Digging up the past: Searching for treasures to unlock more of Singapore's history

Digging up the past: Searching for treasures to unlock more of Singapore's history

Channel NewsAsia·2018-01-21 11:10

With many potential archaeological sites in Singapore that have not been investigated yet, the hope is that undiscovered artefacts can reveal even more about the country's rich heritage.

Archaeologist Lim Chen Sian during the media visit to the gun emplacements of Ubin's Anti-Motor Torpedo Boat battery on Dec 22, 2017. (Photo: Justin Ong) 

SINGAPORE: While Pulau Ubin is best known for its rustic charm, bike trails and seafood restaurants, archaeologists think it may have hidden historical secrets. A casual walk around the island provides some clues to its history, with storied shrines and temples, abandoned historical sites dating back to the 1800s, as well as two World War II gun emplacements nestled in a corner of the National Police Cadet Corps campsite. 

More surveys may be carried out at the gun emplacements, as shown here. (Photo: Justin Ong) 

Little is known about these emplacements, apart from the fact that they are estimated to have been constructed between 1936 and 1939. But wind back the clock to World War II, and they would have been playing a key part in Singapore's defences as Japan turned its attention to Southeast Asia. Today, time has taken its toll on the battery, which betrays little of its colourful past. Not much remains apart from the basic concrete infrastructure, some of which has been transformed into a rock climbing wall. However, attempts are now underway to assess whether there are more historical artefacts to be discovered, with the first in-depth archaeological surveys on the island. HALF A MILLION ARTEFACTS UNEARTHED FROM DIGSA key focus for National Parks Board (NParks) and ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS) is to try to unlock more information about Ubin's - and Singapore's - past, beginning with the battery. 

The first phase of the surveys, which involved fieldwork and basic sampling of the site, recently wrapped up earlier this month.Depending on what is found, more surveys might be conducted in the western part of the island. 

"It's virgin territory for us, because the western side remains largely unexplored till today," said Lim Chen Sian, ISEAS associate fellow and archaeologist, who is involved in the survey.

Depending on what’s found in Ubin’s first phase of surveys, more might be conducted in the western part of the island, which has been labeled as “virgin territory”.

And the same could be said about the rest of Singapore. 

So far, all of the sites that have been excavated for hidden clues into Singapore's past are clustered in the downtown area, where the British colonial settlement existed, starting with the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. 

But the Republic's rich history stretches much further back, with more secrets to be uncovered. Archaeologists believe there may be several possible excavation sites dotting the coast of Singapore, where the hypothetical ancient coastline existed. "When Raffles was poking around looking for a place to start a new port, he settled on Singapore without ever being here," said Dr John Miksic, professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. 

"Because he read in the Malay Annals that said Singapore was the first great Malay trading port, which used to be called Temasek before they changed the name to Singapura."That’s why he came here and immediately found a number of archaeological remains which confirmed his suspicions that Singapore was old … So there probably are 4,000-year-old objects still (to be)  unearthed in Singapore," said Dr Miksic.Excavations conducted over the last three decades have revealed a treasure trove of artefacts, with over half a million objects recovered from the 14th to 17th centuries, such as ceramic pieces, ancient coins and beads. 

Chinese coins found at the Empress Place archaeological excavation site in front of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall. (Photo: Goh Chiew Tong)

Bit by bit, archaeologists have been able to piece together Singapore's rich heritage with the help of these long-forgotten objects, to show a fuller picture of pre-colonial - and even prehistoric - Singapore.For example, archaeological evidence points towards the existence of prehistoric people who lived along the coasts of Singapore and its surrounding islands during the Stone Age. 

At the dawn of the 14th century, a rapid expansion of urban settlements around the Singapore River indicated an economic boom due to international trade. 

However, after Melaka was established, Singapore's prominence as a thriving port began to shrank from the 15th century onwards. 

And the island remained relatively uninhabited for two centuries until a new population began growing around 1811 - which was what Raffles encountered when he stopped onto Singapore's shores eight years later."LARGEST RESCUE EXCAVATION"Singapore's largest ever excavation took place around the Empress Place area three years ago, yielding more than three tonnes of artefacts over a 100-day period. 

Leading the dig was Mr Lim, along with a troupe of volunteers. 

"It was a major marathon excavation, and we worked non-stop for 12 to 14 hours a day, rain or shine," the archaeologist recalled.

Some of the artefacts excavated at the Empress Place dig. (Photo: Goh Chiew Tong)

"We were working on an extremely tight schedule, because we were sharing the site with the developer," Mr Lim said, referring to the deadline to develop the area into an integrated arts, culture and lifestyle precinct. 

"We were just literally inches just digging from them … it’s amazing how we managed to work side by side."But he also stressed that archaeology is not against development.

"Most of our work in Singapore is to remove objects - or to preserve things on record. So based on that there's no reason to oppose development. Development goes hand in hand with archaeology because it gives us opportunity to investigate the site."

Mr Lim Chen Sian, the lead archaeologist for the project and a research fellow at the NSC-ISEAS. (Photo: Goh Chiew Tong)

Objects unearthed during the Empress Place excavation included pottery shards, bronze coins and Buddhist figurines, some of which stretch as far back as 700 years, providing further testimony to Singapore's deep historical roots.Still, it’s not just about finding archaeological gold in the ground. The behind-the-scenes post-excavation process forms a huge part of the work - from data collection, to cleaning and cataloguing the artefacts. It's a time-consuming and delicate process, described Michael Ng, research officer at Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre's Archaeology Unit at ISEAS, as he held up a porcelain shard. 

A porcelain shard unearthed from the Empress Place dig in 2015. (Photo: Wendy Wong) 

"The first thing is to wash and clean them - and even to clean and to wash there will be certain things where the glaze will be fragile. (They're) susceptible to damage so we have to be very careful with them.""(After washing, they) will start to reveal a lot of details previously covered with soil. And subsequently we will sort these artefacts based on various categories, based on the materials used to make it. So for example ceramics, there's also subcategories like porcelain, stoneware, earthenware," said Mr Ng. 

"After this step we’ll go into labelling, because what we're trying to do is to create a database where we can retrieve information so researchers can have access to it."Currently, the majority of local artefacts are stored at the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre's Archaeology Unit at ISEAS, as well as the Archaeology Laboratory for the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, where hundreds boxes of artefacts from various digs conducted over the years have yet to be processed.The Archaeology Laboratory alone currently houses half a million local artefacts from digs as far back as the 1980s, along with a few thousand artefacts excavated from other sites in the region. 

Some of the artefacts at the Archaeology Unit have been processed and labeled, even down to their weight. (Photo: Wendy Wong) 

The two-storey facility keeps shelves stacked with boxes containing all sorts of artefacts, some neatly packaged and labeled with precise facts and details, others with just a brief description of where they were found."There’s this connection between human beings and past objects. And it’s hard to explain but it's obvious there’s a strong relationship – that’s why people collect various kinds of antiquities," Dr Miksic said. 

"For many people just touching a 14th century object already puts them in direct contact with people who made it, who used it and who were their ancestors who lived here 700 years ago. And they feel touched by that."ARCHAEOLOGY TO FEATURE IN FIRST NATIONAL HERITAGE PLANFor this reason, Singapore's first national heritage plan is placing a spotlight on archaeology. So far, more than 700 people have been consulted on the upcoming masterplan, with feedback highlighted in a travelling exhibition launched on Jan 9, and the masterplan to be officially launched this April. 

The exhibition features information about Singapore's first comprehensive masterplan regarding heritage. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

"We’ve been holding focus group discussions with different archaeology experts, researchers (and) volunteers who have experience in volunteering in past archaeology research and excavations, and they’ve given us a lot of feedback," said Yeo Kirk Siang, Director of the Heritage Research and Assessment Division at the National Heritage Board.This includes doing more in the areas of research and promotion of archaeology, attracting more Singaporeans to join the field, and "a more robust and systemic way of looking at where the archaeology sites are in Singapore", Mr Yeo said.Archaeologists say they welcome the spotlight on the field. 

Stressing its significance was Mr Lim, who said that archaeology is a crucial part of unlocking Singapore's history. "History is usually linked to printed records - but what about unwritten stuff? We have very little historical record because manuscripts in tropical climates tend to deteriorate, like those written on palm leaves. So studying the past through objects and how things change is a huge part of it," said Mr Lim."Archaeology plays a very important role in not just telling you about beautiful objects. Of course it’s nice to look at beautiful stuff – it’s like finding treasure. But I believe (that) archaeology can tell us a lot about ourselves."I may not be related to anyone from Temasek 700 years ago, but I’m connected to the people from Temasek because I stand on the same ground. I have a history, link, connection with them. And archaeology can speak to all of us in terms of a sense of belonging and identity."


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