000 bukti arkeologi yang berkait rapat dengan masyarakat Melayu.

Bahan bukti ini dirakamkan dalam buku ilmiah,‘Singapore – The Silk Road of the Sea, 1300-1800’, yang memenangi Hadiah Sejarah Singapura pada Januari lalu.

BERITAMediacorp bertemu dengan pakar arkeologi ini untuk mengetahui dengan lebih mendalam tentang penyelidikannya itu.

MASYARAKAT MELAYU TERDAHULU MAHIR DALAM PELBAGAI BIDANG

Menyingkap semula sejarah lama Singapura, mungkin ramai yang masih menggambarkannya sebagai sebuah ‘kampung nelayan’ yang mundur.

Namun, kisah Singapura bermula jauh sebelum Sir Stamford Raffles menjejakkan kaki di sini, pada tahun 1819.

Profesor Miksic membentangkan sejarah Singapura dalam konteks perdagangan maritim jarak jauh antara tahun 1300 hingga 1800, dengan adanya bidang-bidang pekerjaan yang kurang diketahui tentang masyarakat Melayu.

“Jadi mereka membuat gerabak sendiri, mereka juga membuat barang-barang dari logam, mereka mengolah tembaga untuk membuat kail untuk tangkap ikan, mereka juga membuat barang-barang dari besi, mereka juga membawa barang-barang seperti keris dan tombak, senjata,” kongsi penyelidik itu yang mengambil hampir 10 tahun untuk menyiapkan buku ilmiah tersebut.

Beliau turut berkongsi bahawa dapatan penting hasil galian yang dijalankan beliau bersama pasukan pengkajinya selama hampir 20 tahun di 10 lokasi yang berbeza.

BUKTI SEJARAH PECAHKAN MITOS ‘MELAYU MALAS’

Menurutnya lagi serpihan tembikar yang ditemuinya serta logam dan batu-bata lama menunjukkan gambaran yang penting tentang masyarakat Melayu – bahawa ia menggambarkan hasil pertukangan bangunan yang canggih ketika zaman tersebut.

Bahkan menurut Profesor Miksic, bukti-bukti ini juga antara lain menunjukkan dengan jelas kerajinan masyarakat Melayu terdahulu, dan secara tidak langsung memecahkan mitos dan tanggapan bahawa masyarakat Melayu terdahulu malas.

“Orang Melayu memang dari dulu sudah terkenal sebagai orang awal yang membuat kota, yang mendirikan bandar menjadikan satu sistem perhitungan untuk perdagangan.

“Orang-orang Portugis pertama datang ke Brunei, mereka hairan sekali melihat sistem yang dipakai orang-orang akauntan di Brunei untuk menghitung perdagangan. Jadi mereka sudah pandai sekali orang-orang Melayu,” jelasnya.

PENTING PELAJARI PERINTIS SPURA SEBELUM 200 TAHUN

Dalam memperingati 200 Tahun Singapura diasaskan tahun depan, Profesor Miksic berkata amat penting untuk mengenali sejarah Singapura seawal abad ke-14.

“Jadi ini merupakan satu kesempatan untuk kita melihat lebih dahulu lagi, bukan hanya melihat 200 tahun, tetapi melihat 200 tahun itu sebagai satu tempoh dalam sejarah Singapura.

“Orang Inggeris bukan orang yang utama yang bertempat di sini yang memainkan peranan utama, orang Melayu, Bugis, Jawa, Minangkabau dan juga orang-orang Cina yang ada di Selat Melaka orang-orang India yang sudah lama berdagang di sini,” tambahnya lagi.

HANG TUAH – MITOS ATAU BUKTI SEJARAH MELAYU?

Menyentuh tentang individu signifikan daripada masyarakat Melayu, Profesor Miksic turut mengambil perhatian tentang teks klasik lama seperti Sulalatussalatin, atau Sejarah Melayu.

Menurutnya beberapa bukti sejarah yang ditemuinya sebenarnya sejajar dengan apa yang dirakam di dalam teks tersebut dan teks klasik yang lainnya.

Ditanya sama ada Hang Tuah merupakan hanya mitos Melayu atau individu sebenar, ini pendapatnya:

“Saya yakin bahawa ada seorang laksamana yang wataknya, keperibadiannya seperti
Hang Tuah yang disebut dalam sejarah Melayu kerana ada seorang laksamana yang disebutkan juga dari sumber dari Jepun dari abad-15, mahupun Portugis.

“Namanya tidak pernah disebutkan, tapi wataknya, keperibadiannya bahawa perwira yang juga pandai, dan mempunyai bakat untuk bertemu dengan orang lain, itu semunya terbukti dengan sumber-sumber lain, jadi pasti ada orang yang seperti Hang Tuah.

“Namanya tidak penting, tapi orang yang sepertinya, yang jadi laksamana, yang juga dasar kegiatannya di Singapura, tersebut dalam Sejarah Melayu juga, dan kami dapatkan banyak sekali bukti dari arkeologi bahawa ada satu pelabuhan dengan armada laut yang cukup besar di sini pada zaman Melaka,” kongsinya bersama BERITAMediacorp.

Atas kajiannya yang terperincinya itu, Profesor Miksic menang anugerah Hadiah Sejarah Singapura, bernilai $50,000 yang diadakan buat julung-julung kalinya, tahun ini.

– BERITAMediacorp/ur

by

Archaeology database offers greater access to region’s past

Digital product can be downloaded so it is easier to share info with public, researchers

Monday, 12 March 2018, The Straits Times

Women in 14th-century Singapore used to make their own pottery for activities such as cooking.

Fragments of these low-fired kitchenware, featuring decorative grooves and patterns, were uncovered at an excavation at the Singapore Cricket Club and can now be accessed online in a new database developed by NUS Press Singapore.

The database (http://epress.nus.edu.sg/sitereports/scc) is the first of its kind in the region that features data sets which can be downloaded. It so far lists 2,000 of the more than 38,000 artefacts recovered in the 2003 dig.

Eventually, a total of 4,998 key artefacts will be listed on the site, supplemented by 700 photographs and 200 sketches.

The project, which has been two years in the making, is led by National University of Singapore archaeologist John Miksic, 71, and assistant history professor at Nanyang Technological University Goh Geok Yian, 46. It is under a Creative Commons Licence and received some $43,000 in funding from the National Heritage Board (NHB).

Dr Miksic said: “The database makes it a lot easier to share information with the general public and scholars who are invested in Singaporean or South-east Asian archaeology during the period of maritime trade.”

NUS Press’ director Peter Schoppert said the digital product is a “practical” way to present the immense amount of data. He added that the information has been uploaded in a format that allows for statistical analysis, visualisations and detailed comparisons with other sites in Singapore and beyond. It can aid others to produce their own analysis and research projects.

“It is an important first step in building a regional library of archaeological data that is fully accessible and reusable,” said Mr Schoppert.

On the earthenware pottery made here, the archaeologists said its general style is typical of the area from southern Thailand, along both coasts of the Straits of Melaka (as the Straits of Malacca was referred to), to western Borneo in the Temasek period. They added that the Singaporean earthenware used in the kitchen was made from “clay mixed with very fine sand”. They also said that clay suitable for pottery-making was found in Bras Basah.

The project comes at a time when NHB prepares to ramp up archaeological research and documentation, as part of the upcoming heritage plan – a comprehensive blueprint for the heritage sector.

NHB’s assistant chief executive of policy and community, Mr Alvin Tan, said the database “provides a good model for comparative research across the region; and it offers the public information and insights into our archaeological past”.

Dr Miksic said the selection of artefacts on the site was based on each item’s potential “to illuminate socio-cultural and economic matter”.

Most of the Temasek period artefacts from the Singapore Cricket Club consisted of stoneware – a material used mainly for storing perishable commodities – and porcelain-finer ware used for eating and display.

The archaeologists also noted their discovery of a layer of pristine white sand at the Padang. Its presence correlates to an account in the Malay Annals which describes Singapore’s founder, Sang Nila Utama, as having landed on the island because he was attracted by sand so white, it looked like a sheet of cloth.

Later excavations showed that the white sand beach extended all the way to Kampong Glam.

Next up for the team – the addition of artefacts from a 2010 dig at Fort Canning’s Spice Garden. They hope to complete this phase of the project in time for Singapore’s Bicentennial commemoration next year which will be located at Fort Canning.

By Melody Zaccheus, Heritage and Community Correspondent  for The Straits Times

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 

Archaeology Magazine – Singapore: The Lion City’s Surprising Past

The Lion City’s Glorious Past

The founding mythology of this city-state was once thought to be pure fiction—archaeology says otherwise

In 1817, Sir Stamford Raffles, the governor of the British colony of Bencoolen in Sumatra, set off to find a suitable port site in the Strait of Melaka, a narrow channel in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago that connects the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Situated at the junction of two monsoons, the strait necessitated a long layover for ships dependent on seasonal winds. The region’s premier entrepôt at the time was Dutch-controlled Melaka, where traders from Arabia and India would stop over until the next monsoon wind took them farther north to China, or back south laden with silks and spices. The opium trade with China was growing, and Raffles was determined to build a British base in the region. In 1819, he lit upon a small island at the southern end of the strait, off the tip of Malaysia—an unremarkable settlement that he nonetheless believed was both strategically located and possessed of a glorious history.

Raffles’ conviction about the island’s illustrious past came from reading his copy of the Malay Annals, a fifteenth-century narrative about the Malay kingdoms. According to this account, a Sumatran prince was out hunting on a hill when he spied a blinding white shore across the sea, a land he learned was called Temasek. On sailing over, he spotted what seemed to be a lion, and so named his new kingdom Singapura, or “Lion City” in Sanskrit. He ruled there for many years, as did his descendants after him, during which time, the Annals tell us, “Singapura became a great city, to which foreigners resorted in great numbers so that the fame of the city and its greatness spread through the world.” Eventually, this great Malay port was conquered by the Javanese and its king forced to flee north to Melaka.

Raffles, hundreds of years later, saw evidence on the island for the tale: the remains of a fortified wall and what locals called Forbidden Hill, said to conceal the graves of kings. Raffles negotiated with the local sultanate to develop the settlement, and wrote to his patroness, Princess Charlotte, that he had planted the British flag on “the site of the ancient maritime capital of the Malays.” Within a few years, a sleepy settlement had turned into a bustling port, the most important in the region.

Over the next two centuries, Raffles’ foresight came to be celebrated, but his inspiration was largely forgotten. The tale of princes, lions, and kingdoms faded into legend, a charming backstory for the country’s name. Raffles’ colleagues had always been skeptical of the notion of an ancient, glorious Singapore, and there was little material evidence of it. Even the discovery in 1924 of gold ornaments in Fort Canning, built on Forbidden Hill, did not spur further investigation. Instead, the birth of a nation was dated to Raffles’ arrival. According to the history books—and popular perception—the Singapore story began when the British stumbled on a fishing village in 1819.

That history has now been revised, and the textbooks amended. Largely due to archaeological excavations that began in 1984 and culminated in the island’s largest-ever dig, in 2015, evidence now exists of a fourteenth-century port city that had long been buried under downtown Singapore. Led by American archaeologist John Miksic and more recently by Singaporean archaeologist Lim Chen Sian, a researcher with the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre Archaeology Unit at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, these rescue digs were driven by small private donations and passionate volunteers. Through fragments of earthenware, Chinese pottery, Indian beads, and Javanese jewelry, Miksic and others have pieced together a new story—one that pushes the city’s origins back some 500 years before Raffles’ arrival, traces the rise and fall of Singapore between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, and places it in the robust ancient maritime trade network of the region.

In 1984, Miksic was teaching at the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, when he was invited to help with a dig in Singapore, the first of its kind. Miksic, who had been in Southeast Asia since the late 1960s, first as a Peace Corps volunteer and then as an archaeologist, had received his PhD from Cornell University, with a focus on trade and society in northeast Sumatra. He jumped at the chance to excavate within Singapore’s Fort Canning Park. The fort was built in 1859 on the leveled summit of a small hill downtown, known in Raffles’ time as Forbidden Hill, and host to a tomb or memorial purportedly of the last king. A plan to landscape the hill had pushed the curators of the country’s National Museum to try to save any archaeological material that might lie beneath it. Funded by a private donation, Miksic and others spent 10 days excavating near the tomb. What they found exceeded all expectations.

Parts of the site were undisturbed and the stratification layers were clear. Archaeologists found sherds of Chinese pottery—both imported and locally made—and coins of the Song and Tang Dynasties. Miksic recalls being taken by complete surprise. Although there were records of Temasek in Chinese writings, there had always been arguments over its location. And the Malay Annals were considered a romance—to the extent that even Miksic’s Cornell adviser believed the Singapura story to be a fabrication. “The idea that the Annals were closely paralleled by reality was not taken seriously by historians,” says Miksic. “We had no clue until we found this stuff.”

Miksic went on to lead 10 more digs at Fort Canning after moving to Singapore in 1987, and undertook another 10 to 15 excavations along the Singapore River. The sites were chosen serendipitously—all were rescue digs carried out quickly when a building was knocked down or a parking garage chosen for development. The finds, in total, included 10,000 Indian and Javanese glass beads, Indian bangles and other pieces of jewelry, and 500,000 pieces of pottery, some of which are still being sorted. Chinese and Sri Lankan coins found along the riverbank speak to the high volume of trade, and Chinese glass beads and vessels, as well as the fragment of a rare porcelain pillow and a unique compass bowl, all suggest an exceptionally close relationship with China.

Significantly, a substantial amount of locally made household pottery was also found. Because cooking pots are unlikely to be imported, their presence indicates a settled community rather than a city of transients. The quantity and style of pots can also provide clues to the cultural affiliations of residents and the sizes of settlements in different parts of the old city. Some of the forms of pottery found, Miksic says, “enable us to certify that the local inhabitants were culturally related to those of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, rather than Java.”

Taken together, the finds reveal that Singapore was a major trade hub by 1350, importing and exporting between India, Southeast Asia, and China. It was fortified—rare for the time—used currency, and likely hosted a multiethnic population governed by a local chief. Miksic says evidence suggests that it was not a political power or ceremonial center, but was perhaps like contemporaneous port towns of the Mediterranean. There was little agriculture, and services were the mainstay. Singapore procured raw materials such as iron, as well as porcelain, tortoiseshell, glass, and beads, from a network of suppliers. “The archaeology of Singapore confirms what we thought we knew from local chronicles such as the Malay Annals and Chinese texts,” says Miksic, “while adding much more detail about the types of objects traded and the complexity of the economy of even a medium-sized port.” He adds, “We are also beginning to see what a place with a strong Chinese influence would have looked like.”

Comparisons with other port cities are difficult in a region that has been dominated by shipwreck archaeology, not urban digs. While there are several ancient ports along the Strait of Melaka, only a few have been excavated and almost no quantitative data has been published. Singapore’s digs have been so fruitful in part because the ancient city occupied the same well-defined river-bounded area as the colonial city. Miksic points out that, luckily, nineteenth-century British planners reserved large open spaces, making excavation easier. As more finds are processed, he believes that Singapore may offer clues into early urbanization in the region as well as the spread of Islam. Ancient Singapore certainly adds to mounting evidence of the importance of the region’s early maritime trade network—what Miksic calls the “Silk Road of the Sea.”

Singapore’s golden age lasted almost a century. There are almost no artifacts from the fifteenth century, when the city was likely conquered and the trade hub moved to Melaka. But Singapore continued to be a transit point for ships—Saint Francis Xavier wrote a letter while docked here in 1551—before it was finally abandoned in the seventeenth century. According to Miksic, the Dutch policy of forcing traders to call at Batavia (today’s Jakarta) may be partly responsible, but trade in Asia also contracted in this period. The city was not revived until almost 200 years later, and when it was, he argues, it was because the qualities necessary for a successful port city had not changed. “Raffles was very close to the truth,” Miksic says. “Singapore was not just a fishing village in the precolonial period, a hole in the ground. It was something greater than that, a successful port and a cosmopolitan society.” Why did ancient Singapore stay hidden so long? Colonial archaeologists in Asia focused largely on India, Miksic notes, while modern Southeast Asian historians were enthralled by temples, sculptures, and inscriptions. Just as importantly, perhaps, since gaining independence in the 1960s, Singapore has focused almost single-mindedly on the future. If Raffles sought a historical foundation for his colonial port, the new nation’s prime minister Lee Kuan Yew looked ahead to building a modern state. That inexorable focus helped unify a diverse population of Chinese, Indians, and Malays, while transforming the country into an economic powerhouse—but, for a time, at the cost of its heritage. A landscape of malls and ever-redeveloping towers, the city today retains only a small portion of its colonial structures.

Even after 1984’s exciting finds, Miksic had to raise private grants for every dig. And it would take more than a decade for his discoveries to begin getting out to the general public. It was only in 2015, the 50th year of independence, that Singapore’s secondary-school textbook was amended to reflect the new understanding of the city’s history, adding 70 pages on the precolonial period, with text and photos contributed by Miksic. Archaeology has shown that Singapore is one of the oldest capitals in southeast Asia, not the youngest. “The children growing up today,” he says, “won’t have the preconceptions their parents did.”

In 2015, Singapore archaeologists undertook their largest excavation yet on a quarter-acre site in front of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall at Empress Place, located downtown on the riverbank. The 100-day dig was covered widely, and Singaporeans were encouraged to follow its progress. The nearly four ton yield included 700-year-old Chinese coins, stoneware, and Buddhist figurines. “The soil was jet black with artifacts. You could just grab them by the handful,” recalls Lim, who led the dig. Among the discoveries were possible imperial-grade Chinese ceramics—physical evidence that China’s imperial court recognized Temasek—and timber planks suggestive of Southeast Asian shipbuilding knowledge. “This is the first time we are uncovering such evidence from a fourteenth- to sixteenth-century archaeological context,” says Lim.

The grandson of Chinese immigrants, Lim grew up despising the story he’d read in school—that an Englishman had turned a fishing village into a successful port. Like so many others, he’d gone to college in the United States. Having majored in archaeology and finance at Boston University, he worked on digs in Mexico and elsewhere. “At some point, I asked myself, ‘Why am I digging up some other country when I know so little about my own?” he says. “Mexico has 6,000 archaeologists. How many does Singapore have? One.” So he went back for a master’s degree at the National University of Singapore and began participating in digs, initially under Miksic, and then leading them himself.

Unlike earlier digs, the Empress Place excavation was funded by the National Heritage Board—a clear sign of Singapore’s changing approach to its own story. The past decade has seen a growth in citizens’ heritage movements. Perhaps in response to this, and certainly in response to the rising tensions between Singaporean citizens and an expanded migrant-worker population, the government now sees heritage and culture as part of the “softer side” of nation-building in a post–Lee Kuan Yew era.

Lim’s experience speaks to some of these changes. His generation, he says, struggles with identity. “Who are we? Where do we belong? Are we really Chinese? Do the Chinese in the People’s Republic or in Taiwan think so?” And “What is ‘Singaporeanism’?” Archaeology can help with these questions, he believes, since it provides a crucial link to the past and, indirectly, to identity. For Lim, learning about ancient Singapore made him feel more connected to his city. “I have a sense of sharing the same site with ancient people,” he says. “I’ve played soccer on the same ground. At a fundamental level, it makes a difference.” Just as Miksic trained him, Lim hopes to eventually train and build a pool of local archaeologists and lobby for a legal framework for digs.

Singapore is now likely the most excavated major city in Southeast Asia. A country long seen as a model of modernity in Asia now offers a model for urban archaeology. Yet much remains to be learned. In the coming years, Lim will look for more information on the ancient city’s spatial organization, population size, industrial activity, and social and political structures. Says Miksic, “We know there was a mixture of east and south Asians here, just like there is today. But what was the proportion? Did they live in separate enclaves or together?” For now, it can be said that the findings show that ancient Singapore was a vibrant, multiethnic settlement—not unlike its modern-day avatar. Archaeology is recasting the history of this Asian city-state—and perhaps even what it means to be Singaporean.

View the original article.

Public Lecture at IIUM by Prof John Miksic

On 2 November Prof. John Miksic gave a public lecture at the Centre for Malay World and Islamic Civilisation at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. The moderator of the seminar was the Honourable Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Utama Dr. Rais Yatim, Advisor to the Government of Malaysia on Socio-Cultural Matters and President IIUM.

The lecture was the third in the Malay World Seminar Series. The title of the talk was “Lives in Ancient Southeast Asian Cities.” Prof. Miksic has written much on this topic.  The role of Southeast Asia in early urbanism has only recently become recognized. One reason for this tardy acknowledgement of the region’s importance for the formation of early cities is the fact that the settlement patterns in this region differ significantly from those found in India, China, or the Near East. This is partly due to the unique environment of Southeast Asia, and partly to local cultural patterns. Prof. Miksic discussed the roles of ports, palaces, temples, markets, and forts in stimulating urbanism. He discussed examples in Cambodia, Java, and the Straits of Melaka including 14th-century Singapore, and the roles of foreign merchants in stimulating certain forms of cities during the period before the arrival of Europeans.

Check out the photos from the IIUM Centre for Malay World and Islamic Civilisation Facebook page below!

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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