At the inception of a British settlement in Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles and John Crawfurd, the second British Resident of Singapore, found many vestiges of a much older settlement. Subsequent residents paid no attention to these remains, and all of them, including the Malay wall, the ruins of an ancient orchard, a bathing place, some brick buildings, pottery, and coins on the “Forbidden Hill” (Fort Canning Hill), and the Singapore Stone inscription at the mouth of the Singapore River, had disappeared by 1850. A chance discovery of some gold jewellery on the hill in 1928 did nothing to bring about a change in this attitude.
In January 1984, the National Museum of Singapore and a few concerned citizens resolved to use modern archaeological methods to discover whether any pre-colonial remains could still be recovered on Fort Canning Hill. The first excavation, which was sponsored by the Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum Company, focused on the area around the Keramat Iskandar Shah (believed to be the burial site of Iskandar Shah, the last ruler of ancient Singapura) on Fort Canning. In just 10 days, several hundred artefacts dating back to the Yuan Dynasty were recovered in a layer of soil that had remained undisturbed since that time.
This discovery led to a series of excavations held within the area, which John Crawfurd had already discerned as ancient Singapore in 1822: about 85 hectares (850,000 square metres) of land bounded by the Singapore River, the former beach on the southeast side of the Padang, Stamford Road and Fort Canning Hill. Several hundred thousand artefacts were recovered dating back to the period between 1300 and 1600. These artefacts were divided almost equally between Chinese and local (Malay-style) pottery, with small quantities of glass, gold, copper, lead, and dammar (tree resin used as incense).
Since the inaugural excavation in 1984, numerous excavations have been undertaken at Fort Canning with the support of the National Parks Board and its predecessor, the Parks and Recreation Department. These excavations continued to focus on the area between the Keramat Iskandar Shah and the old Christian cemetery. The artefacts found there suggest that the site was used for craftsmen’s activities such as glass and gold working in the 14th century. Other artefacts such as a Chinese porcelain compass and an incense burner indicate that a ceremonial or religious area was once located nearby, perhaps near the summit of the hill. That area was flattened for an artillery fort constructed in the 1850s. The fort was then demolished to make way for a water reservoir in the 1920s.
Excavations were also undertaken at the site of Singapore’s new Parliament House complex in 1995. In just over three months, considerable evidence of commercial and industrial activity was unearthed there, including copper wires, fish hooks, remains of copper working, and over 100 Chinese coins. Some good quality pieces of Chinese porcelain were also uncovered.
The next excavation took place at Empress Place in 1998 when the Empress Place Building was being restored as the Asian Civilisations Museum. Important discoveries included a bronze arrowhead and a lead statue of a man (or a deity) riding a winged horse. The style of the statue is reminiscent of temple carvings found in East Java in the 14th century. The statue and the other artefacts found there were probably either lost or had fallen into the mud during the loading and unloading of cargoes along the bank of the Singapore River.
In 2000, the old Colombo Court site was excavated. No surprising new discoveries were made, but the project did yield important new evidence on the settlement pattern and use of space in 14th-century Singapore. In 2001, excavations in Bras Basah Park (now the campus of the Singapore Management University) confirmed that this area, which lay outside the former Malay Wall protecting the north-eastern side of the ancient city, was uninhabited in former times. In 2002, artefacts were recovered by a combination of systematic excavation and chance finds by workers at the Old Parliament House site (now the Arts House). This site yielded 12 intact 14th-century stoneware bottles, the first unbroken artefacts to be found from this period in Singapore’s history.
In 2003, a brief excavation in a corner of the Padang proved that beneath this large playing field is a potentially enormous trove of archaeological knowledge. The artefacts recovered from the 14th-century layer there included Chinese coins which had been partially melted by heat, and fragments of stone which might have been used in recycling the copper from these coins. In 2003 and 2004, a year-long excavation in the north-east corner of the grounds of the St. Andrew’s Cathedral produced a large quantity of artefacts of many types, including gold wires.
Archaeological research is continuing in the old city. These projects are initiated whenever a modern construction project is in progress or about to take place. As many artefacts as possible are salvaged. Examples of such projects include the Spice Garden site on Fort Canning, the site of the future National Art Gallery at the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings, and the Victoria Concert Hall.
Exploration in the Riau Archipelago south of Singapore has shown that many Chinese artefacts dating back to the 14th to 16th centuries were interred with the dead as burial offerings. Two conclusions may be drawn from this research. First, the people of Riau travelled to Singapore to barter sea products such as tortoise shell in exchange for Chinese products; Singapore was a regional centre of trade at the time. Second, the people of Riau practised a form of ancestor worship while the people of Singapore were probably Buddhists who cremated their dead.
The research conducted in the Riau Archipelago has produced the clearest picture of urban life in any part of ancient Southeast Asia. The huge quantity of artefacts unearthed will take many years to analyse. This research work is continuing at the National University of Singapore, the Nanyang Technological University and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Miksic, J. N. (1984). Archaeological research on the “Forbidden Hill” of Singapore: Excavations at Fort Canning. Singapore: National Museum.
Call no.: RSING 959.59 MIK
Miksic, J. N. (1994). Recently discovered Chinese green glazed wares of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Singapore and Riau Islands. In C. Ho (Ed.), New light on Chinese Yue and Longquan wares: Archaeological ceramics found in Eastern and Southern Asia, A.D. 800–1400 (pp. 229–250). Hong Kong: Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong.
Call no.: RART 738.0902 NEW
Miksic, J. N. (2000a). Chinese ceramics and local cultural statements in fourteenth-century Southeast Asia. In N. A. Taylor (Ed.), Studies in Southeast Asian Art: Essays in honor of Stanley J. O’Connor (pp. 194–216). Ithaca, N.Y.: Southeast Asia Program Publications, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University.
Call no.: RSEA 709.59 STU
Miksic, J. N. (2002). Sebuah arca timah hitam dari Tebing Sungai Singapura [A lead statue recently discovered at a Majapahit-period site in Singapore]. 8th Scientific Archaeology Conference, Yogyakarta (Indonesia) 15–18 February 1999. In Kumpulan Makalah Pertemuan Ilmiah Arkeologi VIII (pp. 425–428). Jakarta: Ikatan Ahli Arkeologi Indonesia.
Miksic, J. N. (2003). Thai wares in the islands of Riau Province. In Charnvit Kasetsiri (Ed.), Sangkhalok-Sukhothai-Ayutthaya and Asia (pp. 147–151). Samutprakan: Toyota Thailand Foundation/Bangkok: The Foundation for the Promotion of Social Science and Humanities Textbooks Project.
Miksic, J. N. (2004). 14th-century Singapore: A port of trade. In J. N. Miksic and C.-A. Low (Eds.), Early Singapore 1300s-1819: Evidence in maps, text and artefacts (pp. 41–54). Singapore: Singapore History Museum.
Call no.: RSING 959.5703 EAR-[HIS]
Miksic, J. N., Yap, C. T., & Hua, Y. N. (1994). Archaeology and early Chinese glass trade in Southeast Asia. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 25(1), 31–46.
Call no.: RSING 959.005 JSA
Miksic, J. N., Yap, C. T., Fong, S. Y. L.i., & Wan, K. B. (2000). EDXRF analyses of some Yuan Dynasty artifacts Excavated in Singapore. Keji Kaogu Luncong [Studies in Archaeometry], 2, 228–236.
Miksic, J. N., Yap, C. T., & Vijiyakumar. (1996). X-ray fluorescence analysis of glass from Fort Canning, Singapore. Bulletin de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient, 83, 187–202.
Miksic, J. N., & Lim, C. S. (2004). Archaeological research on the Padang and in the St. Andrew’s Cathedral churchyard: St. Andrew’s Cathedral Archaeological Research Project Progress Report Summary September 2003 – June 2004. Singapore: ARI Working Paper. Retrieved July 17, 2013, from Southeast Asian Archaeology website: http://www.seaarchaeology.com/v1/html/sg/pdfs/ARI_Project_Report_version_1.5.pdf
The information in this article is valid as at 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.