Archaeology of Malaysia

Malaysia is the only country to straddle both Mainland and Island Southeast Asia: Peninsular Malaysia, located to the south of Thailand, and Bornean Malaysia comprising the states of Sabah and Sarawak. Some of the most notable archaeological and cultural sites in Malaysia are the Unesco World Heritage cities of Penang and Malacca (jointly listed), the Lenggong Valley in Perak, the Bujang Valley archaeoloigical park (Kedah) and the Niah Caves (Sarawak).

To cite this page: Tan, Noel Hidalgo (2021, Updated 25 November 2022) Archaeology of Malaysia. Southeast Asian Archaeology. Available at: https://www.southeastasianarchaeology.com/malaysia-archaeology/
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Overview
Overview
Map
Map
Recommended Books and Readings
Recommended Books
Most Popular Posts
Most Popular Posts
News Archive
News Archive
Links to other websites
Links to other websites
Online Lecture Library
A searchable collection on publicly-available lectures
Virtual Archaeology
Archaeological sites and museums you can visit online
Archaeological Projects in Southeast Asia
A list of past and present archaeological project websites
Journals and Scholarly Research
Scholarly research and a list of Southeast Asian archaeology journals
Tools and Software
Field work equipment and digital tool recommendations, with many available for free.
Job postings, scholarships and funding opportunities
Job postings, scholarships and funding opportunities

Overview

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Evidence for hominid habitation, likely Homo erectus, in Malaysia have been found in the Lenggong Valley of Perak. The oldest modern human remains in East Malaysia are from the Niah Caves, dated to 40,000 years ago while in West Malaysia, the Perak Man on Gua Gunung Runtuh is around 11,000 years old. The first human inhabitants of Malaysia were probably the ancestors of today’s Negritos; subsequent waves of migration saw people from Mainland Southeast Asia and Island Southeast Asia coming in during the Neolithic.

During the first millennium CE, Chinese records and other inscriptional evidence indicate a number of small kingdoms existed along the coastlines of Peninsular Malaysia. Some of the earliest accounts of these settlements are provided by the “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea” (c. 80 CE), a manual on sea navigation that describes an extensive route network through the western Indian Ocean from Arabia to India and onwards to China. Only one area with extensive archaeological remains survive today,  Bujang Valley in Kedah. Numerous brick ruins have been discovered, similar to those found in Southern Thailand, suggest the presence of a Hindu-Buddhist polity. Ongoing archaeological investigations have shown that this area to be inhabited since at least the first century CE.

According to the Malay Annals, a Palembang prince and former king of Singapura named Parameswara founded Malacca around 1400 CE. The Malacca Sultanate became a major regional power, controlling the Straits of Malacca and establishing friendly relations with Ming China. Malacca’s swift rise to dominance of the seas and conversion to Islam led to the adoption of Islam in most other areas of the Malay world which remains the dominant religion in Island Southeast Asia today.

Malacca was taken over by successive waves of colonisation, first by the Portuguese, and then the Dutch. In the 19th century, the British secured control of the Malayan peninsula and northern Borneo, while the Dutch controlled the rest of the East Indies. The sultanates on the Malayan peninsula aligned with the British for protection against the Siamese. The British administered the Straits Settlements including Penang, Malacca and Singapore, with Singapore as the seat of the government. Following World War II, Malaysia became an independent nation in 1963.

Archaeology in Malaysia is overseen at the federal level by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (specifically by the Department of Heritage and Department of Museums) but also at the state level by local museums and government authorities. Archaeological research is conducted by government agencies and universities, notably by the Centre for Global Archaeological Research at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the Sarawak Museum.

Notable Archaeological Sites in Malaysia

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Malaysia is home to several notable archaeological discoveries that have revealed an extensive history and evidence that proves Malaysia was a significant trading hub throughout the ancient world. Here is a list of some of the more significant archaeological sites in Malaysia. Not all of these sites are open to the public, and the locations marked on the map may not be exact. For more information about museums in Malaysia, check out the museum page here.

 

  • Agop Batu Tulug Caves: Cave complex in Sabah containing over 100 log coffins. The coffins were deposited between 500 and 900 years ago, and some were carved with animal motifs.
  • Beruas: Beruas in Perak is thought to be the site of a pre-Islamic kingdom and was a trading port mentioned in Portugues accounts. A local museum houses a number of archaeological objects.
  • Bujang Valley Sites: The Bujang Valley in Kedah contains a number of brick temple remains dating across the first millennium CE. More recent work have uncovered evidence for iron smelting at nearby Sungai Batu.
  • Bukit Tengkorak: The site of Bukit Tengkorak in Semporna, Sabah, was a major ceramics production area in the Neolithic. Some of the pottery forms can still be found in use today.
  • Cherok Tok Kun inscription: Boulder in the middle of a church grounds, containing a Sanskrit inscription and 19th century grafitti.
  • George Town: This World Heritage site in Penang is jointly listed with the town of Malacca as a Historic city in the Straits of Malacca. George Town was founded in 1786.
  • Gua Cha: Hoabinhian cave site in Kelantan containing the burial of a teenaged girl dated between 6,000 – 8,000 years old.
  • Gua Sireh: Prehistoric cave site in Sarawak containing rock art and numerous faunal remains which show the extent in which peoples exploited local resources for subsistence.
  • Gua Tambun: The largest rock art site in Peninsular Malaysia is located just outside of Ipoh in Perak, containing over 600 images, mostly in red.
  • Lenggong Valley Sites: The Lenggong Valley in Perak is an important area for the prehistory of Malaysia. Several open-air and cave sites speak to the human occupation in the area from the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods. Palaelithic hand axes have been discovered in Bukit Bunuh, while Gua Gunung Runtuh contains the oldest human skeletal remains in Malaysia at 11,000 years old.
  • Malacca: A World Heritage site jointly listed with George Town as a Historic City in the Straits of Malacca. The Sultanate of Malacca was founded here in 1400.
  • Megaliths of Negri Sembilan and Melaka: Numerous standing granite stones (‘batu hidup’) have been observed across the states of Negri Sembilan and Melaka. The best known can be found at Pengkalan Kempas.
  • Niah Caves: The caves of Niah at Miri, Sarawak, contain evidence for human occupation from the Late Paleolithic period to the 20th century. The Deep Skull from the Great Cave is dated to around 37,000 years old.
  • Santubong: The mouth of the Jaong River in Sarawak contains several archaeological sites, such as the engraved boulders and the remains of an Indic shrine.

Recommended Books

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There are a number of books relevant to the archaeology and history of Malaysia, and the list below is my personal recommendation based on what I have in my library or have read, and easily available. There are some local-language publications that are not available in the internet, and newer books are higher up on the list. Some of these links are affiliate links and I may receive a commission if you click on them and make a purchase. For other sources of reliable academic information, you should also check out the books page for latest releases and the occassional free book, as well as the journals page for the latest scientific research.

Last update on 2023-01-26 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Most Popular Malaysian Archaeology Posts

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These links are dynamically generated and are based on the most viewed posts in the last 30 days.

Malaysian Archaeology in the News

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The news reports indexed below usually link to external sites that were active at the time of posting; sometimes websites may be temporarily down or may have reorganised their underlying architecture or have even closed down – in these cases the links may not be available. Most of the news articles archived are in English; this is largely because I do not have a working competency in Bahasa, although when I am made aware of stories in this and other languages I try to index them.

Other Malaysian Archaeology Sites

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These are links to external sites and unless stated, I have no connection with the organisations or entities in these links or control over their content. They are sorted alphabetically, but you should also explore the Resources page which have links sorted by themes. If you have a link to suggest, please get in touch!

  • Caves of Malaysia – run by speleologist Liz Price, a good source of geological, botanical, zoological and archaeological information to caves in Malaysia.
  • The Cultured Rainforest Project – is headed by the University of Cambridge to investigate the people of the Kelabit Highlands and their interactions with the forest in the present and past.
  • Gua Tambun Heritage Awareness Project – An interactive and collaborative platform that aims to promote public awareness and appreciation for Gua Tambun Prehistoric Rock Art, under the auspices of Centre for Global Archaeological Research (CGAR) affiliated to University Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang.
  • Heritage Trust of Malaysia – Badan Warisan, or the Heritage Trust of Malaysia, is an NGO dedicated to conserving and educating about Malaysia’s built heritage.
  • History of the Malay Peninsula – An informative overview about the ancient history of the Malay Peninsula, by writer Sabri Zain, starting from the 1st century AD. Brief introductions to the Buddhist and Hindu periods to the start of the Melaka Sultanate.
  • ICOMOS Malaysia
  • Jabatan Muzium Malaysia (Department of Museums, Malaysia) – The official government website for the Department of Museums, Malaysia.
  • Jabatan Warisan Negara – Department of Heritage, Malaysia.
  • Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (MBRAS)– Incorporating the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (JMBRAS), that publishes occasional papers on Malaysian archaeology.
  • Malaysian Timeline – A timeline describing the preiods of Malaysian history from prehistory to modern times.
  • Maritime Asia – Website of the Maritime Archaeology Exhibition at the Muzium Negara, featuring 7 shipwrecks found in Malaysia’s waters.
  • Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sdn. Bhd. – A Malaysia-based company the specialises in historical shipwrecks and the history and development of Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics.
  • The Niah Cave Project – An archaeological project by the University of Leicester.
  • Public Archaeology at Fort Cornwallis – An initiative by the George Town Conservation and Development Corporation (GTCDC) and University Sains Malaysia (USM). Facebook page.