Digging up South-east Asia's oldest ruins

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Two years ago, Malaysian archaeologists working in the coastal plains of south Kedah struck an amazing find when they uncovered man-made structures that turned out to be the oldest in South-east Asia.

ST_18701013The team of 30 from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and various government departments found iron ore smelters complete with furnaces and iron slag that dated back 1,900 years to AD110.

They also dug up a brick structure believed to have been used for ritual purposes and a roofed brick platform jetty near Sungai Batu – both dating from the early part of the second century AD.

USM archaeologist, Associate Professor Mokhtar Saidin, realised then that they had found remnants of the old civilisation referred to in many historical texts.

‘It’s the most complete evidence of a civilisation – the port, industries and rituals, and they were the oldest monuments in South-east Asia,’ he told The Straits Times this week.

The discoveries brought visitors flocking to the site located about 90km from Kedah’s capital Alor Star. It is part of the Bujang Valley archaeological site where ancient temple ruins have been excavated since the 1840s.

‘We have put on a small exhibition as people keep arriving by the busload. We recently had a group of Singapore museum volunteers visit us too,’ said Dr Mokhtar.

The tourism aspect has aroused the interest of the federal government, with Information, Communications and Culture Minister Rais Yatim recently saying it hopes to get the site on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

However, Malaysia’s Heritage Commissioner, Professor Emeritus Siti Zuraina Majid, told The Straits Times there was still a lot of work to do researching the area before requesting a listing. For instance, more excavation is needed.

‘But it’s important that we bear in mind a possible listing in the future so that when the area is developed for tourism, it is done correctly,’ she said.

Dr Mokhtar said the area will be turned into a national heritage park this year with an allocation of RM20 million (S$8.5 million).

Prof Siti Zuraina said the finds are significant as they point to a complex civilisation. ‘They are not just the oldest, but they are also the type of structures not seen before in this part of the world,’ she said. Before this, Bujang Valley was considered a site of religious rituals, but it has now turned out to have thriving economic activities as well, she added.

Although it is the richest archaeological area in Malaysia, Bujang Valley has only 130,000 visitors a year, of whom about 10 per cent are foreigners. It is not well developed, and there has been little interest in promoting it.

The first temple ruins there were discovered in the 1840s, and there are now about 172 sites in the plains.

More discoveries are possible. Of the 97 mounds in Sungai Batu earmarked for excavation, Dr Mokhtar said only 10 have been explored so far. He expects to find burial sites, and more evidence of the social structure of the old civilisation.

‘It’s a socially complex hierarchy, and we need a lot more research into it,’ he said.


Author: Carolyn Hong | Source: The Straits Times [January 07, 2011]


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