Excavation in downtown Singapore yields wartime artefacts

Singaporean readers would already know about the excavations at City Hall, where WWII artefacts such as gas masks and helmets have been found, along with earthenware from 13th-century Singapore.

Digging up secrets of the past
Straits Times, 18 January 2010

NO ONE would bat an eyelid at demolition works in Singapore, so a torn-up carpark between City Hall and the old Supreme Court has probably drawn few curious gazes.

But it happens to be the site of a rare downtown archaeological dig, which has yielded precious secrets about the island’s past.

Over the past month, the Republic’s best-known (more accurately, only) full-time archaeologist Lim Chen Sian, 34, has meticulously investigated the earth with the help of 10 or so volunteers.

There are 11 pits, including two in the Padang, dug to a depth of 2m.

Mr Lim was engaged by the National Art Gallery last month to find out if the site, once the centre of trade in 19th-century Singapore, contained any artefacts.

After weeks of digging, Mr Lim’s answer is an ‘absolute yes’.

Proudly showing off his finds in an abandoned room of the old Supreme Court earlier this month, Mr Lim pointed to military helmets and gas masks from World War II, pieces of earthenware dating back to the 13th century, and Song Dynasty coins from more than 1,000 years ago.

All this, he said, was more evidence that Singapore was an active commercial centre, and not the backward fishing village most people think it was when Sir Stamford Raffles founded the city in the 19th century.

The dig, costing $15,000, was sponsored by the art gallery ahead of its construction works on that site. Its director for infrastructure and projects Sushma Goh said that the dig ‘presents a unique opportunity to uncover and properly document items that may give us physical links to our past’, adding that some of the uncovered artefacts may be displayed in the art gallery when it opens in 2013.

Over the next few months, Mr Lim will begin laboratory tests to determine the origins of the newly uncovered artefacts and document his findings. He has asked the art gallery to consider a full excavation of the site. He said: ‘This area is a rich reservoir of artefacts from the pre-colonial and colonial times.’

Mr Lim’s recommendation, however, is unlikely to be accepted.

The National Heritage Board (NHB), which owns the art gallery, said it does not have a regular budget for archaeological digs. Moreover, construction work for the art gallery is scheduled to begin at the end of the year.

‘We are mindful that the project and construction schedule is tight,’ said an NHB spokesman. Mr Lim estimates that a full-scale dig will cost $500,000 and take a year to complete.

Archaeology remains a relatively underdeveloped discipline in Singapore.

No university here offers a degree in the subject, which studies history through material remains. Unlike many countries, Singapore does not hire full-time archaeologists.

NHB said this was because archaeological expeditions are few, and projects are commissioned only when the need arises.

Historians say this is a shame, because such digs are crucial in piecing together Singapore’s past prior to the Europeans’ arrival. ‘So far, what we know of our past is limited to text documents and few date back to pre-colonial times,’ said Mr Lim Tse Siang, 25, a history student and volunteer at the dig. ‘And in a rapidly developing nation, such opportunities will only grow fewer with time.’

Only about 15 digs have been carried out since the first in 1984. That expedition in Fort Canning Park, led by an American archaeologist, Dr John Miksic, was the first in establishing Singapore as a nexus of trade in pre-colonial times, uncovering artefacts dating back to the 13th century, such as Yuan Dynasty vases, Indian glass beads and ceramic figurines.

Most of the digs since have been commissioned by a mix of public and private institutions, such as NHB, the National Museum and religious groups like St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Foot Tet Soo Khek temple in Palmer Road, off Shenton Way.

Uncovered artefacts are split among various groups, including NHB, the Asian Civilisations Museum and the National Museum.

Almost all of the expeditions since 2004 were led by Mr Lim Chen Sian and a group of volunteers he describes as a ‘loose confederacy of individuals’. Most are students who help out during weekends and school vacations.

When The Straits Times visited the Padang site, several volunteers had been hard at work – judging by the build-up of dirt on their T-shirts and trousers.

Ms Wee Sheau Theng, 31, was sifting through a tray of sand looking for tiny objects, such as fish hooks or earrings.

A few metres away, Mr Lim Tse Siang was piling large rocks recently cleared from a nearby pit.

Another volunteer, Miss Lim Shu Xian, 23, recounted how she had found a piece of tape wrapped around a water pipe in one of the pits earlier in the week.

Her enthusiasm, like the others, was plain. ‘It’s nothing fancy, but it’s fascinating,’ said Miss Lim, who works at the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre. ‘I mean, why is it there? Who left it? Did someone forget to remove it? It’s like a mystery.’

Ms Wee, an adjunct lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic, said the work lets the curious ‘discover things in the past that are yet to be discovered’.

‘Sure, there are books about history you can read, but these objects are like the primary source of events – you can’t compare them to books.’

Mr Lim Tse Siang agreed. The National University of Singapore (NUS) student, currently pursuing a master’s degree in history, said archaeology allows history students to ‘go into the past without the distance of texts’. ‘This is so real, you can feel it in your hands,’ he said.

He added that he hoped some day to receive a doctorate in archaeology.

Compared with a decade ago, those who share the group’s enthusiasm now have more opportunities to pick up a shovel and start digging into the past.

An online group set up by Mr Lim Chen Sian has gathered about 700 members since it went live in 2003. The website posts reports on past digs and updates members on upcoming projects.

In 2007, the Asia Research Institute began offering PhD scholarships for research in South-east Asian archaeology. The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies as well as the South-east Asian Studies Programme at NUS regularly invite professors from around the world to hold seminars on the subject.

Some of the more recent digs also encouraged community involvement.

Excavations at Fort Tanjong Katong and St Andrew’s Cathedral between 2003 and 2005 saw participation from members of the public, including primary and secondary school students.

Despite the lack of resources, which prevents aspiring archaeologists from digging deeper and covering larger areas, Mr Lim Chen Sian says the public’s growing interest is cause to be optimistic.

‘Archaeology is about time and patience. I’m hopeful more people will come to see it as necessary for future generations to understand our past.’


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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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