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The Straits Times 15 Nov 04

Ancient relics under your feet?
Experts believe more sites here may hold treasure trove from the country's past
By Serene Goh

LOOTED bounty at Labrador Park, opium dens at Duxton Hill, mining machinery in the quarry of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve - no one knows what fascinating relics lie under the soil of Singapore. But archaeologists believe, from analysing historical documents, maps and personal accounts, that it may hide a cultural treasure trove from the country's recent and ancient past. Most of the artefacts have been destroyed by construction and more still could be, unless the relic hunters get there first.

Associate Professor John Miksic from the National University of Singapore (NUS) is planning to survey Labrador Park, on the south-west coast, in search of buried treasure. Back in about 1330, a Chinese merchant named Wang Dayuan referred to the area as Long Ya Men - a pirates' lair. Dr Miksic believes the marauders could have left evidence of their stay. Telltale signs of hidden artefacts are anomalies in the ground, 'areas where changes in soil colour indicate that something has disturbed' the natural formation of the ground, something possibly man-made.

The prospect of a dig in Labrador Park comes just weeks after the start of another excavation at Fort Tanjong Katong, built off Meyer Road by the British 125 years ago to combat the possible threat of Russian expansion in Asia.

Since Sept 29 this year, an average of 20 volunteers a day from all walks of life have been mining a 6m-by-6m patch there, said Mr Lim Chen Sian, one of the archaeologists heading the dig. Nearly 2m down, excavators hit pay dirt: a circular bastion facing the sea, which sat at the corners of the fort's south and east walls. The structure, part of the fort built by the British in 1879, was likely positioned to help soldiers get a good shot at lurking enemies. It was said to have been demolished after World War I in 1918, but parts of it have survived.

Mr Lim, 29, a master's student in the NUS South-east Asian Studies Programme, said enthusiasm is such that volunteers pitch in even on their days off. 'People are interested in their local heritage,' he said. Despite rainy weather, 'everyone is more concerned about the pits collapsing than themselves getting wet'.

Other potential digging sites are the north-east coast and the Tuas area; Punggol, Bedok, Tanah Merah and the Armenian churchyard; even islands like Sentosa, Pulau Tekong and Pulau Ubin.

But many prospective digs are hampered by the expense involved. The cost of excavations can range from $20,000 to more than $100,000, and after the artefacts are unearthed, they have to undergo expensive laboratory testing. Past work has been funded by the NUS, the National Heritage Board, the South-east Asian Ceramic Society, the Lee Foundation, American Express and Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum. More money for digs will be welcome, and will go towards better equipment, research and training more Singaporeans.

'We have ideas about probable locations of sites, but rarely do we have the opportunity to act on them,' said Dr Miksic. He added that a formalised sponsorship from a large organisation, and legislation to allow surveys before building projects begin, will protect more artefacts.

So will more able bodies. 'If people will remain with a project for a significant period of time, we can get a lot more done,' he said.

Dr Miksic's previous projects include one at the St Andrew's Cathedral, which lasted a year and yielded more than 300,000 artefacts. At Fort Canning, his digs uncovered more than 30,000 artefacts. A dig near the Singapore Cricket Club at the Padang showed evidence of Singapore's ancient quarter, while others at Duxton Hill, Pulau Saigon, Bras Basah Park and Istana Kampong Glam yielded colonial-period treasures. These include pottery from the Malays, Javanese, Thais and Vietnamese; Chinese coins from the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties; Indian bangles and Sri Lankan coins, even European pottery and glass.

So, next time you're dancing at a Fort Canning concert, tread lightly. There might be buried treasure under your feet.


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