Parliament: Review of archaeological finds underway to address gaps in existing laws

Student volunteers working to uncover artefacts at a World War II battle site at No. 8 Adam Park on Feb 14, 2011.
Student volunteers working to uncover artefacts at a World War II battle site at No. 8 Adam Park on Feb 14, 2011.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A study on archaeology in Singapore is under way to address gaps in laws and regulations in the field.

One area that is being studied is the legal ownership status of archaeological materials unearthed on private land. The authorities currently do not own such items, as only archaeological finds unearthed on state land belong to the state.

The study is conducted by the National Heritage Board (NHB), Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu told Parliament on Monday (May 9).

She was responding to Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh, from the Workers' Party, who had asked her if artefacts excavated over the past five years have been properly documented and reported to the Government.

Associate Professor Goh, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore, also raised the issue of the fate of archaeological finds discovered in territorial waters or when members of the public discover artefacts during construction and renovation of their properties.

He asked whether MCCY will consider "imposing legal obligations for stopping work and reporting the finds to the Government".

In response, Ms Fu said that when commissioning archaeological excavations, NHB makes it a requirement for agencies conducting the excavation works, such as the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, to document and submit reports on the archaeological finds to the board.

Important archaeological materials from these digs that support efforts to interpret Singapore's history are accessioned into the National Collection managed by NHB on behalf of the Singapore Government. They are documented and conserved at the Heritage Conservation Centre, when not on display. Remaining artefacts may be stored by partner agencies such as the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

On maritime archaeological finds, Ms Fu said that these fall under the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore's Merchant Shipping Act, and NHB works closely with the authority on this subject. For instance, some of the finds go on display at museums such as the Asian Civilisations Museum.

As for findings on private land, Ms Fu said NHB works closely with stakeholders to identify and protect important artefacts. She gave the example of the artefacts discovered on the grounds of the Roman Catholic Church's Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.

She said a number of them are on display at the Cathedral's heritage and resource gallery and at the NHB-managed Indian Heritage Centre for the public to access and appreciate.

Ms Fu added that while the authorities look into improving laws and regulations, the aim is not to discourage the public from taking an interest in these finds, but to cooperate with NHB.

"Ultimately, we share the same common purpose to understand the history of Singapore through archaeology, and that history is really for the public, present and future generations, to appreciate," she said.