Archaeology unit set up in Singapore

At long last, an archaeology unit has been set up in Singapore, as part of the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies based in the National University of Singapore. The unit, run by Dr. John Miksic and Lim Chen Sian.

Singapore’s first formal archaeology unit
The Straits Times, 23 April 2010

Finally, Singapore will have a formal archaeological unit even though it is just a two-man team.

To be housed in the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas), it will focus on the early past of the island and the region, and show how interconnected people were for centuries.

The outfit will be led by Associate Professor John Miksic, 64, an American academic who has been working in the region for 40 years, with 23 of them in Singapore. He was responsible for excavating the artefacts at Fort Canning which brought to light details of 14th-century life here.

He teaches at the National University of Singapore’s South-east Asian Studies Programme, and co-edited Early Singapore 1300s-1819: Evidence In Maps, Texts And Artefacts.

Assisting him is Mr Lim Chen Sian, 35, an archaeology and finance graduate from Boston University who excavated a site between City Hall and the old Supreme Court. He is believed to be the only full-time Singaporean archaeologist.

Iseas director K. Kesavapany decided to set up the unit when he realised that Singapore was the only Asean country without a proper archaeology centre.

Revealing that the decision was taken only two weeks ago, he says the initial funding will come from Iseas, but hopes to obtain external funding from foundations and institutions.

‘Hopefully, we will be able to better tell the story of our connectivity to the region. For instance, how did Ming chinaware come to be found in Singapore?’

Describing the unit as ‘a major new direction for Iseas’, Prof Miksic says it will use a colonial bungalow on Kent Ridge as an archaeological store and laboratory for the next two years.

The top priority is to process the thousands of artefacts, retrieved from digs over the years, that have yet to be analysed.
‘We have been so busy trying to keep up with the pace of development in Singapore, salvaging as much as we can before it is destroyed, that we have had very little time to devote to the study of our finds.

‘The more artefacts we have from different sites in Singapore, the clearer a picture we can recreate of the city as a whole,’ he says.

Another priority, he adds, is to create a website to share the unit’s work and publish an electronic journal devoted to the archaeology of South-east Asia.

As for digs, he hopes to excavate a site in Java where he has long suspected an early Buddhist monastery once stood.
Prof Miksic and Mr Lim also hope to return to sites in Sumatra such as Muara Jambi, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Malayu where numerous Buddhist ruins have been found, and the old trading site of Kota Cina near Medan.

Says Mr Lim: ‘By seeing what life in these coastal ports was like, we can extrapolate something about how early Singapore and the region were run.’

Prof Miksic adds that the new unit will do its best to fill gaps in the knowledge of this ‘Silk Road of the sea’, noting that maritime trade and commerce was the lifeblood of the region for some 2,000 years.

‘Unlike their cousins in Java and Cambodia, they didn’t spend their capital building temples. They invested in other areas, including improvements in sailing proficiency.

‘This benefited them economically, but left few obvious remains for archaeologists to find. That is why we need to look for the little things, the trade items such as pottery, which formed the basic commodities of trade,’ he says.

Dr Tansen Sen, who heads the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre, notes that the unit will help shed more light on connections between India, China and the region.

Its work will complement the centre’s research into texts from China and India that show, for instance, how Chinese pilgrims travelled to Buddhist sites in India by sea and stayed in ports like Sriwijaya and Malayu in Sumatra, where they saw large monasteries.

He says: ‘Textual traditions from South-east Asia came along pretty late, so archaeological evidence has to be considered. This needs commitment, time and resources for excavating sites and presenting the findings to the general public.’

Singapore Heritage Society president Kevin Tan says the unit is a significant development: ‘We don’t have sufficient recognition for the kind of material culture that archaeological excavations here have unearthed. This is a very nice start.’

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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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