01 Apr 2012

Port archaeology is an underdeveloped field. A rare opportunity has emerged for Singapore with a project to dredge the Singapore River for a temporary diversion to build a subway line.

Port archaeology is an underdeveloped field. A rare opportunity has emerged for Singapore with a project to dredge the Singapore River for a temporary diversion to build a subway line. John Miksic is not missing this opportunity to gain insights into the history of this vital stretch of Singapore's lifeline. For most of Singapore's history, the Singapore River provided the main reason for her existence.
Port archaeology is an underdeveloped field. Riverbeds have never been systematically explored in any part of the world, and unless something is done, this source of information about the past will be lost forever. It is likely that a major proportion of Southeast Asia’s archaeological heritage lies on riverbeds. In the past few years, the Melaka River in Malaysia has been dredged without detailed archaeological study, and in the Indonesian city of Palembang, Sumatra, the antiquities market has recently been flooded by a wide range of items, including Chinese porcelain from the ninth centuries, local pottery, and a wide range of metal items including statuary, coins, and jewellery recovered by fishermen from the bed of the Musi River. No systematic archaeological research has ever been conducted under the Musi.


Riverbeds and harbours as heritage sites

Port sites pose special challenges to archaeology. Stratigraphy is rarely well-preserved. Environmental problems include floods, tides, tsunamis, rapid sedimentation and erosion, river course change, and human activity such as construction of piers and warehouses, which are often built of temporary materials subject to rapid weathering, constant repairs, and other alterations.

The most common artifacts found at ports are pottery fragments and organic materials. Large quantities of such remains are needed to draw accurate statistical inferences about the past.

The few ports studied in Southeast Asia include Sembiran in north coastal Bali, Indonesia. These include important finds such as Romano-Indian rouletted ware made in South India during 200 B.C.–200 A.D. In southern Thailand, the island of Khao Sam Kaeo has yielded evidence of port activity from as early as the third century B.C. Oc-èo in south Vietnam was Southeast Asia’s largest port of the early historic period spanning the third to early seventh century A.D. It was investigated in the 1940s, and again in the 1990s, as documented by Manguin, P.-Y. and Vo Si Khai in “Excavations at the Ba Thê/Oc Èo complex (Viêt Nam): a preliminary report on the 1998 campaign” in Southeast Asian Archaeology 1998. Some organic remains were fortunately preserved in the swampy flood-prone area.

The oldest dated boat in Southeast Asia was discovered in a riverbed at Pontian, Pahang, wrote Evans, I.H.N. in 1927 in “Notes on the remains of an old boat from Pontian, Pahang,” in Journal of the Federated Malay States Museums. Radiocarbon analysis revealed that the trees used to build the ship were felled between 260 and 430 CE (1657±60), Manguin wrote in “Palembang and Sriwijaya: an early Malay harbour-city rediscovered” in Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, in 1993.

In 2010, the Malaysian government allocated a sizeable quantity of funds for research at an ancient port in southern Kedah. Displayed in the Bujang Valley Museum are a number of well-preserved wooden hulls from waterlogged sites there.

In northeast Sumatra at Kota Cina, near the mouth of the Deli River, abundant remains of entrepot activity of the late 11th through mid-13th century were recovered, including Chinese coins and pottery, local ceramics, and wooden house posts. In southeast Sumatra’s swampy lowlands, a port of the period 1–500 AD had been located at Karangagung, between the Musi and Batanghari rivers, as reported by Endang Sri Hardiati Soekatno in the 2002 paper, “Catatan tentang temuan manik-manik dari situs Karangagung, Sumatera Selatan” presented to Pertemuan Ilmiah Arkeologi IX in Kediri, and by Erwan Suryanegara bin Asnawi Jayanegara et al., in 2008, in Kerajaan Sriwijaya, to Dinas Pendidikan Provinsi Sumatra Selatan, Palembang.

Many artifacts such as beads and gold had been looted from the site. However, jewellery, bronze and glass bangles, pendants, and preserved house pillars found in excavations indicate that a large settlement existed here, dated by radiocarbon to be 220–440 CE, according to Manguin when he wrote “The Early Maritime Polities” in the 2004 book, Southeast Asia from Prehistory to History.

The discovery of this site inspired Nurhadi Rangkuti, the head of the archaeological office for South Sumatra, to establish a website devoted to the development of Wetland Archaeology (; accessed 30 August 2011). This website and its archaeological research reports give important recognition to the identification of wetlands as a focus of archaeological research.


The potential for Singapore

In Singapore, numerous sites of 14th-century activity along the Singapore River have been studied. In 1998, the intertidal zone at Empress Place was excavated. A wide range of ceramics from the Yuan and Ming dynasties, metal objects, and organic materials including wooden poles, which had perhaps been used for tying up boats, shells, and bones of numerous species were among the artifacts recovered. Some of these are exhibited in the Asian Civilisations Museum’s River Gallery; others will be shown in the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity when it reopens in 2014. Unique objects found there included an Indonesian style lead statue of a man on a horse, a bronze spear point, and Chinese porcelain made around the time of Admiral Zheng He voyages. Parliament House Complex (excavated between November 1995 and January 1996) and Old Parliament House Building (excavated in 2002) yielded evidence of copper working near the banks of the river.

The Pulau Saigon site in the Singapore River was not excavated, but artifacts were collected from the construction site when the island was converted into an exit for the Central Expressway in 1988. Spanning the 14th to 19th centuries, the artifacts included many organic materials such as toothbrushes made of bone, which had been preserved by burial in the mud where oxygen-loving organisms could not attack them.

Pulau Saigon also unearthed 19th century porcelain; they give the best insight yet into the lives of Chinatown’s early inhabitants. Also found were flint nodules from Britain, which were no doubt brought to Singapore as ballast.

The bed of the Singapore River can still yield important remains from the colonial and precolonial periods. The plan for a temporary diversion of the Singapore River for new tunnel construction provides a unique opportunity for such research. Such a project could pose additional problems such as when one were to find the remains of a ship of the nineteenth century or earlier, raising the question of how to preserve the timber. Research in this area could set a precedent for the study of ancient port sites, and could add important information to our knowledge about early Singapore, and maritime trade.

John Miksic is Associate Professor, Department of Southeast Asian Studies/ Head, Archaeology Unit, Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His email is