Singapore was not always the sleepy village of simple farmers and fishermen that the British found when they landed on its shores in 1819. Recent archaeological findings have turned this image of ancient Singapore on its head.
Archaeological excavations at old Parliament House, the new Parliament House Complex, Empress Place, and Fort Canning Park by Associate Professor John Miksic, from the Southeast Asian Studies Programme in NUSâ�� Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and his team have uncovered surprising images of ancient Singapore. The quantity and variety of artifacts dug up give credence to a theory that Singapore was strategically important as a thriving economy and bustling trading settlement as early as the 14th century.
At the Fort Canning Park site alone, more than 30,000 pieces have been unearthed to date, hinting at the existence of a fortified city in the vicinity some 500 years before the arrival of the British. Thousands of glass artifacts, together with iron tools, further point to the likelihood of early Singaporeans being technologically inclined while the discovery of a carbon layer with fire-blackened and cracked stones suggests that fire was used in some kind of industrial activity, possibly in a craftsmenâ��s workshop on Fort Canning Hill.
A significant find was eight intact jars at the old Parliament House site. These jars were commonly used to hold mercury (either for making medicines or for extracting gold) in the Yuan dynasty (1279â��1368). According to Prof Miksic, the utilitarian purpose of the mercury jars makes it highly probable that they were put to use in Singapore no later than in the 14th century. Furthermore, the pattern on other fragments of blue-and-white porcelain suggests that they date back to the Yuan dynasty, when techniques for painting cobalt-blue underglaze onto raw porcelain were developed. Clearly, Singapore enjoyed close trade ties with Yuan and Ming China then.
The digs have also yielded a wide variety of objects which strengthen the belief that ancient Singapore was a trading hub connected to China, South Asia and other parts of Southeast Asia. Items ranging from a compass, wine cups and ceramic pillows to coins from China and Sri Lanka have been found so far. A blue and white stemcup for wine, of a type used mainly by the Chinese elite, turned up at the Fort Canning Park site. Fifteenth century Thai and Vietnamese porcelain have also been dug out in various parts of Singapore. Their ability to buy and use of such items suggest that the locals were economically productive and diverse. Moreover, such finds evoke a picture of ancient Singapore as being inhabited by wealthy, cosmopolitan Chinese, Indonesians and Indians with sophisticated tastes.
With the current dearth of knowledge about the urbanisation process of ancient Southeast Asia, Prof Miksicâ��s archaeological research becomes all the more vital. That Singapore has a longer and richer past than previously thought could well be a means to build national pride and foster a greater sense of belonging among Singaporeans.