Plenty of archaeological wonders yet to be discovered in Santubong

Deposit: An iron slag found at the site.

Deposit: An iron slag found at the site.

TO many, boulders are just what they are — pieces of rock.

However, beneath the hard exterior of the boulders which spread throughout the vast Santubong peninsula weaves a tale of the journey and lives of the earliest settlements in Sarawak.

Little are we aware that these boulders carried markings left behind by settlers dating back to the seventh century.

By what has been gathered from historical documents and archeological work carried out so far, Santubong is clearly one of the two most important historical sites in the state besides Niah.

The latter has evidence of pre-historic settlements.

Yesterday, the Malaysian Nature Society Kuching Branch led a group of media representatives on a familiarisation tour to Sungai Jaong area, which contains the Batu Bergambar (picture rock) site in Santubong near Kuching.

The area is believed to represent the heart of the earliest settlement there given it had a port, making it the site for trading activities.

Branch chairman Anthony Sebastian in briefing the media said that the port was active for barter trading.

Tell-tale: The famous Batu Bergambar which bears the figure of a human.
Tell-tale: The famous Batu Bergambar with a figure of a human.

From resins (damar) to rhinoceros horns and rattans, these were among the many items which were being traded for textile, glass beads, earthenware and porcelain to name a few.

Given the lush greenery that envelopes the area, it is indeed hard to imagine at one time, this scenic and tranquil spot witnessed the hustle and bustle of trade activities as well as cultural exchange.

Evidence from the remnants dug up supports the stories of Chinese, Indians and Arab merchants sailing in to port bringing with them items from their lands.

But who were the early settlers? It remains unclear although there are two theories to this.

The first being that the settlers were the Chinese, Arab and Indians who sailed in to port although it is believed these days that the settlers were most probably locals who came to the port to trade with foreigners.

Anthony felt the second theory sounded more logical but one thing is for certain, an exchange of culture was likely to happen with the coming together of the locals and foreign merchants.

In the mid to the late 60s, the State Museum and two individuals Stanley J. O’Connor and Tom Harrison started archeological activities at Santubong and the discovery they made was immense.

Anthony said in Bongkissam, they found a shrine in 1966 which was of Buddhist origin and inside the shrine there was a silver ritual box.

He said underneath this were 142 gold objects which only showed that this shrine was used for prayer by a large community.

On the other side of the river in Sejinjang lay Tanjung Kubur where 31,416 pieces of earthenware were discovered as well as 1,383 stoneware and porcelain dating back to the Tang and Sung dynasties.

“This gives us a good indication about how old this place is,” he said.

Solid: Some of the carved sandstones boulders at the site.
Solid: Some of the carved sandstone boulders at the site.

In addition to this, he said to this day a black and white photograph of the archeological activity in Bukit Maras is showcased at the museum.

He said the findings there comprised 85,582 earthenware, 503 glass beads, 152 metal artifacts and 40 stone fragments whereas in Sungai Buah, 11,493 earthenware and 7,028 procelain shreds were discovered.

“Why am I giving you all these big numbers? It is to show you how big the settlement was back then and that there is more yet to be discovered here in Santubong.”

Anthony said of the two historical sites, Santubong’s significance was in the fact that it was closer to the city and also Damai, which is a big eco-tourism hub.

Unfortunately, despite this uniqueness, it was apparent that the place was facing potential threat from the development that was happening around it.

If one were to drive along the Santubong road, the passage leading to this valuable find is easily missed as there is no signage or marking that points to its location.

Just 800m from the main road lies the Batu Bergambar site where there are 10 carved sandstone boulders as well as 40 others spread across Sungai Jaong.

They vary in shape and form, some with anthropomorphic etchings and some with geometric designs.

Some appear to have writings on them but Anthony explained that due to weathering, most of them are barely discernable now.

The largest and most famous of these carved boulders is the Batu Bergambar which depicts the figure of a human on a boulder.

Anthony said the meaning of this carving remains to be understood but it had fascinated many archeologists and historians ever since its discovery.

“The only fact we can be confident about is that this amazing carving was made 1,000 years ago. A replica of this carving can be found outside the Sarawak Museum.”

Anthony said the branch hoped to spread awareness about the rich history of Santubong and the hidden treasures in the area.

Via its upcoming event, the Santubong Nature Festival slated for Nov 9 and 10, the branch wants people to appreciate their history and the beauty of the Santubong peninsula.

It is also to advocate for a holistic and integrated approach to development and management of the area and safeguarding its unique landscape, biodiversity and historical assets.

Anthony said proper development planning would ensure the preservation of these historical sites.

“It can be done whereby we have development yet also able to preserve our history.

“We want to preserve our history and archeology in context. If you take this site and make it into a park with boardwalks and restaurants, it will change the atmosphere,” he said.

He said it must be done in a way whereby the atmosphere of the sites would be retained in its original form as much as possible yet allowing the people to come and learn about it.

“Malaysians must come and learn and see our Batu Bergambar. This is our history,” he added.

Iron slag is also extracted from the area around Sungai Jaong and smelted on-site to produce iron.

Till today, the area possesses dense iron deposit.

Sarawak , Santubong