The Newsletter 80 Summer 2018

Excavating Singapore

Terence Chong

Singapore is a densely packed urban city not immediately associated with archaeology. However, there has been a surge in archaeological activities on the island in recent years, especially around the historical downtown Civic District. This flood of activities has been the result of growing public interest in the country’s heritage and history. Globalisation and immigration have raised public priority over local and national identities, leading to greater attention to stories, artefacts and research that help Singaporeans understand who they are and where they come from.

ISEAS-Yusof Ishak’s Archaeology Unit (AU) was formed in 2010. It is the only dedicated archaeology centre in Singapore committed to the promotion of archaeology in the country and Southeast Asia. AU not only conducts annual archaeological Field Schools in the Southeast Asian region for students but also collaborates closely with local agencies on excavations, archaeological surveys and post-excavation work. Local archaeologists have been excavating in post-independent Singapore since 1984. Approximately 30 sites have been examined since. Archaeology in Singapore can be chronologically organised into several periods.

Firstly the Neolithic Period (New Stone Age) (from approx. 10,200BC). In the 1930s, British archaeologists based at Singapore’s Raffles Museum reported the existence of Neolithic stone tools and implements at Tanjong Karang (near Tuas) and on Pulau Ubin. No excavations were conducted in Singapore, but a brief excavation at Tanjong Bungah on the Johor side of the Tebrau Straits (known as the Johor Straits from the 1890s) revealed a well-preserved site with stone tools related to those found in Sumatra, but different from those found in the Malay Peninsula.

Secondly, the Temasek / Singapura Period (1300-1700 CE). Excavations since 1984 have revealed large amounts of artefacts dating from the Temasek period. The archaeological evidence challenged past perceptions that the island’s historical narrative only began with the British establishment of a trading station in 1819, and pushed back the historical timeline to approximately 1300CE.

Thirdly, the Colonial Period (1819 -1959). Some 11 sites specific to the colonial period have been excavated. The artefacts uncovered have provided insights into hitherto unknown social practices and cultural behaviour of everyday people. These practices and behaviour were simply not documented in official historical records. We also know little about the lives of the local population during Singapore’s early years as an East India Company settlement or the daily routine of soldiers during the Battle for Singapore in 1942.

Finally, the Contemporary Period (1959-present). Singapore’s frantic pace of industrialisation and urbanisation has resulted in only a few pristine sites left for archaeological study. These remaining sites feature the vestiges from a rural agricultural community. They also showcase the industrialisation period through brickworks and early post-war housing settlements. All of these sites present potential for archaeological research into the lifeworlds of our forbearers from the not too distant past.

The following articles are a sample of the research AU is conducting.

 

Terence Chong is Senior Fellow & Deputy Director, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute; Regional Editor of 'News from Southeast Asia' terencechong@iseas.edu.sg