Empress Place dig shines new light on ancient Singapore

Artefacts suggest existence of a govt with ruler in 14th century Temasek

ANCIENT Singapore - or Temasek as it was then - could have had an established government with a head ruler or chieftain as early as the late 14th century.

The first evidence of this was unearthed in a 10-week-long archaeological dig, the biggest ever here, that wrapped up on Sunday at Empress Place.

A team led by archaeologist Lim Chen Sian discovered Chinese imperial-grade ceramics produced between 1375 and 1425 which were bestowed by the Ming Dynasty emperor Hongwu on overseas leaders.

The ceramics, which include a large porcelain platter, are part of a 2.5 tonne haul from an excavation organised by the National Heritage Board (NHB) in partnership with the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas).

The NHB's group director of policy, Mr Alvin Tan, said the board is "very happy with the results".

"We hit the archaeological jackpot in terms of quality and quantity at this site," he said.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority had given the NHB the nod to conduct the dig, alongside works to develop an integrated arts, culture and lifestyle precinct there for Singapore's jubilee year.

Other artefacts uncovered since digging started on Feb 2 include 700-year-old timber planks that could have been part of a ship. They are the first physical evidence of maritime activity in the Temasek period (the 14th century to 17th century), according to Mr Lim. "The timber was likely part of a structure of an ancient ship and the workmanship is typical of the South-east Asian style of ship building," he said.

Other highlights include thousands of 700-year-old Chinese coins, stoneware used to store condiments, porcelain pieces fired up in the Yuan Dynasty, a gold ring, a rare gold coin from the 16th- to 17th-century Johor Sultanate and Buddhist figurines across the site.

Mr Lim believes the range of artefacts found at the Empress Place dig site, near the Singapore River, suggests that the area could have been home to a bazaar or marketplace.

Due to the large volume of artefacts, and the complexity of the dig, the team was also given a month's extension to continue working on three zones in front of Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall. This came after officials were persuaded that the site was a treasure trove of ancient artefacts, said Mr Lim.

The 1,000 sq m site - the size of about 10 four-room HDB flats - had been divided into a total of 13 excavation zones.

NHB said that work on seven of the site's excavation zones has been completed. The Iseas team of archaeologists managed to cover about 70 per cent of the remaining six zones.

A team of five Iseas staff, 10 volunteers and a handful of foreign workers worked on the project - sometimes in the rain and until close to midnight - to complete the project, which was budgeted at about $70,000.

The archaeological team will spend the next two to three years cleaning, sorting and analysing the artefacts. The NHB will decide thereafter if they will be put into the National Collection and displayed in museums, or at exhibitions.

melodyz@sph.com.sg