Discover the ancient history of the mysterious Santubong

Mount Santubong is popular among hikers and nature lovers. — Photos: KAMARUL ARIFFIN/The Star

Blanketed by lush vegetation, the view of the enchanting mountain was the first to greet us in Santubong, Sarawak, followed by Mohd Sherman Saufii, the assistant curator of the Sarawak Museum.

Though this area is best known for its hiking trails and nature walks, we were there to discover the buried treasures of ancient civilisations in the state. Located near the Sarawak Delta River, Santubong hosts a collection of some of the state’s most important archaeological finds.

The story goes back to 1947 when British anthropologist and ornithologist Tom Harrison became the curator of the Sarawak Museum. A year later, Harrison uncovered iron slag concentrations with mine detectors in various sites scattered throughout Santubong, including Sungai Jaong, Bongkissam and Bukit Maras. He began actively excavating the said sites from 1952 to 1966, when he concluded his research.

The research team unearthed historical evidence of human settlement dating back to as early as the 10th century. Besides traces of iron slag, among the artefacts found at the sites were ceramic shreds and fragments of pottery.

“This proves that Santubong was once a trading port thriving with iron mining (and smelting) activities. The discovery of ritual deposits further shows the emergence of Hinduism and Buddhism in the state,” said Sherman, who guided an archaeological tour for a group of journalists.

The group spent a few hours with Sherman learning about the ancient sites which played a crucial role in shaping the state’s history.

Mysteries of the past

At Sungai Jaong, we came across mysterious rock carvings (petroglyphs), but one that fascinated us was the Batu Gambar sculpture. As intrigued as we were, its meaning remained a mystery. Over 100 rocks were found inscribed with carvings of human figures, symbolic representations and markings, and they are said to reflect the commercial activities back in the day.

At the foot of Batu Gambar, Harrison had recovered stoneware, earthenware and pieces of iron slag, with some weighing up to 3kg. Somewhere in the area, he also dug up gold objects including small rings, gold foil and beads.

“Chinese settlers were believed to have inhabited the area, as artefacts from the Yueh and T’ang Dynasty, such as West Asian glass from 1,000 years ago, were recovered here,” Sherman explained, adding that Sungai Jaong was also once an active industrial site.

Just a stone’s throw away was Bongkissam and Bukit Maras, the site of a rare Hindu-Buddhist stone structure – the Tantric shrine.

“This is the only Tantric shrine found in Sarawak ... a one-of-a-kind gem,” said Sherman. “Harrison described the structure as a ‘sealed shaft filled with yellow sand’.”

At first glance, the shrine may appear as a candi, but Sherman said that one can easily tell them apart.

“The atrium of the rectangular shrine structure has remains of relics like gold objects, beads and semi-precious stones, as well as Chinese ceramics – used for offerings,” he explained.

Bongkissam and Bukit Maras is home to a unique stone monument, the Tantric shrine.Bongkissam and Bukit Maras is home to a unique stone monument, the Tantric shrine.

Did you know that thousands of pottery, porcelain and stoneware were excavated in Bongkissam and Bukit Maras? For instance, 67,000 shards of pottery and ovr 600 beads and glass bangle fragments, as well as 22 tonnes of iron slag were among the items excavated from here, Sherman revealed.

Some of these artefacts are currently displayed at the Borneo Cultures Museum in Kuching.

The third and last site we visited was the Wallace Centre. The centre, located atop a hill and overlooks Mount Santubong, was formerly British explorer Alfred Russel Wallace’s dwelling.

Wallace was renowned for his entomology work in Sarawak from 1854 to 1856. Currently, the structure is being constructed to pay homage to Wallace, and it will be used as a gallery showcasing his life and contributions to the state.

The massive Sungai Santubong waterway, also near Wallace Centre, served as a gateway for iron trading once upon a time.

In an effort to preserve the state’s historical and cultural legacy, Sungai Jaong, Bongkissam and Bukit Maras, as well as the Wallace Centre have been transformed into an archaeological park.

More to do

Another exciting activity to do in the area is the Santubong Wetland Wildlife Cruise. Visitors may get the chance to witness pods of Irrawaddy dolphins (and crocodiles) during the one-hour thrilling – though bumpy – ride through Sungai Santubong. If you’re lucky, that it.

Aside from exotic wildlife sightings, you may also get to see the Santubong Tanjung Sipang Lighthouse during the cruise from afar.

Located about 5km from the jetty, the Sarawak Cultural Museum is a living museum worth checking out. It is also the state’s only living museum.

This museum offers tourists an insight into the state’s lively past. There are longhouses belonging to the Bidayuh, Iban and Orang Ulu ethnic groups which you can explore at this place.

The Sarawak Cultural Museum is also a good place to be if you’re looking to find out more about tribal tattoos.

Besides that, head to the Permai Rainforest to see the crystal clear water of the Blue Pool.

Once you’re done there, go to Kampung Buntal, a fishing village where locals come to enjoy fresh, succulent seafood dishes. The village is named after the notoriously poisonous puffer fish (ikan buntal), which are commonly sighted at the village.

Kampung Buntal is one of the top locations for birding activities in Borneo. Avid birders would visit Buntal Esplanade early in the morning to observe rare migratory birds, including shorebirds and waterbirds.

Collared Kingfishers, Spoon-billed Sandpipers, Malaysian Plovers and over 52 other bird species flourish in this mangrove habitat. A rare species, Chinese Egrets, along with Pied Trillers and Far Eastern Curlews can also be spotted here.

Besides birdwatching, the 1km-long walkway is ideal for a leisurely stroll. Vast and long stretch of sand bar is visible during low tide and allows sightseers to walk into the bay.

The observatory platform is an excellent vantage point for viewing the river against the mangrove forests.

> For more pictures, check out the media gallery below.

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