Malaysia’s Sungai Batu Among Oldest Southeast Asian Civilizations: Archaeologists

S. Adie Zul
160610-MY-ruins-620.jpg Ruins of a 2,000-year-old structure are visible at the Sungai Batu Archaeological site in Bujang Valley, in Malaysia’s Kedah state, June 5, 2016.
S. Adie Zul/BenarNews

What used to be an ordinary piece of land in Malaysia’s Kedah state is now creating a historical buzz, after experts recently certified that the Sungai Batu Archaeological site is 2,000 years old and one of the oldest civilizations in Southeast Asia.

In May, after nearly a decade of excavation work at a local palm oil estate, archaeologists with expertise of five main ancient civilizations – Mesopotamia, Indus, Mesoamerica, China and Greco-Roman – signed a plaque recognizing the historical significance of Sungai Batu.

Sungai Batu, the archaeologists declared, predated by many centuries two of the most famous archaeological treasures in the region – Borobudur temple in Indonesia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which were built in the 9th and 12th centuries respectively.

“All this while, we were taught that Malay civilization only began during the Malacca Sultanate some 400 years ago. But these findings proved history propagated all this while by the orientalist is inaccurate as the Malay civilization had indeed started as early as some 2,000 years ago,” secondary school teacher and history buff Fahrizan Fahmy told BenarNews.

“Evidence unearthed at these sites proved that our ancestors had a strong civilization to the extent that the Sungai Batu was a thriving industrial port exporting high-grade iron products to other civilizations during that time,” he said.

He hoped that the state and federal governments would “start the ball rolling so that our future generation would get a clearer history of our ancestors’ achievements in building a civilization some 2,000 years ago.”

 Traces of an ancient port

The archaeological dig was initiated in 2007 following a request by the then-Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

He sought to have the National Heritage Department and a group of archaeologists from Malaysia’s top university – Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) – expand research on the Bujang Valley, Malaysia’s richest archaeological area, where ancient ruins with Buddhist and Hindu influences have been unearthed.

Led by USM’s Global Archaeological Research Center director, Mokhtar Saidin, the team used modern methods to establish that Sungai Batu site could have been a seaport during the 1st century.

In 2009, the team mapped the area and identified 100 potential excavation spots in Sungai Batu area. The team subsequently started to unearth relics suggesting that the site was home to a thriving iron-smelting industry some 2,000 years ago, linking it to the area’s ancient Kedah Civilization.

Historians remarked that the people in ancient times called Kedah Tua by different names: Kataha in Sanskrit, Kadaram, Kidaram and Kidara in Tamil, Chieh-Cha in Chinese, Kalah in Arabic and Quedah in the West.

Along with the iron smelt, Mokhtar’s team dug up remnants of 12 jetties and administrative buildings, suggesting that the site was once a thriving port and then at sea level.

The team also found a distinct clay brick monument with a circular structure that represented the moon, sun or earth. Its north side faces nearby Gunung Jerai (Jerai Mountain), believed to be the sacred home of the gods during ancient times.

According to researchers, the ritualistic spots and pottery containing certain symbols may indicate the practice of animism prior to the arrival of Buddhism and Hinduism in the region.

Archaeologists expect to make more significant discoveries at nearly 100 potential exploration spots on the 4-square-km (1.5-square-mile) site, Ratnah Wati Mohd Rapi, a post-doctorate student in archaeology, told BenarNews.

“So far, we have carried out excavation works at some 55 sites and dozens more are waiting to be discovered.

Archaeologists are looking to unearth more structures to complement the existing findings, following the discovery of the remnant of an ancient barge buried in a swampy location, she said.

Oxford University professor Stephen Oppenheimer hands over a plaque to Mokhtar Saidin (second from right) recognizing the 2,000-year-old Sungai Batu site during the Kedah Tua International Conference in May.  [Courtesy of Archaeology Friends of Universiti Sains Malaysia]

Global tourism plans

Since the archaeologists recognized the ruins as dating back two millennia, the state of Kedah is now preparing to lobby the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to list Sungai Batu as a protected World Heritage Site, Kedah Tourism and Heritage committee chairman Mohd Rawi Abdul Hamid told BenarNews.

Such recognition by the U.N. would position the state “to become a magnet for the international tourism sector, especially among the global archaeological fans.”

Officials are working on a dossier and plan to travel to make an official presentation to UNESCO at its headquarters in Paris in February 2017.

“If everything goes well as planned by professor Mokhtar, we may secure the world heritage site listing for Sungai Batu by June 2017,” he said, pointing out that Mokhtar’s team in 2012 had successfully persuaded UNESCO to put the Malaysian state of Perak’s Lenggong Valley on its world heritage list.

According to UNESCO, the Lenggong Valley has four archaeological sites in two clusters that span close to 2 million years – one of the longest records of early man in a single locality, and the oldest outside the African continent. The sites in Lenggong feature evidence of early Paleolithic tool-making capabilities.

 Along with the Lenggong Valley, Malaysia has three other UNESCO-listed heritage sites – Mount Mulu National Park in Sarawak, Mount Kinabalu National Park in Sabah and the historical sites of Malacca and Georgetown.

Meanwhile, the ongoing recognition is paving the way for the site to become a global archaeological tourism site, Sungai Batu’s Civilization Archaeology-Adventure Society founder and chairman Mazlan Mahmud said.

“If we look at Angkor Wat, it recorded a U.S. $43.3 million entrance ticket collection for last year alone. So if we could tap just 1 percent or 2 percent of the total visitors from Angkor Wat to Sungai Batu, it will create a huge spill-over to the local tourism sector,” he told BenarNews.

Even without such spillover, he said there was an urgent need to train guides since there has been a steady increase in visitors.

“They wish to learn more on the similarities and difference between Sungai Batu civilization and the prominent archaeological sites such as Angkor Wat and Borobudur Temple. As such, we need to develop our soft skills, which means a pool of local guides who are well-versed on the Kedah Tua civilization and the findings made in Sungai Batu so that we will have a common interpretation to educate the visitors,” Mazlan added.


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