In danger of losing our history

ALOR SETAR: Work to complete the archaeological data on the Kedah Tua civilisation in Sungai Batu has run into a snag from a combination of the Covid-19 pandemic and a lack of funds.

Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Global Archaeology Research Centre director Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Mokhtar Saidin said the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down excavations at Sungai Batu sites and other Lembah Bujang areas since March last year.

“Due to the standard operating procedure (SOP), not many researchers and students are allowed at the archaeological site for excavation and research, ” he said.

Mohd Mokhtar said excavations are still ongoing but at a slower rate.

He said Sungai Batu must have continuous financial assistance as it is vital for researchers to complete cataloguing the data on the Kedah Tua civilisation.

“Research, mapping and survey on the area must continue and to be able to do that, financial assistance for the research team is important, ” he said.

He added that the research team working at Lembah Bujang sites have been getting a RM500,000 grant from USM annually since 2009.

On ancient shipwrecks at Sungai Batu, Mohd Mokhtar said there was no more work at the sites where the first shipwreck was unearthed in 2011.

He said more than RM20mil was needed to excavate the ships from the ancient river that once was about 100m wide and 30m deep.

The river is now a stream cutting through oil palm plantations.

He said if the needed funds could be approved, the shipwrecks can only be excavated but cannot be moved to a different site as the oxidation and decaying process would be accelerated, thus destroying the artefacts.

He said as of now, the outlines of five ships were identified underground using special scanners.

They lie 5m and 10m below ground at the Sungai Batu archaeological site.

A visit by The Star on Tuesday found the area empty, with an eerie silence due to the lack of visitors at the most important historical site in the country.

Only a few staff members and researchers were present, with no visitors allowed in.

There is a lack of public amenities such as toilets at the archaeological site, although many artefacts such as ancient clay furnaces, ruins of ancient jetties, administration buildings and ritual sites are properly maintained.

Even the ticketing counter was unmanned.

USM field researcher Dr Mohd Hasfarisham Abd Halim said the Sungai Batu archaelogical site was about 4sq km, with 97 excavated sites so far.

He said the complex served four main functions: For rituals, a jetty, administrative buildings and iron smelting facilities.

“So far, 55 sites are open for public viewing and the remaining sites are still under excavation, ” he said.

Gazetted in 2017, Sungai Batu is the site of the oldest civilisation in South-East Asia, with the discovery of iron smelting sites and other ruins dating back to 788BC.

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