Treasure hunters find treasure in Melaka river

It’s not surprising that one would be able to find plenty of old coins along the silted banks of the Melaka river. In its heydey as the seat of the Melaka Sultanate and under later Portuguese and Dutch colonisation, the river would have seen many vessels pass through. It’s a shame, however, that the coins seem to have been sold on to collectors rather than to have someone actually come and study them.

16 July 2007 (New Straits Times) – It’s not surprising that one would be able to find plenty of old coins along the silted banks of the Melaka river. In its heydey as the seat of the Melaka Sultanate and under later Portuguese and Dutch colonisation, the river would have seen many vessels pass through. It’s a shame, however, that the coins seem to have been sold on to collectors rather than to have someone actually come and study them.

River dirt yields rich pickings

They are four men, growing RM500 richer by the day from the things they sell.
Things they have neither bought nor made, but scavenged.

They call themselves treasure hunters. The real McCoy.

And the treasures they seek are real enough: Old coins, bits and pieces of porcelain and other antiquities from the era of the Malacca sultanate as well as the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial period.

Their raiding ground is a spot on the river bank of the Sungai Melaka near Jalan Kilang where a 30m-high pile of river dirt has accumulated, courtesy of the contractors beautifying the river.
Unlike the archaeologists and tomb raiders shown on TV, the four men, led by Raffiee Mohd Najeer, 37, are armed only with ladles and their method is drama-free.

For the past few days, Raffiee and his friends have been climbing the mound of dirt to comb for treasure.

“Rain or shine, we are here. We saw the pile of sedimentation and decided to try our luck. We did not expect to hit jackpot,” said Raffiee.

“The first coin we found was from the sultanate era. The coin was well-preserved; the writings on it still visible. We sold it to an unknown collector.

“Since then, we have discovered coins from the Portuguese era, about 500 years old, and also those used by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC in old-spelling Dutch), which are about 400 years old.”

Read more about the finds from the Melaka river.

Books about the historical city of Melaka:
The Malay Sultanates 1400-1700 (The Encyclopedia of Malaysia)

A Short History of Malaysia

Today’s short history series focuses on Malaysia. Again, the information here is scant and sometimes contradictory.

16 July 2007 (Brunei Times) – Today’s short history series focuses on Malaysia. Again, the information here is scant and sometimes contradictory.

History of Malaysia

Scientists have found archaeological evidence of human inhabitants in the Niah Caves, Sarawak, from about 40,000 years ago.The earliest settlers on the Malay Peninsula came from southern China over a period of thousands of years. They became the ancestors of the Orang Asli.

During the 1000’s B.C., new groups of migrants who spoke a language related to Malay came to Malaysia. These people became the ancestors of the Malays and the Orang Laut.

Small Malayan kingdoms existed in the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD, when adventurers from India arrived and initiated more than 1,000 years of Indian influence.

About A.D. 1400, a group of Malay-speaking migrants came from Srivijaya, a trading kingdom on the island of Sumatra.These newly arrived immigrants established a commercial kingdom called Malacca.

Read more about the history of Malaysia.

More books about the early history and archaeology of Malaysia:
Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula by P. M. Munoz
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds) (contains a chapter on the prehistory of Malaysia)
The Malay Sultanates 1400-1700 (The Encyclopedia of Malaysia)
Early History (The Encyclopedia of Malaysia) by Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman (Ed)

Kris exhibition in Bali

A story about the Kris, or keris, the characteristic wavy-bladed knives of the Malay world, in conjunction with an exhibition in the Neka Art Museum in Bali. It’s interesting that the story notes how the blade is honoured in ceremonies involving the Hindu god, Brahma – indicative of the unique syncretism of Hinduism in Bali.

15 July 2007 (Jakarta Post) – A story about the Kris, or keris, the characteristic wavy-bladed knives of the Malay world, in conjunction with an exhibition in the Neka Art Museum in Bali. It’s interesting that the story notes how the blade is honoured in ceremonies involving the Hindu god, Brahma – indicative of the unique syncretism of Hinduism in Bali.

Magic of metal: Spiritual and physical powers of the kris

Whether created by human hands or of supernatural origin, krises are believed to be physical manifestations of invisible forces. Forged in fire but symbolic of water, a kris represents a powerful union of cosmic complementary forces.

A distinctive feature of many krises is their odd number of curves, but they also have straight blades. Krises are like naga water-serpents that are associated with irrigation canals, rivers, springs, wells, spouts, waterfalls and rainbows.

Some krises have a naga head carved near their base with the body and tail following the curves of the blade to the tip. A wavy kris is a naga in motion, aggressive and alive; a straight blade is one at rest, its power dormant but ready to come into action.

Different types of whetstones, acidic juice of citrus fruits and poisonous arsenic, bring out the contrast between the dark black iron and the light-colored silvery nickel layers that together form pamor, damascene patterns on the blade.

These motifs have specific names that indicate their special powers: udan mas (golden rain) is good for prosperity, wos wetah (unbroken rice grains) brings well-being.

The kris is an important family possession and considered to be an ancestral deity, as weapons often play critical roles in the rise and fall of families and fortunes in history.

Heirloom krises have proper names that describe their power: Ki Sudamala is Venerable Exorcist and repels negative forces, Ki Baju Rante is Venerable Coat of Armor and spiritually protects one wearing it.

In Bali, an heirloom kris and other such metal objects are presented offerings every 210 days on the day known as Tumpek Landep, which means “sharp”.

They are cleaned, displayed in temple shrines, and presented with incense, holy water, and red-colored food and flowers to honor Hindu god of fire Brahma.

This is followed by prayers for a sharp mind to Sanghyang Pasupati, the deity who empowers sacred objects and defeats ignorance.

Read more about the kris in Balinese life.

Ceramics expert to give lecture in South-East Asian Ceramics Society meeting

Noted ceramics expert Dr. Roxanna Brown from the South-East Asian Ceramics Museum in Bangkok will give a lecture about Shipwreck Ceramics and the Fall of Malacca on Saturday’s meeting if the West Malaysian chapter of the South-East Asian Ceramics Society. The article also outlines how ceramic finds from shipwrecks have helped us understand key points in ancient Southeast Asia’s history.

14 July 2007 (The Star) – Noted ceramics expert Dr. Roxanna Brown from the South-East Asian Ceramics Museum in Bangkok will give a lecture about Shipwreck Ceramics and the Fall of Malacca on Saturday’s meeting if the West Malaysian chapter of the South-East Asian Ceramics Society. The article also outlines how ceramic finds from shipwrecks have helped us understand key points in ancient Southeast Asia’s history.

The Star, 14 July 2007

Reading shipwreck ceramics

Ancient shipwrecks with Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese ceramics are important in that they can tell us how maritime trade in South-East Asia had an impact on kingdoms like Sirivijaya, Angkor, Ayutthaya and Malacca.

According to Bangkok-based South-East Asian Ceramics Museums director, Dr Roxanna Brown, the ceramics offer an insight into how the maritime trade enriched these centres of development.

Based on the types of ceramics found, as well as excavation sites, a chronological order of trading activities, empire development, and even the building of temples like Angkor and Borobudur can be verified, said Dr Brown who will be delivering a lecture on Shipwreck Ceramics and the Fall of Malacca at the 31st annual general meeting of the South-East Asian Ceramics Society, West Malaysia Chapter on July 21 at Muzium Negara, Kuala Lumpur.

Dr Roxanna Brown’s lecture will be held from 2pm-6pm at Galeri 2, Muzium Negara, Kuala Lumpur. Registration: 1.30pm. The lecture is open to the public with a donation of RM30 to the society. Participants are allowed to bring a relevant antique ceramic each for identification. For details, e-mail: seacsmal@yahoo.com

Read more about Dr Roxanna Brown.

Books about Southeast Asian ceramics and shipwrecks:
Thai Ceramic Art by J. D. van Oenen and N. Guerin
Shipwrecks and Sunken Treasure in Southeast Asia by T. Wells
The Ceramics of Southeast Asia : Their Dating and Identification by R. M. Brown
Oriental trade ceramics in Southeast Asia, 10th to 16th century: Selected from Australian collections, including the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Bodor Collection by J. Guy
Southeast Asian Ceramics: Ninth through Seventeenth Centuries by D. F. Frasche

Construction in Jakarta destroys artefacts

18th century artefacts from Indonesia’s Dutch colonial have been destroyed due to construction work in the Old Town area of Jakarta.

14 July 2007 (Jakarta Post) – 18th century artefacts from Indonesia’s Dutch colonial have been destroyed due to construction work in the Old Town area of Jakarta.

Old Town site excavation ruins artifacts

Excavation during the construction of a pedestrian tunnel in Old Town, West Jakarta, has destroyed artifacts and hampered historical analysis, an archaeologist said Thursday.

“The cultural and museum agency should have been informed about the excavation at the Old Town site… a permit should have been sought before the project began,” University of Indonesia professor of archaeology Mundardjito said.

“Digging beneath a historical site without an excavation permit is illegal,” he said.

Late last year, workers who were excavating at the Old Town site — to make way for a western entrance to the pedestrian tunnel in front of Bank Mandiri Museum — found an old tram track, timber poles, terra-cotta pipes and a thick brick and andesite wall.

A preliminary analysis carried out by the agency’s archaeological team revealed the wall position did not match that of the old city wall.

Read more about the excavations at Old Town.

More Vietnamese coins in the news

More news of Chinese Tang Dynasty coins unearthed in Vietnam, again in Quang Binh Province. Tang Dynasty coins were found earlier last week by a rice farmer.

14 July 2007 (Thanh Nien News) – More news of Chinese Tang Dynasty coins unearthed in Vietnam, again in Quang Binh Province. Similar Tang Dynasty coins were found earlier last week by a rice farmer.

Thanh Nien News, 14 July 2007

Ancient Chinese coins dug up in central Vietnam

Thousands of coins from China’s Tang Dynasty era, believed to date back to the 8th or 9th century, have been found in Vietnam’s central Quang Binh province.

Three refuse collectors found five jars July 11 containing the coins and weighing around 30 kilograms in Ham Ninh commune.

At the same place a week earlier a local farmer named Nguyen Duc Dung found a pot weighing 20 kilograms containing copper coins while digging on a rice paddy.

On all the coins one side has four Chinese characters while the other is plain.

Read more about the Chinese coin finds in Vietnam.

Malaysian museum pieces long gone with the wind?

A parliamentary debate over the deplorable state of Malaysia’s museums collections reveal and underlying problem: the process of colonialism have led to the exodus of many artefacts, which have now remained unrecoverable due to high prices. Is this the full story? I’m inclined to think that it’s more than that… the example cited in this story – about Sir Stamford Raffles’ letters – does not make sense. Just because Raffles wrote about Malay customs, does that automatically Malaysian property?

13 July 2007 (The Star) – A parliamentary debate over the deplorable state of Malaysia’s museums collections reveal and underlying problem: the process of colonialism have led to the exodus of many artefacts, which have now remained unrecoverable due to high prices. Is this the full story? I’m inclined to think that it’s more than that… the example cited in this story – about Sir Stamford Raffles’ letters – does not make sense. Just because Raffles wrote about Malay customs, does that automatically Malaysian property?

Museum without originals

he Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry has denied a claim by a senator that Muzium Negara was a third-class museum as it showcases only “photocopied pictures” rather than original documents and artefacts.

Its deputy minister Datuk Wong Kam Hoong said the museum was unable to display original artefacts because many of them had been taken out of the country during the colonial era.

The high price quoted by sellers to acquire the artefacts was another reason, he said.

“After the collapse of the Malacca Sultanate, we were colonised for 500 years. During the period, many artefacts of historical significance were taken out of the country.

“Since the artefacts were not smuggled out or stolen, we tried to buy them from foreign owners but they asked for exorbitant prices,” he said, refuting the claim by Senator Dr Mohd Puad Zarkashi in the Dewan Negara yesterday.

Among the items Malaysia tried to buy were letters written by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who was highly knowledgeable on Malayan history and Malay customs.

Read the full story about Malaysian museums.

Books featuring the museums of Malaysia:
Museum Treasures of Southeast Asia by B. Campell
Museums Of Southeast Asia by I. Lenzi
Extraordinary Museums of Southeast Asia by K. Kelly

A short history of Indonesia

Perhaps the Brunei Times is running a series about writing the short histories of different countries in Southeast Asia. Today, it publishes a short history of Indonesia – not particularly accurate, it gives a sense as if there were a series of empires that replaced one another, that Srivijaya was replaced by the Sailendra and the Mataram who in turn were replaced by the Majapahit. In reality, Srivijaya lasted all the way to the 12th century before getting run out of Sumatra by the Majapahit. (See my earlier article about Srivijaya.) The Sailendra empire also had dynastic links with Srivijaya. The article also makes no distinction between the shifts in centres of power between Sumatra (Srivijaya) and Java (Sailendra, Mataram and Majapahit). You might also want to look up the Indonesian timeline featured earlier in this site.

13 July 2007 (Brunei Times) – Perhaps the Brunei Times is running a series about writing the short histories of different countries in Southeast Asia. Today, it publishes a short history of Indonesia – not particularly accurate, it gives a sense as if there were a series of empires that replaced one another, that Srivijaya was replaced by the Sailendra and the Mataram who in turn were replaced by the Majapahit. In reality, Srivijaya lasted all the way to the 12th century before getting run out of Sumatra by the Majapahit. (See my earlier article about Srivijaya.) The Sailendra empire also had dynastic links with Srivijaya. The article also makes no distinction between the shifts in centres of power between Sumatra (Srivijaya) and Java (Sailendra, Mataram and Majapahit). You might also want to look up the Indonesian timeline featured earlier in this site.

Indonesian history

The Dutch began to colonize Indonesia in the early 17th century; the islands were occupied by Japan from 1942 to 1945. Indonesia declared its independence after Japan’s surrender, but it required four years before the Netherlands agreed to relinquish its colony.

Fossilized remains of Homo erectus, popularly known as the “Java Man”, suggest the Indonesian archipelago was inhabited two million to 500,000 years ago.

Austronesian peoplearrived in Indonesia around 2000 BCE, and confined the native Melanesian peoples to the far eastern regions as they expanded.

Ideal agricultural conditions, and the mastering of rice cultivation allowed villages, towns, and small kingdoms to flourish by the first century CE.

Indonesian strategic sea-lane position fostered inter-island and international trade. For example, trade links with both Indian kingdoms and China were established several centuries BCE. Trade has since fundamentally shaped Indonesian history.

From the seventh century CE, the powerful Srivijaya naval kingdom flourished as a result of trade and the influences of Hinduism and Buddhism .

Between the eighth and 10th centuries CE, the agricultural Buddhist Sailendra and Hindu Mataram dynasties thrived and declined in inland Java, leaving grand religious monuments such as Borobudur and Prambanan.

Majapahit kingdom was founded in eastern Java in the late 13th century. Under Gajah Mada, its influence stretched over much of Indonesia. This period is often referred to as a “Golden Age” in Indonesian history.


Books about the history of Indonesia:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula by P. M. Munoz
Ancient History (The Indonesian Heritage Series) by Indonesian Heritage

A rare photograph of Fort Tanjong Katong

Last month, The Wellcome Trust released their image archives for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons license in a new website, Wellcome Images. While this online picture library primarily specialises in medical history and the biomedical sciences, there are also a few gems from its historical collection, such as this, a picture of Fort Tanjong Katong, highlighted to me by acroamatic.

This is quite an exciting find because until now, there hasn’t been a photograph of Fort Tanjong Katong available, particularly since the site was excavated a few years ago.

Fort Tanjong Katong was built in Singapore in 1879 as a response to perceived gap in the defence grid on the eastern part of Singapore Town. By erecting a battery at the mouth of the Kallang River, Fort Tanjong Katong placated the fears of the local merchant community fearful of an enemy ship sailing into the Kallang River and lobbying shells into the city.

Initially armed with three 7-inch cannons, these were soon rendered obsolete because of improvements in ship armour. Later in 1886, the fort was refitted with two 8-inch breach-loading guns, better than its predecessors, but far below the two 9-inch and one 10-inch cannon that were initially requested for the upgrade. Worse still, the land on which the fort was built was sandy and unstable, making it necessary for the gunners to reclibrate their weapons after every shot. Needless to say, the fort was not effective as a weapons platform as much as it was a psychological placation to the local community. In the early 1900s, it was decided that the fort was to be abandoned, presumably razed, and the site was converted into a public park.

In 2002, the fort was “rediscovered” by a local who lived opposite the park who noticed a difference in the colour of grass, showing the outline of a structure underneath. Excavations of the fort in 2004 and 2005 revealed portions of the moat, fortification wall, drawbridge structure and bastions. (You can download a copy of the Fort Tanjong Katong site report here.) Excavations were aided by copies of the fort’s 1886 plan that were available at the Public Records Office in the UK, but were hampered by the a lack of any photograph of what the fort looked like when it was sanding. In fact, most modern artists impressions of the fort looked like this:

NParks artist’s impression

Which brings us back to the Wellcome Trust picture, which was taken by John Edmund Taylor in 1880. The picture throws up more questions than answers:

What part of the fort is shown in the picture?
According to the Wellcome Trust, the picture was taken in 1880, which was a year after the fort was erected and would be armed with the three 7-inch guns. Judging from the walls, it would look like this picture was taken from the interior of the fort which would lead us to question 2…

Which angle was the picture taken from?
While the prospect of the cannons resting atop the two “hills” are tantalisingly intriguing, the lack of cannons and the palm trees in the background would seem to imply that we are facing inland. The bent wall structure also betrays no clues about which part of the fort this could be – it does not match any of the shape of the walls that were unearthed during the 2004-2005 excavation.

So what did Fort Tanjong Katong really look like?
Taylor’s picture certainly throws an interesting light to what (part of) the fort looked like in its heyday and it has thrown some assumptions out of the window. Perhaps it is too early to say “we’ll never know…” and some other photographic archive might shed some more light to this issue.

13 July 2007 update: After speaking with archaeologist Lim Chen Sian, he agrees that the layout looks like the interior of the fort, with the doorway to the left probably leading to the shell store, while the other door leading to the artillery store. He believes that the sand ramp in the middle of the two “hills” leads to the gun emplacement, which would mean that this picture was taken facing the sea, although it still doesn’t explain the coconut trees in the background.

A short history of Cambodia

The Brunei Times carries an unauthored article about the history of Cambodia. For a more fleshed out history of Cambodia, particularly of the Angkor period, I highly recommend The Civilization of Angkor by C. HighamCharles Higham’s The Civilization of Angkor.

12 July 2007 (Brunei Times) – The Brunei Times carries an unauthored article about the history of Cambodia. For a more fleshed out history of Cambodia, particularly of the Angkor period, I highly recommend Charles Higham’s The Civilization of Angkor.

History of Cambodia

NO one knows for certain how long people have lived in what is now Cambodia. A study suggests that people using stone tools lived in the cave as early as 4000 bc, and rice has been grown on Cambodian soil since well before the 1st century ad.

The first Cambodians likely arrived long before either of these dates, probably migrated from the north.

By the beginning of the 1st century ad, Chinese traders began to report the existence of inland and coastal kingdoms in Cambodia. These kingdoms already owed much to Indian culture, which provided alphabets, art forms, architectural styles, religions, and a stratified class system.

Local beliefs that stressed the importance of ancestral spirits coexisted and remain powerful today.

Modem-day culture has its roots in the 1st to 6th centuries in a state referred to as Funan, known as the oldest Indianized state in Southeast Asia.

Historians have noted that Cambodians can be distinguished from their neighbors by their clothing – checkered scarves known as Kramas are worn instead of straw hats. The following 600 years saw powerful Khmer kings dominate much of present day Southeast Asia, from the borders of Myanmar east to the South China Sea and north to Laos.

Read the full article about the history of Cambodia.

More books about the history of Cambodia:
Khmer Civilization and Angkor by D. L. Snellgrove
Angkor and the Khmer Civilization (Ancient Peoples and Places) by M. D. Coe
The Civilization of Angkor by C. Higham
A History of Cambodia by D. P. Chandler