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Sunday, November 14, 2010

SHS Visit-Practicum to the National Art Gallery Archaeological Site (I)

Still remember what you learnt about Sang Nila Utama, the legendary founder of ancient Singapura?  The Malay classic, Sejarah Melayu, told us that SNU, an exiled prince from Sumatra, chanced upon a lion on the white sandy beaches of the island of Temasek.  he decided that this was a good sign and decided to settle and founded the kingdom of Singapura, meaning Lion City.  The kingdom of Singapura had a string of 5 rulers. In the 1380s, Parameswara, a refugee prince from Palembang, Sumatra, arrived here, and was given refuge by the 4th king, Paduka Seri Maharaja.  Parameswara repaid the favour by killing his benefactor and seizing the throne, becoming the 5th and last king of Singapura. Singapura was a vessel of both the Javanese Majapahit Empire and Siamese Ayutthaya Kingdom.  The Javanese overlords of Singapura invaded to revenge for the killing of their vessel, thus forcing Parameswara to flee to Melaka where he founded the much more renowned Kingdom of Melaka (which was more longlasting with the protection of China's Admiral Zhenghe).

Singapura disappeared from written history.  Did it existed?  Raffles and early British accounts wrote about ruins of a city wall and ancient city at the mouth of Singapore River.  Unfortunately, the British, upon their arrival in 1819, destroyed all traces of the ancient city and built what eventually became the regional trading port city of Singapore, which also served as the HQ of the British Empire in Southeast Asia.  Based on what we knew, the ancient city of Singapura/Temasek probably existed at the mouth of the Singapore River stretching all the way to Fort Canning Hill, which was where the royalty had their palace and burial grounds.  But this area is also heavily built up today, with the City Hall, Supreme Court, government ministries and the Parliament.

Opportunities presented themselves when the government announced plans to transform the City Hall and old Supreme Court into the new National Art Gallery, with a grand underground entrance located at what is today a car park between the two buildings.  Singapore's only archaeologist, Lim Chen Sian, and his team have secured permission to dig that area in search of ancient Temasek.  This is essentially a salvage mission, to dig out what can be found before the bulldozers come in.  They have 20 days to complete the mission - 10 Nov to 30 Nov.  

So far, they have discovered a number of artifacts - from the upper 20th century layers, they have discovered British military helmets and 1941 beer bottles (probably left by soldiers on the eve of their surrender to the Japanese - let's drink everything before being marched to POW camps); from the Temasek layer 2m below, they have discovered, among other things, Chinese coins and pottery from the Yuan, Sung and Ming dynasties, 17th century Spanish silver reales, a gold leaf (perhaps left here by a Javanese Brahmin priest during temple ceremonies?),  and all sorts of porcelain, household and housing materials - not the stuff of legends but evidence of a thriving commercial settlement that could help in rewriting history, thus proving the existence of a port city before the 1819 arrival of the British. (There is no significant 19th century layer as that layer was repeatedly dug out and built upon in the 20th century). What's more - there is fine white sand at the bottom of the Temasek layer - of the sort discovered by Sang Nila Utama when he arrived here in 1299, as described in Sejarah Melayu.

The Singapore Heritage Society was fortunate to be invited for a visit-practicum to the NAG Archaeological Site.  We had a good introduction by Chen Sian who also showed us the finds and then had a good time digging and scanning through the dug out soil for anything of value archaeologically.  We didn't discover any spectacular hoard during the 2 hours but did find what might ave been beautiful rooftop ornaments and carved pieces.  What a great and fun day!  All the best to Chen Sian's team and let's hope they find something that would do us proud!



Posted via email from Nomadic Republic2

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