SUNGAI PETANI: The race is on to uncover more secrets from the ruins of the oldest known civilisation in South-East Asia – the Sungai Batu archaeological site in Kedah.
The federal government has approved RM10mil to conduct consultation, conservation and restoration works as well as an archaeological museum.
“The funds were approved under the recent federal budget. It is only for the first phase. The total needed is RM30mil,” said Deputy Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Muhammad Bakhtiar Wan Chik.
However, Muhammad Bakhtiar said the ministry needed the Kedah government’s assistance to gazette a special area plan for Sungai Batu to ensure that it would be protected.
“Although the National Heritage Department has gazetted Sungai Batu as a heritage site, we need a special area plan to lay down development guidelines and a buffer zone,” he said.
The ministry, he said, had also made progress with Aga Khan Foundation, a global NGO with multiple focus areas including tourism and heritage conservation, to protect Sungai Batu’s historical value.
Muhammad Bakhtiar said his recent trip to view the conservation efforts of ancient sites in India, facilitated by the foundation, made him realise that conservation of vital historic sites was a long, meticulous process.
“It must be about conservation first, not tourism,” he said.
Ever since archaeologists discovered the ruins of an iron-smelting industrial town more than 2,000 years old, the identity of these ancient people has been debated because there is too little cultural evidence of them in the excavated smelting sites.
Sungai Batu is the industrial area of this civilisation, and it is not even one tenth of Kedah Tua, said archaeologist Datuk Dr Mokhtar Saidin, who is Global Archaeological Research Centre director at Universiti Sains Malaysia.
“We haven’t found the places where these ancient people built their homes. They seemed to have had a great sense of organisation. In Sungai Batu, archaeologists keep finding only artefacts used strictly for iron smelting. We haven’t been able to find artefacts of a personal or day-to-day nature, so it seems that this civilisation fully segregated where they worked and lived.
“Archaeologists are still looking for where the residential areas were. Until then, an aura of mystery shrouds the discovery,” he said.
Dr Mokhtar said after the Sungai Batu archaeological site was gazetted as a national heritage late last year, his team designed an archaeo-tourism model to foster public appreciation of the findings.
“We have trained 12 locals and made them licensed tour guides. They are able to conduct guided tours at the site and explain the significance of Sungai Batu to visitors,” he said.
Dr Mokhtar said about 1,500 tourists visit the site each month, and it is crowded on weekends.
He said his team designed a package comprising a guided tour to the ruins of the monument, jetty, iron smelting, administrative sites, and included a chance for visitors to try excavating artefacts, smelting iron and making bricks.
The package costs international visitors US$100 (RM416) for adults and US$50 (RM208) for children. For Malaysians, the charge is RM100 for adults and RM50 for students, senior citizens and those with special needs.
“This is the only way the 12 locals working at the site can earn some money. On days without guided tours, they catalog artefacts found.”
Dr Mokhtar said by using Optically-Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) technology, the date of the jetty ruins was certified as 582BC, sealing Sungai Batu’s ruins as the oldest civilisation in South-East Asia.
A river of about 2km – which is now a stream – once linked Sungai Batu to the expansive Sungai Merbok for traders from as far as India to sail in for the iron.
OSL dating measures the last time quartz sediment was exposed to light.